36. After the dust settles
12th of Neth – Moonday – 51st day in Varisia
In the end, it took me a third of an hour to reach Sandpoint. My mount carried me valiantly despite how I drove it to a point of exhaustion. I had never ridden as hard. I don’t know how Dûath kept pace with us. There’s something extraordinary in that big cat.
The Northern Gate came into view as I pushed my mount over the last hill before the town. The gate was a thousand feet away, but I could see several plumes of smoke rising across the horizon, and cold shivers ran across my back. I was late. Awfully so. Damn it! Some of the enemy had gotten through the defences!
My poor mount eventually failed me, crashing to the ground exhausted only five hundred feet from the town gates. At the last second I leaped and fell somewhat graciously without injuring myself. Scrambling to my feet I continued without a second thought as I was already spotting enemies before me. There were lumbering stone giants between me and the northern wall – to my relief at least that part of the wall still held. The enemy was completely oblivious to my approach, as they were hurling rocks at the wall and being at the receiving end of arrows from the towers. The defense was half-hearted – something within the city walls was stealing the defenders’ attention. Another battle perhaps raged behind them, and they were unsure how to act.
I ran like hell towards the unsuspecting giants, the Carmine Avenger blazing in my grip. I was heedless to the danger they posed – I would clear the walls myself if I had to.
Suddenly, a long hornblow boomed from somewhere within the town perimeter. A call of victory, or a call for retreat? But for whom? Us? Or the enemy?
I didn’t have to wait long to have my questions answered. An bestial roar echoed across the battlefield as powerfully as the horn and the red dragon I had seen earlier launched into the air from the vicinity of the cathedral. It was bleeding from multiple wounds, and was angry as a bear woken from winter slumber, but it was withdrawing. With a dozen beats of its wings it had gained such altitude that no arrows could catch it. It roared again in fury and turned east, leaving the town for now.
We’re winning. They’ve done it. Through the confusion, my fears and self-anger, I willed myself to focus. I had more immediate concerns than a dragon on the loose and the momentum of the overall battle. The stone giants, three of them still alive, turned tail from the walls upon hearing the call of the horn and began a hasty retreat towards me and Dûath. I had no intention to let them leave. The first died with two arrows into its chest, and the second fell to another arrow through its throat. My panther thrashed the neck of the third, killing it instantly. We barely broke our strides as we ended their lives. Their deaths did little to lessen my anger at my failure to see their plan. I wanted to kill them all.
“OPEN THE FUCKING GATE!” I yelled at the battle-weary guardsmen at the wall as I ran towards them past the dead giants and a field covered in arrows. So close to the city, I could start picking up the ambient noises of a battlefield – frantic orders, cries of soldiers in pain, wails of women and children, burning houses. “GET IT OPEN!” I reiterated myself.
A green recruit shouted back at me from the tower. “Sir, there’s still junk at the other side, it’ll take a while to get it cleared!” Displeased, I ground my teeth, stopped at the wall and reached into my backpack. Somehow I found what I was looking for in the top of the bag. Curious. I threw the other end of the rope to the guardsman and sternly told him to help me climb up.
“Sir, your animal?” He asked as he took a grip of the rope and I started to ascent nimbly. I turned my head to command Dûath to stay and wait but the damned cat just pounced on the wall, went past me and with a few quick scrambling leaps was on top of the fifteen feet high wall.
“He can handle himself”, I replied coolly to the awestruck guard who found himself gazing into the eyes of a panting yet ferocious black panther.
As I leaped down the wall and continued my run towards the cathedral plaza, I heard faint shouts of celebration among the cries of pain and despair. Some were calling the dwarf’s name in adoration.
When I reached the cathedral, the plaza before it was a mess. Dead and half-dead guardsmen laid in the dirt, and the priests and healers were doing what they could. From the damage done I surmised they had faced the dragon there and paid a heavy price. There were no children among the dead, but I could see the little orphans running around with buckets full of water – a few houses had caught fire during the battle.
The front of the holy place had been transformed into an ad hoc infirmary. I saw Alice kneeled next to an unconscious Alfred, wrapping her furs and turning it into a makeshift pillow under his head. The sellsword had got hurt bad, again, it seemed. His face was a mess – another close encounter with a blunt object. But they were both alive. A small relief.
The cleric of Iomedae was alive too, if bloodied. He was in the thick of it, healing, offering words of consolation and praise to the defenders of the city. The constant white light of healing he shed from his hands snaked and pulsed around him, making his entire form glow. He looked like an angel among the suffering. A very short, stout angel, but angel nonetheless. Zantus’s and his priests’ efforts quite literally paled in comparison.
“Harsk!” I shouted at the cleric, “is the battle over?” Upon hearing my voice he turned towards me but the pale-faced mage was quicker to respond. “There were still giants loose in the south-eastern streets of the town when Alfred went down!”
The cleric shook his head gravely. “They’re retreating. It’s over.. for now.” I trusted he had the best overall picture of what was happening, so I merely nodded as I walked over to him. “It sounds right. I saw the red dragon escape east. And I killed the remaining giants that were attacking the Northern Gate. They were running.”
“Good job”, Alice said, mockingly. I did not reply. She was shaken, that was obvious, but I had earned their scorn with my foolishness. But I had no time to regret it now.
On the ground, Alfred stirred into wakefulness and coughed blood. “…I need a drink”, he muttered weakly, his eyes trying to focus. Alice offered him her waterskin but he pushed it aside. “Not water, woman, ale.” I guess the giant hadn’t hit him that badly in the head, I noted. Harsk went to him and began to administer his magic of rejuvenation, after offering him the tankard of endless beer. I imagine the beer helped more than the magic. Within moments, the sellsword was sitting, his face its normal handsome if rugged and smug self, if covered in old blood.
More and more injured and dead people were streaming to the cathedral plaza. Among them I saw Sheriff Hemlock, who was wounded as well but able to move. He was accompanied by two of his men.
“Master Harsk!” He boomed as he came. “Sheriff Hemlock”, Harsk responded. He was a very sought-after person that day – though for a reason.
“Did you take command of the men at the Northern Gate, and here, at the plaza?” He asked between breaths. The dwarf went serious and looked down on his feet. “Yes, I did. They needed the.. leadership”, he admitted. The Sheriff put his hand on Harsk’s shoulder and smiled, albeit embarrassedly. Harsk had gone beyond expectations, doing the Sheriff’s work where it mattered most. I hadn’t seen it but I could imagine the cleric charging the dragon, calling for his goddess to empower him. “Cleric.. you have been a godsend to the town. Literally”, Hemlock sighed.
The praise made Harsk even more queasy. I think he even blushed a bit. “Well, it has been a pleasure to serve.. I did it all in honor of Iomedae.”
“Your goddess must be very proud of you now”, Hemlock said, and as the last word left his lips, from the heavens, a pillar of golden light struck the dwarf and engulfed him completely, creating a warm wind breeze that made cloaks and hems nearby flutter. People gasped, murmured and pointed at the light and the half-man. I heard shrieks, fear returning to the hearts of the townfolk. Hemlock pulled his hand out in shock and awe, and within the light I saw Harsk facing upwards, his eyes closed. Something was happening to his sword. Harsk had pulled it out of its scabbard and in his grip it was transforming somehow. Then, without any warning, the pillar of light vanished as quickly as it had come, retreating back to the skies and an utter silence fell to the plaza. People were looking at Harsk, not believing their eyes, their mouths open. No-one knew what had just happened.
The goddess herself touched him, I realized. She’s watching him. The implications were enormous. What exactly were the stakes here? My mind reeled.
Harsk lifted his longsword up as high as he could and I could see the golden sheen upon it, something that had not been there earlier. But what was strangest is that I felt more certain of myself. The self-doubt receded. It was the sword. It had become a banner of sorts. Inspiration materialized into concrete form.
I was not the only one affected. Despite the pain of loss and suffering, the plaza erupted in furious ovation and cheering. Soldiers threw their fists and lifted their weapons to the air. Normal folk cried in joy and hugged one-another. The wounded were smiling, their pains forgotten for just a moment. The relief and renewed hope was almost physical. This, if anything, marked victory, and the young, humble cleric was at its locus.
I had to smile.
We did not get a lot of time to rest and recuperate when a runner came from the south. The young boy ran straight to the Sheriff and shared his message between gasps. I overheard it – a withdrawing stone giant had been caught in a bear trap across the stream in the forest.
I wanted to question the giant, and I wasn’t the only one. We wanted more information about the attack. Why had it taken place? Where was Teraktinus, their commander? I was itching to track and hunt the retreating giants before they could get back to Storval Plateau or wherever they were running to. With Hemlock’s approval, we gathered our gear and headed south-east to the upper walkway over Turandarok River.
As we approached the walkway, I noticed a carriage positioned as a makeshift barrier at the town-side end of the little bridge. At the bridge, and in the shallow riverbank water were the bodies of at least three stone giants and two direbears. Two town guardsmen were standing at the carriage as sentries. When they saw us approach, they waved at Alfred and hooted. He had made new friends during the battle, it seemed.
“This was my making”, Alfred boasted with a guffaw and gestured at the slain enemies. I took the bait. “All by yourself?” I asked, looking at him under my hood with mocking admiration. He shrugged. “Well, Adelbert helped. Somewhat.” A guffaw. I rolled my eyes.
We went over the bridge, hopping over the bodies and approached the edge of the forest carefully. The angry cursing of the stone giant was easy to hear, and following it we found it laying on the forest floor, unmoving, playing dead. It looked like it had tried to force the jaws of the bear trap open with its bare hands. Luckily, they were strong enough to resist the abnormal strength of the giant – that, or the giant was already weakened from its wounds.
Alfred went first, keeping his hand of the close to his of his battle-axe. I put an arrow across my bow, while Harsk pulled out his crossbow. Alice just crossed her arms and looked at the beast firmly.
Alfred was only ten feet from the giant when it suddenly sprang into life and tried a desperate lunge at the sellsword. I immediately raised the Carmine Avenger and took quick aim. But the big fool was tied to the trap, and feeble, so its effort was in vain and five feet short. Alfred just tut-tutted and patronizingly shook his finger at the giant. “No funny moves, hmmh?” He stated to the giant, and pulled out his battleaxe in a nonchalant manner, like taking a stick of wood after dinner to clean one’s teeth. The giant just laughed, its voice a rumbling, throaty boom despite its sapped strength.
“Can it even speak Common”, Alice asked no-one in particular from the back. I kept my aim, but I had to stop and wonder if there actually was anyone who could speak Giant. Too bad we had left Jakardros to Fort Rannick.
The giant continued its dumb laughter. Harsk loaded his crossbow and took a careful aim. I couldn’t help myself. “Are you going to tickle it to death with that thing”, I asked deadpan without taking my eyes of the target, still remembering his laughable antics with his ranged weapon at Yondabakari river against the two river trolls. Harsk harrumphed. “Well, we don’t want to kill it outright”, he reasoned, making me let out a dry laugh.
The sellsword shook the blade of his axe at the giant and raised his voice. “Who is your leader!” He yelled the question, and if I would have had the free hand, I would have sank my face into its palm. I responded at the same time as the giant. “Teraktinus!”
Alfred turned to us and smiled slyly. So the giant did understand Common. “Why did you come here?” He continued his interrogation. But the giant wasn’t paying attention to him. It began to blabber about their defeat, how it was a surprise that the great giants of Storval Plateau had been brought low by pesky humans and other little creatures. Alfred just sighed, but I lost my temper. We were wasting time.
I shouldered the Carmine Avenger and began to pace towards the giant. The beast showed no interest, not until I unsheathed my adamantine gladius. As the giant-bane weapon sensed the presence of its chosen foe, its gleaming blade turned pitch-black. The giant felt its enchantment somehow as I saw its eyes bulge open. “Listen to me, you bastard”, I seethed with the gladius pointing at the monster, “why did you attack Sandpoint!”
The giant’s fearful eyes never left the gladiator sword. “Mokmurian.. he wanted the stone.. it was said to be somewhere in the town”, the giant blabbered. Mokmurian? The message to Barl had been signed by someone called M.. maybe it was this Mokmurian? “Who is Mokmurian?” I thundered.
“Mokmurian is the great one, the strongest giant who will unite all the giant clans and destroy all you little creatures and your little towns..” I took a threatening step towards the giant, to remind it of its place. “Where is Jorgenfist”, I asked, keeping my questions short and to the point.
“In the valley of the Black Tower, over at the Iron Peaks, by the river Muschal”, the giant explained quickly and increased his pace as he saw me furrow unapprovingly. “Going over the mountains is difficult, but you can get there through a pass as well”, it revealed, blurbing out the secrets.
The one thing about all the dangerous people we had slain over the past two months was that everyone of them had served a higher authority. I did not believe for a moment that Mokmurian was acting alone in his desire to vanquish the peoples of southern Varisia. So I asked the giant about it.
“Mokmurian has a grand mission.. Teraktinus was supposed to find the stone-“, the giant began but I cut it short. “What stone?”
“A secret stone.. something you can use to look into the past and the future.. stones tell so much more than you pesky little creatures”, it said and I could not make any sense of it. Apparently none of us could. I decided to go back into matters more concrete than some mystical hot air.
“Was Teraktinus present in the attack?” Maybe he had been killed. Or was he running? Did he have the stone with him?
From its seated position, the giant nodded slowly and cursed, the pain of the trap overcoming it momentarily. It had lost a lot of blood, the grass beneath its legs was drenched with it. “Yes… Teraktinus is young and stupid, reckless. He was at the center of it.. But me.. I wanted loot.” Only then we noted the half-full rugsack next to him. It was stained, like it held something liquid within. “I got beer.. it was so tasty..” A small barrel of ale had fallen out of the sack, and I could see a small brand on its side. It was a little longsword next to the words Harsk’s and Gaven’s, all carved into an small iron plate.
This amused me more than I cared to admit. But Harsk was definitely not pleased.
“YOU BASTARD!” The dwarf roared in wide-eyed anger mixed with disbelief, “YOU’VE TAKEN MY BEER!” His face went red. I had never seen Harsk so angry. I was almost expecting Iomedae to make another entrance, in a form of lightning striking at the giant.
The giant didn’t seem to notice the danger he was in. “Mmm, it was the finest beer I have ever tasted, or at least the finest in a long, long time!” All the while, Harsk was steadily approaching the giant with murderous intent. “I don’t have gold with me, but if you want, little half-man, I can pay you with sheep. I have good, fat sheep back home”, the giant kept on blabbering. The blood-loss had to be making the giant delirious, I thought. I couldn’t believe what it was saying. Or maybe it was just that stupid and oblivious.
I heard Harsk’s teeth grind together. “..or you can pay with your life.” He might have been a hero of Sandpoint but he had also very worldly desires. Sparing a look above, Harsk asked her goddess for forgiveness and taking the last step, pulled out his longsword. It still had that weird golden sheen on it, and for a fleeting instant I was ready to follow Harsk to the Nine Hells. I shook my head to clear it.
The giant tried vainly to protect itself but the cleric of Iomedae easily stabbed the giant where he thought its bladder was, making it cry in pain. In a moment of very rare clemency I decided to end its misery, and slitted its throat with my gladius. The black blade went through its hide like it wasn’t there.
The Mage Tower does not disappoint, I thought smugly as I sheathed my weapon.
Harsk went to examine his stolen beer. The look on his face told everything – it was all ruined. “I wonder”, he began with almost a whisper, “if it was my beer that made the giant talk.” That or my weapon, I thought to myself. For a moment, nothing happened. We gave Harsk his moment with his lost beer.
It was the pale-faced mage who broke the silence. “So, what’s next? Should we go after the giants?”
“Absolutely”, I voiced my opinion, and I could see both Alfred and Harsk nodding. I was about to suggest our next destination when a messenger came running towards us from the town. It was the same boy who had delivered Hemlock the message about the trapped giant.
“Sirs, my lady”, he was shouting at us, “I have an urgent message from Sheriff Hemlock!”
Alfred turned to face him, playing with his axe at the same time. “Well, spit it out, boy!” The messenger stopped between us and took a breath before exploding into frantic talk. “The giants.. they’ve taken many of the townfolk with them!” I narrowed my eyes. It was to be expected – I wouldn’t have been surprised if stone giants too used humans and other smaller peoples as slaves and even food. Not a pleasant fate, I concluded. But the boy wasn’t finished.
“They have taken Mistress Kaijitsu as well!”
I remembered the recognition, and the honest, surprised smile. The warmth of her friendly hug, her unselfish offer for a room at her cozy tavern.
Oh no. Not Ameiko. Not her.