Dawn shone clear on the shining prows, winds tugging at the scraggly beard beginning to grow upon my chin. Our small armada had left Port Verge just before dawn, the Queen of the North trailing behind the other vessels as we sailing with wind and tide, leaving some of our dangers behind but completely unaware of what other threats lay ahead of us.
Day to day, running of the ship was left to our crew, working under my friend Chance to guide our vessel onward to the horizon. My days consisted of a few regular things, working to train the crew and increase their combat effectiveness with the aid of Da’al Wan, sparring with Vivicci to work on my own skill, and spending evenings with Chance, discussing leadership, tactics, and, upon occasion, magical theory over a bottle of wine. The others would join us upon occasion, but Khain was busy training one of the ship’s crew to perform clerical duties, a process that took considerable time. As for myself, I was glad to be busy, as it provided an excellent opportunity to clear my mind of the images my father’s letter had left with me.
I fear that my own worries drove me to be harsh with the crew, pushing them to their limits during training. They followed my orders well enough, but I could see the discontent in their eyes when they looked at me. It was a sentiment that they didn’t have for my friends, their other officers. How ironic that the man most groomed for such a command was the one most hated by his subordinates. To be fair to my younger self, I had spent my life up to that point studying all these things in theory, but without the chance to ever practice and come into my own as a leader. That came later, but only after many mistakes on my part, hard lessons that cost the lives of men under my command and nearly my own. Those will come in time.
Regardless, the trip to Zilargo was peaceful, and no incident ever threatened our lives or that of the crew. The only exception perhaps being the day we entered port, and were confronted by harbor authorities. One could easily hide in Zilargo, the Gnomes valued privacy quite highly after all, but that only lasted as long as one conformed to the VERY strict codes of law they have in place there. On this particular day it was the matter of one Zod Gamwithel to inspect our ships and cargo, so that we may pay the proper taxes and enter the port.
The short man clambered up the side of our vessel with an ease that belied his stature, leaping onto the deck with a grin. “Greetings and welcome to Zilargo, travelers! Please have your identification papers ready for inspection.”
“ID Papers?” Ravina whispered, a curious expression of discomfort upon her face.
“Not to worry, I’ll handle this.” I looked over to the priest, he was the only other person aboard this vessel that had such papers that I was aware of. “Khain?”
“Right with you, brother.”
I stepped forward, pulling out a set of ID papers from within my shirt. Not my real ones of course, but ones that claimed me to be Lelmen ir’Tethel, a wealthy merchant from Karrnath. Perhaps too wealthy, reading over the papers he looked up to me and said, “A merchant? I assume these vessels are yours then?”
The gnome looked around him at the pirates gathered on the decks of the ship, and to the officers standing just behind me. “A lot of fighting men for a merchant vessel, ballistae too…”
Thinking quickly, I came up with what I hoped to be a satisfactory reply response, one that wouldn’t land us in prison for piracy. “We do sail through Lhazaar on a regular basis, sir, and given the nature of the region one has two options. Either pray to the gods that he doesn’t attract too much attention from those stronger than you, or hire your own strong men. Drives the cost of business frightfully high, but it’s better than being destroyed by pirates.”
With a nod, the gnome handed my papers back, he seemed satisfied by the response. After a glance at Khain’s identification, he straightened up to proclaim, “All seems in order. Please proceed to berths eight, nine, and twelve on pier four. All persons who do not have papers and wish to enter the city proper must acquire identification papers at the harbor master’s offices near pier two. Have a pleasant stay in Zilargo!”
With that he returned to his skiff, flying out across the waves to intercept another vessel that had entered the harbor and Ravina breathed a sigh of relief but still seemed mortified by the prospect of paying taxes.
We proceeded as the gnome had instructed, docking our vessels and proceeding to acquire papers for our crew, as well as Chance and Da’al Wan, who did not have papers of their own either. Da’al Wan simply said, “I am Da’al Wan,” and the clerks took things in stride, writing Da’al as his first name and Wan as the last. I’m not sure if that’s correct or not, Da’al Wan seems to be just a first name but could also be a title for all I know, for now it was sufficient. Chance Kribbs was my other companion, and he had no trouble navigating the mess of paperwork and questions on his own.
The interesting thing about Chance filing his paperwork was, while waiting for them to process the transaction in their meticulous records, a gnome appeared bearing a letter they had stored for one C. Kibbs for the last five years. It had been intended for delivery upon his coming of age, but at that time my friend was already serving in Ravina’s crew and conveyance had been impossible.
Upon reading the letter, we were left only more confused. It was a letter of inheritance from one Sir Regelus Statton, a researcher of the Dark Six that had apparently been a friend of Chance’s parents. Wishing him good health, the letter was accompanied by a bank slip that was worth three thousand gold pieces, a small fortune that allowed for upgrades to our ship like a gnomish double ballista, much like the ones that had served us so well in the last months. Questions still remained, such as why Sir Statton was so interested in Chance’s welfare, and where the man himself was. No one seemed to know.
Once that business was through, for now, we reiterated for the umpteenth time the importance of keeping our hands clean while we were here to the crew. The gnomish secret police had, and has, a fearsome reputation for maintaining law and order in their pristine city. Crime was not unknown to them, but it took the form of higher endeavors, stealing another man’s ideas to call them your own, great conspiracies and intrigues, and more hiding behind their civilized veneer. The gnomes play the great game, that much is certain, but their style is unlike any other kingdom I have ever seen. That much could be said for their culture in entirety.
Their great city was one of magnificent architecture overlooking great canals, deep and clear that connect the different areas of the city, the cobbled streets filled with brightly colored markets selling all manner of goods, and the good-natured gnomish people calling out to one another and their potential customers. Music drifted upon the winds as musicians of all kinds plied their craft from street corners or their homes above the shops. The artistic culture of Zilargo was unrivaled in the five nations, though each of the nations have their own claims to fame.
Wandering past great gardens and towers of beautiful art we came to the great market in the center of Zilargo. Stalls selling foods, jewelry, weapons, armor, magical artifacts and art clustered in the plaza. There was much to interest us and we spent a good amount of time perusing the merchants’ wares.
Before too long, however, one stall in particular caught our eyes. It was a smaller set-up, only a few tables overflowing with strange trinkets and baubles gathered from across Khorvaire, from the Demon Wastes to Q’Barra. The gnome managing this stall sat upon a small folding stool, strumming a lute and singing tales gathered from far and wide. This particular tale was a variant of the many legends of Deruth, the ancient elven hero who would appear across Khorvaire to protect the weak and innocent. The man and his legends were centuries old, and a new tale would arise every century or so. By this time I would assume that the real Deruth had died, with others carrying on with his name, whether or not they had the right to do so.
Despite my amusement with the legends of Deruth, the little bard was quite skilled, his fingers dancing and white beard waggling as he played his song. A small crowd had gathered, most not interested in his wares but merely stopped to appreciate his skill. We too stopped to listen, entranced by the beauty of the song. When he finished, the rest of the crowd dispersed, leaving us alone with the merchant-bard. Seeing that he had prospective customers, we did look apart from the usual persons of the markets with our weapons, armor, and scars, he stood and began to speak enthusiastically.
“Welcome! I am Doblin Brillbittum, bard, merchant, and world traveler! Would you care to browse the treasures I have acquired in my ventures, or perhaps hear another song from around the world?”
With a laugh, I replied, “We will take a look, my friend. Travelers such as ourselves can appreciate the value of such a collection, even if it is beyond our means.”
The gnome nodded, “I think you might be surprised. This is only a portion of my collection and are those I am most willing to part with.” He looked us over with an interested eye. “You say you are travelers, care to share your own tale?”
“I don’t see why not…”
So we proceeded to tell our tale, one of cults and pirates and monsters, of blood and death on the high seas. The others chimed in from time to time, usually to tell that I was the reason we nearly died, again. Doblin was enthralled by our tales, and I received the impression that he was mentally taking notes, perhaps to put our words to song at a later time. I was careful not to use my real name, but I think a clever man might figure out who I really was.
Having listened to our tale, he seemed satisfied, as were we. Through the course of our conversation, we had learned of his past, not as an adventurer but often in such company in his travels. He was now retired, living with his sister in Zilargo and making a modest living by selling the trinkets he collected on his travels. He was a good man by any account, of fine character, and I was glad to have met him. However, as we turned to leave, he stopped us with a word.
Doblin glanced about as if afraid of who might be listening and said, “Say, if you are such adventurers, perhaps you could help me with a problem I’ve been havening.” We indicated that we might, and he continued, “You see, this isn’t the usual spot for my market stall. I’m usually closer to the canal over there, but this hobgoblin merchant moved in recently and bullied me and others out of our spots, taking them as his own. I would try to get it back, but he has guards and power of his own. I’d be willing to pay, perhaps throw in a discount on my wares.”
My companions and I looked at each other and shrugged, we needed to do something with our time. Might as well earn some coin and magical artifacts. “We’ll do it.”
Doblin was ecstatic, “Great, meet me here at sundown, when the market closes. We will confront the blackguard then!”
And so it was.
As the sun was setting, we returned to the market place, and receiving direction from Doblin, we went in search of the oppressor. We found him directing his assistants in packing away their stall for the night, his harsh glare loomed over the spectacles upon his nose but he did not seem to notice our approach until we hailed him from a short distance.
“Good evening, sir. I believe there is a problem that needs addressing.”
The hobgoblin turned, now fixing us in his gaze, “I am Ven-ger, what problem could weaklings like yourself have with me, much less do about it?”
I smiled, “Take care when you make an enemy of a stranger, sir. We represent an interested party who feels your business practices have been… less than kind to other merchants. Thus, we are here to remedy the situation.”
Ven-ger snorted, “They are weak and I am strong, it is the way of the world.”
I nodded, “But those who may be weak themselves can have strong friends. Will you go peacefully or…?”
The conversation from there turned to thinly veiled threats on both sides, but with the odds being the four of us and the one of him, we were confident. Perhaps too confident.
With a snarl the hobgoblin raised his hands and ray of fire streaked from them straight towards Da’al Wan, who barely avoided the brunt of the blast. Singed by fire, he charged, only to be intercepted by a lumbering hulk of metal issuing a war cry. The warforged took my friend in the side with a great axe, and blood splattered the ground, but Da’al Wan was unfazed, thrusting his trident repeatedly into gaps in the construct’s armor.
Meanwhile, the rest of us attacked Ven-ger. I flanked wide, hoping to catch him unawares with the help of Chance and Khain, but to no avail. Khain was too busy keeping Da’al Wan alive and Chance quickly found himself under attack from an imp, the small, leathery winged creature clawing my friend in the back as he tried to fire his bow. Even as I looked, the creature’s stinger took him in the side of the neck and he shouted in pain. I reached Ven-ger, but without support, his magical attacks kept me at bay. Dodging blasts of fire made any prospect of attack difficult.
Our only hope then, was to outlast him. They were strong, but we outnumbered them, and had greater ability to sustain the combat. Even as they wounded us, we were healed by Khain, and they had no healer for themselves. Their wounds mounted while we remained strong.
It wasn’t long before the metal man collapsed, its body too broken to sustain its assault. The imp fell moments later, its little form skewered by arrows, and only Ven-ger remained. He looked about to his many foes and down to the scorched wound in his side, a blade is a most convenient way to deliver an electrical blast. The hate was gone from his eyes, a new emotion having taken its place, fear. The hobgoblin’s eyes shifted, seeking a way out. He found one. With a grim smile, he vanished into thin air, disappearing into the night without even a parting insult. Darkness now rising to smother the city. Something was wrong here, what was it?
We were left standing around the ruins of the market stall, looking down at the body of the warforged. To our surprise, it was still functioning. Looking up at us it said, “Master?” It seemed confused. Da’al Wan wasted no time.
“I am your master now.”
To my shock, the warforged obeyed him without question, standing and moving to the warrior’s side. Despite my protests, we had a new companion.
It was then that I realized what was wrong. The streets were empty, silent as the grave, where were the people? For that matter… “Doblin,” I said, “Where are the guards? We should have attracted some attention, what’s going on?”
The gnome, who had just approached and was congratulating us on our work, stopped and looked around at the empty streets. “I… I don’t know, but you are right. Something is wrong.”
In the uncomfortable silence that followed, we stared out into the darkness. After a moment, Chance whispered to the group, “Someone’s coming.” He gestured in the direction and we prepared ourselves for another fight. I could sense something drawing near, something immensely powerful.
“Be ready to run,” I said, “Trust me when I say we don’t have a chance against what’s out there. I-“
I broke off as a figure entered the torchlight. His lithe body was drenched in sweat, rapier drawn and ready as he glanced behind him. Turning to face us, his face became clear. “Vivicci?”
He looked to us, each in turn, before replying. His eyes were full of an emotion I had never seen in him, fear. With his thick accent, he began giving us quiet instructions. “There’s not much time, she will be here soon, and I can do little to protect you from her. You cannot fight, you must run. I will distract her long enough to-“
“She, brother?” Khain asked, quizzically, “Who is she?”
I could still feel that arcane presence drawing nearer, its power dwarfed my own. “It doesn’t matter, we have to get out of here. Can’t you feel that power?”
Vivicci nodded, “Yes, listen to him. You will not survive this if you choose fight.”
This time the silence was broken by a feminine voice, one that drifted on the night air and fell sweet as honey on our ears. “Vivicci? Where have you gone you silly man?”
Vivicci paled, “Be ready.”
A new figure stepped into the light, her long, soft hair gleaming in the dimness. Skin like alabaster seemed to glow, her beauty shining like a beacon in the darkness. Yet she had an aura of malice greater that anyone I had ever met. Her smile was poison, she herself, a poison flower. Beautiful and deadly.
“Oh there you are, Vivicci. What’s the matter? Aren’t you going to introduce me to your new friends? They must be something special to keep you away from us for so long…?”
“I told you long ago, Trivistine, neither you nor him hold any more power over me. Those things I said at our parting, I meant them. I will never serve him again.”
The sorceress frowned, “Now that’s not very nice, Vivicci. We ever so want to welcome you back, but you are just so stubborn.” She clicked her fingers and a sliver of flame began burning above them. “Now… we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt, would we?”
The witch laughed, “Oh this will be so much fun!”
With that she launched a blast of fire that made Ven-ger’s attacks look like a firework. It would have killed us all, but with a deft throw, Vivicci’s rapier pierced her shoulder and the blast went wide. The little bead of fire flew over our heads and struck the rooftops behind us, with a thunderclap, a ball of fire consumed the building.
The witch was looking down at the blade in shock, then raised her furious face to strike our friend down, but Vivicci was already moving. She launched another blast of fire at him, but he leapt over it, a second blade sliding from his magical gauntlet as he struck. He looked to us, “GO!” Then the next blast consumed them both.
It was not cowardice to run. It was survival. If one of those blasts had struck us, even Khain would not have been able to repair what was left of our bodies. We would be reduced to ashes.
A few streets away we paused, the sounds of the fight behind us ringing out over the city. We didn’t know where to go, what to do. Doblin, who stood panting beside us, looked up to us, commenting, “My home is not far, we can take shelter there. I have my wares there as well, and I still owe you for the work you did tonight…”
We agreed and followed the gnome to his abode, moving slower now. By the time we reached the home, the sounds of combat had ceased. I was worried. Very worried.
Pulling a key from his pocket, the little man unlocked the door. We had to stoop a bit, especially Da’al Wan and myself, but we all entered the house without trouble.
It was not a large home, but it was well furnished, with art pieces that covered each and every wall, were stacked about the home and lay on easels. Some covered, others not. It was all of superb quality. Gnomes were nothing if not creative and industrious.
“Please excuse the mess,” Doblin commented, “My sister is a prolific artist and this is one of the side effects of that passion.”
“No need to apologize, brother,” Khian said in reply. “It is magnificent to look upon.”
“Ah, I’m sure she would be glad to hear you say so. Speaking of which, you simply must join us for her wedding tomorrow! Refreshments?”
We passed much of that evening in uneasy repose, wondering if, at any moment, Trivistine was going to ignite the entire house with a blast of fire. Doblin, in the meantime, made good on his promise, providing us various trinkets from his massive collection. A few rings of protection, an amulet of natural armor, and a mithril chain shirt later, we were feeling much more relaxed. You could certainly tell in that moment that survival was foremost on our minds. But there are methods of attack that are not stopped by a magic ring or suit of armor.
It was late that night before we headed back to the ship. The moon was high overhead, revealing a truth to us as soon as we reached the harbor, Ravina and her fleet were gone, but our ship rested in the harbor where we had left it. With weary feet we trod the gangplank, not noticing till we were aboard that the ship was as silent as the streets had been. No lights shown aboard, but with a deft ear, Chance heard a noise in the captain’s cabin. Cautiously we entered, but not cautiously enough. There was the sound of steel being drawn and we turned to see a man with a long white blade at Chance’s throat.
“Easy,” the man said, “Now you’ll be coming with us.”
More men appeared from the shadows.
“What did you do to our crew?”
“We knocked the watchman unconscious and trussed him and the rest of the crew up in the cargo hold. They’ll be fine… unless you resist.”
“I guess we don’t have a choice then.”
The man smiled, “No, you don’t.”
We were bound and hooded, then thrown into a cart with baggage laid over us to conceal our presence. Then we were off. There was no way to tell how far we went, or where, given our circumstances, but it wasn’t long before we were helped down from the cart and led into a building. From there we descended a long flight of stairs down into the earth, and entering a chamber, we were made to kneel and the hoods were removed.
We were in a cellar of some kind, still bound and watched by guards. They were waiting for something, or someone, while their leader readied reagents for some spell. That someone entered the chamber a minute later. The man towered above all others in the room, his shining crystalline armor gleaming in the dim light, the sneer on his face seeming to be his reaction to working with such worms. That gaze didn’t change when he looked at us and it was with growing horror I realized he carried a spell book. To describe this man’s power: beside Trivistine, this man was a bonfire beside her candle. He was not a man to make angry, but I proceeded to do just that.
“Do you know why you are here?”
“No, but I assume it has something to do with you being a presumptuous bastard.”
The others shot me looks, but theirs was nothing compared to the fury on this man’s face.
“I…” he continued, “Am Kelras, but you swine will call me Emperor or my lord, understand?”
“Sure, but Emperor of what? This is a wonderful basement but hardly an impressive realm.”
Kelras was almost shaking with anger, but he calmed himself enough to continue. “Take care when you make an enemy whom you know not, upstart.”
“I could say the same, you don’t know who I am, do you? Maybe you should have figured out who were are before making yourself our enemy.”
He was unfazed by this threat. “I could crush you with a wave of my hand, whelp, but I won’t. You are here to act as… leverage. Don’t worry, you’ll go home tonight just fine, it will be up to Vivicci then to make his choices and decide your fate.”
My heart plummeted as I realized what was going on, he was casting a contingency spell combined with another spell, one that nearly stopped my heart. A phantasmal killer that would trigger based on Vivicci’s actions. There would be no escaping it.
I remained silent for the rest of our encounter. When the man was finished, he departed, and we were returned to our vessel. It was as they had said, our crew was found below, uncomfortable but very much alive.
They were surprised but grateful when we assured the health and safety of each and every one of them personally. Their only question was mirrored in our own minds, what now?
“Well,” I said, “We do have a wedding to attend.”
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Birds sang in Zilargo’s many gardens and the pleasant babble of conversation on the street formed a stark contrast to the events of the night before. It was almost sickening how ordinary it all was. A malady lay upon the city and few, if any, of the people knew or cared. It hung above us like the headsman’s axe, ready to fall at any moment, and there was nothing we could do. We had not even seen Vivicci since the night before, when he had fought Trivistine. Regardless, we went to the wedding.
Doblin was waiting for us in the Great Garden, the largest green space in the city, which adjoined the temple where the ceremony was to take place. The gardens were full of art, artists painting at their easels, musicians playing their music for the world to hear, and a few voices breaking out into song, but all faded before the uproar in the temple before us.
The temple was filled to the bursting with dignitaries and guests of all kinds. It seems that his sister was to be married to an important figure in Zilargo, a gnome with great political clout. For a minute, it was like being home again. The Great Game, after all, has its steps and maneuvers recognizable across nearly any cultural divide.
Before we could enter, however, a pair of men appeared before me. The fine cut of their clothing denoting them as minor nobility, or so it seemed. “You there,” one said, “The Aurum has some questions for you.”
That statement in and of its self was intriguing. The Aurum, the semi-secret organization of wealthy parties across Khorvaire? I certainly had to know what brought them to me, of all people. I hadn’t even used my real name whilst I was here!
Trying to appear more calm than I felt, I replied, “Yes, certainly. What questions?”
“Do you know the current whereabouts of one Lt. Dunthatch?”
“Liana…” The last I had seen of that singular woman, she had been walking down the gangplank in Port Verge, in the Lhazaar Principalities, having just tendered her resignation as my bodyguard. There had always been something strange about her, and I still harbored suspicions concerning her true identity. Regardless, she had never been far from my thoughts in these months since our parting and she still haunted my dreams, both waking and asleep. Just like now! I chastised myself.
Coming back to my senses, I turned back to the men. “No, we… parted company some months ago in the city of Port Verge, Lhazaar.”
“And you have no idea where she went.”
“No. We did not, regrettably, part on the best of terms. I think she was going to try to head home, wherever that is.”
“I see. Thank you for your assistance, you have been most cooperative.” The man proffered a sheet of paper. Taking it I saw it was a bill of credit for the Kandarak bank, six hundred gold pieces. The Aurum certainly had wealth to toss about.
They turned to go, but I stopped them. “Wait a moment, please. Can I ask a question of you in return?”
The more superior of the two looked to his companion and shrugged, “I suppose.”
“Is Liana alright? I… we… didn’t part well, but I still consider her a friend and I wouldn’t forgive myself if something has happened to her.”
With another glance to his companion, the man seemed to soften as he replied. “I do not think so. We are just trying to discover where she went, and why. Farewell, Lord d’Cannith.”
They departed, and this time l let them go, instead turning to the festivities within the temple. Entering, I quickly forgot some of the pain of remembrance, losing myself in the conversation and drink. Da’al Wan was making a splash at the gambling tables, while Khain was flooring an audience with his poetry, I never knew he had it in him. Chance was impressing all with his quick tongue and quicker hands and it was a merry gathering, for a time.
But other eyes were watching, events were in motion that could not be stopped. There are things that I do not have the heart to tell, things that haunt me to this day. I asked Brother Khain for his rendition, so that this account will not be lacking.
“I’m sorry,” was the last thing she told me. I never knew much about Lucille, and I never saw much emotion from her, either, but that would mark the first time I saw that girl cry, and, perhaps, the last time we would ever see each other as “friends.”
She came to us during the wedding, warned us of the Fury that would rain profane judgment on us, and everyone else, if we didn’t make a hasty escape. So, trusting the sincerity in her voice, the concern in her face, we followed her to where we thought would be safe.
I should have known. Or maybe I did… maybe I always knew.
I just didn’t want to admit to the harsh reality of what would happen.
We arrived in a crypt, a place where the weary could finally return to white. The coffins that flanked our way were scribed with ancient, arcane markings that were reminiscent of early Kharrnathi culture. Dregs of dust hung low to the ground, forming a smoky transparency that clung to our gear as we walked by. The torches bled green, a peculiar color that illuminated our faces in phantasmal light. After a few minutes of walking, I could sense a dreadful weight in the air.
And that’s when she said it.
“Lucille,” but that’s all I could say before she fled the room, through some secret door that slammed shut the moment her lithe frame left my sights…
Not a moment later, strange, bluish gas began to flood the room.
“Da’al Wan,” I shouted. “Get the door!”
Using his bull strength, Da’al Wan slammed his body against the door, but, sadly, to no effect. He tried again, coming in with the force of a battering ram, slamming his fist against the door, busting his knuckles open, trying again and again to no effect.
“There has to be something we can do,” Eldaren said.
“You’re the fucking mage,” Chance said. “Make this shit disappear!”
“Making noxious gas,” and he fell to his knees, coughing, finishing with, “disappear isn’t in my expertise.”
Da’al Wan fell over.
“This might be it for us,” I said. “Out of all the ways to die…”
“THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING WE CAN DO.”
I turned to Eldaren and said, “We’ve done all we can do, brother.”
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to—”
Eldaren fell unconscious. I tried to fight off the blotches of darkness that began to cloud my vision, but…
I don’t know what it was.
I just decided to sit down and let it happen.
Chance came behind me and said, “It was nice knowing you, mate.”
“Maybe this isn’t the end,” I said. The vision was disappearing completely.
“Well,” Chance’s voice sounded a million miles away. “If it is… I’ll see you on the other side…”
Turns out, it wasn’t the end. We awoke in the chamber once more, our hands and feet bound by rope, our gear thrown into a pile that was far out of our reach.
“Where’d that canvas come from?”
Surely enough, a large, white blanket was draped over an impressively sized canvas.
“I’m so glad you’re awake,” and, creeping from the right side of the canvas emerged a man [KRIS he looks like that fucker from psycho pass right?]. His gaze had such intensity that it felt like presence was burning into my soul, and his overly happy expression sent a sharp chill down my spine. “My name is [insert name here] and it I am absolutely honored that we finally have the time to be properly acquainted.”
“You,” I said. “You’re that famous painter from the wedding.”
“So you’ve heard of me. Why, I’m absolutely flattered,” and, immediately after addressing me, his cold gaze shifted towards Eldaren. “But I’m not the main attraction of the evening… oh no no no. The lustrous limelight falls upon our dearest Eldaren.”
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO LUCILLE!?”
“Now now, Khain, please don’t make me restate myself…”
“So,” Eldaren said. “What did I do to earn you flattery?”
Smiling, placing a curved palm on his heart, [whatever the fuck his name is] said, “Why, you’re the most recent, perhaps the most phenomenal inspiration I have ever had the grace of having. You see, Eldaren, I do believe that your life has led me to the creation of my magnum opus, my masterpiece of all masterpieces,” and it looked like he was going to cry tears of joy. “Really, I am so thankful…”
“Tell me what you think about it…”
And he pulled the blanket off of the canvas…
Dear fucking god… the picture he showed us…
It was of Eldaren’s family…
After they had been beaten, raped, and hanged off the chandeliers of his home.
The photo had a grotesque, photorealistic quality. Their faces frozen in eternal horror, their bodies beaten, broken bones piercing through skin, and a rainstorm of blood flowed from the numerous lacerations. Disgustingly enough, he even detailed the sperm that was shot all over the bodies of his sisters, his aunties, his beloved ones. The beautiful, proud family was portrayed as an utterly annihilated, humiliated tragedy.
There was a moment of pure silence.
In a low, hateful growl, Eldaren said, “I’m going… to kill you.”
“YES,” and he gave Eldaren his standing ovation. “There it is! The hatred in your eyes, that miserable, painful expression on your face… it is the most true, purest form of any art available to—CHANCE what do you think you’re doing!?”
Chance had tried to free himself. I didn’t even notice him… but that damned artists did. Unfortunately for Chance, he wasn’t able to break from his bondage in time. The artists took out a razor blade and he sliced off his left thumb.
But Chance didn’t cry. He didn’t even grimace. He didn’t show any pain. He just stared the new threat in the face.
“I can’t have you misbehaving, dearest Chance.” After pocketing Chance’s thumb, he walked toward Eldaren, grabbed him by his hair and began to drag him across the ground. “I want your friends to see your miserable face, Eldaren. I’d hate for them to be excluded from this beautiful moment.”
“IT WAS YOU! WHY!? ANSWER ME!”
“Shut up, Eldarnen,” the artist said. “By now you should be old enough to know that we can’t always have our way.”
“I’ve had enough,” Da’al Wan said and in one, swift action, he broke free from his constraints. “I don’t care who you are. No one messes with my friends and lives to tell about it.”
“So much for the fun time I had prepared for us,” [I also realize he said damn it and the fury cult was coming in but Da’al Wan also broke free around that same time so…] throwing Eldaren at Da’al Wan, he quickly grabbed his painting and fled through the secret exit with inhuman speed. Da’al Wan tried to pursue him, but, once again, the door wouldn’t budge.
“Someone’s coming,” Chance said. “Da’al Wan, would you be a pal and untie us?”
Da’al Wan untied us, and we managed to retrieve our gear before a familiar face ran into the crypt.
It was the hobgoblin from before.
Bowing to us as if we were all royalty, he said, “I apologize for what had happened between us. I was not in control of my actions. That thing… that damned creature robbed me of my free will.”
“What makes you think—”
“It’s okay, brother,” I said to Chance. “He’s not lying…”
“I trust Khain,” Da’al Wan said. “But, hobgoblin, why do you look so tired?”
The Hobgoblins eyes flickered with the resolve to survive… then he turned around, hands clad in arcane energy, and he spoke, “They’re already here.”
Swarming the room were shirtless men with lacerations decorating their bodies. Some of them had broken handcuffs dangling off their wrists; others wore masks comprised of skin tight, black latex; a select few had gags in their mouths. These people seemed crazed with their schizotypal demeanor. They surrounded us like hawks, the iron handcuffs jingled with their bizarre, erratic movement.
They drew their weapons, and they screamed.
They screamed at us and attacked.
The air around Eldaren began to change, becoming heavy with a dense resolve, something that reminded me of a bloodthirsty hellhound.
Eldaren said, “You people chose the wrong day,” and a bluish tinge of light sprang from the hilt of his blade, coating his weapon with an electrical retribution. He pounced at the nearest cultist, driving his blade hilt deep through his heart, electrifying the flesh off of his bones, pulling his blade out to bifurcate another cultist from his right shoulder to his waist, electrifying his blood and gore as his blade tore through everything, splashing electrical blood all over his clothes.
“I guess that’s our cue,” Chance said as he shot an arrow through the head of a cultist who was about to drive a knife through the Hobgoblin’s throat. The cultist hit the floor with a loud thud, and an earth elemental rose from the ground to tear the corpse in half before advancing toward the fray.
“I’m here to help,” the Hobgoblin said.
“Try not to die before you repay us,” Chance said before he loosed two more arrows at two separate cultists, one through the heart, and another through the throat.
“Save some for me!” Da’al Wan roared as he impaled one through the chest, kicking him aside to bash in the skull of another cultist with the blunt end of his trident. Another cultist swung what looked like a sword, but Da’al Wan weaved beneath the blow and countered by sweeping him off his feet. While the cultist was airborne, Da’al Wan drove his trident through his stomach, slamming to his ground, twisting his trident to further destroy his enemy’s insides, before retracting his weapon and challenging more.
We seemed to have the upper hand, but more and more kept pouring in. I saw a chanting his tainted language, convoking some arcane power to fell Da’al Wan, so I took the initiative and shot him with my crossbow. The bolt sank through his chest, into his heart, but he simply smiled and turned his attack to me. Clearly he was being powered by some infernal blessing, and his hand began to radiate with a burning, hateful aura, but before he could finish I held onto my rosary, and focused my negative channeling on his heart. His smile ceased, and he fell onto the floor as his face became withered and concaved, he held tight to his stomach before vomiting profusely. Shortly after, he died.
What I did must’ve attracted the attention of some of the other cultist, so I decided to bombard the area with negative channeling, causing them to bleed from every orifice, collapsing onto the floor in spasmodic paroxysm.
But they kept coming…
“They might have numbers,” Chance said. “But little did they know—we’re the main fucking characters!”
Just after he spoke, we heard that cool, seductive voice:
“Confidence… I like that in my men.”
Eerily manifesting from the darkness was an incredibly alluring woman. She had crimson, red hair that flowed just below her shoulders, piercing blue eyes that shined like diamonds, an hourglass figure complemented by double Ds, and a short pair of blackish wings that adorned her flawless body.
She was naked, by the way.
“Look at you boys,” she said. “Having all the fun without me.”
“Don’t let her appearance fool you,” I said. “She’s a succubus. She might not be as powerful as other demons, but she’s not to be taken lightly.”
“But like any demon,” Da’al Wan said. “She will fall to Da’al Wan!”
But before he had the chance to react…
Some of the coffins broke open.
Shambling from the busted tombs came three kharrnathi skeletons, each of them donning masterwork breastplates, completely untouched by the hands of time. Clutching razor edged scimitars in each hand, they spoke to us in a raspy, dominating voice, “Who dares… desecrate this tomb?”
“Not us, brothers,” I pointed at the Succubus. “The cult of the Fury is your real enemy.”
One of the skeletons whispered, “Heresy,” before stabbing a cultist through the sternum, lifting him up then bisecting his lower half. His brethren marched fearlessly into the fray, slaying any cultist foolish enough to oppose them.
“No fair,” the Succubus pouted. “How come you get cool skeleton warriors to help out? Where’s the justice in that?”
“A demon preaching justice,” Chance said before shooting a cultist point blank, causing him to slam against the ground. “Now I’ve heard everything.”
The situation seemed under control, but shit hit the fan when Da’al Wan started swinging at Eldaren.
“Da’al Wan,” Eldaren quelled his rage in attempts to plea with our friend. “Who do you think you’re swinging at!?”
“THE ENEMY,” and he lunged toward Eldaren. The young prince was barely able to parry his blow, but Da’al Wan came in with a spinning backhand, slamming his large, callous fist against his temple, causing him to rock backward. Da’al Wan immediately came in with another jab, to which Eldaren couldn’t dodge. The right end of Da’al Wan’s trident tore through Eldaren’s side, leaving a large gash streaming with raw blood.
“CHANCE,” I said. “It’s the Succubus!”
“I’m way ahead of you,” and he loosed two arrows toward her skull… but an invisible barrier diverted the arrows from their intended course.
Slowly sauntering across the battlefield, the Succubus said, “Da’al WAAAAnnn… your friend is being mean to me ”
Da’al Wan front kicked Eldaren, sending the royal magus a few feet backwards, and he charged for Chance.
“Da’al Wan,” Chance did a right jujitsu roll to avoid the attack, drew an arrow and said, “Get your shit together, bro!”
“We don’t have time for this,” I said I channeled profane energy into a constricting spell that my father had taught me. I was reluctant to use this spell, especially against a friend, but the situation was dire enough so I held my right palm in Da’al Wan’s direction and shouted, “HOLD.”
Da’al Wan froze.
“Now,” I said. “Focus on the Succubus!”
“OH NOOOO,” she bitched.
Chance and Eldaren focused their killing potential on the Succubus.
“Foolish Priest,” Da’al Wan growled. “No magic will get the better of Da’al WAN.”
With shear force alone, Da’al Wan broke free from the spell. He stared at me, a cold, bloodthirsty gaze, and he charged.
I tried to conjure a defensive spell. A spectral shield began to form to protect me.
But his force of will shattered my sanctuary.
And he drove that trident through my abdomen…
He held me up, the spearhead tearing through my organs, puncturing my spine…
It felt like someone was dropping hot coals on my body… the pain was terrifying.
Still, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Da’al Wan,” I said, reaching out for his forehead. “No matter what happens to me here on out, I don’t hold it against you… you’ll always be one of my closest friends,” and I put everything I had into one last channel, creating a shockwave of negative energy that felled the remaining cultist, including Da’al Wan.
After Da’al Wan keeled over, I slowly pried his trident from my body, coughing more blood and viscera in the process.
I thought I’d make it though.
When I threw his trident to the side…
All I’d have to do was heal myself, and then heal everyone else.
Chance shouted my name, but I realized, far too late, that one cultist, a wizard had survived.
I turned around—
—and I was point blank from a spiraling sphere of blackish flame. It bore though my chest cavity like a drilling, angry inferno…
I didn’t feel anything after that…
I could hear the sizzling of my flesh melting away, the crackling of the fire consuming my body, the sound of blood spilling profusely from the gaping hole in my chest…
And all went black.
We were left, battered, bruised, half-dead, but Khain lay dead on the floor before us. His chest was a smoking crater, through which we could see the floor beneath his body. He was gone, the steadfast, caring man I called a brother, was dead. He had saved me time and time again, but I had failed to save him.
The shocked silence seemed to last an eternity, each of us lost in grief. We had won, but this did not feel like a victory. Then, to our astonishment, Khain coughs, his pale eyelids flick open and he gazes up at us. “Did I die?”
His chest remains a smoking ruin, but even as we watch, his grey flesh comes to life, surging to fill the gap and knit his broken form back together. In a few moments, all that remains of the wound is a large, circular scar. His chest twitches and his heart begins to beat once more.
Khain gives us a weak smile as he pulls himself to his feet. “I may have to thank my father next time I see him.”
The priest gives us a look, “You don’t want to know, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself.”
We left the crypt then, full of the stench of death and decay. Indeed, I think part of me died there, not to mention Khain’s death. It was dark outside, the wedding long since had finished. The docks were too far away, we did not have the strength left to make it there, but Doblin’s house was near, so we stumbled through the dark to his home.
Just as we arrived, we heard a voice in the darkness, one that sounded just as battered as we were.
Turning, we saw Vivicci stumble into the torchlight, he looked at us all with a relieved expression, then collapsed, unconscious. His body was burned quite badly, and he appeared to have lost a good deal of blood. Once Doblin finally opened his door (he did have a terrible hangover from the wedding), we brought our friend inside and sat down to nurse our wounds.
We had barely survived, but it seems that our struggles were not in vain. It was not long before Vivicci woke, and when he did, he spoke in a soft whisper. “My friends, for a long time I was unsure and I waited to see the full measure of your hearts, but now, you are ready. Will you join me in a quest to make this world a better place, to stop such atrocities from happening again?”
We looked at one another, this was far from what we had expected, but the way our friend spoke, the look in his eyes. How could we refuse? “We will.”
A light flared in the sword master’s eyes, “Good. Now rest, we have a long way to go.”