A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that turned into a book

55. Deadly desire

Date: unknown Halls of Pride, Runeforge

“I see dead people”, I grunted and let go of the closed door, “more of the simulacra of Vraxeris”. We had ventured deeper into the living quarters beyond the overseer’s study room, and found only bodies in small store rooms, piled neatly to save space. It appeared Vraxeris had been busy trying to make copies of himself, maybe to increase his power or to prolong his life. It mattered little anymore, as we were searching the rest of his accomodation for further clues and valuables. There was also a main room that was half-destroyed, blackened and flattened as if an alchemist’s bomb had exploded within. Painfully detailed stonework was ruined, parts of the wall and floors pulverized, others were full of tears and holes like wounds and bruises. Bookcases, tables and chairs had been splintered into pieces. One bookcase had survived the worst but had fallen down into a heap of burned books and wood.

“There’s something strongly magical beneath”, Harsk noted, his senses of the arcana guiding him, and tried the weight of the battered piece of furniture. “A hand?” He asked, and I went with Alfred. It took us two heaves to move the bookcase aside and reveal something very valuable. “Books, bleh”, Alfred was first to comment and waved the back of his hand. “Not just any kind of books”, Alice said, and I could see the dawning realization and a hint of eagerness in her eyes. She reached to the ground, and quickly examined both, leafing through the first pages. “Tome of Leadership and Influence.. and the Manual of Quickness of Action. These are very rare and stupendously valuable – reading these will grant their reader extraordinary powers.  Take the Tome for example, it should make one more inspiring and persuasive-“

“Ha! That’s exactly what our boy Alpharius needs!” Alfred laughed aloud over the voice of the magus. You’d need a Book of Shut the Fuck Up, I whispered to myself. I turned to retort but was too late – the guffawing sellsword had already pushed open the last untried door.

“Well hello“, he said to someone I could not see with a tone I knew he used to approach wenches. But I could hear the reply. It was the most sensual voice I had ever heard, the tastiest, sweetest applepie transformed into a sound.  “Oh Master, we’ve been waiting for you!”

The mouth-watering cinnamon turned into a heart-wrenching scream only a second later. Alfred took a step back, but did not raise his weapons. His bulk still blocked the view into the room. The abrupt exchange had awoken our interest, and I shrugged the Carmine Avenger off my shoulder – just because we had been forced to kill everything that had talked until then. Dûath, sitting beside me, let out a long, dark growl, in agreement.

The woman – it was undoubtedly a woman – spoke again after hushing whoever had cried, but I could not make out the words. “Of course, my lady, should I close the door”, Alfred replied with a slight, gentlemanly bow of head. What’s wrong with him? “What’s going on”, Harsk asked, first to open his mouth. Alfred closed the door gently and turned to regard us. “The ladies should not be disturbed.” He was smiling, eyes dreamy like a boy in love. “We should leave this place immediately”, he added, serenely and I almost expected him to prance away. I exchanged curious looks with Alice. Harsk harrumphed, raised his free hand and from it, a bright light pulsed once around us. “By Iomedae, evil, turn aside and begone!”

The sellsword blinked and the fascinated smile disappeared, pulled away like a cloak. “I hate when that happens”, he said with a sigh. Apparently this wasn’t the first time a woman had succeeded in charming the wits out of him. At least you didn’t need to pay anything this time, I thought.

“What was in there”, Alice hissed in a low voice, her hand gripping the hilt of her sheathed scimitar. Alfred rubbed his face, like someone just awoken. “Four stunningly beautiful young women..” he started, then frowned as he remembered, “..with pointy ears, leathery wings.. and long barbed tails.”

“Succubi”, Harsk cursed between his teeth. His disgust was palpable. The pale-faced magus just shrugged. “They seem harmless enough, and didn’t challenge us even though Vraxeris is gone. We got the books already, and we know what to do next. We could simply leave.” I found myself at the same side of the fence with the magus.

“Did they do something to you as well”, Alfred winked and laughed at her. Alice just snorted and shook her head. “I’m not into those kind of creatures.”

The so familiar sound of a blade being unsheathed concluded the discussion. Harsk was brandishing his golden longsword, and eying the door with righteous violence in mind, looking like he hadn’t been paying any attention to the discussion.  “Such evil must not be suffered to live!”

“Either we go now or we attack, or find ourselves hunted by demons”, I muttered to myself, but the decision was made. The sellsword kicked the door open and smiled in a wide grin. “Excuse me, but I seemed to forget something here!”

Now in a better position, watching past Alfred’s pauldron, I saw two of the succubi locked in an embrace, but as if they had been fighting and pulling each others hair. They stopped their heated argument immediately and turned to him. “You again?” The other one spat, irritated. “Didn’t I tell you to leave?” Both looked exactly the same, damnably beautiful, barely clothed, very young, fragile even. But looks can be deceiving and I knew enough of the stories to be very careful around such demons. “With your old master dead, I realized that from now on I can be your master!” Alfred boldly suggested the ludicrous idea. Alice let out a surprised laugh and Harsk coughed, dumbstruck. A third one replied, somewhere within the room. “He has a point.”

Whores from another plane in the Rusty Dragon? I offered, but not aloud. Would be different to anything the Pixie’s Bordello has to offer, I’d imagine. And what would Ameiko think?

The irritated succubus hissed angrily at the one who had dared to agree with Alfred and let go of her companion. When her eyes met with Alfred’s, her lips curled into a syrupy smile. Sensing foul play, Alice did not approve. “Watch out!” She warned, standing just behind Alfred, and it was all the sellsword required.

He stepped into the room, eager for a fight, but was intercepted by one of the succubi. She came wailing like a maniac, teeth bared, clawing wildly. There was a sickening crunch as Alfred’s battle-axe went to work, cleaving the demon into two at the shoulder. It almost felt wrong watching a big, armoured brute pulverize a thin, unarmed, barely grown-looking woman. Almost. When Harsk summoned a wall of blades into their mist, that felt just unfair. The succubi screamed in agony as suddenly they were surrounded by sharp longswords, too numerous to count, making movement impossible.

But of course, the deceivers had their tricks. I heard faint popping sounds, and recognized them immediately. Teleportation. “They’re running”, Alfred guffawed and cracked open the face of another with a horizontal blow. “Behind us”, I grunted the warning, and turned to guard the way we had arrived. Somewhere in the distance, wings were beating. Within in the peacock hall, they had taken to the air, and they were approaching. Stupid fools, they should’ve escaped, I thought, my grin matching the leer of my skull mask and prepared to make them pay for their lack of sense.

The first appeared behind a corner, keeping as high as possible in the narrow corridor. I had nocked two bane arrows, so I took quick aim and let them loose. Both burrowed deep into her pale, unprotected hide, burning and decaying, and she crashed into the floor, unable to continue airborne. Before she could get back up to defend herself, Harsk was all over her, bellowing holy oaths and war cries. Demonic blood flew in rivets as the dwarf slashed and stabbed, utterly without mercy. The other, darker side of his character had emerged to the fore. You can be ruthless too, my friend, I thought. In my mind’s eye I saw the god-touched among orphan children, laughing, patting heads, encouraging them. The other side of the coin. No wonder you’ve survived this far.

The last succubus, flying only strides behind, howled in anger and despair when she saw what the holy warrior did to her sister, and dove down like an eagle, now completely heedless of any danger. Harsk, covered in crimson, turned to face the onslaught and held his bloodied, awe-inspiring sword high. That’s bravery, rooted in religious fervour. Alfred lives for the thrill, but Harsk.. he has a goddess on her side. “FOR IOMEDAE!” He shouted and struck once, powerfully, unstoppably, the blade swinging in a clean arc. It sung as it connected, and the demon’s head came tumbling down, neatly separated from its body. The dwarf spat on the headless corpse for emphasis and muttered a curse under his breath. He really should’ve become a paladin, I thought, remembering something similar happening ages ago in a farm near Sandpoint.

**

Each of us collected a few fragments of the broken looking-glass on our way out. It felt odd that such little, inconsequential things could hold a power to defeat an ancient runelord, but we had no reason to believe Vraxeris had been lying in his journal. He might have been wrong, however. But his clues were the only thing we had. At least we had the chance to test the overseer’s plan before confronting Karzoug – if the anointment of our weapons did not work out, we would need to find another way.

From the wing of Pride we slipped into the wing of Lust. Despite the irritating and nagging feeling I had endured throughout our quest in the Runeforge, I found my mood improving. A little while more, I told myself. No more running around like headless roosters. The end was nigh.

We crossed a mind-numbingly long corridor, and emerged to an even more mind-numbingly spacious hall. This is bigger than Garnet’s warehouses, I thought and closed my gaping mouth. “Damn..” Alfred was muttering, both Harsk and Alice were staring around wide-eyed. First thing we noted were the mural that covered the ceiling – naked men and women engaged in a frenzied orgy, having sex in all possible ways. The square hall had dozen massive pillars, each shaped to depict the seducing likeness of Runelord Sorshen, stretching almost two hundred feet into the ceiling far above, and they circled a grand, silk-covered pavilion that stood almost fifty feet tall and two hundred feet wide. It wasn’t a pavilion- it was a windowless house made of the most exquisite fabric. Here and there between the pillars were cages of pure gold, made for over-sized birds. I expected to see ten feet tall humming birds inside, but instead, there were husks of men. Somebody’s keeping pets. 

The place was completely quiet save for faint laughter that echoed from a distance. Trying to find its source I spotted movement, and hissed a warning before pulling the others back into the relative cover of the corridor. “More of the succubi”, I told the others and pointed to the ceiling. A pack of four demons were dancing in the air, totally unaware of our presence. They were like little children, playing tag, and their games made the circle the pavilion in an irregular pace and path. Concentrated or not, they were still Delvahine’s first line of defence that we knew of and we had to plan for.

“I’m not seeing anything we could use as anointment components, so we need to get into the pavilion”, Alice whispered. Alfred nodded. Both my panther and Harsk were staring at the demons flitting around the pillars. “We should be able to pass without being seen”, I told them. “We’ll have a chance to run when their path takes them to the far side of the hall.”

“Alice and Harsk have their magic tricks, and I can turn into walking cloud of smoke, but how do you intend to pass fifty strides of bare ground without being spotted with your big cat?” Alfred asked me, leering. I scowled under my skull mask. “Even if you were fucking invisible, I’d bet we could sneak there with a smaller risk of being discovered than you.”

Alice tut-tutted. “Yeah, it worked so well when we approached Jorgenfist-” “Enough”, Harsk cut in. “Get moving, our window of opportunity is at hand. Regroup at the main entrance.”

We went, the magus turning herself invisible, the cleric jumping to another dimension for a stroll and the sellsword popping the cork off his potion of gaseous form. I crouched, deciding to go last. My enchanted armor seemed to stir and suddenly the outline of my arms began to blur, making it difficult to focus one’s eyes on me. This time I would not be slipping on loose pebbles, I reassured myself, as if I needed any assurances.

Staying low, I started forward. The flying succubi did not notice a thing, and I easily made it to the opening at the side of the pavilion. I risked a glance inside, and saw five stone giants standing in silent guard within something that appeared to be a lobby of sorts. Giants, here? They looked ridiculously out of place, standing stiffly next to curtained walls like statues. Soft, richly coloured pillows made for lounging were littered around them. Getting past them unnoticed was an impossibility, so we were left with one option. I hoped the others had reached the entrance when I nocked a duo of giant bane arrows, took aim and shot the closest giant guardian. It died instantly, its brain severed from its spine by two well-placed, hide-bursting arrows to the neck.

The rest fared as badly. Two more perished to my bane arrows without making a sound, while Alfred and Alice, stepping into view almost at the same time, surprised and engaged the fourth, gutting it like a fish. The last one managed a bellow, a warning to its mistress, before Harsk cut it short.

I had stepped in but remained close to the entrance, and gazed out. The succubi swooped over the pavilion and began to circle above me, staying at a safe distance. They had heard the warning and had stopped their play, but were unwilling to approach – they had no idea how many intruders they were facing. “Company”, I hissed to the others and stepped away from sight. “Come out and play, don’t be afraid”, one of the temptresses called with her melodic voice. I had no intention to do so – instead, I waved the others to move along, deeper into the pavilion. Our element of surprise was gone, and we had to push forward. “Let’s get going”, I urged, hissing. Alfred nodded as he swiped clean the blade of his axe against a cushion, staining it in glistening stone giant blood. There was more shouting coming from outside, and laughter. Harsk cast a silence spell on the entrance, and the lewd suggestions and taunts faded away.

The a single corridor led from the lobby, and it turned tightly around, worming inside the grand pavilion like a rolled snake. I touched the wall to the left, towards the center of the structure, and saw within a dark, faintly lit boudoir. Instead of having a single bed, it had plenty, and more of the comfortable-looking cushions that could swallow a man. I was almost expecting to witness an orgy, but saw no-one. All around the room were small statues, or what I first thought were statues. I quickly realized they were phalli of various sizes, some made of wood, others of glass and leather. Sex toys are the Delvahine’s magical components we need for the anointment? The thought made me grimace and I let my palm trail off the curtained wall.

“Seeing something?” Alice whispered the question. I shook my head.

As we were getting closer to our destination, we found ourselves wading through a cloud of strange, multicolored fog that reached to ankle level. Alfred let out a cough, and it made me touch the single, rough-cut stone of icy stone I was wearing as a necklace. I had learned my lesson in the fight against Mokmurian, and acquired the necklace to protect me against harmful vapors of all kinds. Harsk murmured a simple prayer, warding us from evil. Too bad it doesn’t stop bolts of energy and blades, I regretted. But it had to suffice.

Finally, the corridor ended and before us loomed a lounge chamber. Plates filled to the brims with delicious foods of all kinds laid here and there, beds that seemed to compel one to come and lie on them were scattered at each corner. Everything tempted visitors just to relax, let go of one’s worries and enjoy the moment. Ten thousand years in this bliss. With her.

At the back was a throne made of velvet, and upon it lounged a stunningly beautiful woman, wearing an almost translucent, white gown with a ludicrously deep v-cut, barely leaving anything to imagination. Her long, light brown hair ended at her narrow waist, and on her head she carried a silver circlet full of emeralds and rubies. But the gemstones were nothing compared to the sparkling indigo of her eyes, and the full lips that demanded their share of lusty attention. All in all, a sight to make men (and certain women) lose their wits and fall to their knees in adoration and desire. Too bad I knew she was full of shit, lies and deceit shielded by a pretty shell. Still, I felt a tingling in my crotch when she licked her lips softly and opened her mouth to speak.

“But what do we have here.. a pack of wild beasts, stumbling into my domain of serenity and well-being with weapons drawn”, she asked with a wide smile as she regarded us. Confident, considering we simply strolled to her, after slaughtering her giants and evading her picket. What’s your secret? I narrowed my eyes, trying to read her expressions, trying to find the bluff in the haystack of breathtaking beauty. Gods damn those eyes. “Have you come to serve the mistress of passion and blissful desire?” She turned her full attention to the pale-faced magus. “It’s been a while since I’ve made love to a woman.” Alice looked taken aback but quickly collected herself. “And the while will continue as far as I’m concerned.”

The mistress of Lust snorted, as if she thought Alice was just teasing her. “How about you, handsome soldier”, Delvahine pointed lazily at Alfred. “As my servant, your every dream will come true, every wish is fulfilled. Let go of your petty ambitions, and come enjoy my love, a love that you have not experienced before, a love you will not experience anywhere else” Alfred swallowed, audibly, but never got the chance to reply. I stepped abreast to the sellsword. “You can finish with your empty promises. We are here on a quest to defeat Runelord Karzoug and stop his awakening. Your assistance is demanded”, I made the matter clear, albeit rather undiplomatically. Afterall, I was wearing a mask resembling a human skull. But she didn’t seem intimidated.  “Demanded?” Delvahine let out a laugh. “You pitiful little adventurers. You don’t stand a chance against Karzoug.” Her condescending sneer transformed back into her alluring smile. “So why won’t you just join me”, she voiced the request softly, playfully, like a skilled courtesan calling a lucky man to her bed. Our eyes locked, and I was momentarily lost for words.  “We would have so much fun together. So much.. pleasure”, she continued with her honeyed purr. But something disrupted the connection. Harsk’s wardings most likely. Or a stupid, simple, honest memory. Brown eyes. Aurora had them. Shayliss had too. The spell was broken, denied before it could take root.

There. The hint of pleading in her voice. The seed of desperation, if faint, in her gaze.. I willed myself to focus and push any advantage I had, as I saw now through her act. You’re scared. “No. We require magical components of yours. Either you will submit and help us, or you will die. Your choice.”

Delvahine deliberately licked her lips again with the tip of her tongue, to consider her words, or to buy time. Harsk had none of it. He was not to be played with. I should have known. His hatred of her kind was barely containable. “Enough! Iomedae does not negotiate with demons!” He barged between me and Alfred, his golden sword gleaming, pointed forward like a knight’s lance. Well, at least this time we tried talking again, I shrugged inwardly, but felt no pity for the woman.

At the throne, Delvahine hissed and leaped up to her feet. She bared her teeth and spat a command word, and suddenly the four succubi appeared around her, in a protective circle like a retinue of bodyguards. The looked laughable – almost naked girls, carrying ranseurs too big and heavy for their frail arms. Still, they lowered the points of their weapons to us, daring us to approach.

Alfred required very little persuasion and he charged across the throne room with a roar, Harsk right behind him. I ordered Dûath to follow and slay the demons, and he too rushed into the melee, while I let my shafts fly. Reinforced by evil magics, the demon girls held their ground against much more powerful fighters, sparing Delvahine from our wrath. Suddenly I was seeing her in twos, then fours, and finally in eights. “Fuck!” I yelled, to no-one in particular. It was mirror images, magicians’ defensive tactic of choice we had faced too many times already.

Luckily, we had potent spell casters of our own. From the corner of my eye I saw Alice’s hand as it frantically drew runes from coalescing energy into the air before her. As she completed the symbol, the false images were swept away, shrinking like flames denied of air to consume. The succubus mistress cursed in Thassilonian and raised her hand to wave, as if she was calling someone to come over.

A voice responded, and I could hear it even over the clash of metal against meal. It was a gurgling sound, an old man wheezing, drawing breath. I have heard that sound before, I thought, and turned my head to the side, towards an opening that led to the boudoir I had inspected with my gloves of reconnaissance. It was empty. I swear it was empty, I murmured in my mind, remembering what made such a sound. A damn creature of light. I had experienced first hand its blinding aura and a dread of losing my eyesight anew, Harsk or no Harsk close by to heal me, filled me. It came floating in, gently, its black hole for a mouth opening and closing wordlessly. Fuck me, I cursed inwardly as I felt the goosegumps. It was just as sickening as the one we had encountered under Jorgenfist, a malnourished, child-like creature  with greyish pale, naked legs, long four-fingered hands and arms, but with oversized head and eyes. Colours of all kind danced around it, circling like broken rainbows. Aren’t you shiny, I grimaced in anger and desperation both, willing them to replace any notion of fear. It looked like a child of barely four feet, but only a fool would underestimate its powers.

It spread its arms apart, and then brought its hands together in a thundering slap. A shockwave rippled through the throne room, and I could feel Harsk’s wardings disappear, just as swiftly as Delvahine’s false images had. The bitch queen just laughed in glee and shouted something to the creature, a command most likely.

I hesitated, my killer’s practiced focus overwhelmed by the awful recollection of losing my sight. I had an arrow at the ready, the string half-drawn. Who to attack? Delvahine, our main target, or her succubi bodyguard that were holding our fighters? Or the shining child? Dûath’s roar of pain forced my hand, and I put a shaft into the side of a succubi who had dared to slash my panther, but didn’t manage to put an end to her.

Pure white light flashed momentarily behind me, and I could sense something take to the air. Alice was being carried by beatific wings, sprouting from her celestial armor, and like an avenging angel she went to challenge the shining child in the air. “Alpharius, we need to stop it!” She shouted as she flew past, and I did not object. The combat around the throne was a mess of bodies. Only Delvahine was not engaged.

Alice was almost upon the shining child when it raised its hand to her, palm upright, like it could stop Alice with a gesture so simple. But it had no intention to ask nicely. A searing beam of light shot out of the four-fingered palm and straight into the pale-faced magus. She screamed horribly, but her momentum was strong enough to bring her to close for a strike, even though she was in too much pain to to land her blow. Grinding my teeth together I loosed three arrows in three rapid heartbeats, and each found its mark at the chest of the shining child. Pulsing light erupted from the arrow wounds, like sunlight through holes in a curtain, and the creature howled in agony, forgetting about the magus who glided past it to its back. “Now!” I screamed from the top of my lungs, and the magus, badly wounded but still able to press on, stabbed furiously with her scimitar. The tip broke through from its chest, ruining half its neck in the process. The blade crackled and buzzed, making the child tremble, before it disappeared in a blinding flash. I blinked, once, twice, to clear my vision, hoping to gods I had not lost it, and saw the monster was truly gone. I opened my mouth to offer Alice a compliment, but the burned magus didn’t remain to enjoy our small victory, but disappeared after casting a frantic spell.

I immediately understood why as another shining child came to view from the adjacent room. It turned its head to the side, puzzled at the disappearance of its foe, before it saw me on the ground only ten or so strides away.

Here we go again.

I fumbled for the flights of my shafts. It stretched its bony arms towards me, almost lazily. I nocked an arrow, raised the bow to aim. It regarded me with its burning coals for eyes. In the end, it was faster. My arrow met a pillar of light head to head in the air, and it burned the shaft to cinders on its way to me. I had no chance to avoid it, only to shield my face with my free hand. The magical attack struck me like a massive hammer and I was sent flying back like an irritating bug swatted from the air. I hit the wall not far behind me, feeling bones break despite the cushion provided by my backpack, the air bursting from my lungs, and slumped to the floor. At least I can still see, the fleeting thought came and went, stifled by the pain in my chest, back and head.

My vision swam, and I struggled to breathe and get back up, but nevertheless caught her arrival, a violent release of energy heralding a teleportation. A young red-haired woman, pale-skinned like Alice, wearing several layers of moderately coloured clothing, was suddenly standing across the room, well away from the fight. She had a broomstick in her hand, and a weird-looking rat on her right shoulder, and she looked surprised, totally out of place. Her sudden arrival gave me a second of respite with the shining child, as the floating creature slowly turned its head to examine the woman. With a grunt, I finally pushed myself up. I coughed blood and my hand went to the mouth of my quiver. I can fight, I willed myself to act. I’ve been worse, I told myself. Where the fuck is Alice? Who the nine hells is that woman? A new foe? An ally?

The red-haired woman dropped the broomstick, but it never fell to the floor but instead began to float two feet above ground. Then she jumped on it and it began to rapidly ascend up into the air. The shining child still had its attention to the new arrival, and I steadied myself. My head wasn’t ringing anymore, but I was barely breathing right. One of the demon girls was lying on her own pool of blood, unmoving. Harsk and Alfred were both dueling, shouting and cursing, and Dûath too had his own opponent. He was badly hurt as well, I could tell from wet, red marks on his side, but still he valiantly fought. Decisions, decisions. Pull yourself together, fool, I told myself and tried to forget the pain in my chest.

I’m going to kill you first, I said in my head the shining child, focused and pulled two new shafts. The red-head with the hovering broomstick could wait. Whoever she was.

Over the clamor of combat I could hear Delvahine’s laughter. She was yelling something to the red-head, and almost immediately I noticed something change in her expression – certainty replaced surprise, resoluteness concern. The rat-thing dropped from her shoulder and disappeared among the cushions. Was it carrying scrolls in its armpits like a scribe? I thought hazily, not believing my woozy eyes. A godsdamned critter that could read?

The red-head decided it was time to fuck us up in a major way. From her elevated position, she quickly intoned words of magic and channeled a chain of lightning from her little hands. It struck almost everyone in the room, save for myself. The bitch aimed at Alfred, I realized. The old sellsword roared in pain, his armor crackling with residual discharges, and from his bulk the lightning leaped to everyone close to him. Upon impact my animal companion went flying and hit the ground lifelessly only three strides from my feet. Somewhere deep in me I felt awfully cold. Not again. Harsk took the hit straight on, without a sound. Even the damn shining child did not escape unharmed. I added two arrowheads to its blight but failed to kill it. I think it didn’t even notice them. Where’s the magus when you need her?

“For Iomedae!” Harsk’s battlecry sounded and was joined by a wail of death, coming from the lips of a demoness. The dwarf pummeled past the dying outsider, leaving Alfred to duel with the remaining two demonic servants, past the watchful gaze of the hovering shining child, towards the red-head. I ran to Dûath, realized he was still alive if barely, and pivoted to continue by dance of death with the creature of light. The god-touched pointed at the newcomer with his sword-arm’s index finger and barked a command word.

Red-head suddenly screamed and clawed at her eyes, before vanishing completely. In the air the shining child took a step forward and fell to ground level next to the dwarf, coming to arm’s length. My bold friend never saw what hit him. A burning hand grabbed him by the neck and the fingers almost drove into his hide, so strong was the grip. Harsk roared in sudden pain and began to tremble uncontrollably, but did not rip free of the child’s grasp. He was erupting from the inside, unholy light pulsing from his eyes and howling mouth. His skin became translucent from the fire within.

I roared in rage and put shaft after shaft to the shining child’s miserable, skinny form, but they had no visible effect.

It was then when the magus returned to the fold. Appearing from nowhere, the energized scimitar slashed once, vertically, connected with a thunderous clap and cleanly separated the shining child’s head from its torso.

Harsk’s limp corpse fell to the floor, but the shining child’s remained standing. I thought it was the last thing I saw when the familiar, all-consuming, all-penetrating light filled the room, flashing like a new dawn from its remains.

In panic I shut my eyes but I saw only white. As it receded, I opened them, blinked and to my utmost relief my vision returned to normal. Alice, badly burned, was still where she had been, blinking as well, rubbing her eyes with her free arm, in growing horror. Alfred, also already quite wounded, looked stunned, unmoving, two fresh succubi bodies at his feet. He was watching to nothingness.

They can’t see.

“Oh, my warrior of death, it looks like it is just the two of us”, Delvahine smiled, standing beside her throne, and easily stepped away from a slash as Alfred suddenly pivoted and tried to blindly strike her with his axe, but cut only air.

“Kill her, Alpharius!” Alice shouted, feeling her surroundings with her hands, fumbling.

“I will punish you for your arrogance, and when I’m done, you’ll beg for more”, the succubus purred the threat and suddenly there was a whip in her other hand. Alfred roared and furiously struck  anew with his axe, but to no avail. The succubus circled past him, towards me, gazing with her deep indigo eyes.

I raised my bow, a shaft at the ready, nocked it, took aim. She responded by casting mirror images. Shit.

All eight of her laughed. “You’ll be my willing sla-“

With no explanation, her words were cut short. All sense vanished from her expression. She dropped the whip, and her jaw went slack.

“What’s going on!” Alice was yelling, next to a wall. Delvahine began to blabber incomprehensibly. A speck of drool appeared to her lower lip, and slowly began to flow down her cheek. I could not answer the magus. “Why aren’t you fighting”, Alfred asked, also in some distress. He was still turning around, keeping his shield up, trying to fight unseen enemies.

Banishing my surprise, I forced myself into action and launched at the succubus, drawing my cold-iron gladius as I went. I will be no-one’s slave. She did not defend herself in any way and the blade’s tip stabbed once, through her eye and into the back of her skull. Black blood spurted as I drew the gladius out of the gaping wound. I didn’t watch her slump to the ground, but instead turned and ran to Harsk who was lying face up at the center of the throne room. Alice, the smart one, got the gist of what was happening. “Harsk.. how is he”, she asked, more calmly now. I squatted next to him, brought my hand on his bearded mouth and neck, trying to look for a breath or a pulse. There was neither. You took a beating too hard this time, friend.

“He’s dead”, I uttered and closed my eyes. My sorrow was replaced by another powerful feeling. That fucking red-head bitch. She screwed us over. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I roared in superheating fury, opened my eyes and began to frantically sense my surroundings. The witch was still somewhere close. I knew it. I’ll kill you next. I let go of Harsk and rose to my feet, the Carmine Avenger at the ready. I spared a glance at my panther, and saw he was getting up, or bravely trying to. “Hold on”, I mouthed to him, and he stopped struggling and remained on his side, panting laboriously.

Someone coughed somewhere to my left, up in the air. I couldn’t see her but I aimed anyway, keeping the bow string half-drawn, straining my back muscles and my senses. Come out where ever you are. “I’m terribly sorry, but I was not myself for a moment there”, a high-pitched woman’s voice followed the cough. Keep talking and I’ll locate you, invisibility tricks or not. “You have to understand, I was not meant to arrive here. I was going somewhere else”, she continued. She liked to talk, apparently. Good for me.

“What do you mean”, Alice asked, intrigued. Stupid magus and her gullible nature, I cursed to myself. She was standing upright, but her head was tilted down and to the side as she tried to hear as well as possible. You learn to use your other senses quick when you lose your eyesight. I should know. “It is a long story really”, the red-head started, but somehow I believed she’d tell it anyway if we were to listen. If I won’t kill you for what you did to us, that is. “I’m looking for a book. A specific book, from an ancient library.”

Alfred grunted, but did not say anything. Alice’s surprise was apparent. “You thought the Runeforge would hold a library?” There was a moment of silence. “This is what place now?”

“Runeforge of ancient Thassilon and its runelords”, I hissed between my teeth, my patience running short. If only I could tell where she was floating.. “Oh dear”, came the reply after another silence.

“How are you?” She asked, carefully. Is she fucking serious?  “My friend is dead. Because of you“, I spat and my eyes kept darting from corner to corner. She began to talk, and the words came in a rapid stream. “I am truly terribly sorry. You must believe me, my mind was controlled for a moment by that awful outsider. But I can help, fix the situation even. Within my powers is the ability to raise the recently dead.”

“Hmmh, sounds fair enough to me”, Alfred commented. “How about restoring my eyesight while you’re at it?”

“That is possible as well, sir”, the red-head replied and I could almost hear her nod. “I don’t believe you”, I said with a scowl, but as the words left my lips, I spotted the strange little rat creature scrambling up the carpeted wall. It wasn’t carrying its scrolls anymore, a fact I somehow knew was important but couldn’t say why. It reached a corner, and dexterously continue along the ceiling, before dropping down, towards nothing but the floor. But after a few feet of free fall it landed on something, and vanished. There you are, I sneered and locked my eyes five inches to the left from where the rat had landed.

“Wait! Mr. Jenkins is telling me you’re aiming a longbow at me, please don’t!” The red-head suddenly shouted in panic. Mr. What? The rat? And now she cares to mention my intent? The realization dawned to me. She’s blind too.

“Stop, Alpharius”, Alice told me, blankly. “How can we trust her?” I spat at the magus without letting my eyes off where I thought the red-head was. “She’s the only one who can help us”, Alice offered. I was fuming. “Fuck that, she’s just as helpless as you two, but if we don’t act now, we risk her stabbing us in the back!”

“Please sir, you must believe me when I tell you I will do everything in my powers to restore your health and the life of your friend”, she pleaded.

“Put. The. Bow. Down”, Alice ordered me, between gritted teeth. I bared mine, and waited. Weighed our options. Godsdamnit. “Fine!” I shouted and lowered my bow, but kept the arrow across its side.

“Thank you”, the red-head replied, and came to view ten strides from me. She was already on the ground, having floated down as we had spoken. Well my first arrow would’ve been a waste, I thought. Upon closer inspection, she seemed younger and shorter than I had earlier determined. She was my age, barely five foot and three inches, lightly built and she had peculiarly yellow eyes. “Please, those of you who have lost your vision, come to me”, she asked and spread her arms as in embrace. “Careful..” I hissed the warning to the sellsword and the magus, but otherwise remained as I were. Even one suspicious move and I’ll nail your pretty head to the wall behind you. Alice and Alfred both shuffled both towards her sound, and when they reached her, she gently put her palms on their chests. “Breathe deep”, she told them and voiced a few words of magic. The rat creature followed the ritual on her shoulder. It has a man’s face, I realized to my amazement. Bright specks of light began to coruscate along her arms, dancing from her open mouth to the tips of her fingers like fireflies. A silly trick if there ever was one, but it didn’t look hostile.

Alice gasped and Alfred guffawed contently, and I saw the red-head’s own eyes regain a focus. She was smiling.  “Isn’t that better, yes? Nice to meet you all. My name is Saffron.”

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