52. The hungry dead, uncovered
The bat-like beast opened its maw of deadly fangs and screamed, but in a voice that we could not hear. I felt it. The aura of death and evil it emanated was palpable, like a crashing wave rolling over us.
“A nightshade!” Alice warned us, her eyes wide-open in awe and mounting horror. We had opened the doors to the portal to hell, and its resident, this predator of shadows, welcomed us. We had opened the way for it. All it had to do was to kill us and it would be free.
Alfred raised his shield just in time to block one of its too many legs, a spear really, akin to one of a spider. The impact rang like a bell and Alfred grunted in effort as he turned the leg away. “Daylight! Silver! Holy fire! Those are its weaknesses!” Alice went on, instructing us with a blurted yell as she began to prepare her powers. The nightshade howled without sound anew and thrust forward at us, out of the portal which still held it in place by its massive wings.
I pushed aside any notions of fear, and instead drew courage from the wildfire within me and the killer’s routines I had trained all my life. Still, something knotted in my gut as a volley of my undead-bane arrows all hit the monster but barely scratched its hide. Alfred was a blur of axe blows and shield slams, at the center of it all, but his efforts were as useless. The nightshade dismissed the sellsword, but instead locked its empty black eyes on the magus. It sensed the power she wielded and hungrily lunged forward, over Alfred and went at Alice. The snap of fangs together, crunch of leather and her cry of pain were hair-rising.
“Perversion! Let go off her!” The dwarf thundered. The monster had ignored the cleric of Iomedae and the god-touched made it pay. Harsk pointed his sword at the nightshade and its light filled the chamber momentarily as holy energies were released. It was as if Harsk was pointing the sun at the the creature and it screeched in pain, for the first time in a way that we could hear, and backed away as the smite of Iomedae burned and willed it to return to whatever evil place had spawned it. Alice was gasping for air, trying to stem blood-flow from her side with her free hand, and wisely retreated from the onslaught as well. She cursed its ability to resist her magics, but Harsk’s indomitable will persevered where her expertise of the arcana failed. Inspired by Harsk, arrows kept springing from my bow, all finding their mark, all burning the creature’s thick, shadow-like hide. Alfred was laughing – I don’t know why, maybe due to lust for battle – and fighting four legs at the same time, each trying to skewer him.
But a flicker of light can only do so much before it is enveloped by total darkness. The nightshade pushed one last time, raging against us and the constraints of the portal, and it finally got out. Its fleshy wings spread out to cover the entire portal room. It prepared to embrace us and take us to a night of eternal evil.
Still, a lone, stout source of light stood against it. “NO“, Harsk bellowed and a chain of light crackled from his form, enveloping and binding the undead in an instant. The nightshade tried to force its wings and limbs at us, but the chains held firm, if only momentarily. It howled in despair and anger, and phlegm and Alice’s blood spattered against Alfred. We had only one chance.
Die already, I thought, and let loose a duo of flaming arrows. They struck its right eye and came out at the back of its head in a tight cluster. I gave it no quarter and a second later one more arrow pierced its throat. Time stood still, even in the strangeness of the Runeforge, as the wings of the nightmare made real began to close on us..
Then without any warning, the nightshade’s body collapsed into a mist of shadows, disappearing like it had never been there. Only the deep scrapes on the doors and the floor tiles were left behind as evidence of its assault.
“That was it?” Alfred asked aloud, between pants. Alice, still literally holding her right ribs in place by her hand, shot him a glance of pure murder before Harsk began his godly ministrations of healing. Alice let out a whine followed by a sigh as her side was knotted back to whole.
I dismissed them both and paced into the portal chamber. I was snarling. The portal had to go. But how could we destroy it?
“We need to shut this down”, I said as I stood before the blanket of utter night. Harsk, content that Alice was all right, walked to my side with Alfred. “I agree whole-heartedly”, the dwarf began, but said no more. I handed him the magical quill and a piece of paper. “Ask the quill whether it knows what this and how to close it”, I suggested.
The god-touched, more familiar with old Thassilon than I, asked the quill the questions, and it went to work, writing an answer on the empty piece of paper.
“‘A door of darkness to enter the world of light’, it says”, Harsk read aloud. I could hear Alice rolling her eyes behind us. This was old, unhelpful news.
The portal stretched from two pillars made of crystal, and continuous beams of negative energy were fed into the crystals from the walls at either side of the chamber. I had an inspiration.
I stepped next to one of the pillars, drew my adamantine gladius and slashed once with all my strength. Harsk began a warning and reached to my arm but he was late to stop me. The blanket of darkness stirred, clearly disturbed by my actions. Where I hit, a crack appeared on the crystal. I allowed myself a smile.
Another slash, and the crack expanded, like breaking lake ice during Spring. I heard no arguments but I sensed the others taking careful backwards steps out of the chamber. Cowards.
Third slash, and tiny fragments of the crystal splintered down on the ground. The surface of the pillar was giving in. One more strike..
For the fourth time I struck, and my gladius went through its delicate structure as the pillar broke. A sound like a thousand people exhaling in unison signaled the end of the connection between planes.
And the remainder of the crystal pillar exploded outwards violently as the negative energies penetrated it, adding to my harm. I had just the time to shield my face with my hand as some of the shards flew against me, piercing my armor and skin alike in places, if not dangerously. Still, I let out a surprised yell.
“You all right?” Came the sellsword’s shout from the central chamber, beyond the half-closed doors. I coughed, made sure I was not injured badly and responded. “I’m fine.”
But the other pillar was not. It was now bombarded by both of the beams of negative energy, and it was barely remaining intact. Drilled by the other, uncontrolled beam, cracks began to appear on its side as well. I ran.
“Get away, another one coming!” I warned the others as I jumped out of the portal chamber at the last second. Another explosion and clatter of shards against stone rocked the room.
“That was not smart”, Alice commented and tut tuted. “But it got the job done”, I replied dryly.
“I repeat, that was it?” Alfred said again. I realized he was not referring to the number of challengers but what we had achieved in the wing of Gluttony. He was right to voice the question. We had learned nothing of real value to our mission, and it seemed that we had scoured the entire area. “I still think we should look the corridors with the big urns more closely”, he added. I snorted. I had inspected each with care and found nothing. Apparently Alfred was not happy with my effort.
But the spell-casters of our little adventuring party needed some rest before we could go on. We did not feel that tired or drained, beyond the wounds we had taken, nor did we feel particularly hungry. Thus it was ironic that Harsk called upon a heroes’ feast, a spell he had stored for times when we needed inspiration, in a place like the Ravenous Crypt. After we had returned to the crazed alchemists study room. We ate and drank without really needing any nourishment, but I could feel the strength and resoluteness the feast magically provided.
The short break allowed Harsk and Alice to regain their powers, and we continued our search for clues about the runeforged weapons.
To my regret, Alfred turned out to be right. We went back to the corridors with the massive urns, and one of the urns moved when pushed by two men. At closer examination, it revealed a hidden door in the wall. “See?” Alfred asked proudly, and used the haft of his battle-axe to pry open the way. “There’s a passage, be careful”, he lowered his voice and went in first, heedless of his own warnings. The way was barely wide enough for a single person to walk straight, and it was very dark. I went after the sellsword, if not else than to make sure he didn’t run into things. The passage curved quickly to the right and ended abruptly. “Another secret door here”, Alfred called to us over his shoulder. “Let me have a lo-” I managed before he pushed with all his strength. The stones ground together and whined as they moved, and Alfred stumbled in.
Something that was out of my line of sight let out a sigh, or I imagined it. But otherwise it was eerily silent, and cold. We had entered another low, small space that reminded me of a burial chamber. My first impression was not far from the truth. At the back of the room were two smooth slabs of stone, and on each lied a human body that looked like it had been patched together from pieces of other corpses.
Behind the slabs stood a lone, robed and hooded figure, his back to us. I heard Alfred exhale in surprise and he turned his gaze to the right. I pushed my head forward in the passage to see beyond the doorway and witnessed something unbelievable. The creature, as large as a stone giant, was covered in a grey silk-like veil, just like a ghost from children’s stories. The veil rippled and its texture fluctuated, and the reason for it made my skin shiver. Screaming heads tried to force their way through the fabric like drowning men fighting but each failed before falling back into the creature’s unnatural body. I knew nothing of the arcana and only little of the undead, but deep down I knew it had stolen the souls it had killed and made them prisoner of its own form.
First the nightshade, now this. There is no end to the perversions, I thought grimly. It wanted our souls to its collection. But something held it from attacking us.
“You child of Zutha”, the figure with the robes uttered and turned to face us, “why have you desecrated this place?” He was talking to Alfred, and I realized he had used Thassilon, but I had understood every word. “We are on a fact-finding mission”, Alfred replied soberly, not letting his eyes of the soul-stealing undead. It just hovered there a feet off the ground, its veiled face transforming from one terrified person’s to another’s. Like it was a proud hunter presenting its trophies to us.
“A strange language you use”, the hooded figure hissed. “But I sense the power of Zutha in you..”
Behind me, I could hear Harsk mutter prayers beneath his breath. Alice was last in the line, just able to see the hooded talker from the secret tunnel but not the massive spectre.
“Why are you here, disturbing the domain of our master?” The figure spat, his coarse voice full of irritation. I knew this talk had only one conclusion, but we needed answers, clues. I talked over Alfred. “We are looking for weapons against Karzoug”, I shouted behind Alfred’s armored bulk and only then examined the person only twenty or so feet away.
He was a man carrying an old staff, his skin white parchment barely covering bones, but he did not breathe. Great power emanated from his narrow form and he carried himself with dignity despite his frailty. One word sprang to mind. Lich.
“That imposter? That dabbler of petty magics? No, he is secondary to my aims”, the lich – I was certain now – commented with a sneer. “Tell me, little strangers, who is the most powerful magic-wielder in the Material Plane?” The question was all too familiar, reminding us all off the senile slave of Lamashtu under Sandpoint, Xaliasa. As if in defiance of the auras of terror and fear of the spectre and the lich, both I and Alfred snorted. The sellsword thrusted his axe-hand’s thumb over his shoulder. “She’s the most powerful one”, he offered the same reply as we had to Xaliasa.
“Thank you, friends”, came Alice’s voice from the back and I could hear the rolling of eyes in her tone.
“That little girl?” The lich cackled and laughed, but the laughter died almost instantly, only to be replaced by an expression of rage. “You little creatures have violated the sanctity of the Ravenous Crypt and showed me disrespect. For that, I will take both your souls and your bodies..” And as the last words left his pale-white, almost non-existant lips, the lich pointed a finger at Alice behind us all, and a black light shot out. The sellsword was already in the move, going towards the lich but the spectre intercepted him. The black light streamed towards us.. and then vanished.
For a second, the lich stood in surprise that its magical attack had been thwarted. Alice had somehow corrupted the spell, and I intended to utilize the surprise to the fullest. I focused on the soul-devouring spectre and filled the air with undead-bane arrows. Each hit, burned and annihilated its ghastly form. Alfred followed my lead, and his mythical battle-axe ended what I had started. As his third slash struck, the soul-devourer howled in fury and defeat and its form collapsed into smoke, releasing the countless souls it had imprisoned. The souls sang as they dispersed into nothingness.
I want to think that if the lich could have sweated, a single droplet would have appeared on its brow when its companion was defeated so quickly. But to its benefit, the lich did not falter. Instead, its body began to fluctuate, like it was moving rapidly from side to side – and even I recognized the spell. It was the bane of all archers: displacement. I tried to shoot it but I had no luck, and commanded my panther to attack. Dûath went with eager if silent wrath, fangs bared.
The lich stepped back and whacked the big cat with its long arcane staff. It flared as it connected and sent Dûath flying against a nearby wall. I yelled for my companion and reached to my quiver in rising anger. Alice released a trio of crackling bolts of energy towards the lich but the undead lord held up its free hand and a magical barrier appeared in front of it, blocking the magics and effectively cutting us from him. I cursed. Just like Mokmurian – he leers behind that transparent cover. A battle of magic wielders, and I can do nothing. Dûath roared and got up to his feet from the floor, and attacked anew. He was very bold, and also very alone behind the magical wall.
I had broken Mokmurian’s field with brute force, I remembered as I stepped towards the laughing lich, my palms reaching for my gladii instead of new arrows. My bow clattered to the floor, useless for now. The lich howled in laughter as its form kept displacing. Dûath struck with its paws, tried his fangs, but nothing helped. The lich was playing with him, with us. The urge to kill the bastard was in me now.
My arm trembled as the adamantine blade bit into the wall of energies, but already from the first hit I could tell I could spend an hour with it and still it would remain intact. Alfred realized what I was trying and slashed his axe into the wall as well, but his weapon, although bolstered manifold my magical enchantments, was still only steel and limited in its ability to do harm.
“Dispel the wall”, I shouted at Alice as she made her way into the room. “I can’t”, she hissed, “and I can’t strike at the foe either, the barrier protects it!”
“No it does not!” Harsk boomed, stepping closer, his sword and shield arms wide apart. “My goddess, strike the lich with your holy fire!” And Iomedae responded, with an all too familiar pillar of flames that landed on the lich from the ceiling like a hammer from the skies. The fires burned, but the undead creature remained standing. It cast spells of its own, first giving itself mirror images to complement its displacing form.
Then, I lost my hearing. I didn’t know whether the lich used a silence spell that I had witnessed before, or if he had attacked my senses specifically. I disregarded it – I needed my eyes more. I kept slashing the wall with my gladii, hoping to somehow land a lucky blow that would collapse it.
At the corner of my vision I saw Harsk vanish with a step forward, and then reappear next to the lich behind the wall. I yelled at Harsk, but couldn’t hear my own voice. The undead turned to face the bold, stupid dwarf. He would not survive alone there, not even with my panther to help him.
But he was not alone for long. A small hand touched my shoulder. I turned my head. Alice had a hand at Alfred’s shoulder as well, and she was watching me intently. She nodded towards the lich and her lips moved. Magical powers made the hair on my neck rise. I recognized the words.
Then we were ten steps farther, behind the wall. The lich found itself between us, cornered like prey. Harsk’s mouth worked in a furious prayer and I smiled as I saw the displacement spell and all the mirror images vanish. It was four heroes and a raging panther against one evil if potent spell-caster, denied of all effective means to defend itself. The result was never in question.
I did not need to hear anything. We required no commands, no coordination. We cut and stabbed, burned and electrocuted it. Its jaws worked, producing words I did not hear, and it snapped its fingers as its last action. Then it froze to place like a statue.
Eager to finish it, I drove my cold-iron gladius through its neck.. and almost stumbled to the floor as the blade and my hand went through its form without making contact. Still, the illusion of the lich remained as if it was standing there.
“It’s a trick,” I yelled and suddenly heard my own voice again. “You don’t have to shout anymore”, Alice snapped at me and I shot her an angry look in return.
“Where is it”, Alfred grunted, looking to every direction, his shield up, axe at the ready. “What is this sorcery?”
“He will not escape Iomedae’s wrath”, Harsk promised solemnly and drew breath before uttering a holy word. His eyes flashed, as did his weapons, and a wave of pure light burst from his body, filling the entire room in brilliance. The corpses on the stone slabs writhed and perished into ash.
Then we listened. And we waited, in a tight circle, prepared for the return of the lich. But nothing happened. My grip of the pommels of my swords loosened and I wiped sweat from my forehead.
“Victory?” Alfred asked, carefully. As if in reply, the illusion of the lich disappeared.
“He is either annihilated or gone”, Alice stated the obvious. “We need to search the area”, Alfred said and begun to pace the room from corner to corner. I followed his lead, but Harsk and Alice found something of interest among the ashes of the lich’s latest, if not last, victims.
Feeling the walls, I watched through them, looking for more secret entrances and passages. It was a small chamber, quickly searched, and it did not take long before I stepped on a stone on the floor that felt peculiar. “Here, a hatch”, I called the others and activated a mechanism on the floor. The stone tile under me stirred before moving aside.
“We’re back”, I called out and down into the darkness below us, but no-one replied. My darkvision quickly revealed the hideout’s contents, or rather, the tomb’s contents: three sarcophagi, each decorated with dozens of bony hands that seemed to embrace them from behind, like ghosts reaching through the walls.
We tried forcing them open first, and activated some sort of magical defense mechanism. I got burned quite nastily after getting hit by a series of strange beams of negative energy. The second try was however more successful, and with some patience and luck, we managed to open each of the burial caskets. We emptied their contents into our backpacks – jewels, fabrics, gems among others. I snatched one golem-bane scarab to my pocket – Alfred had one too, and it had proved valuable in many occasions before. But the most interesting item was a simple stony urn, molded so that it could not be opened.
I hauled it back up into the lich’s chamber, and clasped it with both hands. “I’ll have a look inside”, I told the others around me, and activated my gloves.
Immediately I was surrounded by screaming madness and eternal night. The vision enveloped me for only a second, but it felt like an hour. Skeletons of men snapped at me angrily, ghosts of long-lost souls howled at me, and rotten hands of ghouls reached out to me. I gasped for air and instinctively let go of the urn, and the strange visions disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. I was certain I had come close to losing my mind for good.
My pale face did the talking for me, and Alice nodded. “That’s most likely the lich’s phylactery”, she commented, and the word drew Alfred forward. His black battle-axe struck once and crushed the urn. But instead of splitting into two or more pieces, it exploded like an alchemist’s bomb, showering us with tiny shards. I managed to shield my face with my palm, but I saw the darkness within come to view and hover over the remains of the urn for a heartbeat. Then it was gone. The refuge of the lich’s dark soul was destroyed, and the soul itself driven to hell.
Shards fell to the floor as Alfred dusted the plates of his armor. “This was a deed, a complete victory, I say”, he stated, clearly proud of his axe-work. But magus was not so certain. Her fingers gently examined the shattered pieces of clay on the floor, looking for arcane remains and further clues. “Time will tell, sellsword, time will tell.”