A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that became two books

30. Kill the serpent, seize the throne.. and live to tell the tale

5th of Neth – Moonday – 44th day in Varisia

Outside Fort Rannick

My grandfather was a simple peasant. He worked with his hands and them only, but he also was great storyteller thanks to his years in the Imperial Governor’s army and his excellent memory. When we were little, he used to tell me and my brother hero and horror stories. My favourites were the tales about the Shining Crusade against the Whispering Tyrant, Tar-Baphon. A thousand or two years ago the evil wizard-lich had rallied a force of orcs and invaded and then occupied Ustalan, a land across Lake Encarthan to Molthune, for six centuries, turning it into a hell on Golarion. The Shining Crusade was a story of great battles, tide-turning victories, painful defeats and godlike heroics – how the dwarfes and the Knights of Ozem, led by no-other than then mortal Iomedae herself, had come to save Ustalan, fight the Whispering Tyrant and finally imprison him.

In a tale of heroes that the goddess Iomedae herself would have been proud of, we turned and hurried to Turtleback Ferry, saved a lot of folks from drowning in the flash flood and killed an ancient sea monster called Black Magga.

But we weren’t characters of an epic hero story told to little boys. Instead, we were hell-bent on exacting murderous revenge on a clan of man-eating ogres and a mysterious serpent woman who had allied with them and was intent on gathering greedy souls for the rise of her Lord, whoever that was. While Iomedae possibly did not approve of our decision, I felt we had bigger fish to catch. Even bigger than an ancient sea monster. And so did apparently everybody else feel as well.

He arrived tired and soaked to Fort Rannick in the cusp of the evening, when day finally gave up to night. We told what had happened at the swamps and to Turtleback Ferry, and neither of the Black Arrows were in a hurry to go help the people of the little town.

So much for their loyalties and the founding principles of the Black Arrows, I mused.

Evidently, they were more keen on finding their Commander. When we told them of our plans to climb the Hook Mountains, find the lair of the Kreeg and look for Bayden and Lucrezia, they immediately wanted to join in. Jakardros especially had intimate knowledge of the area, so we would’ve been fools not to accept. Vale told us he had signed up to kill ogres, not to clean up, so the matter was quickly settled.

We left after a short night’s sleep at dawn. 5th of Neth and the new week turned out to be as rainy and windy as the earlier. Somehow, I knew it would get worse as I gazed at the snowy peaks of the Hook Mountains afar. Thankfully I had my new furs with me.

**
“So that’s the Dam”, Alfred pointed out when the massive, arching stone structure came into view a mile or so away at the end of Skull River. I was with him at point, as always, and Jakardros was acting as the guide. Harsk was behind us, treading in silence, lost in his thoughts. He had been awfully silent since the aftermath at Fort Rannick. Vale was chatting with Alice and Shalelu who held the rear. The water levels in Skull river had dropped to normal – no more were the waters of Storval Deep sweeping over the riverbanks. Still, the flood wave had done damage to the path and we had to walk carefully along the river or risk falling down.

The Dam of Storval Deep, or Skull’s Crossing as it was officially called, had got its name from a number of huge stony human skulls built into its side. It was ancient, even I could tell that, but I didn’t know who had built it or when. At the time, I didn’t think it was important.

Since it was standing there in all its majesty, we gathered that the Dam had not fallen. In addition to the stream of water it normally passed, we could see a large tear in the superstructure, through which water still uncontrollably leaked. For the moment however it seemed the Dam itself would hold. The excessive waters had overcome the Dam or someone had sabotaged it, we didn’t know nor did we go investigate. Instead, we took a sharp turn left after finding a certain trail up the mountains. A half a mile away or so, I had one last look at the magnificient feat of engineering and thought I saw movement upon it. “It’s the trolls”, Jakardros said, reading my thoughts. I shrugged and paced up the trail after Alfred and the old ranger.

“You mentioned something about complications on the route up to the mountains”, I asked Jakardros after we had ascended some hundred feet along a snaking path of dirt and pebbles and overgrown moss. The trail went through a coniferous forest that got denser the higher we went. “I did”, the hunt leader started, stepping past a wet, slick boulder. “Beyond this trail lies the Valley of Broken Trees, the plateau atop the Mountains I mentioned.” He stopped to pull himself by a vine up a steep section of the trail and grunted with effort. I did likewise sans the laboured breathing. Helps to be younger, I thought. Jakardros continued the hike. “In the Valley lives a particularly nasty and bad-tempered giant called Razmus. The Black Arrows usually avoid all contact with Razmus every time we’re out there. Key’s to be silent when traversing through the Valley”, Jakardros explained and tapped the side of his nose knowingly. I thought about our clanking and clonking friends Alfred and Harsk and snorted. “What can you tell us about Razmus?” I asked, ever eager to be prepared. The old ranger considered this for a moment, without stopping his ascent.

“Razmus is an old hill giant, a loner, a hermit even, who only wants to keep to himself. He hates the Kreeg for trespassing his Valley, which he considers his personal territory.” A loner, I thought, interested. I could relate to that. “Anything else?” I asked. Jakadros let out a dry chuckle. “He’s huge and wields a magical earthbreaker that cracks like thunder when he strikes with it. I’d steer clear of him if possible.”

Getting up the Valley of Broken Trees was rather easy, even for the short-legged dwarf. When we reached it, we decided to take a short break between a group of rocks the size of carriages.

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I kept watch on top of one and sipped from my water-skin. The plateau opened in front of us, hundreds of yards of rocks, dirt and some undergrowth to every direction. Mountain faces sided it, and mountaintops of the Kreeg lairs loomed in the horizon. That was where we were headed. But first we had to get over the valley.

“We could try to talk Razmus to join forces with us”, I suggested as I slid down from the rock to join the others. They were talking about the giant and how to handle him. I remembered Jakardros telling us he hated the Kreeg even more than he hated the Black Arrows. Then again, he possibly hated everyone enough to kill on sight without asking questions first.

He would fit us quite well, I realized after the thought had emerged.

Harsk let out a pffft and a gobbet of snoot got stuck in his beard. Dwarfs typically didn’t like giants, and vice versa, I’d come to know. Both of the Black Arrows shook their heads. “I’d just try to get through unnoticed”, Jakardros suggested with some finality.

I glanced at Alfred and I knew exactly how that would turn out, while remembering the blood-soaked dire boar hunt back in Sandpoint. But I kept my mouth shut and we set out, in a rough file, across the field, all the while trying to stay in the cover of the massive rocks.

We managed perhaps ten minutes until Vale of all people slipped, hit his knee on a stone and let out an angry curse. For all the ruckus he made his bass timbre could have been a small earthquake.

“VALE!” Jakardros hissed angrily as the hulking ranger got back to his feet with Alfred’s help. He was about to mumble an apology when we heard a groan and heavy footsteps in the distance. Something, someone big was coming our way and it didn’t take a smart person to guess who it was.

“Now would be the time to run!” Jakardos exclaimed and got into a sprint towards a foot of the snow-peaked mountain we had set as our destination. The others followed without a word.

I hesitated.

**

A late evening in a backwater tavern. The inn is packed, but two people, wounded and tired of combat eat their suppers in solitude. They don’t mind the crowd and the noise for they are familiar, cozy even.They have been left alone in their booth – like they exist in a bubble that is separate from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the tavern. The other is a stunning young woman, wearing a long fire-red cloak that reflects her nature. She has pulled her cape off her head, revealing a long brown hair and a picturesque face that carries a hint of sadness. At the other side of the table sits a brooding young man who wears his hood over his head to hide himself from the world he does not trust. He has just realized something about the woman before him, and he watches her intently. Under his hood he has often watched her, wondering who she is, when she hasn’t been looking. The lips of the woman of fire-red cloak dance as she says something and she resumes her simple dinner, while the man is left thinking what she said. In the future he will often come back to her seven words of wisdom.

**

You have to trust some people, Alpharius.

I did not run. Instead, I walked out of the shadow of the massive stones into the open with Dûath. Too bad you’re not seeing this, carmine lady, I thought to myself and whistled loudly to get the attention of the giant. The others continued running but looked back over their shoulders. Their faces were baffled. I think they thought I had lost my mind. Maybe I had. But Harsk wasn’t the only person entitled to make stunningly weird decisions.

From behind one particularly large rock, the giant emerged. He wasn’t as big as I had thought, but still big enough, possibly over ten feet tall and weighing closer to 1000 pounds. He looked pissed off.

Inwardly, I shrugged. The dire boar had weighed twice as much and was twice as fast and I had evaded its charge. I can handle this.

“Hey!” I shouted at Razmus. The others were still running towards the foot of the mountains. The angry giant bellowed furiously in response, but did not move to attack us. I think my fearlessness confused it, if it had used to seeing panicking people. Jakardros spotted the same, stopped on his tracks and shouted to us stand down in Giant and Common. I saw Harsk was eager to start fighting, or simply happy to stop running, but the others obeyed and followed the old ranger’s lead.

I broke the very short moment of eerie silence by shouting a question to Jakardros whether the giant understood Common or not. That made Razmus laugh. His mighty laughter echoed in the valley.

“Of course I can speak your language, tiny one.” He boomed and hefted the tip of his earthbreaker towards me. “Indulge me, tiny one, why you and your tiny friends are trespassing on my lands.”

My chin up beneath my hood I answered. “I’ve come here to look for justice for my friend”, I stated. A truthful answer, if not the wisest in retrospect. Especially without any further elaboration.

Of course, the giant took it as a challenge. He roared and took a step towards me. Alfred cut in from a distance.

“We’re after the ogres of Kreeg!”

The giant roared again. It seemed like hearing our voices made his head hurt. Still, I heeded the wise words of Ilori and tried to talk our way out of the situation.

“Razmus, listen to me”, I yelled over the sixty or so feet that separated us, “I know you appreciate your solitude. I am a lone soul as well. Our grudge is with the ogres of Kreeg. Join us and be rid of those bastards who harass you and trespass your lands!”

My words had the opposite effect. “You insolent little man. You dare to consider me your equal”, he spat venomously. I had to change tactics quickly.

“Then let us pass your lands twice so we can slay the Kreeg on your behalf and go back to he lowlands, never to be seen again”, I proposed. I felt it was a completely fair proposal. Razmus just chuckled darkly and frowned. “You think I need help with them? No. I think I’ll make you pay for your disruption of my peace. Yes.. I’ll enjoy cracking your tiny head open against the rocks-“

His taunting turned to a pained cry as his form was consumed by a ball of holy fire. Harsk had had enough.

I cursed in Elven and prepared to make my move. The giant emerged from the fireball and was coming straight at me at full speed. His beard was still burning at places and he was furious.

From fighting the Kreeg I had started to see patterns in the behaviour of the giant subtype of humanoids. They were typically not bright. They were aggressive, straight-forward. I had never seen one feint. They were predictable. Razmus was a giant, not an ogre, but he came at me like an ogre, with no cunning or finesse.

I did a sharp backroll at the last second and evaded the downward slam of his earthbreaker. It hit the rock floor and shattered the ground beneath it to dust. I did not need to command Dûath – he was all over the giant the second I had got back to my feet. So be it. I dropped the Carmine Avenger – I had no time to shoulder it – and unsheathed my gladii. It was the first time I drew my enchanted adamantine gladius in anger and its blade rippled with unnoticeable magical powers.

Razmus pulled the earthbreaker from the crater it had created, and I took one long step towards him before slashing with my blades. Giant blood spattered to the dust.

Alfred came charging across the field, his axe held up high. He was a fearsome sight. But Razmus was not easily cowed. As the sellsword made the last leap to burrow the edge of his weapon into the old giant, Razmus introduced the butt of his earthbreaker to his face.

Somehow I knew It would not be the only time the poor mercenary would be counter-struck in mid-air that day. He roared in anger and pain and still managed a slash that pierced the giant’s armor and flesh.

Vale charged too, and let Razmus know Peace. Harsk continued to rain magics against the brute, and finally, Alice stepped from nowhere and electrocuted him.

Within a span of seconds, we had overwhelmed Razmus. He was smoking and bleeding from multiple severe wounds. He had no chance against us. With one violent thrash, he gained some space, stepped back and threw away his earthbreaker. I did not believe my eyes, but before us, the high and mighty Razmus, lord of Valley of Broken Trees, went down to one knee and bowed his head.

“I surrender!” He barked in a shocked tone and raised his hands.

Since it was I who had got us into the mess, with help of Vale of course, I felt it my obligation to choose the next course of action.

“Stand down”, I told the others coolly. They stopped their attacks but stayed within fighting distance. Away, Harsk was grunting and puffing, holding down his anger.

Without raising his gaze from the ground, the giant urged us to go. “Leave me be!”

“So you won’t join us in our fight against the Kreeg?” I tried one last time but heard him grind his teeth together. Our party exchanged glances. He wasn’t joining us, so what should we do? The ogre at Rannick had deserved everything it got, but no-one was really eager to strike down a surrendered foe, even if it was a giant. We turned to leave. Outside my last second evasion, we hadn’t been threatened let alone hurt in the fight, so it wasn’t that we held any particular grudges against him. But before we went, Harsk turned and pointed at the giant.

“You better be hiding behind a rock when we get back.. or Iomedae help me we will finish you!”

Still, the giant was motionless. “Yes, Master Dwarf.”

I was starting to like Harsk more and more.

**

We began the harder half of our journey up the mountains. There was hardly a path where Jakardros took us, and we had to climb a rough slope that seemed to get steeper and steeper. The mountainsides were barren and unforgiving, and we had to make our way carefully. Soon, ascending by walking became problematic, and at times we had to resort to our hands for additional support. The air got colder as we got higher, and the wind rose to a gale.

Harsk lost his patience and used his magical powers to lift himself off the ground and into the air. I could understand him – his short feet were not designed for steep climbing. Rather, he flew above us and had the birds-eye perspective on our surroundings.

Four hours of nearly continuous climbing later, the ground got more even, but we had to traverse along a sheer cliff edge on a very narrow path.

We passed a lone wooden club lying on the rocks – an ogre had misplaced his weapon for some reason. The reason became obvious a few steps later as I peeked down the edge and saw a crumpled, battered corpse of an ogre fighter 500 feet below. He had either challenged his betters and paid the heaviest price or simply been careless and fallen to his death.

The light rain quickly turned into sleet, and finally into snow. Less than an hour later we reached the actual snow line, and your progress slowed considerably as the layer of snow on the ground thickened and thickened. Jakardros affirmed us that the Kreeg lair was not far away.

Finally, we reached a plateau and stopped to take a breather. In the everfrost, the tracks of our enemies were easily visible to the naked eye. I could recognize the foot prints of the ogres and the coiling track the slithering half-serpent Lucrezia had left behind. Jakardros nodded forward and told us we were right upon the lair. I had a quick drink of water and volunteered to have a closer look and scout the plateau with Dûath. Being a man-hunter I didn’t want to walk into an ambush myself.

Upon closer inspection, the plateau was not a level field between mountaintops but rather on a side of one of the highest mountains in the area. Up in the mountain I heard, through the sleeting winds, laughter and screetching of two women who sounded like vultures. Guardians of the mountain? First line of defence for the Kreeg lair? I kept myself low, Carmine Avenger at the ready and continued my slow steps in the deep snow. In the difficult terrain, running was an impossibility, even for my panther, so if we were caught, our options were to fight or hide.

I got past the level, open space without being seen and made my way forward along a wall of rock. Above me, the side of the mountain still rose and disappeared into a cloud. Then I heard it. Two ogres talking and grunting, less than a hundred feet in front of me. Instinctively I pulled myself close to the mountainside, then relaxed and reached out with my head to have a peek. I saw a large aperture. It was a way in, and it was guarded. I couldn’t see them but I knew they were right behind the corner, within the opening.

I retreated to the others, informed them what I had seen and we got out. I no longer heard the vulturous women but they were nowhere to be seen, so I wasn’t worried. The wind that rose to a gale now and then shielded our approach, and soon we where right where I had stopped.

Squatting there, in a rough file along the mountain side, we made our plan to surprise the guards and storm the entrance. It included a silence spell, a surprise overwhelm and quick movement.

In the knee deep snow, starting from an unadvantageous file, we managed one and a half of the elements.

The two ogres, tougher sergeant types, proved to be a challenge, brutally punishing both Vale and Alfred before finally succumbing to Jakardros’s arrows and Dûath’s claws. But thanks to Harsk’s magics, they were unable to sound an alarm, so we entered the caves of the Kreeg successfully unannounced.

“Finally”, I said as I walked into the dark, almost fifty feet wide and thirty high cavern and left the knee-deep snow behind me. The opening was big enough to let white-grey light flow inside and reveal a tunnel at least 200 feet long. At the mouth of the tunnel lay a massive ribcage, belonging to a long-dead monster. The arcing bones jutted upwards and almost reached the rocky ceiling, and had the beast been alive, it would have filled the tunnel. I could not fathom how it had got up here. Even stranger was that in the rib bones there were inscriptions made nearly unnoticeable by the passing of time. They were stars that resembled the Sihedron. It was curious how we constantly ran into the seven-pointed star during our journey. I decided I really needed to ask more about its history the next time I met with the old loon Brodert at Sandpoint.

Alfred lighted a torch and led the way. The wind blew some snow and sleet inside but it melted rapidly when it fell to the ground. I could feel the warmth emanating from the bowels of the earth and for a moment I imagined us walking down into the mouth of some gigantic creature.

The sellsword’s flickering light revealed the end of the tunnel and within a forty-feet tall stone statue of a giant. Armed with a massive axe, the warrior was encased in fine golden armor and it shone as Alfred examined from up close. The others kept their distance and marveled at the craftsmanship of the statue. It was quite a sight, clearly designed to strike awe to the visitors of the mountain.

I saw the Sihedron star again – it had the same medallion hanging by its neck Ilori had worn, but the statue’s was huge of course, to fit its wearer.

My suspicions awoke and I remembered the construct creature we had slain in the clock tower in Magnimar. “Can that come to life”, I asked from the magic-wielders of our party. Harsk turned his head to the side and examined the statue, but it was Alice who responded.

“The statue is just rock, but that necklace is magical.”

“Ha, a prize”, Alfred concluded care-freely and handed the torch to Jakardros before jumping on the pedestal on which the statue stood. As we watched in surprise, he began to climb the statue.

“Shouldn’t we focus on our mission”, I suggested to the sellsword. He didn’t listen, but continued his climb. “We”, he shouted back and pulled himself higher, “don’t know if we get back through this way.” He was almost touching the medallion by now.

“But that’s huge, you cannot possibly carry it-” I began but then Alfred’s hand clasped the underside of the medallion, lifted it and something weird happened. It shrunk to size fitting a normal person.

He guffawed and pulled the medallion of the statue before dropping down. “For you my lady”, Alfred bowed to Alice and handed her the necklace. Alice laughed lightly at the sellsword’s antics but took the present. I rolled my eyes. “Those have always been trouble”, I muttered as I passed her.

**
The giant statue guarded a mouth to a passage narrower and lower than the tunnel we had entered. Still, two giants could have easily walked abreast there. Able to see in the dark, the Kreeg ogres had not deemed it necessary to put torch sconces on the walls, so we had to rely on our own light. It was creepy, but then again, I could trust my own ears to help me as much eyes. And the ogres smelled of shit anyway, so I’d smell one before running into it in the dark.

I took point and led us into the tunnels proper. At the first crossing, I noticed the stench of death and decay floating from the right, and voices of ogres from the left. I went to check the stench and found a pit with corpses of all kinds rotting at its bottom. Alfred, apparently still excited of the Sihedron star necklace, wanted to me to climb down to check the pit for valuables but I sternly refused. I think I said something in my retort about her mother and horny bugbears.

We continued to the left from the intersection and came to a set of wide stairs. The corridor ascended, and right beyond the end of the stairs were ogres. We could hear them talk, and they were laughing. Combat was upon us, but I didn’t want us to rush headlong into it. Instead, I again volunteered to sneak closer and have a look.

There was a circular space at the top of the stairs, a hub of sorts, from which three other tunnels opened. Two ogres, the hardier sergeant types me and Alfred had dubbed them, we’re beating and laughing at a third. As I examined them I realized the third one was actually a hill giant. It seemed strange, dumber perhaps and un-warriorlike as it bore no weapons. It was as the other two were bullying it. Was it a captive, a slave? Someone to be saved rather than killed? My resolve brushed aside my questions – it was a giant, and it was here with the ogres, so it would die like the rest.

Silently and unseen, I pulled back from my position at the top of the stairs and whispered what I had seen as the others gathered around. Harsk had no more spells of silence or any mind-affecting magic tricks up his sleeve, so attacking these warriors could possibly bring the entire clan upon us. But we had no choice. We had no other route to take, and we could not hope to bring them done silently – they were too numerous, strong and resilient for that.

So we carefully rose the steps and attacked without mercy, unstoppably pouring into the open cavern like magma from a fissure.

My arrows were the opening volley of the brawl. No, that’s understating the fight that begun. It was the bloodiest clash I had yet to participate in my life.

The arrows dug into the back of the unsuspecting unarmed hill giant closest to me and burned with carmine wrath, immolating a chunk of fat and meat. Vale, Alfred and Alice stormed together to kill it, and almost managed to bring it down right away. The giant wailed sheepishly as they landed blow after blow to its hide, and tried to fend them off with its massive hands rather than challenge them.

Still at the top of the stairs, I turned my attention to the closest sergeant ogre and shot it thrice, each arrow finding its mark. But our element of surprise was now lost. Shalelu tried to add to the plight of the sergeant ogre I had transformed into a pincushion, but missed her arrows as the lumbering monster roared, ducked and turned to face us. The second sergeant ogre, so full of scars it barely had a face, pummeled at the melee and tried to hack at Alice with its ogre hook, but the mage saw it coming and stepped out of its way.

I heard a wet crack. Vale pulled Peace off the unarmed giant’s face and with a grunt, it slumped to the ground dead. This irritated the ogre I had shot and it let out a terrible howl – a challenge. Its sound penetrated the caves and the Kreeg now knew we were there.

Jakardros tried to close the ogre’s mouth, hitting it with yet another pair of arrows, but it still came despite the horrible wounds we had inflicted upon its hide. With a snarl it pushed and landed a solid blow on Alfred’s side. The tip of the ogre hook bit through the sellsword’s heavy mithral plate and drew blood. But his attention was elsewhere. Incredibly, instead of facing his attacker, Alfred elbowed his way to the scarred ogre that had almost pummeled Alice, hacked it with his axe and managed to tackle it back with his shield. Was he trying to prove something to the mage, I wondered, as he stepped between the mage and the enemy.

Harsk, boldest of us but typically the slowest to the fight, finally joined the melee. Bellowing a war cry for Iomedae he ran across the open space and furiously slashed at ogre with five arrows sticking out of it. His goddess heard him as the sword’s edge neatly separated the ogre’s head from the rest of its body. I considered that not a bad way to enter the onslaught. Maybe Harsk should’ve been a paladin instead.

The remaining sergeant ogre felt the wrath of Dûath and the Carmine Avenger. Reeling, almost dead by several serious wounds, it cried a desperate warning or a call for help. Almost instantly, a response echoed from somewhere east. But I wasn’t worried. I was eager and feeling confident. We were to have more Kreeg to slay. I would make them all pay for what they had done.

“It’s calling for help!” Jakardros spat, nocking arrows and aiming beside me. “Then silence it”, I laughed without humor. And he did, by rapidly placing three arrows into its head – a stunning feat from that distance in the dark. Needless to say the ogre was dead before it hit the dirt floor of the cavern.

“Hey, that was mine to kill!” Alfred shouted over his shoulder and pointed with his axe at the dead ogre. Jakardros didn’t feel the need to reply.

With the two ogres and a hill giant dead at our feet, a momentary pause in the fighting ensued. I strained my ears to hear as it was all too dark in the tunnels to rely on eyes only for signs of incoming enemy. East of our position, up a long, sharply rising set of stairs, we heard a commotion – a lot of ogres were on their way. But despite all my efforts, I couldn’t hear any other voices. Then again, we had faced enemies that could surprise us and appear in our midst without making any noise or being seen. Enemies like Lucrezia’s little sister Xanesha. We had to be prepared for anything.

“Do we make a stand here?” Alice dropped the question.

“The stairs make for a good, narrow position”, Harsk commented and nodded at the foot of the long straight staircase. The ogres were closer now.

Alfred turned and marched to the feet of the stairs and took a position at the center. “We will kill them here”, he stated soberly and flexed his neck left and right.

I shrugged. “Fine by me”, I added my opinion and took a position behind Alfred at the opposite side of the cavern. From there I could rain arrows at the ogres in the stairs and also keep an eye on the other tunnels should something emerge from there. Shalelu and Jakardros, our other archers, stood close by, nocked arrows, pulled and aimed at the dark stairs. Harsk, Vale and Alice hurried to Alfred and they formed a wall. In my mind I dubbed it a shield wall, even though only Harsk and Alfred were sporting a shield. Vale was a barn door anyway and Alice probably could summon physical shields or something similar if required, I mused.

I commanded Dûath to them, and expected Jakardros to do likewise with his mountain lion, but he stayed silent. To my growing irritation Kibb, the mountain lion, had proven to be a mere bystander in our fights. The old ranger kept his beast by his side all the times as his personal bodyguard – a tactic I would need to discuss with him some day, I decided then. But not then, as more ogre blood was to be spilled.

White light pulsed in the dark cavern, casting weird shadows to the walls, as Harsk let his healing powers spiral from his hands. While it mended our wounds, it also attracted attention like a flashing beacon.

“Here they come!” Alfred shouted and I could hear the ogres hooting and growling as they stomped down the stairs. “Meat for the grinder”, I responded coolly and confidently and took aim. This made the sellsword guffaw.

The first ogre, a warrior of the lowest caste armed with a simple hammer, didn’t even reach the shield wall. Jakardros let loose the first two arrows, followed almost immediately by Shalelu. I put the fifth arrow through its throat. It fell and rolled like a barrel to the feet of the shield wall, making them take a step back in unison. In retrospect, that’s exactly what they should’ve done – use their weakest fighters as living boulders to break our line.

But that was just the first rains of Rova. The the rest of clan massed down the stairs and I recalled our close call at the flooding Skull River only a day before. I hoped they did not have their equivalent of the ancient sea monster descending upon us. Their funneled wave of sickly green and brown meat hit us, and broke against our indomitable rock. It helped they they could not charge us properly in the smooth stairs. Confined, they came in twos. Alfred split the head of one ogre, Harsk gutted a second, Alice stabbed and electrocuted a third and Vale hacked a fourth into bloody bits.

Still they assaulted. Our shield wall held firm and our arrows found their marks. Over the noise of curses, steel, snarls and pain I could not hear enemies approaching from any other direction. A few more moments of frantic defence and we could finish this, I thought as I shot and shot again, raining arrows into the stairs. My archery instructor back at Canorate would have called this a target rich encounter.

But the carnage was too much for Vale. The fight simply took him over and he became a man possessed. “For Peace and Love!”, his deep howl reverberated in the cavern and he stepped forward into the stairs and towards the mass of incoming ogres, leaving the safety of the wall. I was not at all surprised to see Alfred follow him with a step of his own. They both had a deathwish.

Jakardros spat profanities and lowered his bow. The sellsword and the ranger had both compromised our safe window to shoot into the stairs and he commanded Vale to return to the wall. He could have as well tried to get a cow jump over a river.

I heard Shalelu curse as well and risked a sideways glance. Strained by such heavy use, the string of her bow had snapped in two. Oh gods, I exclaimed inwardly, was this the turning point? All it needed was another of the silent rolling clouds amongst us and the apperance of Lucrezia, just like at the clock tower. I recalled Ilori, dead by the stairs, and the wood of Carmine Avenger blazed the red of dawn in my grip. One ogre tried to get behind Alfred and club him with a cheap shot, but I stopped it literally dead with an accurate arrow to its neck.

Then something bigger roared from the mass of descending ogres and forcibly pushed itself through its kin. It was another of those sergeant types, better armed with a magically glowing hook and clothed in more armor than the lowly grunts. It barreled into Vale and their weapons clashed violently. I heard Vale roar incoherently, first in rage and then in pain and as the massive ogre lifted its hook for another strike, I saw it covered in Vale’s blood.

Alfred shouted the ranger’s name and pushed the mass of ogres back. But he was too far away to reach him in time, and the others well at the wall line, locked in their own single combat. I saw the hook begin a second downwards arc towards the helpless ranger and the hunger of the ogre leader for his death.

Join your brothers with honor, I saluted the reckless ranger in my mind like a gladiator but I was too quick to judge his fate. Out of nowhere, Alice swooped next to the ogre bent on disemboweling Vale and slashed with her scimitar past its defences. The weapon crackled with the powers of lightning and upon hitting, they were released into the ogre. I heard the familiar buzzing and popping as the blade carved across the beast’s chest.

The ogre howled in pain, and its hit went wildly past its intended target as it reacted to the new threat.

His blood flowed onto the floor and mixed with the ogres’, but Vale was not letting up. I don’t think he realized Alice had saved his live, so blood-thirsty he was. He slayed one prone ogre next to him like it was an afterthought and wildly hacked at the sergeant ogre. But it was Alfred who finished it.

The rest of the clan was now reeling. Were they now completely without leadership? Alfred pushed forward up the stairs, and Harsk followed him. The shield wall had disintegrated, and the fight had devolved into a brawl. But it was soon over. Our close combat experts pushed the remaining ogres back up the stairs, step by step, blow by blow. Alfred kept before Vale, who was losing a lot of blood from a multitude of wounds but still managed to fight effectively.

We gave no quarter. One after one the last of the Kreeg died at our hands. Each blow was a punishment for their evil deeds. Each death a payment in blood for the countless children, women and men they had slaughtered. Each Black Arrow ranger they had murdered and devoured. They had been a blight of this land for too long but their reign of terror came to an end by our sword, axe, claw and arrow.

The clatter of a forging hammer, a make-do weapon of the last ogre standing against us, as it hit the stony stairs signaled the end of the battle. The rising corridor was full of dead ogres, so full movement was extremely difficult . It was a sight to behold and a sight I would cherish to the end of my days.

In the relative silence I again strained my ears and concentrated. From the west, coming through a tunnel, I picked up the wind blowing and the tapping of raindrops. Another way out?

Hihihhihihiiii….

I snapped my neck to the south. It was like old hags laughing, a screetch that hurt your teeth, and it was coming from the south, from a tunnel with another set of steps leading up. They were confident enough to taunt us. Why hadn’t they attacked? Were they waiting for us?

At the stairs Harsk was working actively trying to keep Vale among the living. I paced up, hopping over dead bodies, and got past them. “You should keep a cooler head, Vale”, I told him bluntly as I went. Vale just grunted at my back.

I found a a huge workshop of sorts at the top of the long stairs. Several workplaces littered the fifty foot high and maybe 200 feet long space. They had anvils, fireplaces and mammoth hides for sleeping. At the back were numerous narrow tunnels, from which undoubtedly the raw materials like iron and coal for the forges had come. We did not examine them, or the workshop, that closely. As far as we were concerned, that cavern had been taken care of.

**
I took the initiative to sneak west, and to scout the tunnels there while our close combat fighters mended themselves. Every now and then the head-hurting giggles still emanated from the circling stairs leading south, but we disregarded them for a moment.

With Dûath I jogged west without making a sound, my boots of elvenkind making me fleet of foot and my cloak – also of elvenkind – making my features almost impossible to spot in the darkness. With every step I grew more intrigued by the nearing sound of the wind and rain. While the ogres had vision that allowed them to see in the dark, natural light would make combat that much more easier for us. And I admit I was nervous of surprises and increasingly suspicious – where was Lucrezia? Was she even here anymore? I had seen her tracks in the everfrost outside, but if there was another way out, maybe she had made another run for it through there when she had heard us fight the Kreeg?

I came to a junction where the corridor split into two. In the south, another slightly curving set of steps lead into utter blackness. In the north, I could see more – a new large space, with an open ceiling to the bleak, grey heavens above. The sound of rain and blowing winds was stronger there, but I could not hear anything else. A twenty or so feet deep and similarly wide gorge divided the open cavern, and it went north as far as I could see. At both sides of the gorge, a line of stone statues depicting armed humans, or giants, I couldn’t tell which, watching over it. Their impassive faces gazed down, like a solemn honour guard.

Was the gorge a dead-end, or a way out? I did not take a risk and go further to investigate, but instead, I vanished back to the others. I knew we’d find out, sooner than later.

**

“Found anything interesting?” Alfred asked me as I emerged to the hub cavern from the shadows. Jakardros was exchanging words with Vale, hopefully reprimanding him for his recklessness, and Harsk was having a look at Shalelu’s broken bow string. “There’s two more routes. One leading south and up, to the same direction as that”, I reported and pointed my finger to the black tunnel where the laughing had come from, “and there’s one route leading north, into a large cavern with an opening to the skies. I don’t know if it is a way out or a dead-end – I didn’t linger to find out.”

“Any enemies?” Alice asked, her eyes narrow and quizzical. I frowned at that and gazed back at her. “None that I could tell.”

“All right, let’s move out then”, Alfred informed us carefreely and rolled his shoulders before turning towards the pitch black that would lead to whoever was laughing at us.

“What, so eager to die, sellsword?” I asked him mockingly. His nonchalance against my growing doubt and suspicions was rubbing on me in a bad way. His methodical dismissal of stealth was irritating, and against everything I had been trained for.

He of course was completely oblivious to my irritation. He just guffawed. “You only live once, bounty hunter.”

Alice cast a light spell unto Alfred’s shield and he took point with Vale. I followed with Dûath and the mage, and Harsk, Shalelu, Jakardros and Kibb fell in behind us. We began a careful ascent of the dark, circling corridor. Or as careful as one could have, given we effectively informed our enemies of our approach with the light.

Hihihihihihiiii…

Alfred stopped upon hearing the echoing laughter and raised his weapons. The irritating, ear-wrecking snigger seemed to come from closer as we got into the tunnel. Still, in the bright light of the shield we couldn’t see the end of the tunnel as it curved further left. I was left wondering was the enemy now using the same tactic against us, funneling us into a six foot wide corridor and then assaulting us from the back and front.

Alfred took a few more steps forward, and we followed right behind him.

There was something ahead.

“I can see so-“, Alfred began but his whisper was cut by a popping sound and the pitch black of the tunnel turned into a hazy darkness. It was as if smoke had suddenly filled the corridor and I couldn’t see up to more than a few feet. Magics, I realized and gritted my teeth, what a surprise. The pop was followed by clatter as Alfred’s axe and shield fell to the stone and dirt floor. Somebody coughed behind me, having inhaled too much of the magical smoke.

I heard a frog croak. “..What the f-“, I opened my mouth to say in astonishment as my heart began to race, preparing my body to the continuation of the fight.

“Witches!” Vale exclaimed and I saw his outline in front of me, only a three feet away. “Charge!” The brute of a ranger added and I saw him leap forward, axes swinging. Behind us, Shalelu and Jakardros were demanding to know what had happened.

Alice’s voice was a calm in the sea of madness. “Harsk – dispel what they did to Alfred”, she called back to Harsk and vanished, literally, into thin air. Nine hells, I cursed, dropped the Carmine Avenger and fluently pulled my gladii from their scabbards. I couldn’t see shit, so shooting arrows was not an option. No problem, I thought to myself, can’t leave all the fun to Vale.

“Move, Alpharius”, Harsk commanded me and pushed past. Not willing to let the dwarf beat me to the top of the tunnel, I followed him through the smoky haze. It took us only a few quick paces and we got out of the cloud. Alfred’s shield, still shining brightly, lay on the ground next to his armor and axe. On top of the pile of equipment was a small green frog.

I would’ve laughed but I had to duck and evade a claw that hurled towards me. I almost run into one of the monstrously large hags, but instead I slashed with my gladii and tore into her hide, drawing blood. She was massive, almost as big as the ogres and easily as ugly, and the one I had hit already battled with Vale. Behind it two other monstrous hags sniggered and hooted, as if waiting for their turn to hurt us.

“That’s wasn’t nice!” I heard Alfred shout and he launched himself into the fight. Evidently Harsk had returned him back to human form and he was not going to let them turn him into an amphibian again. Returning with a vengeance, he barreled into the closest hag and slammed her off her feet with his shield after axing and goring her.

One of the hags shrieked in panic as her sister, companion, or whatever perished before her eyes and started to cast a spell. I heard Harsk yell us to watch out, but out of nowhere, a crackling scimitar burst through the hag’s chest. The powers of lightning buzzed and coarsed across the witch’s body for good two seconds, making her flop and tremble. Then the scimitar retreated, and the hag slumped to the ground dead, revealing a smirking Alice behind.

The third hag had seen enough. “Eeeeeeee I surrender!” She shrieked and pleaded before raising her hands up. “On your knees!” I ordered the witch, pointing her with the tips of my blades like I had seen a gunslinger do with his pistols back in Canorate, and she complied, albeit slowly and awkwardly. It was maybe because she hadn’t done surrendering before. Maybe seeing the blood of her friend dripping down my gladius helped.

Harsk was wary, and circled to her back. I paced straight in front of her, gladii at the ready and asked her a simple question. “Where is Lucrezia?”

She spat at me, but I nimbly evaded the phlegm and rewarded her with a lightning-fast cut into her face. She howled in pain and shielded her ugly visage with her hands but did not answer.

Alfred took a step closer as well, and asked a question of his own. “Where is Commander Lamatar Bayden?”

“Hihihihihihihiiiiii…” the witch sniggered, revealing a toothless mouth and a foul breath. I commanded Dûath to me. Vale came as well, and I had to admire his control. The hag was still alive even though I knew the brutish ranger would’ve been more than happy to hack her head into two.

Then, the hag started to mumble, and her hands began to shake and spin. “Spell!” Harsk spat a warning and I pulled my enchanted gladius for a strike, but Alfred was quicker.

He slammed the foul witch straight in the face with his shield, thus ruining her concentration. “Answer, hag! WHERE IS THE COMMANDER!” The sellsword snarled, his temper now lost. I had spotted an iron pot over a fireplace with something bubbling in it at the back of the hags’ cave, and I asked the obvious question. “Are the remains of the Commander in the pot?” The hag grinned at us, but still remained silent.

Harsk made his judgement. “Enough of her foulness, and this vile sorcery”, he bellowed like a high priest in a cathedral full of followers and hacked the head of the hag clean off with a single swipe of his longsword. I admit I was surprised – the dwarf sworn to Iomedae usually wasn’t keen on executing prisoners. Maybe the horrors of Fort Rannick were taking their toll on him.

He really should’ve become a paladin, I thought to myself as I watched the still leering head roll into a dark corner.

**

There was nothing of value or interest in the hag’s cave. Alice and Alfred took whatever magical items the hags were carrying, and we returned to the hub cavern where the battle for the mountain had started.

We paused momentarily to inspect our gear, and I took a moment to examine the dead bodies of ogres. I had been trained in the art of killing humans and half-humans, but my recent adventures near Sandpoint had given me ample chances to learn how to best slay the undead. And now, after three days of almost continuous combat against the giant-kind, I felt I was learning how to hunt and kill them too.

Jakardros was behind me, watching me study the corpses and how they had died. He of course had more experience in killing the giants and ogres.

“How to best slay these creatures?” I quizzed the old ranger as I poked my finger into a scorched wound – mark of the Carmine Avenger. The question made him laugh. “By losing an eye, hunter”, he told me. I turned to face him and pulled back my hood. “Already almost did”, I said seriously and pointed at the long scar that run from my forehead, over my left eye and down my cheek, “though not to a giant, but I was faster.” My expression made Jakardros a bit more serious as well. “I see. It was Jaagrath Kreeg how took my eye”, he started to tell but was interrupted by the pale-face magus.

“Fine, enough with the cock comparisons, let’s move out”, she commented from behind us, making Alfred guffaw and Shalelu laugh. Though that ruffled me I didn’t reply. I gave her that – it was her who had made the finishing blow that killed Jaagrath. Jakardros smiled at the mage, but didn’t say anything either. Maybe he realized the same thing.

From the central cave, we continued west in our search for Bayden and Lucrezia, and then south, leaving the large chamber with flooded natural light behind us for last.

I admit I got nervous again, especially when I saw the massive statue of a devilish, pregnant woman at the back of the cave we entered. I wasn’t afraid, but I hated waiting for the enemy to make their move. I had been trained to be the one with the initiative and the element of surprise. Our fumbling in the dark, even though we were careful, raised my hackles.

I had my everburning torch in my hand, and my bow in the other, and I let others approach the pit before the statue. Alice added more lights to the cave by casting dancing fires, and the burning spheres hovered slowly around each other, creating rolling shadows around us. But they allowed us to see to the bottom of the shallow pit.

A lone figure lied there, a man. He was unmoving, on his stomach, and he was wearing dark, almost black clothing – cloak, trousers, boots. Strangely, he was covered in frost. From my vantage point at the back even I could hazard a guess who the prone person was.

“Commander Bayden!” Vale exclaimed with a mix of fear and excitement and ran to the edge of the pit. “Are you all right?”

The body stirred, then turned and slowly rose to stand in full. He was still armed – a longsword hung on his belt, and there was a quiver of arrows on his back and a frost-coated bow in his grip. I saw his eyes, blazing with baleful, cold blue light. Something was very wrong with him.

Bayden swiftly pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. “Commander?” Vale had time to say before an arrow burrowed into his chest and he staggered back, seriously wounded.

The torch fell from my hand. “He’s undead!” I yelled, recognizing what was wrong with him and pulled a duo of arrows in response. The others scrambled to the side of the edge. Alfred jumped to the bottom of the pit and slashed the undead creature once. The pale-faced magus followed suit, and landed a solid blow of her own. I let loose my arrows but they failed to find their mark – covered by the pit, undead Bayden made a too little target for my liking.

Jakardros was about to enter the fight but the old ranger hesitated. And the hesitation cost him. Bayden took a step back, recognizing the threat of the fighter and the mage at striking distance, but shot another two arrows at Vale. The brutish ranger was still in shock, holding the arrow in his chest with both of his hands. The first arrow struck him in the abdomen, and the other pierced his throat. Vale gurgled blood and fell to his knees.

The commander was moving like a scorpion. Without a thought he nocked another duo of arrows and shot Jakardros expertly. I heard the old ranger cry in agony as the magically enhanced arrows split his armor like it was paper.

Time to end this, I snarled and commanded Dûath to flank the undead creature. The panther leaped into action from my feet, and within a blink it was at biting distance. Tearing into its leg, Düath thrashed with his powerful jaws and brought the reanimated commander low. I was following my beast, and unsheathing my gladii, I too leaped into the fray. Easily overpowering the helpless undead on the floor of the pit, Alice, Alfred and I ended the unnatural existence of the cursed man.

“Help Vale!” Shalelu cried, and Harsk ran to him as quickly as he could. The ranger was lying on the sand, bleeding profusely. He was not breathing.

The cleric knelled next to him, closed his eyes and begun murmur prayers. At the end, he blew gently to the ranger’s face, and life returned to him. Harsk removed the arrows sticking from him, and the bleeding ended as his wounds began to close on themselves.

Another near-death experience for the ranger – I started to understand why he was covered in scars. Shalelu began mending Jakardros with the wand of healing, and I overheard her complain to him about not being careful. Obviously she cared for the old ranger, but I still didn’t know the reason why.

I climbed out of the pit, letting Alice and Alfred to sort out the items of Commander Bayden, and walked over to my bow I had discarded to the sand.

We had found the Commander, but in a sorrier state than we could’ve imagined. He had been turned into a mindless slave for the ogres, quite possibly by those wretched hag sisters. Our small victory tasted sour thanks to the fact he hadn’t been a traitor to the Brotherhood. His end was a release, I believed. But it also meant that he was now utterly dead and lost to us. Still, we had promised Myriana to find him and bring him back to her. Dead had to suffice. I knew however that death was not always the final destination. My hand reached out to the bandolier slung across my chest, and my fingers found the small diamond hidden within one of the pouches. My way back, should it be required.

While Harsk, Shalelu, Jakardros and Vale huddled together, I went to examine the dark-grey statue of a woman. Its features were locked in a sneer, it had claws instead of hands and it was awfully pregnant. It depicted no-other than Lamashtu, the evil goddess whose followers we had ran into several times. We bumped into references of her as often as we found something on the Sihedron and Thassilon. But hadn’t Brodert dismissed the goddess as a newcomer and opportunist, a non-entity when compared to the old gods and powers of the Thassilonian era? How were they linked, or was there a link? Were they both just about straightforward malice and sins, greed in particular?

Alfred wanted to take the ruined body of the Commander with us, which was now thawing before our eyes, and ensure a proper burial. I reminded him about Myriana – bringing him to her might still prove useful. Jakardros and Vale were stricken by loss of their commanding officer, but they were good soldiers. I watched them carefully lift the body from the pit, and we left the dark chamber. We had one more corner of the Kreeg lair unsearched, and we still hadn’t found the serpent woman Lucrezia.

**
I was still dwelling on the possible link between Lamashtu and the Thassilonian Sihedron relic when we were walking towards the natural light of the massive chamber. What was the thing about greedy souls that had driven Xanesha, and drove Lucrezia? And who was this person they referred to as ‘their Lord’?

“Was Bayden known as a greedy person, even a little?” I perhaps a bit bluntly asked Jakardros who was walking behind me. He laughed lightly and gazed into nowhere, remembering his commander. “No, he was possibly the most generous man I knew.” I nodded. His soul was useless to Lucrezia then, and what had been done to him wasn’t of any consequence. It became even more important to find the serpent bitch.

We arrived to the edge of the chamber. The cloud shroud above was visible through cracks and gaps in the mountain wall and coloured the open space in pale white. Outside, it wasn’t raining anymore and it looked like the clouds had dispersed, if only a fraction. The statues of warriors still stood motionless in vigil and between them the pass arced right and disappeared behind a corner. Our options were twofold. Either we could scale the sides of the pass and get to higher ground. From there, we could observe the chamber in earnest. Or we could simply travel along the pass and see what laid at its end. Being an archer foremost and bladesman second, I preferred the high ground.

So did axeman Alfred apparently, as he nimbly began to walk up the rocky wall, utilizing his magical boots that allowed him to traverse steep slopes and walls like a spider. Gripping a leg of a statue, he pulled himself up and signaled us to follow. Going up the old-fashioned way, I took a handle from a protruding shard of rock and was looking for a place to set my foot when something large bellowed behind me in the east.

BAAAAARRLLLLLL

I was off the wall and ready to shoot my bow when the shout died and the echo began to vibrate back and forth the mountain chamber. It had come from the other side of the chamber, beyond the edge of the gorge we were in. “It’s one of them giantkind – looks like it’s made of stone”, Alfred commented as he landed next to me having dropped the last ten feet. A stone giant? With the Kreeg ogres? The others turned to face the direction where the bellow had come from and readied themselves. The mountain, it seemed, still had surprises in store for us.

“Why didn’t you stay up there”, I asked him, not taking my eyes off the edge. He snorted. “Do you see me wielding a thirty feet axe?” He had a fair point.

Over the sighs the wind made as it blew into the chamber I ears picked up something, a monotonous voice, in the north, beyond the curve of the pass. It sounded like a prayer… or someone casting a spell.

“There’s someone beyond the curve”, I warned the others as the stone giant emerged from the cover of the cliff edge. We reacted immediately with Shalelu and Jakardros, and greeted it with three arrows. To my irritation I was the only one who missed.

Stone giant’s aren’t really made of stone. Their grey and leathery, thick skin merely resembles stone, but I had to admit, seeing one for the first time, I too expected my arrow to break in half on impact.

I also later learned that stone giants, inhabitants of mountains and hills, have a fondness to rocks, and rock throwing in particular. This one was no different. It shrugged off our arrows, lifted a stone the size of a man’s head above its own and hurled it down.

The rock flew at the elven ranger and she tried to evade it. While it did not hit her head, it glanced off her shoulder, and I heard it dislocate with a hollow crack.

Traako, I cursed in Elven and made the monster pay in kind. It staggered a step back after being pierced and burned by three of my arrows. Alfred hadn’t been idle either – the moment my arrows sprung from the Carmine Avenger, he was already continuing his spider play and running up the wall. Badly hurt, the giant fumbled his attempt to strike down at the sellsword coming straight at it and almost fell down.

I was too focused on killing my first stone giant so I didn’t notice Harsk running up the pass as fast as his short legs allowed him. Only later I remembered seeing movement afar at the corner of my eye. Vale was going after Harsk, with Alice at his tail, and they were shouting something to each others and Harsk. More stone giants?

Jakardros had stayed put and shot at the stone giant, missing all of his arrows. But the rain of metal helped Alfred reach the top of the wall unchallenged, and he struck once successfully. The giant roared in pain and tried to withdraw, but it never got away. Two of my arrows, shot in unison, made sure of it.

With the immediate threat taken care of, I turned my attention north. I saw the mage, the cleric and the brutish ranger all running towards what seemed to be another stone giant hovering in the air, almost two hundred feet away. Carrying a massive earthbreaker and protected by a flickering mage armor, the giant was an intimidating sight. The monster even had a large, flying and completely unnatural claw beside it that reminded me of Harsk’s magically summoned longswords. That gave me pause. Was this the giant who ruled the Kreeg, the one our ogre prisoner had mentioned? What role did he have here and in Lucrezia’s plot?

I brushed my questions aside. We killed first and asked questions later. But there was no need to be dumb about the killing.

I shot a wild arrow towards the giant and raised my voice. “Return to the cave! We have a better position there!”

My tactical input fell to deaf ears. This did not surprise me. Sighing, I took off running after the others with Dûath.

I had barely taken ten steps when the giant’s magical claw blinked into existence next to Vale and tore into his back. Astonishingly, it didn’t even penetrate the ranger’s armor, but Vale noticeably become fatigued and his pace faltered. The strange hand blinked out of sight.

“A necromancer!” Alice shouted as she ran, recognizing the spell and deriving from it the kind of caster the stone giant was. Harsk tried to confirm Alice’s observation but managed only huffs and puffs. Above us to my right, Alfred sprinted as well.

I reached the curve of the pass and I stopped a good 150 feet or so from the hovering giant. I was about to take a shot but I paused to take stock of the situation. Something, someone, came into view behind a massive throne made of ashen grey stone. The being slithered with subtle grace and watched us approach with hateful eyes. Lucrezia. She was in her serpent form – her lower torso a long, thick body of a snake, but her upper body that of a normal, if stunning and regal woman. Her bright, almost orange-red hair was tied back in an intricate fashion. Good, I thought as I felt my blood begin to boil, makes carrying her head off the mountain that much easier.

She wasn’t alone. Beside her lurked the pitiful traitor, Drake Windstrike. He fidgeted and stared at us weirdly, acting like all the dwarves weren’t in the mine as the saying goes. I disregarded him.

My target was obvious. I nocked and pulled, but didn’t concentrate in my aiming, and my first arrow flew past Lucrezia by an inch.

Within seconds, Harsk, Alice, Vale and Alfred all would reach smiting distance. Me, Shalelu and Jakardros kept together. The old ranger chose his target wisely – of the kind he had hunted for years – and peppered the hovering giant with arrows. The monster was keeping at an altitude that made close combat impossible, so we were the only one’s able to hurt him. But it took the blows like they were nothing and kept his gaze on the dark-skinned ranger. Already breathing laboriously, fighting his way towards the throne and the enemies, Vale suddenly halted and screamed in terror. The giant was attacking his mind, and drowning it with fear. I cursed inwardly – I really, really hated fighting magic-wielders.

Harsk of all people reached the serpent bitch first. Keeping his longsword and shield of Iomedae high, he circled around the creature, trying to find an opening. Alice was right behind him and I saw her beginning to caste something. The cleric yelled something about Drake, but I couldn’t hear what. Instead, I commanded my panther to charge Lucrezia.

I have to say that there are few things as frightening as a furious panther charging towards you at full-speed, fangs and claws ready to tear your into bits. The quickness and raw power of an adult panther is simply stunning.

Sadly, one of those few things was present that day.

The necromancer giant gazed at the plight Lucrezia was in, with Harsk and Alice within fighting distance, Vale close by, Dûath within feet of sinking his teeth into her meat, and Alfred almost upon her as well. He simply laughed, and drew his powers once more. His eyes flashed black and red, before setting to black.

Looking back, I realized that at that same moment, Alice had cast Haste, a beautiful piece of magic for combat, to help all of our close combat fighters by making time flow slower to them, and making them appear faster to others. But instead of helping them, its effect became a horrible disadvantage.

Dûath howled in terror, turned tail and sprinted away and past me, so fast I barely registered it. I amassed all my willpower and authority and commanded the creature to me, but the necromancer’s magic was so powerful that it overcame the extraordinary link with my animal companion. Alice wasn’t as fast, but she was also a blur when she ran past us in absolute terror.

I admit, at that moment I felt a knot tightening in my stomach. I was starting to doubt our chances of success, and my resolve cracked ever so slightly by my strong sense of self-preservation. My brother would have not been proud. Then again I would’ve thrown the world to the wolves for the chance to reunite with my brother. My priorities were clear.

But it wasn’t all about my brother anymore, was it?

Tell him he’s an uncle.

You knew right away that they were dire boars, didn’t you?

In impotent rage, I started to step towards the fight. I think I roared challenges to our enemies. The Carmine Avenger blazed as I shot, shot and shot at Lucrezia. Some arrows missed, some hit her. Harsk and Alfred were locked in fierce melee with her, and were exchanging deadly blows. I had never seen Alfred fight as skillfully. Powered by the haste spell, it was nigh impossible for Lucrezia to strike at him with her daggers. Harsk fared not as well, and if I’d stopped to watch, I would’ve seen fatal wounds across his torso. He had even lost parts of his great beard.

I was so lost in my emotions, so driven to kill Lucrezia that I didn’t see the giant fling a massive fireball at me, Jakardros, Kibb and Shalelu. I was too slow in my evasion, and felt the fire burn my left side. The agony was unbearable. Parts of my skin melted, and my lungs felt like they were in fire. It and the cries of Shalelu and Jakardros brought me back to this world. With a snarl, I changed target. But the pain and the fact the flying creature was a difficult target to hit, I missed my first arrows.

Somewhere in between Vale had regained his resolve and with furious charge, attacked Lucrezia, ignoring the giant behind him in the air. Jakardros too fought through the pain and continued to rain death upon the giant.

The shriek of Lucrezia echoed in the chamber. She was in panic, near death and surrounded by foes. “Finish her, for Ilori!” I heard myself cry to no-one in particular.

The giant heeded the call of his ally. He rapidly descended and brought his earthbreaker to bear. Vale stood between him and the serpent woman.

I saw the earthbreaker arc down unimpeded. It was a re-enactment of the ogre hook slashing down at the ranger, but this time there was no mage school washout to save the man from death at the last second.

The sound of breaking bones and pulping meat was the same when Frank had struck Tsuto Kaijitsu dead the first time with his earthbreaker. The giant hit the man square in the shoulder, but the weapon did not stop there. It simply pummeled half the man’s torso into boneless, soft matter. Vale’s blood and shards of bone splattered into the dirt and onto the raised stone throne beside him.

Hahahahahaaa…

Jakardros cried the name of his friend. Time seemed to slow down. The outcome of the battle hung in the balance. That moment I knew with certainty that only one party would leave this mountain chamber alive.

One of the tales of my grandfather considered his favourites was the story of Arazni at the time of the Shining Crusade, and how the tyrant necromancer Tar-Baphon had humiliated and slain him in single combat during one particularly crucial battle. But what made him like the story, and tell it to us again and again was not the defeat of good against evil, but what came after it. How then mortal Iomedae had rallied the forces of good, and struck back fiercely, ultimately leading them to victory as one of their generals. It was a tale of comebacks.

That day, I witnessed a comeback only a true follower of Iomedae could deliver.

Harsk’s oath of battle echoed deep and truly.

“IOMEDAE, GRANT ME YOUR STRENGTH!”

With all the might he possessed, he struck the serpent woman once. It was a stab, aimed at her heart.

His goddess heard his call. The bloodied tip of the enchanted longsword emerged from Lucrezia’s chest and she uttered once incomprehensibly before falling silent for all eternity.

Alfred saw his opening with the death of Lucrezia. He shouldered his way past Drake who was still alive thanks to his unfocused, nonthreatening state. The traitor fell on his ass but the sellsword paid him no mind. He accelerated to full speed, intent on getting to the necromancer giant who was now only five feet away from the ground. From his higher ground near the throne, Alfred could reach him.

He was five steps from the giant when he dropped his shield, gripping his battle-axe with both hands. Four steps. Three. Two.

The giant saw him coming, and brought the earthbreaker around for another hit. The monster timed his swing perfectly.

The earthbreaker connected again, this time with the sellsword’s face. It’s momentum was staggering as it hit the sellsword while he was running straight towards it. Miraculously he didn’t lose his head but the blow brought him to his knees. I felt the impact in my bones, so jarring it was. I was sure he was out of the fight, so horrible had the strike been.

The giant gazed at the man below him like an executioner, clearly pleased with himself and the damage he had done. He started to raise his weapon anew but hesitated.

Alfred was guffawing. His head tilted up, and he smiled at the creature between cracked, bloody teeth. Then his expression darkened and he roared in anger, and leaped. The battle-axe was still in his hands. It’s sharp edge reflected the first beam of sunlight the region had seen for weeks as clouds above finally dispersed. The giant brought his weapon to deflect the blow but it was not quick enough. Nothing could have been. In the air, Alfred brought the axe over his head and slashed it down once.

The edge struck the giant square in the forehead and dug halfway into his head, getting stuck between brainmeat and bone. For a split second, Alfred hung on the shaft of the axe and nothing happened. Then the giant crashed down to the ground, and Alfred came down with it, still gripping his weapon.

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