by Richard Dillio
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“Creature!” Grimgottlir called.
The Drus did not move. He took a step towards it. To it’s right, Grimgottlir made out the dim form of a skeletal servant. A pile of bones to the left of the Drus indicated that it’s other servant had collapsed. The animating magic had finally dissipated over the long years.
“Slave of Uth!” he yelled, and his voice echoed in the cave. There was no fear in him now, only a desire to slay this devil and send it back to its home for a hundred years of torturous pain. Finally the spear moved, and Grimgottlir smiled a terrible, deranged smile. Dhakirr clambered up behind him, but other than noting his arrival, the Rhoed ignored him.
The deathly quiet of the cave was broken by the creaking of the Drus’s armor as it approached. In one moment it had gone from statue-still to fluid motion, like the ancient Auldix automatons that patrolled the ruined halls of their vanished masters. Like those automatons, it moved with inevitable unconcern. Then, still several long paces away, it stopped.
Closer now, Grimgottlir could make out the familiar features of the Drus, as if he’d seen it only yesterday. The creature was imposing in height, taller even than he. It had ash-gray skin, and red eyes that glowed like coals inside the depths of its helmet. The armor itself — blackened, but highlighted in wine-red runes carved throughout — was elaborate and all but complete, offering no weakness except for face, neck and upper thigh. The spear it clutched was longer than a tall man, the shaft thicker than a small tree in diameter and arrayed with a sweeping wide blade, equally lethal for slash or thrust. It cut the figure of an impeccable warrior.
Grimgottlir, clad in his ragged furs and leather, topped with a battered steel helm, wielding a beaten, iron-banded shield and carrying a pilfered Auldix sword, looked nothing like a match for this son of Uth, this terror from beyond the mortal plane. But his heart pounded with joy and a lust for battle, and the ancient instinct to lay down his foe surged upward from the soles of his boots.
“You breach the tomb of Cayel the Hanin, child of Raendolf.” The voice was guttural and deep, as if it came from a much larger creature. Just behind the monotone pronunciation, Grimgottlir could hear the arrogance, the stirring conceit of the Druscasti race, so confident in its place among the Immortal Plane. It enraged him further, and the lessons of Elephon seemed now so far away. But he did not miss those lessons. Not right now.
“I am Grimgottlir,” he said. “Called The Bear. You slew my brother.”
The Drus looked down at the skeleton, then back up. “Yes.” It took a step forward. “None may enter the tomb. You will recompense the Shifting Lord for this slight.
Come collect,” Grimgottlir said and rapped his Auldix sword against his shield.
Without a further word, the Drus began to close the distance. From over Grimgottlir’s right shoulder, the familiar star-glass dagger whipped by, end over end, hungry for the open face of the creature’s helmet. But this Drus was no Emperial mageling, unskilled in physical combat, and its armored hand came up easily, almost lazily, to swat the weapon away. It shattered, and purple star-glass splinters sprinkled to the floor.
Dhakirr cursed, but Grimgottlir was not angry at the attempt. If anything, he was proud of the boy for ignoring his instructions and giving it a try. As he braced himself for the Drus’sss first strike, the creaking, ancient skeleton emerged from the shadow of the tomb’s arch. It was bedecked in nothing but scraps of cloth, and carried no shield. But it wielded a brutal-looking mace, and made no noise except for the scraping of bone on rock. It fixated on the young Ebron.
“Have you ever fought the dead?” Grimgottlir asked, without taking his eyes from the approaching Drus.
“No. I’ll manage,” Dhakirr said, his casual tone clearly forced. To put some distance between himself and the edge he’d just climbed, he met the creature halfway. He was now armed only with his slender sword.
Grimgottlir was more measured, wary but eager, expecting the same unstoppable slash that had caved in his brother’s ribs all those years ago. That slash came, quick as lightning, but his trusty oaken shield held and he offered a silent vow to Raendolf. The spearhead rebounded, though it shook his arm as if he’d blocked a giant’s club. He returned the strike with a whip-fast slash of his own. The Auldix weapon, driven by rage, crafted with the arts of a most ancient people, ripped into the Drus’ss left pauldron and, amazingly, staggered the creature. Exultation surged through him.
The Auldix sword fairly danced in his hand, and Grimgottlir’s arm was electrified with the thrill of the weapon. He struck again, twice, three times, sure cuts that tore into shoulder and neck joint. The creature growled. To make better use of its long-handled spear, it pushed the Rhoed back with a mighty shove of the shaft. He was staggered, but upright and ready to deliver more blows. His heart sang. A lifetime of doubt vanished.
Dhakirr was having a worse time. A revived skeleton could fight as cleverly as any man and, lacking any blood or organs, it was resisting Dhakirr’s slender word with annoying ease. Every strike he landed — and he landed many — merely chipped old bone, whereas the undead’s heavy mace could do serious damage if it hit. It was only a matter of time before Dhakirr slipped on the floor or missed a dodge. A change of tactic was in order and, after the next clumsy swing of the mace, he stepped inside the arc and cracked his pommel against the yellowed skull. The creature slowed, and he made to strike again.
The Drus, now having the measure of his opponent, was more cautious; the Rhoed had beaten some humility into its shoulder. Grimgottlir crouched, shield held flat and low before him, with his sword held behind, almost hidden from view. The spear pulled back, obviously winding up for a thrust but slowed somewhat by injury. Still, it came in like a bolt, strong enough to gore a bear. But this Bear’s sure shield — steadied by decades of constant battle — brushed the thrust away. Then he was inside the creature’s guard, and he slammed his weapon into its helmet, a blow that would have killed any mortal man.
Being no mortal man, the Drus was not dead but still mightily staggered. It half-fell backwards into the cave wall, shocked by the strength in the blow, and the Rhoed had in one strike explained why men called him ‘The Bear.’ Its helmet was rent from crown to eye, and the creature pulled it off and tossed it away.
Its gray face was now fully visible in the dim light, a nightmarish stamp of sharp angles and red burning eyes. It had no hair, and its scalp was a pattern of ritually scarified tissue, carved runes that no living man could read. The teeth gritted in primeval anger, and black blood dripped down from a gash in its forehead. They were at the end now, Grimgottlir knew. There would be one more exchange, and this one for the prize.
The creature surely sensed it as well, and readied for one last pass. It switched its grip, dropped both hands to the bottom of the long shaft, and made ready to swing the spear in a terrifically wide slash. If it landed, it would strike both men from left to right, and Grimgottlir was not sure his shield could stand another such blow. But Dhakirr, lost in his own fight, would stand no chance to dodge the terrible weapon.
“Watch!” Grimgottlir shouted, and gritting his teeth, he raised his shield to intercept the swing.
The Drus put every ounce of its martial power into that strike, a strike that could have cleaved the stone itself. The spear head slammed into the warrior’s shield and exploded it in shower of iron and wooden scraps. Grimgottlir was thrown sideways, but his block was just barely enough to stop the Druscasti blade from cutting him in half. Instead, the shaft crunched into his side, stoving in his ribs, blasting the air from his lungs, and tearing the gold pouch from his belt in a shower of rings and coins. The Drus hit harder than anything he’d ever felt.
The creature was off balance from such a swing, and Grimgottlir looked around through blurry eyes, desperately seeking the Ebron through vision that threatened to go black, hoping he’d been able to dodge the swing. Gritting his teeth against the tremendous pain, he gripped his sword and tried to lever himself to his feet. But for the first time in his life, his prodigious strength was not up to the task. He fell back in despair.
The Drus recovered its footing and moved in to finish the impudent Rhoed, who was now gasping for breath, clutching his weapon in the face of certain doom. The creature’s red eyes burned in the black depths of its face, and it raised its spear for the killing blow. It laughed that horrible, dry laugh, and even through his pain Grimgottlir felt his own rage building anew. To hear that laugh as his last sound in life was too much to bear.
A heartbeat later the skeleton’s massive mace, hurled from a few paces away, slammed into the creature and thumped its head like a drum. It staggered, dumbfounded.
Laughing now, Grimgottlir got his feet beneath him, his pain forgotten. His shattered ribs ground together with a horrific cracking sound, but he did not feel it. The Rhoed was mad for revenge, and he would not be denied.
The Auldix sword, now wielded with both hands, crunched into the exposed thigh of the creature. It screamed a raspy scream and fell to one knee, dropping its massive spear and instinctively clutching at the huge rent in its leg. Something like blood, black and oily, sprayed from the wound.
Heaving himself to head level, Grimgottlir grabbed the top edge of the Drus’ss breastplate. He looked into the glowing red eyes and grinned with blood stained teeth, savagery given human form. His thrust made a ruin of the creature’s throat. It fell sideways, clutching the ghastly wound, and died choking.
Grimgottlir collapsed forward onto the twitching body of the Drus, but with his last bit of strength was able to roll off. His heart lightened as it never had, and though he knew was dying, he had never felt more content. He thought of his brother and pulled free his helmet, welcoming the cool air of the cave on his face.
Dhakirr leapt over the corpse and clutched the hand of the mighty Rhoed, this man who had spared his life and saved it now twice. “You are truly a warrior,” he said, after searching for something more meaningful to say. He cursed his own stupidity. “I mean, I have never seen the like.”
“It was nothing.” He pointed with his nose at the corpse. “How’d you get a hold of that mace?”
“The dumb bastard smashed his own skeleton with that last swing.” Dhakirr shrugged. “Did me a favor.”
Grimgottlir laughed and winced as the agony coursed over his smashed ribs. “He’ll have a few centuries on the Plane to think about it,” he said at last.
“Something just occurred to me,” Dhakirr said. He pulled aside the Rhoed’s furs and he could not ignore the carnage that was his ribs. He pressed on. “If we hadn’t found that sword, what would you have done?”
“Used my bare hands, I suppose.” He laughed again, but it was weaker. “I didn’t think much of it. See, you are more clever than me.”
“You need a healer,” Dhakirr said calmly, but panic ate into the edge of his words. The Rhoed’s earlier gift of a healing draught had surely doomed him, and threatened to overwhelm the Ebron with guilt. “You said there was an exit here, but I do not see it. And I have no desire to actually enter Cayel’s tomb,” he added.
“Leave the tomb,” Grimgottlir waved his hand feebly. “Let some other fool open it.” He blinked, willing his words past the lancing pain in his side. “Go to my brother. He is wearing a necklace. Fetch it.”
Dhakirr did as he was bade, and found a thin gold chain around the skeletal neck of Brokki. Apologizing to the spirit of the slain man, he lifted the chain over the remains of his skull. A small red jewel hung from the chain, but it was otherwise plain.
“There is an intercession on it. Use it,” Grimgottlir said, his voice echoing in the cave.
Realization came to the young Ebron in a flash. Grimgottlir’s words lingered. This was the exit, a way out. But only for one. Dhakirr began to protest, but the Rhoed was looking up at the ceiling and paid him no attention.
“It was a gift from our mother. We locked it with a keyword, but it will take you to an abandoned trading post south of Slye.”
“I cannot!” Dhakirr cried, and slid over the cave floor. “I will not.” Dhakirr met the green eyes of the Rhoed; they were clear, though filled with pain. “You must use it!”
“Do not be stupid,” Grimgottlir replied. “I caved in the door. I cannot make the climb down. The trading post is a day from the city, and I would die anyway. It is the only way out.” He took a shallow breath and coughed blood into his beard. “Go now, and remember what I told you.”
“You told that Emperial that you never planned on leaving. Is this what you meant? That you expected to die here?”
Grimgottlir closed his eyes. “What do you think?”
“I’m not leaving,” Dhakirr said, and the amulet dangled dejectedly from his hand.
“Raendolf’s balls, boy,” he said. He conjured up the image of his mother, and said her name: “Raevild.”
Upon announcing the keyword, a deep, red light began to emanate from the stone. Too late the young Ebron realized the trick, and as the intercession spell did its work, Grimgottlir’s last vision of the young warrior was that of a panicked and wide-eyed young man. Dhakirr tried to stretch out his arm, but it was too late. In a final red flash, he was gone.
“Goodbye,” Grimgottlir said to the empty cave. He was sad. He liked the Ebron.
* * *
Grimgottlir could feel his lungs filling up with blood, and he knew it was only a matter of time. He grabbed his Auldixi sword, determined to enter the afterlife with a weapon in his hand. He longed to sit around the feast table with his father, his brother, his ancestors; to tell tales and drink and eat and fight. And what tales he could tell! What battles! What sights he had seen! He smiled.
But something was nibbling at the edge of his mind. After a moment, he opened his eyes, annoyed. Aided by his Lizard Eye, he could make out the dull glint of coins and rings torn from his belt pouch. They littered the floor, but his eye caught the shine of one in particular. It lay near the pile of bones that had been Dhakirr’s opponent. It tugged at him.
“Raendolf’s balls,” he said again. “Will I get no peace?” Grunting and gritting his teeth against the pain, he held his sword in his left hand while crawling an interminable distance to the pile of bones. After several minutes of struggle, he came to the glint. It was a ring, made of bright silver and small, barely big enough for his pinky. It lay in the splintered remains of the skeleton, reduced to such by the tremendous blow of the Druscasti spear. “It really was something,” Grimgottlir said to himself, recalling the strike and still honestly impressed. He wished Owain could have seen that fight.
Grimgottlir reached for the ring, ribs crackling with the effort. He spit a mouthful of dark red blood across the pile of bones. He would see the ring, he decided, satisfy his curiosity, and die quietly.
He brought it close to his face with a hard-won gasp, and after a moment he gave a wheezy laugh.
“Son of a bitch,” he said, after his chest stopped heaving. Truly men were but playthings for the gods. “Bael, forgive me. In this case, I owe the Quartet a favor.”
Clutching his sword in his left hand, he gripped the ring with his right. He spared one last glance at the cave, and felt nothing; it held no power over him.
“Farewell, Brokki,” Grimgottlir said, to his brother’s bones.
He closed his eyes and as Elephon had taught him those many years ago, pictured the ring in his mind. It grew warm in his hand. The warrior had no idea where the Ocrians’ intercession would put him, but he didn’t care. At the very least, he’d die in the sunlight, or perhaps in front of an old Ocrian temple. It didn’t matter. He regretted none of it. He might even see the Ebron again, and chastise him for thieving. It hadn’t felt right in the midst of the cave but, under less stressful circumstances, Grimgottlir was sure he could talk him out of it. Deep down, he was no doubt a good lad.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dillio