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

37. Army of five

12th of Neth – Moonday – 51st day in Varisia

Sandpoint

Seven years ago, when I assassinated my ruthless, sadistic slavemaster Eximedes of House Horryn to his bed, I did it with a solid plan. I had contemplated my moves in detail – how to get out of the Horryn estates, what to take with me, where to run. I had the benefit of knowing the layout of the estates like the back of my hand, but my escape required precision and luck, since I could not hope for more than a few minutes of head start on Horryn’s bodyguards. Though inexperienced, I knew I was most at danger the first handful minutes after my kill.

Teraktinus and his remaining giants had more than half an hour on us. My blood stirred again, my instincts kicking in. My head did the arithmetic of options. “Was the southern bridge left open?” I asked everyone, and Alice nodded in response. “None of us was there to repel their attack”, the pale-faced mage told me. The northern gate had held, and Alfred and Adelbert had kept the enemy at bay here, so the hunt must begin at the southern bridge, I reasoned.

There was no time to be wasted. “I can track the remaining giants if I can find their trail”, I shouted as I launched into a run south along the forest edge. I had done my decision – getting Ameiko back was priority number one. Hunting down and killing the giants was a bonus. Dûath bounded behind me, and the others followed suit quickly enough, coming to the same conclusion or just following my uncharismatic, taciturn lead.

As we ran through the forests of aspens, birches and pines, I kept my eyes open and was awarded for my perceptiveness close to the southern bridge. In the undergrowth there were easily noticeable tracks of almost ten giants and a carriage. There were no signs of the captives – the giants were either carrying them or using the carriage to haul them. They are in a hurry – they won’t have the time to cover their tracks, I realized. Just like the trapped giant had said.

“They have a carriage, which they’re pulling and they’ve gone north-east”, I told the others as I knelled next to the track of a carriage wheel. “We should get horses”, Alfred pointed out, looking around, ever vigilant for new threats. Going back to Sandpoint to get them would increase their head start, but then again, we’d travel two or three times faster on mount, I considered. Harsk was nodding decisively. He didn’t like running, and I couldn’t blame him. I rose and we continued further south without further discussion.

Shaken guards were standing at the bridge when we came running. Dead guardsmen laid here and there, on and beyond the bridge, their blood and insides painting the battlefield in gruesome colours. The giants had crushed their way in, pulverizing the helpless defenders in the process.

I could have been here, holding the giants back with Dûath, I thought with an uncharacteristic pang of regret. Instead of a score of dead Sandpointians, a heap of fallen giants covered in arrows and claw marks could have clogged the little wooden way. The fresh guards possibly saw the cold, murderous intent in my eyes and they made way for us as we ran past them. They will pay, I swore with glacial certainty.

Harsk gave a long, sad look at the ruined facade of Gaven Deverin’s brewery. It was completely looted – the doors were broken in and several mangled beer barrels laid on the dirt before it, leaking their remaining contents to the ground. The other buildings around it and along Market Street had suffered a similar fate. Some were burning. Weirdly, there were little people present. Not even bodies. I didn’t believe the locals could have cleared them that quickly. Did the giants take every unarmed person as a prisoner?

“Get the horses”, Alfred shouted at Harsk and Alice as we reached Master Hosk’s stables. I continued next door with the sellsword. The front of the Rusty Dragon was in a sad shape. The door had been pulled out of its hinges and several of the windows had been broken. We ran inside.

The place was a mess – Ameiko had not surrendered without a fight – but a lone man was sitting on the tavern bar, leaning over the counter with a score of bottles around him. “Man! Have you seen the giants? Are they still here?” Alfred asked the figure. The local, a middle-aged man, turned his head eerily. He was drunk. “They took Ameiko”, he blabbered in his cups, “she tried to fight them, but they took her.” Alfred furrowed his brows. “..and you are drinking her booze, now that she’s gone?” The man just hiccuped. “Yep.”

Unbelievable, I thought and shot a venomous look from under my hood, but we didn’t have time for him. Outside, Alice and Harsk were bringing out three horses and a pony. “This one’s for you”, Alice winked at Alfred as we paced outside and offered him the pony. “Funny girl”, Alfred rolled his eyes and went to mount one of the horses. “No sign of the stablemaster?” I asked Harsk, who just shook his head wearily in a way that told me they had not seen even a corpse.

They’re an hour ahead of us, I calculated as we sped out of town.

**

We could not gallop in the forest, so I had no trouble making sure we remained on the enemy’s trail. The carriage, it seemed, had came from the mansions in the south and joined the main withdrawing party at the bridge. I had a moment of self-doubt – were we following the right group, the one that had Ameiko – but I had not seen any other tracks at the bridge. They were moving as one big force.

They had emerged from the forest and continued along the Long Coast Road. There we accelerated and rode for three-four hours until we saw the first of the enemies we were hunting.

In the distance along the road, a lone farmstead stood in the middle of nowhere, overseeing reaped fields of corn, a garden formed of densely packed rows of leafless apple and peach trees and a little barn. My sharp vision spotted two of the grey, hairless beasts and the carriage we had followed. Hope of finding Ameiko glimmered in my chest for a fleeting second, only to be shadowed by a cold fear as I saw no movement in the wagon. The stone giants were completely oblivious to our presence – the farthest was trying to light the farmstead on fire with a burning billet, while the closest was gripping the hind-legs of a cow and cumbersomely lifting the poor animal a feet or so into the air and then slamming it back to the ground. It is trying to kill it, I realized and my brow furrowed in disgust. The carriage stood between them, forgotten for now.

“Black tits of Lamashtu”, Alfred exclaimed as he saw the giants and what they were doing, “let us kill them now!” I raised my hand, gesturing the others to hold on.

“I agree”, I started, not letting my judging gaze wander from the soon dead pillagers, “but we could try to surprise them.” I could feel the collective exhale of impatience but that is who I am – a hunter, an ambusher, a killer from the dark. I didn’t play fair – ever. I pointed at the garden of trees – while lacking their lush green, it would offer us the most cover. Besides, the farmstead was at a feet or two higher ground than the garden.

“You’d have us ride through the trees”, Alice asked me, unbelieving. I shot her a glance. “No – we’d leave the horses behind and approach on foot.” Alfred shrugged. Harsk harrumphed and dropped down from his pony.

We tied our mounts to the edge of the garden and rushed forward, staying low. The fire-playing giant managed to set the roof of the farmhouse ablaze. The other continued with its mindless violence, his back to us.

I was able to sneak as close as forty feet to the animal-torturing giant. Sparing a quick glance at Alfred and Alice who had come with me, I made sure they were ready, nocked an arrow, aimed and let it fly. Alice stood her ground but Alfred was already charging when my first arrow sunk into the unprotected back hide of the lumbering grey monster and burned the meat it pierced. Its cry of pain was music to my ears and it lurched as it began to turn to respond to our threat. I commanded Dûath to slay the pyromaniac giant.

Alfred gave no quarter, roaring as he went, and struck the cow-smashing giant with his axe. A trail of blood arced as he pulled back the weapon for another go. The other giant was quick, I gave it that, and it reacted boldly to our surprise. With a bellow it came like a charging bull and almost reached Alfred. But its thousand pound mass was nothing to a fierce killer one-seventh of its size. Dûath leaped soundlessly, crashed with the giant in midair and sunk its jaws into its shoulder, bringing the monstrosity ass-first to the ground.

The torturer giant finished its turn at us, its movements restricted by the corpse of the beaten cow which it still gripped by the hindlegs. I placed two more flaming arrows into its chest but was too rapid in my motion and my third went wild. I cursed. But the beast didn’t succumb to my death-dealing. Instead, it heaved the dead bovine up and across towards Alfred, trying to hit him with the damned carcass itself. The sellsword just stepped away and guffawed at the lumbering monster, taunting it to be quicker.

“Kill it and get the other one alive for questioning!” I shouted at Alfred, who actually spared me a glance while fighting the beast. “Do we yet know Giant?” He asked deadpan. Before I could answer, a searing beam of light went past me and struck the giant before Alfred, piercing its belly and burning all the way through. The roar of agony which ensued continued to lift my mood. A fist-sized hole where its stomach was steamed and the giant fell onto its knee. “… the puny ones.. they hurt me”, it growled in bad Common to the other that had managed to throw Dûath off its chest.

Alfred’s battleaxe made a wet cracking sound as it dug deep into giant rib-bone and lung-matter. He kicked his dead opponent to the face, ripping free the blade of his weapon as he did and was all over the second giant before one could draw a breath.

The second one, still prone, lasted for three heartbeats against Dûath and the sellsword before I shot three arrows into its head. I like to be thorough.

“Don’t let the cow-beater die!” I shouted at Alfred. He had turned back to the one he had put down, and he just looked at me and shook his head, effectively admitting there was nothing he could do. Fuck. Alice ran past us to the carriage first, then without stopping to the burning house and started to slam the doors and call people to get out. There’s no-one in the carriage, but we came too late for these folk, it dawned to me. There were four dead humans on the lawn before the farmstead. The parents and two children, either no older than eight. All had their heads bashed open like eggshells. The sight would have tied a knot into my abdomen had I not seen much, much worse horrors at the Graul farm. Their deaths just strengthened my cold, bitter resolution to see the monsters slaughtered to the last giant.

But we still needed more information. “Harsk”, I ordered the god-touched cleric between my teeth, “fix the giant.” The dwarf had remained behind, but with the battle over, he was making his way to us. He surveyed the carnage, looked at the near-dead giant at my and Alfred’s feet and his nostrils flared. “No.” There was molten steel in his voice more common to an inquisitor or a judge. “What they did to these people, what they did to my beer..” his words trailed to silence.

“I can’t see anyone inside, there’s too much smoke!” Alice yelled to inform us, standing next to a window and trying to peer in. The house had by then caught fire so badly that extinguishing it with un-magical means was impossible. We had to assume there was no-one inside left to be saved.

I turned back to challenge the dwarf. “Look, I don’t like it either, but we need confirmation that we’re after the right group.” The cleric looked at the giant with three arrows poking out it, a fist-sized hole in its belly and two major axe-wounds to its side and chest, before raising his stern gaze to meet mine.

We stared each other for a moment. “All right”, Harsk finally budged and his dancing lights of pure white played out from his hands, caressing the giant’s body, but only enough to bring it back to this world. The abomination’s eyes opened, revealing pale grey irises. A quick glance and one might think the eyes had never opened – their colour was so close to the skin’s. There was fear and uncertainty there, and I relished it. It deserved all of it, and its fate. It tried to stir and rise but my boot on its throat said otherwise. “Where are the people from the town you abducted”, I asked, keeping my voice as indomitable as an approaching stormfront. “And don’t think about offering me fool’s gold – if I catch you lying, it will be painful”, I added, pointing with my giant-bane gladius. The tip of its blade, of darkest night again as it was in the presence of its Foe, hovered only inches from the beast’s face.

The giant grumbled, considering its words. “.. they are going to Jorgenfist.. Teraktinus is in a hurry.” The gaping hole in its belly had not healed properly, making every word an effort.

So we are on the right trail. A stone fell from my heart. “What about the magical stone you were after”, I continued my interrogation. “I don’t know.. about any stone.. I came to loot.” Somehow I knew where it was going. “..We found beer, so good beer..” I glanced sidelong to the dwarf who was eying the prone giant with barely caged anger.

“Do you want me to kill it now?” I asked Harsk nonchalantly. He gave me a very slow nod in response – I guess Iomedae approved of this execution as well. Our grey prisoner opened its mouth to scream but my gladius sunk deep, crushing the giant’s windpipe and cutting all major arteries. For its help, I allowed it a quick death.

For a moment, nothing happened. We had all heard the giant’s story – we’d have to follow the enemy all the way to Storval Plateau and the Iron Peaks if we didn’t catch them sooner. Alfred was first to speak, true to his sellsword self. “What about the carriage?” It carried no people, that was certain. “There’s just junk, furniture, paintings, decorative items and other things”, Alice told us as she peeked in over its side. Alfred looked dissappointed. “What, nothing of value we could take with us?”

The pale-faced magus looked down again and shook her head, making her neck-long black hair sway a little. “Just silverware – cutlery.”

“Leave it”, I told Alfred and he looked at me appalled. “And have the next road bandit take it?” He asked with wide eyes. I tried to add some finality to my voice. “I’m not carrying a painting of a long-dead Scarnetti prick, are you?” All it would do is to slow us down, I added to myself. We needed to get back on the trail.

Ultimately, Harsk didn’t want to take the loot with him and neither did Alice, so we hurried back to our mounts and continued our hunt. We even left the bodies of the peasants as they were, offering them as free meals for crows and other flesh scavengers.

The tracks were easy to follow, and we rode long into the evening, past sundown, towards the southern reaches of Fogscar Mountains. When we camped for the first night of our hunt, we did it at the foot of the mountain range, its cliffs and peaks looming to our north. The night was chilling, but the temperature thankfully remained above freezing point. I still reached to my backpack for my furs, courtesy of the Black Arrows.

We chose to sleep briefly, without anyone staying awake in guard. It was a calculated risk, one I was willing to take with my panther and my habit of sleeping light. Wild animals we could take care of, and if the giants turned back and attacked us, that would only serve us.

Covered in my furs, Dûath close to me, I fell into reluctant sleep. I did not dream that night, just dozed, seeing flashes of pain and loss between empty darkness as my conscience – one that rarely left its hideout – haunted me.

**

Before dawn, we got up, saddled our mounts and continued our journey. The weather remained the same, overcast with glimpses of the sun, and I quickly found the tracks of the giants anew. They were force-marching, as if knowing they were hunted.

We travelled east and then sharply north along the foot of Fogscar Mountains, where the plains ended in steep cliffs. I rode as fast as we could, making sure our mounts did not exhaust themselves and I didn’t lose the tracks, but we still didn’t catch them up. We found half-eaten carcasses of wild beasts and the signs of their camps, but they eluded us. The second day we ended at the outskirts of Churlwood, a bleak forest thick in corniferous trees and lush undergrowth. Alfred had wanted to stop by the town of Galdura for supplies, mainly food, but Harsk had just harrumphed and used his powers to create food and water for us. Blessings of Iomedae, he had said. I happily took what was offered. Besides, I didn’t like the idea of straying off the path – they had Ameiko, and every moment we lost meant a smaller chance of getting her back alive.

On the morning of the third day, when we entered Churlwood proper, we found a dead stone giant on the trail. I first thought he had perished to lack of rest, but a quick closer inspection revealed two big bitemarks on its neck. Spider’s bite marks, I reported with disgust, remembering the furry, long-fanged abomination back at Graul Farmstead. We slept with our other eye open that night, among tall, old spruces.

On the fourth day we crossed Lampblack River somewhere between Ravenmoor and Wolf’s Ear, and our pace accelerated again on the flat plains. We did not see any people – our only companion was the wind, bringing colder air from the north.

On the fifth day, 17th of Neth, the Iron Peaks loomed in the horizon, and on the late afternoon of the same day, we reached the Storval Stairs.

When Alfred had told us about them, I had been expecting thousand feet wide blocks of granite rising up a slope hundreds of feet, a staircase for gods, a truly magnificient feat of stone engineering. What we saw surprised me. How the lands to our north had been elevated, like someone had pulled up thousands upon thousands of square leagues up from the plains, baffled me. The continous, gently curving cliff reached west as far as eye could see. The stairs themselves did steeply rise to a good four hundred feet above the plains, up to the Storval Plains, but they were only thirty feet wide and in a very poor shape. Time and winds had been unforgiving, and the arrow-straight staircase had suffered. In such condition and being so steep, we could not ride them up, so we dropped from our mounts.

At the bottom, Harsk looked up and cursed silently to himself. That has to be at least 800 steps, I calculated. We’ll be winded when we get up, vertically challenged Harsk doubly so. The dwarf was about to begin the arduous ascent but I halted him, my hand on his shoulder.

“Wait”, I said, my eyes narrow lines. I saw movement up ahead at the top. “A sentinel. One giant”, I explained, pointing with a finger. The creature was a dark blot in the horizon but I could still identify it. A hill giant like Razmus if less threatening. I was reminded of the half-witted, fat prisoner at Hook Mountain. This one had a wooden club over its shoulder, a four feet trunk of pine.

“How do we proceed”, I asked everyone. “No more talk, we go up!” Harsk spat, taking the step I had interrupted. “What has gone into you, cleric”, I asked him, both taken aback and somewhat amused. Harsk was wound up in a bad way. “I’m a loyal servant of my goddess”, he said between his teeth, “but also a proud dwarf, and I cannot stand those devils. They’re unnatural, so big”, he explained. “But that is relative, isn’t it”, I shot the question like an arrow, poking at the lawful half-man with my words. His gaze darkened. “Now don’t you start with that too..”

“I’m in full agreement with Harsk”, Alice interrupted and moved to follow the cleric. Alfred guffawed and started to climb as well, pulling his horse from its reins. I was left standing there at the foot of the staircase with Dûath and my horse. Two massive statues of a standing man lined the top of the stairs, watching us like guardians, as if taunting us to approach. They were familiar, but I could not put my finger on where I had seen their likeness before. Sandpoint underground? The Skull’s Crossing? Magnimar? I could not recall. Another few seconds of observation revealed an emaciated, long-dead figure somewhere in the middle of the stairs – a harpy, given its broken wings and female form. Alfred had told us they harassed travelers in the area, bewitching men with their singing and guiding them into their doom.

I stepped on the first stone stair and ancient rock dust puffed into the air beneath my boot. Caution had been thrown to the wind, and mortal danger loomed before us. But as always, we looked it straight in the eye and laughed.

**

We managed only a hundred feet when the lumbering hill giant spotted us, roared and vanished beyond the edge.

First to see it act, I left my horse standing where it was and began to hop up, two steps at a time, Dûath beside me. My thighs burned like two furnaces but I ignored them, overcome by my blood preparing me for a fight.

Alice worded a spell and took into the air while Alfred started after me, his mithral heavy armor slowing him down only marginally. “Wait, curses!” Harsk bellowed behind us. I would have found the dwarf crawling the stairs extremely amusing had I not been so intent on dealing death to our foes. Because that they were, foes in plural. More hill giants revealed themselves, and the thrice-cursed beasts started flinging head-sized rocks at us. The first surprised me, nicking a wound into my side, but I evaded the rest as did my animal companion. Alfred showed some uncharacteristic cunning and using his magical boots, ran over the edge of the staircase and continued up along its side. Alice merely hovered forward, unconcerned of the flying rocks.

Another wave of stones came rumbling down. This time, the giants had pushed and kicked a pile of them down the stairs. I was prepared and ducked and rolled as they came, but Harsk was not. They peppered him, scoring hits and glances, but the goddess-touched cleric weathered them all, his red-and-white shield held up, roaring his defiance. I smiled at it – Harsk had taken a full-grown boar charge and stood his ground. They were slowing us down, delaying their deaths.

“Do something”, Harsk ordered us as stones and pebbles rained past. The closest giant was a good 250 feet from me. I put three arrows into his bulk and made it drop a huge rock from its hands. I followed with another three arrows, and killed it outright. It fell back like a tree and disappeared, and I commanded Dûath forward to slay the enemies.

Alice chanted a spell and suddenly, among the giants and their piles of rock, ichor black tendrils emerged from the ground and began latch into the lumbering beasts. They bellowed in disgust as many struggled to free themselves. But it gave us an opening to approach. While I remained at my position, raining arrows to giants foolish enough to show their heads, Harsk finally reached my level and went past, breathing laboriously. “Last to the fight again, eh, god-touched?” I joked between shots. Harsk didn’t reply.

Sped by magic, Alice had already reached the top of the plateau. A familiar thunder cracked and I knew immediately that the pale-faced mage was unleashing her terrible powers. A few seconds later a thunderball rolled across the horizon, striking another giant.

I was going through my reserve of normal arrows faster than I would have wanted, but still there were giants challenging us. I shouldered the Carmine Avenger and continued my run up the stairs. My panther had reached the plateau second and per my command, threw himself at the nearest giant and tripped it off its feet. I was gaining on panting Harsk and was about to quip again when I saw Alice glide into view. She had taken a beating and was covered in her own and giant blood. But her withdrawal helped the giants little. Alfred joined the melee, and I saw Dûath rip open the throat of the giant he had felled. Another thunderstrike. Alfred’s battleaxe cut and slashed. Finally only one giant remained, his clan mates all dead or dying around him. Alice hovered next to it, brandishing her crackling scimitar.

“Surrender”, I told the last survivor. Already wounded by my arrows, it laughed at me and Alice and blood flew from its mouth. “Have it your way”, I shrugged mentally and put an arrow between its eyes. It’s body slumped to the mage’s feet and she looked at me accusingly.

“What?” I asked her, meeting her gaze under my hood, genuinely surprised. Harsk harrumphed and went to kick one of the dead giants. He had not struck one blow or cast one spell in the entire short duration of the clash.

The guardians of the Storval Stairs lived in two simple stone buildings and we looted their belongings, taking everything of value with us, including silver coins, healing potions and the like. I was concerned by how much I had spent my arrows, and found some replacements, but they were magical – enchanted to be bane to undead creatures. I took them happily, but they did not solve my original problem. I was economical – I did not want to waste valuable enchanted arrows on foes they weren’t designed for.

From the top of the stairs, we could see several different sets of tracks going at different directions, mainly north and north-east. I identified giant and direbear footprints, in addition to something huge and quadruped. A massive bull? A mammoth? I wasn’t certain.

“North-east. That’s where our quarry has gone”, I told the others as I rose from my knee and nodded towards the Iron Peaks. “We better hurry up then, sun is going down soon”, Alice stated, looking west where the sun was indeed approaching the horizon. The Storval Plains went forever to our north, but the view south from the plateau was spectacular – it felt like the entirety of Southern Varisia opened before us. However we did not have time to enjoy the view but instead we continued on foot – our horses had panicked during the assault, and one laid dead at the foot of the stairs, having hit by several rocks.

As we began our march, Alfred pondered the lack of human tracks. I offered him a speculation. “They have to be carrying them. They’ll be faster that way.” No other explanations were suggested, so the sellsword nodded. But I could understand his sentiment – the thought that we were following a false lead harrowed me.

Two hours later we reached Iron Peaks proper, and for a moment, lost the tracks. They seemed to vanish at a cliff edge, but a closer look uncovered a hidden, 20-feet wide passage up the mountain range beyond a family of massive boulders.

I recalled what the bear-trapped giant had told us. “It said the mountains themselves are difficult if impossible to traverse, but there are passes through. Could this be one?” The sellsword agreed with me but seemed uncertain. “Aye, but it’s a bottleneck. We could be walking into a trap if we ascent here.” Alice just crossed her arms. “But a narrow passage is an advantage to us”, she offered, and my mind wandered to the slaughter of ogres at the narrow stairs within the bowels of Hook Mountain. Alfred wasn’t fully convinced. “Still, they could easily ambush us.”

The pass cut a clean route through the difficult terrain and it was sided with high natural walls of dirt and rock. It might prove too tight a space for giants and their allies to hide in. “Leave it to me”, I reassured the sellsword, “I’ll make sure it is them who will be surprised, not us.”

**

We did not ascent the pass that evening, but instead struck a fireless camp some seventy feet off the pass between boulders. We wanted to rest now and move out before dawn. The magic wielders took the first and last watches, while I took the second and Alfred the third. Harsk woke me up after his two hours, and I spent mine watching the hidden passage from my concealed position. I saw nothing, heard nothing.

Before the first rays of sun crawled between the Iron Peaks, Alice woke us all up. She had heard or seen nothing as well, but Alfred had something to report.

“I didn’t see them but I heard two giants go past during my watch – and they had a big, four-legged animal with them.” I went to examine the tracks again, but still couldn’t figure out what the animal was. Whatever it was, it was massive, easily fifteen feet wide, and it could crush a man with its foot.

We began our careful hike up the pass. As we made our way, I realized the pass had been an actual road in the before times, but something had happened for it to fall into such decayed condition. Finally, the pass reached another plateau and the climb ended. We emerged from the mountains and before us, a wide valley opened, sided by the mountains to every direction but south-east. It was bathed in cold sunlight and we could see all the way across it.

As we took in what the valley had in store for us, my first thought was that I had not brought enough arrows with me.

**

More than a thousand feet away, at the bottom of the valley next to a yawning cliff-edge that fell into somewhere we couldn’t see, was a ring-fort with fifty feet high walls. It had four guardtowers to every compass point, the southern one guarding the one and only gate inside, but they were dwarfed by a fifth tower. The fifth one was twice as high as the others, and clearly from another era, given its architecture. It emanated history and grandeur and made the rest of the fort look hastily-built and shaggy. But above all it was menacing and black. In its sinisterness, it resembled the clock-tower at Magnimar, and its architecture reminded me of the catacombs beneath Sandpoint. That was enough for me. We were at the right place.

But what took us all back was what we saw around the fort walls. There were dozens of tents in tight clusters scattered next to the walls, like baskets of eggs around a henhouse. And they were not empty. Dozens, if not hundreds of giants littered the campsites like ants. And they had mammoths with them, tusked, thick-furred and -hided monstrosities. It was an army. Mokmurian’s army.

And it was not all. Beyond the fort, at the other side of the valley, there was a large cavern on the mountainside, and before it slept the red dragon I had seen attacking Sandpoint.

“Sweet tits of D-” Alfred began, but he was too lost for words to complete the exclamation. “So this is Jorgenfist?” he asked no-one in particular after he had regained his wits, the answer self-evident.

“I don’t have enought arrows to slay them all”, I stated, trying to make a hard count of the enemies below us. Ameiko and the others were obviously in the fort, if they were still alive. How the hell could we get in through the army of giants and mammoths supported by a dragon? We needed an army of our own, but we were alone. An army of five had to suffice.

In addition to the ring-fort and the campsites there was a single guard tower closer to us, apart from the main fort. Its purpose was to watch the pass, so we remained hidden as we begun to contemplate our options.

I took a stick from the ground and started to draw the valley into the dirt, starting with the fort.

“I suggest we silence the guard tower first, then circle the valley without being seen by the giants at the camps and try to climb the walls behind them, where the fort connects with that cliff-edge”, I made my proposal, drawing a line to mark our path towards the fort. I had another look at the valley and yes, it seemed there was a slight blind-side where the fort ended and the drop to Muschal River began.

Alfred gestured for the stick and I handed it out. “What if”, the veteran sellsword began, “we move through the mountains and pass the guard tower altogether, and then go the way Alpharius suggests?” I nodded first, but then shook my head. “It’ll take too much time to traverse the mountains. We need to get to Ameiko quickly. I say we sneak into the guard tower, with me and Alice at the speartip, and kill anyone inside. Then the route is clear.”

Harsk wasn’t happy with my proposal, his ideals of lawfulness and justice coming to the fore again. I liked the angry, giant-slaying Harsk more. But then again, I was a ruthless killer anyway. “What if we tried diplomacy? Ask them to let us in?” The cleric of Iomedae suggested. I just shook my head, slightly bewildered at the idea’s insensibility. “Do you really think they’ll let us march in without trying to kill us?” I shot the retort. Harsk shrugged. “If they take us prisoner, I have no doubt I could set myself free with the help of my goddess, but you all are so reliant on your gear”, he told us, without any hint of accusation but rather matter-of-factly.

I’ll never be taken alive, I thought darkly, memories of the carriage journey in a little cage from my homeland to Canorate seventeen years ago emerging like it was yesterday.

“So speaks the dwarf touched by a goddess herself”, I murmured. “And it felt good”, Harsk replied with a wide, confident smile between locks of his long beard.

But it was Alice who came up with the winning idea.

“I might have something.” We all turned to her. She kept her gaze at the crude dirt drawing and pointed with her finger. “I could teleport us in, so that we wouldn’t need to go through the mountains or climb the walls.” Perfect. “Where would you bring us”, Alfred asked with a keen interest. Alice lifted her gaze and looked at the tallest, black tower. “Up there.”

I snorted. “Right into the lion’s den. I like it. Take out the head and body dies.” If the giants were anything like the ogres of Kreeg, they’d scatter to the four winds the moment we’d present them with the heads of their leadership. They respected strength, so such a show of power must be enough, I thought to myself.

Alice nodded. “But the problem is distance. The tower is too far away, so we need to get closer.”

“How close?” Alfred asked. I took a guess.

“To the guard tower”, Alice replied, and we all sighed. It all boiled down to the guard tower, some five hundred feet from us.

“Fine”, Harsk said, “but how can you teleport us into the tower without seeing what’s inside?” The dwarf had a good point – the roof was out of the question, and there were no balconies. We’d have to go inside blind. Alice just looked at Harsk smugly. “I’ll get us in, trust me. There are windows at the highest level, so there’s bound to be an open space within. I didn’t want to think of the consequences if she teleported us into something solid.

So, the plan was agreed upon. I, Dûath and Alice were to sneak in advance to the guard tower, have a look and eliminate any resistance if it was light, and wave Harsk and Alfred over when the coast was clear.

Hugging the mountainside, we began our approach. The first hundred or so feet we could move in the shadows of the mountain, but eventually we reached a position where simple stealth had to suffice. Two hundred feet of almost open ground separated us and the tower, but I wasn’t alarmed. I had absolute trust in the magics of the Mage Tower of Magnimar. If necessary, my armor would blend me to the surrounding terrain, and Alice could always become invisible.

We nodded at Harsk and Alfred who took positions behind a group of rocks, and we began our sneaking approach. I kept my eyes on the tower all the way as we left our hideout.

As we descended the last feet of the mountainside, my foot accidentally struck a rock, making it move and push a pile of sand and pebbles into a landslide. In the absolute silence that surrounded us, it could have been an earthquake. I stopped immediately, cursing in Elvish in my head, holding my breath. My eyes never left the narrow slit windows of the guard tower.

Alice turned to look at me venomously.

Nothing happened. I exhaled.

Then, I saw movement at the windows. I heard a loud curse, and a barking order, all in Giant. A female voice – a rumbling, deep voice, but female anyway.

Fuck.

We’d been spotted.

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