40. My hero
18th of Neth – Sunday – 57th day in Varisia
It was dark inside, the only light faintly emanating from cauldrons on the floor with burning coals within. Still, I could see easily enough.
Once, when I sat on a broken tree stump, eating a rabbit I had hunted for dinner, on a lakeside in the middle of nowhere between Nirmanthas and Korvosa, I had had a weak moment. I had considered going off the beaten track, let the world be, leave everything. I had just left Aurora, and I had no idea were to look for my brother. I was lost.
I had contemplated killing myself as well, thus ending the never-ending search.
The thoughts had come and gone, and resurfaced every now and then. What ties did I have to the world? A brother, probably dead? A family from my mother’s side, all dust and forgotten? A father and a family which I knew absolutely nothing about? A woman, denied to me? Why should I continue?
Why not give up? Why not give it all up?
Seeing Ameiko and Shayliss as prisoners, broken and battered, on their knees, chain-bound by wrists and ankles into tall wooden posts, waiting to be firebranded and pushed to their deaths made me reaffirm my ties to the society. I had some humanity in me still. Despite everything I had endured, all the things that had left me hollow. Here was the reason. I wanted to get them the hell out of there.
Godsdamned white knight.This will get you killed before you find your brother.
Ven Vinder, Shayliss’s father, the one who had ambushed me and Shayliss that one day at their general store cellar, was there too, the third and last prisoner. Five thick poles stood alone, but there was old blood next to three of them. Three had been offered as sacrifices already.
We got the heavy doors open with some considerable effort, and we entered, carefully. Alice and Alfred remained behind to close the doors, while me and Harsk took point. The ground was covered in thick mud that sucked your boots.
All of them were in a bad shape. Ven went barechested, his trousers and boots damaged, full of older and newer marks of violence. From a distance, going first with my bow at the ready, expecting trouble at any second, I gave him little attention, only to make sure he was still alive.
Shayliss was least battered. She had most likely given up the fight first. Ven must’ve fought the giants all the way down here, a laudable effort even though he was awfully middle-aged, soft and plump. They had torn her dress, or it had been ruined during the retreat, making her half-naked. I had of course seen her beautiful, womanly form without clothes before, but seeing her then reminded me of the slave girls Horryn had raped and beaten, and anger flashed ruby red within my chest. The Carmine Avenger echoed my emotions. She had truly endured too much – first losing her sister, now this.
“No.. no.. not anymore, don’t hit me anymore”, Shayliss whispered in semiconscious fear, her back and side towards the door. I wanted to tell her everything would be fine but I sensed something in the room. Something dangerous. So I kept silent and continued to take everything in.
Ameiko.. Ameiko was the worst, and seeing her turned my raging heart into black stone. I remembered the day we had found her just like this, under the Glassworks, ruined, torn, beaten by the goblins of his half-brother Tsuto. Her face was barely recognizable, swollen skin covering her eyes, face and chest all bloodied. Her soft, short breaths whined, a telling sign of broken ribs. Shayliss might have been a storybook damsel in distress, but by gods Ameiko must’ve put up a fight for the giants to handle her so.
Still, it was her who raised her broken chin up at the sound of our arrival. I didn’t know how she saw Harsk next to me in the darkness.
“Master Harsk… I’m sorry to meet you in such an occasion again”, she said, her voice a barely audible rasp. I paced directly to her and unsheathed my adamantine blade. “Have you.. destroyed the evil-” She begun to ask, but her strength failed her. I remained silent, my head a turmoil of emotions, trying to focus. I slashed once with the blade, the adamantine easily overcoming simple steel, and one of Ameiko’s hands came free from the chains binding her to the log post. The hand, skin ruined at the wrist, slumped to her side.
“No”, Harsk replied, keeping his voice low as he stopped next to Shayliss, “we came here directly-“
“Light, Harsk, now!” I suddenly ordered the dwarf, my instincts howling like a pack of wolves. Ameiko stirred in her chains and worded a soundless warning. Watch out.
Sunlight from nowhere flooded the entire chamber, revealing the end of the room – a wall with a carved Sihedron Star symbol that went from corner to corner.
Alfred and Alice had remained at the back next to the doors and they cursed and shouted quick warnings. I turned just in time to see something massive emerge from the mud, like a bear rising from a river. But it was the size of four bears. The she-giant at the guard tower was a child compared to this beast. Hunched, it was still almost thrice my height, and its head almost touched the ceiling. It had arms and legs as thick as the oldest trees I’d seen. Its fists were big enough to catch any one of us and squeeze us to death and in it’s right hand it carried a maul made of stone. Covered in mud from head to toe, it shone a strange brackish yellow light. Somehow supernatural or magical, it was still a hostile giant, and it opposed our rescue operation. It had to die. So we attacked.
Alfred’s battleaxe made a wet splashing sound followed by a thud as it struck the muddy giant’s thigh, drawing an irritated grunt. I was already moving, putting distance between myself and Ameiko and Shayliss. In a cramped space, it was difficult, but I wasn’t risking a stray arrow to find them. The ground splashed as I leaped and shot once, selecting to use a giant-bane arrow. It burrowed into the back of the humongous monstrosity, a pin-prick really, but its magical properties burned and dissolved giant-matter.
Alice tried from another direction, slashing with her crackling scimitar. Her efforts were in vain as the towering monster trashed and stomped, pushing her aside. Her magical pack hung loosely on her back – she had probably tried to get something from there the moment the muddy giant had made an entrance – and its mouth was open. If she ducked, something could have easily come rolling out of the bag.
But instead, something went in.
The giant roared a defiant challenge – a bellow that split our ears – and brought its stone maul straight at the slender, pale-faced magus. She had little to do, but she did what she could. She ducked, protecting her head.
At the last second, the giant lost the grip of its weapon and the maul sailed down through the air, and vanished into the other dimension that was the inside of the magus’s backpack.
Looking back, I still have difficulties believing the maul somehow fit in there, but in it went. The giant roared and looked at its empty hands. It wasn’t too smart but even it understood that something extraordinary had just happened. Alice looked up, baffled, and did not have the sense to take advantage of the stupendous luck of hers. Instead, she received an angry giant fist size of a barrel into her chest.
Harsk, believing this towering creature to be magical tried a dispelling spell, demanding it to begone with his throaty voice, but his counter-magics had no effect on it whatsoever. While Alfred continued to hack and shield-slam the creature’s bulk, evading its responses cunningly, I capitalized on my momentum and dropping the bow on the run, pulled out my gladii. The giant-bane sword went matt-black before it dug into the lower back of the monster. I was falling in love with the weapon. It cleaved giant hide like it was paper.
My warm feelings did not last. The behemoth, not having moved really an inch in the narrow space of the ritual chamber, struck out with its massive hands, making room for itself, and vanished back into the muddy ground like falling underwater. The dirt where it had stood bubbled and stirred for a second, but it had gone. We looked at each other, breathing laboriously, considering our options.
“Quick now”, Harsk said first. “I concur”, Alfred said without his typical humour. I nodded and stepped back to Shayliss who had been spared the sight of the monster. She was shaking like a leave, still tied to the post. Scratch that, I thought to myself, she must’ve seen their guardian before.
She was closest to me so I swiftly struck each of her chains, freeing her legs first and then her arms. Harsk’s tendrils of healing light played from his hands, embracing and rejuvenating the captives. Before my eyes, the wounds and bruises across the girl’s body healed and vanished and her skin regained a healthy pallor. But the terror remained in her eyes, the fearfulness that comes from seeing too much violence and enduring too much pain. She fell into my lap, sobbing and hugged me like I was the first person she had seen in a century. “My wonderful hero”, she whispered to me between sobs.
So this is what being a hero feels like, I thought for the first time, as the strange combination of unconditional kindness and a darker feeling of absolute, if fleeting power and ownership over another washed over me. My hands clumsily wrapped around her back, not really knowing what to do, was a bad attempt at consolation. I tried not to think about her half-bare bosom squeezing tight against my armored chest. So I thought about the huge giant that had just attacked us and was still on the loose.
We don’t have time for this, I said to myself, and took her by the shoulders, looking her straight in the eye. Those beautiful brown eyes that reminded me of her. “Shayliss, we need to go”, I said clearly and patiently, “I need to help Ameiko and your father off their chains.” Behind her Alfred was having a hard time cutting through the chains with his axes of steel. My adamantine worked a bit faster.
Shayliss, despite her shock and everything she had gone through, was still Shayliss. “..You’d.. leave me?” She asked, dumbfounded and teary-eyed, but I recognized a hint of added melodrama in her voice. I decided I would not get into a conversation about my lack of romanticism, let go and walked past her to Ameiko.
“Get Ven first”, she said from her kneeling position, already with more energy in her voice thanks to the cleric’s magics. She was still battered but nothing like we had found her. “Screw him”, I said, smiling under my hood. I might have earned his scorn with my short-lived affair with his daughter, but he was still a massive arsehole. He’d get out last.
One by one the chains binding the simple-innkeeper-turned-family-matriarch, our gracious host, my friend, clattered to the floor of muddy dirt and rock. She got up, not at all ashamed of her torn clothes and rubbed her wrists. “Have you seen the others? They were branded, and taken out. We haven’t seen them since.” Typical Ameiko, thinking about others first. I shook my head and moved to free Ven Vinder, not wasting any time.
Alice and Alfred were guarding us, keeping their tongues, but Harsk replied to Ameiko with voice leaden with unfounded guilt. “We found Gaven and one other Sandpointian, both dead.” Ven cursed softly, but Ameiko just lowered her head. She probably had expected it. Harsk was pulling out his furs and offering them to the innkeeper.
“How is Sandpoint”, she finally asked after a moment of silence and wrapped the furs around her figure. “Still standing”, Alfred said, “we had some problems with communication”, he added and I could feel his eyes on my back. I gritted my teeth and almost struck Ven’s arm as I broke the chain around it. As his thanks, he stared at me, doubt a shroud over his gaze but nodded anyhow. I stared back, and Shayliss came running to us. As if protecting her from me, the irritable shopkeeper positioned himself between us. I just pulled out my furs and offered them to his daughter, who took them silently if with visible gratitude before covering herself. I spared him a knowing look, willing him to remember the moment he had found me with her, as I couldn’t help the sullen trickster part of myself. I was petty, I knew that.
But it was time to leave now that the massive giant was still away, biding its time. “You want weapons, armor too?” Harsk offered to Ameiko mainly as Alfred pulled out his furs for Ven. The innkeeper just shook her head, smiling lightly. “Master Harsk, armor will just slow me down.” I produced from a pocket the ring of protection I had worn before we had found a set of more potent rings from one dead stone giant. I flung it to Ameiko, who nimbly caught it. “For added protection, in case of a fight”, I told her. She put on the ring, thanked me with a weary smile and went to re-open the doors with Alfred and Alice. Ven took his daughter by the shoulder and escorted her out with careful steps. I went to pick up my bow and was last to leave with Harsk.
“Why didn’t you do the honorable deed and propose her?” Harsk asked, playfully noting how I have offered the ring. I was shocked. “What, Ameiko? We aren’t-” I began, but Harsk chuckled, keeping his voice down. “No, no.. I meant Shayliss. With that ring of yours. You could’ve made her a honorable woman”, he suggested and winked, reminding me it had been him who had also seen me in a compromising situation with the volumptuous, beautiful red-head. Being a cleric, I guessed he had the authority to wed couples, in the name of Iomedae of course, and to render them with the mission to breed and nurture a new generation of holy warriors for the goddess’s cause.
I found his joke not funny at all.
We retraced our steps, went past the eerie giant sanctuary, now vacant, and into the Great Hall. It lived up to its name, a great space for giants to congregate, and the space felt even larger thanks to its emptiness. The place looked like it had been vacated at a short notice, by an order, in the middle of a feast. Clay plates with half-eaten, rotting pieces of meat were everywhere, as were massive cups, some empty, some full, some half-empty. Among the groups of giant-sized tables and stools stood a lone throne, very akin to the one we had seen Barl occupy in Hook Mountain.
I wondered what could make the giants leave in such a hurry. Every day I became more adept in hunting and killing them, but their motives were still a mystery to me.
It was dark, but some light shone from the south, at the end of the Great Hall, behind a curtain of grey-black tiles. I could make out humming and words. A giant woman, talking to herself.
We approached silently, the clamor of hammers hitting anvils somewhere in the distance shielding us, or Harsk and Alfred mainly. This was the Grumelda the stone giant shaman had talked about, the keeper of the kitchen. Somewhere beyond was the storage room where we could hide Ameiko, Shayliss and Ven.
We told the Sandpointians to wait and moved closer. Alfred, making sure everyone was ready, charged past the corner. I was right behind him with my panther, and eventually first to land a blow.
Grumelda the giant perished easily. She did not yield to Alice’s demand for her surrender. Dûath felled her, trashing the beast’s Achilles tendon, but she still managed to hit me in the head with her large wooden ladle. It was a lucky hit that drew blood and reminded me to really get a helmet or a mask next time I visited Magnimar. I ended her career as a cook with a stab of the giant-bane gladius to the face.
“I wonder what she was cooking”, Harsk asked us, sniffing over a pot the size of a bath tub as the others made their way to the relative safety of the kitchen corner. There was a fire under the pot, and I tried to make out the aromas as well. I didn’t know if there were human ingredients in the soup the former cook was preparing. “I’m hungry”, Alfred told everyone. “I wouldn’t try that”, I said to him with a sneer.
Luckily, the storage room behind a little, inconspicuous, out of place wooden door at a corner was full of both raw and prepared meat of whose origin we could be certain of. Pork, lamb, mammoth naturally. The room was stocked well.
We ate till our bellies were full, and even packed some dried, smoked and/or salted meat to our backpacks to replenish our trail rations. Ameiko, Shayliss and Ven in particular ate like hungry dogs, but I couldn’t of course blame them. They probably hadn’t had a decent meal in a week. As we ate, we talked little, but afterwards, we took a moment to rest and recuperate, Ameiko opened up a bit.
“They pushed aside the townguardsmen like they were nothing”, she told us about the attack, “killed them withouth mercy.” She had glassy eyes as she recounted the events. “I tried to fight back when they came to the Rusty Dragon, but I couldn’t bring down even one.” She took a long, deep breath. “I don’t know what happened to Bethana and Ed..”
Shayliss was shaking imperceptibly, her father’s arm around her shoulder. It was not the cold, it was the mental trauma. But overall she was doing fine, holding up, despite everything. I wanted to tell her, and Ameiko and her father too, that everything would be fine, that we’d kill Mokmurian and his cronies and get them back to ground level, and back to Sandpoint. I really did.
But like with the little boy who had lost his dog and father to a marauding goblin all those weeks ago, I was lost for words. I’m a simple man-hunter, not a counselor. Harsk was the damned hero here.
Alice didn’t know these people, so she retreated to being who she was, a closed magic-wielder. To be fair to myself, both Harsk and Alfred stayed silent too, commenting here and there but not really promising anything. They told about the army of giants up around the fort waiting and described shortly our plan to eliminate Mokmurian first, and hope that the clans would disperse when we presented his head to them. It was hard for the Sandpointians to acknowledge fact we could not leave immediately, but it was something they had to accept. We would also have to leave them alone for a while, when we continued our infiltration of the subterranean levels of Jorgenfist. I didn’t like it, but it had to be done. They are safer here, I reminded myself.
It was late afternoon, but we decided to rest anyway and take a nap. We let the Sandpointians sleep and took turns watching the door, and listening if anything came by. I took out my magical gloves and told everyone to use them if they heard anything come close.
I was second and my two hours went without a hitch, but at midnight, when Alice woke us up, she told us she had watched the mud giant trash the Great Hall as if it had been looking for something. Probably its maul, I thought, and felt alarmed by the fact that I hadn’t woken up to the commotion.
When we were leaving to continue our killing spree, Ameiko was still hesitant to remain at the storage. She wasn’t afraid for herself, but for the Vinders. Alfred came up with a partial solution, and persuaded Alice to leave her cloak of elvenkind to them, earning a hug from Ameiko in the process. Tucked tight under it, immobile, they’d be nearly invisible. Just like the colossal construct we’d come across at the clock tower in Magnimar.
We said our goodbyes for now, and closed the door behind us. At that moment I realized that if we failed in our plan and got ourselves killed, they were as good as dead too. Charming, I thought to myself, what a way to motivate yourself.