The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)


Chapter 31


The metal frame struck the floor with a cacophonous noise, shaking the walls around them as the force of the impact was distributed outward from the floor. The Seer and Falah had fallen to the ground; the falling frame had passed along the very edge of the archway threshold, and if they’d been leaning forward just a bit, both would have likely been struck by it, with obvious unpleasant consequences.

Parzad turned to look at the others waiting in the archway. His body was insubstantial, but as he stepped up, onto the grate that was now embedded in the floor, his shed body power faded, and he took on solidity again.

“A useful trait,” Duke Aerim commented. He had barely flinched when the grate had plummeted through the ceiling, and he offered a hand to help Falah back to his feet.

There was a loud grinding noise, and the floor started to sink. Not just the floor; the ceiling was descending as well, and within a few seconds they could see it start to cover the archway from above.

“It is an elevator!” Ghazaran exclaimed. “Quickly, into the chamber, before the entry is closed!”

“And if the goal is to seal us within?” the Seer shot back, but he followed the others as they obeyed the cleric’s command. Ozmad was the last to make it, and by then he had to duck to avoid the descending ceiling. He hopped down onto the grate, already five feet below its original level, and slowly building up speed as it continued to drop. The grate provided uncertain footing, but the spaces between the thick bars were not wide enough for them to stand on the stone floor, so they had to make do.

The elevator continued to descend, grinding on unseen gears. The mechanism seemed to reach a terminal velocity; at least it did not appear that it would reach a speed that would prove hazardous upon a sudden stop. Striations on the walls allowed them to judge their approximate speed; it looked as though it took about a minute to cover roughly twenty feet.

“How deep does this go?” the Seer asked, after about five minutes had passed.

“It looks like we are about to find out,” Ghazaran said. The cleric had given up trying to stand on the vibrating grate, and had sat down. He now pointed at the wall, where another archway had become visible. The others readied themselves as the opening expanded, revealing another passageway beyond.

“How far down, do you think?” the cleric asked Jasek.

“About a hundred and ten, hundred and twenty feet,” the thief said, moving lightly over the grate to the tunnel mouth. The elevator came to a halt with a grinding thud; once it had stopped, Ghazaran got up, and walked over to the arch, with Ozmad as his shadow behind him. Jasek saw that the new floor lined up with that inside the elevator, with less than a finger’s thickness separating the two. “Impressive construction,” he said, checking the archway for traps before proceeding.

“It would appear that this was a one-way trip,” the Seer said. “Even if the elevator is designed to reset, I see no mechanism for lifting the grate back up into the ceiling.”

“If necessary, we will follow the Ravager out,” Ghazaran said. The cleric had recovered some of his confidence, it seemed, and he did not stop to check with his companion before gesturing Jasek forward. They fell into their usual formation, with Jasek scouting in the lead, and Navev shuffling along in the rear.

The passage ran straight ahead for about forty feet, then opened onto an irregular chamber through yet another broad stone arch. This room, unlike most of the others through which they had traveled, had been done up in a remarkable decoration. The walls were covered with reliefs that depicted a forest scene, supplemented by a series of stone carvings in the shape of tall, ancient oaks arranged around the perimeter of the chamber. Those statues rose up to brush the tiled ceiling some thirty feet above. Another of the now-familiar mithral vault doors, recessed into a deep alcove in the center of the opposite wall some forty feet away, appeared to be the only means of egress.

“Well now, if this isn’t a trap, I don’t know what is,” Jasek said.

Navev lifted a hand and blasted one of the stone trees flanking the entry. Stone chips went flying as the eldritch blast tore across the trunk of the statue, but nothing else happened.

“All right. Cautiously, but quickly,” Ghazaran said. The cleric nodded at Jasek, who took the lead. His sword was a black gleam in his hand, and he scanned the floor before every step, alert for hidden triggers or other traps.

He had reached the middle of the room when the response finally came.

The noise was surprisingly gentle, more like the whistling of wind through a forest than the cracking of breaking stone that he’d expected. Jasek shifted into a defensive stance and fell back as six of the stone trees came alive, their thick branches sweeping down like long arms. Their carved roots became legs that lifted the huge trunks off the floor.

Once animated, the stone guardians stepped forward to attack.

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I'm traveling for business tomorrow, so consider this the weekend cliffhanger. :)

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Chapter 32


It was not especially cold, but Allera could not suppress a shiver.

They had come by express invitation, this time, but the vault still felt like an alien and unwelcome place. The colored striations in the walls flickered oddly in the light of their torches, and the noises they made were either muted by the pressing weight of all that strange rock, or caught by some strange acoustic quirk and echoed back at them, distorted until they sounded like the wail of some tormented soul. As a result, there had not been much conversation, beyond the information that they needed as they pushed deeper into the complex.

Thus far, they had had a relatively easy time of it. The sudden opening of the vault hatch had nearly caught them off guard, but Dar had quickly ordered their companions to take hold of something solid. When the hatch had opened, and the gathered water had sloughed down through the opening, Secundus had slipped and would have fallen through, but for a quick action by Kiron. The young knight had ended up as mud-slicked and soaked through as the rest of them, by the time they all made it down to the floor of the cavern below, but he looked no less determined for it. They all knew what was at stake.

They all had an idea, but only Allera truly grasped the magnitude of what awaited them. Only she had confronted the Ravager, and even within its prison she had gotten a glimpse of its reality. Only a glimpse, but she still had nightmares about that which Amurru had shown her.

She shivered again. Maricela saw, and said, “Are you all right, healer?”

Allera nodded. “I’m fine.” She turned her attention back to the chamber that Dar and the others were searching. Behind them, the stone along the left wall was knitting slowly back together, and Allera knew that as soon as it was fully restored, the hissing barrier of brilliant energy would come back to life. This was as far as they had gotten into the complex, last time. During that visit, a pair of illusory demiliches had emerged from the walls and attacked them, knocking most of her companions into a catatonic state. Amurru had appeared to her for the first time, then. The memory of that encounter was still not a pleasant one.

This time, there had been no illusions to threaten them. Thus far they had encountered no guardians at all, although they had found some dark smears in the room of steel pillars. The smears could have been anything, but Allera remembered their desperate battle against dread wraiths in that room on their first visit here. Apparently the wraiths, if they had in fact been restored, had not been enough to stop the raiders that they tracked.

Their had been no other traces of their quarry, but there was only one way that they could have gone. The open vault doors indicated the way, but the trail had come to an apparent dead-end in this room. The only distinctive feature of the room—other than the energy field—was a set of three stone biers set into deep niches in the walls ahead and to either side. The remains of the long-dead warriors that had rested on those biers lay on the floor amidst a tumble of ancient armor and weapons, as if hastily searched and then discarded.

Zethas, the scout, spoke up from the far alcove. “I think there’s something under this stone block,” he said to the others. “And there’s some scrapes here that suggest it was moved recently.” Qatarn gestured, and the three guardsmen hastened to assist the wiry Elemite.

There was a flare of blue light behind them, as the walls completed their self-repair and the energy barrier erupted back into light. “Our escape is cut off,” Selaht commented. Allera glanced at the monk; their newest ally was still an enigmatic figure, who spoke little. Her eyes were continually drawn to the intricate tattoos that covered his hands and wrists, the patterns vanishing up into the sleeves of his loose robe. When he clenched his fists, the drawings moved and twisted almost like actual flames.

Maricela was staring back at the barrier. “How long has this all been here?” she asked. “Thousands of years?”

“This whole place is one big trap,” Allera found herself saying. “To keep the Ravager in.”

Dar and Kiron had joined the guardsmen, and together they were able to move the heavy stone slab. As the stone ground forward, it revealed a shaft that descended into another chamber below. An odd radiance of shifting colors could be seen glinting off the walls, but they could not discern its source from their current location.

Dar shone his torch on the walls of the shaft; there were no footholds or rungs to facilitate descent. He nodded at Zethras, who was already digging out his ropes, knotted at regular intervals to allow for an easier climb. The heavy stone slab made for a convenient anchor, and he looped the rope around it, tossing both ends down into the shaft.

Letellia rose up off the ground, and drifted through the air toward the shaft. For a moment it looked like she intended to go on ahead of them, as she had before, but Dar stood and moved to block her. “Scouts first,” he said.

Allera came forward to join them. She looked at Letellia, hovering beside the opening. For a moment, she thought that the sorceress would defy her husband, and push forward despite him. But finally, Letellia nodded incrementally, and drifted back a few paces.

While Dar and the others attended to the shaft, the healer followed the sorceress. For a moment, there was an awkward silence between them; Allera had many questions, but it was obvious that Letellia was in no mood to discuss what had happened to her. “Once we rest, I can heal the injury done to your throat,” she finally said.

“Do not bother. It is part of what I am, now.”

“Why... why didn’t you contact us earlier, Letellia? We tried repeatedly to find you... after, but even discern location did not reveal your location. We had feared you dead.”

“I was dead. My rebirth was... unpleasant, but it allowed me to find a new purpose.” She hesitated, and an almost human empathy passed across her face. “I do not blame you, Allera, none of you, for what happened to me. I made the choice that brought me to my fate.”

Allera’s response was interrupted by Dar. “We’re going down,” he said. Most of the soldiers had already descended on the ropes, and Aldos was helping Petronia as the knight lowered herself into the shaft. Allera looked back up at Letellia, but the sorceress was already moving, drifting quickly over the shaft before dropping like a stone, narrowly avoiding the descending knight.

“Are you all right?” Dar asked her, as she came over to him. He glanced at the mouth of the shaft. “Did she reveal anything more?”

“She has been through a lot. If we had more time, I would try to help her...”

Dar nodded in understanding. “After.” He handed one of the ropes to Allera, and took the other end himself. The two of them, the last to descend, dropped into the shaft, moving down quickly hand-over-hand to where the others waited below.

The shaft deposited them into a wide hall that extended to their left and right. The walls of the hall glimmered with reflected light in a range of colors, making them seem almost alive.

“What is that?” Allera asked, stepping away from the rope to look down the hall to the right. There was a glow shining there , almost blinding, a mélange of colors that was too bright to look at directly.

“Trouble,” Dar said. Gesturing to Kiron to watch their backs, he and Allera headed down the hall to the right.

“Look at the walls,” Allera said. They had been etched, faintly, with letters in a runic script, forming words no more than a few inches high. They covered the walls in long marches, from a few feet off the floor almost to the vaulted ceiling above.

“They are names,” Letellia said. “This place is a memorial of a civilization long dead.” She drifted forward above them, her feet a good three feet off the ground.

“How do you know that?” Dar growled.

“I can hear their silent cries,” Letellia replied, her voice distant, her eyes fixed on some place far ahead.

Several of the soldiers shared grim looks, but no one spoke.

Zethas and Selaht, scouting ahead, were approaching the end of the passage ahead. Allera could now distinguish the source of the bright lights as a pair of scintillating globes. Before them, the scout and monk were just vague black outlines. Zethas approached one of the spheres with caution, a hand raised to shelter his eyes, the other probing ahead of him like a blind man seeking the edge of a wall.

“Do not touch them, on your lives,” Letellia’s voice sounded clearly. The Elemite drew back his hand as if he’d been scalded. She looked down at Dar. “They are prismatic spheres, soverign barriers against all but the most powerful of magics. Even a casual contact with the colors is almost certain death.”

“I wonder what they are hiding?” Kiron asked.

“It’s not our concern,” Dar said. “I doubt that our friends are inside them, so we keep going.” He gestured to Zethas, who turned away from the globe and pressed on. Allera could see that the corridor turned to the left and continued; she hadn’t noticed earlier with the light from the spheres blinding her.

“Stay close, nobody touch anything,” Qatarn cautioned his men. From the looks on the faces of the guardsmen, the warning was unnecessary.

The passage continued for another twenty paces, the scrawl of names continuing around them, until they encountered another pair of alcoves, another two spheres. There was a narrow space between them, and they could see an archway ahead that might have been an exit, so after a brief hesitation Dar gestured them forward. Each of them passed warily through the gap, keeping their hands and weapons pressed close against their bodies, as far from the shifting lights as possible. But the static barriers did not stir from their places, and within a few moments they were all through safely.

“A dead end,” Kiron said, looking at the arch. Once beyond the prismatic spheres they could see that it was blocked from top to bottom by a massive slab of stone.

“Zethas, check it out,” Dar said. The scout started forward, but before he reached the arch there was a flicker in the air, a shimmering as though a bit of dust had gotten frozen in the light. The scout drew back suddenly, and several of the others lifted weapons, but the flicker was gone as swiftly as it had come. But for the barest instant, the outline of something had been there.

“This place is cursed,” Tertius said, holding his sword in white-fingered hands.

“When I want your opinion, soldier, I will ask for it,” Qatarn barked. “You are a man of the Watch, not a soothsayer or priest.” But even though the centurion’s voice was level, all of them could feel the unease that radiated from this place like heat from a fire.

Zethas looked back at Dar, who nodded back toward the arch. Swallowing, the Elemite started forward again. But he’d barely made it three steps when a grinding noise began, a sound like the world below them coming alive.

“It’s moving,” Kiron said, pointing with his sword at the stone within the arch. They could all see it, the slab slowly moving upward. It revealed only more stone below, but kept rising. Maricela moved to his side, her own eyes wide with expectation.

“The way is being opened for us,” Letellia said.

“Or it’s a trap,” Aldos said.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Dar said. He faced the slab, which kept rising, slowly but continuously. “All we can do now is wait.”

And so they waited.


Chapter 33


Jasek fell back as the six stone trees, three on each side of the room, came to life and started forward.

But his companions had been ready for something like this, and were quick to act. The Seer invoked a wall of force, cutting off the entire left side of the chamber, and trapping three of the trees behind it. The stone trees battered at the barrier, but their efforts had no effect.

The three trees on the right moved forward ponderously, their long limbs giving them a considerable reach. Navev hit one of them with an eldritch blast, but the streaking black energies merely vanished into the thing, absorbed without inflicting damage. “Golems, resistant to magic,” Parzad suggested.

But the Seer frowned. “I do not believe so,” he said. He hurled a lightning bolt that clipped two of the trees in its arc, but like Navev’s attack, his magic merely flashed harmlessly around their trunks, doing no damage. “Elementals of some sort, I believe. But their spell resistance is considerable, and possibly beyond my ability to penetrate.”

Ozmad said nothing, and merely made a gesture that invoked an unholy aura around himself. The black radiance spread outward, its protection coalescing around each of the elf’s companions, offering protection.

That assistance proved very timely as Jasek leapt back, the closest tree slamming its long branches down into the ground where he’d been standing. Falah rushed forward to engage the creatures and keep them away from the casters, unslinging his khopesh as he ran. But he was still a good five paces away from the trunk of the nearest when a branch snapped down into his side, knocking him flying across the room. He hit the wall next to the archway hard enough to drive the air from his lungs, and as he fell to his feet he slumped against the stone, gasping for breath.

Aerim surged into battle in the Razhuri fighter’s wake. Another branch tore down at him, but the veteran warrior shifted subtly to the left, surging forward as the jagged ends of the stone limbs raked the air behind him. But before he could draw close enough to its trunk to attack, the second tree moved to block him. A pair of huge branches came down, smashing into him from each side like a pair of sledges. Stone branches jabbed into his armored torso like a dozen spearheads, while a forest of limbs formed a dense web around him, holding him fast while the branches continued to grind away at him.

Jasek, still evading, glanced over his shoulder to see the last tree bearing down on him. He dove forward as it swept a huge branch down toward him. While his maneuver allowed him to slip under the thick bole of the branch, he was snagged by the thinner trailing branches that jutted from the limb like a hundred trailing fingers. The tree scooped him off the ground like a heap of dirt caught by a shovel, and before he could attempt to slip free it twisted and hurled him across the room. He narrowly missed being brained by the capstone in the entry arch, but went a good fifteen feet further down the tunnel beyond before he finally hit the ground. The thief remained aware enough to roll with the impact, but he was almost back to the elevator before he finally came to a halt, battered and dazed from the rough treatment.

Ghazaran looked at Parzad. “Tend to Falah,” the cleric said. He drew out his mace-like rod as he turned back to face the seemingly invincible tree-golems, and invoked a righteous might spell. His stature grew to twice his original size, but the trees still loomed over him by a considerable margin. Stepping forward, he engaged the tree that had struck down Falah, delivering a powerful blow to its trunk that hit hard enough to crack the stone. The tree, however, countered with a series of titanic impacts that knocked the cleric roughly to the side. Ghazaran fell against the slick wall of force, recovering in time to turn into another series of powerful attacks.

In the meantime, the tree that had hurled Jasek away had made its way forward to engage the spellcasters in the second rank. The Seer completed a haste spell, bolstering his allies, but then was quick to use his enhanced speed to beat a hasty retreat. He fell back into the entryway, where he vanished under the cover of an invisibility spell. Ozmad held his ground, and seemed almost careless of the danger, an unperturbed look on his face as he looked up at the massive thing bearing down on him. The tree lifted several of its massive branches as it came within reach of the elf, and with its next “step” it drove them down, clearly intending to reduce its foe to a bloody smear on the chamber floor.

But in the sparest instant before the blow landed, Ozmad summoned his magical power to his defense. A globe of transparent blue energy appeared around him, and the stone tree’s assault was rebuffed as solidly as if it had been a real tree’s branches hitting an iron wall. The tree hit the resilient sphere a second time, and then a third, but within the globe Ozmad merely stood unaffected, casting more buffing spells. The golem could not harm him within the protection of the barrier, but as long as it was up, neither could he do anything to affect the course of the battle outside.

With a roar and a cracking of stone, Duke Aerim exploded through the crushing branches holding him. The tree lashed him with a long protruding root as he stepped up to the massive trunk, but he took the hit across his armored torso without flinching. The fighter, armed with strength augmented beyond that of any common man, smote the tree solidly across the bole with his greatsword. The ancient weapon, forged by dwarven smiths in a time far beyond living memory, rang as it smashed into the thing’s solid substance, but the steel held, and the stone gave way. A crack opened in its trunk, and a hissing noise issued from within. Aerim recovered his swing and brought the sword up to follow up with another strike.

But as the tree reared back, and the crack Aerim had opened grew wider, a gout of pustulent ochre substance issued from the wound, spraying over the face and body of the armored warrior. Wisps of smoke rose from his golden robe and mithral armor as the caustic substance burned him, and the man’s scream echoed from within the depths of his helmet, filling the chamber with a discordant noise of burning agony.


Faren said:
Interesting elementals. Are those your creation, Lazybones?
They are from the module, and VERY tough. Remember that this entire area was built for characters around L20. This is not an encounter that's going to go swiftly. :)


Chapter 34


Ghazaran and his companions were finding themselves hard-pressed by the stone treants, which thus far had dished out considerable damage without being seriously harmed in return. The sheer size of the guardians made them difficult to engage, for they could toss their diminutive foes about with little effort, as Falah and Jasek had already learned.

But the invaders of the vault had their own surprises in store. Ghazaran held his ground against his foe, his righteous might spell giving him the size and strength needed to go toe-to-toe against one of the stone trees. The thing still had a considerable advantage, but the spell protected him against the worst of its blows, allowing him to stay engaged long enough to buy time for his allies to regain the initiative.

Thus far, the allies weren’t having much luck with that.

Aerim’s foe had taken a powerful blow, but that in turn only raised a new danger, the deadly acidic properties of the things’ “blood”. The warrior, more cautious now, leapt over a twisting root and delivered another strike that opened another crack in the tree’s knotted trunk. This time the Duke was able to avoid the gusher of caustic fluid, but he could not avoid being struck by another sweeping branch, which smacked hard into his left hip, lifting him into the air and sending him flying across the room toward the far door. He smashed into a carving of creeping vines, shattering them in a crash of shattered fragments and stone dust.

He fell forward and landed on his feet, winded but intact.

The last of the stone trees continued to batter at Ozmad’s resilient sphere, but it was clear that the elf was not coming out from his shelter until good and ready. The elf continued to layer magical wards upon himself, and his form began to shift and blur within the confines of his barrier as a displacement spell took effect.

The tree failed to detect Zafir Navev until the mummy was standing directly beside it. The warlock lifted a withered claw, and blasted the tree with another eldritch blast.

This time, the magic pierced the thing’s spell resistance, and a long swath of dark stone exploded from its side as the black energies tore into it. The injury seemed like little more than a scratch, though, the blackened stretch covering only a tiny fraction of the thing’s huge trunk. The impact had unbalanced it, however, and as another branch came crashing down on the elf’s sphere it leaned far over, crashing down onto another limb as it struggled to right itself. Navev hit it again, but its attacks had only gained a brief advantage, as the tree swept out another branch and snagged the mummy up, lifting it into the air in a crushing grip. The warlock struggled, but it did not have anything close to the strength needed to break free.

Falah returned to the fray, bolstered by a healing potion and by a jolt of energizing psionic power from Parzad. The fighter rushed back into the melee, coming to the aid of Ghazaran. Fortunately his charge coincided with Navev’s initial attack on the tree between him and his goal, so he was able to avoid an attack of opportunity as he circled that melee and closed on the second foe. That tree crashed against the wall of force as the cleric continued to press it, but for each hit that the priest delivered with his rod, the tree was doubling that with powerful slams from its branches. Ghazaran was clearly starting to show the effects of that pounding, and his own counters were coming slower with each hit he absorbed.

His situation looked about to get a whole lot worse, as the tree that had tossed aside Aerim lumbered forward to join in the beating. Falah saw it coming, and moved to block its advance, but the human fighter looked almost pathetic as he lifted his khopesh against the oncoming monstrosity. It swatted him almost casually, but this time the Razhuri rolled with the hit, coming up next to one of the massive roots. He struck it hard, his blade cutting a gash that spilled a jet of that ugly yellow ichor. Falah fell back, trying to avoid that toxic plume, but the distraction cost him another hit that knocked him onto his back. He slid to a stop ten feet from where he’d been struck, coughing from the vapors that he’d inhaled.

Unfortunately for him, that was still within reach of the creature.

Navev continued to lash out at the tree even as the stone monster tightened its grip, firing an eldritch blast at the branch that held it. The treant was not impressed, and hurled its prisoner in a hard arc upward. Navev slammed first against the vaulted ceiling, then the far wall, and finally caromed off the floor, spinning to a stop not far from where he’d launched his initial attack at the thing some fifteen seconds before. The tree lurched forward, lifting its cumbersome frame on its roots, obviously intending to simply crush the undead warlock beneath its bulk.

Its advance took it past Ozmad, who had been forgotten in the face of a more immediate threat. But as it continued past the elf, his resilient sphere flickered and vanished. The elf drew out the little mattock from his belt, and began to change. He grew rapidly, his body swelling as his statue expanded, until he was eight feet, ten, twelve, and still he grew. The tree, sensing perhaps that something was amiss, took a backwards swipe at him with a branch, but the blow passed harmlessly through him, fooled by his displacement spell. His weapon, its true nature revealed now as a mattock of the titans, grew with him, and if anything transformed faster, until the elf—now possessed of the size and form of a cloud giant—had to hold it in two hands.

The tree aborted its trampling of Navev and turned to face Ozmad. The now-huge arcanist went to work with his weapon, smashing it into the tree, which was now about the same size as he. The mattock delivered crushing blows, and the tree shook with the force of the impacts. It tried to counter, but Ozmad’s earlier delay stood him in good stead now, as his wards either deflected or absorbed most of its strikes. Even the one solid hit that the tree landed barely seemed to faze him; his bear’s endurance and greater heroism spells had enhanced his physical stamina until he was almost unstoppable.

The same could not be said for Ghazaran, who fell to one knee as his foe delivered a series of punishing blows to his head and body. The cleric, his face bloodied from a hit that had crushed against the front of his helmet, staggered to his feet in time to take a solid shot across the front of his body that drove him back against the wall of force. The three treants behind the barrier continued to pound against it, waiting for the spell to dissipate.

Ghazaran’s foe surged forward to finish him off, but before it could resume its assault, the priest cast a heal spell. He gave ground before its rush, moving slowly back along the wall, protecting his flank and preempting a full attack from the stone tree. But the room was not that big, even considering the portion cut off by the Seer’s barrier, and there was not much room for him to retreat.

Falah struggled to get up as his tree bore down on him, but the heel of his boot slipped on a patch of yellow ichor, and he fell. The tree surged forward to trample him, but in the instant before he would have been crushed, the fighter shot out of its path, sliding to the side along the floor, coming to a stop a good fifteen feet away, just out of its reach. The respite was temporary, as the tree shifted to follow, but it found itself confronted once again by Aerim, who had recovered enough to return to the fray. The Duke seemed intent on another charge, but as the tree started to attack he aborted his rush, and fell into a defensive stance. The branch was still long enough to strike him, but it was a glancing blow instead of another devastating impact, and as it drew back the limb the warrior hacked at it with his blade, severing a six-foot length of protruding stone that fell to the ground, hissing as more of the yellow gunk was released into the air.

The tree, of course, did not feel pain, but Aerim was able to draw it after him as it broke off from Falah to engage him. He did not have much room to retreat either, but he led it slowly back toward the mithral door recessed in the far wall, dodging sweeping branches and occasionally lunging out with his sword to deliver a minor hit.

Black tendrils of power flared in the front of the room, where Navev was continuing to support Ozmad in laying waste to the first of the stone treants. The giant was wielding the mattock of the titans with great efficiency against the thing, delivering crushing blows that oozed rather than jetted the poisonous yellow substance from its body. He hewed at it with a calm precision, almost more like a lumberjack than a fighter in his singleminded focus upon the task. The tree continued to attack him, but his wards held, and even the hits that pierced his defenses failed to do enough damage to seriously hurt him.

The same could not be said for the tree, and the abuse finally became too much for it as Ozmad delivered a final vicious blow that snapped its trunk with a loud and terrible crack. The tree crumbled as it fell to the ground, disgorging a plume of noxious spray that spread out across the floor around its remains.

Ozmad paid it no heed, striding back across the room toward where a desperate battle was still being raged.

The Seer’s voice, magically enhanced to fill the chamber, echoed near the entrance. “The wall of force will not last much longer! We must withdraw!”

“No!” Ghazaran shouted, grunting as a sweeping branch clipped his shoulder. “Forward, to the far door! We must make it through!” He ducked under another branch and pushed forward, coming around the tree and putting it between him and the wall of force. The maneuver cost him, as the tree slashed its branches across his face and chest. Red sprayed out from under his helmet; one of the long stone juts had sliced open his jaw to the bone.

Aerim had avoided serious damage as he’d run the treant in a zig-zagging course back across the room, but he was quickly running out of room to maneuver as the alcove and its door drew nearer behind him. But as he drew within ten paces of the recessed door, the mithral portal groaned and swung ponderously open. The Duke, alerted by the noise, shifted slightly, wary of another threat, but the only thing there was a black shadow, which resolved into Jasek as the thief drew back his cowl and shouted a warning to the others.

“Quick, everyone through!”

Aerim turned to hold off the treant on his back, but as he pivoted he saw that he was already too late. He managed to get his sword up, but the blow that crashed into him was far stronger than his parry, and as something hard slammed into the front of his helmet he felt only a vague sensation of flying, and then... nothing.


Chapter 35


Jasek started to shout a warning, but he was too late, as Aerim went down under the stone treant’s attack. He vascilated in the doorway for an instant, just an instant, as the creature lumbered forward to crush the fallen Duke. Jasek was no fighter; he’d seen more than enough of the battle as he’d snuck around to the mithral door to know that he would barely slow the thing.

He sensed rather than saw someone approaching fast from his left; he stepped aside in time to avoid the Seer, who darted through the doorway, still shrouded by invisibility. He saw Parzad, approaching along the wall to his left. Falah was still over by Ghazaran, behind the nearer of the treants, still a good fifteen paces distant. They were still fighting the other creature, giving ground, and Jasek could see that they risked being caught between the two monsters, which would open them up to a world of hurt.

But the equalizer in that equation was already moving to intercept. Ozmad had come around Ghazaran’s foe, and was rushing with giant-sized strides toward the second. But Jasek could tell with a glance that there was no way that the giant would reach the treant before it crushed Aerim.

“So long, chum,” the thief said, as the treant lifted the mass of roots that would put an end to the short return of Duke Aerim.

And then, as Jasek’s eyes widened in surprise, the prone form of the Duke shot forward toward him, sliding along the floor as if dragged by an invisible team of horses. He came to a stop almost at the thief’s feet, and Jasek was even more surprised to see that the man was already coming around, groaning as he shook his head and tried to get up. Jasek helped him, uncomfortably aware of the huge figure that was looming very tall indeed over them as it approached.

“Get through the door!” he hissed, all but dragging the semi-conscious fighter after him. A huge branch lifted and came sweeping down toward them; reflexively Jasek dropped his companion and leapt straight back. A sudden pain greeted him as his shoulder clipped the metal threshold of the doorway, and he fell into an awkward crouch in the narrow opening. He heard a grunting noise and realized that the Seer was trying to push the door shut.

The swinging branch passed close enough to fill the gap with a gust of wind. Aerim fell down, but the crushing impact Jasek had expected never reached him. As he watched the treant was flung roughly back and to the side, and as it left the focus of his gaze he could see the long shaft of Ozmad’s mattock of the titans hooked under one of its branches. The giant stepped into position in front of the door, blood streaking his face where one of the branches had slashed him.

“Get through the door!” he boomed. Jasek saw Ghazaran, already starting to shrink back to his normal size, charging toward him, Falah a shadow behind him. There was no sign of Zafir Navev, but Jasek did not spare a moment’s instant for the mummy; the creature clearly had no problems with surviving. What he focused on was getting out of the way. Aerim had gotten up again, moving under his own power despite what was obviously a number of grievous wounds. Parzad passed through the slowly closing gap of the doorway just a step behind the Duke. Ghazaran and Falah ran between Ozmad’s legs and were through just a few heartbeats behind him.

“Quickly, we must seal the door!” the Seer exclaimed, still pushing at the heavy mithral portal. It was more physical exertion than Jasek had ever seen the mage engage in during the entirety of their admittedly brief time together. Parzad was standing nearby, neither helping nor hindering, and now Jasek saw Navev as well, hovering silently in the shadows a short distance away.

“We have to wait for Ozmad!” Ghazaran returned. Jasek could no longer see out into the chamber, but he could hear the loud crash of blows as the giant held off both of the remaining treants. The thief wasn’t sure who to give the edge to in that confrontation, but having felt the strength of the massive trees first hand, he wasn’t going to put a bet on his companion, either.

But the door was almost completely shut, now, and there was no way that the elf would make it through, let alone in his giant-sized form. Ghazaran nodded to Falah, who started toward the door, but even as he reached for it, a sudden gust of yellow smoke drifted through the closing crack. Falah drew back reflexively as more of the stuff poured around the edges of the door, coalescing on the near side of the mithral slab.

“Now, close it!” Ghazaran said, pushing forward. Jasek joined them, and the door slammed shut with a loud click, a noise that was echoed several times as whatever mechanism operated the portal sealed it in place. As the chaos of their escape faded, they all became aware of a whirring sound that filled the corridor.

The gaseous cloud was already forming back into Ozmad, who had once again returned to his elf-form. He seemed little the worse for his experience, although it was difficult to see him clearly with the still-shifting auras of his displacement and unholy aura spells lingering about his body.

Ghazaran looked at Jasek. “Well done, getting the door open.”

The thief nodded. “These round doors seem to have been intended to keep something in, rather than to keep the likes of us out.”

The Seer had become visible again; either his spell had lapsed, or he had dismissed it. “And if there had been another vacuum beyond?” he asked.

“Then we would have been sucked into that,” Jasek said, drawing his everburning torch out from under his cloak, and lifting it to shine down the passage behind them.

They all looked in that direction, and saw the source of the whirring noise.

The corridor formed an uneven course, with deep alcoves flanking the center of the tunnel, forming nooks that alternated between the right and the left. Where those nooks intersected tall pillars jutted out into the corridor. At first, it looked as though some odd distortion surrounded those pillars, a blurring in the air around them, but as they continued to stare, they could see that the pillars were in fact spinning, and the noise they made came from long blades that were buried in the stone, blades that were cutting the air so fast that they formed a blur. The blades were long enough that they almost touched in the center of the corridor, forming a deadly arc of spinning steel that quite effectively barred their path forward.


First Post
Dang! Is it so wrong of me to have been rooting for the trees?

Thanks for keeping the story alive, Lazybones! Getting myself caught up is something I look forward to every weekday.


Vurt said:
Dang! Is it so wrong of me to have been rooting for the trees?

Thanks for keeping the story alive, Lazybones! Getting myself caught up is something I look forward to every weekday.
Glad you're enjoying the story, Vurt!

* * * * *

Chapter 36


The spinning pillars and their attached blades continued their constant whirr, blocking the passage as effectively as a solid stone wall.

Aerim removed his helmet. There was a long shard of stone, a part of one of the stone treants’ branches, jutting from his neck. The vicious puncture trailed a line of bright red blood down his chest. He reached up and groped at it, yanking it out as soon as he got a decent grip. His hands were slick with blood, and more oozed out of the wound as he withdrew the shard. Ghazaran started toward him, another of his healing wands in his hands, but the Duke held him at bay with a raised hand.

As they watched, the long trail of blood... moved, with fat drops of the red liquid flowing back up into the deep wound. The opening in his neck seemed to drink up the blood, closing as the last of it was reabsorbed back into the Duke’s body.

Aerim could not see what happened, but he could see the reaction on the faces of the others. He drew off his left glove. There was a deep cut on the back of his hand that ran from the web of flesh between his thumb and forefinger, back down almost to his wrist. Blood was smeared around it, but as he watched, all of the crimson fluid seeped back into the slash, which closed back up, leaving his skin unmarred.

“What did you do to me?” he said, staring at his hand.

“I brought you back from an eternity of torment,” Ghazaran said simply. “But the Bloodways are still a part of you. I told you that, when I brought you back to life.”

“And this,” the Duke said, clenching his fist, “This, you call life?”

“This is not the time to address this,” the cleric said. “But should we complete our mission, I swear to you that I will do everything in my power to purge the taint you bear from you. And then I will grant you the other reward that I promised.”

The Duke’s stare was cold and penetrating, but he said nothing. Ghazaran did not wilt under that scrutiny, and just stood there, the two connected by an invisible line.

“Um... we’ve got bigger problems here, guys,” Jasek said. The thief had moved cautiously up almost to the very edge of the reach of the spinning blades. Their passage caused his cloak to flare up around his body, and he was very careful not to let its flapping ends anywhere near to the blurring steel tips. “There is a pattern here, but the gaps are almost imperceptible. And the pillars are interconnected, and spin in different directions; one screw up and you get stuck in between them, and carved into pieces.”

Ghazaran broke the contact between him and Aerim, and looked at the Seer. “You can transport us across?”

The wizard’s expression was dubious. “I can take five, no more. The warlock can obviously handle itself, but that still leaves six.”

Ozmad started to say something, but Aerim was already walking forward. Ghazaran opened his mouth to shout something, but the words were lost as the Duke stepped into the reach of the spinning blades. For a moment, the knight moved in a blur that seemed to echo the passage of the deadly steel, and then he was through the first gap, darting ahead out of the reach of the first gauntlet of pillars.

The others watched, transfixed by the scene, as the Duke made his way to the second set of deadly blades. He slowed for the barest instant, studying the pattern of spinning blades, and then he was diving through, against twisting his armored body to avoid the slashing blades.

For a moment, it looked as though he had a chance to escape the deadly circuit unscathed. But even as he dove forward through the deadly gap between the second pair of pillars, steel flashed, slicing hard into his right shoulder. They could see droplets of blood flicker in the air as they caught the light. Aerim turned and avoided being hurled back into the deadly zone betwixt the pillars, and staggered to the side, into one of the alcoves. He was drawn up short as another blade clipped his breastplate, hard enough to hurt, but not hard enough to knock him down. He took a step back and remained there in the nook, standing perfectly still in one of the narrow gaps between the blade arcs.

Ghazaran turned to the Seer. “Aid him.”

The wizard’s lips twisted into a faint sneer. “Give me one of the Tears, and I will consider it.”

Ghazaran looked back at Ozmad, but the elf looked slightly amused, if anything. “It would seem that our Duke has plans of his own,” he said.

Aerim crouched and darted forward again. He made his way past the third set of pillars, taking another hit, but getting past. He did not pause this time, and leapt forward into the last circuit of spinning blades.

“He’s going to make it,” Jasek said. But the Duke’s luck had been used up. A blade clipped his shoulder, hard, and then another caught him solidly across the body, knocking him back. Aerim was flung roughly into the deadly matrix between the sets of pillars. He hung there in the air, caught within a flashing storm of blades that rained down on him from multiple directions, holding him in place as they slammed hard into his body, twisting him around in a violent circle like some hapless child’s toy.

“Well, so much for the Duke,” the Seer drawled.


First Post
Wow, sure stinks to be Aerim. Start out a noble knight, then:
Get killed by Orcus, raised to be an undead wraith, then thousands of years later you get raised by some crazy priest who tricks you into being his undying, constantly bloodied meatshield so that he can try and end the world. And if I were Aerim, I'd be pretty sure Ghaz won't keep either of those two promises made to me, but probably too desperate to care.
Fun to read though. Wonder how the DBS are doing at this point, and I wonder how a match between Dar and Aerim would start and turn out.
Last edited:


Don't worry, we'll get back to the Doomed Bastards eventually.

Also, in my writing this month I reached a point in the story where things were set at a pretty dramatic fork, and I kept going back and forth on which way I wanted it to go. So I've decided to pose the question to you, the readers of this story. When we get there, I'll post a poll thread to gauge your thoughts. I'll go ahead and write a few chapters down each path so that I don't lose too much time in resuming the story.

* * * * *

Chapter 37


At the Seer’s comment, Jasek glanced back, but instead of the wizard’s smirk, his eyes were drawn to the expression on Ghazaran’s face. The cleric’s features remained utterly cool, but there was something in his eyes, an intensity, that sent a cold chill down the thief’s spine. For a moment, he thought that the cleric would go in after the Duke himself, but other than a slight clenching of his fists, he made no move.

He turned back, unable to resist watching the warrior’s end. But to his surprise, Aerim was still fighting, still alive. Bloody wounds covered his upper torso, and as he watched, a blade took his left leg out from under him. That should have ended it right there, but as Jasek watched in amazement Aerim lurched forward, ducking under a sweeping blade that would have taken him in the neck, leaping off his good leg, twisting in mid-air out of the path of a second blade. Another hit him in the torso as he reached the apogee of his leap, but he was already through, and it knocked him forward rather than back into the trap. He spun around and fell, but rolled forward, and came up into a crouch, breathing heavily.

“Take us across,” Ghazaran commanded. The five of them pressed close around the Seer, who invoked his magic, opening a dimension door that took them far down the passage, ahead of Aerim and well past the area of risk. Navev followed a few moments later.

Gesturing for Falah and Parzad to watch the corridor ahead—it bent around another corner to the left after a short distance further—Ghazaran turned to Aerim. He offered no aid as the Duke pulled himself to his feet. He had suffered grievous wounds, but they had already witnessed how quickly he healed.

“That was a foolish and unnecessary risk,” the cleric said. “With the resources at our disposal, we would have found a way to get across.”

Aerim fixed the cleric with his usual hard stare. “Perhaps now we each understand the other,” he said. Grimacing slightly as he put weight on his injured leg, he walked past the priest without another word, heading down the corridor toward the bend. When he walked past the Seer, his hand suddenly shot out. His palm smacked hard into the wizard’s cheek, hard enough to knock him off his feet. The Seer fell to the ground, stunned; his stoneskin had protected him from serious injury, but the suddenness of the attack had caught him off guard.

After a second, fury replaced surprise, and he lifted his hands, beginning the somatic gestures needed for a spell.

Aerim merely looked down at him, with less emotion than if the Seer had been a stone he’d inadvertently dislodged. The wizard hesitated, looking at the others. No one made any move to interfere. The Seer snarled and pushed himself back to his feet, but by the time he’d turned back to the Duke, Aerim had already turned away and was walking toward the bend in the passage.

The others followed. Parzad and Falah lingered behind, waiting for their master, but they went on around the corner after a nod from Ghazaran, leaving him and the wizard alone for a moment. The Seer looked back at the cleric, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. Then he turned and followed after the rest of the group.

The cleric looked back once more at the deadly storm of spinning blades, and then turned and followed them.

The bend in the passage was followed by only a few dozen strides before it culminated in another of the mithral vault doors. Like the others they had encountered thus far, this one had a wheel-lock to operate it on this side; like the others it had been designed to prevent egress, not entry. Jasek was already scanning the door for hidden traps or other threats; as the Seer and Ghazaran rejoined the group he nodded to Falah that he could begin to open it.

The door, like the others, took considerable effort to open, but the Razhuri fighter kept at it, twisting the wheel in a ponderous but consistent motion. When the locking mechanism finally released, the door began to swing outward, revealing a vast, dimly lit space beyond.

“By the gods,” Jasek said, the words drawn from him without conscious thought.

The chamber was larger by an order of magnitude than anything they had encountered thus far. The place was irregularly shaped, a huge cavern that stretched onward for almost two hundred feet, its far end a vague vista in the distance. The light came from everywhere and nowhere at once, a dim shimmering that suffused the very air itself. It was not enough to clearly distinguish many details, but there was one feature that caught their attention right away, and which had provoked Jasek’s curse.

It stood facing away from them, looking out into the room. The statue was massive, fifty or sixty feet tall from the bottom of its feet to the top of the sword it held outstretched above it. The depiction was of a winged man, carved with armor in an archaic style, a breastplate and greaves to cover the arms and legs, like one of the gladiators of the ancient days. Even facing away from them, they could all feel the presence of it, something in the stone that stood watching, waiting.

“A guardian,” the Seer said.

“It is not watching for us,” Ghazaran replied. As they moved forward, cautiously, their lights revealed more than the chamber’s dim glow had hidden. The walls to either side of them were carved with intricate detail, dominated with deep reliefs of armored men, warriors in stone that marched around the perimeter of the room. Those carvings seemed to extend across the length of the cavern. Most of the cavern was slightly lower than the area around the entry; the floor rose as it approached them, forming a platform of sorts upon which the huge stone angel stood sentry.

Their eyes were continuously drawn to that sentinel, dominating the room. They could all feel something from it, a sense of power in waiting, anticipating something that might happen in the next minute, or not for a thousand years. They moved forward slowly, giving its huge feet a wide berth.

It was Ozmad who finally awakened them to the danger. “The watchers stir,” the elf said. At first they all stared back up at the angel, but the huge statue had not moved. But the noise of stone grinding alerted them to what the elf had sensed, and they looked back down to see the stone warriors stepping out of the reliefs in the walls. Each stood over nine feet tall, and they shook the ground with their movements. There was a full score of them, each stepping into formation as they pulled away from the wall.

And they were fast, faster than men, the sound of their footfalls melding into a cacophony of noise that filled the chamber, building and echoing until it pounded at their senses like a hammer.

Aerim’s shout sounded over that din. “FALL BACK!” he yelled, but even as they started to retreat, the charging horde swept over them.


Chapter 38


They came on so quickly, that the defenders barely had time to ready their weapons before the leading edge of the golem charge hit them.

Aerim was in the forefront, and he took a blow across his chest that would have toppled a normal man, even in heavy armor. But the Duke merely grunted, staggering backwards but recovering quickly. A second golem came around the first and lunged at him, but he met it with a powerful swing of his blade. The enchanted steel sang off the golem’s body, and shards of stone went flying from the impact. The golem swept a fist at him, but he was already falling back, and the monster’s attack hit only empty air.

More golems came up the opposite site of the platform, around the far side of the huge stone angel. Falah stepped forward to block the path of the leading foe toward Ghazaran and the other casters, but he paid for it as the creature smashed into him. The Razhuri was a tough fighter, but the golem outweighed him by a factor of ten, and he was flung roughly back, bouncing hard on the floor and rolling to a stop a good fifteen feet away. Dazed by the force of the collision, he nevertheless had kept his grip on his sword, and he immediately started to come to his feet.

The golem that had hit him kept on coming, flanked by another to each side. But before they could reach the rest of the group black tendrils erupted from the floor, twining around the legs of the stone warriors. At once the temperature plummeted. Navev’s chilling tentacles only partially hindered the golems, their mass and strength allowing them to tear free of their clinging grasp. But even a few seconds’ delay gave the companions time to fall back to the vault door.

“Duke Aerim!” Ghazaran yelled. The Duke was continuing to give ground, but now three golems were pressing him, crowding in on each other as they delivered strike after strike. Somehow, Aerim had kept both his footing and his position, subtly adjusting his path of retreat so that the golems could not surround and overwhelm him. He had delivered a second hit on the one he’d first engaged, and deep cracks covered its body, but the golem paid no heed to the damage.

The lead golem on the other side of the platform pushed through the last of the chilling tentacles on the edge of Navev’s invocation, and moved forward to intercept the Duke. Another had made its way around Aerim, moving along the wall, and it lunged forward at the closest target, which happened to be Navev. Jasek, a few steps closer to the door, saw it coming and shouted a warning, but the undead warlock merely turned and impassively watched the two thousand pounds of stone death rushing toward it. The thief hesitated only an instant, then turned and darted toward the mouth of the passage, the round opening gleaming with the ring of bright mithral set into the surrounding stone. The Seer was already trying to pull the heavy door shut, but he was either waiting for the rest of them, or having difficulty swinging it on its massive recessed hinges.

There was a massive noise as the golem charging Navev reached his target, and brought its massive fists down. The mummy had made no move to evade, but in the last instant there had been a black flash of energy, and the golem’s strike passed harmlessly through the warlock, striking the floor with enough force to open a long crack in the ancient stone. The floor was of the same odd stone as the rest of the complex, and almost at once the damage began to repair itself, the jagged opening slowly knitting back together. The golem leaned precipitously forward, passing through the image left behind by the warlock’s dimensional shift, but it quickly recovered, resuming its charge forward.

They had almost all won back to the doorway, all save Aerim, who now found his route to the escape blocked by the golem that had escaped the chilling tentacles. He did not have time for hesitation; several golems were on his heels, and it was not clear how even he could withstand their combined assault.

Ghazaran looked at Ozmad, who had watched the entire battle with dispassionate observation, falling back to the doorway as though he were on a feastday stroll. “We need him,” the cleric said.

The elf waved a hand, and a black slick formed upon the ground directly in front of the golem advancing to block Aerim. The stone warrior’s foot slid out from under it, and it plummeted forward, directly toward Aerim. The Duke, seeing two thousand pounds of stone come crushing down toward him, leapt forward, diving under the falling golem. He landed on the edge of Ozmad’s grease effect and slid forward, his heavy armor scraping on the smooth floor. He was up even before his momentum had fully eased. The golems pursuing were only a step behind him, barely delayed by having to hurdle or bypass their fallen companion. But the door, persuaded by the combined efforts of the Seer, Jasek, and Parzad, was swinging shut, and as Aerim surged forward, turning his body to slide through the narrowing gap, it slid back into its threshold like a cork being thrust into a bottle. Falah reached for the heavy wheel that would reseal it.

But before he could work the mechanism, the door shuddered, and creaked back open a few inches. Falah pulled at the wheel, but he may as well have been trying to stop an avalanche.

The door groaned alarmingly on its hinges as it swung open another half-foot. Several sets of stone fingers were visible around the edges.

“Oh, we’re screwed,” Jasek said, to nobody in particular.


Chapter 39


The door creaked open wider, slowly, with a noise like the scream of a thousand dying animals. The golems must have bent the door on its hinges in their initial forcing of it, but even solid mithral could not withstand their combined strength. A dozen stone hands were now visible around the periphery of the door, forcing it wider.

The companions drew back. “Now where do we go, O fearless leader?” the Seer said to Ghazaran. “Or have you forgotten the hall of spinning blades?”

Ghazaran’s expression cracked, just slightly, betraying a hint of uncharacteristic anger. As if to echo that unexpected burst of emotion, Parzad shifted into position behind the wizard. But before the cleric could respond, Aerim, still somewhat battered from the punishment he’d absorbed from the golems, stepped forward to face the door. The Duke scanned the corridor peering up at the vaulted ceiling, making a full circuit with his eyes down the walls, finally stopping at his feet. He nodded to himself. Taking up his great blade, he drew it hard across the floor in front of him. Sparks rose up as the metal deeply etched the stone. The magical rock quickly healed the damage done to it, but Aerim was no longer looking, his attention was focused upon the door.

“Here we stand,” he said, simply.

The opening in the doorway was now a good five feet across; as they watched, a golem thrust itself into the gap, using its body as a wedge to force the opening wider. The hinges protested alarmingly, and then there was a series of loud pops, like a hammer striking an anvil. The door fell open, slamming to the ground with an echoing crash.

Behind it was an awful lot of stone warriors.

“My magic will be of no use against these,” the Seer warned, from the rear of the group. Ghazaran had come forward, and he touched Aerim, healing his wounds. Falah had taken up a position at the Duke’s side, slightly behind him. He’d put away his khopesh, instead arming himself with the scimitar they’d found guarded by the prismatic spheres in the gallery above. He had not yet used the weapon, but the Seer had pronounced it possessed of a potent magic, and in these close quarters it was less likely to interfere with the Duke’s greatsword.

Ozmad added his own support, infusing the Duke with a bear’s endurance spell. The elf withdrew calmly as the first of the golems surged forward into the passage. The things were so big that only one of them could fit easily into the corridor at a time, although the others pressed in behind, waiting for an opportunity to join in the fray.

Aerim merely waited behind his now-invisible line. As the golem came within reach, he fell into a defensive stance, his sword held straight up like a lance. The long blade did not so much as quiver.

The golem had reach, but even as it struck Aerim pivoted and smashed his sword across its body, striking a stylized stone greave with enough force to drive a crack through its entire arm. In turn he took a glancing blow that nearly knocked him off balance, but Falah was there to steady him. Aerim sprang forward off the fighter, driving his sword in a violent series of attacks that left massive cracks crossing the golem’s frame. The construct countered with another blow that rang hard off Aerim’s left shoulder, but the Duke did not yield before its assault. As it swung its other arm around to follow up he hit it again, striking its arm near the first crack, and finishing the work of destroying the limb. The golem’s entire arm flew forward, bouncing off the wall and skittering to a halt at Jasek’s feet. The golem did not long survive the loss; Aerim’s next hit was a powerful thrust that drove into the meeting point of two of the long cracks covering its torso, and as the sword penetrated the thing it began to collapse in a rain of debris.

Even as the golem disintegrated, two more of the guardians pressed forward, crushed together in the narrow confines of the passage, seeking to overwhelm the Duke through sheer mass and inertia. Aerim just had enough time to resume his stance, and as the pair met him he drove forward, smashing his sword down into the leg of the one on his left. The other lowered both fists and thrust forward, but Falah had his flank, and while the blow from his scimitar did little in the way of damage, it diverted the golem enough to spoil its attack.

The fighters’ rough breaths had started to form white plumes in front of their mouths. Behind the attacking pair, more chilling tentacles had emerged from the walls and floor, wrapping around the arms and legs of the golems lined up around the ruined door. The golems made no move to evade, intent upon their goal.

Aerim and Falah were forced back slowly, each step hard won by powerful blows given and absorbed. Falah’s jaw was a broken mess where a glancing hit had crushed the side of his helmet against his face; blood poured down his chest, and sprayed out as he fought for breath. Aerim was absorbing even more punishment, but Gharazan and Ozmad had both come up behind him, and as he fell back, they were there to infuse him with healing power and magical defenses. Ozmad protected him with another ward, a displacement spell that caused his outline to shift and distort. Thus bolstered, Aerim surged back forward into the fray, ducking under a sweeping arm and laying into the more damaged golem with a series of violent blows. Even in the confined space, confronted by two foes that greatly overpowered him in size and strength, Aerim fought like a banshee, wielding his huge sword as through it was a wooden switch. A second golem crumbled, forming a low mound of debris that spread across the width of the passage.

But the golems kept coming. They were fast, too fast, and as the companions gave ground, they tore free of Navev’s chilling tentacles and came on. Each of the golems was covered now with a rime of frost, and bits of ice cracked off their bodies as they moved.

The rest of the companions were able to offer little aid to the fighters holding back the stone tide. Parzad had taken a glowing crystal out of his pouch, and there was a look of solid concentration on his flat features, but there was no obvious result to his efforts. The Seer remained at the rear of the group, tentative, as though debating whether to hazard the corridor of spinning blades once more. Jasek had his sword out, but he obviously knew that his skills would be of limited use should Aerim or Falah fall.

Falah was moving lethargically, his reflexes slowing in a way that went beyond mere fatigue. The golems were doing something to the defenders; Jasek began to show it as well, the thief sagging as he leaned against the tunnel wall. Of those in the front, only Aerim seemed unaffected, as he met the next golem in a violent exchange of sword and stone. He won that exchange, and the golem fell back into the one behind it, coming apart as cracks crawled and expanded across its body.

The Duke started to lift his sword back into his defensive stance, but the next golem in line came on too quickly, thrusting through the crumbling remains of its fellow. The litter of stone debris covering the floor did not hinder it, and clouds of dust rose up under its tread as it stepped forward and delivered a truly massive blow upon Aerim. The Duke was knocked back, and his sword clattered loudly upon the floor as it fell from his suddenly limp hands. He landed in a crouch, his left arm dangling uselessly from his side, broken, his lips twisted into a rictus.

The golem surged forward to exploit its advantage. Falah stepped into its path to stop it, but the construct caught him with a solid backhand across the front of his face. His helmet saved his brains from being splashed across the wall, but the blow launched him flying off his feet. Spinning backward, he flipped heels over head and caromed off the wall before landing face-down in a heap upon the floor.

Despite being in obvious agony, and ignoring his broken arm, Duke Aerim reached out his good hand for his sword. But before he could reach it, the golem’s huge foot landed on the blade, pinning it against the floor under two thousand pounds of stone. The granite warrior loomed over him, its fists coming up to finish what it had started.


Chapter 40


As the golem slammed its fists down toward Aerim, Ozmad stepped forward to meet it. The elf looked almost pathetic as he lifted his slender hands, but even as he moved he began to... change. His body swelled, his arms growing thicker and longer as they rose up to meet the golem’s attack. His face also transformed, his delicate elven features replaced by an almost bestial, fearsome visage. His skin deepened in shade to a deep blue, and tufts of red hair erupted from his skin in dozens of places. His billowing garments became instantly tight, but the cloth expanded to cover, bulging with the bulk of huge muscles and long limbs. Finally, a pair of horns emerged from his forehead, black shafts that ended in twisting points.

The ogre mage caught the golem’s wrists in his hands, absorbing the force of its attack with a mere grunt. The two stood there for a moment, locked in a battle of strength for which they were apparently closely matched. The golem still had a significant advantage in terms of weight, but Ozmad held his ground, his muscles swollen with magically-enhanced strength.

Behind him, Ghazaran drew Aerim out of the fray, while Parzad used his psionic abilites to slide the unconscious Falah back down the rubble-strewn passage. There wasn’t much more space left to retreat; the bend of the corridor was only a few paces behind them, now, and the deadly stretch of spinning blades lay not far beyond that.

The stalemate between Ozmad and the golem had only lasted for a second or two, but another golem was already starting to push around them, and a third was adding its weight to the first by pushing hard against its back. Suddenly the ogre mage yielded, releasing his foe and stepping quickly back. The golem bent almost double as its fists slammed into the floor, striking just inches from Ozmad’s feet; his boots had resized with him, but clearly weren’t up to providing protection against that kind of blow, had it connected.

The golem, still moving with magically enhanced speed, reacted quickly, but Ozmad was faster. The ogre reached to its belt and drew out its mattock, which looked tiny in his huge fist, but almost instantaneously the weapon began to grow as well, extending until it was almost twice the size of Aerim’s sword, the shaft nearly as long as that of a spear, only several times as thick. Despite the crowded quarters the ogre wielded it as effectively as the Duke had his blade, lifting the huge weapon easily and driving the hooked end down into the golem’s shoulder. The blade caught like a shovel biting into earth, and a huge chunk of the creature, including its right arm, came away as he yanked down on it.

The golem was in poor shape now, but its companion took advantage to push past and attack, driving a solid punch into the ogre’s flank. The blow should have punished even a foe as large and powerful as the ogre, but Ozmad merely grunted and reversed its weapon, taking off half the golem’s face with a two-handed strike. Within the confines of the corridor Ozmad could not manage the wide swings that had been so effective against the stone trees earlier, but the short, curt strikes he was unleashing seemed hardly less deadly. The one-armed golem he’d just crippled lunged forward to attack with its remaining fist, but he slammed the mattock into its side at the hip. The limb gave, and as it fell it crumbled into rubble.

The temperature in the corridor was below freezing, now; Navev’s chilling tentacles filled the corridor from end to end, and the outer shells of the golems were starting to crack as the supernatural chill took deep hold of their bodies.

Aerim and Falah were both on their feet again, if still sorely hurt, but there was nothing for them to do but watch as Ozmad destroyed one golem after another. The ogre mage took hit after hit, but his own wards and magical protections absorbed a good deal of the attacks, and as soon as he’d stabilized Falah, Ghazaran took up position directly behind Ozmad, touching the back of one leg repeatedly with a healing wand. The stone warriors did not relent, and soon the mound of debris was the size of a low wall, clogging the passage and impeding the movement of the next ranks. But still the golems came, their skin cracking as they tore free from the tentacles, leaving flakes of frost and shattered bits of stone in their wake.

It was some time later, no more than minutes, certainly, although it felt like much longer to those standing in the corridor. By the time that the noise of the golems grew still, and the last crumbled into debris, they were all pale and shivering with cold, all save Ozmad, who looked like a demon with his hide covered in stone dust that was caked with blood where he’d absorbed blows hard enough to break his skin. Navev had dismissed the tentacles, but it still felt like the interior of a meat locker within the confines of the passage.

Ghazaran threw down his wand, its power utterly depleted. “My remaining healing resources are... limited,” the cleric said.

“We need... to rest,” the Seer said. His breath came out in white plumes in front of him, and he trembled as though it had been he who had held the line against the golems.

“We cannot stop,” Ozmad said. The ogre mage lifted his mattock, which began at once to shrink back to its usual diminutive size. Tucked back into his belt, it looked almost like a child’s toy rather than a weapon.

Jasek stepped forward and looked up at the ogre mage. He said quietly, “Not that I want to agree with... him,” he said, indicating the Seer with a jut of his elbow, “but we’ve all taken a beating, especially you and the Duke there. I can’t feel my arms and legs, and that’s not going to help when it comes time when you need my skills. We need to take a breather, find someplace to hole up for a while, catch our breath.”

The ogre shook his head. “The Duke and myself will recover quickly from our wounds. As for the rest of you, Ghazaran will do what he can once we are free of this corridor, but we cannot linger long. Look for yourself.”

He gestured toward the mounds of rubble, and as they collectively turned to look they could all see what he meant. The heaps of shattered stone, its odd multicolor shadings matching those in the walls and floor, were beginning to diminish. On closer examination it could be seen that the rubble from the golems was slowly seeping into the floor, absorbed back into the substance of this place.

“What’s happening?” Jasek asked.

“I imagine if we continue forward, we will see the stone guardians slowly reforming,” Ghazaran said.

Ozmad nodded. “Indeed. We must be past their cavern by the time that they are reborn.”

“And when we return?” the Seer asked.

“The Ravager will open a path that anyone will be able to follow,” Ghazaran said. Ozmad had already started forward, his huge boots crunching on the rubble as he trod forward toward the gaping opening where the mithral door had stood at the end of the corridor. The others, after a moment’s hesitation, followed after him.


First Post
By the way, I am pretty sure that the anti-heroes, did a pretty nice favor to Dar&company. Lazybones, correct me if I am wrong,, but the good party seems pretty ill-suited to fight against a horde of golems.

Richard Rawen

First Post
Nightbreeze said:
By the way, I am pretty sure that the anti-heroes, did a pretty nice favor to Dar&company. Lazybones, correct me if I am wrong,, but the good party seems pretty ill-suited to fight against a horde of golems.
Except... the DB's have to negotiate the sunken elevator yet, let alone any other hazards in the way. Even if the spirits clear a path, from what the Anti-heroes saw, the golems may very likely be reformed by the time the DB's reach them... I wonder if the Treant-golems have the same properties... even if not there are several of them unharmed in the way yet.
I'm thinking that the spirits will have to intervene or the DB's will not catch up =o(


Both of you are right in that the DBs are going to have a tough time of it, catching up. We'll get back to their side of the story tomorrow.

* * * * *

Chapter 41


The chamber with the giant statue was as it had been before—or at least, nearly so, for their eyes were drawn to the niches in the walls where the stone guards had once stood in relief. More than one of them glanced up to the massive angel, with its spread wings and huge sword lifted higher above them than the spire of a castle tower. But the stone guardian, if in fact that was what it was, did not stir for them. Perhaps Ghazaran had been right, and it had been set here not to watch for them, but for the thing that lay deeper within this complex, the thing they had come here to free.

They made their way across the huge cavern in silence, even their footfalls muted on the odd stone of the floor. There was only one break in the quiet, as Jasek drew their attention to one of the alcoves, where they could all see a pair of stone feet. Once again, Ghazaran had been right; the warders were reforming.

They pressed on, and while the decorative carvings continued around the entire expanse of the chamber, they encountered no more empty—or mostly empty—alcoves. What they did find, in a deeply recessed nook on the far wall of the cavern, was another of the mithral vault doors. By now their procedure was familiar, and after both Jasek and the Seer had scanned the portal for mundane and magical hazards, Falah applied himself to the heavy wheel. The faint grinding noise that penetrated through the mithral put them all on edge, and each of them stood ready for anything with spell or weapon.

But this door opened without incident, revealing another corridor beyond. There was a dim but flickering glow of natural light that reached them from down its length, where it appeared that the corridor opened onto another chamber a good fifty feet or so ahead.

With a brief look back, Jasek started ahead. He saw little in the way of reassurance in the faces of his companions; more and more, it was as if Ghazaran and Ozmad were seeing beyond what was here, their attention focused on something beyond his perception. Compared to them, the face of the Seer, his eyes betraying a mix of avarice, hatred, and mistrust, was almost reassuring. Those feelings, at least, he could understand. Falah and Parzad were not worth mentioning, as they were mere appendages of the cleric; and as for Navev...

The thief suppressed a shudder, and led them forward.

The chamber at the end of the corridor was lit by flames that burned in stone pots carved into the walls around the perimeter. They had to be magical, as Jasek smelled no smoke in the air, and the place was filled with an almost preternatural chill that pressed through his clothes and skin and made itself felt in his bones. Opposite them several curving steps led onto a dais, where another dark passage was visible, flanked by a pair of rune-carved stone pillars.

They were not the only inhabitants of the chamber.

The guardians made no motion as they entered, but almost by reflex Jasek stepped aside, into the shadows under one of the stone fire-bowls. Ozmad did not hesitate, stepping boldly forward, Ghazaran and his followers almost at his heels. They examined the figures standing in niches along the walls to either side as intently as the thief had.

There were ten, five to either side, forming an honor guard of two rows that faced out into the chamber, at them. One glance was enough to show that they were dead, desiccated figures wrapped in strips of ancient linen, bulging here or there where a bone protruded from ancient flesh. Jasek did not need to look back to know that they were echoes of the shambling figure that was just now appearing at the mouth of the passage behind them. The mummies wore breastplates of hammered bronze in a style that the thief suspected had not been seen in a thousand years, and each carried a huge sword, held in both fists before them, the blades forming long curves that almost touched the walls behind them at their ends.

Ghazaran muttered something that Jasek couldn’t quite hear. Ozmad looked down at the cleric, and there seemed to be something communicated between them, a signal that Jasek couldn’t quite read. The thief saw that the cleric had taken out the bundle of leather scrollcases that he’d stolen from the sun priests in Camar; according to what Ghazaran had said, there was powerful magic inscribed upon those old parchments. Falah and Parzad both tensed, expecting trouble.

The ogre stepped forward, and spread his arms wide. “Show yourself, caretaker!” the ogre shouted, his deep voice echoing through the chamber.

It happened so quickly that Jasek blinked and he—it—was just there, standing atop the dais between the pillars. If the mummies radiated a sense of great age, this thing was seeped in it. It bore no wrappings, so they could see how its dried flesh clung to its bones like an almost sheer cloth. It looked so frail that they could not see how it could stand, let alone move about under its own power, but it was clad in heavy armor, a suit of archaic half-plate fashioned from scaled dragonhide rather than metal, the whole covered in a robe that was little more than strips of cloth. It bore a shaft of flanged bronze as a weapon, a light mace that it carried like a scepter. When it spoke, Jasek started in surprise; the thing’s jaw barely moved, but he could hear its voice as though it was standing right in front of him.

“You seek to unleash destruction upon the world,” it said. “That cannot be permitted.”

Ozmad opened his mouth to speak, but before the ogre could respond to the creature’s challenge, a wracking pain erupted through Jasek’s body. He fell back against the support of the wall as invisible daggers stabbed deep into him, with no way to evade or dodge the attack. He saw that he was not the only one; the others were clearly suffering the same assault. All save one; Navev just stood there, half-obscured in the darkness of the corridor.

Trying to fight through the pain, Jasek looked up in time to see the mummy guardians flourish their great blades and rush forward to attack.


Chapter 42


“Well, this doesn’t look good,” Dar said.

The spacious chamber before them had been decorated to resemble a forest, down to the incredibly faithful depictions of leaves set into the stonework that ran around the perimeter of the place. Almost a dozen huge stone trees had been painstakingly crafted out of the surrounding stone, their highest branches reaching almost to the top of the vaulted ceiling thirty feet above.

The floor was covered with debris, bits and pieces of stone littered about carelessly. They were quick to notice the connection with the gap along the wall where another of the stone trees might have fit in.

“What do you think?” the fighter asked Allera. “Golems?”

“I don’t know,” the healer replied. “There is a strong... presence... here. And blood. There was a battle here, not long past.”

Letellia hovered behind them, her eyes open to things that none of the others could see. “Elementals.”

“Why aren’t they attacking?” Kiron asked.

“Maybe that... Amurru... has commanded them to let us pass,” Maricela suggested.

“Don’t count on it,” Dar said. Zethas had taken a step forward, his head craning nervously at the stone giants all around them, but Dar forestalled him. “Stay here,” he said to all of them. Drawing Justice from its sheath, he started forward across the room.

“Stand ready,” Qatarn ordered his men, unnecessarily, for everyone in the group stood on a razor’s edge, their weapons and magic held prepared on the edge of use. Zethas fingered his bow, an arrow held against the string, half drawn. Only Selaht seemed unaffected by the tense mood, but his penetrating dark eyes missed nothing.

Thus none of them were surprised when one of the trees along the wall suddenly swung its branches down and took a step forward, its lower body splitting apart to form legs, its massive roots acting almost like great splayed feet. Dar, only barely halfway across the room, spun to meet it, but almost immediately the one behind him also started moving, and then others, including a pair flanking the mithral door in the far wall.

“We have to help him!” Kiron shouted. He lifted his sword, but even as the knights and soldiers started forward, Dar turned and yelled at them, “Hold the line!” Recognizing the poor odds, Dar continued his turn and started running back toward the others. But the nearest of the trees was already too close.

“Look out!” Allera yelled, but even if she’d shouted earlier, there was little that Dar could have done to avoid the branch that snapped down like a whip, cracking hard across his back. The blow knocked him forward and down, and he was fortunate to only fall to one knee.

Letellia, her brow furrowed in concentration, cast a spell, conjuring a wall of force that slanted across the room, forming a barrier from floor to ceiling. Three of the stone treants were caught behind the obstacle; they flailed at it with their branches, and for a moment they looked almost frustrated.

But while she’d placed the wall with expert precision, she’d been unable to block off one other besides the one that had hit Dar. That treant surged forward with a sudden burst of speed. Allera, acting quickly, hurled up a repulsion field to stop it, but the invisible barrier did not even faze the creature, and if anything it picked up more speed as it lumbered forward. Likewise Maricela’s beam of searing light dissolved as it struck it, indicating that the stone treants were possessed of considerable resistance of magic.

Dar felt rather than saw the monster coming up fast behind him, and he hurled himself out of its path. The fighter had been only an ancillary target of its rush, but even so one of the heavy roots clipped him across the left thigh, and this time he did go down fully, spinning as his legs were knocked out from under him.

There was nothing that the others could do to help him, for the huge creature kept on going, smashing into the front of their defensive line. Kiron with his knights, and Qatarn with his soldiers, each formed one side of the wedge. The fighters were ready with their weapons, but the treant hit them with the force of a charge of heavy cavalry. Tertius screamed and was launched flying, his sword flipping end over end before it hit the wall near the entrance and clattered loudly to the floor. The fighter did not travel quite so far, but he landed just as hard, and while he was still conscious, he did not get up. The other two watchmen were not struck quite so violently, but both were knocked back, Primus jostled to the side, falling to one knee, while Secundus was spun about so fast that he bounced off of the nearby wall. Only Qatarn held his ground, the huge centurion grunting as a root smacked hard into his gut.

The knights fared little better. Aldos had set his glaive against its charge, but while its momentum drove the curving blade deep into its stone trunk, the force of it knocked him aside as well, and he barely kept his grip on his weapon as he fell to his knees. Yellow fluid spurted from the gash, and where it landed on the knight’s cloak and arm it raised wisps of noxious smoke. Kiron, his big sword flashing, was only barely able to keep from being pinned under the thing, and he yelled a battle cry as he slashed at the roots all around him. Only Petronia avoided being trampled, and that was by falling back as quickly as she could, shielding her face as jagged branches scratched at her armor.

Dar struggled to get up, but before he could do anything, one of the long branches from the first treant wrapped around his body, lifting him into the air. He lashed out with Justice, and a segment of branch, covered in jutting spines like stone fingers, went flying. But more branches were tangled around his legs and torso, and he could not get free.

Trying to keep his orientation as the thing whipped him around, he brandished his sword again, but before he could strike the treant hurled him straight upward, into the ceiling. Air was blasted from his lungs from the force of the impact. He hung there for the barest instant, and then he was falling, the floor rushing up to greet him.

He grimaced at the expected impact, but he did not land as expected. Instead, as he plummeted downward, the treant whipped around another branch. The fighter barely had the time to register what was happening before it struck, batting him out of the air like a man swatting a bug. His sword was knocked out of his grasp, and clattered against the ground. A moment later, he hit high against the wall of force. His journey only then came to an end, as he fell a final eight feet to splat hard upon the floor, his body a maze of hurts from the battering he’d suffered.

He managed to lift his head to see that it was not yet over; the treant was coming his way.

Epic Threats

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