51. The hungry dead, unbound
I woke up with a startle and clasped at the bedsheets like a drowning man struggling for anything to keep him afloat. A small hand brushed my arm, the soft touch an act of comfort I had never had the privilege of feeling before. I turned my head and found her staring at me with her glittering, smiling eyes. It was peacefully quiet save for the crickets and the owls outside.
“You had a bad dream”, she said. Her head was resting on her other palm, the elbow on the bed. Her long dark hair flowed around her arm. Everything indicated she had been watching me for a while.
“I don’t dream”, I whispered coarsely, finding my throat as dry as a desert.
“Everybody dreams, silly. It’s just that you don’t remember your dreams”, she said with a mischievous smile.
I swallowed and turned my head on the pillow. “I’m happy I don’t”, I replied with utter honesty. Her fingers trailed across my slave brand at the back of my wrist. In reflex, I turned the arm around, away from her eyes. She of course did not recognize it for what it was. I hadn’t yet told her the tattoo’s story.
She however read me like an open book.
“What is it with your dreams that are so frightening to you?” She asked and pulled herself closer to me, bringing her arm and hand across my chest and her thigh across mine, and I could feel the warmth of her body as it made me relax, succumb in some unconscious way. I had always considered myself an impregnable fortress, but she had found its every key and every secret entrance. No – I was an old fort in ruins, its secrets hidden under crumbled keeps and walls, left to the elements. She was something of a historian and chronicler, the only one with the desire and ability to scour its halls and uncover its past beneath all the dust and debris.
I eased her head to my lap and wrapped my arm around her.
“I don’t know where to start”, I said, and I didn’t really.
Her exhale was long and deliberate, one I’ve heard bonesaws do before they start their operations. One of concentration at the task at hand. “What are you afraid of? Dying?”
I smiled at that. “I’m not afraid of dying. There is a worse alternative.” The realization produced a fleeting spark of physical pain in my chest.
“My nightmare is I’ll live forever without knowing for sure what happened to my brother.”
The Runeforge was timeless. It simply was. Built to another dimension of existence, time did not move there like it did in the Material Plane. Metal did not rust. Bodies did not rot. The living did not feel the need to eat nor sleep. For its inhabitants, it effectively was a prison locked in eternity, something others had learned to savour in perverse ways, while others had simply went mad.
It was made of unnatural wrongness. My senses howled in distress and my flight or fight instincts went berserk the moment I realized the nature of the place. We lost the perception of time almost immediately. It was just like the Barracks of Xin, with the difference that getting out was not an easy task. Walking there felt like being in awake in a dream while someone walked over your grave at the same time.
I was going to get the hell out of there, I swore and inhaled to relax myself. The Runeforge would not confine me.
Of course, before we could leave the cursed place we had our mission to complete. We were after powerful weapons. But between us and our objective were dozens of undead, demons, giants, aberrations, crazed spell-casters and constructs. As said, not an easy task.
The dark tunnel ended in light, and the light was emanating from a pool of water in the middle of a massive circular, domed hall. The Sihedron rune covered the floor from side to side. Each tip of the seven pointed star ended at a large statue almost 30 feet high. The statues, runelords, stood motionless around the water, each guarding a ten-foot wide passage into further depths of the Runeforge.
This was the Runeforge, we realized, but nothing akin to any forge I had seen. There was no rhythmic clang of metal on metal. No hisses of steaming water. No sound of burning coals or breathing bellows. There was nothing but a crackle of lightning, coming faraway from one passage.
“Belimarius”, Alice said in a way of explanation, referring to the Runelord of Envy, and paced to steal a peek at the tunnel behind the runelord. There was a buzz, like a gathering of electrical powers before a discharge, and another crack of lightning rumbled.
“So every Runelord has his or her own part of the forge”, Alfred asked aloud and gazed around. My eyes were drawn to the pool of water at the center, and it somehow reminded me of the pool under Sandpoint. It had been important. Maybe this was too?
“It is logical”, Alice commented without turning. “The old texts say this is where the most powerful wizards came to develop their arts. Given how little the runelords seemed to trust each other, it is only reasonable to assume they quartered the forge like they did with Thassilon itself.”
Harsk took the place in and grunted. I didn’t like the surroundings either – I preferred the Material Plane. Alice on the other hand seemed interested, almost thrilled. The place was dedicated to magic – her domain.
At the outset, we were presented with a multitude of options where to proceed. However, the nature of the Runeforge made the choice easier for us. The seven different tunnels looked all the same, but they all were imbued with strange powers. When we stepped into a given tunnel, some of us felt energized and stronger, while others felt weaker and less potent. For some, there was no effect. The pale-faced magus’s strength was leeched in the tunnels of Sloth and Greed, while amplified in Pride. The god-touched and sellsword both felt stronger in the tunnel of Gluttony, while Envy and Lust made them pause. I felt the nausea and drain of vitality in the tunnels of Sloth and Envy, but felt like I could do anything in the tunnel of Wrath. Given the effects, we were naturally inclined to explore those parts of the Runeforge where we literally felt the best.
Alice, intrigued by the constant crackle of lightning we could hear beyond the tunnel of Envy, went to scout it alone, but returned quickly. The place was in shambles, as if a great battle had occurred there. The rest of us had little desire to explore that area of the forge, given its effect on us. Instead, we headed first into the tunnels of Gluttony and Runelord Zutha, great wielder of necromantic powers, as Alice enlightened us. What we ran into was as surprising as snowfall in Kuthona.
“Begone, filthy undead!” Harsk bellowed and his eyes flashed with pure white of his goddess. The same light erupted from his hands around him and struck the iron-clad mummies around us, shattering the closest into fine dust and pieces of armor. We had made ten feet from the end of the tunnel into a small room that seemed to serve as a sort of a foyer. One filled with hostile undead, men who had once been warriors in flesh.
Alfred was leering and laughing, partly in disbelief. “It’s like they don’t see me”, he shouted and hacked one mummified soldier in half from shoulder to hip, cleaving through plates like they were paper. The others came past him towards us, hands outreached, hungry for the ones who were not inclined towards the sin of gluttony. In their dead madness they had chosen to forfeit their swords.
“Use it to your advantage”, Alice shouted back and blasted a fireball into an undead that dragged itself forward. Its flames reached the wall behind it, and where the fire licked the stones, a howling spectre with a collection of red eyes for a head emerged. Alice spat a warning but it was too fast. Alfred roared in defiance and pain as the ghost touched the sellsword’s back with elongated grey fingers and began to suck the lifeforce out of him.
The magus focused her powers and threw yet another ball of fire into a mass of mummies, filling half of the room in magical flames. Yet again, new spectres flew through the walls and into the fight.
“Gods damnit, woman”, Alfred shouted in anger, pain and irritation, “I have my hands full already without your back-firing tricks!” Now even the mummies took notice of his presence, and the enemies swamped him, eager to end his life. For his benefit, Alfred can be a stubborn creature, and that served him well. He did not go down but kept hacking and slamming with his weapons, making short work of the more physical mummies while evading the discorporate fingers of the ghosts. Harsk howled holy oaths and battlecries and kept channeling his powers, and Alice turned to more accurate, if as fatal, spells of destruction.
When the last phantasm was evaporated by Harsk’s virtues made energy, I fought myself free of the unnatural aura of despair the mummies had emanated. I think no-one even noticed that I hadn’t participated in the brief combat with my panther. Otherwise I might have felt somewhat ashamed.
The halls of Gluttony were cold, like a food-storing cellar in summer. This dismal place however stored the dead. The temperature was a distinct contrast to the surroundings themselves. The walls and arching ceilings were covered in frescos that depicted naked, hedonistic people lounging and enjoying ample feasts of different foods and drinks. There were images of skulls here and there, but even they were smiling. “Typical necromantic symbolism”, Alice noted. “What, they ate themselves to death”, Alfred asked, half in jest. Alice rolled her eyes.
Beyond the foyer was a cylindrical space, a chamber, going up and down into darkness, with two narrow bridges of stone crossing it. At each end there was a solid door. There was more artwork in the walls, but among them were hatches. Graves. Hundreds of them, at regular intervals bored into the walls, going as far as eye could see. Each grave was marked with intricate engravings of wedges of cheese, chocolates, grapes, gaskins, and so on.
Alfred, always at point, led us first to the left. The heavy doubledoors opened easily, but revealed a mystery. A gateway to hell.
“Alpharius, we found your heart”, Alfred joked as he saw the utterly black field of energy that buzzed between two pillars made of crystals. There was nothing beyond the veil but darkness and it felt like it was reaching at us as we stood there at the doorway. I spared him no answer. I had seen enough portals in my short life to identify one without magical training, so I took one copper coin and threw it into the energy field that divided the room in half. Upon impact it shattered into million pieces. “It’s made of negative energy”, Alice said warily, “beware.” Harsk spat to the ground in disgust, his powers and religion antithesis to the energies crackling before us. “Let us leave this place”, the god-touched growled, and no-one objected. Unwilling to approach the dark portal, we back-tracked and closed the doors firmly behind us.
We continued left again, through another set of heavy, if unlocked doubledoors. Carnage awaited us.
Several blue-robed figures, all male, had been gutted and slain, and their corpses littered the room we entered. There was blood, and only the smell of blood. No decay – time did not move forward in this place, so even dead bodies did not rot. It was as if they had been killed only moments ago. Somehow we knew they had been there much, much longer.
“Lovely”, Alice commented, in disgust. Somehow I was reminded of the Graul farmstead, sans the wall-to-wall smell of piss and shit.
“Some are missing body parts”, Harsk noted first, surveying the room like it was a puzzle to be solved. Alfred went to one corpse and gently poked it with his black axe. “Yup, dead all right”, he informed us. There were two trails of blood, as if someone had dragged bodies away, leading right and left through doorways. I noted this aloud, and lowered my voice. “Their killer, or killers, might be beyond those doors, still waiting. We should be careful.”
“I wonder if they were attacked”, I added the hypothesis. Alice shook her head. “No. I saw similarly clad bodies at the halls of Envy. I think they were brought here, to a necromantic ritual”, she told me. I’m not easily fazed but still my skin crawled. This was just the first wing of the Runeforge we had entered in full – what horrors hid in the other wings?
We went further, and found a study room with a large bookshelf, chairs, a table and a sarcophagus at the center. Several alchemical items were spread over the top of the sarcophagus, along with human bones and a fresh-looking heart that looked like it could start beating on its own any second. Feeling relatively safe Alice and Harsk grabbed a few books from the shelf and began to leaf through them, trying to find clues and new information about the runeforged weapons we were after. Two doors faced each other at the end of the study, and Alfred helped himself to the southernmost, while I used my magical gloves to look through the northernmost without opening it. “Nothing, just a corridor and more doors”, Alfred informed us.
I however saw something.
“Movement”, I spat, in half-whisper. “What is it”, Alice asked me, putting down the book she had been reading. “I spotted an end of a bloody stone podium, or a bed, at the end of a corridor. Someone was lying on it, but pulled its feet away from my line of vision.”
“Then let us go ask him if he can direct us to the runeforged weapons”, Alfred quipped playfully while brandishing his weapons. I knew his axe would do the talking for him, and stepped away as he went to the door and kicked it in.
We were greeted first by blabbering and then by increasingly manic laughter. “Fresh bodies for my studies!” The voice called out and emerged to our line of sight. The creature was a monster, resembling a human male with skin peeled off in places, teeth sharpened to daggers, a mad hunger in its gleaming eyes. It carried a small blade and it ran straight towards Alfred who was still at the doorway, a lone welcoming party.
“Damn, you’re ugly”, Alfred spat and went to work. But multiple strikes of his axe and shield, even though they tore chunks of meat off the monster alchemist’s body, did not slow the creature down. It didn’t even notice the arrows I sunk into its hide. It emanated the same aura of bone-chilling despair as the mummified guardsmen had, but this time we all resisted its frightening effect – all but my faithful panther. Dûath whined, turned tail and ran back, despite my angry commands. I had to let him go.
Alice’s magics had first true effect, and with a crazy cackle the creature stepped back and gestured the sellsword to follow. “Come into my laboratory, fresh meat”, he called. Alfred roared and took a step forward into the corridor. But Harsk shouted him to stop, and thrust his hand onto the wall behind Alfred. “You won’t run from justice”, the god-touched bellowed and powers of Iomedae emanated from his palm into the wall. The monster took careful backwards steps back in the corridor.. and bumped into a wall that just seconds ago had not been there. The dwarf had shaped the stone and bent it to his will, denying the alchemist monster its only chance of retreat. “Tsk tsk”, Alfred smirked and crossed his axe over his shield, ready to finish its existence.
Then the wailing began.
“I think you should stop using magic that touches the walls”, I sighed as four spectres emerged from nothingness around us. A thousand red eyes examined us, found us an affront and charged. I was swift enough and got a few undead-bane arrows into the air but the fight quickly devolved into a contest of blades versus life-draining fingers. One tried to grab Alice but I managed to interfere by slashing once with my cold-iron gladius, the blade connecting and cutting deep despite the ghost’s incorporeal form.
She was quick to react. “DOWN!” She yelled and I fell to one knee as a magical fire snake leaped from her free hand, uncoiled past me, and bit two ghosts that were flying towards us, immolating both. I heard Alfred’s screams of pain. He was alone in his duel with the monster. “Help Alfred”, I yelled to Harsk as two more ghosts swooped around the room, a thousand eyes locked into us.
“No. I brought those here, and I’ll suffer not their existence.” Harsk’s voice was cold and adamant. The forms of the ghosts rippled like water in wind, perhaps in anticipation. They came at us, but Harsk was faster.
“In the name of Iomedae, I banish you!” And with those words, tendrils of golden light struck from the god-touched dwarf’s eyes, scrambling towards the ghosts. Some glanced his holy sword in his hand, enveloped it and gained potency before continuing at the undead. The ghosts could do nothing but wail as the will of Harsk turned tangible grabbed and annihilated them.
Again alone against our combined effort, the crazed alchemist finally fell to my bane arrows, Alfred’s excessive if controlled brutality and Alice’s thunder magics.
“A dilemma”, Alice thought aloud as Harsk was healing and rejuvenating Alfred who had borne the brunt of the alchemist’s fury. The wall of stone that had stopped our enemy blocked our entry to its laboratory. Harsk turned from the sellsword’s side and shook his head. “I might be able to transform the wall back into its old form without attracting more spectres.” Still, I pulled a duo of undead-bane arrows from my quiver and set them across the Carmine Avenger. The dwarf went to the corridor and touched the new wall. It flowed away to the side as if controlled by a secret door mechanism. Nothing else happened. I heard Harsk sigh, just a little.
“I’ll go look for Dûath”, I told the others. “Meow”, Alfred teased to my back, trying to ruffle my feathers. I did not respond.
I found my panther in the central chamber with the four shafts. He was tense, ready for combat and growling at the door leading to the dark portal. “What is it, boy”, I whispered to my beast. Then I heard the scraping and thumps against the door. Something had come out of the portal and was trying to get out. But the door was holding. “To me”, I commanded Dûath in a low voice, and he obeyed. I contemplated going to the door and having a look through with my magical gloves, but caution bested my curiosity. I knelled next to the panther and gave it a scratch on his scruff, never letting my gaze of the door.
Thump. Thump. Tiny dust particles flew off the door at each hit but it didn’t even budge.
“We’ll get to you yet”, I made the promise and pulled back to the others.
Harsk and Alice were in the mad alchemist’s laboratory, going through piles and piles of documents and tomes that crowded the several bookcases at each side of the room. Alfred was looking bored and leaned on a wall at the corridor like a guard. Immediately I remembered that he actually had been a caravan guard in his previous life. No wonder the look is so natural, I thought.
There was a dead man lying on the stone podium at the center of the study but it could have been a pot of flowers for all the attention we were giving it. Bodies were evidently not in short supply here, and it told a lot of our recent experiences that a dead person garnered so little interest.
“Something’s in the portal room, but it can’t get through the doubledoors”, I started non-chalantly. Alfred raised his brow at that but I just shook my head a little to curb his excitement. Taking the laboratory in, I cocked my head to the side and smiled at Alice. “This is your heaven, magus”. She glanced at me curiously from the pages of whatever book she was reading, but said nothing and returned to her speed-reading.
“Found anything worthwhile?” I asked, no-one in particular. “Well, these books are worth a small fortune in themselves. So much old knowledge”, Harsk said, a hint of awe in his voice. Alfred chuckled. “I’ll take gold over knowledge every time.” Harsk snorted. “I know you do, my friend.”
“Anything else? Helpful to our mission?” I continued. Harsk shrugged.
“I might have something here”, Alice said and turned a page. “This one is a log book of sorts. It describes this place we are in, or this wing of the Runeforge. They called it the Ravenous Crypt.”
“Fitting”, I commented, based on my limited understanding. Gluttony, undead. Simple arithmetic.
Alice continued. “There are several mentions of Runelord Zutha. It seems the last task of the Crypt was to design a method for Zutha to retreat into stasis in case the Empire, or the world, came to an end.”
“So they knew of the Earthfall in advance”, Harsk cut in, referring to the ancient catastrophe that had brought end to civilization, and stroke his beard. Alice nodded. “Did they succeed?” I asked. “Don’t tell me we have to fight him too.”
“I can’t say”, the pale-faced magus responded. “They had a plan to divide Zutha’s phylactery into three parts and hide them across Thassilon, and then later combine them.”
“Phy-what?” Alfred asked, baffled. “Phylactery. An amulet he carried, a magical haven for his soul should he die”, Alice informed us. Harsk growled at that. “Just like something liches would have”.
“True”, Alice confirmed. I winced. Even I knew liches were very powerful undead creatures – creatures of myths and horror stories.
The magic-wielders spent a moment reading and gathering the most valuable books into their bags as loot. The sellsword was getting anxious so we continued our search of the Ravenous Crypt. We ran into more mummified guards, but took them down easily, even thought this time Alfred succumbed to the aura of despair. Needless to say the god-touched cleric proved his worth once more when he returned our blunt instrument of violence back into the fold.
We found nothing but ten five feet high containers, like oversized clay pots that had been molded shut, arranged along two narrow and short corridors. We examined each briefly, and I even tried to look in with my gloves, finding a skeleton inside. But we could not find an explanation to their existence. We did not linger but returned to the central chamber.
The thumps had amplified into booming strikes, but still the door to the portal held. It was obvious whatever made the sound, it was big.
“Have a look”, Alfred urged me. Caution still made me pause, but I approached still, and extended my hand. The wood beneath disappeared and I stared into the eyes of darkest nightmares made real only five feet from me. Instinctively I flinched and began to pull back, but I remembered that it didn’t really see me and kept my palm firmly on the door. It was an enormous, seething perversion half a spider and half a bat. It’s long, chitinous front legs scraped and struck the entryway. Parts of its fleshy, oddly transparent wings had made it out of the portal, but it was stuck, unable to fully come through with the sturdy door and the small space around it confining it. But by gods it was eager. Saliva dripped from its sharp, protruding fangs, but perhaps most horrifying was that no sound issued from its bat skull-like head. It pushed forward, inch by inch, like a newborn coming from a womb, but with cold, murderous determination. It was hungry.
In retrospect throwing the coin into the portal didn’t seem such a good idea.
“What is it”, Alfred called me, loudly, and I saw the monstrosity pause its efforts momentarily. Its large ears vibrated. It had heard him.
I pulled out from the door and grimaced at Alfred, gesturing him to keep his tone low. I was swiftly among the others, and told them what was beyond.
“We have to take it out”, Harsk told us adamantly. Both because his sense of duty and it was still hindered, he added. Alfred, unusually, wanted to leave the beast for last. “It’s still stuck, right”, he asked and looked at me. I nodded. “The room is too small for it to maneuver. I’ve never seen anything like it but I’d imagine a good half of it is still in the other dimension. As long as the door holds, it will remain stuck.”
“Then let’s be quick about the final area of the Crypt, and then return to kill the monster”, Alfred suggested. I had one last look at the sturdy doors and nodded again. The others agreed as well, and we left the central chamber and headed to the last unexplored route.
“Hey, I’m getting something here”, Alfred uttered almost immediately, and grabbed his golembane scarab that hung around his neck. It was faintly glowing. “Golem or many are nearby”, the sellsword added and tensed for combat, but did not stop. The corridor, gray-tiled and similar to all the others we had passed recently, curved to the right before opening into a hall. No, not a hall, but a burial chamber. Several stone coffins lied at opposite sides of the space, but at the end of the chamber one stood on a raised pedestal like a king of the other coffins. It was golden – even in the faint light of everburning torches there was no mistaking about it. There was a name inscribed into the side of the coffin in intricate letters. Lord Anklerios Mankray Inib of the House of Inib, Harsk later translated to me.
The lord was not without a guardian.
At first it appeared to be a statue resembling a woman with a coiled serpent’s lower body and a large Sihedron rune for a head. The upper human half was armored and it carried a long spear across its bust. I remembered Xanesha and Lucrezia, and I felt the rage of the elemental wildfires coming to the fore. But without Alfred’s insight we would have easily mistaken it as a mere 8-feet tall statue, a decoration next to Lord Inib’s final resting place. It was that and the fact that I spotted its head move only slightly. It was following the first person to enter the chamber, Alfred.
“Be careful”, Alice whispered, and I noticed the head of the golem sharply move from the sellsword to the magus behind him. “It’s sensing us”, I said, as silently as I could, but to no avail. It turned to regard me. Alfred continued forward, alone. My instinct was to halt – this place, while evil and perverse to the core, still reacted positively to the fighter and the cleric. A gesture to Alice made her stop too. Harsk, always loyal, went to follow Alfred.
My instinct proved correct, that time. As Alfred was only fifteen feet from the golem and the golden coffin it was guarding, it merely nodded in salute and did nothing else. It did nothing when Harsk asked it in Thassilonian if they could investigate the coffin. It did nothing when Alfred and Harsk quite brutally pulled jewels off the side and top of the coffin as loot. It also let us loot the other coffins. They were filled with old wine bottles that we imagined to be very, very expensive. And there was a lot of them. I lost count at fifty, and thanked the arcane masters for magical backpacks and bags of holding.
For once, we managed to do something as planned, and returned to the central chamber in haste. We had a freakish monstrosity to annihilate.