"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER FIFTEEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Red’s shouts were echoing through the corridors of the mansion, sounding over the clatter of our sets of armor as we ran after him – and Wharfrat. Were had the murderous bastard come from? He’d stabbed Carter, fled through the caverns well above us – and now he was here?!
I didn’t waste too many thoughts about that. I was too much looking forward to getting a piece of him and slicing it off the stinking fishworm. He’d run away, and he was a bastard. Wharfrat!
Murderous piece of slime! He’d killed Carter, run away – depriving us of our leader and two swords! No Leaves and Wreaths for him, I would commend his soul to the abysses so the demons could play with him for a few millenia or so.
None of us were paying attention to the corridors we were running through, the doors that were slammed open before us – by Red, after Wharfrat threw them shut behind him. No time for the little man to block any doors, only time to run. The mansion was so large that we might have chased him for hours. Looking back it seems as if we did, taking corridors, running up stairs, running down some others, on a merry chase after Red and Wharfrat. Occasionally we would see Red, kicking open a door, slashing through cobwebs, then vanishing before us.
Then the shouts stopped, and we caught up with Red. In a hall that had once been a dining room, with mirrors all around the walls – several were cobwebbed, some broken, all had lost their sheen, but enough to create myriads of Reds and Wharfrats engaged in a deadly swordfight. Red was a powerful man, nowhere near Bluff’s sheer strength, but he was a goodly head taller than Wharfrat. Moreover, he was empowered by his wrathful hate of the man who had murdered his brother. And let’s not forget his Cayaborean training with blades. All that compiled made a man who should have slashed through Wharfrat’s defense in a heartbeat or two, then skewered him on his blade – armor or no.
Instead Wharfrat blocked every move, parried them with a strength that none of us had witnessed in the little fish. Like an eel he danced away from any blow or swing that might pierce his defense, while his own sword nicked Red’s vambrace, protecting his forearm. No damage there, but it served to enfuriate the taller man. Some hits got to the brassard on Red’s upper arm – just beestings, yet Wharfrat shouldn’t have been able to manage them in the first place.
Red howled in fury, swung with all his might. Wharfrat leapt backwards, on a chair, from there on the ancient oak table, with a tablecloth still in place, two chandeliers – the candles melted all the way, one kicked over – at each end, rusty goblets sprinkled over the table’s length.
We burst into the room, confused for a moment by the mirrors. I was, anyway. Scraps wasn’t. He dove forward, tackled the nearest table leg with the ailette on his right shoulder. The impact shivered through the table (while Scraps groaned in pain), the table – including Wharfrat – jerked backwards but was too massive to break.
Enough for Wharfrat to fall forward, flailing his arms. Red took advantage of that, jumped after him on the table, brought his sword up for a measured stroke at the nape of Wharfrat’s neck.
The blade swung down – but then Wharfrat’s right arm shot up, at an impossible angle, backwards, straight out. The shoulder ailette burst apart, as if it were brittle, rusty metal. I stared as the small man’s naked hand grasped the blade, stopped it, held it steady. All while his head was still facing the tabletop.
Red pushed against Wharfrat’s hand. To no avail. Wharfrat chuckled, then his hand tore the blade from Red, threw it away. “I am protected, you fools,” the fishworm laughed. He wrenched his arm back, and now I could hear a cracking sound coming from his joints when the shoulder snapped back in. “Told you you’d die down here, didn’t I? Idiots,” he kept muttering while he slowly pushed himself up.
Red threw himself at the small man, but Wharfrat slammed him away with a jerk of his torso. Like a swatted fly Red flew off the table, into a chair that broke under his weight, slid towards a mirror on the wall. He raised his head, looked in confusion at Wharfrat.
He wasn’t alone. We all stared in amazement and not a little bit of fright at the little man who now stood before us, glowering at us with a dark grin. “You should’ve listened to me, you really should’ve. Carter’d still be alive, the damn he-witch. Made us all go to our doom, and for what? What’s it all worth when you’re facing the gods, and you ain’t got nothing to show for your lives?” He chuckled. No, that was more like the maddened cackle of an old man who’d seen his entire family burn to death. “You’ll see, soon enough. The master will take care of you, and –“ He smiled, cackled again. “He sure will take care of me. Hah! I’m stronger than I’ve ever been! I’m better! And I will be celebrated in the beyond! The Lord Conqueror will bid me sit at his table! Me! Orleond Darrys, at the Lord Conqueror’s feast! You’ll rue the day you called me a wharfrat, you bastards!”
He waved his hands. The door behind us slammed shut.
Magic? Wharfrat? The two were incompatible, weren’t they?
The proof was, as they say, irrefutable. Yet I could tell that it hadn’t been Wharfrat who effected that spell, he was only the conduit for the magical power of somebody else. His master, whoever that – No, wait a minute. I knew who that master had to be. That “Lord Conqueror”, that must be Jengchan, the Tyrant, in the guise his followers preferred.
Bluff and Scraps rushed forward, to attack Wharfrat. They were quickly disposed of by easy strokes, their swords went flying, and they themselves followed. The berserker strength in Wharfrat was incredible. And so was what happened afterwards when Valanda had a clear shot at the small man. She fired two fireballs at him, the magical projectiles that could turn a man into a burning torch.
They smeared all over Wharfrat, burning for heartbeats before extinguished by an unseen force. Wharfrat laughed. “Magic? Yours isn’t strong enough, wizardess. Not when the master is powered by the focus. I’ll show you what real power –“
He suddenly stopped, crooked his head as if listening to a voice none of us could hear.
I wanted to hit the bastard, wanted to beat the malevolence out of him, the arrogance. But I couldn’t – how much better would I fare, after the true fighters in our group had been bested? Me, a simple pilgrim, I – all right, I was a priest, of the chief god, I really had to get used to that, but what fighting prowess did that give me?
None, of course. Only a…
Memories of other priests rose in me. Memories of our neighbor back home, old Theriandas Cooperchild, ailing from a disease none could understand. The Decalleigh priest his family had called in – paid for by my father’s money, lent to his old friend, Theriandas’ son – had given up. He could do nothing against the disease that was taking Theriandas’ life heartbeat by heartbeat, wasting him away slowly. Then Chorellas, the Decirius priest tending to our graveyard, came in, and he relieved Theriandas of his pain, invited the Messenger of Death to come and take his soul away.
“No, you won’t!” Valanda shouted, jerking me back to reality. There was Wharfrat, coming down from the table, heading intently for the wizardess, mumbling about his master’s orders to bring her. And Valanda, she was powering fireball after fireball into the diminutive figure, to no avail.
I wasn’t thinking, simply stepped forward inbetween her and Wharfrat. Valanda cursed, deflected her last fireball to shoot over my shoulder, singeing my hair.
Wharfrat looked at me with a grin. “What d’you want, pilgrim? Think you can do better than the fools? Step aside, and I won’t squash you like a bug.”
How to call the Messenger of Death? Abyssal flames, I didn’t want that creature anywhere near me, but – he’d been near me for so long I should be used to his presence. “Messenger of Death,” I said, filled my heart with longing for the bony, hooded being, “unseen, unfelt; by the people whose bowls are full; whose –“
I didn’t get to finish the prayer, the broken rhymes I’d been hurriedly putting together. Wharfrat laughed, smashed his left fist towards me, and I braced instinctively for the impact that would crash through my breastplate, crumple my ribs and… Jitters?! He was still within the breastplate, and –
Wharfrat’s fist stopped in mid-thrust. The little man tore it back, tried again, but the fist stopped again, and he had to force it away. He jerked his sword up, swung it back for more force – only to have a twitch run through his arm, to his fingers that loosened on the hilt, let the blade clatter to the ground.
“What the abysses is this?!” he yelled. “Master! Help me!”
He can’t hit me, I thought, emptily somehow. Just as I had been protected before, when every step of my friends had quaked the earth while I and Valanda had been able to walk over to the apple trees, pick apples. Something protected me. What, or who, was it? I didn’t care.
Call the Messenger of Death? “No,” I grinned, emotions slowly surging inside me, growing, growing in fury. “You little dungworm. You wharfrat.”
Wharfrat’s head spun around to face me, his eyes gleaming. Angrily he pointed his finger at me, admonishing, “My name is Orleond Darrys, pilgrim! Remember it, for I –“
My sword was in my hand. I swung the broadside against the stretched out arm. The split blade impacted, twisted Wharfrat’s arm aside. “Your day of judgment has arrived, Wharfrat. I am not a pilgrim anymore, I am a servant of Decirius, and my name is Ahnfredas Bluekeg.”
“Master!” was his response.
I swung my sword at him again, not as clumsy as I would have expected. Hunger filled me. Wrath. Fury. Emotions I had always held at bay, if I had ever experienced them. I am a mild person, really. Most of the time. At that point I was anything but mild, I was completely ensconced in a shell of anger that was eating away my mind, leaving nothing but the blade and a life to be taken.
My sword battered him back, against the table. Wharfrat yelped, bent sideways – his upper body twisting at an angle that should have torn his spine apart -, grasping for his blade. I kicked him back, planted my boot against his breastplate, then thrust the tip – or rather tips – of my Jengchan blade into the unprotected shoulder. Blood squirted up, Wharfrat yelled, tried to kick at me – but his legs were held immobile before they could ever reach me. Like the stone creatures, he wasn’t allowed to hit me.
So this was justice. I was bringing balance to our lives, with a blade.
Inside my head something reminded me that it was a Jengchan sword. A weapon of the Tyrant. Or was that the Lord Conqueror?
“What?!” I shouted, stopping my blade before I could dive its tips into Wharfrat’s face, kill the dungworm. When had I begun to think like this? When had violence become such a part of me? Before or after picking up that sword? Could it be that I was falling for a curse, falling into servitude to Jengchan rather than his father Decirius? Was this not judgment but…
“Kill him!” Red shouted, his voice husky, broken, but well audible. “Kill the scum!”
But could I use a Jengchan blade for that, could I –?
My thoughts were interrupted when the door behind us flew open – no, rather I should say it was blown from its hinges, the door crashing into the room. And into my back. I was hurled forward, over Wharfrat’s body, heading straight for the edge of the table.
It connected with my breastplate, an inch under my throat. Air expelled from my lungs, pain shooting sparkling stars into my mind. I rebounded from the table, dizzy, aching, wanted to get back to my feet. They didn’t obey me. I fell to my back, my head lolling to one side so I could see Wharfrat dart to his feet, his torso still twisted unnaturally.
“Master, you’ve –“
“Be quiet,” a new voice said. It would be fitting to say that it was a sonorous, deep and powerful voice, menace dripping from each word. Instead it was an ordinary voice, light and soft, sounding more like that of a merchant, the kind of man who might swindle you but not raise his hand. There was no danger in the voice, only in the words. My head felt very light, and for a moment the voice of Wharfrat’s master made me want to laugh.
“Wizardess, you will accompany me,” the stranger said.
Hah, she’ll blow you to smithereens! I thought. Valanda did mutter something to that effect, but her words were cut off, and after I moment Wharfrat appeared in my field of vision again, behind Valanda, her hands violently pushed behind her back. Wharfrat held her tightly, pushed her forward, towards his master.
I couldn’t turn my head easily, it took a lot of effort, and when I did, the master left me unimpressed. Oh, he was a Jengchan priest, in case you’re still wondering, attired in the robes of his vile office, but he was a boyish-looking man who might have just reached thirty years of age, with flaxen hair, a patchy beard that gave him none of the authority he must have craved with it. His skin was pasty, as if it hadn’t seen the sun in months. Not even his eyes were the menacing kind, although they weren’t as innocent as the rest. Instead they were the kind that you just ignored.
“What do you want from me?!” Valanda yelled.
The master laughed. Now that was better and more dangerous, there was so little mirth in it. “Would you believe that I want your hand in marriage?”
She stared at him in disbelief. So did I, unable to do anymore. This was so – silly.
“Bring her,” the master said, turned around and left the room, Wharfrat and a struggling Valanda in tow.
It hadn’t taken all that long inbetween the blade of the door hitting me and the Jengchan priest leaving. Just long enough for me to start to get breath back into my lungs, to start feeling my fingers again. And the pain. A torrent of pain.
No, I couldn’t feel any pain. I didn’t permit myself that.
You know what’s funny? That really worked. It isn’t so much that I am a warrior born or anything of the sort. I’m not Hrolfwald’s Clairbold, the Ambling Knight, who can’t be stopped by a broken arm while a normal man would lie writhing in pain. But I am a priest of Decirius, and one who didn’t quite know the blessings and curses available to him. Since I’ve found some ancient books in the mansion that have taught me more, amongst other things about a blessing that a judge uses to purge himself of emotions. Whether the other priests know that there’s a variety that deadens your nerves to pain, I have no idea.
It also had the unfortunate side effect that my fingers seemed to be wrapped in thick sheets of cotton; when I grasped my sword, I had to look down twice to believe that my fingers were firmly closed around the hilt. I lifted it, and nearly dropped it. My fingers were still nimble, that hadn’t changed, but I barely sensed the wood on them. How was I supposed to fight this way? And, as I discovered when I stood up, walking might be a real problem, too. My feet and my legs felt as cotton-wrapped as my fingers, and I swayed heavily. The sword dropped from my hands, I fell forward, ramming my arms against the table to stay on my feet.
By that time my friends were coming back to. Scraps had been knocked unconscious, Bluff had been dazed, while Red… He was sitting up, of a sorts, massaging his right leg, while the other was angled just plain wrong under the first. Red looked up at me. For a heartbeat I thought I saw the despondent, apathetic man from before, then a fire lit behind his eyes. I shan’t forget that sight. His leg was broken, he couldn’t possibly move, but he wouldn’t give up as he had done before.
“Get going!” he grunted at us. “Val’s in trouble. I’ll follow as soon as I can. Go!”
Scraps was shaking his head, chasing off the cobwebs of unconsciousness, dragging himself up. A questioning glance towards me, if I would remain behind. “Absolutely… not,” I muttered. Feeling or no, I would go. Valanda needed me, needed us.
I knelt down, carefully looking about, took up my sword. When I straightened back up I concentrated hard on my motions. Just do everything as you’ve always done. It’s supposed to work. Your muscles know what to do, even when you can’t feel them do it.
“Will you move your sorry butts out of here?!” Red growled while straightening his left leg. A grimace of pain flooded his face, but he wouldn’t stop.
Neither would we.
The dust was thick all over the house. A century’s worth of it, and none of the recent occupants had bothered to brush it off. Footprints were everywhere, though, some themselves filled in by a thinner coat of dust. I couldn’t make a wild guess which prints belonged to whom, which were the most recent, which were ancient.
Fortunately Scraps was a lot better. I’ve mentioned before that he was a good tracker, which he proved again in the mansion. He studied the tracks for a while, giving me the time to get better used to the numbness. If I didn’t pay any attention to it, trusted my hands and feet to function as they always had, it seemed I could do so as well.
“Got it,” Scraps announced, pointing to a section of ground disturbed by feet, and rather indistinguishable from any others. “They went that way, I can tell Valanda’s shuffling her feet, pushed by that bastard son of a merwitch.”
“Let’s go,” I growled, sounding harsh and determined. I was, but if I hadn’t been so focused on moving, I probably wouldn’t have achieved that tone of voice spurring my friends – and myself – on.
We walked forward, Scraps taking the lead, me in the middle, and Bluff behind – to watch our backs, and to catch me should I falter. (Which I did once or twice, when Bluff always steadied me before I could fall over.) After a few steps, the big man behind me asked how we could beat Wharfrat and the priest. I should note that he did not use those words, his were quite a bit more colorful and not quite fit to be repeated here.
An uncomfortably good question that was. It seemed I could fight Wharfrat, but he had to be powered by the cleric. Which made that man far more dangerous than he seemed. The Tyrant’s servant…
Which reminded me of our blades – swords that had been in the Tyrant’s service as well. Could it be that there was a connection, could it be that –
You worry too much, Ahnfredas, I told myself. Being a priest of Decirius gave me an added insight into people, perhaps into objects as well, and there didn’t seem that much wrong with the swords. Nothing like the curse that I had been fearing.
Something was tugging at my mind, a nagging memory of something I had wanted to do before. What was it? I couldn’t remember. It had been before fighting Wharfrat, hadn’t it?
“They took that stairway,” Scraps interrupted my thoughts.
He was peering down a narrow staircase, the beam from his breastplate cutting down, joining the flickering lights on torches mounted on the walls. There were no cobwebs, I noticed in an odd mood. The dust was as plentiful on the steps as it was anywhere else in the mansion, so it wasn’t a case of frantic housekeeping that had removed the cobwebs. The spiders didn’t go here.
Decirian insight? Or just a flash of good old human fright?
“Any idea where we are?” Bluff asked.
Scraps shrugged. So did I. There were no windows in the vicinity that we could check, and I hadn’t thought of keeping track while giving chase to Red and Wharfrat. On the other hand… “I think we’re in the basement area. I haven’t seen any windows around here, only torch settings. You don’t need them when there’s always light outside.”
“Uh-huh,” Bluff grunted, weighted his blade in his hand. “Down we go, right?”
Scraps went ahead of us again, I followed. I made a special effort to check the stairs beneath me, with the way my feet didn’t feel right. My boots might have been sacks of flour, the way they seemed to me.
The stairway went down straight for some thirty steps, came to a landing, and from then on it spiraled down, reminding me strangely of the corkscrew tunnel in the caverns above. Some of the torches here were burning, not all by far. Their flickering light danced around us, slightly preferring the downward direction. A draft? I couldn’t feel it. What I could feel was discomfort. This was…
I couldn’t put a word to it, except that it was a strange experience. As if the grinding rock noise of the dwarven bard should be beating now, so loud that our eardrums could split. As if we were coming close to the source.
That’s what Wharfrat had mentioned, wasn’t it? The master’s focus. Going by the speed at which my heart was beating, we were coming closer to it, but I had no idea what kind of a focus –
I suddenly stopped, breathed, “The battlelines!”
Bluff barely avoided running into me, Scraps paused four steps below me. Both scrutinized me closely, their faces a strange mixture of the straight beams of our breastplates and the waving, dancing light of the torches. There wasn’t so much wonderment on their faces as grim determination.
“You know what I mean, don’t you?” I muttered. “This is where the battlelines converge – both the ridges outside and the ditches we’ve seen down here. This is their focus.”
Bluff shrugged. Scraps grunted, “I thought you’d figured it out. When you said we’re in the basement, it’s…” His voice trailed off, he shook his head, then made the unfamiliar warding sign over his breast again, joined this time by Bluff. Had I been able to copy the complicated gesture, I would have done so.
My head swayed, I steadied myself on the wall. Touching bare, roughly hewn stone. But the mansion had been perfectly built, of bricks, with plaster on top, as had been the stairwell we’d entered. This, though, wasn’t. “The mansion was built on top of another building,” I said. “Did you know that, too?”
“What?” Scraps’ disconcerted answer as he directed his breastplate’s beam first at the wall, then the steps under us was answer enough. All of them were clearly older than the mansion had been, rougher, dating back to a time when man hadn’t had half as good an idea how to fit stone to stone. No bricks, but stones that had been quarried and chipped to fit the wall. Mortar held them together, as did the weight of the stones above.
The last time I’d seen a building like this had been an old temple – Brithur, I believe -, from the twenty-first century, about a millenium ago. One Darawk scholar I’d spoken to at length (not my choice, believe me) had mentioned architecture as a favorite pastime of his, and he’d mentioned that building styles had hardly varied in the time between the Elven Flood and about the twenty-third century. That is, according to the ruins surviving from those eras. Of course there had been aberrancies – some civilizations had used bricks long before they came to general use all across the continent, and there had always been different styles.
The details didn’t concern me. This stairwell we were in might easily date back to the magepriests. “Abyssal flames,” I whispered, barely audible to my own ears. The magepriests themselves might have taken these stairs. They might have walked down to whichever place we were heading to. The focus of the battlelines.
“Let’s go on. Valanda is down there.”
The others nodded. They didn’t want to think too much about the implications, either.
The stairwell stopped after one more revolution, ending before a heavy door of metal. Not iron, not steel. Something else, I could sense it, although it seemed to be ordinary steel. It wasn’t. Steel doesn’t have a smell of eons, and it doesn’t set my senses aflame – no matter that they were otherwise dampened.
The door was open a crack. A subdued voice drifted towards us. The Jengchan priest, chanting something. I cast a quick glance to Scraps. He was tapping out a rhythm on his thigh, looked up, noticed me and nodded. “A Jengchan hymn,” he whispered, leaning towards my head. “The Hedge-Walker’s Egg, it’s the same rhythm.”
As noiselessly as I could I moved to the crack, peered through it into the room beyond. A circular hall, some fifteen yards across, its walls of the same rough stones as the stairwell, but with octagonal friezes at regular intervals. Grooves ran through the ground – just packed dirt, except for the grooves themselves – from the friezes, and I realized they had to be the continuation of the battlelines, converging at the very center of the room. Where Valanda was standing, Wharfrat still holding her. Underneath them was another octagonal frieze, planted on the ground. I couldn’t make out any details what it depicted, the torchlight was too vague.
The priest – where was the priest? I couldn’t see him, only hear him.
Valanda was looking at me. Why was she –
No, she was looking at the priest. And that meant he was almost where I was, just a little bit aside from my lookout behind the door. If I could somehow attract Valanda’s attention… No, then Wharfrat would notice me, too. Or would he? He was so small behind Valanda, that maybe her back could block sight of a signal from me…
Wait a minute! The priest was standing beside the door? Could he be that stupid? Could it be that I only had to slam open the door and repay the favor he’d done me?
I exchanged quick glances with my friends. Both Bluff and Scraps had their swords at the ready – mine was hanging from my hand, but I still had a grip (I had to look down to make sure), and I could bring it up fast. We were as ready as we would ever be.
I took a deep breath, hoping it couldn’t be heard over the priest’s chanting, backed up one step.
Then I rushed forward, at the door, and swung it open with all the strength I had.