42. We rode like kings
19h of Neth – Moonday – 58th day in Varisia
Alfred started to ask a question but Alice shut him off with a gesture and closed her eyes, as if trying hard to remember something.
“So these are the heroes of the age”, she began, talking quickly as it was a rote, going through the words like she would forget them in a moment, “more like gasping worms to me – worms to be crushed back into the earth when I awaken the armies of Xin-Shalast, when the name Karzoug is again spoken with fear and awe.” She was lost for words, tried one, frowned, then selected another, “..know that the deaths of those marked by Sihedron – the giants you have so conveniently slain for me – hasten my return, just as yours will. Fools, all of you. Is this all you could manage in ten thousand years?”
She let out a long breath and opened her eyes. “Or something like that.”
My right eyebrow rose noticeably. Not bad.
“So it was Karzoug who talked to us through the dead giant”, Alfred said, making sure we were on the same page, “and we’re somehow hastened his return from wherever he is, by killing people with the Sihedron?” Alice nodded in agreement. There’s always someone higher in the chain, I reflected, remembering the soul stealing sisters Xanesha and Lucrezia. This Karzoug must have been the one they called Master, and they had been collecting souls for him.. for his ascension. But if killing anyone marked with the Sihedron was enough, being greedy no longer applied, or was required for the harvest of souls, I thought with some concern. Or at least I didn’t consider the giants we’d faced as particularly greedy. Wrathful and aggressive yes, but not greedy.
“Do you know of Karzoug”, Alice asked Harsk, but the cleric just shrugged.
“Xin-Shalast?” She continued. Harsk shook his head.
“I don’t know either”, Alfred said, smiling casually. The magus turned to him and rolled her eyes, which made the sellsword guffaw. He started to study the items Mokmurian had carried. The first thing he noted was a piece of paper rolled into a scrollcase. It was no magical scroll, but a note. In it was a rough drawing of the Varisian West Coast, with Sandpoint, Magnimar and Riddleport marked specifically, and four crosses, three on the sea in a rough line and the fourth at Sandpoint. There was some text as well, in Giant, which Alice translated.
Hellstorm flume ruins – foundation stone from each would know where the traitor Xaliasa dwelt, and perhaps where he hid his key to Runeforge.
Hellstorm flumes, Xaliasa and Runeforge meant nothing to us, but in my mind I started to put the new pieces of the puzzle together. Teraktinus had been after a stone – a foundation stone of a ruin – that could talk to the giants. He had assaulted Sandpoint for it, retrieved one, and brought it to Mokmurian. The fog had begun to fade and I raised my gaze over to the door which we had originally opened before facing the stone giant sorcerer. It led to Mokmurian’s lair. As the others remained at the corpse of Mokmurian, going through his equipment, I paced to the room beyond, thinking all the while.
Karzoug evidently was some person of importance from the past, a ruler perhaps, from the ancient times of the empire of Thassilonia, ten thousand years or so ago. Of times before the great cataclysm Earthfall when the Starstone had fallen and wiped out empires, killed gods and thrust Golarion into a millennia long winter. And now he wanted to return with a vengeance, at the head of an army. But for his return he needed a Runeforge, whatever that was, or at least a key to one. And that was possibly in Sandpoint.
I thought about the poor fishing town, inconsiquential at first look yet of such importance.
Mokmurian’s lair was a mess. Hundreds of books, scrolls and tomes littered the floor, read and discarded like toys of children. Among them were countless rocks of varying size, each markedly not from this room but brought here from someplace else. It was a stone-speaking madman’s library. I crouched to browse a few of the books, identifying one or two having been written in Common, some in Elven, another few in Varisian. Majority were in language I could not understand. They were all about magic. Dropping the book I had examined I sighed and let my gaze wander to the back of the room where a staircase ascended and led to a small study with shelves and a writing desk. On the desk stood a lone cage, similar to ones I had seen used for birds. But this did not house pigeons or nightingales but an ogre’s head, cleanly cut off, but not desiccated at all. I snorted with amusement, got up and started to rise the steps, intrigued. It was not the weirdest thing I had seen in the past few months but it was high up the list.
The ogre’s head was talking to itself like a village idiot and did not react to me when I approached, even though it could see me. It spoke in Giant so I could not follow but I imagined it had nothing worthwhile to say. Still, I pulled out the giant-bane gladius and waved it over its face. Nothing happened. It kept rambling like I wasn’t there.
“What do you have there?” Harsk called over when he and the others entered the room. I turned my head and told them what I had found.
“A what?” Harsk asked, baffled. Alfred grinned. Alice was already skimming through the books on the ground, her interest piqued thanks to the reservoir of knowledge of the arcana she too had noted at her feet. “A talking ogre’s head. Come translate”, I reiterated, unable to keep the amusement from my voice and waved them over.
Harsk knew by now enough Giant to understand what the severed head was shouting. “It’s cursing Mokmurian”, Harsk chuckled, “taunting him that if he still had his body, he’d finish the sorcerer.” The cleric said something in rough Giant to the head, and it finally turned its eyes at him, acknowledging our existence. It laughed at the dwarf, said something in return. Possibly a taunt or a nasty thing about Harsk’s mother. Harsk just chuckled and blew air at the head, irritating it greatly. Then he lifted the cage. “What are you doing”, I asked him, taken aback but almost laughing, “taking it as a souvenir?”
The dwarf just shrugged. “He’s not being cooperative, but I guess we can continue the discussion at a later time.” And into the extra-dimensional bag the cursing and shouting head went along with the cage.
I found Harsk very strange every now and then.
Mokmurian’s study hid a nice sum of gold and platinum, plus some jewels and a magic scroll. We shared the gold, and I passed the scroll to Alice while bagging the jewels. The pale-faced magus had identified several of the books scattered on the floor, and considered them valuable enough to be taken with us.
We were starting to collect them when I remembered something.
“A moment”, I said, unsheathed a gladius and went to the cave where Mokmurian’s corpse was still lying with a huge, burned hole it its chest. A minute or so later I returned carrying the giant sorcerer’s head. Blood dripped from it, marking a path behind me. “Something to convince the shaman and the other tribes”, I said with a smile.
We left the living quarters of Mokmurian, but stopped at the bronze doors. Alfred produced an unusually designed key from his pocket which he had taken from Mokmurian. There was no visible lock in the cursed doors so I was wary when Alfred approached them, the key in his hand. “Let’s see if this works here”, he told us and entered it into one of two small holes he found in the doors.
The door stirred, physically, and opened with a heavy groan. There was no shining child burning my eyesight this time, I thought as I blew out a breath in relief. We carefully entered, one by one.
Strange stillness and darkness pierced by faint lights of a few everburning torches greeted us. My hackles rose. Somehow the place felt like someone had just an hour ago visited it, but also it felt, at the same time, like it had been untouched for millennia.
We heard it at the same time – the squeal of metal on metal, the puffing that reminded me of the weird machine that powered the sail-less river boat of the Wetwitt brothers we had traveled on up the Yondabakari. Something stomped towards us from the darkness, beyond a group of tables and chairs that stood here and there around the round room. Dûath growled uncertainly.
It came into view quickly enough, putting a leg in front of another like a mindless, damaged construct made of brass, circling the the yawning 30-feet wide pit at the center as it approached us. My mind searched for a name but then I remembered. It was a clockwork automaton. Not necessarily of magical origin, but a mechanical creature. I was curious enough not to draw a weapon, not feeling particularly threatened. But I hoped it didn’t object to Mokmurian’s head that hung from my fingers, still dripping blood. Alfred was on point, calling it to hold its ground, fruitlessly. Finally the automaton stopped three feet from him and blurted out a line of words in Thassilon. Alfred turned his head at Alice and looked sufficiently desperate. She was frowning, assessing the automaton.
“It welcomes you to the library and asks you to name the volume of a particular document you wish to acquire, or an area of study. Or an author”, the magus said after some consideration. Black smoke belched from a pipe on the clockwork automaton’s side and it whirred as it turned its faceless, head-like appendage to Alice.
“Ha”, the dwarf exclaimed. “A clockwork librarian. It’ll help us find us books we desire.”
“Great”, Alfred sighed, “what do we want to read about?”
Alice exchanged a few words in Thassilon with the automaton. A wide smile crept up her face. “This library is called the Therassic monastery, and it dates back to the time of Thassilon.. ten thousand years.. before the Earthfall. It has almost 25 000 volumes, scrolls, pamphlets, and unbound manuscripts available.” She sounded like she couldn’t believe it herself.
“Marvelous”, Harsk beamed, his scholar’s heart bursting in joy at the possibilities for acquiring information we were presented.
“So something on Xin-Shalast perhaps?” I suggested, the first thing coming to my mind from the little speech Karzoug had made. Alice nodded and instructed the automaton. It curtly responded, turned around in its axis and made its way to the edge of the pit. There, it shot out its hand that suddenly began to extend down into the darkness like a snake looking for a morsel from a rabbit’s hole.
Harsk took a nearby chair and carried to the edge before sitting down. He waited there patiently, gazing down as the metal tentacle like hand went from level to level, picking up and examining documents assorted neatly in shelves that completely filled the sides of the round pit.
After a few minutes, the hand came back up, and the walking automaton offered two books to Alice, accompanied by strange beeping sounds and some more Thassilonian. Alice thanked it, and Harsk asked for a Thassilon-Common-Thassilon dictionary, which the automaton obediently began to search from its archives.
Alice was reading. She was a really quick reader, turning a page every few seconds. Something she had picked up from the Mage School in Magnimar, I guessed. “Listen to this”, she said out loud and read a passage. “Xin-Shalast is legendary lost city, rumored to be hidden somewhere in the Kodar Mountains, Stories hold that Xin-Shalast had gold streets and gemstone buildings, and sat under the gaze of a mountain that could see.”
I threw my backpack to the floor and pulled my map case from it. I opened my large map of Varisia before me and my finger started to move across it, following my gaze, searching. Harsk and Alfred came to stand beside me, interested in what I was doing. “There”, I said finally, my finger pointing at the northern corner of Varisia. “Kodar Mountains”, Alfred said and snorted. “Thousands of square miles of rugged mountains. Good luck finding the city.”
Alice wasn’t finished. “Xin-Shalast was the capital city of an empire called Shalast, one of seven that composed the ancient empire of Thassilon. Legends hold that Xin-Shalast lay at the headwaters of the sacred River Avah – which Varisian folklore says leads to an earthly paradise sacred to Desna. Unfortunately, no record of where this river may have once flowed exists today, and most scholars believe the river itself to have been destroyed during Earthfall.”
Several rivers still flowed from the mountains, I noted, but said nothing.
“In the final centuries before Earthfall ended Thassilon, Xin-Shalast was ruled by Runelord Karzoug, one of the lords of the Thassilonian Empire. The primary architects of the immense city were tribes of giants, themselves ruled by powerful beings known as rune giants.”
“Karzoug was a what?” I called from the table. “A Runelord”, Alice responded without taking her eyes off the page. “Giants.. rune giants”, Harsk murmured to himself, shivering maybe at the thought of his kin’s mortal enemies. Giants, and trolls. And forgefiends, I had learned. Dwarves had a a lot of mortal enemies. They held a grudge like no other.
“Listen to this”, the magus called, and read again. “The spires of Xin-Shalast stand upon the mythical mountain of Mhar Massif. This mountain of legendary proportions pierces the skies above the Kodars, and is said to be the highest peak in the entire range of stupendously inhospitable mountains.”
“Inhospitable, perhaps for a man”, Harsk snorted with pride. Alfred was grinning. “I like a challenge.”
“So we need to find the highest peak of the Kodars, and we’ll find Xin-Shalast”, I said aloud, not realizing I had said it until the words left my mouth. What’s this, Alpharius, are you becoming a heroic adventurer, I asked myself. Varisia needed saving. I rolled the map and put it back into the case. Maybe later.
Harsk and Alice asked for more books, and Harsk started his studies of Thassilon. What amazed us was the condition of the documents – almost pristine. They hadn’t aged a day, but they had survived millennia. Alice made a brief off-hand remark about a spell that encompassed the library and was the reason for their condition, and for the clean, unchanged condition of the room itself. I don’t know how long we stayed there, Harsk and Alice succumbed into the books the automaton delivered and promptly took away when left alone, read and closed. It felt like half an hour, maybe a few hours. While the highly-educated people read, I asked for the cylinder we had taken from the mummy at the black tower, and began to work it, trying to unlock its complex locking mechanism. Alfred came to help me, to point his finger and offer unwelcome and unhelpful advice, that is.
Every now and then Alice or Harsk would call out and read aloud a passage. The pale-faced magus found one additional excerpt on Karzoug. “Karzoug was the Runelord of Greed”, she began suddenly without introduction or fanfare, “while he was, himself, an Azlanti human, he was a powerful man indeed – said to be the most gifted manipulator of Transmutation magic in all of Thassilon, and to have lived for hundreds of years. He ruled a region called Shalast, part of the ancient empire of Thassilon.” All the while I archived the facts to my memory. Human. Transmutation. Hundreds of years old.
She drew breath and continued. “Karzoug’s armies were composed primarily of giants who followed his every command – the giants were ruled by towering monsters known as rune giants, who were themselves runelord pawns. Karzoug counted other powerful creatures as his allies as well, such as blue dragons, eerie denizens from the nightmare realm of Leng, blood drinking outsiders known as scarlet walkers, and immense lamia harridans who towered over most giants.”
I frowned. “So that’s the army he spoke of. Giants, dragons, nightmarish outsiders, and lamias, whatever those are.”
“Actually, I think Lucrezia was one”, Alice pointed out, not completely sure of herself. “What, the half-serpent women were lamias?” I asked, my interest piqued. Harsk was nodding.
“I’m going to need a lot of different bane arrows then”, I murmured to myself mostly.
We learned about the Runeforges too – they were special places where wizards of old had gathered to peacefully develop magic to new levels. Hell flumes, another thing the notes of Mokmurian had spoken of, were ancient weapons constructed at borders between nations, capable of casting powerful spells to extreme distances, farther than any one caster could. I speculated that the Old Light back at Sandpoint was a Hell flume, a thought which Harsk shared.
It was about the same time when Alice closed yet another book with a sigh when I finally managed to get the last of the locks open and the top of the cylinder popped open with a hiss. “Scrolls”, I said aloud, to Alice really. She rubbed her eyes, stood up and started to walk over. “Wait”, she suddenly shouted and held up her palm. “Careful, those are extremely delicate. The material those are written upon might dissolve if touched”, she explained, stepping closer, almost sneaking. I had pulled the scrolls half-way out from their protective container, but stopped and let go.
“Maybe you’ll want to study these at a more convenient location with your mage hand tricks”, I said and she nodded. “I want a safer location.” Turning the cylinder, I let the scrolls slide back into the container and closed the lid without locking it before handing it back out to the magus.
“Does anyone have any idea how long we spent there”, I asked everyone when the bronze doors closed behind us. I got no replies, only shrugs and empty glances. I didn’t know for certain either. I suddenly became very hungry and somewhat weary.
The Sandpointians must be crawling the walls by now, I thought.
The way back was uneventful. We found one more of the corpses of the dwarves we had freed, slaughtered by fire and cast aside like a doll, possibly by the forgefiend before its own demise.
We reached the dead dragons and lamias when Alfred stopped. “Hunter, want to skin these dragons? Their hides must be worth a hefty sum of gold back at Magnimar.” I frowned, considering. “What if few of us continue to Ameiko and the others, while the rest stay here to skin the dragons?” I suggested. Harsk and Alfred both pssshed and waved their hands. “It won’t take that long.”
It however did. Even if the dragons were adolescent, there was a lot of hide to skin. But Alfred was right. I imagined we could have at least two sets of armour forged from the dragonhide we now had.
When we finally reached the storage room, we could hear a panicked scream through the door. “We’re going to die! DIE!” Shayliss. We barged in and found Ameiko hanging onto Shayliss for her life. Harsk was murmuring a spell, something to soothe the traumatized girl’s mind. “We’re fine darling, look, they are here again”, she hushed her, pointing at us with a free hand. Then she regarded us. She was weary and not happy at all.
Alfred was first to speak, using his diplomatic manner. It usually worked on drunken wenches in taverns I had witnessed, but here, he really needed Harsk’s magical help in calming their emotions. “We defeated Mokmurian, the leader of the giants and we can now leave.” A half-truth, since there was still a giant army topside around the fort. “The situation is in control”, he added, underlining the last words.
Ameiko repeated everything Alfred had said to the poor girl, holding her gently by the shoulders, looking deep into her eyes. “We are leaving now”, Harsk cleared his throat, “please try to remain calm.” Shayliss began to sob, but she nodded and went to hug his father. Ven had been sitting motionless, lost and defeated, but our arrival and news returned some life into him. He took over the soothing of her daughter.
Ameiko stepped to Alfred but directed her words at us all. “Where the hell were you”, the Tian-Min woman snarled in barely held fury. “I almost lost her totally!” The sellsword babbled something about finding leads about a threat to Varisia. “You searched for leads for a day“, she went on, whispering angrily between her teeth. That made my eyebrows touch my hairline. A full day?
We needed to find the stone giant lady so we started towards the sanctuary, the first obvious place. And we did find her there, on her knees at the altar, praying. The murals were playing their story. We told the Sandpointians to stay back, and I went in first, Mokmurian’s bare, severed head in the crook of my arm.
“It is done”, I said simply to her back. She said nothing at first, but got to her feet slowly and turned to me. Us. “It is done”, she repeated. I think there was no joy for her in the fact, only sorrow. “I want to thank you for all you have done.. all I could not do. What I and my husband could not prevent.” There was shame in her voice, she did nothing to hide it. Was Mokmurian her family? A brother, cousin, son? I hadn’t thought about it before, but I did not ask.
I had more practical issues to discuss. “We need to get out of here, but there’s still the matter of the giant tribes waiting outside the fort. Thank us by helping us in that.”
The shaman considered this. “You are truly powerful individuals, and I imagine you could force your way through. But there is also a peaceful way, one that does not feed the evil with the souls of my kin.”
“Let’s hear it”, I said.
“I can go out and gather the tribe leaders together. I will negotiate with them, and show them the folly of Mokmurian, and, hopefully, convince them to leave. But it will take some time. Several hours, a day and a night.”
“Sounds reasonable”, I nodded. “We’re tired of fighting anyway”, I added. That, and I had barely any arrows left.
The shaman turned her head to the side, the black-grey orbs for eyes examining me and what I carried without emotion. “I’ll need proof that Mokmurian is slain if the others are to believe me.”
I threw the head at her feet. “Take it.”
It was morning outside, but the morning of the 20th of Neth instead of the 19th. More snow had fallen and not melted, making the air feel crisp but fresh. Harsk let us go ahead and remained back to pick up the body of his brewer partner Gaven Deverin from the bonepile, as he wanted to bring him back to life when we got back to Sandpoint. I saw him stuff the body into his magical bag. I wondered what the talking ogre head already within made out of that.
The shaman, or Conna as she had introduced herself on the way back to topside, sanctified the dead stone giants near the mouth of the pit, turning them into real stone with a touch. She knew we had killed them but made no comment. They had stood in our way. For all that I cared, she could live with the guilt of them being dead. Their deaths would not burn my soul if Harsk ever again blasted me with a holy smite spell, which I dearly hoped would not happen again.
We let Conna out and quickly barred the gates behind her. As the others turned to make their way back to the relative warmth and safety of the frost giants’ house, I got an idea. Not really saying anything, I left the party and wandered over to the mammoth stables with Dûath.
A stench of manure and hay greeted me at the doors, and I walked in confidently. Three mammoths, all females or cows as they were called, stood in separate stanchions. I could sense their distress – they hadn’t been fed nor watered in at least two days. They did not take my approach warmly. The closest to me, the oldest as well, raised its head, spread its ears and threw dust into the air. I approached very carefully, almost sluggishly, with my head bowed. “Easy.. easy..” I whispered, and produced an apple, one of my last, from my backpack. It was starting to get brownish anyway. I showed it by extending my hand, letting the mammoth see and smell it, all the while getting closer. Letting a low rumble, the mammoth first raised its trunk and then lowered it, and snatched the apple from my hand in a fluid motion. “Good girl”, I smiled.
I spent a few hours with the mammoths, earning their trust, making them get used to my voice and smell. I was surprised how quickly they became friendly towards me. I ran out of apples, but when I did, I filled their empty troughs and carried them new hay and figs from the back of the stable. After a while, I got out and returned to the others. They were resting, not doing anything really, as we waited for Conna’s return. I decided to sit back and relax too. I told them about the mammoths, and my plans for them.
Few hours after midday we heard a horrible scream of a dragon and the woosh of its wings as it flew over the fort. We ran outside, readying for a fight, but the dragon – the same red one that had attacked Sandpoint, circled the fort once and flew north, never to return. Needless to say we were happy to see it go, but its appearance had got our blood up. So, being who we were, and bored somewhat, we decided to return to the caverns beneath Jorgenfist.
We had found a narrow tunnel leading south-west in the lair of the kobold, which we searched first. We found a cave full of awful undead spiders, which we suffered not to exist. Beyond the cave the tunnel ended abruptly and we found ourselves staring at a rushing river five hundred feet below us. But we also spotted another opening above us, a cave mouth, and my dragon sense tingled at the back of my head. Alice teleported us there, and we immediately got attacked by three wyverns. Two died to my remaining dragon-bane arrows while the sellsword and magus pummeled the third. We relieved them of their hides and their humble treasures they had been gathering in their nests, and got back into the caves with the help of Alice’s magics. Lastly, we found a shrine surrounded by blackened, burned walls, dedicated to Lamashtu, and hidden behind it, a set of books, smelling awfully of evil but still seeming to be quite valuable. Harsk agreed to allow us to take them, if we sold them to someone who would not abuse them.
Evening had fell, but there was still no sign of Conna. We climbed up the wall to have a look at the situation outside. Some camps had been abandoned and I could see tribes marching away. But a large number still remained. A massive pyre had been lighted in the field, and around it, a handful of formidable-looking giants stood, discussing heatedly. Between them, next to the fire, was Conna. She was rallying them, shouting, waving, but I could not make out the words. Of course I couldn’t as she was talking in Giant. I hoped she was faring well.
After midnight, someone slammed the gates thrice and called us out. Conna had returned. The four of us ran to the gates and let her in. She was her sensible, unemotional, stony self again.
“Well”, Alfred asked the obvious question. I had noted that Harsk wasn’t that keen on talking with the giant, so the negotiations fell to me and Alfred. Alice was always quiet.
“A new leader has been selected among the tribes. Majority of the tribes are leaving, returning to their homelands in peace, withdrawing from any campaigns to attack and plunder the lands of tiny ones.”
The sellsword looked pleased. “That is great news. Can we leave tomorrow morning?” I however frowned. She had said majority.
“It would be best for you to leave as quickly as possible”, Conna started, and I couldn’t believe the nerve. She was being regretful however. “The remaining stone giants want to return to Jorgenfist.. it would be good if they could come.”
Alfred shrugged. “The others need to rest for the night but we can leave first thing in the morning. Can we take the mammot-“, he began to ask but I cut in. “We’re taking the remaining mammoths as a reward for our deeds.” To this Conna nodded once.
“Can you tell us about the red dragon?” Alfred asked. The stone giant shaman shook her head slowly. “Mokmurian gathered a mixed group of allies. I cannot say what has become of the red dragon.”
This made the sellsword grin. I assumed he was greedily thinking about the treasure every dragon gathered. “Well, can you handle it, or should we take care of it?” He asked, overly sweetly. I rolled my eyes.
Conna’s face betrayed no emotion. “The dragons of the region are no threat to us.”
We agreed to leave in the morning, and while the others retreated to the frost giant’s house to sleep, I stayed in the stables with the mammoths, sleeping on a bed of hay.
When we were finally leaving the next morning, the others gathered to the gates and I brought out the mammoths, in a single file, from the stables. I had saddled each and the first trumpeted, excited to be out of the barn again. Ameiko let out a surprised laugh. “Has anyone ridden a mammoth before”, I asked with a small grin. No-one had.
I took the lead mammoth and we agreed to have the Vinders ride with me. Ameiko and Alfred took the second, while Harsk and Alice climbed to the back of the third. Conna opened the gates for us and we led the mighty beasts steadily outside, one mammoth at a time.
Outside it was quiet. A number of stone giants lingered, standing here and there among the remaining camps. As we marched past them, a few turned their backs to us, unwilling to show their faces, while others bowed their heads in a gesture of humility. The five of us, counting the prowling panther walking next to my mammoth, had come and defeated the strongest giant of their kin. The one, and all of his allies. Alone, we had thwarted his plans. We were proud conquerors and victors, and marching there on hulking mammoths with the sun on our backs, we rode like kings.