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

38. Break and enter

18th of Neth – Sunday – 57th day in Varisia

Outskirts of Jorgenfist

“We’ve been seen”, I hissed to Alice and made my call without really thinking about it, letting my instincts take over. Kill first ask questions later. I started to a run towards the tower, Dûath loyally next to me, easily keeping pace with his long bounds.

My heart began to race, and sweat beaded on my brow. My calves and thighs screamed. I had been running and riding for the past five days straight. This was supposed to be a slow, determined approach.

Yeah right.

Alice kept silent but decided wisely to come with me. I hoped Alfred and Harsk would get the message too.

The tower was lifeless. No arrows came flying at us, no bolts of magic struck us and the barren, rocky ground around. Had I overreacted? I kept running, not slowing down, taking steady breaths. There was no time for second-guessing. Hesitation here would lead to defeat and death. At hundred feet I slowed my pace marginally and glanced back – and saw Harsk and Alfred running behind us at a distance. Good, I thought. Alice was with me and I produced a potion of bull’s strength before downing it with one go on the run. Any fatigue I had felt in my legs vanished, and I felt I could lift a 100-pound boulder and fling it at the tower where I stood. My strength coarsed into the Carmine Avenger in my grip and I saw it adapt to my new-found power, becoming sturdier and stiffer. Any arrows I’d shoot would strike that much harder.

Only fifty feet separated me, Dûath and Alice when I heard another growling order from somewhere behind the tower, and a pillar black-grey smoke began to rise to the heavens.

Ittee traako! I cursed in Elven. It was an obvious warning sign to the rest of the army. I had really fucked it up big this time. I ground my teeth together, and kept going my head down, until I saw the commander of the watch, a fifteen feet, hulking grey-skinned giant step into view from the back of the guard tower. She came like a force of nature, purposefully, indomitably. It was the largest woman I had ever seen. It was also the largest giant I had ever seen. She wielded nothing less than a twenty feet long spear that looked awfully sharp.

I wasn’t fazed.

Tallest oaks fall hardest, I thought to myself, stopped on my tracks and nocked a pair of arrows. It roared a threat at our direction, and I replied by putting two arrows into her half-bare chest. Next time, bring armour, I sneered and readied another volley. Behind me, Alice kept running and reached the corner of the tower. She took a concealed position and prepared to strike from the cover of the wall.

The she-monster began to take steps, slowly at first. The ground beneath me shook as she accelerated, coming at me like a charging elephant. I remained unfazed. First the direboar, then Razmus the hill giant, now this big bitch. Confidently, I selected three more arrows from my quiver, each giant-bane and put them into her hide in rapid succession. Each blazed at impact, decayed her skin and made her bellow in pain. Still the colossal monstrosity approached, not faltering a bit.

Alice got some company of her own when a hill giant emerged from beyond the other corner of the tower. This one came silently. There was something wrong with it, as its eyes were glassy and vacant. It had runes across its body, like strange tattoos, and they glowed an eerie light.

I had no time to examine it closer and I commanded Dûath to slay the huge she-giant. He went straight-on at her, like he always did if I did not command him to flank the enemy. To my regret, my faithful animal companion bore the brunt of the enemy’s wrath, something she had clearly reserved for me.

I was taken aback how superbly the lumbering she-giant handled her spear, slamming my panther down with a defensive swipe before he could reach her. Dûath roared an angry snarl, and bared his long teeth at her. But before the bitch could capitalize on her success, a translucent, muscular woman of normal height appeared out of nowhere next to her. A faint golden light radiated from within her, and I immediately recognized her as Harsk’s doing. Wielding a strange longsword that looked like it was made of glass, the magical warrior being slashed at the giant’s uncovered side, forcing her to parry instead of striking my panther.

Instead of turning and charging the rune-covered hill giant, Alice took her opportunity as our original target was distracted and badly injured. She stepped from her cover and lunged once with her scimitar. I had to shield my eyes as potent electrical energies transmitted along the curve of the blade into the giant and were released with a crack of thunder. The giant perished before it could scream, a hissing, steaming hole size of four human heads at her right side. Her fall made the ground tremble and made dust billow into the air.

A second hill giant, also covered in glowing runes, had followed the hulking she-monster and advanced with little regard to the death of its commander.

Letting Alice handle the firse rune-covered giant, I focused to the newest threat. My arrows found their mark, but the beast dismissed the hits like it didn’t feel them. What are they, I cursed inwardly, and sicced my panther at it. Even the sharp fangs of the animal did not make it bellow in pain, nor did the longsword of the translucent warrior.

Alfred broke my concentration for a second, running past me to help Alice. “What was the plan again”, he asked me as he went, trying to ruffle my feathers. I just rolled my eyes.

Alice had her hands full with the closest hill giant. The swings of the great wooden club shattered her mirror images one by one, and the pale-faced mage struck and stabbed back, each hit making the eerie runes on the giant’s hide buzz and glow stronger. She was joined by the sellsword, who bellowed a challenge and charged the creature.

Another angry snarl pierced the air of the battleground and I felt Dûath’s pain flare emphatically in my chest – his opponent had landed a severe blow past his leather armor. Fueled by cold ruthlessless, I pulled back the string of the Carmine Avenger and let loose one more giant-bane arrow. The tip of the arrow hit the wordless, zombie-like giant straight in the face and blazed violently, ending its miserable life.

As I lowered my bow, I witnessed Alice hacking the other giant into pieces. Her scimitar crackled with barely-caged energies, each strike gouging deep wounds. Her choler was up – she wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Alfred just looked at her, his battle-axe hanging limply by his side.

“Finished?” I asked her as she quit. She was panting from the effort and looked at me dangerously, but finally nodded.

Harsk, characteristically last to the fight, came to us, half-running. His magical ally hovered before one of the slitted windows twenty feet higher, but nothing happened – there was no-one inside, or if there were, they were not reacting to the warrior. We had disposed of the guards, it seemed. But the damage was done – behind the tower, a large bonfire, half-doused, belched black smoke. The giants had splashed it with water. Now it signalled everybody in the valley that a threat had arrived.

Not a good start, I blasted myself in private for my cursed luck, but the others said nothing. Alfred even saw the positive in our situation. “Now that the warning is out, the campsite giants might even come and investigate. That means less enemies at the fort.”

Harsk nodded, while Alice was less inclined to agree. I guess she just enjoyed my angst. In hindsight, I might have earned it the way I had treated her in the past. But I wasn’t happy about it then.

We circled the guardtower and found it empty. I cursed again – this time for my lack of arrows. I’d have to rely on my gladii more, if it came to blows. When it came to blows, I corrected myself.

The ground curved down sharply some two hundred feet away, so we could not see the campsites from our position at the tower. Alfred was anxious to continue with our plan, not willing to fight the giants if they came en-masse. Alice nodded and called us closer to her. “You’ll need to keep your panther close, as my spell is designed for four people, not five”, she said to me with a serious tone. I just crouched and called Dûath to me and put my arm around his back. “We’re one. Just do your tricks, mage”, I told her, my expression as serious as hers. She shrugged and turned towards the black tower afar. As she began to conjure, I remembered the bear-trapped giant calling the place Valley of the Black Tower. So unimaginative, those brutes, I mused. She finished her casting by drawing a door with her finger into thin air before her, and then I heard a faint pop.

The world around us went from light to utter, all-consuming black and finally to darkness.

**

For a second I considered slinging my bow over my shoulder and unsheating my gladii, but my eyes quickly adjusted. Light shone in from the narrow windows and helped us see.

We were in a brick-floored, dust covered box of a room, alone. No-one moved an inch, but Dûath let out a whiny growl of irritation. He hated magical travel.

“So, no enemies?” Alfred asked beside me, and I saw him relax his muscles and his grip of his weapons ever so slightly.

“No enemies.. and no immediate exit either”, Harsk responded, his darkvision making him see as well as in daylight. He stepped forward and stomped the stone tiles with his boot a few times, assessing their sturdiness, making age-old dust spiral into the air. The place had the smell of begone-times, reminding me of the catacombs beneath Sandpoint. There had to be a connection, I murmured.

“Watch for that bell”, Alice warned us as she moved forward as well, taking graceful steps towards a corner. There was a barrel sized, round cast metal bell hanging from the ceiling at the middle of the room. Its clapper looked frozen, like it had not moved for hundreds or thousands of years. It had no ropes, no mechanism that led downstairs. If the bell chamber was unreachable, how did one play the bell?

“This is a weird belfry..” Harsk muttered and stroke his beard in contemplation. We had thought we’d emerge in Mokmurian’s chamber, but the reality was something different. Even though we had expertly went past the giant army, we now needed to get down to ground level. I walked to the north-eastern window and watched out.

To my right, far below the fort that ended at a cliff-side, Muschal River flowed. Below me, the northern side of the fort opened and in the distance I could see the red dragon, still sleeping peacefully next to its lair. Seeing the dragon closer made my skin prickle and my neck itch, but not out of fear or awe – somehow I sensed its presence with my entire being rather than with just my eyes. A connection.. but of what kind?

Alpharius the Dragon-Slayer, the thought came back to me. Foolishness. I pushed the strange sensation away.

The giants’ camps outside were as they had been, the guards’ signal having no immediate effect on them. That was strange. But no-one was looking up either. That suited me.

Within the walls of the ring-fort I spotted at least two buildings and a tall white spire, their purpose lost to me for now. I saw no movement in the fort from my position, but could make out singing – a faint hum of multiple voices – emanating from somewhere within the ring-fort.

“Let’s get down through a window”, I suggested, streching my neck to see below. It was a fifty foot drop to the wall that was another fifty foot high. I told the others what I saw.

“It’s the harpies”, Alfred explained from the south-western window when I mentioned the humming. He gestured us to come and see for ourselves. There was indeed a quartet of the flying woman-creatures nested upon the gate towers, and they lounged and sung, unconcerned and oblivious to our presence.

“There’s no other way out of here than the windows”, Alfred concurred and started to pull out his rope. I produced mine as well from my backpack. Getting out from the north-eastern window was safest – it had least eyes on it, hopefully none. “Who goes first?” I asked.

“I’ll be first”, Harsk said and stepped forward. We lowered one rope down, and tied the other to the stocky dwarf. He got down without a hitch. With two ropes tied around him, we lowered the growling Dûath after the dwarf. I went next, and swooped down gently. Alice had some difficulties, first her grip slipping after ten feet of descent, but she at the last second she regained her grip. She came hard the last 30 feet, twisting her ankle, but managed to stay on the wall.

Alfred came last, walking down the vertical plane like spider, looking smug. He tossed me my rope and I coiled it across my shoulder. The wall was perilous – it wasn’t designed for actual guard duty but was built to keep people out.. and in. Ten feet wide of solid rock, it had no raised sides. One misstep and you could fall fifty feet to you doom. If you were not dexterous and if you were a giant, that is. For normal sized people, the risk of falling was minimal.

But there was no cover. We had to advance quickly lest be seen, and before us was a guard tower, hastily built like the wall itself. I signalled the others to wait and jogged soundlessly to its door with my panther. From a narrow opening, I looked in. Only fifteen feet from me, a lone stone giant, a wooden club in one hand and the other on the window edge was looking bored and watching the horizon. It hadn’t heard us coming down from the black tower. We could surprise it and kill it before it could sound an alarm, I planned. This time I would not ruin our approach.

I gestured the others to come silently and turned back to keep an eye on the giant. But as I did, the giant straightened its back and sniffed the air, as if hearing or smelling something. It started to turn its head towards me..

.. and I decided to act. A whisper left my lips, a command to my panther to flank the beast, and I threw open the wooden door to the top floor of the tower. We dashed in silently like nocturnal predators. The giant rotated, but it was too slow. All too slow. The blade of my adamantine gladius went black as it felt the giant, and then drank its blood as I overhand stabbed its side. My crackling lightning gladius slashed its guts and made the giant spasm. Another stab of the giant-bane gladius found its mark at its heart, easily pushing its tough leathery hide aside and finally, a slash of the pitch-black, bloodied blade opened its unprotected throat, silencing it forever. A heartbeat later the sentinel crashed to the the floor like a sack of vegetables.

“You found that one dead, right?” Alice asked me when the others got into the tower a moment later. I looked at her, snorted and cleaned the blood off the gladii.

**
A staircase with massive steps led down to ground level, and the dark-visioned cleric went first, very carefully due to his shorter legs. As I was about to follow, the strange sensation I had endured when I saw the dragon revisited me. It was like sensing a strange smell, followed by a head-ache like a pinprick driven into my neck. Somehow, I was absolutely certain there were dragons within the fort. I gasped, unable to think clearly. What was wrong with me? Was someone attacking my mind?

I closed my eyes, focusing my will, but the sensation did not subdue. Instead, I was even more certain of my gut feeling. Dûath began to growl in empathy, making that peculiar sawing sound he always made.

“Everyone, there is a dragon, or several dragons within the fort”, I said aloud, not believing I had just said that. Alice turned to me from the stairs and looked at me weirdly. “How do you know?” She asked. I shook my head. “I.. can’t say. I just know it.” The others turned to look at me, and then shared glances. “All riiiight”, Alice muttered, “get a grip, Alpharius.” I shot her a deadly look but did not push the matter. To be honest, I didn’t believe myself either. Thankfully, the sensation began to fade.

From the main entrance to the eastern tower, we could steal a glance of the inner yard of the ring-fort. The walls surrounded no less than three buildings, each of different size, and the white spire. But what drew our attention was a massive pit in the middle of the yard. I volunteered to get out of the tower and scout the immediate vicinity. No one objected, so I slipped out, looking to every direction, my armour melding me with my surroundings. I shouldered the Carmine Avenger and pulled out my duo of gladii.

Right across the entrance was a large building with stone walls and wooden timbers for a ceiling. It had its doors open, so I risked a quick glance in. Within were four pens for mammoths, of which three were accommodated. The furry creatures seemed peaceful, eating twigs and grass thrown for them and drinking from massive barrels with their long trunks. I told Dûath beside me to be silent and he lowered his head in response, his lithe figure almost hugging the ground. There were no giants or other sentient enemies around, so I gestured the others out. Coming in a single line, the got behind me at the stable wall.

“It’s a stable. Three mammoths, no giants”, I reported with a whisper. The others nodded, and I continued forward, northward, running across an open space between the stable and another of the three buildings. As I went, I saw and heard a wild mammoth struggle against a stone giant at the other side of the fort, almost 200 feet away. The mammoth was rearing and making a ruckus, and the stone giant was cursing at it and trying to control it with a lash, obviously trying to break it in. Both were completely oblivious to anything around them. I got to the other building without hearing anything else, made sure no-one was watching, and gestured the others to follow. One by one, the crossed the open space. Harsk came last, his armor clanging and ringing. I wanted to scream my impatience, but I had fumbled our attempt to silently take over the guard tower so I kept my mouth shut.

But something within the second stone house did not.

The voice was unmistakably giant’s. But something was wrong with it. Even through the thick stone wall I could hear the anxiety and restlessness in it.

It groaned, like it had just woken up. Like we had just woken it up. “There’s a giant inside, I think it heard us”, I whispered to the others, hoping it would not react. But my wishes were not heard.

At the other side, the side facing the huge pit and the angry mammoth, hinges complained as a door was slammed open and the restless giant exited the building. Its nearness made my heart thump like a heavy drum – it was less than fifty feet from us. I didn’t want to consider the possibility of getting caught in the open. My imagination frightened me with an image of dozens of giants pouring from the gates, a flood of death that overcame us, rallied by a general alarm within the fort. I heard its footsteps as it began to approach, circling the house counter-clockwise. Nine hells. We had to do something.

“Move move move”, I ordered the others through my teeth and hurried forward, counter-clockwise. The white spire, like a god’s spear driven to the ground, came to view as did the northern walls, but there was no life anywhere. Certainly there were sentinels in the towers but to our benefit they had not been built with an inward-facing window. We jogged past one corner, then the other, and arrived to the door which the giant had used. Still, the giant was after us, venting profanities to itself while it circled the building. It has to see our tracks, I cursed, it knows we are here. To our south-west, across the yard, the stone giant was still fighting the mammoth, pulling it down from a number of ropes. Were it happen to turn its gaze at us, it would see us. We had to get out of view. So we stormed the little house the giant had left.

It was not empty.

A blue-skinned, naked frost giant male was sitting on a bed, its feet on the ground and its elbows on knees, holding its head like it was in pain. It was covered in sweat and suffering from something.

We literally swamped it and ended its suffering before it could make a sound. But it was to no avail. Outside, as Harsk was about to get in, the giant following us let out an angry bellow. It had seen the dwarf’s backside.

And from the spire, its call was answered by two shrieks, like screams of two overgrown eagles, followed by sound of something gargantuan rising to the heavens with beats of wings that made the red dragon’s seem like little bird’s.

Oh crap, I muttered. This was not our day.

**

A shadow fell at the open door and we took positions at both sides, expecting trouble at any moment. But the space was cramped, and Harsk had one of his less intelligent moments. He stepped at the open door and drew his holy sword, its golden sheen a glorious sight.

“Oh, there are dwarves here”, the shadow grumbled, a voice like two glaciers pressing together, “this isn’t as bad a place afterall.” Then it came into view – another frost giant with a horned helmet and eyes as black as the coldest night. It looked at Harsk and brandished its massive greataxe. Harsk just looked back at it and pointed with his sword. “You smell awful”, was his retort. Not his finest moment, I have to say. But that frost giant was sweating as well, like a man in an Ulfen sauna – perhaps it had used to much, much colder environments?

No more taunting, I thought and commanded my panther to bring it down. The giant laughed as it blocked the bites and blows of the panther. Alice tried a lunge from her position next to the doorway, but failed to connect. “He’s mine!” Harsk roared at us, but Alfred pushed him aside and challenged the giant himself. “Out of my way, I want the little dwarf”, the giant boomed, kicking Dûath off his feet but addressing his words to the veteran sellsword. “You have to go through me”, he hissed back and slashed with his axe, drawing blood and miraculously bashing the giant thrice his size a step back.

Something huge shrieked above and an even more massive shadow than the frost giant’s blanketed the doorway for a second.

I put giant-bane arrows into the insolent giant to emphasise Alfred’s words, but the fight was Harsk’s. “Damn you sellsword, don’t get between me and my foe!” He shouted and shouldered his way past the man. The frost giant had pulled my flaming bane arrows off his chest, crunched them in his fist and was looking more furious by the second. Alfred didn’t seem to know what to think, bewildered by Harsk’s aggression, and let him pass. Harsk’s holy sword found its mark, but Alice.. gods, I don’t know what went into Alice. She hurled a bolt of icy energy at the giant, hitting it square in the belly. But instead of bringing it low, its powers seemed to have the opposite effect. The wound Harsk’s blade had made closed as we watched, and the giant laughed. “Thank you, little one, something to remind me of home, just what I needed!” I didn’t know anything about magic but you didn’t hurl icy magic at a being made partly of ice. Emboldened, the giant cleaved in a wide arc with its greataxe, hitting both Harsk and Dûath badly, laughing all the while.

Here, have some fire instead, I told it in my head and let loose two more giant-bane arrows. They struck its laughing mouth, burrowing deep into its head while burning fiercely. The laughter ended with its death, but something far more dangerous was approaching.

I heard Dûath roar in pain as the beats of massive wings returned with the all-blanketing shadow, accompanied with a ear-splitting shriek.

I commanded the limping panther to the safety of indoors and sprang to the doorway to have a look what we had stirred from their nest in the white spire.

My eyes went wide in horror. Two adult rocs were soaring above the yard, shrieking and circling like two raptors. I recognized them from stories, but I had never seen one in person. They were massive, no, colossal. Mammoths with wings, spanning eighty feet, talons big enough to catch a horse. And they were coming for us.

“Get in, all of you!” I yelled to deaf ears. Instead, Alfred pulled out his longbow, the one he never, ever used, and Harsk chanted a spell that lifted him off the ground. His longsword and red-and-white shield held high, he dived up to challenge one of the rocs.

“Well, you can’t blame us for lack of trying”, I muttered to myself and began to aim.

The other roc circled once more and swooped down. Talons open, it came Alice who screamed in defiance and horror both. She swung, but the flying monster snatched its talon around her, and with a shrill shriek began to rise anew with heavy beats of wings, a sound like a sudden stormwind gripping the limp sails of a ship. Alfred put a pathetic arrow after her and shouted her name. I heard Alice shriek in pain.. and then the fucking bird exploded.

It’s the spider all over again, I laughed in my mind hysterically and watched the poor magus slam on the dirt from thirty feet, covered in roc entrails and blood.

Through the mayhem, I saw her smile weakly, and her armor crackled with unleashed energies.

The roc shrieked at the death of its mate, a reverberating sound twice as loud as before. If everyone and their families don’t know were here by now, they’re deaf. Every moment I was expecting the gates to open and hundreds of giants come pouring in.

The wild mammoth at the other side of the yard finally managed to get itself free. And of course, the stupid beast turned and came straight at us, the stone giant running behind it, trying still to control it.

Focus, Alpharius, I told myself. Assess the situation.

The remaining roc came again, furious now, and managed to grab the sellsword from the ground despite his efforts to the contrary.

“Fuckeeeeeeer!” Alfred hollered and struck the animal with his bow, trying to get it let go. The roc didn’t even notice his futile attempts, and began to fly up.

“Let go off him!” I ordered the roc – like it would understand me – and shot arrows after it. But I was too careful not to hit Alfred, and they went wild. Wasted arrows – not acceptable, I scolded myself.

The damn mammoth was circling the fifty-feet pit and coming at me like an avalanche. With Alfred snatched, Harsk in the air, Alice down, I had to take care of it.

It has too much momentum, I calculated, precious seconds passing unstoppably like sand in an hourglass. I dropped my bow, not wasting time in shouldering it properly, but spared a sorrowful glance at my bloodied, weary panther beside me.

I remembered Faroth, the way he had protected Ilori to his death. The moment when I had burned his corpse at Magnimar returned vividly and stung my heart. I still carried his fang as a heavy memento. But I had no other choice.

I’m sorry.

I commanded my loyal animal companion, and he went, unheeding of the lethal danger, despite its grievous injuries. At the same time, I focused on my quick runner’s shirt beneath my mithral armour, and felt it begin shimmering, as if the sun was embracing it with its rays. The world around me slowed down.

I watched the roc fly in slow motion upwards with cursing and roaring Alfred at its talons. I saw Harsk taking quick steps, like ascending invisible steps after the roc. Despite everything, the sight of the golden sword warmed my heart. I saw Alice, coughing, blood dropping from her lips like honey as she was struggling to get up. Then I moved, accelerating into a run. Unlike others I ran in normal speed, leaping like a stag over the ruins of the first roc. A bolt of frozen energies coruscated over my head, bathing me in white-blue light. I spared a glance up and saw the roc enveloped by Alice’s magics. In slow motion, it shrieked and let go off Alfred, who began a free fall.

Five steps. The mammoth was still dead intent on going against where I had stood before and I saw Dûath leap against its bulk, snarling, his large paws clawing, fangs bared.

Three steps. The mammoth went past me, and I rotated to face its unprotected back, the gladii in my hands. I stabbed with all my strength, feeling the tips of the blades burrow deep into the beast’s hide. Time resumed its normal pace around me, and the mammoth trumpeted in agony and reared its forward legs.

Alfred hit the dirt like a big lump of steel he was, violently, loudly and without grace.

Dûath had no chance of evading the mammoth. I had known it the moment I had sicced him against the massive creature. He thrashed and clawed again, trying to get to its neck, and I was relentless with the gladii, stabbing, stabbing, slashing, but the damned beast kept going, trampling over my animal companion in the process like he wasn’t there. The emphatetic pain of my panther was staggering. But we had sapped its strength. It was dying as it lumbered forward, a last charge against Alice who had got back to her feet. At the last second, she screamed and dove between its tusks and lunged with her scimitar, a forceful stab upwards aimed at its head. Powers of the lightning were released anew, tearing flesh and burning the beast’s brains. It still went, braindead, and crashed into the frost giants’ house.

I was trying to see if Dûath had made it somehow, calling his name, and I didn’t see the stone giant charge me and club me with a stone in its hand. Reeling from its strike to my forehead, I took drunken steps to evade it, my head dazzled. I really need a helmet, I told myself, pivoting to face the new threat, trying to get my head straight. Alfred was quicker to the punch. He had retained his battle-axe and shield and bodyslammed the giant before it could hit me anew. Not a pretty sight but effective – I don’t think he intended to use himself as a battering ram.

“Where are the townfolk”, I roared the incoherent question as I launched myself at the grey-skinned, hairless giant. My bane gladius was hungry for more blood of its foe, and I drenched it in it. After two stabs and an angry slash the giant was almost done. I inhaled, pulling all my strength for the last blow when my panther leaped out of nowhere and tore into the giant.

“You’re alive!” I exclaimed, never so happy to see my animal companion, amazed how it could still function after the damage inflicted by the roc and the mammoth. The giant perished, but my joy was shortlived. The yard shook as the remaining roc shrieked. I heard things of made of metal clatter to the stony dirt and a horrible scream of pain.

“HARSK!” Alfred yelled in panic. “NO!” The roc shrieked again and I turned to watch as the bird of prey took to the skies, carrying a limp, lifeless dwarf in its other talon.

Oh no. Alfred called out the cleric’s name, in vain, and cursed the roc, trying to get its attention. I need my longbow, I gritted my teeth, my head still woozy from the giant’s strike. I saw things in twos. Still I ran, back towards the dead mammoth and the house, where I had flung my longbow. Alice shot balls of icy energy at the roc but the animal sped upwards and then back down. It was flying towards the upper reaches of the spire.

I reached the longbow and grabbed it, pulling arrows from my back instinctively. My last normal arrows, I realized.

I’ve never been religious, or spiritual even. My brother followed Pharasma, but I never kept any gods. Still, at that moment I prayed.

Iomedae, if you’re listening, help me get back your most loyal servant.

I aimed, trying not to let the throbbing ache on the side of my head affect me.

First arrow went wild, the second hitting but the roc didn’t even register it. The third.. gods I’ve never shot as badly. Half-conscious, I felt like vomiting. I fell to my other knee.

The roc circled the spire once, disappearing once behind it, and when it came back, it wasn’t carrying Harsk anymore. Spreading its wings and letting out a wild shriek, it was coming back for more.

I was grasping for more arrows when Alice took to the air like an avenging angel. She burst upwards towards the roc like a cross-bow bolt, and I saw her scimitar getting brighter and brighter. She was concentrating all she had to one blow.

For a second, I remembered Ilori when she fell within the clock tower in Magnimar, and how she had focused all her magical powers to her mage armor, turning herself into a living torch, in order to survive the 100 feet drop.

The pale-faced magus screamed in vehemence, a clear, high-pitched war-cry and threw her scimitar forward.

She collided with the roc in midair, her lithe figure nothing compared to the gargantuan form of the bird. She looked so small.

Thunder boomed, aching my gums and making my skin prickle, and I was blinded for a fleeting moment.

And when the after-images left my eyes I saw the bulk of the roc crash to the ceiling of the third building we had not investigated, going through like a catapulted rock through a wall.

Above us, Alice hovered, her blade crackling like it always did, and she was smiling proudly. I let out a deep exhalation and closed my eyes, allowing myself to rest for a second.

Then something bigger than the roc howled in fury within the stone-walled building that had just lost a part of its ceiling.

**
All eyes were on the stone house, thirty feet high. The howl died and I was expecting a wall coming down crashing and something enourmous charging out.

But nothing happened.

I glanced south, towards the gates, expecting them to open up and the giant army coming rolling down at us like an avalanche. But the gates stood closed, a heavy oak bar laid across them, barring the doors. The harpies were nowhere to be seen however. An utter silence fell to the battleground.

Alice zoomed to the spire and I lost sight of her. The panther limped to me and I patted its head, soothing him. I felt my forehead under my hood and felt warm wetness. I brought my hand down and saw my fingers all bloodied.

“Harsk.. we need to get to Harsk”, Alfred was muttering and pacing towards the spire, going after Alice. I rose back to my feet.

“Sellsword, your arrows – I need them”, I half-asked, half-told the older mercenary. He just looked at me and threw me his nearly full quiver. I caught it in midair and emptied its contents to my magical quiver, immediately feeling readier for the eventual continuation of the fight. Also immediately I felt ashamed and my thoughts went to Harsk. Funny. I’ve never felt ashamed for thinking of my own survival before someone else’s. Well, maybe twice. But those two people were special to me.

He can’t be dead, I resisted the thought, steeling my resolve. Harsk the god-touched. The up-and-coming herald of Iomedae.

With grim determination I forced myself to consider the situation at hand. Straining my hearing, I picked up angry voices from beyond the gate, but no-one was trying to get in. Like the place was denied to them, I thought, wondering why it would be so. Why wouldn’t Mokmurian let his giant allies roam the fort freely? Didn’t he trust them?

As Alfred jogged to the foot of the spire, I allowed myself to have a quick look at the house behind me. I wanted clues about our enemy.

The massive bed the two male frost giants had apparently shared commanded the room, but my sharp eyes picked out something between the rough pillows of hay. It was a bag, small for the giants, large for anyone else of smaller stature.

I reached for it and had a look in. The bag carried a little treasure, hundreds of gold and silver coins, and some other valuables. Something to fund my helmet, I thought sourly, and threw the bag within my back pack. Within, it disappeared like into another dimension.

I walked out and a wide, pleased smile crept to my face. Harsk was standing next to Alice, and they both were hovering gently from the spire. The dwarf had never looked as battered, but then again, he wasn’t that handsome in the first place. They’ll grow on you, I thought about the scars the roc had left to his thick skin. I ran to meet them, my panther at my heels.

“You’re one tough dwarf”, I told Harsk and clasped his hand with mine. “The goddess has blessed me”, he said modestly, almost intoning it and looked up to the heavens with a grateful expression.

“Good job with the roc”, Alfred noted to Alice, and she harrumphed. “With both of the rocs”, she corrected. I had to give her that, even though the first roc had almost had her first.

“Did you see what the hell roared within that building”, I asked her and pointed at the largest house in the yard. She went serious. “It was a bear I think. But nothing like I’ve seen before. It was massive, and dangerous, with eyes like a demon.” I nodded, not going to suggest us going there to anger it further.

But we had to utilize the lull to our advantage and press on. We were still searching for Ameiko and the other townfolk. Harsk began to heal our wounds, and in the mean time, we discussed our options. I wanted to search the yawning, round pit first. A spiral like trail led to its bottom, hugging its sides all the way for eighty feet or so. It was dark down there, but on its floor I could see corpses and bones lying as one large heap. Ameiko wasn’t among them, to my relief.

Ultimately, we chose to go back to the black belfry. We had seen a single set of doors at its foot and the others felt it was at the heart of all this – the mystery of Mokmurian and the giant army. Reluctantly, I followed the others.

The four harpies had flown to the top of the haunting tower and were singing and looking down on us curiously as we approached.

**

We were only fifty feet or so from the tower when the harpies went airborne as one. They didn’t seem pleased.

“Watch out for their enchanting song”, I warned the others as I put an arrow to my bow, readying a shot. “Oh, really”, Alfred rolled his eyes, but Harsk acted. “I’m going to create an area of utter silence around my shield. Keep close”, he informed us. We were in a narrow space between the stables and the fort wall, so staying together was not going to prove to be a problem. The cleric chanted a few words and suddenly, I lost my hearing. Alice vanished into thin air. I looked to my side, and Dûath wasn’t liking the situation at all, his mouth working soundless snarls and growls. Stay close to me, I worded to him, regretting that I hadn’t trained hand-signals to my panther. I’ll have to remedy that later, I thought to myself and raised my bow at the harpy that was diving towards Harsk.

My first shot surprised even myself, hitting it square in the chest between its breasts and almost killing it right away. I saw its mouth open and close in rage as it pulled back up, evading the arrows that never came. The other three dispersed, each diving down at a separate target.

One flew at Harsk, but did not manage to land a talon nor a blow of a claw. She felt the smile of Alfred’s battle-axe and died in a flurry of axe blows. I nocked more arrows and shot at one diving towards me, but failed to hit any. I got one chance, and then it came, shrieking without a sound. I ducked and rolled at the last second, laughing. I wondered how baffled the enemies were, and returned the favor with a snap shot of my bow. I barely saw the arrow fly, so quick it was, but the damned bitch snatched it from the air before it could hit her, and smiled at me venomously, daring me to try anew. My mouth fell open a bit. What reflexes!

Harsk hadn’t witnessed the same but had pulled out his crossbow, and was frantically reloading it as two harpies came at him. One by one his bolts went wide, but the harpies were unable to strike him in reply.

The one that had taken my arrow died at Alfred’s hands, and the sellsword pivoted on his feet, going back to help the dwarf. Alice reappeared, her scimitar slashing, but her efforts were in vain, the harpies too dexterous.

Time to change tactics, I thought and dropped my longbow before launching to a run. The narrow corridor between me and the enemy was full of allies, so I had only one route. The wall. Pushing myself to maximum speed, I leaped on the wall, walked on it using my momentum, almost flying past Alfred. In the air I drew my gladii and slashed with the one buzzing with shocking energies. I did not hear the agony of the harpy but I saw its blood splatter to the ground. I shouldered my way through and landed behind her, ready to continue with the death dealing.

The harpy had revenge it her mind and I felt the claw slash across my chest as I rolled around, unable to parry the sudden strike. The fight devolved into a brawl. Harsk continued hitting nothing but air with his crossbow, and the other harpy challenged Alice. The one I had attacked tried to escape to the air but I killed it with Alfred.

The final harpy realized escape was her only option as well. Harsk had the time to let loose one more bolt, but it was useless. The winged woman began to climb up but at the last moment, Dûath came without a sound and leaped on her, dragging her back down by her leg and ending her life with a hard bite to the neck.

With four dead harpies at our feet, the situation once again calmed. Still, no sign of further giant activity, I realized with surprise.

Harsk undid the silence spell and paced to the corner of the stables, fuming and cursing to himself. Apparently he had went through the fight without hitting once with his ranged weapon. With a powerful swing, he slammed the crossbow against the stone tiles, breaking the wooden weapon to splinters. The bolts and the quiver landed to the ground next to the remains of the bow. “From this day onwards, I’ll put my faith on my goddess’s chosen weapon”, he stated mostly to himself before pulling out his holy sword in front of him and kissing its blade. I let out a light laugh and walked to him.

“That’s a reasonable decision. The sword and the shield are more your type anyways”, I told him and put my hand on his shoulder, still smiling.

He continued to murmur (a prayer? a devotion?) before sheathing is longsword and turned his gaze to me and my panther. “You’ve been hit, again”, he realized and lights played from his outreached hands, one on my chest and the other on the head of my panther. I looked down and saw my chest wound close, along with the damage to my mithral armor. Any pain I had felt subsided and Dûath thanked the holy man like he always did, pushing against him with his head. I didn’t get physical, but just thanked the dwarf.

“Onwards”, he ordered sternly as the white lights of healing faded and pushed past me towards the black tower. “Yes sir”, Alfred replied jokingly and went with him. Alice looked at me and shook his head, saying here we go again with her eyes. I nodded back and took in the tower. It looked very menacing from up close, like it was oozing some ancient evil. Not really welcoming, I considered. But when had appeareances gave us any pause?

**
“Take a look inside with your fancy gloves”, Alfred told me when we reached the only way inside the tower.

“Gladly”, I answered, happy that for a change we were actually not running into the dark with our pants down. I went to the tall, heavyset stone doors, marked with some intricate carvings, and before I even touched it, I felt the bone-chilling coldness emanating from within. I stopped for a second, having a quick look for obvious traps. Harsk noticed my hesitation and seemed to read my mind.

“I can’t sense anything magical in that door”, he said calmly, and I laid my hands upon it. The stone was freezing to the touch. The door vanished from my view and I saw what lied within.

An empty, dark room, with steps leading up on both sides to an elevated space at its back. Immediately I remembered the chapel of the little flying demon back at the underground catacombs in Sandpoint. The architecture was the same, as was the layout. But there was no magical well at the center of the room. Something else laid there.

I let go of my hands and the door reappeared in front of me.

“It’s an empty space, a dark room”, I began and glanced at Harsk specifically. “Similar to the little demon-bitch’s chapel in Sandpoint.” Harsk nodded, remembering.

“But its empty?” Alice asked. “Then let’s get in”, Alfred decided and started to work the door, pushing and pulling, cursing as he too felt the numbing coldness seep into his fingers.

I had a bad feeling about it and voiced my thoughts. “I still think we should search the pit first”, I told them. Deaf ears. “Let’s have a look now that we’re here”, Harsk commented simply and that was the end of it.

Finally Alfred got the door open and I readied my bow. Air of the darkest, deepest winter was released, making my skin prickle. Sunlight flooded the space and I saw what took up so much space at the center. It was a ten feet wide, rectangular hatch.

The sellsword went in first and cursed again with a whisper. “The place.. is freezing. It’s difficult.. to move, the floor’s sticky with ice”, he lamented and shook visibly. I went with Dûath last, very carefully, expecting trouble at any second, keeping my other eye outside for any threats. Alfred was right – the place was unnaturally chilly. I knew we’d find the reason from beyond that hatch.

Harsk’s teeth rattled as he told me to take a look through the hatch. I told Dûath to wait and went silently. Every step calculated, keeping my eyes on everything at once. The place shouted trap, trap, trap to my face. Still, nothing happened as I stepped to the edge of the hatch.

Gently, I placed my gloved hand on the hatch.

And it opened with a hiss and a clang, revealing soul-consuming darkness and a fifty feet long shaft straight down. The only light came from a poison-green orb of light stuck at the middle of the shaft.

I heard something below immediately.

Kraakunn…. Kraakuunn….

An unnatural voice of dread made flesh, making my bones shiver. A voice that had no right to exist. It was chanting.

The others approached silently, shaken of the cold and of the sudden reaction of the hatch to my touch.

“I can’t see..” Alfred.

“Let me help,” Alice responded, and glowing balls of bright light appeared in front of us, and hovered down.

“Wait-“, I started but I was too slow. Damned magus, I cursed in my mind, as the lights reached the bottom of the space below. There was another room down there.

Kraak-

The chanting ended.

Fuck. All I could think.

“Let’s get down there”, Alice whispered and I saw Alfred nod slowly. “Are you serious-” I began, a bit too loud I guess as the dreary voice returned.

KRAAKUN! KRAAKUN!

Angry, purposeful this time. And it was approaching the shaft.

I managed to take a hasty step back from the edge of the hatch, as did Alice and Alfred.

Harsk wasn’t quick enough. I saw his eyes going wide in terror and he froze.

Whatever was down there, it was coming up.

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