A Rise of the Runelords campaign journal that became two books

Burnt Offerings

10. Who lives, who dies

27th of Rova – Oathday

Sandpoint, later that evening

Putting two and two together, we quickly concluded that Nualia was indeed the demoness of Tsuto’s desire and the main threat to the city. From what we had read from Tsuto’s journal, I even made the suggestion that Nualia had once been a citizen of Sandpoint, the daughter of the former High Priest Ezakiel. Feeling we had the momentum and element of surprise on our side, we decided to return to Thistletop as soon as possible. But first we needed to rest and equip ourselves better. While the ones more familiar with magic powers headed out to potion shops, I alone went to see the blacksmith, Korvut. I had seen something among his wares that had piqued my interest. But I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy it.

On my way a retinue comprising of a wealthy looking nobleman and three dangerous looking bodyguards marched along River Street, rudely pushing townsfolk off their way and  generally behaving like pricks who thought they owned the town. Not feeling eager to have a fight that late in the evening, I made way like others. I had other things in mind, but for some reason I felt I’d run across the nobleman again sooner than later.

Korvut was at work when I arrived. The short stocky man reminded me of Harsk, but the blacksmith was not a dwarf and lacked all the familiarity and joviality of the dwarven healer. When he saw me arrive, he put his hammer down and gestured me to his shelves where dozens of different master-forged weapons hung. “Good evening Master Alfie”, he growled in his low voice, remembering my name wrong, “what brings you to my shop?” I didn’t care to correct him as my eyes quickly found what I was searching for and remained there. “We are about to head into the wild and I’d like to be armed accordingly.” The blacksmith nodded and clasped his hands together while moving to the shelves. “Of course, a sensible decision. My arms are the best from here to Magnemar and I am sure I can supply you with anything you need”, Korvut explained with not little pride. “What would you like to have, to supplement your fine armor”, he asked and nodded at my chainshirt which I had purchased from him only a few days earlier.

I pointed at a pair of gladii blades that hung among other shorter one-handed blades. “Hmm, the gladii, gladiator weapons. A very rare sight in Varisia. I made those when I was younger – of course, they are still of exceptional quality”, he assured me, picked them out and offered them to me. I could see they had not been proven in combat nor tasted blood, but that didn’t make me hesitate. I overcame my stupid reservations and took both blades by their wooden pommels. And then I was somewhere else.

Two boys, not older than sixteen, are standing back-to-back, covered in blood and sweat. Burning hot sand of the arena between their bare toes, two bodies at their feet, four heavily armed gladiators stand in vigil around them. The other, black-haired, frowns narrow-eyed with a calculating, murdering intent while the silver-haired smiles self-assuredly and taunts the gladiators with his longsword, massive in his wiry arms. The boys slowly circle around while constantly keeping their backs locked together, like two dancers attuned to each other’s moves. The black-haired boy crosses his gladii blades in front of him, preparing for the imminent attack. Up in the central arena grandstand, their only audience, a fat nobleman dressed in rich silks,  bellows a laughter and claps his meaty hands in approval.

I opened my eyes and found Korvut looking at me curiously. “I’ll take them”, I quickly stated, pushing the memory back to wherever it had surfaced. Korvut cleared his throat. “That’ll be 30 gold pieces for the pair.” A reasonable price, I concluded and handed him the gold. “I’ll need scabbards as well.” Korvut turned back to the shelves and took two fitting scabbards down. “Of course. You can have them free, as token of your continued custom.” I nodded my thanks, connected the scabbards to my belt and sheathed the blades. An odd feeling of tranquility fell upon me. It felt like a part of me had stopped running, or rather, a part of me had stopped being afraid. Inside, I smiled faintly.

As I turned to leave, Korvut once again cleared his throat. “Are you what they call you in town, a hero?” I was stopped in my tracks, contemplated the question that had came from leftfield. After a moment I simply shook my head without facing him. “No, blacksmith, I’m not a hero.” As I walked out of his shop I heard him shout at my back. ‘If your friends are heroes, tell them to come by!’ But I was already gone.

**

The next morning the rest of us were breaking our fast and planning our diversion when Vidarok, looking groggier and even more unkempt than normal, joined us at the table. He murmured his goodmornings. “Slept badly, friend?” Harsk quipped, his mouth full of Bethana’s delicious mashed eggs. Vidarok looked pained. “Indeed. I saw nightmares”, he simply explained, drawing our looks. Harsk went on. “What worries you so?” The druid seemed unwilling to share. “I.. something from my past came to haunt me”, he let out, taking a loaf of bread but just rolling it around in his hands. Harsk swallowed, gave a more serious face and turned to Vidarok. “Look, if it bothers you then it will feel better if you tell us what is wrong”, the dwarf started, taking the friendly, even fatherly tone he often resorted to. I forked my mashed eggs in silence and realized we really didn’t know anything about each other – not to mention our pasts, dreams, nightmares even. Harsk gestured Vidarok to speak.

Vidarok considered Harsk’s words, and still didn’t eat. His nightmares had stolen him of his appetite. “It’s my sister”, he began. Ilori turned her head sideways in an interested, sympathetic gesture while Harsk nodded. I focused on my eggs. “She died, long ago, and last night she came to me in my dreams. She was calling for me. She felt.. unnatural, like she was there, and at the same time she was something very different”, Vidarok described wearily. “What does it mean?” He asked Harsk. The dwarf scratched his chin under his long beard. “I don’t know, dreams are not my speciality.” Ilori cut in, “How did she die?” Vidarok sighed and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. They say it was an accident by I know it was my fault she died.” In an act of consolation Harsk put his hand on the half-orc’s shoulder. “My condolences, friend. But maybe the dream is just your conscience bothering you.” Vidarok just nodded, and after a while, took a bite of his bread.

With Vidarok joining us, we made our plans. It was decided that Harsk and the druid would get us the beer (and sleeping potion which was their great idea) required to take the goblins out of the picture, while me and Ilori would try to get some further assistance and information from mayor Deverin and high priest Zantus. I myself was positive that the town would provide us with additional muscle to take Thistletop and slay Nualia.

I could’ve not been more wrong.

Zantus admitted that Nualia had indeed been an adopted daughter of the former high priest. But according to the old man, she had died in the same fire that had killed Ezakiel. She had been an aasimar, a partly divine person of fabulous beauty who had never been truly accepted as one of the town – maybe out of fear and envy, Zantus considered. To me, those sounded as perfect motives to attack the city in ruthless retribution. But Zantus adamantly refused to believe Nualia was alive nor a threat to the city. Lamashtu, the goddess of evil that had been linked with the atrocities and Nualia in several different occasions, didn’t sound familiar to him. This did not surprise me one bit. He at least agreed to give us a potion of holy water, to battle evil souls should we encounter them.

The mayor was even worse. She courteously expressed her utter disbelief in anything we said and denied all help. I was less courteous as I spat on the floor, cursed her and her lackeys’ ignorance and left the town hall boiling in anger. So we had to attack and save the city on our own. Even Frank was still nowhere to be seen. His martial prowess along with his earthbreaker would have come in handy. But alas, we were just the four of us.

Armed with the best gear and magical potions our limited funds could buy us and a wagon full with 10 small barrels of beer that Harsk had bartered for his apprenticeship in the Deverin brewery, we once again trekked towards Thistletop.

**

The route to was still clear in my memory so we easily reached the border of Thistletop. Shortly after our arrival, Gogmurt appeared from the bushes. ‘You are not very quiet, no?’ The goblin druid hissed between his teeth. I stared at him blankly. Harsk shrugged, his armor, steel shield and backpack clanging as he did. ‘We brought you the beer, as promised, for your kin. Can you still get it in’, Harsk queried the creature. It croaked which I think was pleased laughter. ‘Yes.. unload the wagon and Gogmurt will take the barrels in.’

We did work as ordered while Ilori watched our backs. I still didn’t trust the goblin nor the success of our plan, and I voiced both doubts, to unhearing ears. I really hoped I was wrong, for mine and their sakes. As Gogmurt rolled the barrels into the bushes, Vidarok and Harsk emptied a flask of sleeping potion into them, magnifying their ability to knock out the pesky green beasts.

After Gogmurt had half-pushed, half-carried in the last barrel, we hid the cart. ‘Wait here for Gogmurt’, the goblin told us, ‘will come back in the evening after the feast when the boys are asleep.’ ‘We’ll be waiting’, Vidarok replied. With an ugly grin, Gogmurt retreated into Thistletop.

It was hardly even midday, so I excused myself and left to range the nearby woods. They were beautiful if dangerous, as were all wilds everywhere I had traveled. I found some goblinberries, which I knew were quite poisonous – if stung by the berry tree, the poison stole the physical strength of the victim. I’d seen hungry and careless bears and boars reduced into whimpering husks. I carefully cut a few branches. Maybe I could turn this to something useful, I mused, and secreted them into my backpack. After a few hours of exploring, I returned to the others.

As evening fell, we saw smoke rising beyond the bushes and goblin shouting accompanied by laughter. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and I was getting somewhat more positive about our plan. I just hoped it wasn’t Gogmurt getting torched to the merriment of his brothers. If that was the case, I hoped they would still drink the ale. But Gogmurt eventually returned to us after the sounds of feasting had subdued. ‘It worked!’ Gogmurt screeched in joy. ‘The boys are all night-night, so you can enter the fort without being seen.’ Harsk stroked his beard, clearly satisfied that his plan had worked. ‘Good job’, he congratulated the goblin, and we headed in. As we crossed the bushland, we could see many passed out goblins. Some were sound asleep, others were snoring, or muttering incoherently. My bow in one hand, I gripped the pommel of my gladius with the other. So many things could still go wrong.

We got to the bridge leading to Thistletop proper, where Gogmurt again left us to our own devices. As he parted, he reminded us not to kill any goblins, to which Vidarok assured him we wouldn’t. We’ll see, I thought.

As agreed, I again took the point and silently crossed the bridge. Goblins were sleeping around the main entrance, and I could even hear snoring from the guard towers. Gods, I exclaimed inwardly, such gross neglicence of duty and incompetence. All the watches had been drinking! But this was of course all to our benefit. Satisfied with the situation, I signaled the others to pass the bridge, and they came one by one.

I put my bow over my shoulder and examined the unconscious, helpless goblins. ‘We should take them out now that we can. Imagine if someone manages to sound the alarm and they all awaken.. we’ll be up into our heads with angry goblins’, I tried to reason, but to no avail. I was alone with my opinion. “We have to trust bringing out Nualia defeated, dead or alive, will pacify the goblins”, Ilori repeated the assumption which I did not share. “You can carry her head in front as we get out”, I cursed, grinding my teeth together and continued my scouting by entering the fort through the main doors.

In the lobby I found, in addition to more sleeping goblins, a score of trophies hung on the walls. Bones, appendages and heads of animals were pinned in the walls with nails, daggers and choppers. One particularly beautiful dagger, its pommel decorated with pearls, caught my attention, and I stepped closer and tore the dagger off the wall. The trophy, a half desiccated wing of some bird of prey dropped to the floor. This goes to my personal stash, I decided and ventured deeper into the fort.

I checked out the western guard tower first, and found only passed out guards. From up the tower itself I could see a courtyard at the center of the building. As I peered over the tower wall, I noted that one goblin dog had it eyes open – it was drowsy, but awake. Any routes to the north-western parts of the fort went through that yard, so killing the dog silently became a necessity should we want to cross the yard.

I retraced my steps and from the lobby silently moved to the eastern side of the building. At one narrow corridor, I came across a goblin sleeping so widely that I had to carefully step over it. As I was just above it, the creature murmured something and turned around in its sleep. I stopped in mid-movement and gracefully allowed it to move between my feet. Certain that it was still asleep as I got past it, I covered its mouth with my left hand and slashed open its throat. It trashed weakly under my grip before dying without making a sound. With my path cleared of obstacles, I continued further east.

The eastern side presented two viable routes. One leading down underground via staircase, and the other north, past the courtyard. But the latter went through a large hall where I glimpsed and heard several wake if drunken goblin commandos arguing with their leader. Not eager to challenge them alone, I returned outside through the main doors and briefed the others on what I had seen.

“Let’s go underground”, Vidarok was first to suggest. Ilori nodded in approval. ‘What we are looking for is most likely beneath, hidden from sight, like the evil creatures we encountered in Sandpoint’, she added. Harsk agreed as well, so the decision was made. I led them inside and to the staircase. On our way Vidarok noted first the body of the goblin I had killed. ‘This was your doing?’ He asked suspiciously. Looking him in the eye, I nodded. ‘A necessity, so that it wouldn’t sound an alarm’, I explained, twisting the truth to suit my purpose. My explanation seemed to be enough, as further questions or accusations did not arise. Instead, Vidarok pulled the bleeding corpse with us to the staircase, closed the door behind us, and we descended.

**

The staircase led us one floor down, to a lighted hall room with six doors. One of them was open, leading north to a long corridor. The moment we stepped out of the stairs, we could hear grunting and moaning from behind one of the doors in the corner. I approached it carefully and realized somebody was fucking behind it. A big guy, I deduced from his low, rumbling voice. I risked opening the door only slightly and peered in from the gap. It was the hunter – a huge, ugly bugbear, having sex with multiple goblin women on the floor. It would have been funny had we not been so on edge, expecting violence. I closed the door silently, and informed the others but from their faces I could see they knew already. ‘We should jump on them, especially if we can do it without alerting others’, I suggested with a whisper. Everybody seemed to agree. ‘Let’s make sure there are no threats in the other nearby rooms’, Vidarok whispered back, clutching his staff. I volunteered to check. Door by door I went, finding a dark, dug-out cave, a room full of goblin babies in cages (I realized then why goblins all turned out so vicious, if that was how they were brought up), and another corridor linking the hall to five other rooms. Hearing nothing from those, I returned to the others certain that we could make our surprise attack without getting jumped on from behind. The bugbear was still going at it. Not for long.

We readied ourselves and I kicked the door open, an arrow nocked and ready to fire. Taking quick aim, I shot. But by Earthfall, the beast was quick. The moment I had entered, it had pushed a naked goblin girl off his lap and ducked. My arrow burrowed into a thick bear’s fur lying on the floor as a mattress. Behind me I could sense Ilori rolling her eyes. I cursed and stepped back, making room for her as she shouted me to watch out. I felt the familiar buildup of elemental powers as my skin prickled, and I had to shield myself as the entire room exploded in all-consuming fire. The goblin girls shrieked and died as the magical fire that did not create smoke engulfed them and the half-naked bugbear. At the same time I was both awed by Ilori’s constantly expanding powers and irritated by the extent she was using them then – stealth and caution were no longer possible for us and I hoped the goblins at ground level did not hear the commotion.

The goblin women had the decency to perish quickly. One, her hair in flames, stumbled out of the room and was immediately put out of her misery by Harsk’s longsword. But the bugbear was far from dying. Burns visible in its skin and rising from the ground, it snatched a heavy flail and roared its taunts. ‘You little fools come here and burn my women.. Pointy-ears’, he pointed at me with his flail, ‘Yours will make a fine addition to Bruthazmus’ collection!’ As it took a step towards the doorway, I accepted its challenge and with a swift action, dropped my longbow while drawing my brand new gladii blades. They sung a beautiful song as they slided out of the scabbards. Confined by lack of space, Vidarok and Ilori had to remain back as Harsk moved against the brute in the doorway. Metal clanged on metal as Bruthazmus struck Harsk in his shield and became locked in melee with the brave halfman. Dangerously emboldened, I saw an opening in the beast’s defence and tried to pivot past it so I could flank it from behind.

It was a decision I came to regret and which I later vowed not to repeat.

I expected a horizontal blow but just as I was leaping past him, my chest connected with an upwards vertical arc of the flail. I was duly slammed into a wall behind. Air was blown out of me, and I could feel multiple ribs break and taste blood gobbling in my mouth. My head lolled and I was barely staying conscious. Somebody shouted my name.

Harsk continued the duel and, with me out of the picture momentarily, was joined by Vidarok. A lucky strike of his staff sent the bugbear reeling, and Harsk stepped in, bellowing a horrible spell of fearing. The maddeningly frothing beast turned into a mouse in a heartbeat. Crying in utter fear, he shrunk from Harsk to a corner in his fuck lair. Trying to rise while clutching my hurt chest, I didn’t see what happened – I only heard the cleric’s sword cut into muscled meat and the end to the whimpering. I took Vidarok’s hand and got up.

**

I emptied a healing potion, and got some help from the druid. A few deep breaths later I was already feeling better. Harsk was examining the heavy flail of the bugbear, while Vidarok and Ilori considered our next moves, whispering. I noticed among Bruthazmus’ equipment a masterworked longbow. I took a step towards it, as I heard footsteps coming from the north. I signaled the others and snatched the hunter’s bow from the ground. Vidarok had the time to move towards the door opposite to the bugbear’s lair when it opened and a young, dark-skinned woman in exotic clothing emerged, a small cat at her feet. She had the time to open her mouth before Vidarok was all over her, grappling her. His staff dropped to the stone tiles. Then she screamed.

‘Be silent’, Ilori, standing well behind Vidarok in the lobby, ordered her sternly. She sidestepped and small fires erupted from her hands. The woman was struggling to free herself of the half-orc’s grip. ‘Who are you’, she asked, yelling at us. The small cat hissed at her feet but did not attack. Harsk intervened, exiting the bugbear’s lair. “It is of no matter. Calm down and tell us who you are and what are you doing here.” The woman still shook in Vidarok’s grip, but managed an answer. ‘I am Lyrie.. I am studying this building.’ I too approached her, and examined her intently, trying to intimidate her. ‘Are you here by your own free will? Do you serve the one called Nualia?’ She did not respond to either question, but her face could not hide the truth. I turned to the others. ‘She’s obviously allied with the aasimar. We should kill her now.’ That made her scream doubly as hard. Vidarok, again heedless to my perfectly reasonable suggestions, swept the woman’s feet from under her and pinned her down, asking us to tie her up. I blatantly told the half-orc to stop fucking around and refused. Harsk took a skein of rope and took a step towards the struggle.

Then something walked in from behind us. Ilori managed just barely to swing around as a massive bastard sword pierced her mage armor like it was nothing but smoke and cut her cleanly through her shoulder. She cried in pain and I turned, screaming her name, urging her to get away from the attacker. I quickly identified the assailant – the ever-silent knight in heavy armor that Gogmurt had mentioned. But this time, he wasn’t being silent. Instead, he was anxiously calling for Lyrie, telling us to let her go and urging her to escape. A sharp stench of old booze filled the air around him. As Ilori evaded, blood flowing from her, I took the shot. The arrow struck the man point-black in his visor and harmlessly exploded into bits. ‘Lyrie’, the man cried, lifting his shield and blindly swinging at Ilori, missing. He was determined beyond reason to reach the dark-skinned woman. Instead, he drove into Harsk who slashed with his sword, calling his goddess for guidance. His blade hit metal, sending sparks flying. But Ilori, fires of anger erupting from her eyes drew a wand from her belt and sent a surge of lightning at the soldier. Sparks and lightning played around the man and Harsk had to step back from the onslaught. The soldier roared in horrible pain but didn’t fall.

Vidarok’s concentration faltered and Lyrie was able to hammer her fist at his cheek. Momentarily dazzled, he loosened his grip and it was all she needed to escape his clutches. She pushed herself up and bolted, trying to make a run for it. Holding his cheek, the druid took his staff, shouted after her and began murmuring a spell. As I let loose another arrow at the apparently lovesick soldier, I heard a growl of a wolf from where Lyrie had escaped. The druid had summoned a beast to assist him!

My second arrow was inconsequential as well, failing to pierce the soldier’s armor. He expertly parried Harsk’s blade, and pushed Ilori aside before landing a fierce blow at the helmeted head of the dwarf. I saw a handful of beard fly off, accompanied by blood. But the stocky cleric resisted. He evaded, chanting a healing spell that ended the flow of blood in his and Ilori’s wounds. Strengthened by his magic, Ilori reached out with her wand and electrocuted the soldier once more. This time, he fell to his knees, smoke rising from the joints of his armor, calling Lyrie by her name before collapsing finally.

Vidarok, who had pursuit the woman, called to us. ‘She’s gone, locked herself into a room’, he apprised us of the situation from a distance. Ilori and Harsk were still licking their wounds and drawing some breath. I calmly shouldered my bow, walked over to the steaming body of the soldier and drove my gladius into his throat, ensuring he would never again surprise us from behind.

**

As the carmine lady and the dwarven cleric went to search for Lyrie, I stayed behind, intent to take a look at the other rooms yet to be investigated. There were five rooms beyond the corridor where the soldier had attacked us, and I carefully went through them one by one. I quickly came to the conclusion that these rooms were the accommodations of Nualia and her retinue. From one obviously belonging to Tsuto I found papers documenting his plans for the attack to Sandpoint and framing his father as the culprit before extorting Glassworks from him. I took them with me as additional evidence against him. From the largest room, clearly Nualia’s, I found some platinum coins, which found their way into my pockets.

On my way back I searched the dead soldier’s equipment, and retrieved an everburning torch, a healing potion and some more coins. As I rose to my feet, Vidarok emerged. “You all right?” He asked me. I nodded. “There’s just the bedrooms for Nualia and her retinue. I found little of interest, just some documents further incriminating Nualia and Tsuto”, I told him. “What about you?” I asked. “Did you get Lyrie?” The druid determinedly shook his head which made his long hair whip from left to right. “She has blockaded herself into a room, or a corridor. We decided not to pursue her further when we are still split into two.” Sensible, I thought. “What next, are you coming with us?” He queried. I led him to a short corridor leading east. “You have darkvision, have a look in there before we go. There’s a room beyond that has been just recently dug into the earth.” Vidarok complied and marched into the doorway. He peered in. “There’s just junk and digging equipment, and a narrow tunnel leading somewhere from where I can hear the ocean. No reason to investigate that yet”, he concluded, and I had to agree. But one uninvestigated door remained leading west. I pointed it out to the half-orc, and we took it to ourselves to find out what it hid before joining the others.

Behind the last door was yet another short corridor in complete darkness. Vidarok went in first, as the dark did not hinder him, but I grabbed a burning torch from the lobby. We walked carefully through the corridor before reaching another open door. Vidarok pushed it gently open, and we found ourselves in a 50 to 25 feet dungeon with damp cells and gruesome torturing equipment. And we heard labored breathing from the final cell.

“Who’s there?” Vidarok raised his voice and slowly approached the cell at the back of the dungeon. I replaced the torch into a holder and notched an arrow. “Help me..” came the barely audible response. A badly beaten man lied in the cell, half sitting against a wall. He raised his hand towards us. “Who are you?” Vidarok asked him as he tried the cell door. Locked. “I am..”, the captive man struggled to speak, his lips broken and mouth dry, “My name is John.. I am a traveller from the Pathfinder society.. They ambushed me and brought me here.” I could say he was speaking the truth. “Hold on”, Vidarok told the man, “we’ll get you out of there.” After a brief search, we could not locate the keys into John’s cell in the dungeon. There were however two other doors leading out of the dungeon, and we carefully opened the other. We found a  study room, and from within, a set of keys.

Vidarok hurried to John’s cell, opened the lock and moved to the broken man. He was shivering from the cold. The half-orc poured some water to his mouth from a flask, and applied some salves and simple bandages to his wounds. I stood in guard outside the cell.

After a moment, John the traveller felt strong enough to stand up and walk. “I was sent here by the Society after the news of the attack to Sandpoint had arrived”, he explained. “Word gets around quickly, eh?” I asked, still a bit suspicious. John was oblivious to my suspicion. “Yes, it does”, he nodded and drank some more water from Vidarok’s flask, “and the Society wants to have eyes and ears present when such major events occur, to document them for future reference.”

“So you are a scribe”, Vidarok asked, interested. “Yes I am”, John replied, turning to his saviour. “So you wouldn’t know how to use these”, I sighed, offering him the kukris I had used for years since running from Canorate. John shrugged. “I am no fighter, but I’m bound to assist you given that you saved my life.” Great, I thought, just the answer I wanted to hear. For some reason, I had a premonition that I would not see the kukris never again as I handed them and their scabbards to the travelling scribe.

I probably made my biggest mistake of the day when I noted the other door leading north. There were some stairs before it, but not enough to make it a doorway to the ground floor. I called Vidarok and suggested we check out that one door before going back to the others – it might even present a more direct path to the others, given the rough idea of the layout of the underground structure I was mapping in my head.

Vidarok agreed and moved over to have a peek at what lied beyond. He carefully pushed the unlocked door forward.. and a clearly audible creak sounded from its hinges. Then all hell, literally, broke loose.

**

I have little recollection of the events that occurred immediately after Vidarok went through the door. I remember one unnatural cry of a wolf, something hellish, resonating in the underground. It made me shiver and my heart skipped a beat, but then shortly later we heard another demonic howl, and suddenly my mind was at once filled with everything I had ever feared in my life. Some logical, pragmatic part of me screamed that I was being consumed by false emotions, but the rest of my mind fully dismissed it. And then I ran.

With imaginary horrors of my past after me, I ran from room to room perhaps for only a minute, even less, but it was all over by when the panic vanished. Vidarok and Harsk and not succumbed to the demon hounds’ damnable howls but had expertly killed them. Ilori had panicked as well, and had ran somewhere below to a second underground level where Lyrie had escaped. With me regaining my wits, we ran after her, hoping she was fine.

We found her catching her breath but in otherwise good condition in the second level, in a hall marked by six fallen stone pillars. Each of them had fallen eastwards, and the room itself was tilted in the same direction. Something had moved the earth in times long gone and shook the room so that this had happened. At the back of the room, a saw a corridor flanked by statues of warriors carrying poleaxes.

“Stay behind as we look for Nualia”, Vidarok instructed John who had followed the druid like a dog ever since we had freed him. The scribe nodded, looking pathetic with one of my kukris in his hand. I took the point and led us into the corridor. I was still unnerved by the earlier events as I managed not to notice an obvious trap in a stone tile in the floor. As I stepped on it, a cage came rambling down from high above. I somersaulted backwards and just got away as the cage crashed down, and a pair of warrior statues became animated before slashing downwards with their poleaxes. Finally, the stone tile tilted rapidly, like a door opening and closing – anyone left within the cage, dead or alive, would have that instant fallen into darkness beneath the tile. Then, as rapidly as the trap had sprung, the cage was drawn back up and the statues returned to their original positions as nothing had happened.

Harsk whistled. “That, my friend, was close.” I hovered my hand above the trap tile, making sure it was weight over the tile that functioned as the activator. “Yes, it was”, I had to agree. I was still shaken, that was obvious, and I was feeling more and more unwilling to advance. I had nearly died already so many times that day. “What do we do know”, Ilori asked us, her hands crossed in front of her. Sighing, trying to gather some of my usual bravery, I reached out to my backpack. “I still have Tsuto’s thieve’s tools. I can try to dismantle the trap.”

It took me a few moments to examine the trap and work its mechanics. Somewhat sure I had disabled it, I placed the tools on the floor and wiped sweat from my forehead. “I think it is disabled”, I started, “but I’m not..” But I didn’t get to finish my sentence as Harsk already paced past me, took a long stride that still fell on the side of the tile.. and activated the trap anew. Possessing dexterity I didn’t know existed among dwarvenkind, Harsk leaped forward and easily evaded the trap. It ran through its mechanics and in seconds, we were left standing there, looking each other across the corridor like there was a hundred yard wide and deep abyss between us.

“Or you could just try to leap over the tile”, Harsk commented, not at all displeased at my inability to properly disable the trap. I shrugged, and easily made the jump from where I stood. Ilori wasn’t happy however. She sneered a bit in contempt. “I’d rather not”, she stated. She probably felt she was not athletic enough to make the five foot jump safely. “Come on now, Ilori, we’ll lend a hand”, Harsk promised, encouraging her and offering his hand over the dangerous tile. She drew a long breath, took some running steps to gain enough forward momentum, and then she was over. Vidarok came last.

At the end of the corridor, the path diverted into two. From the stone tiles I could see the path northwards had been used recently, whereas the path south had not. Both short corridors led to an ornate wooden door. I whispered the others to be silent, as I moved to a door leading northwards. Keeping low and pushing my ear against it, I listened.

“..the strangers are coming, Nualia!” I heard Lyrie exclaim, apparently to our main target herself, Nualia. Strangers, I thought about how she had called us, how befitting. They were having a heated argument but I couldn’t recognize all the words. Good, I smiled inwardly, an opportunity to surprise them presented itself. I pushed my luck and opened the door slightly, just to get a quick look inside. Without making any noise, I moved the door and peered in. In a strangely formed, round room I could see the back of a heavily armoured, voluptuous and white-haired woman. A demon hound was lying on the floor next to her. They were oblivious to us, it seemed. I carefully closed the door and turned to the others crouching behind me.

“This is it. Nualia and Lyrie are both there, and there’s at least one demon hound with them. We have a chance to surprise them”, I whispered. “Get ready.” Vidarok and Ilori swallowed and nodded. Harsk closed his eyes and silently chanted a blessing spell. Faint light played around us. Here we go, I thought and nocked an arrow to my bow, turned around and kicked the door in.

Unconsciously selecting the most threatening target, I loosed an arrow at the demon hound. My aim was true and it burrowed into its foul meat. The beast yelped in pain and rose to its feet. The others were already moving past me. Harsk first, then Vidarok and lastly Ilori. Lyrie screamed in terror but Nualia merely pivoted on her heels and smiled at us, taunting with her bastard sword and that red, ugly demon hand with claws like blades.

The demoness ascended on Harsk while Vidarok jumped to attack the demon hound.

“Should I come too”, John the scribe yelled at me – I was the only one not in the room. “Yes”, I hissed in irritation, “just watch the trap!”. In a heartbeat, I took in the room now that the door was fully open. Ilori was behind the wall of flesh and iron that was Vidarok and Harsk. Fires and lights danced around her as she summoned a fiery dragon size of a dog. Its eyes glowed like two flashing rubies at it spat fire on the demoness. Such confined space, I cursed – the room was indeed circular, only some thirty feet across and with a fountain  of foul-smelling, bubbly water at the back. All around the room there was were  candles stuck in human skulls, books, scrolls and bones. Dropping my new master-wraught bow and drawing blacksmith Korvut’s gladii blades, I charged into melee.

Nualia was a stunning beauty indeed, but ruthlessly dangerous. Her armor had one deliberate weakness – her waist was bare, full of bloody cuts. A form of ritualistic self-mutilation, I ventured a guess as I leaped next to her. Nualia’s bastard sword whooshed and struck past Harsk’s defences. The dwarven cleric roared but stood his ground. I immediately used my opening and slashed with one of my blades, not hitting the bare lower back but scoring a deep wound anyhow. Lyrie was frantically casting magic missiles at Harsk and Vidarok, the latter locked in fierce combat with the demon hound. It growled and tried to bite the half-orc. The half-orc evaded its jaws and in return thrusted his staff into its face. This made the dog step back and unleash the terrible howl. I closed my eyes for a second, teardrops falling, as the howl rocked my mind. But this time we all held firm. Ilori responded to dark magics with lighting the place on fire. She yelled us to take cover and brought her hands together in front of her. A wave of fire blasted from her fingers, hitting Nualia and the demon hound squarely, but this time, the results were not as good. The fire washed over them but did not kill them. With the enemies momentarily distracted, Harsk channeled an aura of positive energy, but in the presence of such dark energies, its power waned and did not work to its full effectiveness. I heard Harsk call for his goddess, and at the same time, I heard the trap activate, followed by a painful scream.

This is for John, I cursed and with both of my gladii stabbed Nualia, who was still eyeing the bloodied dwarf hungrily. One bit into armor but didn’t penetrate, but other cut like knife through butter and came through at the other side, splattering blood and drawing a shriek from the demon bitch. I pulled the blade out and flashes of dark emanated from the wounds, like something evil wanted to get out of her. What kind of creature was this aasimaar, I wondered, my mouth agape. But as I stood there in amazement, the gladii in my left hand cracked and crumbled to shards like fragile glass. To my left, the sorceress was holding a hand towards me. “Ittee xhan!” I spat at her, dropping the pommel. Ilori’s fire dragons breathed fire around us, elemental rays shot past me and Harsk summoned a spiritual longsword, that hovered in the air and started to attack the demoness. It was an awful mess.

“I’ll get her!” Vidarok shouted at me, forgetting the hound and moving against Lyrie. Nualia, overcoming my lethal strike and trying to evade my flanking, sidestepped, bringing herself into a position to attack both Harsk and Ilori. Even suffering from the wounds inflicted to her, her skill was tremendous. Her attacks were a flurry of blows and Harsk bore the brunt of them. Sparks and bits of steel flew all over and dwarven blood flowed. I grinned in hatred and pushed myself towards the aasimar, acrobatically moving myself to flank her anew and stabbed with my remaining gladius, once again penetrating armor and meat to my satisfaction. But still the bitch didn’t fall.

The aasimar, now realizing the threat I posed to her well-being, moved away and confronted Ilori instead. The bastard sword swung again laterally and hit Ilori’s mage armour with tremendous force. The shield sparkled before vanishing and the sword dug deep into Ilori’s flesh. Her scream of pain shook me to the core. Fires died in her eyes and our carmine lady collapsed lifelessly to the ground. I heard Harsk bellow incoherently in righteous fury.

No time to feel sorry for her, I thought, grinding my teeth. The demonic hound, at its last breaths, made a daring leap to its mistress’s aid. Vidarok tried to knock it off, but missed.

But I didn’t. “And this is for Ilori”, I simply said to the animal and bringing the gladius down in a powerful, perfect arc, cleaved the beast in two in the middle.

But my small victory turned sour as Lyrie once again summoned her powers and cast magic missiles against Harsk. The stocky, brave Harsk was already close to succumbing to his wounds and evil magics were too much for him. Arrows made of light stabbed right through him and he too fell. “Harsk, no!” Vidarok yelled in grief and doubled his efforts to slay Lyrie once and for all. The cold and emotionless, pragmatic part of me just wanted to remind the druid that he once had the chance to kill the enemy sorceress but he didn’t seize the opportunity then – and this was the outcome.

With Harsk and Ilori both down, and possible already dead, Nualia turned to me fully. I gestured with my gladius and in a blink, she was all over me. Her first strike flew wildly past me, but I was only barely able to evade it. The second ripped deep into my right thigh and I grunted. I slashed back but she parried with her bastard sword. A return attack, and she shattered my left shoulder blade.  My vision blurred, and I tried a thrust, but she evaded. Blood ran from her mouth but she was laughing now. Half-dead, but she’s toying with me, I realized. She’s taking me out with a few blows.

She kept laughing at me as I staggered after her. My right thigh felt like it was burning but pure adrenaline subdued the pain – the problem was that it and my limp left arm ruined my balance. I thrusted and stabbed but to no avail – rather, my attacks left me open to a counter-attack.

I saw the demonic hand coming a mile away, but I had no chance of parrying it nor moving aside. Instead, its razor-sharp claws pierced my chainshirt and dug deep into my chest. My right lung immediately collapsed, and my other was flooded with blood. So this is it, I had the time to think. I fell to my knees and my vision blurred again before fading completely to black. Then I died.

**

I opened my eyes to shining sunlight.

I felt the sea wind breezing over me. Tasted the salt in the air. Heard waves crash into shore.  It was a bright day.

I was on my feet. No, I was walking on a flat beach of perfectly white sand that seemed to stretch to eternity. There was nothing, no-one with me. I looked down, but couldn’t see my feet, nor my body. Strange. I didn’t leave any footprints in the sand, but I was moving forward. Where was I?

I blinked and there was a body lying on the sand, face down, twenty feet away from me. It looked like it had just drifted ashore. His feet were still close enough for the waves to wash over them. It was a man, I could tell, and his clothes were and silver hair were soaked. He didn’t move.

I walked (floated?) closer. The man remained still. His hands were sprawled to his sides. Under his long hair I could point out his ears. He was elandili, a half-elf like me. We had the same build. I had no body but I could feel my heart starting to race. Over the seawater I smelled blood. I couldn’t see any but it was overcoming everything.

I got only three feet away from the body before his head turned painfully slowly towards me. His face was covered in  sand but I could recognize that face anywhere.

Amin hiraetha, brother. I failed you. I betrayed you”, Macharius rasped. A single tear fell from his eye and rolled over his cheek to the sand.

“No brother, you didn’t”, I could only say before grief took over. I couldn’t talk so I cried. He smiled faintly, trying to comfort me.

“I’m coming for you, Alpharius”, he said and then my world exploded in pain.

**

Through the pain, I opened my eyes and could see a bruised, but happy face of a dwarf looming over mine. I was on the floor.

“Harsk”, I groaned, “You’ve got blood all over your beard.” The dwarf chuckled and rose to his feet with a grimace. I rolled to my side and coughed out a pint of blood. I had broken ribs, a shattered shoulder blade, my left thigh felt like it was in flames and my eyes hurt. Traako, Nualia had beaten me badly.

“Harsk”, I was able to say. The cleric turned to me, still also in visible pain. I nodded my thanks. He nodded back. I took deep breaths. My lungs were working. Thank the good gods for healing magic. I reached to my chest where my bandolier was lying and fumbled its contents, trying to find the right potion. Taking one, I lifted it above my head, found it was the right one, and emptied its contents to my mouth. Within moments, I was feeling better. My ribcage started to move on its own. I could feel the splinters repositioning and bones coming together. The bleeding on my thigh ended and I could move it again. Sighing, I rose to a sitting position.

Ilori was alive as well, to my relief. But she wasn’t looking too good either. She was trying to compose herself, and was leaning on a wall. Her beautifully dangerous features were covered in blood and cuts. I’d seen attractive women beaten up before, in the gladiator pits, but those women had been hard-edged, hard-boiled gladiators, assassins, fighters and the like. But she was nothing like them. It still felt somehow wrong, in a deep instinctual level, to see her take hits and bleed just like the rest of us. Of course she had already proven us she could take care of herself, so my thoughts were simply and only bringing out the romantic in me.  I didn’t know I possessed a fragment of a knight in shining armor.

“Are you OK”, I managed a question. She shook her head. I reached to my bandolier and offered her my other healing potion. She took it, smiled weakly before thanking me and drinking it. Vitality returned to her and fires reignited in her eyes.

“What happened”, I asked, no-one in particular.

“I finished her”, Vidarok replied, looking weary but pleased and pointing at the lifeless remains of the evil aasimar. I tried standing and successfully got to my feet. I can walk out of here on my own feet, which is nice, I grunted and thought to myself. Vidarok moved over to the corpse of the enemy sorceress Lyrie. The cat, which I remembered for some reason, was nowhere to be seen but it’s mistress lied on her back, in a pool of her own blood. Her lifeless eyes and open mouth told of a death in grief and pain. Vidarok had ended her as well. The half-orc kneeled by and studied her. With trembling steps, I walked to them and kneeled at her side as well.

“What a waste”, I whispered as I looked at dead Lyrie. I reached out and closed her eyes. “She and the soldier. They were just serving an evil one”, I reflected. I had a spark of sympathy to the enemy aside the fragment of knight in shining armor. Near-death was messing with my head. “I once served an evil man as well”, I muttered to myself, trying to rationalize my thoughts. No-one replied. I could’ve been me lying dead there. The realization shook me to my core. This was the second time I had come close to really dying.

I failed you.

I rose as Vidarok went through her belongings, and moved to the aasimaar’s corpse. Yet again an uncharacteristic flame of righteous fury sparked somewhere inside my soul. We had all almost died at her hands. I felt good that the bitch was dead. I drew my gladius and turned to Vidarok. “Do you want to take her head or should I?” I asked him, my blade gleaming in the chamber candles’ light. The unkept druid shrugged, still focused on Lyrie’s valuables.

My blade struck the outsider’s neck. Blacksmith Korvut’s work proved its worth once more and I easily sliced her head off her shoulders. I spat on her headless corpse for emphasis.

**

We took what we could from the bodies of Lyrie and Nualia. In return for my favor, Ilori magically mended by broken gladius and I replaced it into my scabbard. We left the room and on our way out, Vidarok grabbed the aasimar succubus’ head.

We had no ability to heal ourselves anymore, and we all were in a ragged condition. We had a brief look at the other room directly south of where we had fought. There we found a very large stash of coins with blade sharp sides that emanated powerful magic, and a threatening, massive door with skeletal figures etched into them. Deciding we had pushed our luck enough for one day and choosing to return here later, we left both the coins and the door and headed out.

In the corridor with the statues and the trap there was no sign of John. “A shame”, Vidarok said, and jumped over the tile with the trap. I jumped after him and turned around, offering Ilori my hand. “Come on”, I urged her. She looked at the tile, then at me and leaped, red skirt billowing.

Her jump was all too short. To her credit, she didn’t scream as I pulled her out of harm’s way straight into my lap just as the cage fell on the tile and the mechanics of death started.

My hands were around her and I noted that I might have been holding her a bit too closely. Her face was an inch away from mine. Well this is awkward. “Thanks”, she said, looking me straight in the eye. “You’re welcome”, I replied, not evading her look. Then the dwarf came running through directly into us over the trap and we all fell on the stone floor as a heap.

**

In the first underground floor, we stopped to examine the chapel of Lamashtu where the first demon hounds had been waiting for us. The space was eerily beautiful, more than 60 feet long and thirty wide. Pillars stood in either side and in the far end lied an altar with a statue depicting of Lamashtu herself. The statue was carrying two kukris. How quaint, I mused, considering I just had lost two which I had carried for years. Perhaps I should take them. “They are magical”, Ilori informed me as I was about to reach for them. I was stopped in my tracks. What if they were a trap, or even worse, cursed? I hesitated for a moment, before my greed won. I grabbed the pommels, pulled hard and the kukris came loose.

We continued to the staircase room, where Harsk collected the rest of the equipment from the bodies of Bruthazmus and the soldier. Then we headed up to ground level, Vidarok leading us with Nualia’s head in his grip, hoping for the best, expecting the worst.

But everything was just as we had left it. Keeping low and quiet, we stalked back to the fort main entrance, and out into the open. I inhaled the fresh air and it felt great. We had made it out! One by one, we crossed the bridge to the waiting Gogmurt.

The beast laughed and jumped in joy when it saw what Vidarok was carrying. “We did our part”, Vidarok told it, “can you promise that the goblins will field no more attacks against Sandpoint?” The goblin couldn’t avert its gaze from Nualia’s head. “Yes yes, Gogmurt can promise. Ripnugget will listen. We goblins are peaceful folk”, it babbled. I snorted, but it didn’t pay me any notice.

“Then our matters are concluded”, Vidarok stated, smiling. The goblin coughed. “Can we have the demoness’ head?” It asked shyly. Vidarok looked around for opinions. As no-one said anything, he tossed the head to the goblin druid. It caught it and started to eagerly, almost lovingly examine it.

“There is still spaces we’d like to investigate within the structure in the future..”, Harsk started but was interrupted by the goblin. “Why would you come back to Thistletop? This is goblin territory, dwarf”, it spat, surprisingly angrily. Frowning, I stepped towards the goblin. “Just remember, Gogmurt, and make sure to remind every goblin, that if you fuck with us or Sandpoint, your fate will be the same as Nualia’s.” The goblin hissed and cowered, squeezing the head tightly to its chest. We left, if not in the friendliest terms. Damn the goblins to the deepest hells, I was positive we would return.

**

On the way back, halfway to Sandpoint we heard a series of unnatural screams coming from very far away south of Tickwood. “What do you think it is”, I asked our expert of all things from nature. “I don’t know”, Vidarok replied. “It sounds like a dying horse, but it isn’t. Whatever it is, should we head out there to have a look?” He asked us. Ilori shook her head. “We’ve been to hell and back today – let’s just return to Sandpoint.” Even Harsk, our beacon of righteousness, was too weary to investigate, so we continued to Sandpoint.

It was past midnight when we entered the town through Northgate. As we walked down Church Street, we came across several town guardsmen running south. I wondered what was going on, but nothing else seemed out of place so we went straight to the Rusty Dragon.

In the tavern, it was a bustle. Many people were still enjoying drinks and food but no-one paid any attention to a group of bloodied, rugged strangers entering the tavern. I walked straight into the bar, ordered a glass of wine and emptied it with a single swig before filling my mouth with fish and bread. Ameiko was still at the bar serving customers. She came to me and winked. “There was someone asking for you earlier, a young girl”, she told me with a knowing smile. I thanked her for the information, then  excused myself, went to my room to drop my backpack and headed out.

A single pair of guardsmen patrolled the Sandpoint bridge as I walked across. They paid me no attention. At the other side, I made my way to the riverbank. There I got off my armor and clothes and dived into the water.

The sky was clear and the moon and stars were out. I floated, letting the coolness of the water mend my wounds. I closed my eyes, listening to the birds and grasshoppers. What was I doing? I almost got myself killed. For what? This little town? For the others, the strangers of whom I really didn’t even know much about even though we had been together already for a time that felt like ages? Thoughts raced in my mind. I should be looking for my brother.

I’m coming for you, Alpharius, he had said in my dream. I pushed the thought aside. Stupid fool – I didn’t get visions, those were for the religious ones like Harsk.

I had to make up my mind on what I wanted and where I wanted to be, I realized as I opened my eyes. But not now, I thought. I cleared my head, washed myself and rose from the water.

I had seen some healing herbs there earlier, and in the light of the moon I quickly found some and started to treat my wounds. I rubbed salves to places where Nualia had hurt me and bandaged them. Finally, I pulled on my clothes, returned to the Rusty Dragon and fell into my bed.

I didn’t dream that night. I never did.

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