50. Second time’s the charm
27th of Kuthona – Oathday – 97th day in Varisia
I took the rest of the day off, wandering the streets of Magnimar alone in my thoughts. Getting lost in the crowd of a big city was no longer as simple as before. I had the elemental powers to thank for it – I don’t know how but people sensed my presence more easily. I had removed my skull mask and retreated under my hood, but still I felt the curious gazes of passers-by. I had originally thought it was Dûath that drew their interest, but for Magnimarians the full-grown if silent panther was all but invisible. No, pets, even exotic, were commonplace. The wildfire seeped from me and made me stand out, just as the elemental powers seeped out of the god-touched, the sellsword and the pale-faced magus. Personally, I hated it. Almost more than I welcomed the potential they brought.
The anxiety borne of the realisation made me retreat to a side alley alehouse for some supper. There my appetite was ruined by the alehouse barmaid, who looked too much like Aurora, down to the way she laughed and carried herself. In my mind I approached the maid and took her back to Kaijitsu Manor for the night, or ten. It seems I am a sucker for pain as I did not change alehouses but stayed there, staring at her without seeing her.
Tell him he’s an uncle.
Aurora’s last words to me played out in my ears, drowning the normal hubbub of the alehouse. He’s an uncle and I’m a runner, a vagrant, I thought. The barmaid had looked at my direction thrice before I realized she was staring back at me. I really wanted to get up and go talk to her. Instead I lowered my gaze to the pint of cider I had before me and forcibly tried to drown my soul into the drink. Apparently my soul knew how to swim. Then I considered getting drunk out of my mind, but remembered all too well that alcohol in any considerable quantities and I did not get along. Two-three glasses of wine was nice, but not a drop more.
Letting my hand down to my feet, I scratched my animal companion behind his ear. Dûath, free of any miseries and doubts, ate happily for both of us.
No-one was home when I finally returned to the Manor well after midnight. Alfred was of course boozing and whoring somewhere, Harsk was either at the Cathedral or drinking with the sellsword, and Alice was gods knew where. Sucking up to Garnet Alexandros I assumed.
I continued my aimless wandering the next day, only to stop by a talented if poor-looking artist who had set up a gallery on the street. Two dozen finely coal-drawn portraits of people I did not recognize littered a red, worn-out carpet, and the young artist, a wiry man under a heavy blanket of furs, was sitting on the street behind his works. Seeing him I had an idea.
“Artist”, I called and stepped from the uninterested flood of people next to his recumbent gallery. Seeing me his features signaled a mix of suspicion and hope. I produced two gold sails from a pocket. “Are you up for an assignment?”
He was, and for the coins he spent the rest of the afternoon painting my portrait. He did not question my instructions. “Draw my likeness, but without the scar, and the broken nose. Make my hair silver… And make me look livelier than I really am.”
Even though I had the connections and gold to use magic in my search, there was no reason I should abandon other means of finding clues of Macharius. But where would I find the right people for my employment?
The artist spent the 29th of Kuthona drawing nine copies of my portrait, and I headed out to the Pathfinder Society. My mind was on the white dragon we had fought in Rimeskull, and I was adamant that we were not going unprepared the next time we went face-to-snout with the old beast.
The Society surprised me once more. I found a reasonably informed and clear-headed historian who immediately recognized the white dragon when I described it to him.
“Oh yes, the great Freezemaw as the Shoanti tribes call the dragon. He’s widely known across Varisia. And you faced him?” The historian, sir Amarant, said and looked at me puzzled. “Me and my.. fellow adventurers”, I replied and nodded. He puffed. “You were lucky to survive. Freezemaw is probably the most feared dragon in Varisia, a legend by now, even if it is only 500 to 800 years old, depending on who you believe. Centuries ago it harassed the Shoanti and other folks, namely farmers, destroying towns and ruining crops. It killed with abandon and no-one was able to defeat it. However, it has not been seen in ages, at least decades.”
I snorted. “That’s because it has been guarding an ancient Thassilonian monument in Rimeskull”, I shared the information. The historian frowned but nodded. “Any ideas why it would take such a task? It had a hoard of treasures with it”, I added the question, not mentioning the fact we had effectively robbed the monster of its gold. Sir Amarant shook his head. “It’s a coincidence. Rimeskull is a remote location, and the mountains are a good place for such a great beast to hide in”, he argued, and I offered no counter-argument.
Regrettably even sir Amarant could not offer any further information about Freezemaw, it being a creature of myth, so I had to leave empty-handed. Even so, I did not feel my time had been wasted. We had taken its treasure, and a dragon worth its name would strive to regain its wealth. That meant the beast might have already left Rimeskull for good.
That however also meant that we kind of had the responsibility to hunt it down and kill it before it put the entire Northern Varisia into everfrost.
The 30th seemed like another typical, low-key Sunday. Alice had come up to the Manor to finalize the enchantments for the Flame Tongue, Harsk’s new pride and joy and she presented the longsword to the cleric with little ceremony. Harsk was pleased and overflowing with gratitude, which took the pale-faced magus aback a little.
But the Sunday marked also my hundredth day in Varisia, and coincidentally, the 100th day of our journey together. Or mine and Harsk’s, that was. A hundred days previous we had been found ourselves at the center of a goblin invasion of a sleepy fishing town. The rest.. well the rest is within this journal.
Harsk and I had lunch together at the Manor, and we toasted for our time together and to the memory of Vidarok and Ilori.
That day the dwarf single-handedly turned our trip to the Barracks of Xin from a complete waste of time and resources into a massive business opportunity. As it were, Harsk had been keeping himself busy by having meetings with different metallurgists and traders in Magnimar, showing around the rock of adamantium I had picked up, and had found one with enough interest to actually visit the mine for further investigation.
The swindler princess was gracious enough to hand over the map back (as it was now of no value to her, hah) to Alice and Harsk, and we took the trader, a bald, pot-bellied and eager man called Braum Eamon, via teleportation to the middle of Churlwood. He found neither the means of transportation nor the magical trickery required to actually enter the mine (we didn’t call it the Barracks to him) suspicious or disconcerting, which was awfully convenient for us, given that we had little to explain to him about just how we had found the place. Any vestiges of doubt he might have harbored disappeared like ale in Alfred’s pint the moment he stepped into the adamantium cavern. A blind man would have note the instant he realized the extent of the riches hidden in the ground and the walls, and the look of greed in him was ironic, given how this had been Karzoug’s domain.
Harsk fixed a deal where the trader would gain rights to the mine and deliver us two hundred pounds of pure adamantium in ingots, fifty each month starting from Abadius of the next year. It sounded like a lot when I first heard it. When Harsk reminded me that a pound of weapon-grade adamantium cost a thousand gold sails, it really sounded like a lot. The cleric of Iomedae had become a rich man, and by default, thanks to his amiable nature, we all had. But Harsk was a man of practicalities, and he decided that the metal of the stars should be primarily used to creation of weapons and armor to our personal use, and for sale only if any was left. I shrugged impassively when he told us of his plans. I take what I can get.
31st of Kuthona
Wind-carried snow swept the barren, icy ground and the runelord statues as Alice brought us back to the edge of Kodars, fate willing for the last time.
Absolutely nothing had changed. The snowfall had covered our previous tracks. There was no sign of the dragon Freezemaw, and I could not feel his presence nearby. The road was clear to the mouth of the cave into Rimeskull, which disappointed the sellsword.
“It’s like missing a great celebration”, he bickered as we went around the plateau with the stone faces, referring to the fact we had not been ambushed the second the portal from Magnimar had opened. I found his thrillseeking baffling more often than not. “You’re always so keen on throwing your life away”, I grunted, not letting my eyes off our surroundings. The sellsword guffawed.
“Throwing your life away“, he began, mimicking my slightly raspy and damaged voice, “half-elf, I’m living my life. To the fullest!” He grinned as he went on. “Besides, I think I might have found a new meaning for my life.”
I raised my eyebrow at that, and saw Alice doing likewise. “What, a woman of your dreams”, I asked the obvious. He shook his head and smiled. “No, a god..” He was of course talking about Cayden Cailean, the Drunken Hero, or the deity of bravery, ale and freedom, among other things. For Alfred there could be no other, I realized.
We came to the conclusion that standing around getting our arses frozen would lead us nowhere, so we continued beneath the arch of runes and up the mountainside. I kept myself alert, and was specially sensitive to any itching at the back of my head. But my dragon sense did not stir – at least not until we reached the huge stone face and the entrance into the mountain.
“He’s inside, waiting”, I told the others as I sensed the then familiar tingle, gripping Carmine Avenger tighter, and we stepped in as silently as we could. Our old tracks were still there, and following them felt like someone was walking on my grave. Harsk drew his god-touched longsword from its scabbard and in its golden presence made me feel better instantly. It was that or the skin-prickling humming of Alice’s magical powers behind me.
Keeping his shield up and battle-axe at the ready, Alfred led us all the way to the illusory statues. They vanished immediately after we had had a good glimpse of them, as our brains now knew they were not real, but I knew we had reached a point in the tunnel that most likely hid an alarm of the white dragon.
I told the others as much, adding that the alarm that had warned of our approach the last time was most likely not mechanical, and was greeted by blank stares and shrugs.
“Do not tell me you have nothing to counter or probe any magical traps?” I asked, irritated and baffled at the same time. Alice made a sweeping gesture with her hand, and then shook her head. “I can’t sense anything.”
I opened my mouth under my skull mask, then closed it. Then I opened it again, only barely. “But I am certain it is still there”, I said between gritted teeth.
“We want the dragon to come to us anyway, don’t we?” Alfred asked, guffawing slightly. Nuuta traako, I cursed in Elven and decided to take the initiative. Asking for no opinions, I sprinted forward, jumping over the place where one of the statues had stood and landed softly on the side-trail that snaked along the deadly decline to darkness and the pit.
A heartbeat later the cavern shook and we heard rumbling of an avalanche in the distance, followed by an angry roar of a legendary white dragon.
“Here we go again”, I sighed and pulled a dragon-bane arrow from my quiver. Harsk bellowed a challenge in the name of his goddess, swearing we would not let the dragon flee with its life for a second time.
What happened next surprised me. Like a blown candle the itching at the back of my head disappeared. The others regarded me questioningly when I let out an empty laugh.
“The dragon escaped out of the mountain”, I told them and shook my head wearily, feeling the heat of battle fading from my blood. “I can’t feel its presence.” I was fairly certain my dragon sense had a range of a few hundred feet or so, and losing the connection so abruptly meant that it had moved out of the mountain with magical means, just like it had done the last time.
“Coward”, Alfred said and spat to the ground, clearly disappointed. An angry coward, I added in my mind. We had now truly driven Freezemaw out of its lair, and he would most likely vent his anger on unsuspecting villagers nearby. I don’t know if the others considered the implications and came to the same conclusion, but if they did, they too looked at the big picture. A dragon on the loose was coppers to the platinum of having Karzoug rising from his hideout. We had a mission, and Harsk and Alice particularly were keen on completing it.
We returned out to witness the approach of another beautiful winter sundown in the mountains. The clouds had begun to recede, as if the skies themselves wanted to show us that the time for the opening of the Runeforge was at hand. It was time to begin the ritual that would take us in.
Beginning with Greed, we placed the chosen item (in Karzoug’s case a coin of platinum) on the lid that extended from the statue, and Harsk cast a simple transmutation spell before muttering the Thassilonian word for the relevant vice. Immediately after an iron key appeared next to the coin, the metal ringing on metal. A second later the ground beneath us rumbled and shook a bit.
“Is it supposed to do that”, Alfred asked, sounding suspicious, looking around. “I can’t say, but our ritual is working”, Harsk replied with a combination of satisfaction and revulsion, and reached out to the key the statue had given us with an eagerness of a man who wants to get the dirty work done and dealt with as quickly as possible.
There was another tremble, then two more, and suddenly something erupted from the ground around us with a great explosion of ice and frozen rock. My first thought was that Freezemaw had returned, but our challengers were many, and they were not dragons.
“Earth elementals!” Alice shouted the warning as she pivoted around to face the new threat, her powers crackling and buzzing around her. Three lumbering creatures made of rock, sand and clay swayed just outside the circle of the statues, like people who had just woken.
I wasn’t going to give them any time to wake up, and I wasn’t keen on asking them if they were friendly. As the last stone pebbles were raining to the ground around us I was already moving and putting blazing arrows into their torsos. They had no heads, just something that looked like four limbs and mid-section. A pillar of holy fire struck from the heavens down at the elemental I had been undoing one flame-bursting arrow at a time, and I had to admit Harsk was doing a better job than I. Half of my arrows failed to damage their strange hide, but our magic-wielders had no such difficulties. The snow of the ground began to melt around Alice as her hands shot searing rays after another, expending her considerable powers with nonchalance. Alfred stayed true to himself and charged the last one, guffawing as he went. The earth elementals had no voices, they did not communicate their plight or suffering – there was only the groan of rocks on rocks as they moved. The sellsword was like a gleeful child playing in the dirt as his axe and shield-blows made sand and stones fly in every direction.
One of the elemental creatures dived into the soil like a man into a stream, intent on getting to Alice without being turned to lava. It was a sound plan from such a simple creature. But Alice had her tricks. With a word two massive, glowing and translucent wings extended from her Celestial armor and they beat once in perfect harmony. From a steam-cloud of rapidly melted snow and ice the pale-faced magus rose into the air. The elemental came after her, like a shark crashing up from the water, forelimbs extended but it could not reach her. Instead, Alice gestured once with her free hand and a bolt of lightning leaped from it into the creature, exploding it into fragments.
It was a simple task to turn the elementals back into pebbles and mud they had borne from, and we managed to complete the ritual with the rest of the statues before our window of opportunity closed. With seven small but unique keys we hurried back into the mountain and down into the pit Freezemaw had been guarding, either intentionally or by coincidence.
One by one, we placed a key to a hole in a pillar from a corresponding statue and turned it twice, just like the poem instructed. After the second revolution each key vanished into nothingness and the pillar began to glow faintly. The last pillar upon completion of the opening shot a light into the next, making it shoot a ray of light forward, until all the pillars were connected by rays of pure light.
“Just like at the Barracks of Xin”, I noted as tallest center pillar stirred and a yawning portal emerged at its foot, wide and tall enough for a person to enter. It was a pathway into darkness, but a calling, almost warm and friendly light awaited us at its end. But I knew without reading any old books or tomes that the place was anything but warm and friendly.
“I’ll go first”, Alfred said, shrugged and moved towards the portal. As always.