Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Keepers of the List, Chapter 9
Alastor plodded along behind the other two, a sour look on his face. The trystborn had commandeered his tree branch, and was using it as a crutch as the group followed the diminutive humanoid footprints along the soft soil. The mage could feel his forehead sweating; the day was getting late but it would still be some time before the night air cooled down. Alastor wanted to get this job over with, of course, but he didn’t want to die either. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted right now.
After what felt like a lifetime, they came through a wall of brush and the bard held out an arm to stop them abruptly. Peering over her shoulder, Alastor saw the terrain take a sudden sharp decline, and the area ahead of them spread out uncovered, like a giant grave carved out of the earth.
“It looks like an old quarry,” whispered Mel, and Alastor felt like she was saying it to Cadmus and not to him. He glared at the back of her head in response. “He jumped down here, and ran that way,” she continued, pointing towards an opening in the rock wall down ahead, its aged wooden supports looming silently over a weathered forgotten metal track leading into the darkness. “That must be where they lair.”
Cadmus glanced down the steep decline, and handed the walking stick back to Alastor, who took it almost suspiciously. “Then I suppose that’s where we’re headed,” said the trystborn, massaging his knee gently.
Mel looked at him, a concerned look on her face. “Are you sure you can do this? We can always come back tomorrow.”
But Cadmus shook his head stoically. “No. I’m fine. I’ve been in worse situations before. Besides, if they’re ready for us now, tomorrow won’t be any better.”
Alastor rolled his eyes. He had to fight the urge to push both of them down into the quarry, but soon enough Cadmus put one hand over his shoulder to grip his sword, rested the other hand on the crumbling edge, and let himself drop into a controlled slide down the steep decline. Mel followed suit, and Alastor, not seeing anything more convenient, attempted the same. After hitting his face hard on the gravel below, he quickly stood up, dusted himself off, and ignored the bard’s disapproving glance. Cadmus tried offering a hand, but Alastor brushed it away.
From where they stood in the quarry, the sun was no longer visible over the hillside; the mage suddenly felt cold, alone. He knew for sure that he did not want to be here- but what were his options? He could try and convince the others to turn back, but he already felt that they didn’t trust him and wouldn’t listen. He could always slip away and run back, maybe tell Esprit and that other guy that they had gotten killed and he was the only one strong enough to escape… but assuming he could make it back to that crumbling ruin of a home safely, he would still likely end up on his own again after this was all over. No, no, he needed them alive. And besides, these were just goblins! Who ever died fighting goblins, anyway?
Putting on a brave face, Alastor, muttering to himself, whisked his hand forward with a flourish, creating a warm ball of flame between his fingers. The three of them had neared the entrance to what must have once been a mine, years ago, its mouth held open by some old rotting timbers just waiting to relax their aging arms. In the moments since they first saw it, Alastor felt like the environment had grown darker, deeper, and colder. Mel and Cadmus paused at the gaping maw before them, drawing weapons and mentally preparing themselves. Alastor held his flame high, using his free hand to dramatically usher them in, making it clear without words that he was not going first. Mel rolled her eyes, nocked an arrow in her shortbow, and began to creep forward. Cadmus held his broadsword in both hands, resting the pommel on his good knee, following behind. Glancing once more out into the shadowy quarry behind, Alastor hurried behind them, fighting off the fear that they were being followed.
They entered the mine, creeping along through the tunnel, Mel keeping vigilant watch for anything moving ahead of them, Cadmus with his weapon at the ready. Somewhere off in the distance, Alastor could hear noise; but he couldn’t tell whether it was goblins, monsters, or simply the sound of the blood pounding in his ears.
Before long they came to a larger room with three more tunnels branching off in other directions. An unused mine cart sat, battered and filled with old refuse, giving the room a pungent smell. Wooden rafters supported the walls and ceiling in this room, and the ground certainly looked well-traveled.
Cadmus took the opportunity to rest against one of the wooden rafters, massaging his leg gently. “Mel,” he said quietly, “any idea which way to go?”
The bard was studying the ground, looking at each of the corridors. “I don’t know,” she said, not looking up. “The traffic seems pretty even all around. I suppose we could just pick a direction and head there.” She took something out of her pack, and scratched it against the wall by where they entered, the chalk leaving a large white cross on the stone. “Just so we know how to get out of here,” she added.
Cadmus stood up and began to make a decision when something hard struck against the stone wall by his face, creating a loud crack and making a tiny spark. He immediately raised his sword to attention, his eyes darting around for the source. Mel responded by rolling to one side and firing her bow upwards into the rafters, apparently missing her target. Alastor looked up and saw two goblins, hiding in a tiny bolt hole in the stone wall near the ceiling. One of them was climbing out onto the rafters for a better shot, and the other was loading a rock into a sling and preparing to throw it.
“Up there,” said Alastor, pointing at the hole in the wall. He picked up a rock and threw it confidently, only to have it miss completely.
Well, that’s enough heroics for one day, he thought to himself, scurrying behind the offal-filled cart to hide.
Cadmus dropped his sword, pulling his bow off his back and grabbing an arrow. Mel readied her shortbow as well, and the two of them fired simultaneously, each one piercing into the chest of the goblin climbing on the rafters, who let out a cry and fell to the ground with a sickening thud. The other let fly his sling bullet, which hit Mel in the stomach, but Alastor didn’t see her react. Cadmus shot an arrow into the bolt hole just as the goblin scurried out of view, but Mel quickly stowed her weapon and picked up Cadmus’ sword for him, whispering to him urgently.
“Did you hit it?”
He shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I might have, but it might have gotten away.”
“Then we can’t stay here,” she replied, looking at their options. “Let’s go… that way,” she said, pointing to the right.
“Are you coming, Alastor the Scared?” She feigned embarrassment. “My mistake. Alastor the Great.”
The mage climbed out from behind the cart, dusting himself off. “I’m coming,” he said, ignoring the insult.
The three of them hurried down the corridor as quickly as they could, and somewhere far off they heard a noise like a metal drum or a bell being struck. Alastor knew that this didn’t bode well. They came to another fork in the road, and Mel reflexively chose to take the left fork, but almost instantly came to a sliding halt, pushing Cadmus and Alastor back to the right fork instead. The mage could hear the sound of metal jingling and small feet pounding against the ground; as it neared, Mel picked up a rock and threw it back towards the entrance, where it made a loud clatter against the wall.
At the noise, the footfalls stopped, and a moment later a voice, sounding ugly and goblin, came from the left fork, calling out something Alastor couldn’t understand. Mel and Cadmus looked at each other, both with worried looks on their faces, but Mel cleared her throat, placed one hand in front of her mouth to muffle her voice, and called out a response in the goblin tongue. The three of them waited, bodies pressed flat against the wall, until another response came back; Cadmus’ expression became one of mortal fear, but moments later, the sounds of footsteps hurried off from whence they came.
When they began moving along the tunnel once more, Alastor asked Cadmus, “What did she say to them?”
“She told them we went the other way. And that we were dangerous.”
“Then… what’s the problem?”
Cadmus shook his head. “Because they said they were going to round up the warriors. All of them.”
Mel hissed back at the two of them to be quiet as they navigated the winding mine tunnels, eventually coming to the edge of another room where the unused metal cart tracks intersected. She stopped abruptly, and peering around the corner, Alastor saw a lone goblin, wearing ill-fitting piecemeal armor, relieving himself into a pit in the corner of the room. After looking around for any others, the bard took out a blade and crept up behind him as he squatted, completely unaware. With a quick flourish she pierced the goblin’s neck, at which point it let out a gurgle and slumped to the ground, tipping over and falling into the pit.
Cadmus and Alastor crept to join her as she began to quickly clean off her weapon. However, they all jerked around as they heard another goblin voice, calling out to his companion whom he must have expected to be there. Seeing three adventurers, however, the goblin let out a yell, only to be cut short by one of Cadmus’ throwing axes.
Before they could breathe a sigh of relief, Alastor realized it was too late. They heard a goblin battle cry, and heard feet pounding from one of the halls. They darted down another, only to run into a wall of goblins with spears and crossbows. Turning around saw the same. Goblins to the left of them, goblins to the right.
They were surrounded.
The goblins led them, at spear-point, through the mine until they reached a massive set of crude double-doors. One of them barked an order at another, who opened the doors outward into a huge torch-lit cavern. The sharp pain of a spearhead jabbed into the mage’s back, ushering him and the other adventurers into the giant chamber, where dozens- scores, even- of goblin warriors, armed and armored, stood in a semi-circle facing the far wall, where a ledge overlooked the cavern. Atop the ledge, a crude pedestal had been carved out of a stalagmite, and scattered around it were piles of debris- debris which, Alastor realized, was made out of scraps of metal, broken and crumbling furniture, and the bones of forest animals. High above, a man-sized hole in the ceiling allowed a small amount of dusk sunlight to shine into the room. The entire chamber had an acrid odor; Alastor thought it smelled like a tannery filled with vomit.
Once the goblins and their sharp sticks had escorted the three adventurers towards the raised ledge, all of the brutes fell silent. Alastor saw the swaths of goblins part, and the tallest, ugliest, and dumbest-looking of them all walked forward, its head adorned with what had to have been a terrible artist’s representation of a lizard’s face. The wearer held in one hand a stick taller than himself, and hanging from the end were an assortment of bones, all looking burnt and, for lack of a better term, melted.
When the tall goblin reached the front of the room, standing below the ledge, he chanted something with surprising lung power; all of the others repeated the chant with a cacophony of gibberish. Alastor began to whisper to the others to ask what the goblin had said, but Mel subtly elbowed him in the ribs before he could get more than a word out.
The tall goblin repeated the chant, followed by the chorus of voices once again. They did this another four times, each time louder than the one before. After the final time, the tall goblin pointed at the adventurers, and gave a command, once again sounding like gibberish.
“The chieftain wants us to drop our weapons,” whispered Cadmus, while making no motion to release the sword from his grip. Mel spit on the ground, sneering at the chieftain. Suddenly, the flat end of a spear swatted itself against the trystborn’s head, almost knocking him to the ground. Mel whipped a throwing dagger out of her bandolier, but one of the goblins near the chieftain swiftly raised a shortbow, and before Alastor could blink, he saw an arrow suddenly pierce straight through the bard’s hand. She let out a cry and dropped the dagger, and in response Cadmus shouted something short in the goblin language, raising one hand and dropping his sword to the ground, tossing his belt of axes and his bow along with it. He immediately tended to Mel, who, after the initial shock had cleared, snapped the arrow shaft in half, pulling it from her hand, and tore her bandolier off, throwing it to the ground as well. All the while, Alastor simply held up his empty hands, offering no resistance.
Mel glared at the mage, her good hand pressed firmly against her bleeding hand. “Alastor,” she whispered angrily, “why don’t you put some of that amazing magic of yours to use? If you truly have any skill at all, you could try to scare them or mesmerize them or put them to sleep or… or anything!”
But the mage, just shook his head, trying not to make eye contact, his lips pursed. He heard the bard swear at him. The goblins around began their chanting, once again increasing with volume each time. Alastor had no idea what it was they were chanting for, or why they thought it would have some result, but he did notice that the sour smell in the room was getting stronger.
And then, the chanting became cheering from the goblins in the back. The rest followed suit, and before long the sound in the cavern was deafening. In an instant, every single goblin dropped to their knees, bowing before whatever they were looking at. Just as he was getting the idea to convince the others to take the chance to escape, Alastor craned his neck to look up at the ledge, and he realized what they had been chanting for.
A dragon had entered the assembly.
Its scales were bright emerald green, and it walked on all fours, two huge wings folded across its back. Its snout was puffing out clouds of a noxious green fog, which began to spill over the ledge before dissipating into the air, and its mouth, though closed, showed multiple jagged teeth longer than a man’s finger sticking out from its closed lips. It casually meandered towards the makeshift pedestal, climbing atop it and lounging lazily.
If standing, it couldn’t have been larger than a tall man; but its presence brought so much more than sheer size. Alastor had never seen a dragon in person before, and suddenly he felt like he couldn’t run or even look away without the terrible beast swooping down and separating his torso from his abdomen. It relaxed on its seat, one talon picking at something between its teeth, possibly intentionally showing off its great number of razor-sharp incisors. The mage could feel his body frozen with fear, and it came as an immense relief when the chieftain stood up, addressing the beast in a kind of speech that sounded different from the goblins’ normal language.
The dragon did not acknowledge the chieftain, and simply kept picking at its teeth, apparently finding something interesting between its front and back fangs. Without losing momentum, the chieftain turned to the congregation, barking something towards the back- shortly thereafter, a pair of goblin warriors approached dragging a slain doe, setting its body on the ground. They stabbed two spears into the carcass, and with practiced care they hefted the animal up as high as they could, barely making it within arms’ reach of the dragon.
The dragon, however, simply sat and stared off arrogantly, ignoring the offering before it. Still unable to move, Alastor stared unblinking as the goblins held the deer aloft, their balance and strength waning, looking as if they were afraid that the dragon would eat them if they dropped the carcass. In a moment of lucidity, the mage realized that was probably true.
When it looked like the goblin warriors couldn’t bear to hold the deer up any longer, in one swift motion the animal carcass was gone, and the dragon sat atop the pedestal, tearing through the flesh like a hot knife through butter.
Though the spectacle was still terrifying, Alastor began to feel like, with the dragon’s attention occupied, he was no longer locked in a supernatural stupor. Moving, however, still felt like a terrible idea.
“Mel, Alastor,” came Cadmus’ voice in a strange whisper. He was speaking softly while barely moving his lips- his gaze was fixed on the chieftain and the dragon before them. Alastor looked at him from the corner of his eye, and saw the warrior’s foot ever-so-slowly creeping towards his sword which lay on the ground just a pace away.
“On my mark,” came the red-skinned man’s whisper again, “run.”
All Alastor was able to manage was, “Mmmm!?”
“I am going to attack,” he responded. “Run. I will follow.”
Mel, wordless, gave a faint nod, her eyes trembling as they gazed at the dragon, who was still feasting on the meal before it.
“One,” said Cadmus.
“No, no,” protested Alastor.
The trystborn rolled towards the chieftain, grunting in pain as the ground slammed against his still-wounded leg. He grabbed his sword from the pile of weapons, and in one swift motion, swung it in a wide arc, slicing the heavy blade straight through the chieftain’s body. His legs and abdomen fell forwards with the motion of the sword, and his torso simply fell straight down with a sickening thus.
The moment Cadmus began his roll, Alastor felt a sudden jerk to the side as Mel, not wasting a moment, grabbed him and bull rushed her way through the throngs of goblins standing in the cavern. The chieftain’s body had hit the ground before any of them reacted- Alastor ran along, praying to whatever gods would listen to please keep his feet from stumbling as they ran towards the chamber’s entrance.
He stole a glance backwards, but all he could see was a sea of goblins converging on the point in front of the assembly. The red-skinned warrior was nowhere to be seen. The dragon, now alert, stood ready to pounce on its seat, noxious green smoke huffing and puffing from its nostrils as it looked around frantically for what would have been its main course.
As they reached the chamber’s entrance, Mel let out a loud curse- the doors had been closed, and the guards on either side of them just finished scrambling to crudely bar the entrance shut. One of them charged at her, but with the speed of lightning she dropped into a slide, kicking the guard’s feet out from under him. He flew at Alastor, whose feet finally stumbled, dropping him flat on his face just as the guard soared overhead.
“Come on!” Mel leapt back to her feet, and Alastor followed suit, his feet pounding along behind her as she ran along the outer wall of the cavern. Her head swiveled back and forth, looking for something- with a cry, she grabbed the mage, ducked into a tiny natural fissure in the wall, and pulled him in behind her.
It was a dead end. They may have been safe for the moment, but they were ultimately trapped.
Just as Alastor was about to bring this up, he heard a roar in the goblins’ stupid-sounding language, and he knew that they were about to be upon him. A phalanx of the tiny brutes were about to swarm into this hole in the wall, and then it would all be over. If he was lucky, he’d die long before the dragon ate him.
Something burst into the alcove, but it wasn’t goblins. It was Cadmus, bruised and bleeding, one broken hand still feebly gripping his sword. He pulled himself into the crevice, let out a grunt, and collapsed to the ground. Mel got down, turned him onto his back, looked him over, and looked up at Alastor.
“He’s still alive, just unconscious,” she said. “He might live- if we do.”
“Yes, speaking of which,” interjected the mage, afraid to look out into the cavern, hearing the roar of goblins charging towards them. “Good job finding us this hiding spot. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
She looked up at him, disbelief and anger in her eyes. “How dare you.”
He made a disgusted look at her. “What?”
“This is all your fault,” hissed Mel, her chest heaving as sling bullets and arrows began to bounce off the edges of the alcove, clumsily wrapping a torn scrap of cloth around her bleeding hand. “We are about to die, Alastor, and I want you to die knowing that it was all your fault. Right from the beginning.”
Alastor glared at her, his hands shaking as he pressed himself against the cold hard stone walls. “My fault,” he balked. “Just how, exactly, is this my fault? It was you and the damned trystborn who asked me to join you on this suicide mission. Or am I forgetting something?”
Mel gritted her teeth, shooting daggers at him with her gaze. “You know exactly what I mean, charlatan. You made us believe you were a spellcaster, when you couldn’t cast a single spell to save a life.”
Alastor heard the black-clothed man’s voice, grinning down at him, his hands still wet with blood. The blade glinted in his palm, he challenged him again-
“What did you say?”
The mage stared at Mel, suddenly oblivious to what was happening. No, it wasn’t a man with a blade who said it, it was the woman here in the goblin cave. There was no man. No man at all.
Without missing a beat, she repeated, “You couldn’t cast a spell to save your life,” came her voice in a scratchy hiss, fury in her eyes. “You aren’t a spellcaster at all. You’re just some liar, some thief, who thought he could make some easy money by tagging along. Well, ‘Alastor the Great’, your lies have gotten you and me and Cadmus killed.”
Alastor felt his fists and teeth clench. He saw flashes of visions in his eyes, his vision began to blur, and he felt his body shake. He opened his mouth to protest, to tell her she was wrong, to sling an insult right back at her-
But his mouth produced no words. His breath came out, in short sounds, unintelligible to her. He blinked, his mouth moving of its own accord, words of an ancient forgotten language pouring out of them as fast as his lips could move.
No, no, not again, he thought. Not now. Not here.
He shook his head, trying to stop it. He raised his hands, but to his horror, they were glowing, bright red, orange, yellow, white.
Mel was frozen, her mouth agape and eyes opened wide in disbelief, as Alastor’s hands and arms became enveloped in searing blue flame. He tried to explain what was happening, he tried to stop it, but it was beyond his control. It grew stronger. He dared not move lest he trigger it prematurely. Alastor felt the magic building inside him, reaching the breaking point, sure he was about to explode.
It was coming. His mind raced to come up with a solution. He couldn’t stop it. He might not even be able to aim it. With a scream, he turned away from Mel, facing the opening. He forced himself to visualize the power, form it. Just like he had spent so many terrified nights in trial and error. Attempting control over the power inside him, he formed it like imaginary clay between his fingers, feeling it grow, until it became too big to manipulate.
He had to let it go. He had to.
Squinting hard, he channeled it out of the alcove, a ball of flame and pure arcane power rocketing from his outstretched palms, leaving a trail of white smoke in its wake. It arced across the cavern, curved downwards, ricocheted upwards, and streaked towards the dragon’s makeshift pedestal.
In the instant it happened, all of the goblins paused and watched, in terror, in awe, in worship. The fireball struck the stone ledge, and with a cacophonous roar it exploded.
A blinding light filled the crevice, and the last thing Alastor remembered was Mel pulling him to the floor, and covering his body and Cadmus’ with her own.
Then, he only felt the sensation of falling before everything went dark.