Sunday, May 24, 2015
Last of the King's Men, Chapter 29
Tarrow Sharn was awoken to the ear-splitting blare of a siren. He hit his head with a jolt on the empty bunk above his, clutching a hand to his forehead. For a brief moment, he had a flash of a dream- something about being on a beach, maybe? But he pushed it out of his mind as the klaxon continued outside. He recognized that noise, and he knew Fru’al only created that noise with his magic if something terrible was happening, right now.
His bare feet hit the floor. He didn’t have time to get dressed. He grabbed a blanket and hastily tied it around his waist to cover his naked form, running out through the common room, grabbing his falchion in one hand from beside the front door. Seeing Artemis’ sword and shield as well, he grabbed them under the other arm as he sprinted onto the grassy hill.
In a quick cursory glance, he saw Fru’al and Sanna standing at the edge of the stream, Sanna firing arrows and Fru’al’s staff held high, still emitting the loud wail that was sure to wake up everyone in town. Grash was wading across the stream in his dressing gown, his axe glowing like the sun as he slashed at several humanoid assailants coming at him from upstream. On the other side, Artemis stood, a large stick held in both hands, frantically fighting off a crowd of the men coming at him from every direction.
“MEN,” shouted Tarrow, hoping to be heard over Fru’al’s siren, “REGROUP AND REINFORCE!”
He charged down the hill, feeling the first drops of rain on his bare red chest. He leapt as far as he could across the water, landing with a clumsy roll through the waist-deep water. Once he reoriented himself, Sanna had Stepped to the shore beside him, her bow constantly releasing volley after volley through the falling rain at the unknown attackers. Fru’al had begun trying to wade across the stream, and Grash, still having difficulty in connecting with his enemies, remained back to keep himself between them and the aged wizard.
“ARTEMIS,” yelled the trystborn, watching as the boy dodged and parried as the strange assailants continued to try and batter him with their… fists? Tarrow couldn’t quite see what they were attacking. “ARTEMIS, RETREAT!”
Acknowledging the order, Artemis deflected one more blow with his club, which splintered under the force of it, and he rammed his way past two of them as they eagerly attempted to grab him. He pushed through, but one managed to tear at the sleeve of his wet shirt, leaving most of his shield arm bare.
Tarrow tossed the shield to him, and Artemis caught it, wasting no time in affixing the wet leather straps to his arm, flexing his hand as he turned it towards the now-advancing creatures. The boy kept stepping back towards his companions, one hand outstretched towards them. Tarrow hurried to meet him, holding the sword out by the white dragonscale scabbard. Artemis’ hand found the grip, and he drew it, pointing it around his shield as he continued to back up towards Sanna and Tarrow.
Fru’al and Grash caught up with the rest of them, and they stood in an uneasy circle, their heads darting back and forth as a mob of these beings walked towards them with a slow, steady, uneven gait. One of the monsters that had assaulted Grash in the middle of the stream was gone, but the other still advanced, getting close.
“Fru’al, tell me what these things are,” Tarrow said as the old man’s staff began to quiet down. “And someone tell me how they got here.”
Fru’al shook his head, aiming his staff through the now-pouring rain at the oncoming mob.
“I don’t know, Tarrow. They look like bodies of dead men, given life beyond death.”
Artemis called back, his shield and sword still held out, still alert. “Is such a thing possible?”
“I didn’t think so,” began the wizard, sounding unsure of himself. “But the evidence seems to point otherwise.”
“Whatever they are,” interjected Sanna, “they aren’t going down. All of my arrows that manage to hit flesh don’t seem to be doing anything but slowing them down.”
Artemis blocked a soggy blow from one of the creatures that managed to get close, immediately responding with a chop to the creature’s arm, without much visible effect. “My sword doesn’t seem to be much help, either.”
Grash brought his axe up in an upward slash, a halo of light illuminating the drops of rain around the blade as it cut into the creature’s exposed ribcage. Where Tarrow saw the light touch, its flesh and bone crumbled, but the creature continued to advance.
“My powers seem effective,” he said, following up with one more slash, which crushed its midsection to dust, causing its skeleton to collapse onto the soaking ground. “But not effective enough.”
“Knights, tactical repositioning is in order,” said Tarrow, and the knights backed up, watching as a wall of the creatures came at them. Artemis stabbed through their chests, with little effect. Sanna fired shots through their skulls, which resulted in at least one dead-beast walking around without a head. Grash seemed to be doing the most damage, but even that wasn’t enough to stop them.
The problem, Tarrow saw, was that these… un-dead just didn’t stop coming. A man, when struck, feels pain. He recoils. He changes tactics to avoid getting hurt or killed.
But these… things… weren’t men. They were like machines, built for a specific purpose. Tarrow didn’t understand what sort of foul magics could turn the corpse of a man into this disgusting mockery of life, like a puppet with no strings. But Tarrow began to suspect who the puppeteer might be- they had already learned of someone capable of reviving the dead.
Tarrow watched as Fru’al used his magic to create illusory duplicates of each of the knights, to distract the enemies. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to work- whatever these creatures were, either they were too smart to be fooled by such a trick (which seemed unlikely to the trystborn), or they simply weren’t affected.
As if they didn’t have a mind to cloud.
Tarrow stepped up between Artemis and Grash, each of them getting battered by these beasts’ rotting fists. He caught one creature’s blow on the edge of his falchion, and Artemis, seeing the opening, slashed downward through the rain with his sword, snapping through the dead-beast’s arm, which fell lifeless to the wet ground. Tarrow felt a chill down his spine as he watched- where a man would cry in pain from losing limb, this beast simply switched arms and continued fighting.
Tarrow could hear Sanna crying out in frustration as most of her arrows simply passed through empty ribcages or glanced off of wet, slippery bones. Occasionally one would separate a lump of flesh from its owner, but all it seemed to do was expose more hideous rotting skeleton to the elements.
Fru’al began expending his spells in the form of bursts of fire and arcane energy, which certainly had an effect, and in fact caused more than one of them to break apart into piles of charred bones- but it was taking its toll on the wizard, and even with the three front-line fighters one managed to climb out of the stream, unnoticed in the deluge, and tear at Fru’al’s side with its filthy finger bones. Grash, realizing his old friend was in danger, rammed his shoulder into the skeleton closest to him, bringing his axe down with the weight of holy fury onto the mage’s attacker. It exploded in a sudden burst of white, leaving only bones and crumbled flesh in a wet puddle on the ground.
“Artemis, pick up the slack,” Tarrow called out, managing to break through an enemy’s spinal cord, watching as its bottom half crumbled and its top half, still fighting, pulled itself towards him through the mud. He then planted a swift kick into the creature’s skull, sending it flying, and causing the rest of its body to fall apart. Artemis used his shield to knock two of the beasts down to the ground and then leapt over a pile of bones to Grash, narrowly deflecting one of the skeletons from raking its sharp digits across the draconian’s back.
Sanna continued to keep up her pace of firing arrows as best as she could, stopping only to sweep her legs through the muck to trip any that managed to get close. With such an opening, Tarrow and Artemis took turns splitting skulls and severing limbs, whenever they could.
Grash continued to strike any that came near. He wasn’t always able to connect, but when he did, he could destroy one completely in only a few hits. Artemis wasn’t able to deal much damage with his sword, but he was at least able to keep several of them at a time from being able to land a blow. Fru’al was only able to help with minor spell effects, the rest having been sacrificed for a modicum of magical damage.
Tarrow helped wherever he could, directing them the best as he was able through the pouring rain. He had a few bloody scratches across his crimson chest, but if nothing else, the rain made his skin more slippery, causing more than one glancing blow. It was still no replacement for his armor, no matter how sexy he may look, he mused to himself.
With a loud draconic roar, Grash brought his glowing axe down upon the last skeleton as it lay squirming in the mud, causing it to burst in holy energy. The knights looked at one another through the downpour, all with scratches, bruises, and out of breath.
“We have to make sure everyone else in town is safe,” said Tarrow the moment he caught his breath. “Go door to door and tell everyone you can to stay inside until further notice. If you see any more of those things, or anything else suspicious, draw them away from civilians and make as much noise as you can. Artemis, you take the west. Sanna, you take the south. Grash, you take the east. After alerting whoever you can, return to the Rusted Drake. Fru’al, you head back to the lodge and grab any of our supplies you think we might need.” Everyone nodded. “And if you would, grab me some clothes,” he said with an embarrassed grin.
Before they parted, Sanna asked Tarrow, “What will you be doing?”
“Simple,” said the trystborn. “I’ll be making sure the Dark One hasn’t taken Sibyla.”
Normally, he would have had all of them come with him, but an attack in the center of town like this meant the entire town was in danger. There simply wasn’t time to check for more monsters AND check on Sibyla. Tarrow was going to have to take his chances.
He got to Sibyla’s home, and he immediately knew something was wrong. The home was easily visible, as it had been since she returned from giving birth, but the door was broken, hanging off its hinges. Tarrow held his falchion and crept quickly to the door, calling inside.
“Sibyla or Vrell, this is Tarrow Sharn,” he shouted, trying to peer around the doorway. “If you are hurt, I need you to-“
The smell of blood assaulted his nose as he entered, and he was stopped in his tracks and averted his eyes from the carnage before him. Vrell, the bluescale draconian that had acted as Sibyla’s bodyguard for several weeks, was stuck to the wall by multiple wooden stakes, his chest sliced open and his entrails spilling out onto the floor. His blood had been used to write a message on the wall:
All Who Oppose The Dark One Shall Meet His End
Steeling himself against the horror that had been wrought, Tarrow looked for any clues, any signs of what had happened- specifically whether Sibyla or her baby had been hurt- and found none.
This was not good, Tarrow thought. This is very not good.
After everyone returned from their mission, they met at the Rusted Drake, and Tarrow took a moment to get dressed before meeting with Telstedler. The half-elf was not happy for many reasons, the least of which was being woken up in the middle of the night. Tarrow did his best to explain what had happened to the man as everyone got suited up in their armor and supplies.
There were no more of those un-dead creatures spotted, but everyone was instructed to keep their doors and windows closed and not to open them until further notice from Charles or one of the Horselords. Tarrow explained what he had found in Sibyla’s home, and Fru’al relayed that Daggit the tanner, working late in his shop north of town, thought he had heard- though not seen- a horse galloping on the road away from the village proper. Fru’al had even taken a moment to check on the poor boy Kefir, but not only was he not at the temple of Azimuth, but Jael hadn’t seen him in over two days.
“Which means that we have no time to waste,” said the trystborn. “We must go, hoping that Daggit was right, and hoping (despite my wishes otherwise) that the Dark One has taken Sibyla where I suspect he has taken her.”
Telstedler nodded. “I am putting the safety of my town in your hands, then. Godspeed, men.”
The Horselords turned and left. They retrieved their horses from their stables, and without another pause, they galloped on north as fast as they could.
In record time despite the still-pouring rain, the five Eodon horses arrived at what should have been the ruins of the old Witches’ cottage off the road north of town, but to their surprise, it appeared to be completely intact, exactly as they had first found it weeks ago. They dismounted, and Tarrow gave the horses the signal once again to flee back to their homes if the Horselords didn’t return soon enough. A bolt of lightning struck somewhere close, and the knights entered the small structure, their weapons at the ready.
As if inviting them inside, the illusion-hidden trap door was already open, a rope tied to one of the building’s load-bearing beams and lying in a coil beside the open passage. Artemis, without needing to be told what to do, sheathed his sword and took hold of the rope, descending quickly into the darkness. Sanna wasted no time in following him, and then Grash and Fru’al, and Tarrow came down last.
They were once again in a large room with a giant set of wooden double doors, lit by Fru’al’s magical floating lanterns. On the door was the same carved image they saw last time they were here- except, when they neared it, Tarrow realized for a brief moment that it was different. Where before it showed a stout man leading a crowd of people towards a light, it now showed a tall cloaked figure, and he wasn’t leading a crowd, but rather being paid tribute by the crowd. And the people themselves were no longer citizens of Kellonville- some were orcs, others were hideous creatures Tarrow couldn’t describe, and others were beings of various races with torn flesh, exposed bone, and ravenous looks on their faces. And behind the figure was not a light, but a strange symbol of three connected triangles that Tarrow didn’t recognize.
Nobody else seemed to notice the change, and since time was of the essence Tarrow didn’t draw attention to it. Placing the sole of his boot against the door, Tarrow gave it a firm push, swinging it open, weapons drawn.
Behind was a sight nobody was expecting to see. Three women, old and shriveled, stood in a triangle, each with filthy matted hair, tattered clothes, and devilish grins on their faces. The first had a huge scar on her neck, the second, a circular scar over her heart visible through a tear in her shirt. The third opened her mouth and, in a horrific gesture, seductively licked her lips, showing a tongue that was stitched on.
“Welcome to your death, Horselords of Eodon,” they said in unison, their hands beginning to crackle and pop with flame.
But Artemis was suddenly atop the first, knocking her to the ground and stabbing his sword through her chest, blood pouring out of the wound and her mouth. Sanna fired two arrows straight through the head of the second, her energy dissipating as her lifeless body slumped to the floor. Tarrow raced Grash to the third, the two of them slicing their heavy blades into her torso before she could complete her spell.
Due to the seriousness of the circumstances, Tarrow even refrained from making some sort of a joke as the three witches perished. He had some good ones lined up, too, but even he knew that now simply wasn’t the time.
“I don’t think I need to point out who they were,” spoke Fru’al as the other knights regrouped.
Everyone shook their heads. Tarrow knew what this meant: The Dark One was, indeed, capable of raising the dead- though the difference between these hags, who were clearly alive and capable of complex spellcasting, and the creatures earlier who were little more than animated bones and rotten flesh, still escaped him.
Taking no additional time to search the bodies- though noticing the absence of orc corpses from their previous time here- Tarrow ordered the knights to continue on. Sanna stepped in front of everyone as they neared the door to the connecting hallway, however, to once again direct them around the concealed pit traps that had been waiting last time.
She seemed to remember where all of them were, so avoiding them was a simple task. When the hallway split, Tarrow directed Sanna to continue to the left, down the hall that led to the jail cells where they had found Talarin. When they reached the chamber, it was noticeably empty- lacking even the giant orc corpse that had remained after the halfling’s rescue.
Satisfied with the room’s emptiness, they continued back to the fork in the hall, and Tarrow had a disturbing thought. What if this was simply a diversion? What if the Dark One had taken Sibyla somewhere else, and the revived witches were just there to keep them looking so he would be able to escape?
No. He had to be here. Tarrow could feel it.
They neared the door that led to the final section of the complex, where they had fought the hags the first time through with their contingent of orc bodyguards. The door to the next room was on the other side of a pit, which meant that they would need to take turns jumping across. As they approached the pit to begin their preparation, however, the door across the expanse swung open of its own volition.
Standing in the doorway was a small figure, cloaked in darkness.
“Hello, everyone,” spoke a familiar, childlike voice. The darkness began to fade, and the speaker was visible.
It was Kefir.