44. The Key
26th of Neth – Moonday – 66th day in Varisia
Another crisp winter morning embraced the town. The skies above were clear. I wondered when the true blizzards would come and blanket South Varisia in thick white.
“You should see the beasts we’re traveling with nowadays”, I said, allowing myself a smile and returning my gaze to the ground. Light snow, first not to melt, covered stone-marked graves. “Great mammoths, taken from a horde of giants. You’d love them.”
I was rambling, something that was very uncommon of me. But the last sixty of so days had changed me, forced me to reassess notions and beliefs I had held for years. Notions about friendship and self-imposed loneliness. Beliefs about trust and fear of betrayal.
The stone marking Vidarok the half-orc’s grave did not answer, but I could imagine the big-hearted, nature-loving druid smiling. He had not travelled with us for something that felt like ages, but I had not forgotten him. He had saved my life, and Harsk’s too, once, deep beneath Thistletop when he had alone faced Nualia the aasimar. I felt obliged to honor our short companionship now that I had arrived back to Sandpoint. I also wanted to take a moment and consider what had happened in the past week. I needed to clear my head. Maybe the best friends were those who just listened. Dead friends.. they did only that – listen. The morbidity of my thoughts was not lost to me.
I sighed, pulling my hood back over my head and got up from my knee. “I’ll be seeing you.” The cold north wind blew softly in response.
Harsk was still sleeping in his room when I got back to the White Deer. Alfred had promised to show the town to the pale-faced magus, and they were still away, so I reserved myself a table, pulled out my maps and journal with all the notes I had taken from Alice’s translations of Thassilon, Xin-Shalast, Karzoug and the Runeforge. Garridan Viskalai, keeper of the inn, a rugged son-of-a-bitch just like Alfred had told us, brought me dry lump of bread and grunted in a way of you’re-welcome. I flipped him a copper in a way of thank-you-now-please-piss-off.
The big picture was becoming clear. Varisia was in trouble, that was certain, if all the clues were real. Karzoug the Runelord of Greed wanted to return after millenia of slumber and take control of the lands, but something hindered his plans. He needed the Runeforge and a key to enter it, and believed it to be in the possession of his long-past ally Xaliasa. But where Xaliasa was, we had no idea. Mokmurian had searched for answers in Sandpoint, and consulted old stones of the Old Light, but whatever they had revealed to him was a complete mystery to us.
Among the notes and the maps was a list of loot we had gathered during our attack of Jorgenfist. We had compiled it during our way back, and made rough estimates about the market price of each item. The list was simply staggering in potential value. If Garnet Alexandros, the swindling merchant princess of the Dockway District in Magnimar would be able to purchase it from us, we’d be swimming in platinum. I was already thinking about how to use the gold I’d get. For the first time ever, I could consider using magic and middlemen in the search for Macharius. Needless to say I was anxious to get to Magnimar and turn the loot to gold. I was anxious about something else as well, and it involved my traveling companions and overcoming my own nature of distrust and suspicion.
The sellsword’s and the magus’s return brought me from my thoughts, and I nodded in greeting. Moments later, Harsk, still sleepy and yawning, appeared to the main hall and ordered breakfast. He managed to down three mouthfuls of the cold, tastless porridge Viskalai was serving when a girl came running with a message. Apparently, Zantus was eager to meet with him.
We left the White Deer but did not head out to the cathedral first. Instead we trotted down the curiously silent, vacant streets to Harsk’s temple of Iomedae. It was Harsk’s pet project, his contribution to the advancement of his cult. He had overseen the renovation work and had been funding its upkeep for weeks since, and it was the first time I got to properly visit it. The temple was a small wooden house really, originally meant as a home for a family, but was now repurposed to serve as a sanctuary.
As we arrived we were met by an eager, fair paladin called Auron. He was surprisingly young to be a full-fledged paladin, and his boyish appearance made him feel younger than his years. His eyes lit up when he finally came eye to eye with Harsk the god-touched cleric and he kept shaking the dwarf’s hand for a good while too long when he made his introduction. Adelbert Steiner, the bullish if jovial, grey-bearded veteran paladin had overseen the temple before. In turned out he had returned to Magnimar and boy-paladin Auron had taken over his responsibilities here.
“It is a true honor to meet you finally, Master Harsk!” Auron said, eyes gleaming, hand shaking. “The vanquisher of dragons”, he added. I snorted. I had heard how Harsk had led the city guard against the red dragon at the Cathedral plaza in a valiant effort to halt its rampage. He had succeeded in driving the beast away. At the last moments of my hasty return to the town I had seen the dragon roar in pain and withdraw, greatly mauled. The dragon had had its lair nearby Jorgenfist and Alfred’s pride and purse of gold were particularly stung by the fact we had left it unharmed and its treasure untouched.
Harsk didn’t have the chance to reply when a flock of orphans, mainly boys, thundered out of the temple, just like they had the past night, and circled the dwarf. I remembered how Harsk had started the temple with just one orphan under his service, a withdrawn, suspicious boy called Zack. Zack’s task had been to guard and maintain the temple, but he had done much more. His initiative combined with the graciousness and charisma of the dwarf and the opportunity and purpose in life he offered to the orphans – to become holy warriors for Iomedae, just like him – had attracted the interest of Zack’s peers. I think Harsk had recruited, by accident and by Zack’s word-of-mouth only, the entire orphanage. He is responsible for so many now, I thought as the children hemmed him. It was the cleric’s choice, his calling, one I did not envy.
Everyone talking at once, the children called him out for his promise to tell about our travels, and he did not fail his promise. As the rest of us stashed some of our loot to the hold of the temple, he sat down to a lone stool at the middle of the main room, waited until all the orphans (and Auron) had gathered around him and began to weave a tale. His version of the story was much less bloodier than what had actually happened – I guess he wanted to spare the children of the horrors we had encountered. Yap-Yap the pixie jumped onto Harsk’s lap and helped Harsk’s storytelling by acting out and imitating sounds of the creatures we had come across. The children particularly liked Yap-Yap’s imitation of the giants as it made them laugh in glee.
Alfred, Alice and I waited by a fireplace, enjoying its warmth, and after a while, Harsk finished the tale. The children were awe-struck and I could see the beginnings of a legend of a dwarven cleric and his party of bold adventurers being sown right there and then. I wondered how many ears would hear that same story in the coming years, told by revering young men and women, the story’s suspension and significance amplified two- or ten-fold each time it was told to a new audience. What would be remembered of Alpharius?
One boy approached me silently, his head down. “Master Alpharius”, he managed with a thin, squeaky voice. This took me by surprise and I had to remind myself to respond. “Yes?”
The boy, maybe eight or nine – about the same age I had been when I had been enslaved, I realized – didn’t know where to put his hands, but he looked up straight into my eyes. There was a smile there. “Can we see the mammoths again?”
Across me by the fireplace, Alice burst into a laugh.
We left the temple, but not before Harsk thanked Auron for his efforts, showing regret that he could not stay longer and participate in the holy rituals and the training of the orphans. The young paladin was understanding.
At the Cathedral, all the very important people of the town sans Ameiko had gathered. I recognized Mayor Deverin, Sheriff Hemlock and High Priest Zantus, all gathered in solemn discussion.
Gaven Deverin, the brewer, had returned among the living. Albeit grey-skinned and malnourished, there was a fire in his eyes that hungered life. He had fallen into the abyss but been brought back. It was evident he now cherished every breath he took. His bear-hug lifted Harsk into the air, despite the dwarf’s heavy armor and bulk. “My friend, my friend”, Gaven sobbed in joy and gratitude, unable to form a coherent sentence. After a moment he finally let go of the cleric. Harsk beamed proudly and happily as Gaven brushed aside tears.
“I got your message”, the god-touched said finally to Zantus, who nodded with a knowing smile. The Mayor took over, addressing us all equally. I did not meet her eyes. I think I managed to look sufficiently bored. “I would like to hear everything that happened after you ran after the giants that had abducted Mistress Ameiko, Gaven and the others.” I groaned inwardly, and prepared to listen to the story again, leaning on a marble wall. I took an apple from my backpack and started munching. This time, Harsk was more economic with his words and left out none of the bloodshed, while YapYap kept his yapper shut. Harsk left the story at the point when we had vanquished Mokmurian. “It should be noted”, I added sarcastically as a sidenote before taking a bite of the apple, “that if we don’t stop an ancient Runelord called Karzoug, he’ll come back from the dead and capture the whole of Varisia.”
Hemlock frowned, Zantus went pale and Deverin looked at me gravely, a kind of look used when weighing if one was joking despite the staggering severity of the matter. I shrugged and kept enjoying my apple.
Deverin glanced at Harsk. The dwarf was squirming a bit. “I don’t think there’s anything”, he said, leaving the sentence unfinished but evidently not wanting to scare them with our clues. I think no-one really believed him but they chose his opinion as the easier to swallow. Blind fools. Harsk was making them a disservice. But I chose not to push the issue, as did everyone else.
Zantus cleared his throat. “About my message”, he started and Harsk turned to him, pleased of the diversion, “you should have by now heard of our latest plight.” Alfred nodded. “Yes. There has been an earthquake.”
The priest regarded the sellsword sagely. “Indeed. It was strong and struck us, or the entire Coast, a week or so ago. Miraculously no-one was harmed, thank the gods, but some buildings were damaged.”
“We saw the borehole that had taken down a part of the garrison”, Alice commented. Hemlock growled with irritation but said nothing. Zantus kept talking. “Yes.. the earthquake there broke the ground and revealed old masonry and the ruins beneath the town. The same ones I believe you searched after the attack of the goblins.” He went on after my and Harsk’s confirmatory nods.
“We had believed the ruins cleared by you, but something was down there.. Something that howled.” The priest considered his words and exchanged glances with Hemlock. “The Sheriff sent a party of guardsmen to investigate, but they never returned. And the howls – like hellish dog howls – strengthen every night. They are not friendly, and people are scared.” His face did nothing to hide the request he left unasked.
“We’ll have a look for the guardsmen”, Harsk stated outright, considering the matter settled.
There goes the trip to Magnimar, I sighed. It was time to save Sandpoint, again.
We restocked our gear and headed out to the garrison. The earthquake had split Tower Street and brought down the north-eastern corner of the garrison. Masonry and rubble still littered the street, though Hemlock had gotten a big canvas to shield the hole in the side of his house from the weather.
The gaping hole on the ground led straight to the little flying, invisible demoness’s chapel. It was not deep, maybe forty or fifty feet, and it was eerie how literally close to the daily lives of hundreds of Sandpointians had such evil existed, unnoticed and unbeknownst by the townsfolk.
The earthquake had changed that. It was past midday and no sounds came from the undergrounds. We carefully went down one by one.
Finding the tracks of the team of guardsmen quickly, we followed their footsteps through the silent, ancient catacombs. Harsk was kind enough to explain our past journey to Alfred and Alice as we trotted forward, weapons at the ready. The quake had opened a previously caved-in staircase deeper undeground and the soldiers had used it, entering areas that we had not explored. This explains why there still was something undiscovered, I realized with a frown as I led the others down. Something dangerous. I knew it in my gut.
We found something old and dangerous indeed. Another shrine, this one dedicated to Lamashtu, guarded by a huge, ugly demon I later came to know was a Glabrezu. It had a grinning, hateful dog’s head with long horns, sported two human-sized arms that sprouted from its torso and two massive crab-like pincers beside them. But it was not alone. It had a master that skulked in the shadows and the fog that enveloped the shrine. An ancient human. Someone who’s name we had already stumbled upon. Xaliasa.
By accident, it seemed, we had stumbled to a key piece of the puzzle. Here was the traitor to Karzoug who he thought held a key to the Runeforge!
We did not engage immediately – something of a surprise – but it was all thanks to the old human sorcerer’s willingness to talk. He managed to sound both condescending and senile at the same time, demanding to know of the current state of Golarion and Thassilon. We obliged, informing him briefly, frantically trying to decide what we should do at the same time. Standing there in the mist with the others, listening him speak without seeing him, I wondered if he had been caught underground for thousands of years. It was tiring to hear him ramble and act like a pompous royal of old, but he did reveal that the Runeforge was critical to the desctruction of the Runelords, and he claimed to have in his possession the key to it.
Things got bloody when he failed to accept our answer to his question who was the most powerful magic wielder in Golarion. Alice, it seemed, still lacked some credibility. Xaliasa, still unwilling to reveal himself, sicced the Glabzeru and a pair of lesser demons at us. We put them down with some difficulty, and engaged the ageless human himself. We managed to hurt him, and he withdrew, only to return with a pack of angry, scorpion-tailed, hairless hell dogs when we ran after him. I shivered in disgust as I recognized their similarity to those we had faced beneath Thistletop – the ones with the hellish howl that spread uncontrollable panic.
The fight moved to a series of worming tunnels. The dogs died first. A moment later, my blood still burning from yet another area-effect holy smite courtesy of our cleric of Iomedae, I gored Xaliasa with my gladii.
“Stop.. doing that”, I spat at the cleric who stood across a narrow tunnel, looking serious. Xaliasa’s dead body slumped to the ground without fanfare. He was alone – the forms of the outsider creatures had disappeared the moment they perished. Alfred was breathing labouriously, and blooding profusely. The cleric offered a quick apology and started to heal us with his magics. Alice kneeled to examine a piece of Thassilonian text on the wall that caught her eye. It was written in blood. Guardsman blood, we realized, as pieces of human meat and recently half-eaten cadavers with torn rags of guardsmen uniform littered the floors.
The red text was a verse, evidently part of a longer poem. The rooms were filled with lunatic scribbling, from floors to ceiling, put with care we could pick out other verses of the same poem. We went on, through the caves, finding three more. Harsk and Alice translated them, and I wrote them down.
If magic bright is your desire, to old runeforge must you retire! For only there does wizard’s art receive its due and proper start.
On eastern shores of steaming mirror, at end of day when dusk is nearer, where seven faces silent wait encircled guards at runeforge gate.
On frozen mountain Xin awaits, his regal voice the yawning gates. Eyes turn twice in sihedron-occulted runeforge waits within.
And now you’ve come and joined the forge, upon rare lore your mind can gorge -and when you slough the mortal way in, Runeforge long your work shall stay.
It was a riddle in verse – designed to lead to the Runeforge. This was the key, I thought to myself, it had to be. Xaliasa in his madness had written it to the walls of his lair. How close had Mokmurian come! His note mentioned only the Hellstorm flumes, and the possibility of getting the information of Xaliasa’s location from their foundation stones – but in the end, the man had been here, biding his time, worshiping the goddess of wrath Lamashtu. But what had he been doing here really? Had he been there voluntarily, in exclusion from the world.. or imprisoned?
Our search for answers led us to a short, straight corridor barred by a non-descript door. I watched through with my gloves of reconnassaince. It was dark, like every other place in the dungeon, and Alfred entered at point, briskly as ever. But the moment he went past the doorway into the corridor, he stopped in mid-step and turned to us. His body language had changed radically in a heartbeat.
“What are you up to?” He asked suddenly, eyeing each of us with suspicion. “What do you mean?” Harsk asked, unsure. I exchanged glances with Alice. “Stop that”, Alfred barked and his right hand went to the pommel of his battleaxe that hung from his belt. He lifted his shield in a defensive motion.
“What’s wrong with you”, I asked the sellsword, keeping my tone level. He frowned. “You.. I can’t trust you. You’re.. planning something. All of you.”
Alice concentrated and looked over Alfred’s shoulder to the corridor. “I’m detecting very powerful illusion magic within the corridor.” Harsk nodded carefully and kept his palms up so the sellsword could see them. “Something is playing with your head”, he said gravelly and stepped towards the man. “No! You’re playing with my head!” Alfred barked again. His fingers clasped the axe.
“Listen to me, Alfred”, Harsk began, looking deep into his eyes, taking his fatherly tone. “Think about it. Just a second ago nothing was wrong-” The god-touched was interrupted by Alfred’s roar. Swiftly, he pulled out the axe and lifted it. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead and his nostrils flared. “Shut up, dwarf!” “They say I can’t trust you.. that you’ll get me-“
Three things happened at the same time. Alice murmured something behind me – a spell, Harsk’s divine lights began to play in the small room and I flashed forward before grabbing Alfred’s axe-hand by the wrist. The sellsword took a surprised breath, but did not fight back. His expression was of dread.
“What.. what was that”, he gasped. He was back to his normal self. I slowly let go. “Your mind was being tampered with”, Harsk explained and the divine lights receded. “It was something in the corridor?” Alfred asked, aghast, and turned back to gaze at the darkness behind us. “It was, and it is still there”, Alice informed us and shook her head. “We’d take great risk walking in there.”
“I think our friend here is already immune to it”, Harsk pointed out, stroking his beard in deep thought, “but you’re right.”
I shrugged. “We’ve come this far. No reason to stop and leave places unsearched. We might still be lacking verses of the poem.”
Alfred pushed his head into the corridor. “Yup. Creepy.” A second later. “Hey, I can see a door in there. At the back, leading right. How the nine hells are we getting in there?”
Alice, of course, had the solution. “I’ll dimension door us in.” I rolled my eyes. “Without seeing what’s inside? I don’t want to become a part of the wall, magus.”
She rolled her eyes in response, exasperated – her typical attitude when she had to explain her magics to me. “It doesn’t work that way. If there is not enough physical space in the room beyond, we will arrive in the nearest open space.”
I frowned. “So, some of us.. or all of us would end up in that cursed corridor?”
She said nothing.
“We have to try”, Harsk brought the argument to a close and gestured us closer. “Gather together.”
Alice said the words and drew her powers of the arcane, and for a second I stumbled – I felt like falling down. I remember thinking that I had never felt the same when we had teleported. The reason was simple. We had ended up in the damned corridor.
A thousand whispering voices began to call me, urging me to flee and distrust the others. Gritting my teeth together I closed my eyes and focused, knowing they were false. Their siren call was strong but my iron will prevailed. Through the whispers I heard Harsk chant holy words of resistance. He was fighting their evil power as well. As the voices retreated to nothingness I opened my eyes, only to find Alice in front of me, staring.
“Get away from me”, she spat. There was madness in her eyes. And fear.
“Oh come on”, I sighed. “Snap out of it, Alice.”
“No! I know it now.. you’ll betray me..” She seethed, her back against the door we were supposed to get through. Her eyes darted from me to Alfred, to Harsk and finally to Dûath. I could feel her begin to draw her powers anew. I really didn’t want her to bring the lightning upon us, so I hesitated. “Harsk..” Alfred murmured. The tension was palpable.
“Alice, don’t do anything you-” Harsk began but Alice threw herself against the door in panic, and went in before slamming it close. “Alice!” I yelled, irritated and surprised. She responded with a shriek of pain, muffled thanks to the door between us. “Xhan“, I cursed and went after her, pushing the door open, fully expecting to meet the tip of an electrified scimitar.
There was a room, a mad study room, beyond, lighted by everburning torches. Alice was at the centre, holding her face. There was blood in her hands. Her eyes were bloodshot. I took a step forward, reaching out.
I fell to my knee, feeling like a thousand pinpricks had stabbed me and I roared in pain.
“Half-elf, what is it”, Alfred asked me, just two steps behind at the doorway. I coughed, cleared my throat. “More magics.. I’m all right but stay back.”
“Get away from me, killer!” Alice shouted. She had the scimitar in her hand but she was uncertain. I was thankful for that. I didn’t want to become a human lighting rod.
“Fight the voices, magus”, I said, my temper very short, and slowly got back up. Harsk had got behind me. That was too much for the pale-faced magus. Spitting a few words of magic, she vanished. I felt a rush of air go past me.
“She went invisible”, I said, unbelieving. “Stop her!” Harsk ordered Alfred, and the sellsword bearhugged, connecting with nothing but air. Running footsteps echoed in the corridor and then in the tunnels beyond. Harsk yelled after her, to no avail.
“Let her go”, I sighed. To be honest, I wasn’t that sad to see her go. Harsk cursed something under his breath but nodded. “She’ll come around. Eventually.”
The room was protected by layers of spells, one designed specifically to suppress magical transportation which explained why we had ended up in the corridor. Alfred remained at the back with my animal companion, but Harsk endured the same pain as me and Alice and boldly entered the room. Together, we searched the room. A single freshly dead body was slumped in one corner. We identified him as one of the guard corporals. He had led the squad of guardsmen. We found no new verses, but Harsk was able to translate parts of the texts written on the floors and walls. This was Xaliasa’s study, and he had been interrogating the guard corporal. The things he had said were written in blood on the walls. But there was more – a dark journal, describing his thoughts about the Runeforge. How he was not able to travel there himself but would need powerful demons to travel in his stead. There would be runeforged weapons and armor there, something that could be used to slay even the most powerful runelords.
For us, the Runeforge suddenly became a much more interesting destination.
My eyes spied a quill made of peacock’s feather on the table among an assortment of ink bottles. Something piqued my interest and I took it between my fingers. Something that looked like feather-light actually weighed more than three pounds.
“Ha”, I exclaimed. “Have a look at this”, I told Harsk and showed him the quill. “It’s magical”, he said. “No shit”, was my reply. He shrugged. “We’d need Alice to study it.” I stored the quill to my backpack and turned to leave. “We should find her then, yes?”
“That would probably be the best choice of action”, Harsk approved and with a grunt, lifted the body of the dead corporal to his lap. He mentioned something about a proper burial.
We backtracked through the tunnels, going through the shrine of Lamashtu with the big dog-head carved on the floor and stopping at the entrance to the staircase the earthquake had exposed. We met Alice there as she didn’t look too happy with herself. The scimitar was back in its scabbard and she was mainly looking at the tips of her toes. “Oh, now you’re our friend again”, I teased her. A small part of me was happy she was fine again. A very small part. “Well, yes”, she managed. Harsk just smiled and walked up to her before putting his hand to her side. “We forgive you.”
Thinking we had cleared the entire lair and found all the verses of the key poem, we headed back to ground level and to Mayor Deverin’s city hall where the Mayor and Sheriff Hemlock were waiting for our return. Our reporting was a sombre event. Hemlock was surprised to see us back so soon.
“We have good news and bad news”, Harsk began with little fanfare and lowered the body of the guard corporal to Hemlock’s feet. Bad news first. “His fate was the least violent. The others.. they are nothing more than blood on the walls of the catacombs, devoured by demon hounds.” Hemlock nodded, sad but understanding. He had lost a lot of men these few months. These were just a few more to the rolls of the dead. “Jaren was one of my best corporals. He will be missed sorely. They all will be.”
Deverin was clearly alarmed. “How could it be? Didn’t you already explore the catacombs, and vanquish demons and other hell spawn that lurked there?”
I shook my head and took a serious tone. “We did, but the quake reopened paths deeper underground. There was a shrine to Lamashtu, and it hid more evil. The good news is they are all now taken care of. The city is saved”, I added some overt theatrics to the last sentence, brushing with my hand like I had seen actors and bards do during plays. She knew what I felt about our heroic acts.
Deverin met my gaze and held it before turning to a small, foot long and wide coffer beside her on a table. She put her hand upon it and directed her next words to me.
“We are painfully aware that you are here only for the coin. That is why we have been gathering gold as token of our appreciation to your efforts and services to Sandpoint. We hope you consider it a suitable reward.”
I admit, I was surprised. Finally, the town was ready to pay for our services. I paced to the coffer and slowly opened its lid. Deverin had not lied. Within was a considerable amount of gold coin – my quick estimate put the amount between four and five thousand. It was suitable. But I also knew it was a huge amount of wealth for a town the size of Sandpoint. Had everyone contributed to this? I wondered how many of the normal townfolk had put aside some of their few coins for this. I wondered how many had lost family, their homes, their livestock or their livelihood in the assault of the giants and still put aside something. I wondered if among the folk that had given from their limited possessions there were widows and orphans who had lost their husbands and fathers in the fight for the little Sandpoint Bridge – the only place that had not had a hero to stand fast against the onslaught.
Deverin was wrong. I thought about Ameiko, Shayliss and the other good folk of Sandpoint. Coin is a bad substitute for loyalty, but in the past, it was the only currency for my bow and gladii. I did not fight for Sandpoint’s gold, I realized then. I had not for some time.
I turned my head and exchanged wordless glances with Harsk. The everpresent, righteous smile was there. The moral compass that lead to the north of good. But I don’t think he knew what I was thinking.
I closed the lid. “I think the town needs this gold more than I do.” I knew the words were true the moment they left my lips. The Mayor’s mouth opened a bit in shock, and I saw Alice and Alfred were stunned as well. Harsk’s smile became that much wider. “You.. are fine with this?” Deverin asked the others, almost unable to find the words. Alice was silent, and the sellsword was still taken aback. “Well, if the gold is spent for the rebuilding of the town”, he began and trailed into silence. Harsk nodded, closing the matter like he often did.
“Keep the gold for the rebuilding. Bring the town back to its feet.”