54. Vain untruth
The Halls of Wrath, Runeforge
I felt a pang of envy seeing the Mark of Wrath, obviously a token of great power, blazing on Alice’s forehead. It faded as quickly as it had come but did not disappear completely, leaving a faint almost indiscernible outline, just like my emotion. Alice touched her skin, brushing the mark with her fingers, her face a mix of silent awe and curiosity.
I turned to see how my god-touched friend was doing. Harsk was on his knees, palms resting on thighs. Pale energies shimmered around him as he prayed to Iomedae. I hurried to his side.
“Thank you, for the intervention”, I told him as I approached. He seemed to be all right, despite the horrible roasting he had endured. From her domain across the planes, his goddess was providing him with ample powers of healing. And by the gods he needed every bit.
Harsk didn’t answer immediately and took his time to pull himself back together. I saw wounds close, burned flesh turn from black and scorched into pink and fresh and finally to normal, healthy skin in seconds. Even his burned beard grew back, inches every heartbeat, to what it had been before the onslaught. “You looked like you needed a hand”, he said with a groan as he got upright and called his sword to his hand. The blade responded and appeared into his grip with the help of divine magic. I looked over my shoulder and saw Alfred inspecting Alice’s forehead and exchange some words with her. After Alice’s magical suppression, between him, Dûath and me, we would have taken care of the red warrior. I regarded the cleric.
“Much appreciated”, I told him simply, and changed the subject. “But we still have nothing to help our quest. We do not have answers to our questions. Just this burning altar”, I complained and gestured at the seven-pointed rune glyph on the marble floor surrounded by an everburning ring, a some sort of a ritualistic formation that commanded the center of the pillared hall. “Do we have any idea what it is, even”, I finished my rant. “It pulses with great magical energies, but otherwise, I have no clue”, I heard Alice’s response behind me. She and Alfred came to join us. Harsk just shrugged, and then winced in pain before almost doubling down.
“I might need a moment to rest and pray”, he said, his eyes closed in a frown dripping subdued agony. I offered my hand to steady him but he waved it off. “Him, and me too. I need to meditate to gather my strength before we continue”, Alice informed us, looking worryingly at the state of our healer. I exchanged glances with Alfred. “I don’t feel tired”, the sellsword told us, and I found myself nodding. Despite the hardships, I didn’t feel like resting at all. The effect of the Runeforge was such, and the halls of Wrath on particular. “Try doing something mentally demanding for a change, and we’ll see after that who’s tired”, Alice sighed, aiming the retort at both of us and went to sit in a quiet corner.
After an hour, or a time that felt to us like an hour, we backtracked our way out and into the circular center space of the Runeforge. I left Alice and Harsk ponder at the pool while I wandered back the tunnel we had passed when we had first arrived. It ended in a solid wall, just as I remembered, a rude awakening to the reality of our situation. There is no escape. Other than whatever Alice could cook up. Shivers ran down my spine.
“We should plan our means of exit”, I told the others as I emerged from the passage and back into the center hall. Alfred was cleaning old blood off his shield with a cloth. “What’s the anxiety for, are you afraid?” He guffawed as he raised his chin. I shot him a venomous glance in response. “I think it would be nice to know how to get the fuck out of here if they manage to get themselves killed”, I hissed between my teeth and pointed Harsk and Alice with a finger. The sellsword shrugged dumbly. “Not on my watch are they going down.” That made Alice snort. My temper flared. “You are fucking unbelievable”, I spat, disgusted at Alfred’s lack of sense and greed. I knew what he wanted. He wanted the treasures of the Runeforge, a pay day beyond imagining. “I’m starting to doubt your courage, half-elf”, Alfred said with a frown and put aside his shield. Instinctively my grip of the Carmine Avenger tightened, making the bow glow in dark red. Even Dûath let out a threatening low growl.
“Easy, Alpharius”, Harsk’s soothing voice cut in. “We need to continue the search, but we’ll be careful. And I’m sure Alice can get us out if the need arises.” I crossed eyes with the magus behind the cleric and she raised her eyebrows, surprised. “Of course”, she uttered after clearing her throat. Somehow I wasn’t convinced, by either. Still, I relented. “Then we continue, I guess.”
Our quest’s next step was obvious. We went counter-clockwise and entered the tunnel leading to lord Xanderghul’s section of the Runeforge. Very quickly simple stone of the walls turned to mirror-clear glass, and beneath our feet, dusty tiles gave way to smooth white marble that shone with radiant light. I caught Alice risking a glance at her mirror-image and brushing the hair on her forehead ever so slightly. Alfred was being less discreet. He took the first opportunity to to admire and rub his thick moustache and grin while he examined the health of his teeth. I regarded my reflection as was greeted by the perpetual leer of the death’s head, partly hidden by the hood of my cloak. Behind the mask was a frown as undying, something I didn’t need to see to know it was there. And people wonder why I’m so unapproachable, a part of me jested mockingly. Harsk was concentrated, pacing briskly, eyes forward.
“Mmm, I think I’ve been to a place like this before”, the old mercenary muttered to himself with a fond, queer smile. The god-touched glanced over, the obvious question forming on his lips. “Wait, I don’t want to know the details”, he quickly mumbled, realizing just what kind of places might have mirrors on the walls and ceilings, and continued walking.
The mirrors made progressing in the halls of Pride somewhat disturbing – it seemed like dozens of us walked the corridors, a disconcerting sight. We saw past corners thanks to the reflections, but it also meant our approach was hardly unnoticeable to anyone waiting. I was happy to let the sellsword take point.
We delved deeper into the lair of Pride unchallenged for a moment or so, until we came to a crossroads. The passage continued both left and right, but we could see that both routes turned sharply only a few dozen feet farther and led to a spacious hall. There was something, a statue of an animal of some kind, in the hall. But there were no signs of life.
Alfred, carrying his battle-axe and shield at the ready, rolled his shoulders in preparation and stepped into the junction. He glanced right first, being right-handed.
Someone took a step to our left, thirty or so feet away, metal rasping against stone. “Hello handsome”, the sellsword said, chuckling, looking at something in the mirror, but his mirth died quickly, only to be replaced by a grimace. “I just stepped out of the damn looking-glass.” He what, I was amazed. He pivoted on the balls of his feet and shouted a challenge to.. himself. Through the reflection, I could see another Alfred take calm steps towards the original Alfred. But to my eye there was a glaring difference. The other Alfred approached with deadly, almost hungry intent, one I had never observed among the sellsword’s range of expressions. Otherwise, it was just as the original. It wore the same equipment, had the same weapons. Our Alfred seemed unsure what to do. “I don’t like this. I don’t look too friendly.” He glanced behind, and we heard another step taken, plates of armor clanging as they moved. “Hey now”, Alfred said, with even more uncertainty, “two is a party, but three is a crowd!” A third Alfred stepped into view, through the mirrored wall to our right, and it too sneered before beginning its slow advance.
The real sellsword chose to take the initiative and launched himself into barreling charge to the left. The false version raised its battle-axe for a swing in greeting, but it was too slow. Two armoured warriors clashed, and the on at the receiving end went crashing to the shining floor, thrown off by a vicious shield-slam.
“Don’t advance!” I shouted the warning and spread my arms apart to block the others. Harsk was cursing, eager to engage but he had the mind to hold still. The corridor was yet another trap. It and the mirrors on its ends were somehow creating our hostile analogies. Maybe just a gaze to the mirror was required? My mind raced as I tried to understand what had just happened, all the while as two Alfreds were dueling, and a third was making its way towards us.
Alice did not heed my warning. Instead, she shouldered past me and into the corridor, and turned to challenge the second fake sellsword. At the corner of my eye I saw a second pale-faced magus step out of the mirror at the opposite side, scimitar at hand, and regard the match of the two Alfreds with feline curiosity – like a cat watching a mouse struggle. I closed my eyes in irritation, feeling a nagging pain in my temples, and exhaled. For one as book-smart as you, you really are a dumb fool sometimes Alice, I thought, pulled a shaft from my quiver and nocked it across my bow. I took a position at the corner of the crossroads, careful not to step too far nor gaze at the mirrors.
The third Alfred came with a bellow and met a flock of my arrows, but only one pierced his thick, heavy plates. It scored a serious wound but did little to help Alice. Grinning madly, the fake sellsword charged, struck her twice with the axe before slamming her unconscious with his shield. Well that was quick, I thought, taken aback. I snarled, both at my uncertainty and the foe. He didn’t finish her but turned immediately to face me, Dûath and Harsk, eager for more violence.
I ground my teeth together as I saw the magus stay down. The simulacrum was exactly as dangerous as the real deal. The Carmine Avenger’s bow-string drawn, a shaft ready, I opened my mouth to issue a command to my panther, but Harsk was quicker. A sphere of holy light flew from her open hand into Alice’s limp corpse, and made the woman bolt upright as if suddenly awoken, inhaling in shock, the first breath of a baby. The fake sellsword reacted by beginning to circle around, but never got the chance to finish its turn. Instead, Alice’s crackling scimitar erupted from his chest with a loud bang of released energies. Alice cried in hellish fury and the fake sellsword exploded into bits, his body simply unable to remain intact after being ravaged by lightning the blade channeled. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the old saying came to my mind.
With the immediate danger taken care of, Alice rotated to see how the real Alfred was faring, this time smartly being careful not to gaze at her mirror image. The other Alice had vanished – destroyed by the Alfreds probably, but the dueling sellswords had taken an equally severe beating and were both bleeding profusely.
“Which one is our Alfred?” Alice shouted, a her free hand blazing with a destructive spell waiting for release, waiting for a target.
“Urgh, help.. Harsk..” The other suddenly groaned and stepped back towards us, fumbling out of the melee. I took a calculated risk and pointed with my finger before barking an order. “Dûath, SLAY!” And my panther went with a roar, and brought the other, wordless Alfred, down with his leaping bulk, gorging his throat open already when they collapsed to the marble floors. Almost immediately, the fallen body under the animal shattered into glass-like fragments. In a second, even they disappeared.
I’ll be damned, he smelled who was the false creature, I muttered to myself.
The real Alfred fell on his side, exhausted, and was breathing with thin rasps. “Har-sk.. if.. you don’t.. mind-“
“Hold still”, the dwarf’s soothing voice called out, carried by wisping energies of healing that snaked around the corner, sensing, searching. Covering my eyes, I walked into the corridor and straight to the mirror to our left. My adamantium gladius slashed once and broke the glass into a million tiny pieces, a most satisfying result and sound if there ever was one. The pale-faced magus was soon with me, examining the fragments. “Wise words, magus? Expert opinions?” I asked her as I poked the glass with the tip of my blade.
“It was the mirrors that created the analogues”, she said thoughtfully. “I believe when you broke the mirror, it would have annihilated any that would have still been fighting us.”
Somehow, I was not surprised, but nevertheless I let out an irritated sigh. “I’ll be sure to remember that the next time we fight such tricks.”
“Deserted”, Alfred groaned as we peered like a bunch of sad burglars into what seemed to be the main hall of the Pride wing. “Disappointed?” I asked him. He didn’t answer but for once his typical bluster was nowhere to be seen. He had taken a beating at his own hands, and despite Harsk’s ministrations, he was more wary. Good for him.
A massive statue of a proud peacock made of crystal-like stone, standing on a plinth, tail elongated, commanded the center of the otherwise empty, dome-like hall. Above us four chandeliers, also crystal, hung from the arching ceiling. Like the floor itself, they radiated white light. It seemed awfully peaceful, almost serene, but my instincts were telling me to remain alert. We were treading in a domain dedicated to evil after all. Alfred gestured us to get moving, and we did. I was trying to remember where we had run into a similar peacock motif, but my reminiscence was abruptly interrupted by a loud, nasal and pompous voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was talking in Thassilonian, but still somehow I could understand every word.
“The master is in study! He is not to be disturbed. Please keep your screaming to a minimum while you are punished for daring to venture this close to his magnificence.”
It was a challenge, a warning or a taunt, it mattered little, since the second the voice quieted, we found ourselves at the receiving end of fire magic. I lost count of the fireballs that suddenly were flung at us from nowhere. Alice managed a desperate warning and vanished. Diving left and right, Dûath and I had our hands and paws full evading the hungry flames.
I heard Alfred roar, more in rage than pain. He, like me, survived with little harm endured.
Harsk was less fortunate and had much, much slower reflexes. It was the second time (in the past hour? Day? Week? It was difficult to say in the Runeforge) he bore the full brunt of an all-consuming flame attack. The whoosh of the hungry fires drowned the cleric’s cry of agony, and as they flickered and died, I scrambled to him, completely disregarding the enemy. I cannot see the origin, the attacker, a part of my mind reasoned. I almost managed to catch Harsk as he crumpled to the ground, scorched from head to toe, again. I locked him in an embrace and began to pull him away. “ALICE”, I roared, my heart beating like a drum. A fucking ambush. I walked into a fucking ambush. We are truly overwhelmed and need to retreat. Harsk won’t survive another flamestorm. Alfred was shouting the cleric’s name, his eyes frantically searching for something to strike. “ALICE!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, taking a better hold of the cleric, who was still alive, I don’t know how. Gods you are heavy! “Magus, get us the fuck out of here, now!”
The sellsword moved to protect us. “Show yourselves!” He hollered the taunt behind his shield, but no one appeared. As I struggled backwards, my ears picked out murmurs, coming from a distance from multiple sources. Spell-casting. In seconds we’d be cooked. I barked anew to Alice, wherever she was, hiding invisible like our enemies. “God dammit woman, now!”
Then I saw it. A ripple, the barest outline of a figure, moving only a dozen or so strides away, and my keen hearing picked out the shuffling steps it made. I sense you, bastard. Moving fluently, I let go off the cleric, rose to my full height and pulled an arrow from the quiver. “Now you’ll pay”, I whispered, nocked, aimed and let loose the shaft, all within two heartbeats.
A cloaked figure came into view, gurgling, trashing, an arrow sticking through his neck. His blood sprayed around as he flailed and hit the floor and went limp.
Next to us, Alice stepped out of the shroud of invisibility. We locked eyes, and she looked charged yet disappointed. I grabbed her by the arm. “Time for an exit”, I demanded.
“We could have taken care of them”, she said coolly before touching Harsk’s and Alfred’s shoulders, and we blinked away from the fight.
“By the goddess I need a beer”, Harsk groaned, lying down on his back, letting wisping, gently flowing energies envelop and caress him. We had emptied healing potion into his torn, blackened throat, and yet again the powers of his deity did the rest. The god-touched was hard to kill, and I was thankful for it, even though I didn’t really think about it then.
“That was a disgrace”, I hissed angrily. “Walking to an ambush like that.” My nerves were taut like a drawn bowstring. “We need a plan. A solid plan.”
“We go back there and kill the casters”, Alfred replied calmly, keeping his eye on the tunnel that led to the wing of Pride. I was dumbstruck. “What? That’s your plan?”
“It’s not that complicated”, he guffawed to himself. “And it’s not like we can try your hide-and-seek games in a place that is full of looking-glasses”, he added with a snort, expecting me to suggest a stealthy approach. “Well how do you intend to flush out foes that can remain invisible yet attack us”, I retorted, grimacing, barely containing my anger.
“With fire”, both Alice, standing aside from the rest of us, and Harsk said aloud at the same time. It made sense, and let myself cool down. “Still, we can’t stay together when we go, like eggs in a basket”, I told them finally. Sticking close together would only invite more destruction in form of fireballs. Stiffly, the cleric got up and spread his arms, palms towards us. “We won’t, but this will help anyway”, he said in his fatherly tone and intoned a blessing. “Protection from fire”, Alice laughed lightly as she recognized the effect that spread around us like an invisible second skin, “should come in handy.”
“Where’s the last one?” I grunted, nocking yet another shaft, straining my every sense to its limit. Five magicians lay dead across the hall, some were burned, one decapitated, others full of arrows. There was a sixth somewhere, and he had run, tail between his legs, after seeing his allies die. Or brothers, I thought. All the dead casters looked exactly the same, unnervingly so. As if they were the same person. For a moment, I thought of Macharius, picturing his dead corpse at my feet.
Alfred was mumbling incoherently, slashing at unseen enemies next to the huge statue of the peacock, suffering from a mishap axe-hit to the head, or a mind-tricking spell. He was out of the picture, and even approaching him was dangerous as he viewed everything and anyone as hostile to him. Harsk had been forced to blind the fool with a command word before he could hurt us. He’s so going to hear about this when he snaps out of it, I grinned. Despite Harsk’s precautionary measures, we were giving the sellsword ample space, Harsk circling him from the right, and Alice from the left. “I can hear him”, Harsk shouted and called a pillar of fire from the heavens. THOOM. The room was momentarily filled with light as holy energies exploded into the floor from the ceiling. A cry of pain followed, and as the light dissipated, a sixth caped figure was lying on the marble. “That was for the fireballs”, Harsk spat and sheathed his longsword. Vengeance had been served hot.
“Uh, why am I blind”, Alfred asked uncertainly. He had stopped spinning and had apparently returned to his senses. Harsk went to help him, and I walked to Alice. She was on one knee, checking the condition of the last foe. “Let me guess, he won’t be answering any questions”, I sighed. She shook her head. “No he won’t.”
“Gods damnit!” I vented the curse and ripped the death’s head mask from my face to dry droplets of sweat and rub my eyes. “This is not going well. We are not finding anything.”
Alice kept her cool. “But it’s telling where he tried to go. He was scuttling towards that wall, but there’s nothing in there.”
I examined the wall beside us. It was just like the others, covered by flat looking-glass from the floor to the arching top of the room. But what deceived eyes could not hide the truth from my gloves. I laid my palms on the glass and looked through.
“Ha. A study room is hidden behind this”, I called out over my shoulder, and then frowned. “There’s a man inside, but he looks dead, or asleep.” Resembling the dead guardians, the man was sitting on a cushioned chair, but his head and arms were sprawled over a valuable looking desk that was covered in notes and papers and assorted foodstuffs. It was as if he had died poisoned on top of his last dinner, or fallen asleep as he worked.
We found the mechanism that opened the secret door into the study, and entered carefully. The man on the table did not react to our presence. The reason became clear quickly. He was utterly lifeless.
“He died of old age? In this place?” Alfred asked. I nodded and lowered the head back to the table, having lifted it by the hair, making sure he was not a threat. He looked almost exactly the same as the mages that had ambushed us, only withered and older. His stiff corpse was still holding a small, gold-rimmed mirror in one hand, and under his other was a thick tome left open. He had been writing, it seemed, when he died.
Delicate handwriting of small, beautiful letters filled the first half of the old tome’s pages, and the rest were blank. A journal no doubt. Alice pulled the book closer and quick-read the last pages. “Finally, documented, good information”, she whispered. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. Finally indeed. She translated what she read, I committed the story into memory.
The dead man was Vraxeris, commander and overseer of Runelord Xanderghul’s section of the Runeforge. He had detailed the chaos that had followed the awakening of the runeforge pool, and had come to the conclusion that it was Karzoug instead of any other Runelord that was approaching rebirth.
He too had realized the need to stop Karzoug, and had written down his plan to do so. The key was to anoint weapons with the magical energies of his Pride and Runelord Sorshen’s Lust domains – opposites of Karzoug’s Greed – with these one could first break through the occlusion field that protected Karzoug’s lair in Xin-Shalast, at the top of Mount Massif, and then defeat him. For the anointment one would need components from Pride and Lust – a fragment from the mirrors was to suffice, according to Vraxeris. Good thing I broke one into shatters then, I mused. But a trip to the wing of Lust was required, to acquire suitable components to complement the mirror fragments. Vraxeris lamented the unwillingness of one Delvahine, apparently the mistress of the halls of Lust, to co-operate in the plan against Karzoug, despite his attempts to forge an alliance. He wrote she was too self-absorbed to commit to anything that concerned the outside world. What a surprise, given her allegiance. Finally, Vraxeris’s writings revealed that the mysterious fiery altar in the halls of Wrath was a portal out of the Runeforge. A route out I had hoped existed..
“We’ll visit this Delvahine person next”, Harsk concluded, rubbing his chin and beard. “If she’s still alive”, I murmured, my eyes on Vraxeris. But I was content. We had a goal. A plan. We knew now exactly what to do. And we had a way out, if the situation demanded it.
“Could she be willing to negotiate, given that she’s aware of the plan against Karzoug?” Alice wondered aloud. Alfred guffawed at that, while I let out a snort. Please.