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

The Skinsaw Murders

21. The bell tolled death

18th of Lamashtan – Toilday – 27th day in South-Western Varisia

Magnimar, Kaijitsu Manor

The loot was piled on the master dinner hall’s table. The small uncut diamonds, the magical short sword, the enchanted buckler, the potions of barkskin, the master-wrought hand crossbow, paintings, documents, a spellbook, and a very old, very beautiful book. My fingers brushed its leathery cover and I imagined the countless hands that had held it, and the countless of hours someone had spent writing it and drawing the beautiful illustrations within its pages. It wasn’t a book really, it was a tome. The Syrpent’s Tane: Fairy Tales of the Eldest.

Ilori was holding a spellbook recovered from Justice Ironbriar and smiled at me, perhaps a bit amused at my interest in a book that had the words fairy tales in its cover. Nevertheless, I lifted it for all to see. “Can I take this, for nightly reading”, I inquired. Alfred, suffering again from a hangover with red eyes and swollen features, saw the cover and snorted. Harsk just lifted his gaze, nodded and returned to examining the enchanted weapons. Ilori said nothing, so I took it as a yes and stuffed the tome to the nook of my arm.

Alfred wanted to have the barkskin potions, and we let him. “Any other takers?” Harsk asked, looking around. I shook my head. I was wearing Ironbriar’s mithral armor, a very fine piece of work I was very quickly getting attached to. Unlike typical mithral armor that was silvery, Ironbriar’s was darker, almost black in colour. The pieces of armor themselves were bound to a dark-grey leather shirt, and shades of dark purple were visible in the chest and abdomen plates, and shoulder and upper arm guards that were forged to resemble together a muscular torso. It would’ve been quite vain to wear it had I not the musculature beneath to match it, I have to admit. It was a perfect fit. I didn’t think I had ever wore so comfortable armor in my life.

There were no other dibs for the rest of the loot, so we split the coins and headed out. It was early day already and we had not heard of the Pathfinder Society nor of the Temple, so we decided to take action ourself and investigate the Underbridge. But first, we wanted to spend some of the gold we had taken.

We had barely got out of the Kaijitsu Manor when we ran into a large crowd gathered at the plaza before the Usher’s Hall, an important governmental building. Men were addressing the people on a high podium. They were angry and calling for blood. They were after the killers of Justice Ironbriar, demanding the administrators and city guard to stop at nothing to catch the slayers of the ‘noble’ and ‘righteous’ Justice. The crowd was frantic, but not of one mind. Some people were demanding the city to take a firmer stance on the other recent killings. I overheard calls to catch the ritual killers. So they weren’t limited only to Sandpoint, I murmured to myself, as we waded through the herd of bloodthirsty Magnimarians. How ironic that the ones who had taken the lives of their beloved Justice were among them, right then.

We got past without incident and descended the steep road down from the Summit to the Shore. Halfway down we spotted a rich and noble looking couple sharing bread to the poor. I found it distasteful how the poor were forced to traverse the hill in ditches when the rich were given the road itself. The rich couple were crouched and offering freshly baked bread to the people beneath them. There was much demand, I could see – a congestion of people was forming in the ditch. Harsk saw the situation differently, and paced over to the couple. “Admirable work, sir”, he commended the man, who nodded to Harsk and took another bread from his wagon and handed it to a dirty-looking, old woman. The cleric reached to his purse and offered the man a hefty sum of silver coins. “I want to support your work”, he said, the silver in his hands. The man said nothing, but appeared taken aback. He exchanged glances with his wife and took the silver with a word of thanks. Harsk bowed curtly and returned to us. “So, you didn’t take any of the bread for us?” I asked him when he came, drawing a look of irritation. “What? We barely had breakfast”, I said, my eyebrows rising in honest surprise.

**

At the bazaar I quickly saw Garnet, hustling and bartering where she always was. Carefree and beaming like the sun, she was talking to a foreign and wealthy-looking merchant, trying to get him into a deal I guess. She held her hand on his shoulder and with little effort seemed almost to enchant the man. He barely noted when another local trader, one I recognized as Garnet’s pals, bumped into him, excused himself and continued with the foreign merchant’s gold purse in his hand. It quickly vanished under his cloak and the man also disappeared into the crowd. Sneaky bastards, I rubbed my chin, making a mental note to be extra perceptive in the bazaar to avoid such mishaps. While I needed to work with Garnet, I’d be damn sure I got something in return for my gold.

While the others left to visit places at the bazaar they had yet to see, I stopped by Garnet’s market with my animal companion – she had a couple of large tables covered in assorted wares at the marketplace in a central location. A catfolk was standing in a booth, arms crossed, eyeing me suspiciously, almost threateningly. It was obvious I would not get any help from him. He reminded me of the door guard at the Seven’s Sawmill. I replied with my trademark cold stare before I started to examine the equipment on display. There was a lot of everything – trinkets, weapons, clothes, supplies, gear, religious items even. I gently moved the items away as I searched for equipment I could use beneath the mess.

“Hi, ugly”, came Garnet’s light, girly voice. Apparently she had got what she wanted from the poor merchant or he had managed to resist her temptations. I turned my head and saw she was talking to me. “A beautiful scar you have there.” Funny girl. I let the remark about my face slide. “I’m looking for equipment for an archer. Bracers in particular”, I explained, getting down to business right away and forgetting the pleasantries. This seemed to suit her well. Her eyes lit up in expectation of future sales. “Ha, of course we have them. Give me a moment.” She went around to the other side of the tables and whispered something to the catfolk with the attitude. The furry fellow went to rummage chests placed at the back, while Garnet went through the tables. In the end, the blond swindler produced three different bracers. I knew right away which pair I wanted. I recognized them from my earlier life. “That one, with the soaring falcons”, I pointed as she was explaining the options and their prices. “How much”, I added the question, expecting a hefty sum and getting what I expected. “I think they are most fitting for you too. 400 platinum”, she said with a big smile. Fuck. I had only 250 with me. “A moment, if you may”, I said with a lifted finger and stepped back and started towards the others who were slowly looking around at the other side of the marketplace. On my way I bought an apple.

After a moment of negotiations, I got back to Garnet with Faroth and tossed an apple core to the street. She was still smiling. “Here’s gold worth 400 platinum”, I told her while offering her three different bags of gold – one mine, the others from Alfred and Harsk which they had graciously lent. The blond swindler eagerly took them, had a look and nodded to me. She started to share the gold with his friends, which I found perplexing, but I just took the bracers from the table and sighed. Dark green on brown leather, they depicted soaring golden falcons on their wrist guards. They were called Bracers of Falcon’s aim, I knew from experience. I had no clue who had produced them but I remembered somebody telling me there were dozens of them around Golarion. And now I owned a pair. I had no sensitivity to magic but I could feel them improve my abilities as I tied them around my wrists and arms.

**

With our businesses concluded, we headed bravely towards the Underbridge. From afar, we could spot the highest tower – a clock tower – that almost brushed the Irespan at the center of the notorious district. Under the Irespan, the district was in perpetual darkness. Light shone in from the sides, reflected off the sea and flowing from the Bazaars, and there were lanterns and torches lit here and there. Buildings were built side by side and streets barred by a makeshift stone wall ten feet high, but we got in with little effort and started towards the dark clock tower. We went in fast and with determination, pushing aside options like approaching by sea during the night, or setting down by rope in the east where a high cliff separated Underbridge from the Summit.

The streets, if you can call them such, were narrow, typically five to ten feet wide. High and barren stone buildings sided the streets, each in a sorrier state than the one before. Windows were broken, or covered with planks. There were very little in the way of people visible, and those few who I saw moved quickly and warily, and did not make eye contact – as if they were afraid of something or someone.

We passed one particularly gruesome scene on our way. A rugged looking hobo was crucified to a building’s side. Otherwise clothed, his abdomen was bare and a seven-pointed star had been carved there. Another victim of the Sihedron ritual, another soul stolen. I frowned and considered it a warning to us.

Alfred was traversing the narrow streets at the point, and suddenly stopped and lifted his hand to signal us to halt as well. He put his finger on his lips and pointed up, at the buildings around us. Then I heard it too. Running steps on the roof. A few of them, following us.

“Who’s up there?” I shouted, letting them now we knew they were up there. For some reason I thought they were just curious children. I was very wrong.

The sounds stopped above us, but another, a woman’s, came from somewhere in front of us.

“..From Korvosa a man left to find a boy, but never did he return with his bounty, leaving a bitter merchant father without his son..”

A lithe, dangerous looking woman clothed in black leather and armored in a fancy breast plate appeared from the shadows behind a corner and faced us. She had a rapier ready in her right hand and a dagger on her left. Alfred turned his head to the side, not understanding. I knew immediately what was the case. She was a bounty hunter.

“The man’s description reminded me so much of another man, long lost in a far away nation, worth a hefty sum of gold. His name was Alpharius, I think.. have you heard of him?” She flashed a smug smile. Very confident, this killer.

Alfred was starting to speak but I pushed him aside and stepped forward to confront her. “What do you want, woman?” I asked, sternly. “Nothing else but your head – it’s is so much worth gold to-“

Before she could go on, a bow in my hand, I reached out for an arrow. “Well come and get it then!”

As I aimed, somewhere above Harsk and Ilori a very rugged looking man vaulted down. He was armed with a short sword, which he used to attack the carmine lady. But he missed and almost lost his balance altogether. Amateurs. From the back another assailant, a guy with a long moustache, dropped to the street and attacked Harsk with a powerful swing. I heard Harsk cry in pain and blood spatter to the stones.

Alfred left my side, to help Ilori. She was mine and Faroth’s. I let the arrow fly, but the bounty hunter ducked just in time and charged me. She was really fast and upon me in a blink. Her rapier found its way through my armor. “You all should run while you can, he’s mine”, she laughed but her joy was short lived. Faroth pounced to my aid and bit her hard on her leg. Using the distraction to my benefit, I gritted my teeth and dropped my bow while simultaneously drawing my gladii off their scabbards.

“Join the queue, bitch”, I cursed and launched a frantic series of attacks, adding two wounds to her existing one.

I was too focused on my killer to really notice but a fourth assailant appeared to our left at the rooftops. He had a bow and took a shot at someone. A flash of burning arc lighted the alleyway behind me and I once again smelled roasted human flesh. I heard someone scream I didn’t sign up for this. Alfred rejoined me at my side, and the bounty hunter welcomed him with a fierce stab that found its mark. Alfred grunted in pain, but fought through it and tried to slam her with his shield. The woman stepped out of the way easily and continued her wild slashes. I simply couldn’t keep up with parries and soon the alley under me was stained with my blood. Faroth continued his furious attack and pushed her off me, allowing me to draw a breath. I was badly injured, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds. My animal companion roared in anger, empathic to my pain and slashed with his paws and bit the bitch hard. The bounty hunter grunted and cursed my companion.

“Harsk”, I coughed blood, “some.. of your positive energies.. would be appreciated”, I pleaded without looking back while my firepelt was all over the killer. Alfred followed the animal and stepped to join the melee, hitting her square in the shoulder with a forceful overhead blow of the magical axe. Now she was really screaming.

Gentle, immaterial tendrils of pure white light gathered around me and I felt some of the wounds close and the bleeding come to a stop. I felt invigorated and with a roar of my own challenged the killer. But she had other plans. I saw the fear in her eyes, and she tried to jump onto the wall next to her, like she could run the wall up. But Faroth was not about to let her go. Pinning his fangs into her thigh, he pulled her back and onto the ground. Before I could stop him, he put his jaws around neck and finished her by thrashing his head around. The killers dead body waggled like a doll. Welcome the queue, I thought as I panted, trying not to feel my injuries.

**

We finished the final straggler with ease. As the attacker fell to the street lifeless and I tore my gladius out of his corpse, Harsk wanted to know how she had known me – known my name – and why she had attacked us. I told him and the others that she was a ghost from my past, and that there was someone who wanted my head and was willing to pay for it. Ilori joked about how much my head would pay, as the assassin had not revealed it. I said nothing else, but that seemed to be enough.

From the dead woman I took a magical belt with a roaring tiger on its buckle that magically made me even more dexterous. This irritated Alfred greatly – he would’ve liked to sport it as well, but he was too slow to take it. And the kill had been mine through Faroth anyway, so I had first dibs to whatever she had been carrying. He got her boots. I chuckled how they could possibly fit his feet, but it happened they were magical too, and allowed their user to walk on walls. I preferred my boots of elvenkind.

We left the corpses where they laid and continued deeper into the Underbridge. As we got nearer to the clock tower, I saw the clock wasn’t working – it had not ticked in ages – but the pointers were showing three hours past midday, or midnight. The tower itself was huge, almost 200 feet tall, and crooked and slighty slanted. I was amazed it hadn’t fallen down already. It’s top was gabled, and there was an old stone statue of an angel. It had no head, as if it had hit the bottom of the Irespan and fallen off.

The place – its appearance, ambiance and surrounding environment – was shouting ‘Do not enter’ as much as the Foxglove Mansion. We paid no heed, of course. When did we ever?

A few people scurried away like rats when we approached the only entrance to the tower. I quickly circled the building, looking for other ways in, but could see only narrow windows hundred or so feet above. We could’ve tried flying, or in Alfred’s case, running up the wall.

“Do we go ask around for intelligence about the place, or do we go in with the Frank method”, I asked the others, knowing already the answer. “This foul place emanates such evil that it must be cleansed in the name of Iomedae immediately”, Harsk replied, sneering hatefully while examining the dark clock tower. Alfred took his cue from Harsk and pushed with a grunt the heavy double doors open. Flash of irritation went through me – I could understand even if I couldn’t sympathize with Harsk’s arduously righteous motives, but Alfred was simply being reckless. The dwarf and the sellsword entered with flaming torches, but I stayed behind with the carmine lady, who had the good sense not to rush in. Instead, I pulled an arrow from the vine in my back. Ilori summoned and pushed her dancing lights in with a gesture.

There as a large cart standing alone in the middle of the ground floor. On the west side a set of stairs began, and looking up, I could see the stairs ascending into darkness, circling the tower, hugging its walls. There was a great open space all the way up.

Harsk called us and pointed at recent tracks going from the entrance to the stairs. There were many humanoid tracks, and one I could not identify. The tracks were very large however, I could tell, and they were visible all over the ground floor. Leaving Harsk and Alfred to ponder the stairs, and Ilori by the entrance, I paced over to the empty wagons. But they weren’t empty, or rather, there was something behind them.

Out of nowhere, a massive creature pushed a cloak off its form and lumbered to its feet. I stopped on my tracks and gasped for air – how could I have missed such a large creature – the wagon offered no concealment! I cried a warning.

The behemoth made a rumbling sound and had in its hands a sharp scythe. “It’s not undead!” Harsk yelled as the others turned to face the threat. In its full height it was ten feet tall, an unnatural humanoid being, made of sewn-together parts of human and animal skins. It was Ilori who recognized it for what it was. “It is a construct, a flesh golem put together by powerful magic”, she told us as flames started to dance around her. “Normal weapons will have a tough time hurting it, we’ll have to resort to magic”, she added. Harsk and Alfred drew their weapons, and the sellsword dropped the torch. I ran off the wagon, Faroth at my heels, and pivoted. Taking quick aim, I fired and managed to put an arrow to its torso. It barely noted my attack. I commanded Faroth to stay and defend me.

Alfred charged the construct. As I saw him run I couldn’t believe he was that crazy and reckless. The swing of the axe had no effect either.

Harsk was paying attention to what Ilori was telling us and summoned a magical longsword to attack the construct. The carmine lady blazed the monster with lances of fire. Through the firestorm, it came and tried to pummel Alfred at its feet. I saw it strike Alfred hard with its right fist. I have to admit I was astonished he remained standing.

I started to fill it with a hail of arrows. I hit it in the head, but managed to hit my animal companion as well, drawing an angry hiss from him. Alfred shouted curses and taunts and expertly started to hack the construct into bits. It did not bleed but after Alfred was done, it toppled to the ground and perished.

**

Our fight ended as quickly as it started and I tried to listen to additional sounds of danger. But the only thing I could hear was the wind blowing somewhere up in the darkness. I can’t see the top of the tower, I cursed, even with the low light streaming through the windows some 100 feet above me.

Harsk was first to start ascending the circling stairs. The wooden stairs groaned and creaked loudly, and the dwarf stopped. “This is Thistletop all over again”, I commented, remembering the worn-out bridge. “Indeed – these are in a very bad shape”, Harsk told us as he examined them, trying his weight on one of the steps. “We should move carefully.”

Harsk continued at the point, and me and Faroth remained behind. As we started our ascent together, one of the steps broke in half under Faroth. The firepelt yelped and we retreated. Shit. The steps wouldn’t hold our combined weight. I had to come up with a solution.

I got an idea quickly. I restarted my climb, but told the beast to stay. When I had progressed twenty or so steps, I ordered him to me. Warily, he started after me, and this way, we went up, with the beast always some twenty feet behind me.

We barely got any way up when Harsk stopped. From the back, I saw him shivering and shaking his head. “I’m not going first”, he said, surprising us. What had went into the bold cleric of Iomedae? Another cheap trick, a spell like in the Foxglove Mansion? “What is wrong? Ilori asked him softly, “what would you want to do?” Harsk looked up, then down. “I- I don’t know. I don’t feel sure going up.” Then he leaped. I inhaled in shock and surprise. Ilori and Alfred were wide-eyed. But Harsk slammed to the sandy ground without injury. From a kneeling position, he rose to his short feet, and after a short moment of deliberation, started to ascend the stairs, last this time. I rolled my eyes and continued on my way behind Ilori.

Up with went, carefully, keeping our eyes to the darkness above us. Forty feet. Sixty feet. Eighty feet. The steps bent and croaked under our weight but held firm. The light from the windows started to get stronger, but still we couldn’t see the top of the tower, or a ceiling. I saw a glint of light somewhere up, possibly an opening or a hatch, but couldn’t be sure. Harsk was still unsure, and kept asking us will the steps bear us. “I’m not the lightest person here”, he grumbled from a good level below us. I laughed lightly. “I bet I’m 25 pounds heavier than you”, I replied as the stair on which I stepped complained under me. Harsk yelled back at me. “But I have such a heavy backpack!” I looked over the edge of the stairs. “Whatever, dwarf!” I saw the carmine lady imitate chicken’s wings with her elbows and heard her cackle like a chicken. That made me and Alfred laugh – probably more than we would’ve usually, but it broke the tension in the low-lit tower.

I don’t know if Harsk cursed the sorceress under her breath but karma struck swiftly. Somewhere above there was a loud crash and a whip of a rope. Something big was coming down fast.

-boom-boom-boom-BOOM-

And from the darkness, a massive bell came crashing down, hitting the walls uncontrollably as it went. It was tolling.

“Watch out!” I screamed, trying to analyze it’s trajectory, trying to see if it would hit me. It almost did but I leaped out of its way at the final second. But the thick rope on which it had hung whipped me on its way down. I was slammed to the wall but I managed to grab the stones and halt my descent before the bell and its rope pulled me down to the abyss. The bell brought broken pieces of the stairs with it.

Ilori was not so dexterous. With a panicked, pained cry, she fell.

I yelled after her.

The bell crashed to the floor and split into several pieces.

In the darkness, I saw Ilori’s form catch light in the air. She became a living torch – I realized she had the sense to channel all her powers to her mage armor – the only thing that could save her from an eighty-feet free fall. The blaze of the armor was so extreme it looked like she was overheating.

Then her body hit the ground, and the fires died with a whiff as if something had blown them away.

Faroth stood on the stairs thirty feet behind me unscathed and silent, to my relief. But Alfred had been hit too. He was getting up, gripping the stairs in pain. Between my teeth, I yelled down at Ilori. “Are you OK?” I asked, hoping by some miracle she was still alive.

She weakly raised her arm at us. Her voice was barely audible. Blood flowed from her lips. “I’m.. I’m alive”, she whispered, lying on her back. I was stunned but let out a sigh of relief. She slowly pulled her wand of healing, and white lights began to dance around her. Within moments, the flow of blood stopped and she rose to a sitting position with great effort. I wondered how close to death she had been. Ilori wiped pebbles and dust off her skirt and got up. Alfred, peering over the edge, guffawed.

I looked around at the damage the falling bell had delivered. At many places, steps had been ripped off. There were empty spaces almost ten feet wide. “Is this worth it, going up there? We almost got killed? We could block the entrance?” I asked the others. Harsk nodded below. “If we return tomorrow, I’ll have a personal solution to this problem”, he stated, regarding the broken stairs. Alfred could walk the walls, and I could use a rope with Ilori.

But first, we had to see better. Ilori’s dancing lights flew past Harsk, then me and finally Alfred. Why didn’t I think of this earlier, I scolded myself as the lights pushed the darkness aside in the open space above. With the additional light, I then saw four more bells hanging from the ceiling, and a lot of movement. Humanoid figures. I shouted another warning. “Incoming! Get down to ground level, now!” I was adamant we’d have a better chance to win if we fought organized on the ground rather than on the stairs, one by one.

Alfred was quickest to react, but he didn’t run. Instead, he pulled his axe and scanned the stairs above him. The sellsword yelled that he saw something, confirming my suspicions. Harsk was a lot slower. “Get down, fuckers, listen to me for once!” I pleaded them. I couldn’t approach Harsk without risking the already damaged stairs to come crashing down. I saw many figures storming down the stairs. The battle was almost upon us and we were sitting our thumbs up our asses, I cursed.

A few seconds later I recognized the figures. They were shapeshifters, the same strange humanoids we had slain at the Foxglove Manor at the Summit. I pulled two arrows, nocked them and shot the creature closest to Alfred – it was directly above him, one level up. My aim was true and I nailed it to the tower wall.

Alfred finally came to his senses, turned and ran down the stairs. Harsk, below me, too started to run down at his best speed. Above, another shapeshifter came right behind the first, but lost its balance on the edge of broken steps and fell down a good thirty feet before landing on the stairs with a smash next to surprised Harsk. Confident that Harsk could handle the unacrobatic enemy, I continued to rain arrows above. My first two hit another running enemy, but the third missed badly. Even with a two arrows sticking out of it, the shapeshifter continued its run, but stumbled and fell off the stairs. It made a red stain on the ground next to Ilori. The carmine lady startled, gazed upwards and shot fiery magical missiles at the creature next to Harsk. They pierced its body and it collapsed on the stairs lifeless.

I commanded Faroth to run down and protect Ilori. He was uncertain, sniffing the air and looking down and back at me. What’s wrong? “Go!” I ordered him and finally he leaped off to a run.  Alfred had stopped and was yelling at me. “There’s only one left! We can handle this!” I was unsure. There were many broken sections in the stairs – how could Ilori and Harsk manage those? I voiced my doubts. Harsk was already close to the ground level, and didn’t hear our exchange. He leaped the last level down and fell on the sand. Nevermind Alfred, I thought, I’d rather regroup below. “Come on!” I was urging him.

Then something happened below. I lost sight of Faroth, Harsk and Ilori as suddenly a black rolling cloud appeared from nowhere, rose from the ground and filled a space thirty feet high. It was like a vortex thunderstorm, but without rain and lightning. And the storm wind was silent.

“What the fuck!” I exclaimed. “What’s in there?” Alfred yelled. Ilori’s voice was uncertain. Something screamed. “It’s.. It’s a demon of some sort. Stay back! It’s dangerous to the mind and body!” Another scream, and a woman’s voice, unintelligible. She was speaking in an ancient, foreign language. I started to run down.

From somewhere above me, the last shapeshifter fell on the stairs and landed twenty feet in front of me. They really had trouble traversing these stairs I thought as I pulled a gladius of its scabbard on the run. Alfred was behind me, running too. “We’re too slow!” I shouted to him as I pounded towards the injured shapeshifter. “I know!” Alfred replied simply and vanished. I was almost upon the shapeshifter when I heard an awful cry of pain. It was Ilori – she was badly hurt. Another cry – of an animal – Faroth, sounded and was cut short. An empathetic pain stabbed my chest.

He was dead.

My soul felt like a shroud had been laid on it and I smashed on the last shapeshifter. “You’re on my way”, I said to it simply and gutted it with my gladius. I didn’t miss a step and kept ascending the old stairs. From the periphery of my vision I saw Alfred running down the wall like a damned spider.

Then a third scream pierced the tower. It started as high-pitched but became guttural, as blood made it impossible to breath. It was a death scream. I recognized it as the carmine lady’s.

Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck-

I ran. I paid no heed to the risks, to the creaking and complaints of the steps, how they bent but did not break. The storm cloud was still rolling and I couldn’t see a damn thing what was happening. I cursed the cloud. I cursed the fallen bell.  

Through the smoke, I heard Harsk curse and challenge the enemy. Alfred was with him. “The cloud, it’s not real! It’s not real!” What did he mean, not real? Last level. I leaped down with a front flip and landed gracefully. At the edge of the rolling, black cloud was the inert, bloody corpse of Faroth. No time to mourn now. The others were fighting the enemy in the smoke. I couldn’t pinpoint their location. I circled the cloud, desperately trying to find an enemy I could kill.

Then I saw her. She was lying on her back, sprawled on the stairs. She had two bloody holes, one in her abdomen and the other close to her heart. Her mouth hung open as did her eyes. There was no life, no fire there.

It hasn’t be the end. I my heart raced the thought emerged. We just have to finish this. I stepped into the cloud. It’s not real. And it simply no longer was.

I was seeing the battle in full. Alfred and Harsk were bleeding, and locked in melee with a massive half-woman, half-serpent. She hissed and bellowed in its strange language and paid no heed to me, probably believing I still couldn’t see her. The beast stabbed with a long spear, almost hitting Alfred. I sheathed my adamantine gladius and pulled a duo of arrows. It writhed and coiled as it dueled with the sellsword and the cleric, but it was a big target. I put two arrows on its torso and it screamed – I had its attention now. Moving closer to the shattered remains of the fallen bell, I searched for another opening. My mind was numb. I just wanted to kill the bitch for what she had done to Ilori and Faroth. I shot another volley of three arrows and hit well. We were pushing it, cornering it. It struggled free of the melee and tried to move at me but I kept my distance, constantly staying twenty-thirty feet away. But even though we were pushing it back, we weren’t delivering enough punishment.

It withdrew, pushing the wagon aside and rose on top of the shattered bell. Time to end this.

I dropped my bow and drew my gladii. I charged towards her and she realized my intent at the last moment. Thrusting with her spear, she tried to stop my advance but I ducked and rolled and got past her defences. The adamantine gladii sung as it cut air and meat. It was surrounded by three opponents, and bleeding from multiple wounds, but the fight was far from over. Casting defensively, it locked eyes with Alfred and he stopped his attacks. Nuuta chan, a mind controller, I cursed in Elvish. Taking over Alfred’s mind, she let out a quick command in clear Common. “Alfred, go look for your friends at the top of the tower-” My and Harsk’s fierce stabs cut her command short and she screamed in pain, but it was enough for the enchanted sellsword, who nodded, oblivious to our plight and ran towards the stairs. “Alfred, no!” Harsk bellowed and I yelled profanities about his mother. But it had no effect – the man paced up, heedless of anything. Having dealt with one of our group, the serpent woman hissed and tried to evade us once more by gaining a better vantage at the top of the shattered bell.

But Harsk and I were relentless. We had to finish her now, when we were still flanking her from two sides. The cleric voiced a battlecry for his goddess and hacked off her hand while I drove both of my gladii into her back. Black ichor pulped out her chest where the tips emerged and she let out a sigh. Her form wriggled for a second, and then she collapsed. Harsk, not wanting to end up under her, took a step back in disgust. I was still furious and leaped on her. With swift slashes, I cut her head off. It dropped on the sand and rolled away.

“What the devils was that?” Came Alfred’s question. He was at the stairs, looking down on the carnage, dumbfounded. The death of the serpent woman – Xanesha, it had to be her – had broken the spell. We were too tired to answer him.

I let myself a second to catch my breath and jumped off the dead woman and the bell. Harsk was murmuring prayers, his eyes closed. I stepped to Faroth, and kneeled before his dead body before gently feeling his pulse. There was none. You died valiantly, defending her like I commanded. I am so sorry, my friend.

I rose and walked my head held low to the prone body of our carmine lady. Harsk came after me. I lowered myself to one knee next to her in the stairs.

“There is still hope, even beyond death”, Harsk whispered. “I know”, I replied as I put my hands on her face and closed her eyes. “It doesn’t need to end here”, Harsk was saying. “I know“, I repeated, between my teeth, feeling tense. I didn’t want to think about the implications. I didn’t want to believe she was gone for good. I didn’t want to think about Vidarok. I didn’t want to think about my brother. But I still did.

**

Alfred went up to the top of the tower to search it, using his magical boots. Harsk and I had no stomach for trying to get up there again. The sellsword found a loot we had never seen before – thousands of pieces of gold, silver and copper, and dozens, if hundreds of gemstones. He dropped them down in bags and we loaded them all to the wagon. Last, we gently placed Ilori and Faroth on top and covered it all with the flesh golem’s cloak.

When we got out, we could hear drunken brawls and accordion playing. The Underbridge was becoming livelier as the day progressed. Clouds were gathering and I could sense rain approaching. We got out of the Underbridge and back to Kaijitsu Manor uninterrupted. I don’t think anyone of us said a word on the way back.

At the manor, I carried Faroth to the back yard and placed him under a canopy. I got back to the others and we carried Ilori upstairs to her room and to her bed. Harsk had used the wand of gentle repose on both so they both looked like they were sleeping – there was no rigor mortis, no first signs of decay. Only the horrible entry wounds of the bitch serpent’s spear. I turned to leave with Alfred, but Harsk told us to wait. I saw Harsk had a small note in his hands.

“She doesn’t want to be resurrected”, he said, gravely, showing us the note. From the door I recognized the beautiful handwriting. Alfred’s eyes went wide. “You’ve got to be kidding me, with the diamond and all..” I just shook my head. The numbness returned. I felt like we had betrayed her. I left her room and on my way out I punched a wall, leaving a dent on the wood panel.

**

The evening was falling. I gathered some firewood from around the manor into a small pyre in the backyard and carried Faroth’s body to it. With a gladii, I removed his fangs – they would not serve as battle trophies but as mementos of our short time together. I would not forget him.

The fire burned brightly.

**

Harsk wanted to take his mind out of everything and he volunteered to count the thousands upon thousands of coins we had taken from the tower. Alfred wanted to blow off some steam too and did it his way – by going out to fuck whores and drink his brains out.

I went to Ilori’s room. I found a comfortable chair, pulled it next to her and sat down. Outside it was dark, and raindrops kept falling on the windows, their soft patter a strangely fitting contrast to a crackling fire that had now died.

I had the old tome, Syrpent’s Tane: Fairy tales of the Eldest with me. I opened the book on my lap and started reading aloud from the first page.