41. Master of puppets
19th of Neth – Moonday – 58th day in Varisia
The evening had fallen topside and the midnight had brought with it the first snow of the mountains. The small, insignificant flakes drifted to the floor of the pit and the corpses there, landing softly, a stark contrast of serenity against a backdrop of gruesome slaughter. Heedless of the outside world, we went past the tunnels leading to the pit and north to the sanctuary of the stone giant shaman. We had questions about our foes – or I had, to be more exact, but she was nowhere to be found.
The sanctuary stood alone. The strange wall murals – black, white and red against grey and reddish brown – continued their neverending play. But they were different now with the shaman gone. Like a sentient creature they reacted to our presence.
A giant stepped out of the wall and into the sanctuary like an actor appearing to the stage between us. The giant, a majestic creature, was proud and defiant, and it looked through us, shooting a venomous, challenging gaze to whoever it was seeing. Our hands went to our weapons but I realized its true nature quickly. It roared, but of course we could not hear anything. It wasn’t real. We were seeing a re-enactment of a past event, like a waking dream, I understood, my father’s elven blood shielding me from such tricks of the mind. Out of nowhere dozens of speartips and axe-blades struck the roaring giant’s hide and brought it to its knees. Black blood spattered to the floor, gushing from a dozen wounds, only to vanish the moment it landed. It tried to fight its unseen opponents, and got up, despite the beating it was getting. I was looking at it transfixed as it pulled out a great axe and slashed once horizontally, its unreal blade cutting through us all. Alice and Harsk both flinched as the non-corporeal dream blade went through them but did no harm.
“So that was her mate”, Alfred murmured as the last light of life disappeared from the giant’s eyes, its body ruined and dead, before it vanished completely. He was referring to the shaman’s story about her husband being killed by Mokmurian.
“He looked angry”, Harsk noted and brushed his beard. I snorted. Facing such a betrayal and demise I would’ve been too.
We decided to take the shaman’s advice and go right from her sanctuary. The route led back to the Great Hall and into a narrow passage south. It was the same direction we originally had been planning to go, before the shaman had interrupted us, so I felt certain we were taking the safer route.
What I didn’t feel certain about however was Alfred at the point walking briskly and loudly like he was having a Starday evening stroll at a whorehouse, with a damn light spell set on his shield like a big HERE WE ARE sign, courtesy of Alice. I felt at home in the underground, the environment reminding me of the tunnels and catacombs beneath the Horryn estates. It was just another arena for death-dealing, like the forests and the city streets. I had trained here, or in environments like this cavern. But here there was no light. Absolutely nothing to help with seeing. The damned brutes had all darkvision, and didn’t need any. I could see in moon or starlight as well as in daylight, but pitch-black was too much. So I had to suffer the lights of Alice and Alfred, even through they announced our approach like a sounding war horn of an invading army.
We didn’t get far before we ran to our first resistance. But instead of being yet another hairless, grey-skinned giant, our foe was something smaller.
We emerged into a circular room forty or so feet across. In the weak light of candles and Alfred’s shiny shield, I could see neatly assembled piles of various items. Somebody had went into great lengths in gathering and assorting them next to the walls – I could see little bones, dead rats, stones, broken weapons, and the like. There was even a small hammock hanging from the low ceiling. This was a small person’s home, but it was vacant. Or so we thought.
The kobold came with a angry screetch, appearing literally from nowhere.
“Take out the liiiight”, it hollered, storming Harsk and thrusting a very sharp, very magical short spear at him. The dwarf grunted in pain, a clean stab on his shield arm, and stepped back. Blood trickled down his sleeve.
I had seen kobolds in passing, but really only heard and read about them. I knew they were descendants, or relatives, of mighty dragons. But looking at the little mad reptile person charging Harsk, whining about the lights we carried, I would’ve believed them to be more akin to viviparous lizards, so little was the threat the raging, skinny beast in a loin cloth and breastplate presented.
I was about to get a lesson in humility. It didn’t change my opinion of kobolds however – those goblin-like little bastards.
In the near darkness, I still managed to put an arrow into its side. I smiled, satisfied with my skill, but my complacent smile died quickly. The damned two-legged lizard freak didn’t even notice the arrow. Actually, it popped out of the little wound it had burned and fell on the dirt floor like a discarded handkerchief.
Everything went to hysterical hell after that.
Harsk tried to cool its temper by killing his magical light, but it had no effect. Its blood was up. We circled it, stabbing and slashing at it from every direction but the skinny creature evaded our attempts to bring it down. It was not our proudest moment – five against one, and it was holding its own.
None of us realized it at the moment but I remember it fingering a necklace of glowing red orbs. Alice later identified them as the necklace of fireballs. It had contemplated violent, fiery suicide by turning the entire cavern into molten slag.
Lucky for us it never did manage to try that.
I didn’t see it properly, but it saw me. It managed a few words before Alfred’s shield finally knocked it unconscious. It wounded me once, twice and almost thrice in succession with its spear, but instead of keeping up the attack, it groaned (if kobolds can groan).
“Didn’t I kill you already?” It asked me, baffled, in the darkness, between its dance of thrusts, evasions and parries. I have to admit it baffeld the hell out of me too.
What the nine hells is that supposed to mean? Questions began to cloud my mind, disturbing me. Had it seen someone like me before? Had it seen Macharius? Was the beast holding a lead on my brother? Had this little mongrel killed my brother? I couldn’t believe it. Still, the questions remained.
I never got an answer, but it got a spiked shield to its forehead. Now unconscious, we tied it up by its hands and legs, brought it back to life and began to interrogate it. The kobold was in complete state of shock and panic. As a source of information, it was beyond useless, and on top of it the little beast was making a ruckus. A pity – my questions about its strange outburst nagged me like a pebble in a boot. But we simply didn’t have the time to wait for it to cool down. Its thrashing and wailing ended with a clean, economic slash of my gladius and we left it lying on a spreading pool of blood.
The kobold’s lair hid a narrow tunnel south-west, but we left it unexplored. It was too narrow for giants, hence, probability of finding Mokmurian there was minuscule. Instead, we went east, trying to stay as silent as possible, and with Harsk, YapYap and Alfred, or course failing miserably. The recognizable sounds of a forge – hammers rhytmically hitting steel – approached with every step. Finally, a path to the forge loomed before us.
Harsk and Alfred had promised, in essence, for the shaman stone giant that we would spare the giants we could. But the stone giant, who marched out of the forge to see who made the clanking and clonking sounds outside and were audible over the thunder of hammers, was someone who had already earned a swift death.
“Is that Teraktinus”, I whispered to Alice as the stone giant leader emerged from the glow and heat of the forge chamber. He regarded us with a contemptuous smile before brandishing his pair of picks, the other man-sized, the other a humongous tool for quarry work and battle both. Seeing the latter weapon I did not envy Alfred. Getting struck by it must have hurt. Alice nodded in reply to my question and gripped her scimitar tighter, her eyes boring into our latest challenger.
“You little ones are in the wrong place”, Teraktinus growled slowly, each word a separate threat, the scornful smile never leaving his face. The picks were at his side, the sharp heads pointing at us. It weirdly reminded me of two cobras preparing to strike.
I couldn’t see his face but Alfred’s body language, the slight tension and twitches of muscles told me all I needed to know. He was at the fore, Harsk a few steps behind him. Continuation of violence was imminent.
The story of my life, I reflected with no self-pity. This is the life I lead. My right hand went to my quiver without me thinking it.
“We’re exactly at the right place”, Harsk replied coolly, pointing at the stone giant with his golden sword touched by a goddess. It was as if the dwarf had given the sellsword a wordless order, and Alfred sprang into a charge like a rabid dog. I guess he harboured some ill feelings towards Teraktinus about getting his face caved in with a single blow.
Before Alfred could reach his prey, Harsk’s hands spread out and he chanted words of magic, and in a blink, a torrent of flying magical swords and knives enveloped the stone giant. It was a disc shaped hurricane of sharp metal. It was beautiful. Teraktinus’s smug smile died and he screamed horribly, fighting his way forward, out of the torrent that was something from a lumber mill. Cut from a dozen places, he stepped straight into a bellowing Alfred who shield-slammed him straight back into the steel hurricane. A softer soul would have pitied him, but I didn’t. I shot arrows just to spite him, each adding to his plight, each driving him closer to his end.
I heard ogres from the south, coming to Teraktinus’s aid. But they were helplessly late. The stone giant leader made a fool of himself, feebly trying to fight Alfred from the torrent, managing only to hit himself with his larger pick and missing the sellsword and getting his smaller pick stuck into the rocky floor. Alfred just laughed heartily in glee, enjoying the giant’s suffering. He kicked the arm off the pick in the ground, making the giant stumble and prepared to end the leader with a swipe of his axe as he brought the weapon back.
He never got to land the vengeful blow. Instead, Harsk brought justice to the people of Sandpoint Teraktinus had slain and captured, and bathed him in holy fire. The all-consuming wrath of the flames exploded from nowhere and drowned the death-wail of the stone giant. That, or he died before he could scream.
As the charred corpse slumped to the ground beneath the steel hurricane, Alfred roared in anger and dissappointment, and turned to the cleric. “He was MINE to kill”, he shouted, but Harsk was not paying any attention to him. He was already turning to face the two ogres who came at us with a charge. Echoing from the forge, I could make out the deep voices of two more giant-kind foes.
So much for the promise to the shaman, I thought as I leaped into the melee with my gladii at the ready, saving my arrows for another fight.
A minute later the remains of two ogres and two stone giants adorned the ground around us. Alfred had seen something of interest within the metalworks, so Harsk dispelled the torrent of swords and we entered the forge proper.
We found more prisoners. Five dwarves, cramped in a small cage with a bellow beneath them. They had been serving as slave labour, working the bellow with their feet to feed the fire next to their cage.
I thought they were children at first. Then I realized it – their heads were shaven, and instead of beards they had stumps of hair, like someone who had only seen scissors once before had cut their beards. They were languid and emaciated. All were wearing dirty rags. Harsk ran to them, alarmed, with Alice in tow. I remained back, to keep an eye on the caverns. In excited if hushed voices they introduced themselves and I couldn’t make out their names. In my head I named them A, B, C, D and E. The pale-faced magus found the key to their cage and freed them, gaining their immediate devotion.
Alice and the five dwarves. I was certain I had heard a tale with a similar name as a boy.
Despite Harsk’s assurances and soft questions, they were soon blabbering, unable to shed any light on where to find Mokmurian, but demanding the right to come along, as a token of their gratitude to their saviours. We couldn’t say no to dwarven pride of course, and they picked up hammers and anything they could use as makeshift weapons. They’d prove a good distraction in fights, I thought as I watched the beardless halfmen make ready to come with us, as long as they’d stay out of our way. There was uncertainty in Harsk’s eyes, but if he feared for their lives, he did not say anything. Instead, he tried to chat about how they had gotten here in the first place. It turned out that they were adventurers and treasure hunters from a small dwarven village in Northern Varisia. During their travels in Storval Deep they had been caught by the giants and brought here. They too had been branded with the Sihedron rune, but instead of losing their lives as unholy sacrifices, they had only lost their beards. After dying I guess that was the second worse thing that could happen to a male dwarf.
As they spoke I wondered if Harsk carried their beard-rings among the hundred other in his bag. He wisely kept the information of the possibility as his own.
We continued further into the bowels of the underground caverns. There was really only one route forward – a long passage east through a cavern of mammoth furs for bedding and rocks for pillows. We went past them, arriving to a junction leading north and south-east. North promised strange lights and beastial groans. The back of my head hurt as I watched, and again I knew fora fact that a dragon was somewhere there. I didn’t say it aloud – I didn’t want to make a fool of myself again, but I argued that Mokmurian would probably be somewhere deeper in the caverns. So we decided, or Harsk did, to continue south-east, into a downward sloping tunnel, sided by walls covered in furs and leather. The cleric stomped forward, considering the matter resolved. We turned to follow his lead.
I should’ve seen the trap from a mile away. The only warning I got was Dûath snarling and peering at Harsk, his senses picking out the scent of enemies beyond line of sight.
A ranseur stabbed from a narrow, hidden slit behind curtain of leathers on the rock wall, hitting Harsk and surprising him completely. The stout cleric cursed, backing away, bleeding badly from his abdomen. I was moving, trying to get a shot, Alfred right behind me. He was franctically pulling the leathers down, one by one, revealing openings to a space behind each of the walls. I couldn’t get a decent shot, but I saw what lurked in ambush. It was one of the trolls the giant shaman had warned us about.
“One on both sides”, I shouted the warning, my keen hearing making out the movement of the second troll preparing to strike from the opposite side. Alice flung a fireball at the Harsk’s attacker, buying us time and space to maneuvre. I backed to the other wall, making sure there were no hidden slits behind me. I was cursing, feeling useless. I had no targets.
Harsk changed that. Touching the wall beside me, he murmured a spell and suddenly the solid rock gave way like a door. I heard a troll roar a challenge to Harsk, who responded with his own battlecry and went in, heedless of any danger, still bleeding profusely from his first wound.
“Help Harsk”, Alfred told me as he and Alice ran past me further down the passage, looking for a way in to the space occupied by the original, now partly crisped, ambusher. I could smell burned meat and I scowled, before throwing the Carmine Avenger over to my back and pulling out my gladii. I don’t have enough arrows anyway.
Before I could move after Harsk, one of the beardless dwarves ran into the opening Harsk had made, while the rest followed Alice like a pack of puppies. Angry puppies, that is. I sighed and went in, my cloak billowing, commanding Dûath with me and immediately ordering him to attack as the troll came to view behind the corner. It was a cramped space, made dangerous by the wildly slashing troll-beast and the two dwarves upon it like mad bees. My adamantine blade went matt-black in expectation of giant-kind blood as I joined the fray.
The cleric of Iomedae was in a bad shape. Serving as the primary meat-shield wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing. We had the other dwarf for that. And Alfred. “Remember what Shalelu said, use fire, fire!” I yelled at him, trying to remind him of the regenerateive abilities these monsters had. I stabbed the troll once and ducked under its return strike, drawing its attention to myself. It had a stupid face but damn it was quick. The ranseur wooshed above me and carved only air. Something I said got through the cleric’s thick skull and he stepped away, but he was too slow, too hesitant. Too damned proud to step back from danger. The troll, sensing the opportunity, thrusted once at Harsk and the speartip went cleanly through him.
The troll pulled out its weapon in a swift motion. Blood pulped from Harsk’s mouth and the gaping wound on his chest. His eyes were looking at nowhere and he fell on his back, the momentum pushing him away from the fight and into the passage. The troll just laughed as he fell and slammed the beardless dwarf against the wall, crushing his skull in the process like batting a fly off the air.
“That wasn’t nice”, I said to the troll through clenched teeth and prepared to kill the bastard for hurting Harsk. “Narki“, I told Dûath and the panther leaped on the troll with a snarl, jaws closing on its throat, ripping, bringing the giant-kind beast down on its arse.
“My blade might not be made of fire”, I continued telling the troll, biding my time as it trashed on the floor with my panther, “but it has been forged to kill your kind.” I began to pound it to death without mercy, cutting and stabbing with both of my blades. The ranseur clanged as it landed on the rocky dirt. The beast bellowed in pain.. but did not die. Every time I pulled my sword out of its meat, I could see the damage being unmade before my eyes.
“DIE ALREADY”, I yelled half in contempt, half in desperation at it as I hacked and stabbed, rivets of black, thick troll blood flying everywhere. I got some on my face. The bastard’s regenerative abilities were tremendous, keeping it barely alive despite the violence me and my animal companion were bringing to bear.
From the passage I heard the alarmed shouts of the other dwarves, calling Harsk’s name, shouting us to come and help him. Harsk has survived worse, I thought and kept stabbing at the troll on the ground, knuckles white, droplets of sweat beading on my forehead. Dûath was as relentless with his claws and fangs. I think the troll had ceased to have a recognizable face at some point. When it stopped shaking and fighting, I commanded Dûath away and cut its head off with one forceful swipe.
Breathing deeply once I looked at its bloody, ruined form and narrowed my eyes. “Regenerate from that.”
As the torso didn’t start grow a new head to replace the lost one, I felt certain enough to have a look at my god-touched friend.
One of the dwarfs was holding Harsk’s head on his lap and urgently calling for help. I went to them, kneeled, and pulled out a pouch I had filled with herbs, leaves, small potions and bandages and started to work on the wound Harsk had received onto his chest. The troll had missed his heart, but just barely. The cleric was unconscious, pale as linen and breathing with some difficulty.
“Shut up”, I told the bearless dwarf who kept urging me to help his kinsman. He was ruining my concentration. He held his tongue but I could feel his angry, hurt gaze on me. I didn’t pay him any attention. I promptly applied the herbs and the potions, one by one, on the wound. A dying troll growled somewhere to my left and stumbled to the dirt with a thud. Alice and Alfred were taking care of their side of business.
My gloved hands were covered in Harsk’s bright red blood but I worked without thinking. Only later I realized this was my first battlefield treatment of wounds I had conducted. Ever. This had been part of my hunter’s training, but I had never actually done this to anyone. Why would have I? I walked alone. Or I had, until I had arrived to Sandpoint. I was out of practice and my ministrations weren’t healing magic, but it worked. The bleeding ended, and colour started to return to Harsk’s cheeks. His breaths were still quick and shallow however. Too bad Harsk’s couldn’t heal himself when he was unconscious.
Alice jogged to us from somewhere deeper in the cavern. “We got the other troll”, she informed me and looked at Harsk with a frown. “How’s he?”
“Hanging in there. Our foe skewered Harsk, but died for it. I’ve halted the bleeding, but do you have a healing potion got get him to his feet?” I explained, still down next to the cleric. I had one potion, but that was for real emergencies. I concluded this was not an emergency anymore. She looked at me quizzically before digging one from her backpack and flinging it to me. I caught it and downed its contents between the dwarf’s bloodied lips. When he woke up, he emerged from something like winter slumber, all delirious and croggy.
“.. I already saw my old mother”, he groaned as his first words. “That bad dreams, huh?” I asked him but he didn’t answer.
We gathered any valuables the guardian trolls were carrying, and beardless dwarves said their goodbyes to to their friend that had got his skull cracked like an egg.
The caverns narrowed into a tunnel that went a long way down deeper underground. We must have walked for at least ten minutes, unimpeded but taking great care to listen and watch for further ambushes. As we progressed, I noted how signs of masonry started to emerge. Whereas the earlier caves felt both natural and dug out, somebody had built a complete underground structure here millenia ago.
The same builders had also seen that there were no rough edges either, I realized when masonry replaced dirt walls completely and we walked into a junction. Every possible corner had been rounded up, the stones between walls, floor and ceiling ground so that only curved forms remained.
Harsk’s hand went across one curved corner. “I’ve heard of evil outsiders that live at the edges of time itself, and such mortal architecture without clear angles is anathema to them”, he whispered, deep in his thoughts. I watched him examine the stones in the glow of Alfred’s shield. “They what?” I asked, frowning. Mysticism, the Planes and arcane lore were not my topics of interest.
Harsk turned to us and tried to explain, but was lost for words at first. It was a really abstract issue. “Normal mortals live on the pathway of time, but these creatures, they live on its angles, preying on those who disturb the fourth dimension.” Alice was nodding, but Alfred looked just as lost as I did. Harsk saw he had lost us and sighed. “.. and they enter the mortal realm through angles, but here they cannot..”
“Yeah yeah, angles, curves, time pathways, whatever”, Alfred said impatiently and gestured us to move, “I’ve got a curve right here for them”, he said as he continued and brandished his battle-axe.
He led us south from the junction, towards a room at the end of a passage. It looked empty from a distance, but the closer we got, the more I felt something was horribly wrong in it. Looking at it felt wrong, strange. I saw a door at the room’s opposite side only 20 or so feet away, but whenever I looked away from the door, it appeared to be ten times farther. My head began to hurt, the things I was seeing perplexing my brain. “Do you.. see it too?” Alfred asked, bewilderment evident in his voice. “Yes”, Harsk spat and said a few words under his breath. Suddenly, we were within something akin to a glass dome that moved around Harsk, expanding five steps out from wherever he was standing. I could see the edge of the dome but knew instantly that they were not physical but magical, manifestation of Harsk’s powers. At its edges, I swore I could see faint tendrils of utter black coursing around it, touching it before recoiling away. But whenever I focused, I saw nothing. “A circle of protection from evil”, Harsk explained. Standing at the passage and gazing at the room in front of us, it still looked like the dimensions were wrong at the periphery of my vision, but I had to admit I felt more confident stepping in within Harsk’s dome.
We told the four beardless dwarves to remain at the back and Alfred went first, careful to stay within the dome of protection. He stopped immediately, seeing something to his left. Behind him I peeked around the corner. The sellsword cursed softly and gripped his weapons tighter.
At the back of the room that extended (30 feet? 300 feet?) to the east, a lone hill giant stood in the corner, its back to us. I can’t say but it sounded like it was whimpering, like a reprimanded child. Like the hill giants at the watchtower, this one was wearing little more than rags and its skin was covered in eerily glowing runes.
“What should we do?” Alfred asked us in a low voice. Harsk pushed forward to have a look. “It’s not reacting to us, so maybe we should let it be”, he offered and the rest of us collectively shrugged. After all, we were kind of supposed not to kill giants anymore. Or at least try not to.
I silently paced to the heavyset door at the opposite side, counting my steps in my mind. It was 15 feet away, even though when I turned my head, it wasn’t. I laid my gloved hands on its surface and gazed in.
Within, another short tunnel that opened to a room. Gloomy light like dark blood emanated from somewhere, from a source beyond the corner of the opening. I made out a faint crackle – something was burning. The place reeked of both foulness and importance. I turned to tell the others what I saw beyond the closed door, but it that attracted the interest of the whimpering rune-covered giant. As I whispered, it slowly and wordlessly turned to regard us.
There was only death in its eyes, nothing else. It didn’t move.
Alice tried a few words of Giant she had picked up during our adventures. One thing I had learned of the mage woman was that she was damned sharp with languages. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she learned Thassilonian soon too.
The hill giant did not react to Alice. “To me”, Alfred whispered and gestured us to form a line between the giant and Harsk. We carefully did, keeping ourselves within the protective boundary of Harsk’s magical dome. The crazy giant did not like it. It came without warning, without making any sound. It was barehanded and the fact made it even more eerie. It had chosen Alfred as its target, but the sellsword blocked its fists with his spiked shield before hacking once in return with his axe. It tried to push back the man, but I was already there to help. My giant-bane gladius stabbed thrice in rapid succession, finding its lungs and heart, and it perished and crumpled to the floor.
“Well that was eas-” I began but was interrupted by Alice shouting a warning. Something metallic emerged through the wall like a ghost. But it was no incorporeal soul, but a thing made of burning iron and malice. As if one of the Kreeg ogres had gotten fatter and been covered in steel plating from head to toe.
“Forgefiend“, Harsk snarled in contempt rare to his kind if headstrong nature and it was all I could hear before it was upon us, vomiting molten iron from the mawing furnace that was its belly. A monster of nightmares for dwarven folk, I later heard from the cleric, forgefiend was a devilish creature that destroyed their forges and stole and gorged itself on precious ores.
The pain was unbearable, if familiar. I had got burned as horrendously when Barl the stone giant necromancer had dropped a fireball on me, Jakardros and Shalelu at the Hook mountain. But there’s quite something else getting your skin fried by liquid metal instead of mere magical fire. Burnt skin mixed with the reek of sulfur, coal and iron.
I didn’t have to suffer long. My shriek of pain echoed in the room that defied logic, and Harsk’s healing lights began to coruscate and dance around me. Their touch was like that of a cool breeze or a silken fabric on skin. Alfred, in his mithral heavy plate, was less affected by the forgefiend’s attack and drove it off and back to the wall where it had come from. I picked up myself from the among the steaming, quickly cooling bits of metal with Alice’s help.
“I’ll kill it for that”, I swore before taking a deep breath, touching my face. The long scar was there as I expected, but otherwise I was fine. I’d been at the center of the forgefiend’s ambush and had bore the brunt of the metal spew. I made a mental note not to let it surprise me again.
We told the beardless dwarves to stay back and guard our rear and prepared to continue. Not wanting to spend another minute in the room of weird sights, we moved past the heavyset door and made our way silently towards whatever burned in colours of blood and red wine in the next chamber.
We ran into a guardian golem made of animated stone which we quickly disposed of. A massive, slab-like cauldron was being heated above a magical fireplace. There was old blood everywhere. Something bubbling within reeked of death, and during the fight Alfred stepped out of Harsk’s protective dome. The sellsword immediately emptied his bowels and lost his eyesight for a moment, so being quick learners we kept close to Harsk.
We continued further, past a group of statues of ogres standing in three perfect lines. It was an obvious trap, and we managed to rouse a handful of undead ogres despite trying to slulk past them unseen. I might have been a bit too eager to shoot my first arrow, I admit. They were commanded by a headless, frozen ogre, but they too perished, one by one, Harsk finishing the headless one with a slash of his golden relic sword. The forgefiend made another appearance, and it tried some magic tricks on me, but I just laughed it off, and the cleric blinded it with a holy smite. We actually hunted it down to a strange silo-like room, twenty feet wide but without a visible ceiling. It tried to run for the third time, but this time Alfred was quicker.
Real trouble started to emerge when we reached the first lights we’d seen at the caverns. Coming from the silo-like space, we walked to a T-junction in the tunnel and I could see everlasting torches hung from sconces on walls to our right and left. While I welcomed the ambient light, their presence was a warning in itself. The corridor, forty feet high, had six doors in total, three of which had caved in. On the left at the end of the corridor was a massive doubledoor of bronze with no visible locks or handles. Two seven-pointed stars were etched upon it. Both Alice and Harsk sensed strong abjuration magic within it, so it had to be important. We had a closer look at the last two, smaller stone doors first. The first ended in an abrupt wall, and I tried to peer through, but saw only darkness. At the other side of the corridor, we carefully opened the last door. We were welcomed by pitch black darkness there too, and something else. An ululating wail echoed from within, that of an otherwordly hound.
Hair on my back rose, and we quickly closed that door for now. “Maybe later”, Alfred said, hurriedly. “Yes, maybe later”, Alice agreed, nodding, her pale complexion a bit whiter. Harsk harrumphed but did not say anything. Only the bronze doubledoors with the Sihedron remained. We walked over to it, and I touched it surface. Something touched me back, but I didn’t notice it at the moment. I saw what lied beyond – a dark circular space, with a pit in the center, and human-sized chairs and tables lying here and there. An interesting detail, given how everything else here was giant-sized. I let go and told the others what I had seen.
“In then”, Harsk gestured with his hand and Alfred, our meat-shield, shouldered the doors, trying to push it in. But something pushed back. Something moved within the door.
“Back”, Alice spat, sensing the roiling magics coming to life around us. The bronze disappeared in a blink, fading to dull matt grey. Out of nowhere a leering face appeared on the face of the doors twenty feet above. It leered at us, with its too large mouth and eyes, as if it was cruelly laughing at us. Instinctively, we stepped back and drew our weapons. The face become a body, a frail one with elongated arms and legs and little in the way of musculature. It’s skin was taut and filmy, and bright light emanated through it. The being’s clawed hands were loosely extended to its sides, like it was coming to embrace us. But there was nothing friendly about it. Sensing our wariness, it began to scream in an awful, high pitch.
I took several steps back, pulling away from the protection of Harsk’s magics. It was a mistake.
I have no idea whether my arrow hit it, but what it did after I had shot it I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The barely contained light suddenly exploded in blinding force through its skin, flooding the corridor with absolute white. It was like watching directly at the sun. My mother always told me and my brother not to watch at the sun for too long.
At that moment, just a glimpse was too much. First there was white, then there was only black. I felt no pain. My eyes were open but the black did not go away.
I clawed at my eyes and cursed incoherently. I could not see.
Get out. Get out. Get out. The corridor exploded into action as the others attacked the light creature. It seemed I was the only one affected by its blinding attack. I staggered back in a half-run, feeling my way with my free hand. Dûath was with me all the way, coming without my command, growling in anger. I reached the junction and the tunnel we had came and I pulled over the corner to its relative safety. I opened and closed my eyes, blinked, rubbed them, struck my forehead with my palm, tried everything, but nothing worked. All I saw was black. Not even a hint of colour. The sounds of battle still rang, the others were challenging the bastard. Even in my cover I could feel a flash of rapidly expanding air and heat whoosh in the corridor and Alice cried in pain.
Harsk, if you get yourself killed, I thought about our healer who I knew had the skills to return my eyesight, I’ll kill you a second time.
First the molten iron, now this shit. It was not my day. Questions raced in my head. What if they all get killed, what then? Should I go and join the fight? What use would I be? Should I command Dûath in there? Had the creature flown to ground level already?
Harsk bellowed holy scripture and the creature shrieked in pain. Still my vision remained unchanged. You should see me now, brother, I laughed without mirth. See. Ha. What a joker.
Then, Alfred’s axe struck metal once like a gong, and the sounds of fighting died with it. I waited for a second, straining my hearing. I could pick out three people panting. I sighed in relief and turned around the corner, keeping my hand on the wall. I must have been quite the sight, stumbling there like an geriatric fool.
“I guess we won?” I asked no-one in particular, raising my voice, half-calling for them. Alfred guffawed. That irritated me. “Can we leave now”, I asked another question, between gritted teeth.
Harsk needed to consult his goddess through prayer to draw enough magical powers to heal me, so we could not go on. We had to get back and rest. I did not object, I would have not even had I not been blind. Alice and Harsk had spent the day meting out punishment like no tomorrow, and I wanted our casters at the height of their powers when we finally ran into Mokmurian. My blindness just happened to give us the excuse to pause our hunt. I did not like it, but what had happened had happened.
Alfred and Dûath helped me so we could keep a brisk pace. We backtracked all the way to the storage room, finding a dead beardless dwarf on our way and the others gone. We did not linger to search for the others. Meeting no resistance and within half an hour or so, we entered the hideout, calling Ameiko’s name as a gentle forewarning.
Ameiko was relieved to see us, but puzzled as well. “Is it over”, she asked us. Alfred snorted. “Not yet. Alpharius here got careless and was blinded by a shining child’s radiance”, he explained. Apparently either Harsk or Alice had identified the creature. I felt my way to a corner, sat down and hid under my hood. Ameiko didn’t respond but I could feel her gaze upon me. I chose to think there was no disappointment in it.
“Harsk”, I called out, petting my panther who sat next to me and began to purr, “whenever you’re ready.”
“I need to rest”, Harsk answered from the other side, “and above all, I need to pray for strength and guidance from my lady Iomedae.”
I’ve never understood how the powers of clerics worked. “You’re a demanding follower, aren’t you?” I asked, referring to all holy might he channeled day in and day out.” Harsk just sighed in a voice that brooked no further discussion. “I’m a dutiful, diligent servant of my goddess.” Fine, fine, I thought to myself and raised my palms in a conceding gesture.
Without my eyes, I was forced to rely on my other senses. The odor of sweat and the smell of meat and blood overcome everything else. However I could make out the fear of Shayliss like a perfume. She had lapsed into something resembling catatonia. Ameiko and Ven tried to talk to her, but she didn’t move nor speak. Later I heard from Ameiko that she had noted a small jar labeled as “candies”, opened it and found it contained human eyes floating in a mix of stale water and blood. She had almost bolted through the door in panic, but the others had kept her forcelly from escaping. Over time, the panic had changed into shakes and mumbling, and later into catatonia.
I hoped she could come out of this in one piece, both mentally and physically. Thinking about her and her condition did little to improve my mood. The nascent hero within me did not approve of my helpless state. Fuck you, I told it.
Alfred took the first watch at the door and Alice retreated to a corner for a rejuvenating nap. I was still wounded from the flames of the forgefiend and the blades of the zombie ogres, so I pulled out my healing kit and began to administer some herbs and oitments. All I managed was a mess. Sheepisly, I asked Ameiko for help, which she kindly offered. As we worked I wanted to say something soothing to her, something to inspire trust and courage, but I did not find the words. So I sat there sullen as she mended my wounds.
As Harsk slept, I heard YapYap pull out from his beard and softly begin to tell childish stories from his home forest to the Sandpointians. Gods, I had almost forgotten about the pesky pixie. He admirably kept his head down during fights – I think he pulled back into Harsk’s backpack when things got too rough. But sitting there helpless, I found his stories a welcome distraction. His stories and Harsk’s snoring.
Six or so hours later, Harsk and Alice woke up. I think it was early morning topside. Being blind it’s easy to lose your sense of time.
“First things first”, the dwarf said after a yawn and walked over to me. I was still sitting, back against the wall. He pulled back my hood and planted his hairy palm on my forehead. It was warm to the touch. My mother would have called them healer’s hands.
“By Iomedae, honored is Her name.”
I opened my eyes and saw.
For the second time, we said our farewells to the Sandpointians and left to hunt Mokmurian in the bowels of Jorgenfist. Right next to the storage room door, the body of Grumelda the cook had dissappeared, which startled us, but we quickly deduced it must have been the shaman’s work.
Following the same path we had taken originally, we traveled south and then east. At the kobold’s lair, the strange tingling I had felt topside, warning me about dragons, returned with a vengeance. My head was telling me we were running to dragons. Plural.
I warned the others and this time something got through. Growling and sounds like streaming fire were coming from the tunnel which the trolls had been guarding, implying that new opposition had taken their place. Opposition that had wings, fangs, claws, tails and fiery breaths. Oh nice. Lucky for us, I had brought my dragon-bane arrows with me from Magnimar.
We ran into a pair of adolescent, bound red dragons and their keepers, a pair of serpent women just like Xanesha and Lucrezia. Surprisingly they proved to be of little challenge, a bump on the road really. Especially when I brought down one of the women with a slaying arrow specially made to kill their kind before killing one dragon with a hail dragon-bane arrows. Alfred hacked the other dragon’s head off after a serious duel and Alice electrocuted the final serpent woman, but not before the evil sorceress almost disembowelled me and drained some of the sellsword’s wits, making him mumble like an idiot. Alice joked about it all the way down, calling Alfred’s name with a dumbed down, low voice. Alffreeeeed. Alfreeeed. It made even the cleric laugh.
The huge hill giant we had fought in the ritual chamber was crouched in the room with the evil cauldron (I know I’m being simplistic but the reek was awful and nothing pleasant and good is boiled over a magical fire that seemed to pull at your soul). The beast looked lost, and had ripped one arm of the inanimate stone golem to serve as a makeshift weapon to replace its maul. We spared it no pity, and like everything else in our path, attacked it with grim resolve. Using stealth and surprise for once, we brought its down before it could melt into the ground as escape like it had done over muddy dirt in the ritual chamber.
For the second time that day, we entered the eternally-lit corridor. A sense of anticipation hung in the air like scent of a strong incense. We knew this was a pivotal moment. Mokmurian was close, and most likely waiting for us. I did not spare a glance at the bronze doubledoors but pointed out the one we had opened once. The one with the dog-like howls beyond. Something told me that was the door we should take. Harsk nodded approvingly, scratching his beard. Alice snorted. “You don’t want to take another chance with the shining child?” She asked, trying to ruffle my feathers. I ignored the taunt but answered with a level voice. “I’ve been mapping the dungeons in my head, and going through the bronze doors leads us back towards where we came from. This one leads north, to a new direction.”
Alfred shrugged and brandished his battle-axe while Harsk nodded again, coming to the same conclusion. “We have unfinished business there anyway”, he noted and started towards the little, inconspicuous stone door.
We readied ourselves, and downed various potions before Alfred took center position at the door. “Ready?” He asked and we nodded in unison. He shouldered the door in and we emerged into a dark, badly kept chamber. Lights behind us casted our long, threatening shadows. We went in slowly and carefully, Alfred first, circling a thick column at the center of the chamber. It was utterly, completely silent save for the sounds of our breathing and movement. Continuing warily, we reached another closed, nondescript stone door at the end of the chamber. I tried a look through with my gloves but again heard or saw nothing but still darkness. Darkness.. and fog of some sort. I could make out the fog. Curious.
“Anything?”, the sellsword asked from behind his spiked shield. I did not know whether it was eagerness or worry I heard in his voice. I shook my head and moved aside to give him room to push in the door.
The door revolved open with a groan and rumble of stone on stone.
What I noted first was the fog billowing into our side like flash-heated steam. Within seconds, it covered the ground, thickening so rapidly I could barely see my feet. Another seconds later, the entire room was full of the fog and I could see the back of Alfred and not much else.
Beats being blind, I thought with some irony. I heard Alice and Harsk shuffling behind me, exchanging quick words about the nature of the fog. Alfred legs moved wider apart, his body taking a defensive stance.
“FRIENDS”, a deep, proud voice boomed from somewhere within the fog, “welcome.. I’ve been expecting you.”
Mokmurian. It could be no-one else.
Dûath, very much not liking the situation, roared in anger, and something responded. The unnatural dog-howl. Then another, from a different location, but all from somewhere ahead of us.
Cramped space, no visibility, no element of surprise. Not my preferred battleground I have to admit. I shouldered the Carmine Avenger and pulled out the gladii before taking a step back, then another, never turning my back to the threat. In my periphery I saw light still coming from where we had come from. “I’d rather fight something I can see”, I whispered to the others. “Chicken”, Alfred sneered from his position but I kept withdrawing.
Mokmurian sensed or saw what we were doing. “Don’t run a way – this all is just a big misunderstanding.” I could hear the haughty smile as he spoke. “Join the forces of Karzoug. You’ve more than proven your worth by defeating my strongest allies.”
I was halfway to the light by then with Dûath, and Alice and Harsk were following me. Alfred still lingered and laughed at Mokmurian. “This one’s scared”, he told us. The dog-howls turned to mad barks and began to approach us.
“Scared, little one? I could kill you with a gesture but I’d rather see you as my ally. Don’t let your strength go to waste. Join me! Join the might of Karzoug!” Mokmurian called, and I could sense he too was now moving, coming closer in the fog with deliberate care like the hound creatures.
I picked up my steps and reached the open door. To my relief the corridor was unaffected by the fog. I took positions by it and waited for the others. Alice came right behind me, then Harsk. The stone giant was still talking with Alfred but I could not hear their exchange.
Come on you fool, I cursed the sellsword. Don’t get trapped. A hound howled again, very close now. I was amazed Alfred hadn’t initiated combat yet.
“-you’ve hurt my good friend so no deal, monster”, Alfred said and emerged from the fog into the corridor bac k first.
“What a shame.” The voice was maybe fifteen feet from me, in the haze, its origin unseen.
And with those words, the fog started to roll into the corridor just as it had done in the chamber.
Motherfu-I began the curse for the second time that day.
I felt a faint breeze as if something had moved past me. I had fought enough invisible foes to trust my instincts. I yelled a warning and wildly slashed with my gladii, aiming at waist level, hoping whatever was in front of me was not incorporeal, hoping my blades would hit home and deliver damage. But I hit only air.
We gave way, forming a rough line next to the stone door. Mokmurian would have a hard time forcing himself through the door, but it was apparent he still had allies that were not hindered by their size. I was expecting something dangerous and horrifying to appear into view any second. I had forgotten about the cleric’s dome of protection that still shielded us. Also, what got me first was not a foe.
“For the goddess!” Harsk boomed and we were all suddenly enveloped by crackling blue-white energies. Something unseen and unnatural howled in pain so close to me I could touch it but I almost didn’t notice it over my own pain. My blood boiled. I bit my lip and drew blood, and its coppery taste fueled the whirlwind of memories of deaths I had caused – deaths whose fairness was in doubt. Lyrie the cleric from Thistletop. Her drunken if stalwart lover/defender in full plate. Poor, desperate people who had stolen from Horryn and who I had hunted down and killed or captured for a worse fate. They had not been evil souls and Iomedae’s judgement, dispensed by Harsk’s holy smite, burned in my veins and eyes.
I screamed Harsk’s name in stubborn anger. I was not the only one affected – Alfred was no pure soul either, and he suffered the smite just as I did.
Mokmurian’s laughter echoed in the corridor. “I give you one more chance – join Karzoug’s forces!”
Harsk was adamant. “Never!”
Pull another of those stunts and I might, I cursed under my breath as the pain subsided. Things went to hell quickly after.
Alice managed to dispel the fog from the corridor and one of the hound-creatures stepped out from the protection of its invisibility. It had been right next to us, biding its time. Together with Dûath and Alfred I immediately attacked it. It had limbs long like that of a spider, and its head was all mouth and fangs like foot-long spikes. Its eyes were of soulless black and it tried something, a gaze attack or a trick, but we resisted it. Weakened by Harsk’s smite, we almost put it down before a new fog of yellow-brownish hue pushed out of the chamber and into the corridor. I was driven to one knee, coughing my lungs out. All the others were affected too.
So this is it, I thought, we die fighting outsiders and coughing our insides out as Mokmurian stands in the safety of shadows, throwing magics at us. Harsk and Alice were of little use at the back. We had no space to maneuvre, simple as that. We were in a bottleneck and being overpowered.
“Alice, Harsk, try to get around!” I yelled at them between bloody coughs. The damned gas was draining my lifeforce – it was more than a sickness spell. Beside me Alfred roared in triumph as he hacked down the outsider hound with one last swing of his battleaxe and pushed out of the gas clould to challenge Mokmurian himself. He was always the bold type I thought as I watched him vanish behind the corner. “What do you suggest”, Harsk replied, half in anger, half in desperation.
I tried to pull myself together. “I don’t know”, I snarled, looking for ways to make myself useful in the thick fog, “make a door into the stone wall or something!”
They did exactly that. Or I didn’t know it at the moment, but they disappeared into the fog, leaving me with my thumb up my arse. Get useful, I told myself.
Another of the hound creatures howled. Alfred had ran into a new foe and I heard claws scrape against the steel of his shield and yelps of pain as axe cleaved outsider meat.
Fuck this, I decided and started to a run after Alfred. Frontal assault it is.
Instead I ran into a magical wall of force, like a glass door, that appeared before me just as I was entering the chamber. I saw the outline of Alfred fighting but did not hear a thing through the barrier. I cursed and slammed the barrier once in frustration. Mokmurian had separated the sellsword from the rest of us and would kill us all one by one if we didn’t do something. Time was now of the essence and it was against us.
Let’s do this the Frank way, I told myself, my jaws clenched and started hammering the field with my adamantine gladius. One-two-three-four-five. One-two-three-four-five. I was a fucking battering ram. I roared my frustration. I kept slamming and slashing at the magical barrier, and with every strike, it shimmered.. and lost cohesion. I felt like screaming in joy.
A blinding light flashed once in the chamber. I did not hear what it was but saw Alfred’s bring his shield up to a block, and a second later, the shield ceased to exist. A ray of powerful energies had completely disentegrated it. The sellsword stood there, baffled for a short second. I imagined he was not pleased. I imagined another trick like that would end up killing him.
This made me ramp up my efforts and two quick slashes later the forcefield was blown into incorporeal shards and I stepped in. I was not angry anymore. Instead, I moved with glacial certainty, picking up my pace to a run, diving into the fog. But I could see Mokmurian now, my quarry, his massive, enlarged outline against the light of Harsk and Alice at the other side of the chamber. They had made it through the wall and circled around.
We have you now.
My mithral armor hid my approach, making me vanish into the shadows and the stone giant sorcerer did not see me coming – he was too focused on Alfred on one side and our magic-wielders on the other. I leaped into the air, brought my giant-bane gladius back and stabbed once with all my strength, finding a weak spot in his defenses. Mokmurian roared in defiance and pain, and his magically enhanced form rippled with barely-controlled energies. Intricate runes on his hide glowed in anger and he tried a retaliation, swinging once horizontally with a fist, but I pulled out in the last moment.
“Hey!” Alice screamed once and Mokmurian raised his chin in response. His body began to rotate to face the new threat. My skin prickled, the hairs rising. I had travelled with the pale-faced magus long enough to know what was coming. The sides of my lips rose to a sneer.
There are three things in nature I find particularly pleasing. One is the clear nightly sky with the countless stars. Second is a new morning. Third is a thunderstorm seen from afar, when it doesn’t yet rain but you can see the bolts of lightning tearing across the heavens.
Alice brought the thunder, and with it, Mokmurian died with a hole the size of a small barrel of beer in his chest.
I blinked to regain my vision. This time, it came back normally. But my ears rang, and my face was covered in black giant blood.
“You might consider warning us ne-” Alfred began shouting like he didn’t hear well, but was interrupted by Mokmurian’s dead, prone body stirring.
Oh come on, I thought as Dûath growled beside me, not understanding what was happening. You and me both, friend.
But Mokmurian was dead, and someone was playing with his corpse like a puppet master. The stone giant’s head lolled, the eyes blank, his limbs slack. Somehow it still got up. We stepped back in disgust and prepared for a second round of combat when a manic cackle echoed in the chamber. It came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The laughter changed into speech in a strange language I did not understand. We were transfixed, listening it without a word of our own. The voice kept speaking for a good half a minute until it abruptly ended without a warning or fanfare. With it, Mokmurian the dead puppet lost his strings and fell back to the ground ungraciously. It became awfully silent.
“What was that?” I asked no-one in particular with a frown, not letting my eyes off the corpse. Harsk was murmuring a constant stream of prayers and holy scriptures, warding us against evil.
“I know”, Alice responded and we all turned to her, amazed.