6th of Gozran – Starday – 195th day in Varisia
The road to the white tower of Karzoug was open. With the rings of the Sihedron in our fingers and protected by magic against the hostile environment of Mhar-Massif, we teleported to the peak. Grim determination was a good pair of words as any to describe our mood. A wise person once told me brave men tend to die, so I wouldn’t have called us brave. But we were as prepared as we could be, and we knew that the final secrets of Karzoug were soon to be uncovered. And with them, the runelord himself.
There was no opposition when we scaled the last few hundred strides the white tower. It was surrounded by barracks and buildings that looked like storehouses, but there was not a single soul in sight. Unhindered, we went beneath one of the hundred arches that supported the tower. No-one attacked us as we circled up along the screw-like ramp up thousand feet to the top. There, massive golden doubledoors awaited us, and beyond them we knew were the best of the best, the chosen and closest of Karzoug.
Alfred, on point, didn’t even need to push open the door. As his palm was less than an inch away from its surface, it retreated, as if it had been waiting for us and welcomed us in. The first line of defense was, just as Alice had scouted, a group of cloud-kin giants. We had not planned for stealth and secrecy, so battle was joined immediately.
All the while, my mind was distracted. My brother could have been waiting behind any corner. After seven years of running and searching, fleeting moments of hope and despair, bouts of anger, rushes of determination and crushing disappointments I was finally going to face him. I gazed past nearest foes, trying to find a familiar face among or behind them. My lack of attention almost got me killed when a cloud giant whacked me with a morningstar, only narrowly missing my head. But thankfully, the others were more concentrated and we dispatched the four guardians with relative ease.
However, one of them managed to shout a warning that echoed through the chambers. The top of the tower was like its outside – white to sheen, built of marble and granite, highlighted in places with golden etchings. Massive rooms and massive doors to befit a megalomaniac and his giant underlings. When the last guardian fell, Karzoug made his first appearance to us, forming before our eyes from nowhere.
“So the fools have found me”, he spat in sneering disgust, talking to us with his nose almost pointing to the ceiling. “I must applaud your tenacity. You are much more persistent than the worms I thought you to be. You are more like hungry maggots in your endless squirming and writhing to get to the death that awaits-“. He, or his phantasm, never got the chance to finish his speech when Alice, closest to it, suddenly stepped forward and slashed once with her scimitar. The scimitar cut only air but shattered the ghost of the runelord into a thousand imaginary pieces.
“I liked how he praised us”, Alfred guffawed, making Alice snort.
Harsk just spat to the floor. “He must now know we are here.”
I didn’t comment how he probably knew already thanks to the rings in our fingers. Instead I was taking in the surroundings. The hall we were in led into two directions. I was facing a long straight passage that ended with yet another golden doubledoors, while behind me the hall began to curve to the right, its termination indiscernible.
“That’s the door you saw”, I half-asked, half-informed Saffron and Harsk. The dwarf stopped abreast and remained there, staring at the same doors. There was no sound coming from any direction, no bands of giants or demons were approaching to challenge us. The silence was.. haunting.
“Yes”, he admitted after a moment.
Suddenly, I felt very afraid. I swallowed hard. My feet disobeyed me. If the tables were turned, would my brother be as nervous, I wondered. As if to answer me, a memory surfaced, reminding me of one autumn day long ago.
A small arm like his breaks the surface above. It reaches down, feeling, searching for something. The boy’s arms are like two heavy stones but he reaches up, towards the little hand. They connect, and another arm pierces the surface like a diver and grabs his. Then a face emerges and their eyes meet. It is the boy’s face, but different in tiny ways. There is determination and worry in the boy’s expression but he does not hesitate.
He didn’t hesitate a second, I remembered. So shouldn’t I.
I cleared my throat and paced alone to the door. “My brother is beyond those doors. We must take him alive at any cost, whether he comes willingly or he fights us”, I told the others and I placed my palm on the door’s gleaming surface. It vanished, allowing me a brief glimpse inside.
The long red carpet with rubies sewn into the fabric, covering a checkerboard patterned floor, was the first thing I noticed. Along its length, at both sides, were five pillars filled with intricate silvery carvings. Golden light filled the room – throne room – for at the end was a throne on a podium that was decorated with onyx. The throne itself was ludicrous, covered from top to bottom with all kinds of valuable jewels from diamonds to sapphires. Next to the throne stood at watch a single menacing rune giant, and around the throne room were three storm giants. Each looked ready for war, facing the door, one at the back, two closer to us. I disregarded them all, for on the throne sat a man, hunched, a cloak’s cape drawn over his head, a golden greatsword across his lap. But I could see his eyes and recognize the ice-cold blueness of them. It was then I knew my brother would not come peacefully, but I prayed he had not chosen to be there of his own volition.
The others gathered around me, and I whispered what I had seen. Harsk enchanted us with powerful defenses against lightning and electricity, and Alfred, again ten feet tall and iron-skinned, positioned himself next to the doors. I was right behind him, my bow strengthened by the magic of my wand, two giant-bane arrows resting across its side. “Two storm giants, one to each side of the door, ten strides away”, I told him and he nodded. But instead of rushing in, he patiently waited for my call. I am coming for you, brother, I thought to myself.
“Kill everyone but my brother.”
Alfred forcefully kicked the doors open and barged in. I instantly felt the rising tide of anger and fury of battle. Again, I felt the burning wrath under my skin light up and my vision took a hue of red. I screamed the true name of my brother.
As my rage echoed in the room I was already letting loose arrows. My enchanted boots turned me into a whirlwind of death and the first storm giant perished before it could even take a step forward. My voice has never been strong or clear, but somehow, that moment, my bellowing filled the massive chamber.
“BROTHER! OF ALL THE PLACES IN THE WORLD, I WOULD NOT HAVE BELIEVED TO FIND YOU HERE.”
Alfred went to the second storm giant with a battlecry of his own while Alice blazed it with rays of fire. Harsk focused on the two giants beside the throne, calling holy fires to strike them, but whereas the storm-kin burned, the rune giant just bathed in the flames like it was enjoying it.
My brother stirred from his paralysis at the throne. I saw his mouth move but couldn’t discern the words, and he tried sluggishly to push away the sword from his lap, but couldn’t move it an inch. It was as if I were two people, one fighting, the other speaking. I let loose both arrows of destruction and words of condemnation.
“FOR SEVEN YEARS, BROTHER, I TRAVELED AND SEARCHED THE WORLD FOR YOU. AND HERE YOU ARE, IN THIS DEN OF GREED AND WICKEDNESS?”
My brother unseated and lifted the greatsword up like it was a knife, pointing it at us. The second storm giant died to the relentless fire magics of the pale-faced magus. Last of the storm-kin charged us and Alfred went to greet it head-on.
“You will face your doom here”, my brother responded finally. His voice was strong, but clockwork. I knew he wasn’t being himself. His mind and will were bound by something. There was hope. And there was a burning desire for vengeance, against those who had imprisoned him. Hope was good but I clung to the latter feeling.
“HAVE YOU TRULY CHANGED ONE SLAVEMASTER TO ANOTHER, BROTHER?” My challenge was to push him, to make him stand against whatever was controlling him. Fight it, fight it. It’s me. Reach for me from wherever you are. Take my hand.
Lightning cracked and boomed, the discharges licking most of us, but we stood unharmed thanks to Harsk’s magical protection. The storm giant who had tried to attack us died quickly at the hands of the sellsword after its ill-fated attempt. As its body, burned, decayed and hacked, slumped to the marble floors, the rune giant snorted and turned to regard my brother at the throne.
“Come, Chellan, let us destroy these little worms”, the giant rumbled and in response, my brother nodded slowly. The rune giant needed no other commands and it stomped forward along the red carpet, towards us like a tsunami of the faraway lands.
But waves, even huge ones, break against rock and our rock was Alfred. He laughed a taunt as he stepped to the red carpet and looked up. His opponent was four times taller than him. The rune giant effectively dominated the throne room with its mere presence. It came at us, its eyes and the countless runes on its hide flashing in anger of the little man’s incredulity and it cut once, a sideways blow of a longsword twenty feet long aimed at his head or neck. The sellsword ducked and the sword smashed against a nearby pillar, sending dust and marble flying.
“Too slow”, Alfred snarled and leaped forward. The rune giant had overextended and was in a bad position, stooped down, presenting its chest and head to the fighter on a platter. Alfred required nothing more. His battleaxe cut thrice with unbelievable speed and his shield bashed once for emphasis. I gave it three bane arrows in a neat cluster to and around its left eye.
The red carpet became the giant’s deathbed.
“You seem like a worthy foe”, my brother noted from the podium and jumped down, landing next to the ruined head of the rune giant. As he did, the etchings of his cloak twinkled and he began to appear and disappear seemingly randomly.
“Brother, I am here”, I urged him and pushed up my death’s head mask so he could recognize my face. “Resist the influence of Karzoug!” But he disregarded me completely, instead charging past the corpse of the giant and towards Alfred. “I promise not to hurt you.. too much”, the sellsword promised him as he came. To our right I heard a woman’s scream – Alice – and beyond the pillars two pairs of golden manacles had emerged from the floor, capturing the magus by hands and feet. She spat words of magic and became incorporeal, and the manacles fell to the ground limp and lifeless.
Above me Saffron soared through the air on her broom, cackling madly. Unnatural energies coruscated around her as she turned words into physical things and hurled them against Macharius. Harsk hesitated, unsure how to proceed.
The sellsword tried to bash my brother when he got into fighting distance, but he disappeared for a split-second and the shield hit nothing but air. Right after, my brother returned where he had been and slashed once, a masterful stroke that pierced his armor and made the sellsword bleed and stagger back. The old warrior cried in pain. I ordered Macharius to halt, to no avail. Beside me, Dûath bared his fangs and growled in sympathetic anger, but we were both spectators in this fight. I could not bring myself to shoot him.
I knew death in this world was not always ultimate. Souls could be brought back from oblivion. But Pharasma, the mother of fates and souls, was a fickle bitch. She didn’t always return what was once given to her for her final judgment. My brother’s soul was not to be risked.
“Harsk! Saffron! Alice!” I called the magic wielders of our group. “Try something, make him sleep, or scramble his mind so that Karzoug loses his power over him!” Anything, I added to myself in desperation.
Alfred was locked in a fight to death with Macharius. As he fought, I saw the golden ornate full plate he was wearing under his magical cloak. Its mass did not slow him down one bit. His skin was covered in gold as well – veins of it reached up to his face from somewhere on his neck and chest. I remembered the mithral-skinned wizard and the half-golden animals in the wing of Greed in Runeforge, and I shuddered in fear and disgust.
Again, the sellsword was struck past his defences and new blood spattered to the checkerboard floors. My brother was dueling in a trance, and evading the blows of his opponent mechanically. Alfred was hindered by my orders and he was paying for them with his blood.
“BELON! BELON! IT’S ME, CAEL!” I roared now, my desperation mixing with anger. But nothing dissuaded my brother. It was as if there was only him and Alfred in the room.
Harsk had tried a spell but failed, so he yelled Alfred to give him some space. He was going to try to disarm my brother. It would’ve been a good plan had not two more storm giants entered the throne room beyond a corner at the back. A part of me welcomed them. They offered me something to kill, something to vent my anger into. Harsk, instead of flanking Macharius, went to challenge the other giant, his holy sword blazing with sunlight.
“Urgh”, Alfred coughed blood as Macharius’s greatsword wounded him for the third time. “No more games”, he spat, all joviality gone from him. He went all-on against Macharius, hell-bent to bring him down. Now it was an even match. The mighty battleaxe hacked once, scoring a deep gouge into my brother’s plated side and he roared in pain. The sellsword followed with a shield bash to his face, buying himself some breathing space.
This has to stop. The giants had to die, so that the magic wielders could concentrate their efforts on my brother. We had to take control of the situation, I realized. The first perished soon enough to Harsk’s prowess and my arrows. Then, the second, to Alice’s magics. My last shaft was the period to its life story.
We were too slow. You cannot control a battle for life and death. You just fight it, and hope to win.
Alfred was bleeding from wounds too many to count, but my brothers cloak and armour did not save him from the sellsword’s skill. A terrible downwards slash struck Macharius to his shoulder, near his neck. Blood and gold flew in rivets as Alfred pulled his weapon free and with a grunt of effort he pivoted and brought the side of his shield once more to my brother exposed head. His body went flying backwards ten feet. Where he landed he remained unmoving. In shock and horror I called to my brother as I ran past Alfred, who was crouching in exhaustion.
My bow slipped from my fingers as I got to him.
No no no no no.
Not now. Not here. Not you.
His mouth hung loosely open, but his eyes were closed, and a pool of blood had begun to spread out under him. I dropped to my knees and pulled him to my lap.
“Don’t even think about leaving me”, I told him and cried.