Rise of the Runelords

Runelord Reflections 9

We stood amongst a sea of dead bodies, the hulking men and hideous women of the inbred ogrekin family strewn throughout the building. “Quickly now,” someone called. It had been a breath or so since the fall of our target, one ogrekin matriarch of the Graul clan.

Leaving the bodies of our enemies behind us, the Sisterhood of Steel rushed out of the room, heading for the one area we hadn’t examined. Vega’s time dilation was limited in duration, and the confidence of having one’s speed nearly doubled spurred us on.

I ran down the hallway, my new boots somehow giving me a noticeable assist with each stride, helping me keep pace even in under all the metal plate that encased me. We turned a corner, and I nearly ran into something short and squat, looking down in wary amazement.

“There you are,” Rakonia said in her gutteral voice.

For a moment, my grip tightened on the eight feet of adamantine pole and blade in my hands, but Rainbow and Vega were already welcoming the dwarf even as they continued their sprint towards the final room. I decided the dwarf’s sudden reappearance was less likely due to monstrous impersonation than coincidence. I was impressed that she’d caught up to us, not to mention finding us in one of the small independent homesteads that dotted the wilderness north of Turtlepoint bay.

As I passed her, I’d caught a whiff of dwarf-on-the-road, which dispelled my suspicions immediately.

Zeyara made a shushing motion as we approached the doorway, and Sisterhood of Steel cautiously made our way down the final few yards. As the heavy portal swung out on recently-oiled hinges, we gazed into a strange room filled with piles of refuse and vegetation. The place was cavernous, a shallow pit in the middle stretching across the stone floor, the ceiling arching up above. We waited a moment, noting the mushrooms that seemed to grow in the central pit area.

“You think they’re magical mushrooms?” I asked in a murmur.

“That would be perfect!” Rainbow whispered excitedly, looking into the room with increased interest. I frowned, thinking of released spore clouds that would put us to sleep, or poison us, or start screaming. I’d heard stories of such, but as I opened my mouth Rakonia stepped into the room. Nothing emitted a burst of spores or a piercing shriek. At least not yet.

Instead, as the dwarf shouldered her way into the area the ground below us seemed to shudder. Two immense creatures rose up from what looked like piles of garbage and vegetation. We poured into the room behind the ranger, looking up at the massive, writhing, vine-encrusted creatures that approached us, their gait lurching and inhuman. Twenty feet tall, the pair of plant-monsters lashed out with their coiling vines, one leaning forward to reveal a wide purple maw visible at it’s apex, snapping in what appeared to be unwholesome expectation.

“The one on the left is unnatural,” Rainbow advised us, although how she could tell what constituted normal for such alien creatures was beyond me. It was this one that approached first, rushing at our group as we stood upon the lip of the pit.

Rakonia rushed forward, fighting with a fury I’d not seen before, her muscles bulging under her armor as she laid into the creature with that impressive axe, the shield pulping portions of its lower limbs. Barbed tendrils lashed out, drawing blood from Skalmold as she stepped up to hammer at the creature from below. Zeyara was nowhere to be seen, presumably positioning herself, and I carved a pair of lines in the creature’s chest with a cross-body cut followed by a backhand slash. Sticky, translucent fluid sprayed out of the plant-monster, and after the combined assault it fell heavily. We turned to its partner.

Rainbow was frowning in concentration, looking at the brutish, fanged tree and, apparently, talking to it. The monster lurched forward, and we stepped up to protect the diminutive shaman. Even as the halfing shouted “No, wait!” we’d turned it into so much spongy kindling.

“I was talking to it,” Rainbow explained as we walked around the room, picking up anything that looked valuable and dousing the place with oil. “A man came here, a few days ago. That’s when the evil one appeared,” she pointed at the body of the first dead enemy. “I’m not sure we had to, well, kill it.”

“Where have you been?” I rounded on Rakonia, determined to change the subject. “Have a good time with your elf friend?” The dwarf flushed a deep red, grumbled something about not wanting to talk about it. Ever. I shrugged and exchanged an eye-roll with Zeyara.

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We spent the next half hour catching up with the erstwhile-missing ranger, praising Shelalu for her usefulness, and methodically looting every corpse, container and secret room we could find.

Once we felt finished, it was time for the big finale. I snapped a finger and headed up the stairs as the lower level was engulfed in a whooshing explosion of flames. We rode off, horses laden with our acquisitions, until we met Shalelu and the other two rangers.

Meeting up with the remnants of the Black Arrow rangers, we informed them of the destruction of the ogre-blooded family. During the course of our thorough pillaging the place of valuables, we’d recovered what was no doubt the rangers’ gear. It was some pretty good magical stuff, like a kukri which Rakonia promptly claimed. Luckily, the stuff that she and the barbarian had helped themselves to had belonged to the dead, traitorous ranger who we hadn’t had the honor of killing ourselves.

The men thankfully took back what gear was their own, and they didn’t make a fuss about the other stuff we’d taken. Not that they were in a position to; they were still pitifully weak from their captivity, and we had, after all, saved their lives. They were surprisingly open about acknowledging that, however, and in discussing the fort we were going to visit tomorrow offered to turn over the fort to us once this was over. It didn’t occur to me that, as mere rangers, they had no authority to go around giving away castles. I was too busy thinking about ramparts and crenellated towers bristling with crossbowmen and ballistae.

Traveling a few miles in the direction indicated by the locals, Shelalu managed to take down a good-sized deer, and we ate well that evening. The rangers, after weeks of starvation, ended up retching and puking most of it out after an hour, and spent the rest of the night experiencing terribly loud and embarrassing stomach distress.

Rakonia looked pale and sickly, a side effect of her newness to the art, no doubt. Taking my advice, she’d gotten some training in the technique I’d picked up in my former homeland. Juicing wasn’t cheating; it’s just maximizing your potential. Although that won’t stop the pieces of your fallen opponents from cursing you with their dying breath and crying foul. She explained that she’d been using this type of nasty mushrooms in her concoction, and her violent reaction to the mixture had made me wonder. I was pretty certain I knew what the problem was, and informed her of it.

“What? That makes no sense.”

I chuckled. The dwarf obviously didn’t understand anything about alchemy. “It’s about power, right?”

“Well, it does make me stronger,” the dwarf admitted. “But how does drinking the blood of my dinosaur give me power?”

I shook my head sadly. Poor dwarf, she knew nothing about the ways of magic, either. Such a sheltered upbringing, with her bizarre three-legged rock-parents. “You need something with power in your potion, not some shitty mushrooms,” I explained. “That’s common sense. And,” I continued, seeing her opening her big mouth to get a word in, “your dinosaur is just the kind of powerful thing that will in turn give you power.”

“I’m not certain that is how alchemical processes work-” began Vega, addressing us from her spot near the fire.

“Look,” I said. “Try it, see if it works. But trust me. You need the essence of something powerful.”

“What do you use?” Rakonia asked, looking suspicious instead of interested.

“My own blood.”

“Gross,” Rainbow exclaimed, sharing a glance with her two-foot high fairy friend. Donazata looked at me with a distinct expression of disgust.

“What do you think I’ve been bleeding myself in the morning for?” I asked, exasperated since she’d seen me making my juice in the early hours of the morning a few times.

Zeyara answered. “We just kind of thought you were, well, perhaps a little emo.”

“What?” If anything, it was that pale-faced, purple-haired, glowing-green eyed fetchling that fit the type. Although it was Rakonia who had the real self-loathing, if not self absorption, down to perfection.

We bedded down in the woods, taking a well-deserved rest before heading to our next destination.

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Scanning the site from a distance, we detected a total lack of anything interesting. The fort was smaller, and uglier, than I’d anticipated. Bored, I turned to one of the rangers, who was talking quietly with Zeyara.

“That big building there, that’s the lumberyard, and across the way is the garrison-”

:”Lucrezia,” Zeyara called softly. “What do you think about creating a distraction.” I looked at her, puzzled. “Flammable buildings, lots of wood lying around…”

“Oh,” I said slowly. “Yeah… burn it.” I do love fire. “But,” I blurted, “if we get to keep this place…” I glanced at the ranger, who nodded earnestly.

“We can get someone to rebuild it, I’m sure,” the fetchling assured casually, and I found her argument compelling.

Minutes later, we were approaching the fortress, which was placed adjacent to a steep edge of one of the mountains I’ve failed to mention, but dominated the horizon majestically during our time spent in the Turtleback Ferry area.

In addition to the distracting act of arson, Rakonia and Rainbow had hatched a plan of their own. We were entering through a secret-ish passage through the mountain wall, which was for some reason connected with a series of caves full of some kind of dangerous lizard. Poisonous, or electrified, or something. The rangers knew of a special herb that, when burned, drove off the reptiles, and the dwarf and halfling were determined to drive the lizards before us, hopefully pushing them out into the fortress proper and distracting the ogre population further.

And, hopefully attacking the ogres instead of us, or at least more than they attack us.

We waited an hour for the nature-oriented to gather the required plants, then began our advance. Going into the tunnel, we encountered a trio of the beasts, and took them down efficiently. Navigating our way through the tunnels with the help of the rangers, it became apparent that it would be exceedingly difficult to herd the ill-tempered lizards anywhere without a lot of work, and instead continued onwards.

“Here’s the passage to the lumber yard,” our guide informed, then turned to point down a long, dark tunnel. “Forty strides further and you’ll be at the entrance near the garrison.”

We paused, briefly figuring out our strategy. The final plan went as follows.

We stood, waiting and utterly silent, perched outside a recessed doorway we’d already opened a crack, just to make certain everything was in readiness. Vega, finishing her internal countdown, nodded and raised a hand, and an ethereal wave of magical energy echoed through the enclosed area as spells were woven, one atop another, in the span of seconds.

I drew my decorative flask, tapping it against the bubbling vial Rakonia held in her own hands. Imbibing our respective drinks, we waited for Vega to give the second sign. Her hand dropped, and suppressing a roar I kicked open the door even though Rakonia was in front of me, reaching out to do the same. She looked back with a reproachful grimace and hustled out into the brightly lit courtyard alongside Flippy Three, her latest in a series of reptilian companions, this one a hulking breed nearly as tall as a man, but sharing the same savagely clawed feet and straight-backed tail.

If all had gone according to plan, Shalelu’s step-father Jakardos had set the large building ablaze. The flames were already crackling up the side of the building as we rushed out into the open, exposed but somehow unnoticed in the still-empty fort. For a moment I wondered if the place was actually deserted, and we had gotten all dressed up for a ball that wouldn’t be occurring.

But then, shouts started coming from the burning building, and I grinned, because although I couldn’t speak it, I recognized the language of Giant.

Huge, lumbering brutes burst out of the building, smoke billowing out from the doorway. Coughing, a dozen of the ten-foot tall creatures stared around wildly, blinking tears from their rheumy, bloodshot eyes the color of umber and piss.

“Blood for the Blood God!” The heat of battle overwhelmed me, and I dashed forward with my companions, magically enhanced in proportion so that I was able to look the first in the eye as my blade bit through its neck, jaw slackening as he collapsed like a small building. Zeyara sewed chaos in the tightly bunched cluster of the misshapen giants, and Rakonia screamed on and on as she hewed into the titanic legs, chopping bone apart and severing ankles. The dinosaur was screeching its own warcry, disemboweling an ogre with a leaping slash of its talons. One of the giants staggered back, its chest caved in to the point where spiky bits of yellow-white rib were visible in the massive indentation, spurting out dark red blood. Magic and adamantine cut through the air, and in moments the furious battle was over.

We spent several minutes nervously watching the gate while Rakonia got tapped with a healing wand again and again. After a while I lost count, but seriously, it was at least two solid minutes of this.

Just as I wiped my blade upon a fallen foe’s ragged cloak, the fortified building behind us opened its gate with a rusty creak, another group of the giants rushing out to investigate the commotion we’d caused.

I had one of those moments where everything slows down and I can watch the edge of my blade bite into a neck, focusing on my opponent’s eyes as the line is drawn across the neck, slicing through spine and sinew. Seeing the dismayed widening of the eyes, followed by the empty, glassy unfocused gaze as their souls flee their body and the head tumbles through the air, relishing the sight of the spark of life flicker out and die. Then I’m blinking and seeing my companions whirling and hurtling across the battlefield, the stout dwarf and her deinonychus laying down foes with ferocious anger, nearly matching the blonde barbarian’s feral roar and frenzied smashing, her monstrous hammer shattering whatever it connected with, be it leg, chest, head, or most agonizingly, pelvis.

You didn’t necessarily die from a shattered pelvis. Not right away.

The halfling shaman provided support, summoning elemental creatures and walls of flame that kept enemies from overwhelming us and channeling the soothing life energies that mended our flesh and stopped our bleeding as the enormously strong opponents began to take their toll. Donazata flitted around the battlefield on her butterfly wings, using her connection with Rainbow to act as a conduit for her healing energies, delivering soothing touches to wounded Sisters in a shower of sparkles and rainbows. The dark-skinned arcanist wove spells to our benefit and the enemy’s detriment; speeding up our reactions while blasting foes with her lilac-nimbused explosions of fire and bolts of raw magical energy..

The fetchling was seen only in glimpses, much of her time spent unseen from sight as we rampaged through the fortress. An ogre would suddenly give a pained roar, staggering to its knees as she’d sneakily hamstring it, following it up with a flurry of stabs and slashes from her short, curved blades, and those unfortunate to survive clutched their bellies in an effort to contain their eviscerated intestines. Leaving a trail of dismembered and shattered bodies lying in pools of dark ogre blood, we cleared room after room, no longer any pretense to keep quiet. Coming to another door, we burst into the room to see a relatively well-kept area, a woman and several ogres staring at us, expectant and enraged.

With my battlecry ringing in our ears, the Sisterhood of Steel rushed at our foe as magic spells began to go off around us. The woman, the first regular-sized person we’d encountered in the entire place, was foolishly occupied with the evil-looking dinosaur and raging barbarian to her left that she forgot about me, yards away and beyond her immediate concern. She reached out, a nimbus of terrible radiance crackling from her hand as she touched Rakonia, and the dwarf staggered for a moment, a pained look in her eye.

I spun the naginata straight across and connected just so, and with a satisfying jolt the blade cut true, the spellcaster’s head sliced cleanly in two mid-skull.

The battle ended as the others put down the remaining ogre filth, and we continued on, pacifying the resistance for a number of furious minutes that felt like hours, the tension, excitement, and expectation drawing nerves tight, focused and ready to spring into action instantly. Teamwork, honed to near-perfection in our earlier fights, ensured that our enemy lay dead, with none of the Sisterhood worse for wear. By which I mean dead, or somehow crippled.

Finally convinced we were the sole survivors inside the structure, we set about a great accounting of all its wealth. Which was now our wealth.

Zeyara disappeared to go find Shalelu and the Black Arrow rangers, giving them the all clear to come inside. I looked around, seeing the potential of the place but more conscious of the blood and the lasting damage our battle had created upon the property. Funny how I’d never really even considered that before now.

The fetchling returned quickly. “We’ll get some of the villagers to clean it up,” she assured, reading my expression as I gazed at the aftermath.

Heartened, I nodded in agreement. “Deal’s still on?” I asked as the rangers turned the corner and came into sight. They stared in awe for a long minute, soaking in the sight of the slaughtered ogres in the street. “Just wait until you get inside,” I smiled knowingly.

Revenge is sweet when it’s fresh. Even if it’s obtained vicariously. We took a quick tour of the fort, avoiding the burnt-out lumber area, and ensuring our thorough search of the premises hadn’t missed anything.

We hadn’t.

Upon seeing the body of the regular-sized female, Jakardos made a foul exclamation, especially rude in his present company.

“Watch your language,” I warned, not a stickler for vocabulary but a firm believer that some words should be said.

“‘I can’t believe it,’ is what he said,” clarified Shalelu. Oh. Local dialects and all, I guess. Her step-father was engrossed in the sight of the woman.

“What?” I asked.

“You killed Lucrecia,” he stated, hatred blazing in his eyes.

“That’s Lucrecia?” Lucrecia, the pathetic sister of the snake-woman we slew in Magnimar. Her name was a poor copy of my own, ugly and simple, lacking the style and sophistication of Lucrezia. More importantly, at least to my companions, was the fact that she was our main nemesis in the region, behind the strange sihedron brandings in the town we’d noticed while passing through. I remembered that she owned a pleasure boat of some kind, with gambling and presumably prostitutes.

The others seemed as startled as I. “I guess she didn’t have time to give her speech,” Rakonia stated, philosophizing about the nature of evil and the tendency to expose themselves to people moments before they plan on killing them.

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The following day, we set out for Turtlepoint Beach, hoping to report our progress, unload some of the pile of stuff we’d acquired, and figure out what to do next. Probably something involving recruiting villagers to go and clean up the corpses and blood from our new fort.

Bidding farewell to the Black Arrow rangers and Shalelu for an unknown amount of time, we headed south. Our horses set a placid pace, burdened down with a good deal of oversized equipment we’d liberated from the Graul ogrekin. It was an uneventful, boring journey.

Until we reached Turtleback Cove. From a half-mile off, we could see something was wrong. The geography of the town had changed; the shoreline was somehow much further inland. Straining my ears, I still couldn’t hear the screams that Rakonia and Rainbow insisted they could hear, but it was obvious we were not walking into a good situation.

Tying our horses to a convenient nearby tree, we made our way towards the town on foot. Sure enough, there were sounds, terrified yells and agonized wails, getting louder as we approached. And then, it came into sight.

The town was half-flooded, many of the buildings partially submerged, a few listing badly and looking ready to topple or be swept away. Chaos was everywhere, and I took a moment to soak it in. Screaming children trying to hold a doorway closed as immense serpents tried to push their way in. A home in the distance on fire, people shouting for help. A rowboat filled to the brim with people desperately thrashing at the water with their hands, looking behind them in abject terror.

I followed their vision, and from between two half-submerged buildings, the thing made its appearance. Together, we stopped our headlong run, taking a second to appreciate the proportions of the tentacled beast that closed in on the people in the boat.

Magic was laid down in rapid succession, Rakonia caressing her shield while Vega gave us all the quickening and I focused my anger and expanded my size. Rapid conversation ensured we were of unified purpose, and we rushed down to the beach, trying to intercept the tentacled monster before it overtook the helpless citizens. It swiveled its head at us, thrashing its way on a new course to intercept us.

When I say this thing was immense, or gigantic, those are just words. I could say it was as big as a building, but unless you’ve seen something as big as a building-and I’m talking a government-type building, not some guys house… words don’t do it justice. From a block away, it seemed enormous, but as we got within range it literally blocked out the sky. It stayed in the flooded zone, the aforementioned tentacles lashing down with sickening force, and its hideous, dinosaur-looking head snapped down, closing around Skalmold and ripping away with terrible effect.

We gave as good as we got, my blade cutting into the beast’s thick hide from the shore while the others were nearly wading beneath the thing, hacking and smashing with desperate fury. Rakonia took a tentacle to the face, her face sagging and suddenly looking half-dead. She fought on with shield and kukri, Skalmold at her side doing her best to avoid the flailing appendages. Vega unleashed a massive, glittering explosion, and the sparkles that clung to the creature seemed to blind it, the next tentacle missing me by several feet.

Without warning, the creature reared back its head, like a snake about to strike, and belched out a great quantity of foul-smelling black smoke. Choking, our assault faltered, and I lashed out, striking something nearby with a gauntleted fist. Ignoring the squawk of protest, I stared around, wondering where I was. And what I was supposed to be doing.

A whipping, tree-trunk thick cord of muscle tore through the air, nearly catching me in the face. I followed the appendage back to its source, and beheld the abomination with gratitude. Now I knew what to do. Still in a stupor, I continued to attack the creature, aiding some of the others who’d kept their wits about them. Certain spots on the creature were glowing with an enticing red, drawing our attention to vulnerable areas of the creature, courtesy of the arcanist’s spellweaving. Blow after blow rained against the thrashing beast, each more telling than the last.

The abomination gave a terrible, wailing roar as it made a lurching attempt to get away, falling to our might before it could make good its retreat. We were ready to collapse, panting ragged breaths of cool autumnal air, but the children cried out for help, and the people in the boat ran it aground, exiting the vessel hastily while giving the water brief, terrified looks.

We ran past them, Vega ensorceling our footwear to allow us to walk atop the water of the flooded zone. Shaking off our fatigue, we ran directly at the snakes, the first of which had just slammed its way into the building. The thought of it swallowing someone whole spurred us on, and then were were among the vicious serpents, blades and hammer making short work of the huge but distracted creatures.

The townfolk that had made it out gathered on the shore, cheering us despite their bleak look as we brought a half-dozen rescued children back with us. Not a one had gotten swallowed. Taking in the dazed expressions, we gave some suggestions of what people should do to weather out this disaster. Talking with the mayor of the town, we were informed that the river had suddenly flooded, not magically as I’d suspected but apparently from upriver. There was a dam to the north of the fortress we’d recovered from the ogres, and he worried it was perhaps held by the same enemies who had destroyed the Black Arrow rangers.

We spent a few hours helping out, healing and talking to some of the townsfolk. Most of the five hundred plus residents had survived unscathed, and as the water slowly receded, there were fewer badly-damaged buildings that expected. We managed to purchase some precious diamond dust, Rakonia being diagnosed as having some of her life-force drained by the tentacled horror’s touch. The thing had been a monster of legend, the dreaded Black Magga.

I had severed the thing’s head as a trophy, while Vega had the dwarf cut away a portion of its thick skin, and then another, fashioning two maps out of magic pointing us towards the creature’s lair. Its treasure-filled lair, we hoped.

But first, we had to go back north to check out this damn dam.

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