64. When it all falls down
27th of Desnus – Toilday – 4700 AR (almost eight years ago)
Canorate, capital of Molthune
From the shadows the killer watched two guardsmen pass him along a barely lit corridor, talking, joking, doing everything but their jobs. It was close to changing of the guard, so their minds were already somewhere else. Just as the killer had expected.
He let them go and turn a corner, and only then he moved, without making a sound, keeping low, across the corridor from one doorway to another. He gently unlocked the door to the great study room and sneaked inside. There was no life within, but he knew that as well. His target never worked during late hours of the evening. Oh no, it was his play time.
Hugging the walls the killer moved carefully next to a massive opening, a glass-less window. One floor below was a beautiful atrium that was crossed by walkways, and the walkways were bordered by a multitude of exotic flowers and plants of every color imaginable. During the days the area was amply lit by the sun, but now the halfmoon and the stars offered their meagre light. Theirs and that of burning torches here and there were more than enough for the eyes of the killer. Straight ahead, twenty strides away, was another similar opening that offered an unobstructed view into a master bedroom – the finest of the entire mansion.
The target was breaking in yet another slave girl. The killer had seen her when she had been brought in chains to the estate, and known immediately that she was too beautiful for her own benefit. And too young. Just what his target preferred. She would never be sold but instead kept as entertainment until she expired. The killer knew that publicly Molthune was a “better” nation for slaves, with established laws for keeping them and possibility for slaves to achieve citizenship and freedom, but his target’s domain was a nation of its own in that regard. Worse, it was a hell on Golarion for slaves.
She was on the bed on her back, still clothed, sobbing, begging him to let her go. He was standing next to the bed, naked, aroused, undressing her with his eyes, drinking her fear like the sweetest wine. He bid his time, chuckled, enjoyed every moment. The killer’s heart was clenched by hate so cold and pure it was like freshly fallen snow on a midwinter morning.
The target’s bare, hairy chest offered a perfect mark. His face was visible, but the killer couldn’t gaze upon it. He feared his hateful emotions would shatter his concentration. So instead he focused on his pot belly and sweaty neck. There was little risk in him glancing up and seeing the killer. His attention was.. elsewhere.
The killer had his route out planned well in advance, with backup routes if something unexpected happened. At various locations he had planted equipment he’d need during his long escape. He had spent weeks preparing for this night and he felt as ready as he could be to shoot the most important arrows of his life. First to the heart, second to the throat. A certain death to a human. Just as the target’s own mentors of death had trained him to do. The killer could appreciate the irony.
With the second arrow in his grip along the side of his longbow, the killer nocked the first arrow, and drew the string back before taking aim and exhaling. He had a name to take, a man to slay. Missing was not an option.
Go to Hell and say my regards to Asmodeus, he formed the thought and let the first arrow spring at his Master and slaver.
It pierced the heart, killing him instantly. Another hit the center of his larynx three seconds later. The girl screamed in fresh terror as she watched her would-be master keel over, two shafts sticking out of his flesh.
But the killer wasn’t there to admire his skill. He was already running, the shadows as his cloak.
7th of Gozran – Sunday – 196th day in Varisia
The wizards of the Mage Tower allowed us to stay, so we talked long into the night, lounging on the weird examination chairs, eating and drinking. Even though I had now found my brother and succeeded in the task I had set to accomplish years ago, I felt obligated to return to the others and finish what we had started. Karzoug and his minions had caused too much grief and I could not suffer him to live. He had to be dealt with. But the question was would my brother follow me back into the mouth of hell where he had just escaped from?
Absolutely, he had said, and a part of me was pleased I had not been faced with the dilemma of either choosing to go with my brother or with my.. friends. He only lacked the weapons, given that we had made Chellan disappear, so I promised to buy him a greatsword forged of adamantium. I even promised to ask the spellcasters of our group to enchant it with some kind of magic.
When the 7th of Gozran dawned, and Belon felt confident on his feet, we thanked (with gold) our hosts for their graciousness and left for the Dockway District and the markets. Even though it was a Sunday, I still found the swindler princess Garnet Alexandros at work, haggling, selling, removing wealthy people of their purses and whatever else came to her quick and foul mind. When she saw us, I think she was more taken aback by the genuine smile I was wearing than the fact I had a twin brother who had golden skin. They exchanged greetings, I restocked my quivers with bane arrows and she got Belon a mighty sword made of the metal of the stars. My brother was amazed that I had the gold to spare to buy it, and I had to remind him of the wealth we had accumulated. Adventuring with a purpose and with high risks paid well. Deadpan, he wanted us to continue with hero business after we had taken care of Karzoug. I agreed to consider it, though I admitted it paid better than regular bountyhunting.
From the Dockways, we ascended to Uptown Magnimar and headed to Kaijitsu Manor. The others were already waiting.
Alfred greeted Belon with some suspicion. It was only to be expected, given they had only a day before fought to the death. But my brother’s carefree and jovial manner won him over quicker than you can say mug of beer. I guess he was expecting something more similar to my persona. Harsk, Alice and Saffron all believed the best of people, so they welcomed him to the party without reservation. That was how our group expanded by yet another adventurer.
Someone had gathered together every piece of Belon’s golden armor, and I watched in silence my brother don the ornate, richly decorated full plate. I had a lingering doubt, a fear that somehow Karzoug would regain control of my brother’s mind when he wore the plate, but nothing happened. Quite the opposite – my brother was visibly satisfied to be the owner of such beautiful set of armor.
“I will have this painted black, and leave only gilded highlights, for your honor, Cael”, said Belon, solemnly, and nodded at the lighter, form-fitting mithral armour that protected my torso and arms. It was jet-black, but its protective enchantments were manifested as eddies of faint dark purple clouds that swirled about its surface. “After this is over”, he added.
I snorted at his acknowledgement, even though secretly I was filled with pride. “We’ll get you a helmet, you’ll need one”, I offered in reply.
“As long as you won’t get a stupid mask like your brother’s”, Alice commented from the back, and made my brother let out a laugh. I wondered why no-one never criticized Alfred’s wide-brimmed boonie hat – it served the same purpose as my mask, having the same magical protective enchantment, but was even less practically sensible.
Harsk prayed Iomedae to grant a powerful enchantment for Belon’s brand new sword and before long, we were once more equipping the Sihedron rings and traveling across hundreds of miles to a forbidding mountaintop in a blink of an eye. Saffron’s magic took us back where we had left, the throne room of Karzoug, furnished by the stinking and decaying cadavers of giants lying here and there. We had scant time to take in our surroundings when defenders already jumped on us. They had been waiting.
From behind the hundred feet tall pillars extending to the ceiling, a handful of tall and wiry devils made of little more than bone lurched to meet us. Their bird-like feet scraped the floor and their joints clicked painfully as they moved. Like my death’s head mask, their skinless skulls leered like madmen. They were unarmed save for scorpion-like stingers at their back and four long claws at the end of two arms. Above them, hanging from the pillars, were two massive spiders, borne of nightmares, the color of sickly red, almost pink, with legs like feeder tentacles of some monster hailing from the abyss of seas. I knew somehow that the spider creatures wanted our blood. And at the throne stood their commander, grasshopper of pale green chitin, the size of an ogre, carrying in its thin arms a long spear covered in frost. Its appearance was ludicrous and ghastly at the same time, and it radiated ancient menace. Saffron called it an ice devil. Harsk declared it an abomination. I knew it was already slain.
They surprised us, but when you are a group of demons and devils fighting a holy warrior of a goddess of light, a magus that might as well an avatar of a goddess of storm, a duo of a would-be legendary swordsman and axe-man and a killer prepared specifically to hunt the denizens of darkness, you don’t last long. They hurt us, but one by one, the defenders perished, to vicious axe and shield blows, rapid sword thrusts, arrows shot with pin-point accuracy and barely contained blasts of fire and lightning magics. Their corpses, the ice devil’s as the last, joined those of the giants.
Belon was the one to strike the last blow, and I joined him at the grasshopper’s remains. It had white blood, and it flowed syrupy like nearly frozen water from the many wounds we had inflicted upon it.
“This was where I fought you?” Asked my brother, looking at the foe, at his hands, and his adamantine greatsword, now baptized in battle. I nodded.
He shook his head. “I can’t remember.”
“Can you feel anything strange, now that you have returned?” I asked, being careful not to sound suspicious.
“No. Nothing. This place feels like Magnimar. Like any other place.” A weary smile appeared to his lips. “I’ve never fought against devils, or such creatures. I was.. taken aback. Yet I see you challenge them like they were commonplace.”
I shrugged. “A half a year ago neither had I. It started from goblins, and went to worse from that gradually.”
“Have you ever been afraid?”
I considered that, and realized how often in the past months when I should’ve been afraid I had felt wrath and anger instead, bubbling under the cold, calculating demeanor I maintained. Who I thought was the real me. “For myself? Not really. Not that I can remember.” I was serious and not bragging, and my reply made Belon frown.
“That is not good, brother. Fear keeps a man alive.”
“Fear makes hollow threats when a man has little to nothing to live for”, I said aloud after a moment, and regretted my choice of words immediately. But Belon merely nodded, understanding.
“I lost hope many times too, brother. But I kept believing I’d find you, alive and well. I knew it was the fate Pharasma had chosen for us.”
“And with the hope of achieving something comes the fear of losing it”, I commented impassively albeit knowingly while I watched the others ensuring our foes were vanquished and not coming back to challenge us.
Belon chuckled. “I just hope you are no longer deaf to fear.”
I unsheathed my cold iron gladius and with a swift movement stabbed the head of the ice devil, doing my share.
“If fear whispers to my ear, I hope it screams at our foes.”
I had ravaged the ice devil’s (relatively) tiny head, but Harsk still decapitated the body and took the head as a trophy. I found it surprisingly ruthless of him, and said as much, but the god-touched waved my notions away. Back home they’d need to know what kind of foes we had defeated in the holy war, he told me. I could live with that, and didn’t ask him what he meant by home.
Saffron summoned two dozen floating, gruesome eyeballs and sent them scouting to every possible direction. While we wanted to know where our enemies laid waiting, she desired to explore the building and find her book. As she waited for her flying eyes to return and report their findings, the rest of us wandered around the throne room. Alice strayed into a chamber at the far end and attracted the attention of yet another vision of Karzoug. But this time, she was quick enough to shatter the phantasm before it could utter a word. But it was obvious that the runelord knew perfectly well we were within his keep, coming for him. So, we decided to beeline to the runelord’s hideout, and forget about comprehensively exploring the area.
It didn’t take long for the most of Saffron’s appalling scouts to come back. Some had gone missing – they had ran into something that could hurt them. Most had ran into closed doors which they were unable to bypass, but a few had seen the same thing – a horrible, gargantuan demon guarding a wizard, who in turn was browsing a book of massive proportions. In her mind Saffron could see what the eyes had witnessed, and gasped for air when she realized what she was seeing.
“It is the tome, the one I’ve searched for!”
So much for the beeline, I sighed. But I was being inconsiderate. Getting the tome was part of the bargain. And we, myself included, were ready to honour the deal we had made with the red-headed witch.
Hurrying, we ran through the vast corridors of granite and marble, built for creatures much more larger than us. We knew what to expect and where to expect it so we threw caution to the wind. The sellsword clanked at the point, and the witch flew over him, guiding us. We did not explore any closed doors but progressed with determination.
I came last with Dûath and Belon.
“Damned, you are bold”, he mouthed with amazement as we jogged past fifty feet high doors, dozen to each side, a barracks for giants really, now vacant or so we thought. I shrugged as I went.
“We have Harsk.”
“What do you mean?”
“He brings us back from the verge. And he has a really nice, inspirational golden sword.”
My brother looked baffled.
“You’ll see”, I smiled under my skull mask.
A shemhazian demon is the alpha predator of the Abyss, one of the scariest creatures the Outer Plane has cooked up and spat out to torment the world above. I knew as I had spent some time reading about the monsters of Hell, Abyss and Abaddon. As big as a rune giant, the monster was created from the souls of torturers and mutilators to become the most nightmarish possible combination of bear, wolf, mantis and reptile. Its gaze could paralyze a weak willed, and the damned beast had eight bug eyes.
When we engaged it, the number of my targets was obvious. I left the hacking of legs and limbs to others.
I’m quite certain just one of the demons could easily annihilate and devour a whole company of mercenaries, maybe even more. As I destroyed one eye after another with sharp-shot bane arrows, I watched Harsk who had taken an angelic form bellow war cries and burn the creature with holy light, Alice bombard it with rays of fire, Saffron calling spells of destruction upon it, and Belon and Alfred boldly cut its flesh and push it back. Ten times out of ten I would have chosen this group to fight by my side rather than an army of thousand mercenaries.
My bane arrows blew apart the monster’s head, a last high note of the perfect symphony of destruction we had performed.
Like Saffron’s floating eyeballs had witnessed, the shemhazian had protected someone. Clad in extravagant robes of purple and gold and emanating age-old powers, the wizard was an imposing sight. Hearing his guardian fall he ran from an adjacent chamber, sneered in contempt and began to word a spell. And that was exactly as far he got before he lost his mind.
Saffron had been prepared. Using the same trick as her weird companion Mister Jenkins had used against Delvahine, the mistress of Lust, she smothered the reason of the wizard. Instead of ruining our day with whatever powerful magic a wizard like him could throw at us, the wizard had been effectively turned into a vegetable by a young witch.
Alfred, the size of an ogre and the strength to boot thanks to some magical potions, calmly walked to the babbling idiot, grabbed him by the throat, hefted him aloft and twice smashed his head against a nearby wall. Not the cleanest coup-de-grace, I thought to myself, but effective. Belon grimaced, as did Alice.
Saffron wasn’t paying attention. She had leaped off her broomstick and paced hurriedly into the chamber from which the wizard had emerged. It was a small space, circular, lighted by numerous torches hanging by the walls. It was almost.. peaceful. Waiting and serene.
“The tome..” Saffron whispered and stepped further. At the back of the room was a stone table, a podium really, four feet tall. And upon it was the biggest book I had ever seen. Four feet wide, two tall and maybe half a foot thick when closed. But it was open from the middle, and full of tiny letters.
We left Saffron to her book and remained behind. She gently touched one page, and was thrown back five feet and landed on her arse. She was too surprised to scream, but she rubbed her temple.
“A safeguard”, she muttered, “I should’ve seen it.” She was talking to herself, mostly. “An abjuration spell, or possibly necromancy or illusion based magic.”
She got back up, and approached the tome again, more carefully this time. From one of her many pockets she drew a little notebook and her rat-creature scurried to her shoulder to whisper something.
“Yes, yes, Mister Jenkins, I know”, she replied as she browsed her little book, “Maybe we could try.. or if we consider.. yes, I remember what the Tutor told me about the tome. Aha. Yes. Hmmm.”
Her delicate hands went up, her fingers drawing unseen words into the air. She murmured and brought them alive. Lights the colours of the rainbow danced from her fingers to the massive tome, and its covers flashed once before the tome jumped an inch and violently slammed close, sending some dust flying into the air.
Mister Jenkins screeched in annoyance.
“Well, at least it is more easily transportable now”, replied Saffron apologetically. At that point I lost interest and began to wander around the room we had defeated the shemhazian in. The demon’s body had crumbled to a pile of black dust, but my interest was piqued by a large doubledoor, one we had not come from but led westwards. It was golden, like everything else was, but it was special – a halo of light, like a shield, enveloped it wholly.
I walked next to it, but remembering how each door we had tried had opened when a hand had only been at mere vicinity of its surface, I did not reach for it but the wall beside it. Using my gloves of reconnaissance, I watched through into the space beyond.
Finding another large chamber, pierced by cleanly carved stone pillars, was not a surprise. But at its center was a podium twenty feet high, sided by a wide straight staircase that obviously had been built later than the podium itself. But the podium itself was not interesting but what stood on it. It was a perfect ring, twenty feet across, made of substance that looked glassy and metallic at the same time. It was upright, and its surface had a ruddy shimmer. Obviously magical, even I could tell that. A portal made for translocation, most likely. Something like the fey Myriana had created to transport us to Magnimar from Shimmerglens. And somehow I knew to whom it led.
The ring had a guardian. A stunning creature. A lamia, with a elegant torso and beautiful, pale face of a young woman, and a panther’s body, feet and tail. Her long black hair was tied in a single braid, flowing from the back of her head like another tail. She carried a curved dagger and wore no armour, instead, she reminded me of an exotic dancer. But I was certain she was deadly. Everything there was.
She was not alone. Three cloud-kin giants, all women, brandishing maces and covered in full plate, were standing at readiness around the door, expecting us. I was surprised they had not barged out to help the shemhazian but I thanked our luck. Maybe they had their orders to remain near the strange ring. Whatever their reason, they would die soon, I thought.
The others finally left the tome chamber. Saffron was beaming happily, almost prancing. I guessed she had somehow managed to secure the book to herself. With my brother and her tome found, we could finally focus on ending our little adventure. Or venture to our deaths, that was still an option.
I explained what I had seen beyond the walls and the doubledoors. The conclusion of the group was simple – we had to charge in and surprise them. Even though I knew they knew we were coming. But we had few options – especially our spell-casters had to save their powers for the eventual confrontation with Karzoug. So instead, our heavy hitter went to work.
The translucent shield of energy hardly resisted Alfred’s battleaxe and it sizzled to nothingness before the sellsword pushed aside the doors.
I was reminded of our engagement in the throne room, when we had faced my brother. The first cloud-kin giant barely had the time to realize we were coming when she was already dead, face and throat ruined by my bane arrows. Alfred and Belon both pushed forward abreast towards the second giant, who was closest to the door and on the ground. Harsk’s holy fires, striking from the ceiling like a hammer of Iomedae, pummeled the third who had taken to the air. The beautiful lamia waited for us by the ring and began to cast a spell. Saffron and Alice both focused on her.
One of the giants managed a nasty looking strike against Belon’s pauldroned shoulder, but my brother was not made of glass and he slaughtered his foe, earning a pointed curse from Alfred in the process. I landed the flying, already weakened cloud giant for good with a hail of arrows, and suggested the lamia to give up and surrender. I really didn’t know why I opened my mouth but the bitch paid for my insolence by making me blind.
I really, really hate being blind. I consider my vision my most important sense and when the shining child had taken my sight beneath Jorgenfist, I had really been desperate. And I was again.
But it was for naught, for I was not alone. Harsk and his divine powers were there for me, once again. And when I got my eye sight back, I promised to kill her. But Alfred beat me to it.
Upon her death, something was released from her body. A spark of life, like a tiny star, shot from her chest and remained hovering above her corpse. It looked, in a way, innocent and fragile, something that should not come from an evil lamia matriarch. But it was there, sparkling, until something reached from the portal. I could sense the hunger but could not see what was the source. But I knew something took hold of the spark and began pulling it, irresistibly, towards the portal.
“It steals her soul“, grunted the god-touched in contempt.
“He takes the souls of his minions.. and of those he has marked”, explained Alice, watching in rapture as the speck was drawn like a receding wave pulls back a leaf, until it disappeared through the portal.
“So, the runelord is beyond that portal”, Alfred asked. Both the magus and the witch nodded in unison.
Harsk was first to ascend the few steps into the elevated platform where the gate to Karzoug’s hideout stood. Its surface was clear like rusty water, and it rippled like one. No sounds emanated from beyond, but what we saw shook us to the core. At the other side was a massive cavern. It had no one floor, but levels of varying height, made of rough slabs of stone. At the back of the cavern, on the highest level was a throne, and beside it stood an old if energetic man in magnificent robes of fine turquoise silk embroidered by gold. He carried a glaive that’s curved blade was in fire. The gemstones studding his bald forehead shone and pulsed with potent energies. His gaze was menacing and full of scorn. He seemed to goad us to enter and challenge him, at last. Here was the runelord of Greed, tyrant of Xin-Shalast, slaver of giants.
“This is it, then”, Alfred whispered, his eyes on our foe.
“Suspicious that he seems to be alone”, I muttered and heard Dûath growl in agreement.
“He will have his traps and tricks prepared”, Saffron commented to me.
“It has been an honour”, the cleric of Iomedae told us, his voice steel, and unsheathed his golden god-touched longsword before kissing its blade.
“The honour’s ours”, answered the magus and smiled faintly as she put her hand on the dwarf’s shoulder.
Only my brother remained silent, but he watched at the runelord intently and clenched his jaws. If I knew my brother at all, he was thinking about how to make Karzoug pay for enslaving him.
It was time, and the sellsword, like so often before, went first.
“Last one in is a fool”, Alfred guffawed and slashed open the portal’s surface with his runeforged battleaxe before pushing through.
“For Iomedae!” Harsk shouted the battlecry and followed at his heels.
I exchanged glances with my brother. “Vengeance awaits, brother”, I shouted and with my bow at the ready, ran at and through the portal.
What lied beyond was something we didn’t expect.
It is a smelter was my first thought when the heat, almost physical, embraced me as I stepped into Karzoug’s personal Plane. The air burned my lungs for a moment before my necklace of adaptation reacted and created me fresh air to breathe. Something somewhere let out a constant roaring howl, and I realized it was no creature, but the world itself – the molten gold bubbling, hissing and burning beneath us, beyond the edge of the platforms that offered the only places to stand and move. One misstep and you’d fall to your death. Between the platforms stood searing, gilded pillars, that rose unharmed from the molten sea of gold and reached the ceiling of the wide cavern, supporting it.
Karzoug was less than thirty strides from us, to our front, standing on the highest level. And he truly was not alone. To his right was towering rune giant in full plate, gripping an ornate longsword, and to his left was nothing less than a dragon, blue-scaled, an adult by the size of it. To our far right and left, at the verge of levels higher than where we were, stood two storm-kin giants, armed with greatswords in their hands and longbows on their back, and also protected by heavy plates of armor from head to toe.
Moving was dangerous, but it was not impossible. The plateaus were connected by bridges and stairs, so we could get to Karzoug on foot.
That was what I could take in from the battlescape in the heartbeats after we stormed in through the portal. There was no welcoming monologue by the runelord like there always is in the stories of heroes fighting evil monsters. No threats were issued, no duels by words were fought. We went to war with little ceremony, like we always did.
And we lost one before the battle even truly started. As Karzoug’s traps triggered, my brother went to one knee and screamed horribly. His blade fell from his hand and his fists clenched, fighting the pain that went straight through any protections we wore.
I could not turn away to help Belon. Alfred and Harsk, who were at the front, suddenly were drowned in a hailstorm of fist and head sized meteors that fell from nothingness against their armoured forms, and they had to raise their shields to cover themselves. Still, they were struck hard and painfully. Over the rumble of the rockfall and roaring lava of gold, I heard the runelord laugh and command the dragon. The massive blue beast took to the air, gaining altitude rapidly before launching to a dive. The dragon bared its jaws and its howl made the platforms tremble. I felt its presence keenly if redundantly at the back of my neck. It was my strange dragon sense alarming me. Telling me what to focus on.
I heeded its call. Reaching to my quiver, I pulled out two arrows I had taken from another dragon’s loot. Each was worth a day’s wage of an army of two thousand mercenaries. They were called Greater Dragon Slaying arrows by the arcanists, and whereas someone had bought them to put down the frost dragon Freezemaw and failed, I was to use them to kill a dragon servant of Karzoug.
The dragon spread out its wings to decelerate its dive and opened its jaws to breathe spears of lightning at us. It came in fast, but it was a big target, almost forty feet from one wingtip to another. I did not need to hit a critical part. A hit was all I required. I nocked both arrows, pulled back the string, and let them loose before great wyrm could attack us.
The arrows proved their worth. Both burrowed deep into its torso and immediately it let out a keening wail and crashed to the stones beneath it in a heap of claws and wings. Life was unmercifully sucked out of it, and it did not struggle when its weight pulled it over the ledge and into the sea of molten gold. But as it died, its soul broke free from its corpse, and it was drawn towards a strange circular stone structure, only ten feet wide, that was situated on a higher plateau between us and Karzoug. The rune giant, having seen the blue dragon perish and crash close to the structure, stepped to it, as if the monster was protecting it. For a brief instant I wondered at its purpose, but brushed the question aside – Karzoug was our priority.
Our charge had already devolved into an uncontrolled mess. We had barely advanced a stride and we were already on our collective back foot. Alice had teleported to our left and had alone challenged one of the storm-kin giants to a melee. Harsk was releasing ample amounts of his healing powers, bringing himself and the sellsword back into the fight. I had no idea where Saffron was, probably on her broom somewhere high in the air above me. My panther was roaring its fury, but I kept it close to me. My brother was still on his knees, clawing at his temples, howling in pain. I willed myself to ignore his blight – instead, I searched for my quarry.
Far above, Karzoug’s form was a barely recognizable blur – he was moving almost too fast for my eyes to see. It was something else than the haste spells Alice and I relied on. Something much more powerful.
He was hammering our front line warriors. An expanding ball of energy appeared before the cleric and the sellsword and exploded in an inferno, bathing the two in magical fire, cooking them inside their adamantium plates. It was too much. Harsk fell, and did not get up. The sight stoked my rising fury but I had my own problems. As I was trying to get a clear shot at the runelord, the other storm-kin giant magicked a spear of lightning at me and Dûath. I was quick enough to evade it, making sure I did not fall into the lava of gold hundred feet below us. But my panther was not as fast, and his form crackled with punishing energy as the chain of lightning enveloped him. But miraculously, the animal remained standing. The damned giant even got a quick arrow at me, having chosen to field its bow instead of its sword. I cursed and turned to seek out my would-be killer as my hand chose giant-bane arrows from my quiver.
Behind me, on the opposite platform, there was another roaring blast of fire, followed by the death song of a giant on fire as it stumbled off the plateau. Alice was taking care of her business with the help of Saffron. The storm-kin giant bellowed all the way down to the lava.
I sent a volley of bane arrows at the storm-kin that had tried to best me in my game. Four arrows to its throat and upper chest made it drop its bow, gurgle blood and stumble back, away from the edge of the platform and outside of my field of vision.
I felt no joy or satisfaction, but if I had, it would have been short. All that remained now were the rune giant and the runelord. Saffron had summoned some sort of cloud of utter darkness on the circular stones, and it distracted the rune giant. But Karzoug was still unharmed, untouched, gazing at us. At me. His hands moved, drawing runes into the air, and his mouth worked.
The pain almost made me drop my bow. My skin began to peel off in flakes, like old dry paint crumbles from wood. I’ve been burned. I’ve been struck by lightning, and I’ve been frozen to a point I almost lost my fingers. This was worse. The raw skin beneath cried blood as across my body the outer surface fell in sheets. Dûath, already ravaged by the lightning, suffered beside me. Lumps of bloodied fur fell of his hide, and he fell to the ground, whimpering and roaring in agony. I could not let it go on. I battled shock and trauma, and won. Through the pain, I raised my bow, reached for an arrow, nocked it, aimed and shot wildly. I amassed all willpower and training I had. He’s just a man beneath it all. And his heart is on the left. I hit, but missed his heart. And I learned to regret my decision.
As the arrowhead burrowed into the runelord’s shoulder, his glave reacted and spat a fireball towards me. I ducked, barely avoiding its fingers of flame, each movement a horrible effort of agony. But my panther was at my feet, helpless. The fireball immolated him, and as the magical fire subsided, he no longer moved. Images of dead Faroth at the belltower in Magnimar filled my mind’s eye and I coarsely shouted the animal to get up. He didn’t.
I’m sorry, I told the beast in my mind. The runelord’s decaying spell had evaporated all my tears and made my eyes sandy dry, so I just bled. From my eyes, from my face. This was not your fight. He had earned his burial pyre, but by gods, I solemnly woved, not the runelord’s fire but mine would send him to Pharasma.
I turned from the dead corpse of my friend and witnessed the beauty when martial artistry meets the mastery of the arcane. Alice had teleported behind Karzoug when I had stolen his attention, and she mustered all her skill with the scimitar. Her body, and above all her blade, crackled with uncontainable energies as she slashed, slashed and slashed, screaming in defiance, ordering him to perish. The smug smile at the runelord’s face finally vanished and he stumbled forward, away from the wrath of the magus, trying to parry further strikes with his glaive. His wounds were massive, but already I could see him heal and regain his powers. And before Alice could renew her assault, Karzoug vanished in a blink of teleportation.
He did not go far, but standing still on only a few strides from the portal I couldn’t see him. I used a second to have a look at my brother – we was lying sideways on the stone, groaning and grimacing, tears flowing between his shut eyes. But he was not dead. Harsk too was getting up, painfully with determination, and his armor was still releasing rays of yellow-hued light of healing as it put itself and its wearer back together. The strange magic of the plate had once more saved his life and brought him back from the brink of death.
At last, I recognized spoken words, maybe the first of the battle, that had lasted only half a minute. It was Saffron, yelling to Alfred. “Master Alfred, be ready to teleport!” The sellsword, still big as an ogre, was ten strides from me, running up on the bridge from our platform to the next. He couldn’t see the invisible witch swooping down on her broomstick but he halted just when the red-head got to her level and reached to his armoured back. And then they too blinked away.
To my right, on a plateau far up, Alfred bellowed a war cry and went to war. They had found the escaped runelord. Give Alice her due but when you want something sliced and diced, hand over the task to Alfred. I had to, since I could not see Karzoug. But rune giant was still visible, towering just behind the cloud of darkness the witch had summoned over the circular structure before Karzoug’s throne. Landing an arrow on its upper body was a possibility. I had an easy shot, even though a third of my skin had peeled off. The pain was being subsided by the elemental fire, and I wondered if I’d eventually catch fire as the burn worked its way through the skinless patches on my hide.
“Alice, leave the giant to me and help Alfred”, I screamed over the constant roar and rumble of the strange world. The magus snapped her face to me, indicating she had heard me, but she did not heed the suggestion. Instead, she charged the giant. I cursed her. I knew she could see the runelord from her vantage, so why not focus on our primary goal?
The rune giant was fully concentrated on protecting the circular structure, and did not see the magus run at it on time. She leaped up and slashed a wide arc once, connecting at the thigh, and the blood of the rune giant sprayed, like a wedge of migrant birds, only to be sucked back at the blade that had sent it flying. The rune giant howled, and its agony echoed in the cavern, but it did not die. It only faltered away from the little woman, unable to hold any weight on its wounded leg. I could see the self-satisfied expression on her face and she prepared to end the gargantuan creature. But I could also see the runelord pop into existence right behind her. Bloodied, weakened but in rage, the runelord extended one finger towards the magus and opened his mouth. A single, horribly keening voice came out. A single, awful, wrong note of pain. For me and Harsk it just hurt our ears.
The rune giant, much much closer to the runelord and the source of the sound, keeled over on its face, arms to the sides, dead.
The magus’s jaw went slack, but she managed a turn towards us. Her eyes were vacant, open but not seeing anything. She was swaying ever so slightly. Blood began to run from her eyes, nose, mouth, ears and from a single point in her forehead. And on her brow the mark of wrath, the symbol of power she had taken in Runeforge, blazed once like a dying star.. and disappeared forever. Her feet gave in and the pale-faced magus lifelessly slumped to the ground.
Harsk bellowed his unbelief and cursed the runelord for what he had done. The runelord smiled wearily yet imperiously, and the mark of wrath appeared on his forehead with a spark of flame, like it had been branded there.
No more, I told him, grinding my teeth together, calling my elemental powers to bear. No more death, but yours.
I had weeks previously spent a fortune buying a single arrow. It was very much alike the two I had used to kill the blue dragon, only it was enchanted to destroy the life essence of humans. And from the old stories I knew runelords had been human. Karzoug at least very much was one.
Like once upon a time years before I knew now was a moment when I could not miss my arrows. My vengeance for Alice was swift. I sent the arrow towards the runelord, and it found its mark. Karzoug screamed, and I relished his agony like it was the sweetest sound one could hear. His glaive spat fiery death in response once more, but I was prepared and rolled away and the fireball went wide. I nocked two more arrows faster than a heart beats, pulled back the string, and let them fly. And like two brothers united they pierced the smouldering air between me and my quarry, and burrowed into his temple, demanding justice for friends killed.
I willed them to burn his mind to ash.
And inside his head, the arrowheads bloomed with the fire I carried and ripped the runelord’s head open like the bomb of an alchemist. For all his powers, majesty and might, his death, it seemed, was very ugly, very messy and very human.
I set down to one knee, and let my bow hand fall beside me. I was so tired. I wanted to lie down and rest for a while, but it wasn’t over. I had to get back to my brother. The world around us continued its rumble. Golden lava flowed and bubbled, but the temperature of the place began to drop noticeably.
Harsk was running up the stairs between platforms towards Alice. He was already chanting, calling for his goddess, bringing his powers of life returning to bear. Alfred was yelling, asking what had happened. I felt something pinch my brow.
Then the circular structure exploded in light so bright I thought someone brought the sun to us. Shielding my eyes did nothing. Everything was white, except it wasn’t. In the blinding whiteness I saw faint outlines of faces appearing and disappearing. There were children’s faces, women’s, men’s. Humans, elves, orcs, ogres, giants, even monsters. Smiling, happy faces, expressions of fear, and wonder, and grimaces of evil souls. They were souls, I realized, storming free from the prison that Karzoug had held them in. They had been the main ingredient for his return, and now they soared to the waiting arms of Pharasma along the river Styx. And then, as suddenly as the light had come, it too vanished.
I realized I no longer felt any pain. I had become whole. My skin was untouched.
“Ah, gods”, Belon, lying on the ground, muttered and reached for his sword. I ran to him. He struggled to a sitting position. “I am fine”, he said coarsely and waved me away. I was relieved, but not as much when I heard two things at the same time.
First, Dûath made a low growl and miraculously got to his feet. I could not believe my eyes but the black panther was completely unharmed, as if he had just been sleeping the whole time. And then, Harsk shouted from the platform above.
“Alice! She’s alive!”
And the second he told us the news, the world itself shook once, throwing us back to the ground. And on the cavern walls around us cracks began to appear like spiderweb, and through them shone blank whiteness.
“The Plane is falling apart!” Saffron shouted and swooped past the others at the higher plateau. “We need to get out of here!”
“We need to go”, I told my brother and panther and the world stirred anew. Huge chunks of the cavern walls ripped free and fell into the golden lava. A few of the pillars that held the cavern ceiling broke and smashed down, taking pieces of the platforms and the connecting bridges and stairs with them.
Alfred, Harsk, Alice and Saffron were all converging. “We need to help them”, Belon muttered, still holding his head, but I shoved him towards the portal. It had imprisoned Karzoug, but I prayed it would let us out. “They can fly”, I told my brother as the bridge leading from the portal platform gave in and crumbled into pieces before splashing into the bubbling sea of gold.
I thrusted my runeforged longbow’s tip through the portal, and it penetrated without any resistance. The world beyond was as we had left it, or so I thought, but in the spire, something bad was happening as well. I turned to the others and screamed a question over the turmoil of world ending. “Can we get to Magnimar from here?”
Saffron was shaking his head, while Alice’s fingers frantically drew runes into the air. The platforms were vibrating steadily now, and they could all break and fall any moment.
“It’s the only way out”, I told my brother. “We’ll come right behind you”, I promised, and signaled Dûath to leap into the portal. He went, without having to tell him a second time. Belon was not as obliging. “Do I have to carry you out?” I hissed. On my bare neck I felt the breeze of dislocating air – the others had teleported from the highest plateau.
“GO!” I commanded my brother and finally he jumped in, beyond the ruddy haze of the gateway back to the real world. I could see him and my panther at the other side, and they gave room to others to follow. Alice ran past me, limping, supported by Saffron. Alfred came cursing – they had not been quick enough to steal Karzoug’s loot – but through the portal he went anyway. Harsk was last to go, but he took his time. “Alfred’s right, they would have been helpful for us”, he yelled over the chaos of falling pillars, crumbling platforms and shattering cavern walls. He glanced once back towards Karzoug’s dead body and stepped through the boundary between planes. There was no chance of recovering the valuables he had carried.
I was the last one. I wanted to be sure that the runelord had perished and he would not rise anew. As if in a reply to my doubts, the highest platform gave in and fell, sending the circular structure the rune giant had guarded, the throne and Karzoug’s body to the molten, burning abyss of gold.
Drown in your greed, I said my farewells to the runelord, turned and pushed myself into the portal.