25. The Black Arrows
2nd of Neth – Toilday – 41st day in Varisia
A few silver coins bought us a roof over our heads for the night and a simple supper. For a few more, and we were off at dawn the next morning, sailing over Lake Claybottom on a ship that in its previous life had been a shell of a gigantic turtle. I understood then where the name of the town we were headed to had originated from. A few hours later, we reached the stormfront and the endless rain. We had arrived to Turtleback Ferry.
We split up, unceremoniously, just agreeing that we wouldn’t leave the town alone. Harsk needed some alone time with his goddess, so he went searching for a temple. Shalelu and Alfred went to the Bottom’s Up tavern, to have a drink and gossip, and Alice left to the general store. I headed out to the blacksmith, that also served as the town armory. All these places except the church were situated around a town plaza. Turtleback Ferry, it seemed, was even smaller than Sandpoint.
The rain had swept the city in many ways. The weather painted everything in the shades of grey, but everywhere I looked, the place felt bleak, withdrawn and tired, like an old man waiting to die. People kept to themselves, sheltering from the rain, moving only if necessary. There were no sounds of typical small town life I realized – no traders selling their wares, no children playing, no women laughing and gossiping.
With Dûath, I trekked over the muddy plaza and went straight to the small house that had a hammer and a horse shoe nailed to its door. I told my animal companion to wait outside under a canopy, knocked the door twice and entered.
Within a hearth warmed the air, welcoming guests. A man was crouched over it, pushing the coals around. It was still quite early so I took he was still heating the furnace.
“Yes? How may I help?” The blacksmith himself, judging by his clothing, asked without turning or rising. I closed the door behind me and took a few steps closer, instinctively drawn by the warmth of the hearth. “Name’s Alpharius”, I started, this time actually introducing myself. Though I didn’t think he was interested in it anyway, but I had to start being more courteous. Ilori’s words echoed in my mind. You have to trust some people, Alpharius.“I’m new in town, and I’m looking for some supplies. Arrows, namely. Normal and special variants”, I continued. The blacksmith straightened and turned to face me. He had a worn-out face, tired like the town, aged beyond his years. But it was not unfriendly. “Of course. I am Simmon, town blacksmith. I have arrows of course, but you’ll have to elaborate exactly what kind of special arrows you are looking for”, he told me and scratched his bald head, leaving a dark stain of coal where he touched. I drew one barbed thistle arrow and one elven-bane arrow from my quiver and showed them to him. “This one”, I started, offering the thistle arrow, “is made from a poisonous plant, and it stops the blood from clotting. The other”, I raised the elven-bane arrow, “is magically crafted to cause horrendous pain to elves.” I slid them back to the quiver. “Just a few examples.”
Simmon nodded first, indicating he had understood, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything like that.” He did however walk over to one of his workbenches and took a quiver full of arrows. “Ten silver for the normal ones, good for your longbow”, he offered. I took what I could. “I’ll take 20 extra arrows as well.” Reaching into my pockets I produced two gold coins.
I hoisted the other quiver to my back and filled my old one. “One question though”, I said, after clearing my throat. The blacksmith moved over to his hearth and started working the bellows to increase the heat within. “Go ahead”, he sighed, knowing full well I had more than one. I pulled back my hood, showing him my head and face. “Have you seen a half-elf, my build, similar features, around here lately – or ever?” Simmon kept on pumping the bellows that blew air into the hearth. “We don’t get a lot of visitors around here”, he explained, not taking his attention off the machinery. I crossed my arms. “Humour me.” That made him look at my direction briefly. Our eyes met, and I could see he examined my features, his gaze lingering on my scar. “Can’t say I remember. As I said, we don’t get a lot of visitors. Just them soldier boys from Fort Rannick.” He seemed to spit the last words. “You don’t like them?” I probed, eager for some intelligence that might help us and deciding to use his contempt as leverage. Simmon sighed and let the bellows be. “Look, they’re well-trained rangers, but otherwise they’re scum. They came here, to Lucrezia’s ship, just to drink cheap booze, gamble and fuck her harlots, and to generally act like a pack of asses. But they’re my customers too. They paid good coin for my services. So you see where I’m at.” I nodded. I understood – he had to suffer their presence to ensure his livelihood. “You talked in the tense form, they came, you said”, I noted. The blacksmith sighed again and turned back to work the bellows. “Indeed. They stopped coming a few weeks or so, no – month or two ago. Not a surprise because that’s about the time when her ship burned to cinder. Haven’t seen any of their lot since.” It was obvious that was all I would get from him. I thanked him, turned to leave and left a silver coin to his workbench. “For your troubles”, I said as I parted. “What are you doing here anyway, stranger?” He called to my back. “Somebody around here is responsible for my friend’s death”, I replied as I opened the door and stepped into the rain. “I’m here to kill this somebody.”
I made my way through the plaza over to the Bottom’s Up. Again, deciding it was better for me not to barge in with a panther, I told Dûath to wait outside. Within, Shalelu and Alfred were already chatting with the innkeep, a small mousy man with a temper. I entered silently, garnering no attention bar a nod from Shalelu, who was standing next to Alfred at the counter. The bartender was telling something to Alfred. “.. she came here five years ago, with her friggin’ ship, and set up shop on the Skull. Bitch took all my customers”, he was venting and gestured rudely at the men sitting around his tavern, a good dozen of them. “Now they’re back of course, all o’you”, he was addressing the clientele, who seemed to take the scolding like a bunch of naughty little boys, just hunching embarrassedly and not saying anything back at the innkeep. “Now that the pretty whores and the card games are just ash on the bottom of the lake!” Alfred seemed taken aback. “What happened to Lucrezia when her boat got burned?” The innkeep winced, as if the name was a curse. “Gods if I know. I don’t care. I’m happy she’s gone. She ruined the business of many here in town!”
I had heard enough and stepped to stand beside Alfred on the counter. Alice made an entry at the same time. “When did this Lucrezia woman’s ship burn?” I asked with a low voice. The innkeep was uncertain, weighing me first, then glanced at Alfred, who nodded, indicating I was with him. “Two months ago roughly”, he responded simply, lowering his hands on the table and leaning towards us.
Lucrezia, I thought. The letter had said nothing about Xanesha’s sibling being a sister or a brother. This Lucrezia could be the one. But then again, Xanesha had been a half-serpent, a magical creature if I had ever seen one and I doubted the locals would approve such an abomination to live among them. Maybe she was an agent of the sibling? Or maybe Lucrezia was a nobody, just a mistress and proprietor of a brothel? I couldn’t be certain. But it was clear that the destruction of Lucrezia’s ship and Fort Rannick falling quiet were connected. As my mind raced, my watched the people at the tavern. Most were drinking, minding their own business, all withdrawn. One group of men was playing cards and talking to themselves. One of them, man sitting his back towards me, had something strange on his neck. A tattoo. I stepped one step forward and looked closer.
Well fuck me.
The tavern was not well-lit – pale daylight shone through the windows which in turn was amplified by a few candles here and there – but I could by then recognize the Sihedron Star in my sleep.
We were potentially already in a trap, I cursed to myself, feeling the pommel of my adamantine gladius, instinctively making sure it was there. I looked around, in control of my nerves. Everything was as it had been before I had noticed the evil sign. Alice had walked over to us and was talking with Alfred and Shalelu. The innkeep was pouring beers into wooden tankards. The group of men continued their card game. I weighed each of them, assessing their body language, clothing and physique. Normal unarmed men, probably peasants, millers, dockworkers and the like. I could handle them myself if it came to that. No, I was certain I could.
I decided to investigate. “Morning”, I said in a way of greeting as friendly as I could after I had briskly paced to them. I got cold, empty stares in return, and they continued their game without a word. Well let’s cut the small talk then, I mused and leaned over to the man with the Sihedron tattoo. My voice was barely a breath of air but it made him startle. “A nice seven-point star you have there.” The man, barely an adult really, with hair the colour of autumn leaves and face full of pimples turned to regard me stiffly. He lowered his neck and lifted his shoulders, as if trying to hide the tattoo. “I don’t know what you’re talking about mister”, he said quickly, nervously. His friends frowned at me and him equally. I smiled a dangerous smile. “I recognized the tattoo immediately. Care to tell me how you got it?” I knew of course that my rude interruption could get us into a fight any second. Our scouring of the Seven’s Sawmill in Magnimar came to my mind, but I knew I had to pursue this lead. Behind me, Alfred was heading out to the exit, calling us to leave for Fort Rannick. I disregarded him and kept my attention on Tattoo Boy.
Tattoo Boy swallowed. The cards on his hands were trembling. He glanced at this friends again. First I thought he was pleading them to help him but then I realized he was begging for forgiveness. He set the cards on the table and pushed his chair away from the table. I took a step back, allowing him space to get up. Alfred was with the others on the door, calling for me again. The tavern had become silent. “A moment”, I waved at Alfred dismissively. Tattoo Boy was now facing me, and he leaned closer to whisper. “Can we talk outside?” He asked. I nodded, and let him past me. As he did, I was struck with a powerful reminiscence.
A spring sun shines upon an vacant courtyard filled with blossoming flowers and trees of all colours. The tranquility of it all is broken by the boy with the jet-black hair, almost a man grown, who hisses at another slave at the side of the yard, in the shadows. The boy, a killer, has his hands on the shoulders of the other, a thin-faced, grey-haired scribe. He wants to know where his brother has gone, where the rich man with the meaty hands and the voice to command lesser men has sent him. The scribe slave shakes his head in denial. The boy yells at him, he pushes him against a stone wall, but he does not relent. He does not know, he says. It was a fool’s errand, a mistake, a dead-end. The rage in the boy’s face melts away like snow, and he repeats tear-eyed what the scribe had told him. A fool’s errand. A mistake. A dead-end.
I blinked, the here and now displacing the memory as quickly as it had emerged.
He led me outside and to the back of the tavern, where we were covered from the rain. At the back a pair of chickens hurried from our way, and disappeared between a group of barrels. Alice was intrigued with my antics with Tattoo Boy, so she followed us. I didn’t mind her.
Deciding to resort to heavy-handed methods later should they be needed, I kept my distance and crossed my arms. “Well?” Tattoo Boy made sure no-one was watching or listening, and opened his mouth to speak.
No violence was required to get him talking his heart out. Tattoo boy had been nervous, yes, but for different reasons I had originally assumed. He didn’t want people to know he had frequented Lucrezia’s ship – and the tattoo on his neck was a sign for regular customers. I was amazed men (Tattoo Boy said there were many others like him) had allowed her to mark their skin for petty discounts, but I remembered the words in Xanesha’s sibling’s letter. It all made a lot more sense.
Are you still simply carving the Sihedron on them as they expire? How crude! My method of marking is so much more elegant.
Using tattoos was elegant, I had to admit. And the greed, they were both after greed. What a better way of harvesting it than setting up a brothel and gambling house that you could move from one place to another. Games for gold were obvious, but lust was a kind of greed as well. And now Lucrezia had power over her customers, having marked their skins. But they, or at least some, were still alive, unlike Xanesha’s victims, who all turned up killed and soulless, if the story of stealing souls was to be believed. Was the harvest of souls yet to begin here in Turtleback Ferry? Was Lucrezia already controlling Turtleback Ferry in some way? Or had she taken what she wanted already? We had no idea how many people had died the night Lucrezia’s ship had burned.
I shared what I had heard from Tattoo Boy with Alfred and Harsk, but being men of direct action, they felt that heading out to Fort Rannick was the best and only option. They clearly didn’t really pay any heed to the warning signs, which I found irritating. Was there more to be uncovered here in Turtleback Ferry? Perhaps we should investigate the sunken ship, I thought to myself, entertaining the idea of a dive. Alice was unreadable, but then again her opinion was of little value to me. Her motivation being to dispatch the threat to her friend’s life, I imagined she approved the straight-forward approach to problem-solving.
Horses were more valuable to people than gold so we left the town on foot, heading north towards Fort Rannick, stumbling towards the dark like always.
I was with Shalelu at point, trekking a narrow carriage road in the middle of a deep, green forest when we heard an animal wailing over the constant patter of rain to the ground. Instinctively, we raised our hands, telling the others to stop. “It’s a mountain lion”, Shalelu identified the creature immediately, “and it is in pain.” Without further commentary, she started west with a run, jumped over a boulder and vanished into the forest. Under my breath I cursed her for her recklessness and ran after her. The others followed suit, Harsk and Alfred rattling in their armors, Alice being somewhat less noisier.
The wailing became louder as we approached its source. The voice carried both anger and pain. The lion was struggling. And within seconds we knew why.
I had never liked to see animals tortured or harmed for no reason, so Dûath emphatically gave voice to my thoughts with a low growl of revulsion. A large bear trap had sprung and seized the mountain lion’s hind-legs in its metallic jaws. The poor beast of light-brown fur was crying the way animals cried, without shedding tears but letting out a heart-breaking whimper. The fangs of the trap had bit deeply and shattered his legs. Without help, the beast would have bled to death on the rain-soaked forest floor within an hour. It stared at us intently but did not move, still whimpering as if it was pleading for us to save it from its plight. “We have to get him off the trap quickly”, Shalelu was saying, approaching the wounded cat slowly but firmly, gauging its reactions. I saw the narrow collar on the mountain lion’s neck and sensed it soon after. “That is somebody’s animal companion”, I said out loud and instinctively reached out with my finger tips to touch the fur of Dûath beside me. “Easy, boy”, Shalelu was soothing the lion, more confidently now. Lying there on the tussock, it could not withdraw, but let out a weak, short growl. It sensed its predators approaching.
I heard dogs barking in the north. “We’re about to get more company”, I hissed, looking up the hill to the north but seeing nothing but trees and bushes. My instincts were telling me to help this creature, and I expected we were soon coming to blows with whatever or whoever was hunting the wounded animal. Shalelu threw caution to the wind and stepped closer. The big cat did not attack her, or even try to stop her. “Help me with this!” She told us and gripped the trap with her hands, before trying to wrench it open. Alfred went to help her and they pushed and pulled the trap together. Their efforts were useless as the jaws shook but did not budge, and the mountain lion roared in pain. An idea came to my mind. “Let me try something else,” I uttered quickly and pulled out my thief’s tool set from my backpack. “Hurry!” Shalelu urged me as she understood what I was trying to achieve. Alice was staying at the back, as was Harsk. I crouched over to the beast, and started to take apart the trap with the tools as quickly as I possibly could. The barking was nearing us quicker than I would’ve wanted, but in my mind I pushed the noises away and focused to the task at hand. Click. I got the first spring to release. The others were already moving into a semi-circle around us, creating a protective half-ring. Clack, the other spring was released and the lion was free. I lifted the forty or so pound trap over my head and threw it away. “Harsk”, I called the cleric, “your ministrations, please”, I told him and tendrils of pure white lights of positive energy danced from the dwarf’s hands and enveloped the mountain lion.
The dogs were less than a hundred feet from us and still coming right for us through the thick forest. The wounded beast struggled on its feet, Harsk’s powers having mended his broken bones and ugly wounds, and pushed its head against the cleric’s thigh in gratitude. Harsk smiled, a bit taken aback by the animal’s almost human response, and patted the beast on his head awkwardly. “The dogs, what are we going to do with them”, Alfred shouted, a good twenty feet north of us, and pulled out his battleaxe and shield. He kind of answered his own question right there and then, so I unshouldered the Carmine Avenger. “I guess we’ve chosen our sides in this one”, I replied. Shalelu was already running east, back towards the path we had been walking. She leaped on a boulder to gain a better vantage at the same second as the hunting dogs emerged from the forest across the path.
There were five of them, all of pitch-black fur. They were driven by the scent of lion blood, but nevertheless reacted immediately to our presence. We were between them and their prey, so they slowed their pace first before beginning to circle Shalelu. They never stopped barking.
They were vicious creatures, I had to give them that. From my experience I knew that hunting dogs, driven to point of madness, knew nothing but the desire to maim and kill. I had had my share of them on my trail in the years past.
That is why I felt nothing for them when I slew two with an arrow each in rapid motion, shooting from the cover of the tree canopy. Alice had turned herself invisible, and stepped back to the light after electrifying one with her scimitar. The remaining two threw themselves at Shalelu at the boulder. She kicked out and hit them with her bow, but their sharp teeth found their marks and the elven ranger cried in pain. Dûath was scrambling to her per my command, and the panther easily overpowered the closest of the smaller canines. He thrashed its neck and warm blood fountained from ruptured major veins. The last one tried a final bite at Shalelu but I put an arrow through it.
Not a moment later the master of the hounds stumbled to view on the path. It was as hideous as I had ever seen a person. It was an ogre of sorts, or rather an ogrekin, a horrible cross-breed of human and ogre. My first thought was that the thing had no right to exist. It stopped on its tracks when it saw Shalelu, me and Alice – Alfred and Harsk were still deeper in the forest south and west of us – standing over the dead bodies of its hounds.
“Food killed my doggies”, the fat, eight feet tall ogrekin muttered in amazement and just stood there, dumbfounded and his mouth agape like an idiot. Not the sharpest arrow, this one, I thought to myself. It was foul, I also noted in disgust. I could smell the shit it was covered in all the way where I was standing, and it had a massive finger where its left hand was supposed to be. In its “normal”, undeformed hand it wielded a longspear.
Alfred made an appearance, stepping out of the bushes to its right, effectively cutting its way back north via the carriage path. “Who are you”, he was asking and grimaced when he saw what we were seeing and smelled what we were smelling. “Food talks. Bad food!” The simpleton ogrekin shouted at us, not really knowing who to keep an eye on, and brandished its spear, trying to keep us at bay. We all stepped closer to it, despite the stench rather than the mortal threat it tried to present. From the periphery of my vision, I saw Shalelu recognize something and she regarded the lumbering ogrekin suddenly with hate I had not believed she possessed. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THEM?” She screamed in rage. For a second there she reminded me much of Ilori, during those few times her composed demeanor been consumed by wrath. I flinched and pushed away the thought.
“Uh-oh”, was all the ogrekin could utter before it turned tail and ran back into the forest. We followed suit of course. I think Alfred was taunting it to come back.
Alfred and Alice were closest to it when it dashed, or rather lumbered quickly, to escape. I had to admire their coordination as Alfred stormed up the path, keeping to its left side, while Alice stayed behind the monstrosity. I was right behind her with Shahelu, both of the animal companions at our heels. Harsk.. well Harsk was a bit slower in his pursuit.
Naturally the ogrekin made it no more than thirty feet before the sellsword and the magus caught up and surrounded it. But it did not go down without a fight. It was clumsy with the spear, not being able to wield it properly with two actual hands, but what it lost in dexterity it compensated with raw strength. The spear cut and stabbed, and the sellsword and the palefaced magus had to make an effort to hit the big bastard. Being slightly too slow to evade it, Alice got the worst of the aberration’s wild thrashing, a dangerous-looking thrust into her thigh that dug deep and drew blood, but Alfred hacked and slammed the foe back before it could capitalize on its small victory. The brown-furred mountain lion got his share too, a payback of sorts, as it tore its claws to the ogrekin’s unprotected, fatty abdomen. Ultimately my arrows finished it and it fell on the ground like a tree. Alice was cursing her wound, Alfred was guffawing and panting, and Shahelu was looking fiercer by the minute.
But we weren’t allowing him to die just yet. We wanted information. Who was it? Who was it with? Where had it come from? And did it know about what had happened at Fort Rannick?
Alfred had to grab a hold of the mountain lion’s collar to keep it from shredding the body of the ogrekin. In hindsight, I should’ve probably done the same to Shalelu. The dwarf called upon his goddess’ healing powers and in seconds, the wound on Alice’s thigh closed and the dumb-as-nails ogrekin woke up with a startle, and scared a swarm of flies from its shit-stained hide.
“Uh-uh-oh”, the ogreking muttered again, seeing us all around his prone form, weapons drawn. “Who are you”, Harsk asked him first, articulating his words carefully should the dull-wit have problems with understanding Common. The fat bastard smacked his lips and looked at us, its initial fear dissipated. “Mmmm, escaped food talks too much. Rukus is hungry”, it grumbled with its low, stupid voice. Shalelu kicked it in the chest as strongly as she could. That made it yelp. “Rukus.. Rukus Graul”, it finally managed. “Dumb food, kicking Rukus”, it continued and rubbed its chest where the elf had kicked it. Shalelu, disgusted and on edge, spat on it. The ogrekin just regarded the elven woman as she was a dinner on a plate, smacking its lips again. It was however intelligent enough not to try and move. “Where do you come from”, Alfred was next to inquire, his attitude and tone carefree as always. Rukus slowly pointed somewhere north by north-east with its chubby finger-arm. “That’s where the Family lives, that’s where Rukus comes from”, he explained like child and seemed to capitalize the word family. Mine and Alfred’s eyes crossed. A whole family of these smelly fucks? That meant trouble. “How many are there in your family”, Alfred went on with the questioning. The ogrekin raised his good hand above his face and excruciatingly slowly counted with his fingers. “One, two, three, five.. no, one, two, three, four, five brothers.” Five, I thought, that we could handle. “Oh, and mama-brother too, and dada-brother”, it added, looking happy with himself that he had seemingly remembered everyone. What the hells, I recoiled in disgust as it blabbered about its incestuous family. “So seven in all”, Harsk commented and stroke his beard in deep thought. Shahelu had had enough and was walking away. Alfred snorted. “If you trust it to know how to count, that is”, he reminded the dwarf. I asked it about the cut insignias it was wearing around its only clothing, a stained breech-cloth. “Hehehe, they made a lot of tasty dinners for us Grauls-” Rukus started to tell with a devious laugh but he was cut short by an arrow to the forehead. The ogrekin, now without any of his limited brains, let out a long sigh and his upper body slumped back to the earth.
“FUCKER!” Shahelu was crying, tears in her eyes. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THEM!” She yelled again and lowered her longbow, but of course, no-one expected an answer anymore. We all just turned to stare at her uncomfortably.
“Shalelu!” I shouted back at the elven ranger, feeling both uncertain and annoyed. “Why did you do that-” I was about to chide but she didn’t give me the chance. “He had told us everything valuable he knew already! He deserved to die..” For all he had done, I finished for her but not aloud. I could guess the reason for her anxiety. I could sympathize. “It’s the insignias, isn’t it. The Black Arrows? You know of them, but you know them too, personally?” I asked, my voice low, knowing I was walking a fine line into a sensitive subject. An awkward silence fell. “Let’s just go”, Shalelu said, as if closing the matter for good and turned to trudge up north towards where Rukus had pointed.
The ogrekin with something resembling a pumpkin growing out of his head died quickly and wordlessly. The ravens that had harassed it flew away in surprise as my arrows, shot from a distance, accompanied Alice’s scimitar that had came from literally nowhere and gored the putrid monster. Lying there dead in the middle of the cabbage field the ogrekin reminded me of a fallen scarecrow. Our surprise attack, a combination of my ability to approach unseen and unheard and her magic of invisibility, had been an improvisation, something me and Alice had made up without really thinking about it. We had executed it to perfection however, and would have made my old mentors and teachers proud. Crouching next to the slain ogrekin in the cabbage field, the pale-faced magus looked at me but not betray any emotion. I responded in kind.
Letting the eager mountain lion lead us, we had found the Graul farmstead, a collection of two buildings and some fields. Unnoticed by anyone I had scouted and circled the buildings first, and identified one as the main house and the other as a large barn. Eating the bull one bite at a time as the saying goes, we begun our assault by storming the barn first.
We took care of the three ogrekin within with laughable ease. Crashing the doors in and with Harsk bellowing war cries, we charged in with the howling wind and the rainstorm behind us and they did not even have the chance to draw their bloodied ogre hooks.
I was getting used to the ever-present stench of old shit, piss and blood that accompanied the perversions and I knelled next to one to examine it, to learn of its anatomy and how to kill his kind more effectively. The mountain lion, now let to run free by Alfred, scrambled up a set of stairs at the side and ran along a catwalk to a door up in the upper corner of the barn. With its forepaws on the wood, its clawed and growled, trying to gain entrance. Shalelu and I walked past a bubbling, rusty rotgut distillery to another set of large wooden doors at ground level, opposite to the front doors. They looked thin and worn, but they were jammed by something. Alfred and Alice both followed the mountain lion up the stairs and along the catwalk to the door. There was a bucket next to it, and Alfred had a look into it before spitting and cursing audibly. Apparently there were parts of humans in the bucket, feet and hands, like a sick version of a pack of children’s sweets. Alfred produced a key he had taken from one of the slain ogrekin and tried it into the door. It opened to reveal a complete darkness within, but from my position below them I could see nothing else.
Alfred stepped in after the eager mountain lion. Shortly later a commotion ensued.
“What the fuck is that…” I heard Alfred say in awe before a horrible screetching sound filled the barn. Alice shouted Alfred’s name and bolted into the dark space as well. She too screamed, more in disgust and surprise than in fear, and then a massive lightning cracked. The darkness within the space beyond was filled with white light for a shorter time than it takes to blink, and I could sense the electricity that was being discharged at the other side of the barn. The rapidly expanding heated air even made the thin wooden walls bend slightly outwards and the doors complain at their hinges.
Afterwards, dust began to fall gently from the structure above me and Shalelu.
“You all right?” Harsk called carefully, his mouth forming a circle. I ran upstairs to see what had happened, leaving Harsk and Shalelu to guard our rear.
I could see in the low light I was ill-prepared to what I was witnessing. A truly gigantic spider, its furry body easily twenty feet long, was hanging loosely on its thick web. Parts of it were steaming. On its head, if you can call it that, was a long and wide wound that split the majority of its eyes and oozed black-purple blood. Even as dead it looked horrifying. Armed with a pair of fangs the size of longswords, I imagined it could snap men in half and swallow the pieces whole. Alfred was staring at it, mouth agape, unable to say anything. I understood what had jammed the doors we’d tried with Shalelu – the whole space beneath us was covered in the rope-thick web, and it reached all the way to the door.
“Guys, a little help over here”, came the clear, high-pitched voice of a woman.
I looked down and spotted Alice in the gloom next to the spider, dangling just below it in the web, caught in it like a fly. Her scimitar glowed in the darkness. “You killed that, with one blow?” I asked, unbelieving. Lying there on her back, Alice flashed a smile. “I did.” I nodded at her, my eyebrows rising and the sides of my mouth turning downwards in a reserved expression of approval. “Not bad.”
We were not alone in the dark. We couldn’t hear them, but after freeing Alice from the giant spider’s web, we had the time to check the corners and found two cages ten feet wide and five high. The stingy stench of death and decay permeated both, but from the other, we found life. Three barely breathing men, naked, covered in bruises. They were lying in a heap among the dead, as if someone had thrown them in like trash without really thinking about it. One of them, still wearing his eye-patch if not any clothing, turned his head weakly as Alfred crouched over, carefully feeling if the bodies were alive or dead. “We’ve got live people here!” He shouted, uncharacteristically seriously. The horrors of Graul Farmstead were having an impact on us all. Alice was standing behind me and Alfred, watching the spider that still bled, transfixed. Harsk and Shalelu rushed from downstairs. The clerics powers of healing erupted from his fingertips once more, and with their light, we saw the full picture of horror in the cage, the stricken figures among the decay, the flies that buzzed and laid their eggs and the maggots that swirled and feasted on dead flesh. I was too caught in my revulsion that I didn’t catch the name Shalelu called in distress.
We carried them away from the rot, and down to the barn exit where they could breath fresh air. Veins bulged on Harsk’s arms and sweat droplets formed on his forehead as he gave everything he had to bring the three men back from the shadows of near-death. Finally, he stopped, breathing laboriously, but he had succeeded. One by one, they regained full consciousness. Under the clotted blood, healthy colour returned to their skins. Alice, Alfred and Shalelu were watering them from their skeins, and I was staying back, keeping one eye on the main farmhouse for any signs of trouble. The eye-patched man was first to recover. He coughed violently and Shalelu, who was kneeling next to him, raised his head a bit so he could drink himself. The mountain lion was glued to him and made a whining noise – evidently it was his master we had saved. Feeling the animal beside him he managed a weak but happy smile. “Kibb my boy..” I heard him greet the animal with voice that was nothing more than a whisper, and the lion begun to purr loudly. Then he realized who was holding him. “Shalelu? Are my eyes.. betraying me?” The elven ranger looked like she was close to bursting into tears, but she stayed strong. “Jakardros, of course it’s me. Oh what trouble you’ve got yourself into..” The old man, Jakardros, tried to laugh but ended up coughing so fiercely that it shook his whole body. “.. you have no idea..” His gaze had been hazy and dreamy, but from his supine position he quickly begun to look around and assess his surroundings like a proper soldier. “Vale, Drake, both alive, thank the gods.. and you brought friends with you”, he spoke, still wearily. His eyes traveled from Alfred to Alice and Harsk. Lastly, our eyes met.
Looking at me disbelievingly, he opened his mouth to speak. My world came to a complete stop as he gave voice to his question.
“Macharius, is that you?”