A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that turned into a book

26. Survival of the fittest

2nd of Neth – Fireday – 41st day in Varisia

Graul Farmstead

Within his grand estates in Canorate, my former owner, Eximedes Horryn, second and hopefully last of his name, had three separate barracks for his retinue of assassins, bodyguards and gladiators – one for each group. My brother, Macharius, was part of his personal guard, so he slept in a different barracks to mine – being one of his very few dedicated man-hunters, I spent my nights with the assassins. Compared to most of the other killers, I was a jovial, out-spoken person, which is saying very much. I didn’t really prefer their company, and they steered clear from me. Typically, there were a few present at a given time anyway, since our tasks took us around Canorate and Molthune on a regular basis. I was then so young that I was still being trained mostly, and hardly ever left the estates alone.

Nevertheless, when we were at the estates, I was never far from my twin brother.

It was hard for the other slaves to understand how important we were to each other. They couldn’t simply relate. All of them had arrived alone, and no true connections to their pasts remained. It is in the human nature to bond with a group, to seek the shelter of a tribe or a pack when the alternative is to suffer and die alone. It was different with me and Macharius. We had always had each other to watch our backs, to share the hopes, the setbacks. The grief. The hate. As such, we didn’t really bond with the others. Bar the gladiators, we spent time together with the guards and the other servants and slaves of course. We never however gave anyone the chance to earn our trust, to get under our skin. Horryn used our voluntary seclusion as leverage, being the bastard he was. He even told me once to my face that he’d throw my brother to the lions if I’d escape during a man-hunt. But of course I wouldn’t have ever left my brother behind. We had our lifeline, Macharius at one end and myself at the other.

After Canorate I had never spoken with anyone about my brother.

After seven years, I had almost lost all hope of finding him. Almost.

Hearing a beaten ranger with an eye-patch calling me with his name felt as if someone was tugging at the lifeline, after all those years.

**

“What.. did you call me?” My voice fought to stay steady, before becoming cold as steel and I stepped forward to the black-bearded, tumble-haired old ranger. He was still examining me with his one good eye as I approached slowly. “I thought you long gone, brother..” I pulled the hood from my head and was about to form a question when he frowned and shook his head lightly. I could feel the eyes of the others on us. Shahelu, who still held Jakardros on her lap, tilted her head, and followed our exchange with keen interest. “No.. I’m sorry”, Jakardros started before he grinned, fighting the pain and getting up to a sitting position. “I thought you were someone else.”

Thoughts begun to race inside my head. Hopes. Fears. My hands started to tremble. “Who did you think I was”, I simply asked, controlling myself to my best ability. Shalelu was covering his stark naked body with her cloak, and he uttered a wordless thanks. “A brother”, he turned his one good eye back to me, “a good man from two winters past.” I couldn’t believe it. “Two winters? What happened?” “He was with us for a few seasons, before leaving-” “Where?” I demanded, sounding too excited and regretting it immediately.

“I don’t know.” It was all he could say before the dark-skinned ranger came alive with a thrashing and a growl of a bear and I lost his attention. But I had enough information. For the first time I had something. He had seen my face and called me by my brother’s name. That could not be a coincidence. But two winters ago? It could have been a decade for what it was worth. And he had been here in Varisia, all those years when I had scoured the lands around Lake Encarthan. I felt so stupid, so powerless. I wanted to hit something, but at the same time, I was elated.

I paced back to a corner to gather my thoughts and regain my composure as the other rangers woke up and our party covered them in cloaks and the hides of the ogrekin.

The dark-skinned man, called Vale Temros was a brute, easily my height but fourty pounds heavier and he could have been carved from a slab of metal. His bass timbre of his voice was like a thick oak bending in the wind. His body was blanketed with cuts and scars, and I would later come to understand why there were so many of them. He was a warrior to the core.

The third one we had saved was called Drake Windstrike, an auburn-haired young man who appeared to be least experienced of them. There was something familiar about him, about his facial features, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Jakardros was their hunt leader and he briefly and numbly went over what had occurred in Fort Rannick. Ogres had indeed attacked the fort a good month ago, but the three and their brothers-in-arms had been away on a patrol when the assault had taken place. Upon their return, they had found ogres of Kreeg infesting their stronghold. He did not understand how the ogres could have seized the fort, since they had been beaten so easily in the past. Jakardros had led his men in an attempt to take back the fort, but it had failed and they had retreated in haste to the forest, only to run into an ambush of the Graul ogrekins. Many of his men had fallen, but in the end, the rest had been taken captive. Out of dozen or so of his party, only they remained.

From the back I tossed the suggestion. What if betrayal had been the means of the ogres – what if the rangers had had enemies within the walls? I told the remaining Black Arrows about Xanesha and her sibling, who possibly was Lucrezia, and how they seemed to work in the shadows, using middle-men and lackeys to advance their unknown, dark aims. Jakardros was doubtful, but did not dismiss the idea completely. The timings of the events – Lucrezia’s disappearance from Turtleback Ferry, the attack against Fort Rannick – all fit too well together. Vale gazed at me with contempt. He clearly did not like me suggesting his friends had betrayed them. The auburn boy remained mute and unreadable.

We didn’t have time to discuss the implications and other possibilities as Alfred was already urging us to move on to the main farmstead. More enemies were close and none of us was safe until they were put to the sword. Still unarmed and unequipped, the Black Arrow rangers chose to stay behind and watch the barn. Despite our keenness to cleanse the farmstead, I wasn’t finished with them. As I walked out to the rain I stabbed a finger at Jakardros’ chest. “We’ll talk more about Macharius when I get back.”

**

I volunteered to have a second, better look at the main house alone, before we’d barge in and announce our presence to our foes.

The windows of the two storey house were all barred by planks – if anyone lived there, they preferred the low light. At also enabled me to run across the yard without being tracked from the house over to what looked like the main entrance. I slipped my longbow over my shoulder and stretched by fingers. It was time to put to the test my fancy new fingerless leather gloves which I had bought in Magnimar without really thinking about it. Taking a position next to the door, I laid my palms across the wall made of birch and took a deep breath.

The wall facing me vanished and I could see and hear clearly within. I grinned, satisfied with myself and the gloves.

My grin quickly faded as I took in what I was seeing.. and smelling. A wave of foul stench poured over me and I had to fight back an urge to cough and vomit. I closed my eyes and held onto the wall firmly. The rot was still there but I was coping. Cursing silently in Elven I opened my eyes and had a second look inside.

It was a kitchen of sorts. Parts of humans were lying here and there. Blood, human blood I took it, was everywhere. A human skull, still with some slices of skin and hair sticking out of it, was lying on its side on a table. It had the jawbone connected, and it looked like it was screaming at me, telling me to get as far from there as possible. A partly-eaten corpse was on the table next to the skull, with two large meat-axes driven into it. I realized I was examining a half-finished dinner table. Revulsion and hate in equal measures made my skin prickle. I had to let my palms off the wall, and when I did so, the wall returned as if it had never disappeared in the first place.

The rain cleared my thoughts and I settled down. This was to be expected. The ate us, just like Rukus had said. Willing myself to focus, I walked right to a corner and had a quick peek around it. I saw no ogrekin, or nothing alive for that matter, only a terrace or porch and some furniture made for creatures twice larger than a human. I was about to step on the porch, but it dawned to me that everything looked like they hadn’t been used in ages. A closer look at the floor planks revealed that they were rotten and at breaking point – a single step might crack them in half and gods knew what would happen then. Dismissing an entry via the porch, I went back to see the other corner of the front of the building.

Another look into the building with the Gloves of Reconnaissance unveiled a social room of sorts. And the first glimpse of new enemies. Reflexively I almost pulled my hands of the well before remembering they couldn’t see or hear me like I did them.

On the floor two smaller ogrekin were sitting cross-legged in their own shit, playing with long nails, corroded knives and sharp-looking pieces of wood. They were making blabbering noises, gurgling and laughing in a sick, weird way and for some reason I was reminded of human babies.

I would be happy to put them out of their misery, I thought.

I circled the house counter-clockwise and on the third corner, found a small storage room with my gloves and noted something shiny – a ring – among piles of junk and human arm bones that had been nailed to the walls like trophies. There was a pair of very small hands too, a child’s, but I looked away, not wanting to examine them or think about what I had noticed. The ever-present glow where I gripped the Carmine Avenger flared ruby red in empathy. I saw no other ogrekin, so I turned to return to the others. No more scouting, I decided. It was time to kill the man-eating, filthy vermin.

**

We gathered around the main doors, Harsk, Alfred, Alice, Shalelu and me, and I gently pushed the doors open. The all too familiar stench of human rot blew out, and it was too much for Harsk who turned around and vomited his breakfast on the grass. Alice coughed violently, but did not give up the contents of her stomach. Alfred resisted like I had, but the dismay and abhorrence were easily readable on his face.

Two doors led further into the house from the kitchen. I had a glimpse through the walls with my gloves, and the one facing north led to a stairwell beneath, while the other leading west opened to a dining hall. Before Alfred, who was on the point, could push the door open, I lowered my hand on his and stopped him.

“It’s a trap. There’s a metal blade that will swing down from the ceiling and strike at you if you open the door.” The sellsword grunted in irritation and surprise and stepped back from the door. “What do you suggest we do then?” He asked. I reached up to the corner of the door where my fingers found a small knob. I pushed the knob to another position and with a click the mechanism secured the blade in place. “It’s off now.. or on”, I flashed a smile as I lowered my hand. Alfred did not enjoy my humour, but being the reckless man he was, he pushed the door open. Nothing happened.

I told them of the two young ogrekin in the room to our north-east. We decided to leave them be for now, and push on. We’d throw away our element of surprise for something greater a threat.

We went through the dining hall as stealthily as possible, with Alfred at the lead, and me right behind him with Dûath. After the hall was a corridor leading south and west, and a stairwell upstairs. I checked the storage room I had seen from outside and grabbed the ring. As I was making my way out, Alfred was already going forward and pushed open a new door. He thought it was a door to the backyard, which I had falsely claimed based on my earlier scouting. Instead, it led to a bedroom from hell.

It was dark inside – only the grey light shone between planks that covered the windows. Thanks to my elven vision I could see perfectly well, and over Alfred’s and Alice’s shoulders across the corridor I saw them hunching in the in the darkest corners. Vile, rotten undead humans – Harsk had called them zombies. The closest had the time to react and turn around to face Alfred.

The sellsword wasted little time. With a roar of hatred he shield-bashed the slumbering zombie away from him. His momentum was so fierce that the undead creature flew across the room and slammed against the back wall and crashed down on some chairs. From somewhere deeper in the room a keening, high-pitched laughter welcomed the human fighter as if its source was applauding the Alfred’s martial prowess.

I saw another zombie rise to its feet and begin approaching Alfred. I pointed at it with my free hand and commanded Dûath to slay the unnatural beast. From my feet he leaped and landed violently on the zombie, clawing it and making it lose its balance. Alice went in, and gasped in shock at what literally lied waiting for us. It was obese beyond words, a mountain of fat and dirty flesh that covered entirely a bed wide enough for two adult humans. It was just sitting there, leering at us. She – from its long, unkept hair and massive breasts I had to believe it was a woman ogrekin – held her hands in front of her and wriggled her meaty fingers and to licking her lips in hungry anticipation, as if compelling Alice to come closer so she could have a taste of her.

“Dear boys, we’ll have fresh meat for supper!” She screeched in joy and the zombies became a bit more animated upon hearing her voice calling them.

“I’m no-one’s food”, Alice answered with a yell and introduced the she-monster to her magical scimitar. Powers of lightning buzzed and popped, fat burned and the bitch-mother cried in agony. I was about to add to her plight with some fire magics of my own, but Harsk ruined my aim by charging past me into the dark bedroom and into the fray with what I knew by then had to be mama-brother of the Grauls. “Iomedae curse you, man-eater, DIE”, the righteous little cleric declared as he swung down his longsword and cut deep. I put two arrows into the she-monster, and a third to the last surviving zombie that tried to get to Alfred. The fat ogrekin was quickly surrounded by our close-quarters combatants. In a vain attempt to defend herself, she tried to cast a spell at the sellsword, but the pale-faced magus struck her at the last second. For her effort, Alice got a smack to her face from a meaty fist that moved with quickness that surprised us all. Gaining some breathing ground, the mother-Graul casted mirror images of her filthy, ugly self and suddenly there were six of them against us. Trying to look at her felt as being drunk – which one of her was the true enemy?

Alfred approached the dilemma in his own way. “Aim to the center!” He screamed the order and vaulted into the bed beside the mirror-imaged Graul and started to whack and slam with his weapons. He was relentless and giving the monster no quarter, and after each hit one of the mirror images crashed into blinking fragments and disappeared. She had nowhere to go. I knew that within seconds, we would end the bitch whose kin mutilated and ate people like us – a family that had no right to exist. Through the ever-present stench of blood and shit, the scent of vengeance at hand was sweet and sharp like that of fresh fruits. I let my exploding arrows communicate my contempt.

But smiting down the mother of the dark family was denied to us at the final moment. Utter, absolute darkness suddenly enveloped me and I heard Shalelu, who had remained back at the corridor, cry in pain. I tried to look back at her but saw nothing, only blackness. “Something is behind us! Shalelu, get back to me! Listen to my voice!” I warned the other and urged the elf, trying to make a constant noise for her to follow. “What evil sorcery is this”, Harsk was bellowing, “she got away! She went through the floor!”

“Can you see anything?” I asked, yelling, feeling the wall beside me with my free hand, the other still clutching the Carmine Avenger. I couldn’t see anything, not my hands, not the faint, blood-red glow of my longbow, nothing. I had never encountered anything like it. Then Shalelu bumped to me and I heard the woosh of a large weapon slashing down and she cried again.

“Yes I can”, Alice responded to my call. “Someone is casting darkness, get away from its source!” I took, all too confidently, a couple of running steps forward, trying to remember what I had seen in the bedroom and after my fifth step the blanket was swept from my eyes and I emerged back into the dim light. Shalelu came right behind me, leaving bloody tracks on her wake. “It was another ogrekin, it completely surprised me”, she managed between breaths. Her hair and back were covered in red.

The total, impenetrable darkness begun to cover more of the bedroom. I realized its source was walking towards us down the corridor – it was like a light from a lantern, but backwards – instead of lighting, it blanketed everything in black. I couldn’t see Alice, Harsk nor Alfred, who were at the other side of the wall of black that grew and grew every second. I gritted my teeth, feeling helpless. During my travels I had seen a monk with a blind over his eyes fight a group of challengers, so I knew blind-fighting was possible, but I required a target I could see.

At the periphery of my vision I saw a door. A way out, possibly a route to get behind our assailant? As the darkness continued to sweep the room into its embrace I rushed to the door and pushed it open. Fuck. It was empty save a four inch thick layer of shit that carpeted the entire small room. It was a lavatory, I realized to my disgust. I had managed to get some shit on my boots. Cursing, almost vomiting, I stepped back and slammed the door close. I had to try something else then.

Harsk, putting his dark-vision to use, and Alice, fighting the darkness with magic of light were challenging the attacker head on. I could not see what was happening within but I heard metal hitting metal, Harsk bellowing an oath of battle and finally grunts of pain that did not belong to any of us. I blinked my eyes and the darkness that had almost consumed the entire room disappeared. I sighed in relief.

“It’s running, get it and end it before it can escape”, Harsk was hollering as the stomped after whatever had tried to get to us. Alice and Alfred were with him and I caught a glimpse in the corridor where the sellsword put down a ogrekin baby on the run with a single swipe of his battle-axe, as if as a quick afterthought. I sought Shalelu, who was still bleeding from her wounds. “Go! I’ll heal myself”, she commanded me with a grimace and started to pull out a wand of healing from her backpack. I nodded and went after the others with Dûath.

The tricky bastard had activated the door traps around the dining hall during its retreat and Alfred almost got his head chopped off. Harsk’s and Alice’s loud warnings however prevented it.

“It’s in the corner room, where the little ones were staying”, I informed them, my keen hearing picking out sounds as we were considering our options. “Are you sure”, Alice asked me. I shrugged. “There’s killing to be done, we go room by room”, Alfred dismissed the discussion flatly and kicked in the door leading to the social room at the corner of the ground floor. But instead of the ogrekin with the darkness tricks we found the mother creature. It had somehow travelled across the house and was hovering a feet or two above ground. Seeing Alfred crack the door open, it yelled shrill profanities at us in a language I did not understand. Acting out of instinct I had the shot and took it, but my arrow missed by an inch as the monstrosity retreated further into the room. Alice went after her but stumbled into a drooling, thrashing ogrekin baby. Electricity crackled, lighting the interior for a short second and the small ogrekin fell to the floor lifeless. Alice stepped over its corpse, her eyes keenly on our primary target.

It was alone again, and this time we would not let it escape. Drawing and nocking another pair of arrows, I commanded my animal companion to attack the flying mountain of fat. Dûath bravely sprung into the room past the sellsword and the magus and charged to deal death with its claws and teeth. But the mother of evil had one last spell in store for us. Screaming quick words of casting, dark purple lights flashed once around my panther’s head and I heard him moan and hiss. He stumbled before halting completely only ten feet of the leering ogrekin and seemed unsure what to do. “What is it”, I called out to him while Alfred, Alice and Harsk used the distraction to their advantage and elbowed their way deeper into the social room and towards our prey.

Alone and surrounded, she had nothing against us. Alfred pounded her up and down on the floor with his axe and shield, while Alice stabbed her continuously with her scimitar and I shot fire arrows into her center mass. Even Harsk was furious, calling for his goddess’ powers to cleanse the place. We gave no quarter, no mercy. Ogrekin blood splattered across the room, fat cooked and burned and she pleaded and cried in pain. How many people had pleaded for their lives as they had been prepared as dinner for her sick, twisted and incestuous family? How many rangers had they fed to that hulking spider in the barn? How many children had they killed and consumed over the years? The Carmine Avenger glowed a fierce ruby red in my grasp as I put arrow after arrow into her body. The sound of her dying screams was music to my ears.

My last arrow blew a sizeable chunk from her head and that brought an end to her cries of agony. There was only a smoking, bloody pile of foul meat in the corner of the room. I ran to my animal companion and gasped in shock when I saw his eyes. Over them I thought was a shroud of strange white substance, but it was not anything tangible. His eyes had turned completely white – into milky orbs. Dûath could not see. He whimpered and whined, finding me by scent only.

“Maybe the spell’s power will wear out soon”, I told him as I crouched next to him, attempting to reassure myself mostly since he could not understand what I was trying to tell him. Harsk put his hand upon my shoulder and I feared what he was about to say. I turned my head and saw him examining the panther with narrow eyes. “I am sorry Alpharius, but that will not wear off. He will need powerful restoration magics to overcome the spell.” I grimaced, grief-stricken and surprised. “What? Can you restore his sight here?” I was pleading, but the cleric shook his head sadly. “Not now. Maybe later. It would be best if we could find a temple with individuals who have a better grasp of the required magical domain.” I let out a humourless, coarse laughter. I was furious, and feeling so helpless. “How the Fall do you think we can find such individuals here in the middle of fucking nowhere?” Harsk had no answer, so he just stepped back and looked away. Me lashing out to him was unjust, I realized, but I stayed silent and just patted and scratched Dûath. The fat bitch could have casted that spell against anyone of us. It could have been me standing there, unable to see.

“Let’s move out”, Alfred called us again, “there is still the one, probably the father of his family, to be killed.” I rose to my feet and tucked Dûath by his collar make him to follow me.

**

We checked the upstairs first, but found no enemies and little of value there. The first floor was half a storage room with smashed wooden boxes, ruined furniture and cobweb. The other half was a dormitory for the ogrekin. Seven massive beds laid empty, covered with stained, never-cleaned linen, furs and hides made of human skin. Making some quick arithmetic in my head and I knew we had just one ogrekin left to take care of. It seemed Rukus did not know how to count.

Between two of the beds there was a small casket, unlocked. I checked its exterior and found no traps, so Alfred eagerly opened it and found a bag full of something metallic. He took a hold of it and pulled it up, and almost got his fingers severed by a trap hidden under the bag. And in the end, the bag contained only some silver and copper coins – not a treasure you’d want to sacrifice your hand for.

We got back down and headed towards the main doors and the kitchen. Harsk went out to seek out the rangers, but they had seen no-one exit the building. So the father of the accursed family still hid from us, beneath the building in the cellars. Vale was particularly twitchy, demanding us to find his weapons, a pair of axes. I was about to retort thornily that he was welcome to join us in our hunt but Harsk beat me to it, diplomatically promising him and the other rangers that we’d look for their equipment when we descended into the cellars, the last unsearched part of the farmstead.

The stairwell led down from the kitchen. Pitch-black darkness awaited us beneath, so Alfred lighted a torch and we headed down, one by one.

**

I had to walk carefully to support Dûath, who was struggling to traverse the steps. Luckily, the stairs were straight and quite short. First to reach the basement floor, Alfred found three doors, one leading north, one west and one south. The sellsword had a quick, nervous glance into the room beyond the northern door, but saw nothing and tried the southern door instead. The others followed him inside, while I took out my everburning torch that never went out, and had a personal look inside the northernmost room. I found more rotting corpses and skeletons of all sizes around two large wooden blood-soaked tables. I did not even pay attention to the stench anymore. Seeing so much blood, so much death and decay, was wearing down on me, numbing my senses and mind. There had been so much pain and agony here that it felt like the walls and ceiling themselves were imbued with it. The sadism and bloodshed of my former master Horryn paled in comparison to the Graul family and to what they had accomplished.

I heard the others whisper in the other cellar, something about searching the junk and piles of ruined wood.

“Another doubledoor”, Alfred hissed from the point and turned to face us. “Open it”, Harsk responded abruptly, taking a firmer grip of his weapons. I heard nothing but our breathing. We were getting nervous, over-eager to find the last of the ogrekin, to have something to strike to release the tension. We wanted this nightmare to end. I saw sweat beads rolling down the pale-faced magus’ forehead. Alfred nodded to us, feeling bold enough and pulled open the doors.

Nothing happened at first. Alfred stepped into something I believed was a corridor, Harsk right behind him. I was still at the back and couldn’t see, but in the silence, even their whispers reached my ears.

“Alfred..” Harsk started, having the better vision, “watch out! The darkness creeps towards us!”

“What is that..”, Alfred was saying dumbfounded. “Get back, step away from it!” Harsk responded with a yell. I shouted at Alice who was still at the door. “What’s happening in there, magus?” Alice did not turn to face me. “There something.. a living tree, or a massive plant.. I can’t see it..” Her scimitar flared with electricity as he started to cast a spell. Shalelu was next to her and nocked an arrow.

I didn’t want to sit there a thumb up my arse so I tried and pushed open the third door in the stairwell’s end, believing that to lead to the fight. Instead, I found an empty room. Bones littered the room, and they were full of claw and bitemarks, as if they had been sucked dry. Something screeched and I realized what or who exactly had left the marks on the bones.

From a dark corner a rat size of a small dog stepped carefully closer to me, curious of the fire of my torch. Its body was trembling in hunger and anticipation. Our eyes met and it grinned, revealing a set of sharp, green teeth. I cursed very audibly in Elvish and dropped the torch to my feet and used my free hand to draw an arrow from my quiver. I heard Harsk order Alfred to fall back. My first arrow burrowed into the rat and it let out a pained cry, drawing out two more similarly sized rats from their hiding places. Great, I thought as I stepped back to the corridor, limiting their space and possibilities to attack me. The first, wounded rat came at me teeth bared, and I tried to kick it but managed to present my leg so that it had a easy time of biting into it. I roared in pain and disgust and put another arrow into it and its friend, ending their miserable lives with two beautiful fireballs. Shalelu had heard my cursing and had moved behind me to offer support. She tried to shoot an arrow at the last rat, but missed. It was almost at biting distance to me when Alice, out of nowhere, scrambled past me and over the rat and dexterously cut it in half.

“I was taking care of them”, I said to the magus, somewhat irritated at her intervention. Alice just snorted. “Yeah right, looks like it”, and pointed at my bleeding leg with her crackling scimitar. I was about to retort when I saw Alfred and Harsk return to the cellar room and pull the doubledoors closed. Both were panting and wild-eyed.

“The last ogrekin is in there”, Harsk started, “in a large space beyond a ten-feet wide corridor. But it has some kind of unnatural, living growth of weed, not unlike a tree, defending it.” “It’s huge, fifteen feet wide branches”, Alfred added between breaths. “Can we lure it into the corridor, cramp it there?” Alice suggested. “I don’t know if it can move”, Harsk shrugged, “I didn’t see any roots securing it onto the ground however.”

I went to reclaim my everburning torch, and finding the third room secure, told my blind companion to wait there. Looking miserable, the panther just laid his head down on his paws and let out a whine.

“So what are we going to do”, I asked them when I returned and pushed the torch between stones in the wall to provide us some illumination. Alfred looked around and was the one to answer. “We charge in and kill them both.” I nocked two arrows into the string of the Carmine Avenger. “Lead the way.”

**

The fight was a mess. The living tree of weed was something I had never seen before, but that did not disturb me. Little did anymore. It fought without a voice, the only thing making any sound were the slimy tendrils that wriggled and swayed like rapidly moving constrictor snakes. They grabbed Harsk and despite our and his efforts forcibly drew him into the jaw of the creature, and I thought the little cleric lost to us when he disappeared out of sight and into the plant’s mouth. Alice managed to break his scimitar in the fight, and Alfred was brought low by the last ogrekin, an ugly fucker like every other of its family.

As I said, everything happened very fast. In the darkness of the cellars, I had a hard time seeing anything but the thrashing plant-monster. I put arrow after arrow into its form, burning it relentlessly but I wasn’t doing enough harm. The situation was going to the gutter quick. With Harsk eaten and probably dead, Alfred unconscious and Alice without a weapon, my courage started to falter.

I don’t know how it was possible but at the last second, Dûath came running from the cellar where I had left him. His eyes, gods, his eyes were the yellow of a feline predator and without a command, he scrambled and leapt at the ogrekin. Emboldened by the miracle, I took a deep breath, nocked an arrow and let it fly at the plant-monster.

It hit it in its midriff, if it had one, and exploded with such ferocity that it burned a massive, gaping hole and bled acid. The weed-tree fell down, its branches finally having ended their thrashing and from the hole in its center erupted a badly burned dwarf, gasping for air.

At the same time, the Alice had flanked the ogrekin despite being armed with a blade bent out of shape. The brute still had his nasty looking hook and tried an upwards swing against the magus. I don’t know if Alice let him connect the hit, but as the tip of the hook touched her armored abdomen, a violent eruption of electrical energy spiraled from her armor to the hook and further across his body. The ogrekin spasmed, bellowed and burned, his hand still clutching Alice’s armor. Three seconds later the energy was drained and the brute barreled to the ground, utterly dead. Alice let out a sigh and slumped next to him, exhausted. But we could take a moment and rest. The horrors of Graul Farmstead had been ridden from the face of Golarion.

**
Shalelu found a sizeable chest filled with human-sized weapons and collected those she suspected to belong to the remaining Black Arrows. I woke up Harsk and Alfred with Alice. The dwarf was covered in slime and acid, and was cursing the plant-monster for its insolence and voicing his prayers to his goddess in equal fervor.

Tired and worn, we ascended from the cellar of hell and into the grey daylight, where we were met by the Black Arrows. They were happy to get their weapons and equipment back – especially Vale, who laughed a bass grumble and kissed his battle-axe and hand-axe, which he introduced to us as Father’s Peace and Mother’s Love. Shalelu muttered something about men and their desire to name their weapons, to which Alice snorted.

They put on some clothing and their armor as well. Drake tried to remain apart but when he pulled on his leather armor, I saw a glimpse of a tattoo on his bare shoulder blade. My blood stirred and my hands instinctively traveled to the pommels of my gladii.

“A nice Sihedron star you have there on your back, auburn boy.”

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