27. A pyrrhic victory, drowned
2nd of Neth – Fireday – 41st day in Varisia
Graul farmstead barn
I had never been particularly good at arithmetic. I could do the additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions as well as anyone, and some geometry but nothing more complex. I was never trained for that. But I knew odds. Especially when it came to fights.
There, glowering at Drake Windstrike, the man a few years my junior, who had the seven-pointed tattoo on his back, I was counting the odds at even. Alfred and Harsk were still wounded and exhausted from the battle with the Grauls. Alice had taken a hit or two and was carrying a broken, bent-out-of-shape scimitar. I was tired but unscathed, I realized only then, as was my panther. In response to my rapidly darkened expression and the challenge in my voice, the Black Arrows instinctively drew closer to each other. They were malnourished and still weak, but otherwise well – and we had just given them weapons and armor.
Harsk grunted in disbelief but did not say a word. Shalelu went completely still. I couldn’t know which side she’d take if it came to blows. That worried me. She kept eyeing Jakardros strangely.
Raindrops kept pattering on the roof and the moonshine distillery still puffed and popped but the barn itself couldn’t have been more silent. Nobody knew what was happening. It was Drake who was first to open his mouth.
“What do you mean, half-elf?” I tried to see any sign of treacherousness in his expression but didn’t find any. Maybe he didn’t know what the word Sihedron meant. His ignorance, if real, was not however an excuse.
“I mean that little, obscure seven-pointed star on your back.” My hands never left the pommels my gladii. “That is the mark of the enemy, of the mistress Xanesha who we hunted down and killed in Magnimar, and Lucrezia, mistress of the sailing bordello of Turtleback Ferry. The latter marked his regular customers with the tattoo, but we don’t know the ultimate reason why she-” I was about to ask it from Drake but he stopped me with a laugh.
“My friend, I haven’t been frequenting that whorehouse”, he started, flapping his hand once at my direction, gesturing I was being ridiculous. Still, I noted a slight edge on his voice, and felt the tension build up. I frowned and lowered mine. “How did you get that tattoo? It is the sign of the enemy that threatens Varisia. It shows you’ve been in close contact with them.” I chose my words carefully, but only to keep things from escalating too fast. I didn’t care if I had to hurt Drake eventually. I wanted information when he could still speak.
Drake matched my gaze with a smile but I could see the hostility in his eyes. “The enemy that threatens Varisia.. you sound so dramatic. This is nothing, a fancy symbol I thought nice when I got this as a young boy”, he explained, lifting his shoulder and turning his back for everyone to see the tattoo in the pale light of the ending day. Harsk and Alfred both narrowed their eyes, recognizing the mark as I had. At least they understood what was going on, I thought to myself.
“Horsecrap”, I bluntly vocalized my incredulity, “too convenient.” From Simmon, the blacksmith back at Turtleback Ferry I remembered hearing that many of the Black Arrows had come and visited Lucrezia’s ship in the past months, years even. I was about to make my point when Vale, the dark-skinned brute of a ranger stepped to me with no friendliness in his manner, gripping his newly-returned pair of sharp axes. To my benefit, I did not flinch nor back down.
“Tread lightly, you’re making dangerous claims about my good friend”, he warned me with his deep, rumbling voice and pointed me with the shaft of Father’s Peace. Unsurprisingly he was being utterly loyal to his brother-at-arms, but a quick glance at Jakardros revealed a spark of doubt in the hunt leader’s mind. While Vale had shown disdain when I had first talked about the possibility of treachery among the Black Arrows as the reason for fall of Fort Rannick, Jakardros had not dismissed the idea.
But we didn’t know what powers Lucrezia had over the men she had marked. I couldn’t not say with any certainty what it meant to have a Sihedron tattoo on one’s back. Maybe they were under an enchantment spell? Maybe Lucrezia could draw their souls out and kill them with a single word? Maybe she could immolate them with a thought? Perhaps they were all guilty of lust and greed only, but innocent otherwise? I didn’t know, so my case was falling flat. No-one else was pursuing the lead of the Sihedron tattoo. Vale was not helping.
“I’ve known Drake for seven years”, he continued, “he is a good and trustworthy brother, who has been with us since his childhood home burned.” Jakardros was nodding, considering the possibilities, and I knew then I had lost him. But my suspicions lingered. There was something horribly wrong, and my gut told me not to trust Drake for a damn. I was unsure I could trust any of the Black Arrows. Who knew if they all carried the Sihedron star?
I was exasperated. “All we know is that star beckons evil and misery. It is their symbol.” I did not bring up how Xanesha’s sibling had mentioned in her letter an elonquent way of marking her victims which I believed the tattoos to be, but I let go of my gladii and pointed an accusing finger at Drake. “I’ll keep my eye on you.” Vale frowned but Drake just let out a light laugh. “Sure, you do that. I’ll sleep my nights better knowing I’ll be watched over.”
Not eager to start another fight and with none of my companions wanting to support me in my case against Drake, I let the matter be and the tension gradually eroded. Vale backed down, as did I. The Black Arrows with their mountain lion gathered close together and exchanged hushed words before starting a fire next to the barn door from loose, dry planks of wood they collected from around the barn. Shalelu chose to sit with them, which irritated me greatly. Alfred, Alice and Harsk huddled together and continued to mend their wounds. I looked for a quiet corner in the barn where I could watch the Black Arrows, sat down on the dirt floor and took an apple from my backpack. Drake turned to see me every now and then and found me sternly gazing at him every time. Few people liked me but I was a man of my word.
With the flame of general hostilities put out, for now, Alfred asked Jakardros to tell us more about the ogre attack against Fort Rannick. I still sat in a dark corner, not willing to participate, but I listened with interest. Jakardros rubbed his eyes, in visible physical pain by just remembering the past days, before beginning. The attackers called ogres of Kreeg were a particularly nasty and large group of ogres that lived in the caves of the nearby Hook Mountains. There had been dozens of them, and while the first battle and Jakardros’ futile attempt at retaking the fort had presumably taken its toll and diminished their numbers, there had to be many still remaining. But what Jakardros was keen to know was if there were any other Black Arrows alive – and were they being kept as prisoners within the walls of the fort. He wanted to find out and if possible, save them from the Kreeg. The notion of ending up as a prisoner of the Kreeg sent shivers down my spine. My mind wandered back to the Graul kitchen and I remembered the half-eaten corpse. Anger and hatred for the ogres and their perverse cousins the ogrekin flared within me. I would die before being taken as prisoner.
Alfred told them about our mission to come to Fort Rannick and investigate why it had fallen silent. While I personally felt our original mission accomplished, I was with Alfred and the others that we ought to pursue further with the remaining rangers. I was after Lucrezia’s head who I increasingly felt was the sibling of Xanesha – with a lower body of a snake or not. And I really relished the chance to rid Varisia of some of the cruel, malicious man-eaters. Alfred and Jakardros both thought our next step was to try to get inside the fort and search for imprisoned rangers. I could see Harsk and Alice agreeing, and Alfred looked around to where I was sitting. Our eyes met and I indicated my approval with a nod.
The hunt leader produced a thin stick of wood and started to draw something in the dirt before him. I was unable to see, and with my interest piqued, I silently rose from my place in the corner and approached the fire and the others.
“This is”, Jakardros began, “a rough map of Fort Rannick. North is this way.” A sector of a circle with a 90 degree corner opening towards south-east resembled the fort and its outer walls, while mountains covered the two sides of the sector to north and west. A river wormed around the walls from one side to another. “There are two bridges and with a gate for each”, Jakardros explained and drew lines across the river at two points, north-east and south-west where the man-made wall ended and natural walls of the Hook Mountains began. “The southern gate was intact but already broken open when we made our attempt to re-seize Rannick. The northern bridge is intact, but the gate itself is unusable. Parts of the walls around it have fallen and blocked it.” As he was explaining, he drew two boxes to indicate the gates and crossed the other. Then he drew a small circle on the wall next to the southern gate. “There is a small entryway into the fort here, basically a ditch of water that runs under the walls. Passable by swimming.” Then he poked at the northern side of the 90-degree sector. “There is a route from the mountains down to the yard of the fort.” He drew a long breath and looked particularly stricken. “It leads to the nesting ground of the giant eagles. Intelligent animals they are, and they have helped us many times in the past. I would dare to call them our allies.” Harsk stroke his long brown beard, lost in his thoughts. “Could we get any help from them?” Jakardros merely shook his head. “I thought about it myself, but during our attempt to take back the fort I saw a score of the magnificient beasts lying low among my dead brothers. I hate to say this but I’m afraid they are all gone.” Vale looked down and shook his head in regret equal to the hunt leader’s as Jakardros shared what he had witnessed.
Alfred pointed with his finger at the different locations in the crude dirt map. “So barring an approach over the mountains, our options are the two gates, and the ditch running under the wall?” A faint smile came and went across the old hunt leader’s face. “No. There is one more route in.” He scratched at the south-western corner of the sector with the tip of the stick. “Here is a waterfall, a rather large one.” Explains the river, I thought to myself. “Choice veterans and commanders of the brotherhood know of a secret passage beyond the waterfall than runs deep in the mountains and into the keep itself.” Only then I noted a box within the sector describing Fort Rannick, in the north-western corner, covering a good quarter of the sector. The keep.
The sellsword chuckled. “A good option. I doubt the stupid ogres know of that.” Jakardros nodded in agreement.
Frowning, I stepped in from the darkness. “Unless whoever handed them the fort told them about it.” I tried to sound reasonable but Drake and Vale looked at me venomously. A shot back a dark glance. Doubt and suspicion were in my blood – and I wasn’t going to drop the matter of possible treachery. I went on. “I think it’s the worst option. I’m betting the ogres, and their possible allies, used that very route in their original attack. If I were they, I’d guard that route the heaviest, or barring a guard, I would fill it with traps.” Jakardros sighed, I didn’t knew whether from irritation or simple tiredness, but I was happy to see healthy doubt in Alice’s, Harsk’s and Alfred’s faces. Jakardros noted as much and didn’t argue, commenting only that the ogres themselves were hardly cunning nor patient enough to utilize such secret passages.
The sellsword took over. “How tall are the outer walls?” Jakardros thought about it for a moment, then answered. “Fifteen to twenty feet.” Not much, easily scalable, I thought but said nothing. “How about the river, how wide and deep is it?” Again, the hunt leader considered before replying. “It’s twenty or so feet wide.. but the current is quite strong.” I heard Alice mutter something under her breath, about her swimming skills I guess. Harsk didn’t look pleased either. “Right. Taking everything in consideration”, Alfred had a look at me and Jakardros, “I suggest we approach the fort from the east, cross the north-eastern bridge and scale the wall at the foot of the mountain.” I liked the idea. “At night?” I asked. “No, it serves no purpose. They have better night vision than any of us, excluding good master Harsk here of course”, Jakardros explained, gesturing towards the dwarf who beamed proudly. “How about at dawn then, with the morning sun at our backs, blinding them?” I suggested in return. That made the old hunt leader smile. “I like how you think.”
We agreed to have a good night’s sleep, scout the area around the fort the next day and make our surprise attack on the dawn of the day after. The rangers offered to have the watch for the night, a small token of gratitude for saving them, which suited our wounded companions more than well. Having spent time with magic-wielders I had also come to understand they rather enjoyed a good night’s sleep to recharge their spells.
As I sat down to stretch my legs and arms, I overheard Shalelu and Jakardros discussing something across the campfire. “..I promise I’ll never leave you again”, Jakardros said to her ear. My interested piqued, I concentrated but didn’t catch what the elven ranger responded. This was obviously a personal exchange but I couldn’t help myself, so I tried eavesdropping. Shalelu had been acting oddly in the past day, so I was eager to know what was possibly behind it. I didn’t want to consider her a liability. The old man continued. “I’m so sorry what happened to your mother.” He knows her mother? Is Shalelu from around here? Questions formed in my head but were left unanswered. They stopped talking and I saw Jakardros hold her hand tightly.
Evening started to fall in earnest. Alfred, ever eager to have a drink of anything resembling alcohol, had a closer look at the still functioning moonshine distillery at the back of the barn. Thankfully Harsk, our brewery apprentice, noted that the booze the ogrekin had been preparing was so potent and poisonous that it would have blinded the sellsword had he taken a single sip. Appalled, Alfred kicked the machinery and retreated in regret and anger. However, being the good person he was, the dwarf offered him a drink from his bottomless tankard of ale as amends. They both got quite drunk soon after.
Alice the magus had her magical scimitar mended by Harsk and examined and identified the different weapons and artifacts we had gathered from the dead Grauls. From the loot, I took a ring of protection like my own which I tied into Dûath’s collar. I hoped it would serve my bold panther well in the coming battle.
Still wary of Drake I was planning to sleep with one eye open, but the day had been too eventful by half and my body was exhausted. With Dûath snoring and purring next to me, I wearily thought about my brother I was now certain was still alive. The campfire crackled peacefully, lighting faintly the interior of the barn and I eventually lulled into deeper slumber than I wanted.
The cart jolts, making them stagger. The road is rough, and will get rougher. Two boys, no older than eight, sit on in a small locked cage that the cart carries. Their arms and legs are chained together for the first time in their lives. The other, of jet-black hair and dark brown eyes, looks out into the forest they are crossing. The forest is familiar to the boy, but as they slowly trudge down the road the trees feel so distant and unknown to him. Standing there unmoving, to his tear-filled eyes they resemble people he has known for his entire life but have now turned their backs to the plight and fate of the young brothers. He wants to scream and shout at the forest, beg for its denizens to come and save them but the woods offer no solace, no compassion, and the boy believes he will not see his familiar green ever again. He turns to his brother of silver hair and shining blue eyes. He sits his head beneath his knees, and sobs silently. Their grandfather has told them that they are so alike that it is if they were looking at a mirror when facing each other. The boy does not know what a mirror is but a clear surface of a lake near their home has proven their grandfather true. But their grandfather has also told them that they are not alike. The boy with the jet-black hair is quieter, reserved, angry, smarter. The other, with the silver hair, is out-spoken, stronger, livelier and more sure of himself. Their mother calls them her silver sun and dark moon, and she loves them both equally and dearly. Their mother called them that, the jet-black-haired boy remembers, and in his sorrow he reaches to take his brother’s hand. The cart and the cage they are in jolts and trembles as it passes over the rough road.
My doubts were vindicated the next morning, of course.
The sun was already up behind the grey clouds of rain when Jakardros woke up with a startle. He realized quickly what had happened and cursed angrily. “That little cunt! He was supposed to wake me up!” Our campfire, covered by the canopy of the barn, was just a pile of smoking ash and Drake was nowhere to be seen. I repressed the urge to grin and say I told you so. Despite everything, I liked being right. I added Drake the betrayer to my mental list of people I would hunt down and kill, even though I knew well enough that Vale and Jakardros would personally lead the chase and exact justice when we’d found him.
Jakardros had slept in his armor like a proper ranger and took of running into the rain, leaving us without a word, Kibb the mountain lion at his heels. “What the devils”, Harsk spat and rose to a sitting position drowsily. I chuckled, still enjoying my vindication. “He ran after Drake who apparently has left us during his watch.” Then a cold shiver went through me and my smile died a quick death. Why did not he kill us while we slept? I imagined myself in his position, silently closing our mouths and slicing open our throats, one by one. It had to be the animals, he didn’t want to risk waking them up, I thought and with a pat offered a silent thank you to my panther.
Vale was furious. I thought it wiser not to gloat when the 250-pound bear of a man thrashed and cursed around the campfire of embers. The others were indifferent about Drake’s sudden departure, which frankly surprised and disconcerted me. I found myself feeling increasingly uncertain about my ad hoc companions – were they so confident of our ability to infiltrate the fort or were they shortsighted and plain dumb? Alone with my thoughts, I started to pack my few belongings and took a bite to eat from my trail rations.
After a while Vale finally calmed down and acquiesced to simply seethe in anger. Not before long the rough-edged hunt leader finally returned, soaked and disappointed. “I can’t find his tracks’, he reported crestfallen. In my corner I was counting my arrows, getting ready to move out and raised my voice. “If he’s half the ranger you speak of him, he knows how to hide them.” Jakardros nodded, agreeing. “Anyway”, I went on, “we have to assume we’ve now lost our element of surprise. That means that we have to alter our plan of attack.”
Jakardros looked at me with his one good eye. “What do you suggest, bounty hunter?” I saw no other way. “I’m assuming your friend has run off to warn Lucrezia, quite likely to the fort. He knows where we will attack. He also knows what route we’re not even considering. “Or I wasn’t considering, a bit self-centered trail of thought I admitted but not aloud. “The waterfall”, Harsk said, rubbing his chin and beard. ‘And we need to push the attack today”, Alfred added and I nodded. “Hear hear”, Vale grunted with palpable eagerness, his mouth full of bread Alfred and Shalelu had shared with him. Another man eager to die, I mused inwardly, taking note of another similarity between our sellsword and the brute ranger other than the love of axes.
So it was decided then. We left after a modest, quick trail breakfast. The rain paused for a moment – a lucky break if any – and we made straightest possible way towards our destination. Fort Rannick was only some four miles away and as Jakardros was explaining me the route, I had a curious realization. How had the Black Arrows suffered the presence of the Graul so close to them for months, years even? The rangers had had to know the forest and mountains around their little castle like the back of their hands. So why had they not burned the farmstead and its sick, twisted inhabitants to the ground earlier? It was not like the ogrekin had only recently moved to the place. Either the rangers lacked the courage or they really weren’t that professional. Or they were lax – and that same laxity had allowed treachery to take root within their numbers and ultimately doomed them. I did not know which was worst. And that Macharius had spent time with them.. Beneath my hood I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. But it was done now. The Graul would not slaughter one man, woman or child for their sick pleasure and hunger. Pacing through the rainswept forest behind the Black Arrows I felt oddly motivated about facing the Kreeg. Alfred, Alice, Harsk, Shalelu and I would finish the job the entire brotherhood of Black Arrows had never been able to.
A few hours of careful approach later we made way to an edge of forest and the stronghold came to our view in full. Lying prone side by side we assessed what we were seeing. There were no guards at the walls nor at the towers. the only ogres we could see were two smaller ogres armed with clubs and wearing nothing but rags, and one larger, fiercer armed with a nasty looking ogre hook and wearing thick hide armor. Alfred and I dubbed the big one instantly as a sergeant, a title to which Jakardros shrugged, finding it descriptive and true enough. They were all near the broken-open southern gate but well inside the fort itself and the sergeant was yelling at the other two in the language of ogres, clearly displeased with them. What mattered was that no-one was actively keeping an eye on the outside of the fort. This is even worse than in Thistletop, I smiled with satisfaction, remembering the drunk, undisciplined goblins there. Using the carelessness of the ogres to our advantage, we rapidly crossed the open plains across the southern side of the walls and regrouped near the waterfall under the protection of the foot of the mountain. Jakardros wanted to go have a look at the mouth of the cave hidden behind the falling water, and I volunteered to join him.
We circled the foot of the mountain to the waterfall and the pond beneath it. A narrow ledge of rock led along the side of the mountain, offering us a route to the storming waters. Secured to me with a thick rope, Jakardros dove first through them and into the beyond. I felt a tug and followed suit. Dripping with water I found myself in a dark cave. Thanks to my elven eyes I could see the old ranger smile contended. “What’s the matter?” I asked over the roar of the water. “Hmmh? Nothing. It’s just that I’ve never had to use this passage. I’m appreciating the irony that I’m here skulking like a stranger.” Quick to focus on the task at hand, he turned back to the waterfall. “Wait here, I’ll go get the others.”
The cave beyond the waterfall narrowed to a five-ten feet wide tunnel. I could not say whether it was purposefully dug or natural, but it appeared to be as hidden and seldom used as Jakardros had said. There were no lights or sconces for torches on the walls. It was completely dark save for some Alice’s rudimentary light magic shining off Alfred’s shield and my everburning torch. In the shield’s and the torch’s glow we walked down into the mountains expecting a trap or an ambush behind every corner.
Though nervewracking, we found nothing at first. We had made perhaps a hundred feet in the twisting and turning tunnel when Harsk spotted something in the wall next to him.
“Sweet goddess”, he exclaimed in surprise. I turned around to see him feel and push the solid-looking rock and to my astonishment the stone gave way and parted a bit. Shreds of daylight flooded the dark passage. Jakardros chuckled, a dry, near-empty laugh of a man who has lost nearly everything precious to him. “I thought I remembered hearing about the path having multiple exit points..” Harsk pushed the stone further and peered out through the opening. “There is a wooden building right before us, worn-out, hardly maintained. I think this is the inner yard between the walls and the keep”, the dwarf explained, keeping his voice down. From his position at the point of our sneaky procession, Jakardros shook his head. “You’re right. The building is our old barracks, one we were planning to replace due to its condition. Simply put, it is a death-trap waiting to happen.” You don’t say, I grinned. I moved next to Harsk and matter-of-factly told everyone I’d have a look outside. Hearing no protests, I pulled my cloak of elvenkind fully over me and pushed myself through the gap between stones.
I dropped a feet or so and immediately browsed my surroundings. I was in a narrow space between the sharply rising mountain foot and and the barracks. The building itself was elevated, supported by several wooden beams that lifted the bottom of the house three feet off the ground. I crouched down and had a look of the yard. There were no other ogres present but the three guarding the southern gate. The sergeant was still lecturing and beating the other two ogres, so they did not see me crouching in the shadows only fifty or so feet away. Up that close I took my time assessing our enemies. They were easily taller and more massive than the ogrekin we had ran into earlier, a good ten feet tall every one of them. They were ugly and hideous, and managed to look dumb as nails and deadly to boot at the same time. From Jakardros I had heard that the ogres, while undisciplined, still had a rigid caste-hierarchy based on physical strength and martial prowess. Given that the other ogres where hardly armed and equipped, I surmised that the sergeant ogre was the threat – and what ever stood above it in the hierarchy. I clenched my fists in anticipation. I would enjoy learning to hunt and kill them as efficiently as possible.
I had never been in an army, but the empty yard surprised me. There were a few small buildings at the sides of the walls, but nothing else. No tents in rows. No scores of ogres. That meant a few things. First, ogres did not seem to like the rain as little as we did. Second, their numbers were limited. The keep and buildings, built for men, could house only that many ogres.
Cussing and laughter brought me from my thoughts. The sounds were coming from the barracks so I raised my hands and willed my strange leather gloves to let me see inside. The wall disappeared before my eyes and the sounds became clear. Four ogres, all armed with crude wooden clubs and mauls were sitting on a bloodied floor, talking in their ugly language. Two of them were chewing on long bones with raw meat still clinging to them. I immediately identified them as human thigh bones. In disgust, I let my palms off the board wall and moved further along it. After a few magical peeks I estimated that there were at least ten of the brutes inside in different dormitories. The barracks itself was indeed in lousy condition, ripe for demolition. And a death trap, with windows too small for ogres and as far as I could see only one exit.
I squeezed back into the mountain and made my report. Alfred was first to suggest burning the barracks and the enemies within. “What would you use to light the fire”, I asked the sellsword. The fire would need to be powerful to have the desired effect, and there were still ogres nearby, deeming setting the house on fire from multiple points too risky. “My everburning torch and arrows would not work”, I added. “The wood used in the barracks is quite flammamble”, Jakardros noted us. Alfred shrugged. “I have normal torches, let’s use them”, he said simply as if that settled it. Knowing full well that it would fall to me to perform the arseny, I was yet not satisfied. “You think that’s enough? I can light the place up from one side only, given the guards. The fire will spread slowly and if the ogres smell trouble, then they’ll just get out.” Alfred gestured dismissal. “The man said it’s rotten and flammable.” But I was still uncertain. We knew there was a considerable number of ogres still alive. I wanted to maximize the casualties if were we to give up our element of surprise. “Is it even wise to give up our position by torching it, I-“, but I never got to finish when Alice snapped, her tone dripping frustration. “Just get the damn house on fire and we’ll continue in the mountain!” I turned to her and narrowed my eyes. So Garnet’s lapdog has some character, I thought. She had been quiet all the way from Magnimar, content with our progress undoubtedly. But I hated being pushed. She’d been force-fed to us in Magnimar, and she had been prodding us to leave ever since she had joined. But meeting her angry gaze, I realized this was something different. Was she nervous?
I opened my mouth to say something but decided it was not worth it. I turned around, took two lit torches from Alfred and returned out between the rocks.
The ogres outside were completely oblivious to my fireplay. I could have quite possibly sneaked to them and lighted their rags. Like Jakardros had promised, the underside of the barracks quickly caught fire and I disappeared from sight.
Hurrying, we pushed forward into the bowels of the mountain. We didn’t get far before we made contact with something. “Movement!” Alfred half-whispered, half-shouted. We halted in unison. “Stand down”, Jakardros told us and shook his head, “they’re just shocker lizards. There’s bound to be a colony of them before us.” The mercenary went wide-eyed. “A what?” Jakardros briefly told us that long time ago a pet lizard or two of some nameless ranger had fled into the caves, and multiplied. Something in their environment had turned them into shock lizards, making them electric and giving them the ability to shock anyone threatening with their tails. “They rarely venture from their caves, and generally are not hostile”, he added. “Lovely”, I muttered and we crept forward, letting the weird things size of a dog scuttle away from us.
The passage soon separarated into many and we found ourselves in the middle of their colony. The lizards had nowhere to retreat anymore. There were so many of them around us in the caverns that instead of scurrying away, they became warier. I saw piles of eggs lying here and there. “Don’t get too close to the nests, and don’t get between the females and the nests either”, Jakardros warned us softly as he took a careful step. Great, how the hell could I recognize a female, I cursed to myself, minding my steps. Our progress slowed to a crawl as everyone followed the old ranger and tried their best not to disturb the lizards. Ultimately Alfred sighed and came to the conclusion I had been pondering as well. “I can’t see a way out that doesn’t take us next to a nest”, he whispered aloud and looked around one final time. “It’s a fight or we find another route into the keep.”
Everybody looked around mimicking the sellsword – a humorous sight – and personally assessed the challenge. It was Harsk who came up with an idea. A really weird idea. That sort of idea that one always comes to regret. A type of idea that started one of the strangest trail of events I had ever seen in my young life.
“What if we flood the caverns”, he suggested.
My face formed a large what-question and I turned to the cleric to see whether he was serious or not. Alfred guffawed irritably like he always did.
Harsk was being serious. “I could try a spell, but we’d have to get out naturally”, the bearded holy man was explaining with a playful smile on an otherwise straight face. I started to form a question and opened my mouth to voice it but Alfred was first, guffawing. “You’d drown the shocker lizards?”
Harsk nodded. Alice was absentmindedly examining the blade of her scimitar I had seen burst with the energies of lightning. “I wonder what a massive amount of water would do to them and their electric skins”, she muttered aloud. Jakardros, Vale and Shalelu all made a kind of an collective shrug, so no-one was really objecting his idea. Jakardros in particular seemed at that point content in acting as our guide into the keep rather than taking command of the infiltration.
I was still too baffled to say anything. I closed my mouth. It was settled.
We turned at our heels and made our way back all the to the waterfall and out of it. Outside, we could see a plume of smoke rising over the outer wall. The old barracks had caught fire, it seemed, and was burning fiercely. The ogres were shouting and grunting, and based on the commotion there was know a much larger number of their kind at the inner yard. There was no turning back any more.
But the burning barracks offered Harsk a distraction he needed to perform his trick. He exited the cave last through the storming waters, got to a safe distance and turned to face the waterfall. Closing his eyes, he murmured a few words and gestured with his hand. The surface of the pond where the falling waters hit started to rise slowly first, then faster. It was like someone had placed a ten feet wide disc right beneath the surface. All the water flowed into the pond, but when the magically rising water reached the level of the cave mouth, majority of it started to pour into the hidden cave. Barrels of it fell every second but it was obvious too little to quickly fill the caverns.
Finally I willed myself to say something – the obvious. “It’ll take too long.”
Harsk furrowed, clearly displeased. “I don’t know what we’re aiming to achieve here”, I added the half-statement-half-question. I was coming to my senses, trying to think of a new plan now that the secret cavern passages had been denied to us. Alfred said something to Harsk, I didn’t hear what, and got an irritated response from Alice. She was anxious for us to advance.
Without consulting anyone and continuing his line of befuddling, reckless moves, Harsk suddenly lifted from the ground and started to hover towards the wall. “Harsk!” Alfred called at the dwarf, not angrily really but with the tone one uses to ask someone to wait up. Perplexed, I found myself unable to talk again. What was wrong with the dwarf, I wondered. Was someone playing tricks with the cleric’s head, just like at the Foxglove Mansion?
“I’m getting over that wall!” Harsk yelled back at us, completely unconcerned about the fact there was a band of murderous ogres at the other side. I prayed he wouldn’t hover over the wall close to the southern gate and reveal our position. But he didn’t – apparently he had that much sense left in him. Keeping his head under the edge, he flew along the wall north-east. Alfred took of running along the river that had lost a lot of its current. The rangers followed him. Alice shrugged, gestured and murmured something and took off hovering as well.
I just watched them all flying and sprinting behind the little hovering cleric. At the other side of the wall the fire grew hungrier, and the hooting and yelling of the ogres was mixed with cries of pain.
We’re all going to die today, I thought, took a firmer grip of the Carmine Avenger, and ran after them.
Eventually, Harsk and Alice led us to the north-eastern corner of the wall which we were supposed to use originally. With the ogres, a more than a dozen or so, all concentrated on the burning barracks, we got over the broken wall and gate without been seen. We approached the keep house by house, staying behind storagerooms, a stable and a building according to Jakardros was the new barracks. Reaching the keep and scaling its 30-feet walls was child’s play. Our arseny proved to be a wonderful distraction, and I could even see ogres trying to get out of the small windows, ending up stuck and burning alive. The sight made me smile.
Up at the keep walls we were presented with options how to proceed. The walls themselves were too narrow for ogres to traverse, so we could safefully walk between towers and climb down from each if we wanted. Dropping down from the wall was an option – but we did not see any means to exit the roof, though Vale mentioned a door behind the main tower that would lead out of the roof. There was a large circular main tower at the center of the keep, and on its side, an even higher lookout tower. A dead ogre soldier was hung with a hook from its side as a warning, to either hinder any invaders or maintain the discipline of the ogres.
Deciding it was my time to show some ballsy initiative without asking anyone’s opinion, I leaped from the wall to the side of the lookout tower and pulled myself up. That drew a mutter of complaints from the dwarf who I knew was not nimble and acrobatic. Unless he was falling down and performing three-point landings, that is. Or magically flying. Dûath regarded me curiously, a surprisingly human expression, and leaped after me, easily making the ten feet high jump with his powerful hind-legs.
After everyone had got up to the top of the lookout tower, Jakardros went to a latch, opened it and told us what to expect beneath.
“The main tower beneath us has one floor and five rooms – we’ll enter a storage room, then move to a tribunal. There we’ll find doors to a map room and to a corridor that leads to the Commander’s quarters, a chapel and to another staircase.” I nodded seriously. “We can expect anything then.” That made Alfred guffaw. “We can expect a fight!”
We ascended the circling stone staircase down two levels. Equipped with my magical fingerless gloves I was at point with the sellsword. As the old ranger had promised, we found a door and I had a look through. The small storage room beyond was empty save for broken, upside down crates and other junk. The ogres had been there rummaging. We entered silently and gathered around the second door that we knew led to the tribunal – a conference room for the Black Arrow officers. In the glow of a few burning torches on the walls, I could see everyone tightening and becoming more concentrated, even the jolly sellsword was looking serious. I had a look through and grimaced.
At the other side, two ogre warriors, the lowest kind, were driving nails and hooks through dead human bodies and hanging them up to the ceiling. The conference table at the middle of the room was covered in blood and more dripped down from numerous carcasses already in place. They were chatting idly in their ugly language as they worked, like the atrocity they were performing was a chore to them. I clenched my teeth in anger and felt Dûath hiss and growl in sympathethic rage behind me. I let go of the wall and told them what I had seen between my teeth. Vale almost exploded in violence right there, and Jakardros simply told us to kill them without mercy. Alfred kicked in the door and the bloodshed began in earnest.
Alfred was first to enter, and Vale was determined not to miss the party. Our surprise attack was only halfly successful as both of the ogres quickly turned from their bloody work to meet our blades and arrows. The sellsword chose the closest ogre as his prey while the dark-skinned brute stormed across the room towards the other. For his efforts he received a head of a wooden club to his jaw, while Alfred in his excitement managed to hack an innocent chair into splinters. The ogre had bought itself a second by pushing it to a slide towards the fighter, but Alfred recovered and slammed the beast with his spiky shield with unbelieavable momentum, taking its feet beneath it. The pale-faced magus was right behind him with the cleric, and they expediently stabbed and slashed the helpless prone ogre to death. The ogre that had been insolent enough to hurt Vale badly succumbed to Jakardros’ and my arrows and died without making a sound.
The tribunal was taken within seconds and no alarm was made. Harsk helped Vale reposition his dislocated jaw and with his healing magic closed any remaining wounds.
I had to admire Jakardros’s resolve as he paced through the room without looking up at the numerous corpses nailed into the ceiling. Undoubtedly he knew every one of the dead but he remained stoic and concentrated and did not linger to mourn them. When he approached me, I was in the adjacent map room, biding my time as Harsk mended Vale.
“You might find something on Macharius here, or in the Commander’s notebook, if you’re lucky”, he added the last when he saw the mess the ogres had created. Everywhere in the map room were shredded papers, torn from books and folders. I knew paper was expensive and the amount the ogres had ruined was bewildering. Jakardros sighed when he took in what he was seeing. I could only imagine the practical value of maps and notes that had been drawn and prepared over the years, now destroyed. I found some random maps, describing secret routes in Viperwall and Riddleport, two Varisian cities whose names I knew, and Lurkwood, a forest in north-western Varisia I remembered seeing in my map of the region. But it would take me hours, days to search the mess of papers for any documents or notes regarding my missing twin brother.
But before that, we had a fight to finish. No-one didn’t consider our operation as an infiltration or a rescue mission anymore. The horrors the ogres had unleashed, the hung corpses being possibly only the introduction, was something that required bloodshed in equal measure. The shedding of ogre blood. And Lucrezia’s, I reminded myself, and for a passing moment my mind recalled Ilori’s dead boy on the stairwell in the clocktower in Magnimar.
There was a double wooden door leading out from the tribunal to the corridors outside. We gathered once more behind the mass. I looked that everyone was ready, pressed my palms on the door.
The corridor beyond was empty, eerily so. I couldn’t first hear a thing, but then my ears caught something approaching. Slow, determined steps, coming from the right, outside my field of vision. I had to let go but my picked up a voice of a woman calling for someone. She was just outside, banging with her fist on the door of the room Jakardros had informed was the chapel. She was talking in the language of the giants. Jakardros translated what she was saying in his low voice. She complaining to Jaagrath about massive amounts of water pouring into her chambers and of all the damage his underlings had done, the old ranger said, and the response boomed through the walls. Vale shivered when he heard the name and the voice of the ogre. “It’s the leader of the tribe”, he whispered to us. For all his bravado, courage and strength the immincence of facing the head of the ogre tribe made him pause. Alfred smiled at that. “Cut of the head and all that nonsense”, he said and winked to the brute. I was still contemplating the woman. “What kind of a woman could be running with the ogres”, I said aloud, but the answer was obvious of course. It was Lucrezia. It had to be. Kill first ask questions later, I mused to myself. It had worked well enough with Tsuto Kaijitsu.
“Let’s get this over with then”, Alfred stated matter-of-factly and kicked open the door beside him. Alice was next to him, brandishing her scimitar, and shouldered the other door open.
As they emerged into the corridor, they were faced with a beautiful, mysterious woman. No serpent’s tail then, I thought to myself as I followed right at their backs.
The woman, a lady really, given her exquisite clothing and regal manner, turned to see us rush in and smiled venomously. “Ah, what an handsome hero emerges. A delightful surprise!” She saw Alice behind Alfred. “And you brought a lady-friend with you!”
Alfred was quickly upon Lucrezia but his swing went wide. Alice gracefully stepped next to the mistress and her aim was true. The scimitar crackled with the powers of lightning and she cut our quarry. “I’m no-one’s lady-friend”, she spat.
The rest of us poured into the corridors. Harsk went in third and swooped between Alfred’s legs before driving his longword into the woman. Once more I had to admire his dexterity that defied all reason. Shalelu put three arrows into her body for emphasis. The lady snorted, but I could sense her brewing alarm at our ability to harm her. She stepped back from the onslaught, and began to whirl around unstoppably. In seconds, her form begun to change to something I, Alfred and Harsk recognized. So there’s the serpent’s tail, I cursed as I saw her legs magically curl around each other, stretch and change colour. It was Lucrezia, our target and the reason we had travelled across Varisia. My quarry. From my position at the doors, I pulled two arrows and nocked them.
The old peasant shooks his head and tells his grandson to be still. With loving patience, he urges him to draw a breath and hold it before letting go of the arrow, and not to wait too long. Be confident, he says. Be swift with you movements, he reminds him. Like he has done a hundred times before. The boy’s whole body shakes as he tries to pull back the 20 pound draw with his skinny arms and still remain balanced enough to shoot accurately.
This is for Ilori, I whispered and let go a duo of arrows. They covered the distance, 30 feet or so, faster than it takes to blink, but managed only to brush the skin of the whirling serpent woman before exploding with magical fire. I exclaimed in anger and automatically nocked a third arrow and wasting no time, like I had been trained, shot it. Fire blossomed like a beautiful flower at her center mass and she shrieked in pain.
The fight had barely started and the corridor had become awfully full. Jakardros ducked below my line of arrows and tried to add to the rain of arrows but missed badly. Lucrezia was quickly realizing the extent of the threat we presented, and with increased urgency, yelled for help in Giant while she fought to keep Alfred, Harsk and Alice off her.
Her calls were answered.
Next to Alice, a set of doubledoors that led to the chapel – the same Lucrezia had been slamming – were pulled open and the largest ogre I had ever seen stepped to the doorway. He, undoubtedly Jaagrath himself, was wearing only a loincloth and little in the way of an armor. His hair was jet-black, just like mine, and his beady red eyes stared with an everhunger for battle and cruelty. His hands and mouth were covered in blood, but it was not his – apparently we had interrupted his breakfast. When I saw what he was brandishing in a fist that was the size of a human head, I was about to shout a warning to Alice but the hulking monster was quicker.
He slashed with a massive ogre hook at Alice and almost took her head off right there. As it cut air and Alice I heard the hook wail with the sound of hundreds of dying humans. I was shocked. What kind of weapon is that?
The force of the blow threw the pale-faced magus to the ground like a sack of meat. Next to me, the old ranger roared the ogre leader’s name. Looking down at us like we were interesting ants, the hulking beast stepped forward and issued a command in Giant. A coarse laughter boomed in the corridors and a second door opened behind us. From the Commander’s quarter, another ogre appeared at a doorway, this one somewhat smaller than Jaagrath but as fierce. Instead of having a normal jaws, this one sported an leather harness with iron jaws that clacked when they opened and closed.
He had a fitting if unimaginary name. “Hookmaw!” Jakardros exclaimed again as a way of warning before the second ogre’s hook shredded the front of his leather armor and bit into his chest. He took a hasty step back in pain and commanded his mountain lion to challenge Hookmaw. I did the same with Dûath and the ogre found himself unable to join the fight as two growling and clawing big cats barred his way.
Vale had bid his time but he finally left the tribunal. Gripping Peace and Love, the brute of a ranger stormed directly at Jaagrath. Before the gigantic ogre he looked like a small boy but by Starfall he was fearless. Peace hacked at the ogre but the monstrosity easily parried with his magical hook. Unnatural cries of people filled the corridor when the two weapons connected.
With Jaagrath’s attention at Vale, Alice pulled herself out of harm’s way, but not before inflicting a serious wound onto the ogre leader’s thigh with her crackling scimitar. But it was too little – I realized the ogre could end us all with a few of such strikes before we managed to bring him down. Harsk and Alfred were still locked in melee with Lucrezia, but Shalelu concentrated on Jaagrath. Her aim was true and over the commotion of battle she yelled to me to focus on the ogre leader. But he was not my target, I thought, drawing back the bow. Time seemed to slow down as I frantically considered my options. In my grip the Carmine Avenger glowed like it had never glowed before, a bright carmine red as was its name. I felt it almost tremble, a suppressed scream demanding us to slay the serpent woman and exact vengeance.
I resisted its call and I turned my aim slightly to the left before letting my arrows fly at Jaagrath. They exploded on the monster’s chest right above Vale’s head. The dark-skinned ranger flinched and covered his face, but Jaagrath threw his hands wide apart and bellowed in rage. My arrows had hurt him but also made him that more furious. Alice had wisely stepped aside but that left Alfred’s flank exposed. The leader of the ogre clan let out a second bellow and slammed down with his mighty fist. It connected with Alfred’s heavy mithral armor and pushed the sellsword to his knees with a toll that reminded me of the bells in Magnimar. Alfred, violently drawn away from close combat with Lucrezia, had the reflexes to bring his shield up but it was a futile effort. Undercutting with his nightmarish hook, Jaagrath brought the hook up. It’s tip brushed the shield aside and dug deep into Alfred’s abdomen. But it did not stop there. The momentum of the hook was such that it ripped all the way up into his chest. Blood and intestines showered from the poor man and his roar of pain joined the wail of the hundreds the hook had killed before. His axe slipped from his fingers and clanged down to the floor. The sellsword was hanging from the hook like a piece of meat and Jaagrath lifted him up like he weighed nothing, bringing his head right to his own face. The ogre leader smiled as he examined his latest kill. “I can smell your pain little one. I’ll add it to my collection”, he told the sellsword who was wriggling like a fish in a hook, coughing blood and literally leaking his shredded guts out.
But he never got to finish the sellsword. Instead, Vale doubled his efforts and leaped on the monstrosity. His axes hacked and slashed. Bits of ogre meat and blood flew everywhere and Jaagrath was forced to let go off his prize. Alfred fell to the floor onto a pool of his own blood, lifeless.
Vale gave Alice an opening to act, again. But this time the pale-faced magus did not retreat. Horrified at Alfred’s fate, she summoned whatever fatal magics she commanded into her scimitar, stepped toward Jaagrath and executed a single swing. I hate to admit it but it was almost perfect. I don’t think the lumbering ogre even saw it coming but as it struck, my ears buzzed, the hair on my neck stood up and I smelled a weird odour in the air. Then, fast as a beam of light, a pop, then a thunder that deafened us all momentarily. I blinked my eyes to see and as I did, I saw a huge steaming rent across the ogre’s side.
His hook slipped from his fist, and with that, the cacophony of dying, terrified humans ended. The ogre leader fell down backwards like an oak and remained there on the floor unmoving.
Seeing his ally perish, Lucrezia sneered in disgust, unbelief and panic and started to slither away. Harsk was the only one remaining in combat with her, and I shouted the cleric to stay with her, to bring her down, anything. But Harsk never did like to see his companions bleed to death. Instead of heeding my commands, he let the serpent woman go and kneeled next to Alfred.
The sellsword had stopped breathing. His mouth was lolling, and there was an empty stare in his eyes. The little cleric closed his, muttered a short prayer and lowered his palms on the mercenary veteran’s ruined torso. The dance of Harsk’s healing powers was as beautiful as ever, but I had to time to enjoy it. Our quarry was running away from us, and I was the only one unwilling to let her go.
As the combat still raged with Hookmaw, I ran down the hallway to the mouth of a staircase where Lucrezia had escaped. But the staircase – a straight, narrow path down – was empty. She was already within the bowels of the keep and I didn’t want to risk running after her alone. Fucking fuck. Our commotion was surely drawing the rest of the ogres to our location, I thought, turned and sank one arrow at Hookmaw across the hallway as an afterthought. Dûath finished the beast with leaping and catching his open throat. The panther thrashed with force equal to the ogre’s and almost ripped the ogre’s head off its shoulders.
Jaagrath and Hookmaw put out of their misery, there was one more ogre remaining. She, called Dorella, was a magic-wielder and seer, and a mother figure to the Kreeg clan.
Alone and cornered in the Commander’s quarters, she quickly met the violent, bloody fate she had evaded too long.
As she was being killed, I heard Lucrezia yell at the remaining ogres downstairs with an authoritative voice. Harsk was still mending Alfred, who had come back to us and was cursing and spitting blood in equal measure. I kept an eye on the stairs. “They’ll be here soon”, I stated, hearing the bellows of the ogres nearing. Alfred pushed the cleric aside and got to his feet, telling him he was fine. “Let’s kill them then”, he responded as matter-of-factly and grimaced in pain. He was still hurt but I had to admire his perseverance and the fact that he so undauntedly prepared for another fight right after being almost killed.
Harsk shook his head at Alfred and behind us, Dorella let out her last dying scream. As if following a cue, the first ugly ogre head appeared around the corner downstairs. I welcomed it with an arrow to the face. “They’re here”, I reported and nocked another arrow nonchalantly. Alfred moved in front of me and brandished his axe and shield. “Come on then!” He taunted, and spat a gobbet of blood to his feet.
The ogre, a mere foot soldier of the clan, pushed itself into the staircase. Designed for man-sized creatures, it was all too narrow for its hulking form but still it came up, keeping its shoulders low and sideways to us. Alfred laughed at its attempt to challenge us, a feeble swing of a wooden club that struck Alfred’s shield, and hacked twice with his battle-axe in return. The other hit the lumbering beast nicely on the neck and its severed head bounced down the stairs. I thought it an apt warning sign for the others waiting below, but the ogres were a dumb and thickheaded folk and more came at us. Alfred kept guffawing. “Welcome”, he taunted and turned his head to me and winked. “There’s more traffic here than in a whorehouse!” Despite being vexed about Lucrezia’s escape, I had to smile. Not at his quirky remark, but the ironic fact that his mouth and gums were bloody, just like Jaagrath’s had been.
At the hallway, Jakardros emerged from the Commander’s quarters. “We’ve killed almost all of the leading ogres of the Kreeg clan”, he exclaimed and could not hide the pride in his tone. “The fight’s not over!” Alfred yelled back. Harsk had joined us at the line at the top of the staircase. Between us three, we barred the staircase and formed a deadly bottleneck. “They’d run if they wouldn’t be so stubborn”, Jakardros added. “Let’s cut the big one’s head and throw it down the stairs”, I suggested and killed another ogre at the foot of the stairs with a duo of arrows to its thick head. Lucrezia could have escaped but gods I relished killing the hideous man-eaters. I started to understand why Macharius had spent time with the Black Arrows, despite their obvious lack of professionalism.
I was nocking yet another pair of arrows when we heard a particularly blood-chilling roar from downstairs and a rugged ogre as large as Hookmaw appeared and pushed himself through the mass of dead ogres up towards us. I say rugged but that is an understatement. Half of the ogre’s face was free of skin, and the raw meat and bone was visible. Why was half of his face shaven clean off, I wondered and took aim. The half-face ogre ducked right on time and my arrows flew right above it, hitting an ogre soldier behind it. It followed its evasion with a powerful sideways swing of a hook that hit both Harsk and Alfred. The blade of the hook hit Harsk in his helmet and accidentally shoved it so low that it covered the dwarf’s entire field of vision. “Not again!”, Harsk cursed and tried to pull the helmet off his eyes. The hook also hit Alfred past his stout defences and into his side. He roared in pain and irritation. “Gah, the only place I haven’t been struck today!”
The forward momentum and brute strength of the half-faced ogre was such that it was almost crashing through our wall. Vale and Shalelu both sprinted to our aid, Vale filling the hole blind Harsk had left and Shalelu joining me behind the close-quarters fighters. The sellsword gathered himself and rampaged into a series of wild axe swings and shield slams, and was able to trip the 500 pound monstrosity of its feet. The stairs made slick by ogre blood and entrails did help, naturally. It rolled out of Alfred’s reach and stood up, furious but reeling. It’s end was near but it was not backing down.
“Five gold pieces that you can’t finish it”, I said to Shalelu who took aim beside me. She shook her head seriously and shot it, a beautiful hit that pierced the ogre’s right eye and burrowed into its head. But it did not die.
I snorted and put another arrow through its left eye. Finally it had the decency to fall over and leave this world for good.
The fighting ended suddenly and there were no other ogres trying their luck. We let our guard down a bit, and I left the bottleneck.
As I pulled my arrows off Jaagrath’s dead body, I surveyed the ranger’s chapel. I was not a religious type so I could not recognize the symbols of different deities (except for Iomedae’s which I knew was the longsword, thanks to my time with Harsk). But the chapel was free of any symbols. Or instead, all were ruined or covered with torn or cut pieces of humans, giant eagles and horses. On the walls Jaagrath and his clan had hung human and animal heads. There was even a statue of a deity with its head struck off, and on its stead was a half-rotten human head. Venting my hatred, I spat on Jaagrath’s body and cursed his soul and all of his kin.
The commotion had moved outside of the keep. Either Lucrezia was leading them out of the fort in retreat or they were reforming at the courtyard for another go. I listened more closely and it sounded more like a panic, I had to admit.
Alice walked to us at the hallway and I realized I had not seen her during the last combat. She was still hurt from the vicious blow courtesy of Jaagrath, and she had probably been healing herself while we finished the fight. I was about to comment when she approached with a sneer. “How long are you cleaning up the staircase”, she asked, quirkily. Alfred guffawed and retorted. “What, did the pretty girl lose her wits? We’ve been working our butts off like a team of lumberjacks, right Vale? Harsk?” Vale let out a rumble – a joyless laugh – while Harsk just shook his head and brushed ogre blood off his beard. The pale-faced magus stuck out her tongue at Alfred.
Shalelu was still at the top of the stairs and sighed overtly, and went to Alice to take her away by the arm. “There’s too much manly energies here, let’s go somewhere to get you properly healed.”
The comment made Alfred snort. “Anyone willing to get back up the lookout tower to see what’s happening outside”, he asked no-one in particular after a moment. I was examining the death blow Alice had dealt to Jaagrath, and nodded, though the sellsword didn’t see it. “I’ll go”, I said simply and walked away. As I went through where we had come, I saw Jakardros check the rooms and the dead human bodies, probably looking for his commander.
I paced up to the top of the tower. It was well past midday and the sun was at its apex. Lucrezia was nowhere to be seen. The old barracks still burned, but there was no more movement inside. Instead, a dozen or so ogres, soldier- and sergeant types from the look of theirs, were still present at the courtyard. They weren’t mustering or reforming – they lacked the discipline for that even though the sergeants were smacking and yelling at the more numerous soldiers – but they weren’t loitering either. They were uncertain, and I decided to fuel that uncertainty.
The closest ogre was a hundred and fifty feet away or so, but I felt confident. I nocked an arrow, aimed and let it fly. Over the yard I heard the grunt of pain and the ogre stumbled to its knees, a smoking, gaping wound on its back. A few of the ogre soldiers flinched and made a hasty retreat away from their fallen brother, only to be violently disciplined by the sergeants for their lack of bravery. One of the sergeants lifted its beady eyes and spotted me at the lookout tower. With its meaty fist it gestured at me angrily. I replied with a throat-cutting gesture and left the lookout tower, quite pleased with myself.
At the main tower, Vale and Jakardros were still going through the remains of their brothers-in-arms. The rest were looting the dead ogres for anything valuable. I told them what I had seen – no further fight was to be expected.
Something drew my eyes as I passed the door leading to the Commander’s chambers and went in. Alice was going through the equipment Dorella had been gathering and evidently had not spotted what I had seen. An open lead box hidden under a pile of books and fallen shelves. It was a deposit box with a lock, but its contents were almost spilling out.
I lowered to one knee and pushed the junk off it, and making sure Alice wasn’t looking, searched the box.
Inside there were unsigned letters – love letters, actually – to someone called Myriana. I randomly chose one and read a passage.
“Blinded when it spied her dancing on the tarn, the truest grace to know Whitewillow’s soft embrace”.
Ugh, so awful and cheesy, I furrowed and stopped reading. Apparently the Commander was a moon-lighting poet. But who was this Myriana? Just an innocent woman, or perhaps an agent of Lucrezia? A lover sent to charm and spy on the Commander? Maybe she had been a part of the surprise attack against Fort Rannick? Questions reeled in my head as I put down the letters and examined the next item, a silver jewel box. Inside there was a silver circlet with a tuft of remarkably smooth golden hair on it. Fey hair, I suddenly realized, having seen some in my earlier trips around Lake Encarthan. Hadn’t the halfling brothers told us about feys living in nearby Sanos forest when we had sailed up river Yondabakari? Maybe the hair was Myriana’s? I secreted the circlet and the hair to my pockets, kept one of the letters in my hand and got up.
Jakardros and Vale returned and they looked grim. “There’s no sign of the Commander”, Jakardros reported. The news was neither good or bad, I surmised. I showed them the letter, and asked what was Whitewillow and if Myriana was a familiar name. The latter was unknown to them, but Vale told me former was a location in the middle of a notable swamp west of Turtleback Ferry, called Shimmerglens, at the border of Sanos forest. I told them about my suspicion that Myriana was a fey. Neither of them were willing to speculate, and Jakardros only confirmed that Shimmerglens was known to be populated by the fey.
With the main tower searched, we ventured down the stairs over the bodies of ogres. The sight was not likeable. There were dead rangers lying along the corridors, in the rooms. Some were stuffed into barrels. All were mutilated. It was a charnel house, and it reminded me of Graul farmstead, sans the everpresent stench of shit. We went room by room. One, a blacksmith’s workshop by the look of it, was completely stormed. A head of a man sat on the middle of the room, and it had been used as a paint brush. One of the ogres apparently knew how to write Giant, as the walls of the workshop were adorned with texts written with blood.
In another room, an armory, I refilled by arrow vine and stuffed a fur to my backpack. “It’ll be winter soon”, I said in a way of explanation to Harsk, who regarded a set of longswords fastened to a sword rack. He chose one and lifted it away. “I don’t think the rangers won’t mind me taking one back to the boys at my temple in Sandpoint”, he said too, in a way of explanation. I shrugged, and took with me half a dozen of arrows that had been specifically marked.
Shouting from the staircase interrupted our looting and we made quick way back. The Black Arrows had found something.
“The dungeons, they’re flooded”, Vale exclaimed and pointed to a storage room adjacent to the staircase. Within, there was another set of stairs that led underground. But they were now impassable as they were full of water.
It didn’t take a smart person to understand what had happened here and where the water was from. “What was in there”, I asked Vale. He shook his head sadly. “The dungeons. We were hoping some of our brothers were held in there but..” He left the obvious unsaid.
“Oh no, sweet goddess Iomedae I am so sorry”, Harsk whispered and covered his mouth with his hands. The water Harsk had directed into the mountain had chased Lucrezia out of her temporary chambers, but it had also filled the dungeons. Any documents or clues to Lucrezia’s motives, about her soul stealing, were ruined and drowned, as were any Black Arrows who had been imprisoned. It left us all speechless. A dark shroud of sorrow fell upon us.
I turned and left without saying a word. I made my way through the lower level to the main entrance. I stepped over the broken-in and shattered oak timbers that had made the inner gate and surveyed the yard.
Outside, it had started to rain again, and the raindrops were slowly putting out the fire of the old barracks. The ogres had left, their trails clearly visible in the sand. I spotted Lucrezia’s serpent’s tail’s marks on the sand as well. She had made her way to the southern gate. We would have to hunt her, and to finish what we had started.
I returned inside, and found the others sitting silently in a mess hall. It had been cleaned of human remains, but there was still blood everywhere. Some where having, or tried to have, something to eat. At the doorway, I cleared my throat. “We’ve taken Fort Rannick”, I informed the sullen, silent crowd. Noting that no-one really gave a damn, I took a seat on one of the tables next to Alfred and the rangers.
“Now what”, I asked everyone. I might have been blatantly disrespectful of their loss, but godsdammit, we had a hunt still unresolved. As a response, Jakardros produced a small notebook from under his cloak and pushed it across the table to me.
“There’s the Commander’s notebook. It has a passage on every ranger that has served in the Brotherhood. You’ll find one on Macharius there”, he explained. I went wide-eyed in utter amazement. I forgot everything else and with a hand that shook discernibly, I lifted the book.
I remembered why I had escaped the clutches of slavery and why I had travelled across Golarion.
I remembered a promise I had made to a beautiful girl, hanging by her window’s edge, on the midnight I had to leave her.
I was filled with such anticipation that I didn’t notice Harsk was nowhere to be seen.