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

39. Frozen ashes and dead friends

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

Jorgenfist

“Harsk! Get back!”

Alfred was calling for the dwarf, but the cleric did not move an inch. I heard YapYap yelp, uselessly as always. The veteran sellsword pulled his axe and stepped back next to the yawning shaft and looked down. “..What the hell is that.”

I flexed my muscles, drawing back the bowstring in anticipation. Dûath beside me was growling, sensing the dreary whatever rising up the shaft.

“Get Harsk away!” Alice exclaimed, her breath a clould of vapor in the cold air and she tried to pull the stymied dwarf away from the square hole in the ground. He’s not petrified, I realized, he’s frozen in terror. Alice too looked down for just an instant, and her fate was the same. Mouth agape, she went still, her eyes wide with pure horror, her hand on Harsk’s shoulder.

We should’ve gone to the pit first, I cursed. But what was done was done. Get up so I can shoot you, I taunted the enemy to come in my head.

And finally it hovered into view, away from the reach of the sellsword. It was a mummy, covered in age-old, dusty linen that had once been white but was now yellowish, like papers of old books. It had no visible feet, as everything was rolled into a bundle. In its stick-thin hands it carried a strange metallic container that had a greenish glow. It looked delicate and fragile and the mummy was holding it gently like a mother holds a babe. Its head stood out proudly, only a skull really.

I took aim, willing my arrow to find its way between its haunting eyes.

I never took the shot. Before I could the mummy looked straight into mine with its two green, glowing orbs for eyes, and they crushed my will like a hammer does a little pebble. Warm blood in my veins was replaced with ice. My back, my hands, my feet all froze into place. I could barely breath, let alone concentrate on anything worthwhile.

It was worse than the infernal hound’s scream back at Thistletop. That woke some innate fight or flight reaction in me, but the mummy’s gaze went straight into my soul. I could no nothing but watch as the events began to unfold before me. My body simply denied taking any part in the fight. A cornered animal in my sould howled. Only later I realized it was the only part of me left sane.

It got Dûath too. Only one of us was fighting back. Alfred.

The mummy remained in the air and coughed a quickly expanding cloud of poison at us. The mage crumpled into a heap, vomiting, but her condition did not break her terror. Harsk, unbelievably resisted it along with my tough panther.

I saw Alfred throw something at the levitating mummy. A small pouch, like a small four pound bag of flour. But it wasn’t flour, it was something syrupy, and magical.

Tanglefoot.

The animal part of me, the sane one, laughed hysterically. The mummy was covered in the magical substance and it thrashed, but its every move just spread the tanglefoot further across its torso. Still, it kept holding the canister in its hands like it was the world to it.

Suddenly there were vicious rats pouring at Harsk’s and Alfred’s feet, coming from every dark corner. They screeched like a mad choir and bit their ankles and tried to get up their legs. Alfred’s shield and axe went to work, pulping and hacking the little beasts. Thinking the sellsword’s too busy to react, the mummy swooped down and tried to bodyslam him.

Alfred evaded easily and just laughed at the ancient evil made clumsly and slow by his tanglefoot trick.

“Come and dance with me, old boy”, he taunted and guffawed heartily, showing absolutely no respect to the danger it posed.

The mummy opened its mouth. Dust and grains of sand spilled out to the icy coldness of its tomb.

KRRAAAK-

It never got to finish as Alfred introduced the blade of his battleaxe and the spike of his shield to it. His attack was so violent that he managed to separate the lower half of its torso from the upper. I would’ve thrown my fist in the air like the crowd does in gladiator games, if I could’ve. But the only thing moving were my eyes.

Harsk regained his senses, but not his wits.The remains of the mummy were still hovering above the dark shaft, but this did not stop the cleric of Iomedae from trying to exact some vengeance for its terror magics. Harsk lunged up and forward with his golden relic sword. Its power would have been antithesis to the evil of the mummy, had he been a bit more accurate. Or simply a bit more taller.

Instead, as he lunged, his sword never connected and he lost his footing.

Through my magically induced state of terror, I could hear him curse angrily all the way down.

His bulk hitting the floor somewhere down below snapped me out of it. Alice was freed from its influence as well and she charged the mummy, albeit making sure she did not slip and fall like the clumsy, short-legged cleric.

I snarled like my panther. My hands moving like mercury I placed my normal arrow back into the quiver and nocked a pair of undead bane arrows instead. You’ll pay for this, you fucking flying pile of linen, I swore and put the arrows into its remains, burning and decaying it. It writhed and its jaws worked soundlessly, but did not perish.

Shit, I cursed as my third arrow went wide. It fought to retreat from the onslaught, taking blows from Alfred in the process. I didn’t know what it thought, but by gods I hoped it felt the pain when suddenly a pillar of bright fire bursted up from the shaft and struck its form, enveloping it totally and burning it to cinder in a blink. The strange metallic cylinder, now free from the mummy’s grasp, spiralled into the air but Alice reached out and nimbly caught it before it could hit the ground.

Alfred leaned over the hole in the floor and peered down. “Harsk! I take it you’re not dead yet?” He was fighting back his signature guffaw.

I heard a harrumph echo from the shaft in response.

I walked to the others, mildly surprised that the true death of the mummy had not began to have an effect on the ambient temperature, not so surprised Harsk had indeed managed to fall without crushing his skull. It was thick, that I knew, like dwarves’ were, and it wouldn’t have been the first time for him to make a controlled three-point landing from a less-controlled fall.

“What’s in there”, I shouted down the question.

Holy metal clanged against stone and made a scraping sound. “There are numerous sarcophagi..” Harsk responded, the wonder of the pious man evident in his voice. Sarcophagi?

“What if Ameiko and the townsfolk are entombed within?” Alfred muttered the possibility I was considering as well.

“I’ll have a look”, I told the others and offered them one end of my rope.

**

Beneath was indeed another chamber of circular form, not too high, but fifty or so feet across. Eight stone sarcophagi stood well organized, each as far from the next. Each had a bird-like figure etched to its face. Peacock – the name of the bird came to me as I examined them.

“You understanding any of this?” I asked Harsk who was lost in his thoughts, stroking his beard. He blinked at my question and shook his head. “No. I can’t identify the symbols, and I’m not detecting any magic on them.”

Shrugging, I walked to one and brought my gloved hands on it. Upon my touch the stony coffin just disappeared.

I let go. “They’re solid stone – there’s nothing inside, not even an empty space”, I shouted so that Alice and Alfred at ground level could hear me as well.

At the same time I was both disappointed and grateful. Disappointed that our search had been fruitless thus far, happy that we hadn’t found the corpse of Ameiko in one of the coffins. Where are you, I asked Ameiko, as if my thoughts would reach her.

Hold on, we’re coming.

**

We didn’t stay back to gape at the sarcophagi. Alice stashed the shiny metal cylinder into her backpack indicating she’d have good look at it later, in a more safer place, and we headed out of the black tower for the second time in twenty or so minutes, hopefully for the last time.

As we got out to the open air, I motioned the others to stop. I picked up the guttural speech of several giants coming from near the pit. Apparently somebody had found our trail of death and destruction. I shot a glance at the gates, but they still remained closed and barred. My mind was boggled – our luck was ludicrous. But the bottom-line was obvious: we had to continue and push on within the fort, even though the giant army waited just a stone’s throw away.

We circled the stable, passing over the pack of dead harpies and found three giants, two lightly armed stone giants and a bigger one wielding a pick. The latter was commanding with harsh tones the former as they seached the downed remains of the rocs and their dead brethren. Our options, as we watched them from the safety of the shadows, were limited. They stood between us and the pit that was our next target, so they had to die. I had another potion of bull’s strength, and we went at them, Alfred at the point.

The one with the pick realized what awaited him as he witnessed us slay his minions with laughable ease. He bolted, choosing to fight another day and running down the spiral trail into the depths of the pit. But we were not going to let him go and warn the others.

I reached the edge of the pit first and without thinking put a duo of arrows into the stone giant’s back. He stumbled upon the impact and howled in pain, but did not have the decency to die. Instead, he picked himself up and continued running. Alfred came to me, panting, his weapons bloodied.

“Can you see it?” He asked, half-shouting. I nodded purposefully, already aiming a new arrow. But I was too slow – the damned brute stepped off the ledge at the last second and leaped the last twenty or so feet to the bottom. The pit in all was at least eighty feet deep.

“We do this the old-fashioned way then”, Alfred murmured and leaped off the edge to the spiraling way. I commanded Dûath to pursue and jumped after him, taking in what I was seeing below – a pile of bodies and bones. Consciously, my eyes were searching for the runaway giant. Subconsciously, I was looking for signs of Ameiko and fearing for the worst.

Alice came a few seconds after me and Harsk naturally a good dozen later. Choosing not to utilize his magical boots, Alfred kept to the narrow path and when he reached the halfway mark, a baleful roar echoed from the depths of the pit. I stopped to listen, but saw nothing, not even movement.

Alfred didn’t halt. “It’s one of them direbears”, he shouted as he ran, “I killed two of them at Sandpoint.” That pretty much told me how threatened he felt.

The thrice-damned dwarf felt even less threatened.

“FOR IOMEDAE!” He yelled as he fell past me, choosing to jump down from a level above me, and falling a distance of fifty feet. For the second time that day.

What the nine hells is wrong with that impatient fool, I thought and winced as I heard his landing. It was ungraceful to say the least. At hindsight I would’ve called it bonecrunching.

The dwarf’s arrival made a crater and he howled both in pain and as a challenge. And was welcomed with a pick in the face that luckily struck his helmet and not his skin. He stepped back and spat blood.

Fuck. Fucking fucker. He’s all alone there. Pharasma damned idiot.The favour of Iomedae has gotten to his head. I stopped, cursing him, aiming my bow, trying to get clear line-of-sight to the giant with the pick who was attacking Harsk from his concealed position.

There you are. Hungry for dwarven blood, the giant overextended, and revealed himself to me as he stepped from the cover of a cavern. I gave my thanks by sending three arrows in quick succession to its back. Already extensively wounded, it roared before retreating, thus giving Harsk some breathing space. Another roar of the dire bears boomed in the pit. We were about to have more friends to play with, I noted with dark humour.

I saw Dûath a level below me and commanded him to protect the foolish cleric. The similarity to the situation at the clocktower in Magnimar was not lost to me. I remembered Faroth, and I remembered Ilori, both lying on their backs, dead. I cursed Harsk again, for pushing me to such decisions. I was adamant not to let history repeat itself.

Dûath made his last leap to the bottom the the pit with grace and charged past Harsk at the stone giant. Alfred went after him.

A thunderball rolled down the chasm and I averted my gaze, its brightness burning retinas. Alice sped down, transported by her crackling magics. Storm step, she had called the trick. Neat.

I realized I was the last one on the spiral path, everybody else having found their way to the bottom. It was at that moment the stone giant’s reinforcements showed up, emerging from the unlit caves. Two stone giants, armed with clubs and light armour, and three direbears, all with thick midnight-blue fur, thrashing claws and ravenous maws.

One bear charged up the slope of the spiral path, coming straight at me, bounding with its powerful legs. Disturbed by our presence and driven to a frenzy by its masters, it roared at me, jaws open, saliva flying. It could rip my head off with one bite, I was certain of that. I watched it come at me and looked at the bottom of the pit.

Twenty five feet down.

I turned and I glanced at the bear, coming to a striking distance within three heartbeats. I saw its other claw rising from the ground, readying for a fearsome swipe.

I smiled at it and did a backflip.

The bear roared its dismay, barely stopping at the edge but not willing to hurl itself after me. My feet hit the ground and I came down rolling. In controlled motion I got back to my feet, an arrow already in my hand and I shot. It burrowed just above its heart, drawing yet another fearsome bellow. My would-be assailant turned and began to bound back down. Oh no, I told it and continued my death-dealing. It made a few feet before crashing to the ground head first, four arrows sticking out of it.

With my challenger taken care of, I pivoted to see how the others were faring. Alice had lost her scimitar – it lied at her feet, but she was still fighting back, holding the line with her four mirror images and Alfred against two stone giants and a direbear. I saw Harsk limping towards the others, sweat dripping from his forehead. He was focusing his might, and chanting a spell.

“Feel the holy wrath of my goddess!” He declared with a bellow before lifting his hand. A fireball of pure white blazed from it, striking the mass of enemies.

He was drawing from the same well of power that had immolated the ancient evil within the black tower. The stone giants roared in agony, but emerged from the inferno relatively unscathed. Harsk’s mouth fell open a bit, uncertainty evident upon his expression. What gave? Were the giants not an evil foe to be vanquished?

Alfred had no such moments of doubt. He split one of the stone giants in half with a forceful down-swing of this battleaxe, and Alice kept slamming the enemies with raging magic powers, lighting the interior of the pit in the process. I left Harsk to his personal introspection and quickly examined the pile of bones and remains from where I stood. From close up, I still could not see Ameiko. The air buzzed and cracked as Alice slaughtered the second stone giant and gracefully snatched her scimitar from the ground, evading a horizontal claw swipe of a direbear as she ducked.

I paced with deliberate calm over to the dead stone giant, the one that had ran from us, and knelled next to it. A direbear growled and died. I snatched a bandolier from the stone giant’s body, and had a look. Potions. Alfred’s battleaxe hacked, parting meat and bone with a thump. He guffawed and shouted taunts.

I rose and turned to the others. They were covered in blood, standing among dead corpses of midnight-blue fur and pale grey hide, panting from the effort, hands on knees.

I lifted the bandolier for them to see. “Look what I found!”

**

The runaway giant had kept a small lair next to the bottom of the pit. A narrow passage led to it, and while Alfred examined the dead enemies and the pile of bones, the rest of us searched his chamber, content that we’d eliminated all immediate resistance.

The sight we come by stopped Harsk in mid-sentence like a surf hits a rock.

“..what in the name..” His mouth worked but no words came out. I have to admit, what we found gave me pause as well. No less than a hundred beards, carefully cut from their dead owners, hung from one wall of the chamber. Each was decorated with rings and jewels.

They were dwarven beards.

The runner had been a trophy hunter. A dwarf killer. Below the extensive collection of facial hair was as extensive collection of shields. None of us could identify the banners, but Harsk knew they too were of dwarven origin. He hung his head in sorrow for his dead kin. I pursed my lips and went to stand next to the half-man.

“Well, at least we killed the bastard who did this”, I said silently, after a moment. Harsk sighed and lifted his gaze. “What do you think, god-touched, if we secure these rings and valuables for a greater cause, to fund the good war?” I continued with a suggestion I thought sounded reasonable. Alice, at the back, snorted.

Harsk wasn’t offended. He brushed his beard, where YapYap was watching solemnly, knowing finally to keep his pixie mouth shut. “Aye. My kin are disgraced already by this barbarian and his filthy habit.” He moved closer to the wall of beards and began intoning a simple blessing of Iomedae, gesturing with his right hand at the same time. After the ritual, he silently began to gather the rings.

Alice had a look at the equipment we had found, and I too identified the cloak of elvenkind, a masterpiece of clothing for anyone looking to hide her- or himself. I grabbed it and wagged it at the dwarf. “Hey, Harsk, something to hide your clonking”, I said, ruffling his feathers. Alice turned up her nose but I could see she liked the joke anyway. The cleric just harrumphed without turning from his ring-gathering.

Harsk had his streaks of melancholy like I did, but the news Alfred brought were particularly devastating to him. The sellsword emerged to the chamber from the bottom of the pit, looking serious.

“I think I found your business partner, Harsk”, he said with a low voice. The cleric had just finished with the rings, and the grim determination to bring justice to his dead kin was replaced with disbelief. “Gaven? Oh no..” He stormed past Alfred to the pile of bones, where the sellsword had pulled the beer-brewer of Sandpoint from the other remains. The cleric rushed to Gaven Deverin’s side and lifted his pale, bloodless head to his lap. “My old friend, oh what they did to you”, he whispered, his eyes closed. The corpse of the old man was shirtless, and a massive brand had been burned to his back. The Sihedron rune. His body was limp, broken and battered. They had beaten him. But it hadn’t killed him, oh no.

They had marked him, like some sick ritual offering to their god, and dropped him to the pit. Not a worthy way to go, I decided and I felt the Carmine Avenger flash with burning heat at my back, reflecting the emotion I did not.

Veins in the young cleric’s thick arms pulsed with bright white light, but there was nothing he could do. He shortly and aloud considered resurrecting him, and asked around for diamonds to support in the necessary divination. My hand went instinctively to my bandolier, the one pouch of eight I had sewn shut lest the item within fall out in the heat of battle. What I grasped was a large diamond, shaped and sized like a big strawberry. My ticket back to this world, should I need it. I wasn’t going to hand it over. Sorry Gaven, but Harsk had to come up with another solution.

My thoughts went to Ameiko – if she was to have the same fate as Gaven, but she wasn’t here among the dead, then she had to be alive somewhere. Somewhere close. I could feel it.

**

While rummaging through the belongings of the runner giant, we had come across a secret passage to a narrow tunnel leading both north and south. Weak lights burned at both sides, but at the south I could pick put the distinct sound of hammers hitting anvils. It was another forge, just like at Hook mountain, an armory for the giant army. The battering of hammers echoed across the tunnels, but I could still identify something weird from a chamber far to our south. Words, like someone was speaking to itself.

The northern passage was dead silent, so the route was obvious. I was leading the way with Dûath and Alice, and thinking that Alfred and Harsk were behind us, when Alfred tapped on Alice’s shoulder, his other finger across his lips.

“Someone’s trying to get our attention”, he said with a whisper, pointing back to the pit with a thumb. Harsk was staring stiffly, warily at whatever was there. I couldn’t believe it at first.

“It was a stone giant, a lady giant”, Harsk added, considering what to do, stroking his beard again like he always did, the other hand at the pommel of his relic sword. “She wanted us to follow her.”

To a trap, I ended the sentence, aloud.

“I don’t think so”, Harsk said with finality and shook his head.

Something was running away around the pile of bones. Harsk shot after her, stomping as fast as he could. We followed in close pursuit. I was cursing between my teeth.

We leaped up from the bottom of the pit and went north into the caverns, Alfred at the point, weapons drawn. At a junction, a grey arm flashed from behind a corner and pulled the sellsword into the shadows.

Oh crap, here we go again. The last one in the column, I pulled a duo of arrows, giant-bane, from the quiver and set them across the Carmine Avenger, readying myself to pull, aim and kill.

But no fight ensued. Out of sight, Harsk and Alfred both were talking with hushed voices. Alice, also unable to see what was going on, looked at me questioningly, and I frowned. I didn’t like it. Then Alfred emerged from the corner, a ten-feet stone giant woman at the tow. I flinched and almost took the shot, but held my bow and wrath in check.

“She wants our help”, the veteran sellsword said with a ludicrous smile across his face.

**

The stone giant woman, a sorcerer of some kind, or a shaman, I couldn’t tell, was visibly shaken. Distressed even. She kept looking around, expecting us to be surprised by her kin – or by Mokmurian’s allies and lackeys, as she put it. Slipping nimbly and skulking the shadows – not a skill I would have attributed to giants – she led us to a remote cavern. It was her hideout, her place of magic – a sanctuary. It creeped me out and the others didn’t find it particularly attractive either. The place emanated hostility.

An empty altar made of solid stone, the same bleak grey as the thick hide of the giants, stained by old blood, commanded the space. But what drew the attention were the murals and paintings on the walls. They were moving. It was like watching a battle unfold where armies of giants and dwarves clashed, over and over again.

They depicted the giants winning, of course. In the walls, the giants were the heroes and the victors.

“I don’t like the murals”, Harsk growled. I snorted.

The stone giant waved off the dwarf’s comment, as if it was irrelevant and he was wasting words. Gemstone jewelry she carried tingled and bobbed as she gestured to us.

“Mokmurian”, she started in rough Common, a surprisingly sonorous voice for a giant, “is afraid.” Well, that’s good, I thought. We let her continue. Giants, I had found, had a way of blabbering nonsense like absentminded scholars of the Pathfinder Society. The key was to catch the gold nuggets from the stream of horseshit.

“He is waiting for you.. preparing.” She gazed up, tears welling in her eyes. “He is dooming the clan, offering it to the pyre, he no longer respects the old ways.. ” Her voice, a careful whisper, grew in strength. My senses were telling me she spoke the truth.

Lo behold, he says, the Ancients are the future of the clan. They are better, he says, and he has lured the mighty giants into a path of destruction with his empty prophesies and false words.”

I didn’t give two shits about some giant clan. Particularly if they reveled in dwarf-killing. I rarely if ever took sides but I was at Harsk’s side in that conflict. “Where are the townfolk from Sandpoint?” I shot the question like an arrow. The stone lady (I had to consider her a lady, given her un-giantesque eloquence, jewelry and leather dress) stopped in mid-sentence, considered my words and shook her bald, hairless head. Gemstones on her dress tingled.

“I tried to stop them, but they still went forward with the ritual.” A lump formed in my throat and chest. The firebranding. “I could not stop it, I would have suffered the same fate as my husband.” The murals stirred, as if the never-ending war paused for a second at the mention of a husband. She went on, not seeing what happened behind her back. “I’m afraid they have been sacrificed already.. or they are being branded in the ritual chamber.”

I saw Alice and Harsk exchange knowing glances. Alfred was itchy as well. Their body language was clear – time to leave. “Take us to the chamber, and we’ll help you confront Mokmurian”, Harsk offered, crossing his arms on his chest.

Damn their impatience! I cursed in my head. I wanted to save Ameiko as well, but it helped no-one if we weren’t prepared. The stone lady offered inside information, something that could be crucial to our mission. And they were not taking advantage of it!

The stone lady shook her head, and a single teardrop fell from her eye. “I can’t oppose Mokmurian. You are my only hope of restoring the clan to its true path.” Her shoulders sagged, but she pointed to her left to a long cave passage that led east. “You’ll find the ritual chamber at the end of that passage. Mokmurian has retreated to the lower levels and surrounds himself with his loyal allies and underlings.”

Alfred made a question, a hint of finality in his voice. “Where is Teraktinus? And what did they steal from the human village?”

“The stone.. Mokmurian thinks he can find the secret location of the Ancients with it.”

Everybody has an higher authority. Something I had learned of our foes during our exploits in Varisia. I pressed on with the questions, heedless of the others and their impatience. “Why is he searching for the Ancients?”

“Mokmurian is so proud.. he is certain he can find the Ancients, release them and become one of them..”

“Why should we care?” I challenged her. She looked into my eyes and I could see the centuries of age she had endured in their glitter. “You small peoples do not remember the olden times.. the times when Ancients and the giants ruled the lands.”

Harsk let out a nearly imperceptible harrumph. While the world at large mattered little to me, I didn’t like the idea either – of Golarion ruled by some long-dead buffoons and these stupid brutes. Alice and Alfred moved uncomfortably too – but because of our lack of progress or the possibility of some old forces reawakening, I didn’t know. “Mokmurian is gathering an army and preparing to march where the Ancients lay and wait”, she added.

I remembered the Kreeg ogres and I had an idea.

“Would the army disperse if Mokmurian and Teraktinus were slain?”

The stone lady considered this and finally nodded. “Yes.. but do not hurt the giants.. they have been led astray by Mokmurian’s lies and deceit.” This is Thistletop all over again, I groaned inwardly. But this time, we had no magically enhanced beer with us. Harsk wasn’t having a day of clemency. And Vidarok was no longer with us to argue for non-violent methods.

The others were stepping aside, making their way out of the sanctuary but I still had questions. “What about Mokmurian? If we are to challenge him, tell us about his weaknesses.”

“He is a very powerful magic-wielder, driven by his ambition.” I waited for her to continue but she gave us nothing else. Little wonder you need us to help you get your mess sorted, I vented, again in my head. I rolled my eyes under my hood. If she saw it I don’t think she understood my gesture.

“Can you at least tell us where to find him”, I said between my teeth.

She pointed south, a dubious, inexact motion. “The gates to the lower levels are guarded by trolls”, she said, shaking her head as if she saw the guardians in her head and the sight displeased her, “when you come to them, you’ll know it is the right path.

Harsk spat on the floor at the mention of trolls. Dwarves, it seemed, had issues with a lot of bigger folk.

“Let’s go”, Alfred said suddenly, waving us to leave. I still kept my gaze on the stone lady. “If we find our friends, and free them, can we bring them here?”

The stone lady turned to the murals and opened her arms like in expectation of an embrace. “The other giants fear this place, thanks to the angry spirit of my dead husband. They steer clear yes.. but I cannot vouch for the security of your friends either, if you bring them here. I cannot control my husband’s spirit.”

Oh great.

Harsk stepped in. “Do we have any safe places for our friends to hide in? Any secret passages out?”

“Mokmurian’s underlings scour the lower levels, it is not safe here”, she began, but something dawned to her. “But the Great Hall is vacant, unused. Like the yard of the fort, it is now not allowed to the giants by the command of Mokmurian. In the Hall Grumelda still cooks though no-one comes to enjoy her meals, but the food storage.. it is a remote location, unheard, unseen, unwatched. Your friends could hide there.”

I nodded. But we’d have to take care of this Grumelda person, of course. Now I felt I was ready to go, so I turned as well, not meeting Alice’s or Alfred’s gazes and high brows. Our path was set. We’d find our friend first, then deal with Mokmurian. And I knew Alfred wanted Teraktinus’s head.

Without fanfares or goodbyes we left the stone lady and her sanctuary and paced into the dark passage she had shown us. My instincts told me we could trust her for now, so I led the way with Dûath, listening, watching, scouting. Hoping.

Finally, we arrived to a massive, fifteen feet wide and twenty-five high set of solid rock double doors. They blocked our way, and they were designed to block a way out as well.

“Looks heavy”, Alfred said, examining the doors. “Hopefully not locked.”

“They aren’t”, I informed him and stepped in front of the doubledoors. My heart began to thump in anxiety. Setting my palms on its cold, hard surface, I used my fingerless gloves of Reconnaissance to see what awaited us beyond.

I didn’t realize it then but I had my eyes closed when I touched the doors. When I opened them, what I saw both surprised and sickened me to the core.

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