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The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)

Lazybones

Adventurer
jensun said:
Oh dear, experienced Hobgoblin warriors, multiple Clerics of Orcus and a Vrock.

I think I can guess at the friday cliffhanger.
Carnage? :)

* * * * *

Chapter 170

THE TUNNEL OF WOE


“Well, they know we’re here,” Dar said, as the echoes of the screech faded down the long tunnel.

“That cry belonged to a vrock demon,” Varo said. “We must destroy it quickly, along with any spellcasters on the other side.”

“I’m sure they feel the same way about you,” Dar returned, as the eight companions, accompanied by their goblin guide, hastened down the tunnel. Up ahead it bent to the left, and they could hear the sounds of activity from that direction, even as the first undead began to appear. Again the foes were skeletons and ghouls, but this time there were a few of the latter as tall as men, looming over their more diminutive kin. It was almost impossible to discern what race they had been in life, so dramatic was the change wrought upon them in the transition to undeath.

Dar started forward to meet them, but Talen held them up. “Let us not rush blindly in this time,” he said. “In addition to the demon, there will likely be more of those clerics about. You don’t want to get paralyzed and cut off from the rest of the group.”

The others were already launching missile attacks at the oncoming foe. The bend in the tunnel was only about forty feet ahead of them, and the undead closed the distance quickly. There were over a score already in view, and the initial volley of arrows did little harm, scoring several hits on the gray-skinned ghouls without bringing any of them down.

Serah raised her holy symbol and invoked the divine light of the Father. The brilliant rays washed over the front rank of the charging undead, but only a single ghoul fell back, overcome by that power.

“Something is bolstering them!” the priestess warned.

Varo had already seen that, and instead of attempting a rebuke, he began spellcasting.

Dar and Talen met the undead charge, tearing into the onrushing ghouls and skeletons with a devastating surge of violence. Each fighter cut a ghoul in twain with the first readied strike, their magical swords surging with power as they did what they had been created to do. Their fellows in turn leapt upon the pair, clawing and biting, but they were unable to penetrate the steel skins of the defenders. A moment later the two fighters countered with full attacks that cleared the space around them, leaving undead creatures, skeletons and ghouls alike, lying crushed upon the stone floor.

Three ghouls and a skeleton had rushed past the embattled fighters, and hurled themselves at Baraka and Shay. The scouts dropped their bows and met the foe with melee weapons. Baraka gutted one of the ghouls with his sickles, while Shay caved in the head of a goblin ghoul with her sword before it could touch her. The last ghoul managed to inflict a minor wound on Baraka’s leg before he could turn to face it, but the hardy ranger resisted the cloying grip of paralysis that threatened to undo him.

The first surge of undead had been devastated, but more were coming, this time slow-moving zombies that lurched unevenly forward. And behind them, marching with the more nimble movements of the living, came a rank of armored hobgoblins, bearing swords and javelins.

A sudden explosion of smoke in the middle of the tunnel marked the arrival of a summoned ally, a vicious-looking black tiger, its hide covered with slashes of deep crimson. The fiendish beast immediately leapt upon the nearest foe, a goblin-sized zombie, and bore it to the ground, taking its head off with an almost casual snap of its jaws. Several of the hobgoblins behind threw javelins at it, but they glanced off its hide, and it snarled at them in contempt.

Dar and Talen moved forward together, batting aside the few surviving undead from the first rush as they came. The hobgoblins had come together in a disciplined wedge, centered on a tall figure clad in full plate, with a greathelm that bore a half-dozen jutting spires of metal shaped into the fashion of grim horns.

Varo’s fiendish tiger essayed that formation, ignoring the shambling zombies around it to leap upon the nearest of the hobgoblins. The hobgoblin brought up its shield, but that proved of little defense as the weight of the tiger landed full upon it. The warrior cried out as the summoned monster dug its hind claws deep into his legs, while it snapped its foreclaws into its shoulders. The hobgoblin staggered and nearly fell, only narrowly avoiding the snapping jaws that sought its neck.

The other hobgoblins fell upon the creature, stabbing with their swords. The creature’s fiendish hide turned most of the blows, but then the armored leader stepped forward, its blade a dark wedge of steel in its hand. The tiger sensed the threat and snarled, but that angry cry was cut off as the fighter thrust the length of its blade into the creature’s mouth, driving it up through the roof of its mouth into its brain. The tiger immediately fell limp, dissolving into nothing as it slid off the hobgoblin’s deadly blade.

Dar drew up, wary of that ordered formation and its commander. The hobgoblin was an obvious veteran, to have put down a powerful creature like that in a single blow. Hobgoblin javelins flew at him and Talen behind him, but they failed to penetrate his magical armor. Zombies lumbered forward, forcing him to pay at least some heed to defense, hacking the animated corpses apart like rotted timbers. Talen was doing the same; none of the things could stand against Beatus Incendia, and the holy blade transformed each ruined corpse into a pyre, the flames that consumed the corpses casting long, dancing shadows upon the walls of the tunnel.

The hobgoblins were holding their position, waiting for the foe to come to then. Dar realized this at the same time that he grasped the reason for their delay. A shriek announced the arrival of the vrock as it poured around the bend, covered in a dizzying mélange of mirror images, and accompanied by the foul stench of the Abyss.

At the demon’s arrival the hobgoblin leader lifted his sword, and his company surged forward, shrieking with fanatic cries as they descended upon Talen and Dar.
 

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Richard Rawen

First Post
Well, look at it this way, if the spell-casters take out the Vrock, then both Dar and Talen are there to take down the Hobgoblin leader.
The rest are wheat before the scythe.

I'm just sure that's how it'll go down.
*nods head vigorously*
*thinks back over the story so far*
*shoulders slump, head hits keyboard*
aww crap, someone's gonna die. *mourn*
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
We're coming up on a few scenes that were really fun to write. If a bit... chaotic. For today, our heroes find themselves caught up in middle of the civil war that has engulfed Grezneck.

Oh, and lot of bleeding, too.

* * * * *

Chapter 171

THE CLASH OF ARMS


The battlecries of the hobgoblins was echoed by a surging roar as a column of liquid fire exploded through the tunnel. Varo’s flame strike brushed the demon, which veered away with a furious screech, and then slammed down into the center of the hobgoblin formation. The shouts of war became yells of pain, and the majority of the creatures were blasted to the ground, transformed into blackened heaps that bore little resemblance to anything that had lived.

But out of the storm of the fire came the hobgoblin leader, flanked by a pair of surviving veterans, their chainmail cherry red, the links partially melted by the blast of Varo’s spell. Dar and Talen met their rush, and the loud clang of swords filled the tunnel, as the hobgoblins met their enemies in battle. Dar struck first, Valor cleaving through the shield of one of the lieutenants, smashing its arm and knocking it sprawling to the ground. But the hobgoblin commander descended upon him with a violent fury, its black sword in turn delivering a powerful blow that crunched plate and chain, and pounded the flesh and muscle beneath. For all that the blow had not penetrated his armor, Dar felt as though he’d been kicked in the side by a horse. A few feet away, Talen struck at the other lieutenant, but the hobgoblin deflected the stroke with his shield, and countered with a thrust that pierced the knight’s armor at his hip.

Baraka and Shay came rushing forward to aid their companions, but the vrock demon swooped forward and landed in front of them. It lashed out with a claw, striking the ranger across the forehead, staggering him as it opened long gashes in his face with its long claws. Shay thrust at its side, but her sword passed harmlessly through a mirror image, disrupting it without harm to the creature.

A hissing noise from around the bend announced the arrival of yet more enemies, a moment before a huge serpent, almost large enough to fill the tunnel with its bulk, came into view. Behind it, almost invisible behind the mass of the snake, came a pair of goblin priests. Both were protected by layered auras of fell power, and the leader was shrouded by the chaotic black energies of a dispel good spell.

Dar staggered back as he exchanged another full attack with the hobgoblin leader. The creature had a monstrous stamina, and its blows were incredibly powerful, as he found anew as he absorbed another hit to the side that send hot knives of pain through his torso. His own attacks were no less potent, but the monster’s armor and shield gave it protection that was significantly superior to his own.

Talen tried to come to his aid. The knight’s foe had gotten in a good hit against him, but the Camarian veteran was a superior fighter, proven as the hobgoblin turned a feint, only to open himself to a thrust that pierced the half-melted mail links covering his heart. The hobgoblin collapsed, but as Talen turned to assist Dar, he felt the sickening surge of another unholy blight explode around him. Sickened again by the dread magic, he nevertheless pressed his attack. But as he lifted Beatus Incendia to strike, he saw the dagger-shaped head of the huge fiendish viper rising up above Dar’s shoulder.

Hoping the fighter could handle the hobgoblin, Talen lifted his sword and charged forward to intercept the snake.

The vrock let out a massive screech, a sonic blast that reverberated incredibly in the confined space of the passage. Baraka, already reeling from the terrible blow he’d taken, fell to the ground, stunned, while further back, both Kalend and Serah were likewise overcome by the powerful fury of that sound. Shay’s face contorted with pain, but she kept her equilibrium, although it wasn’t clear what she could do against the demon, with both its abyssal resistances and its magical defenses protecting it from harm.

And if that wasn’t enough, a cloud of spores erupted from the demon’s body, eagerly seeking out the flesh of the scout and the stunned ranger.

Varo had his dispel magic ready, but between the fiendish snake and the blight that had hit Talen and Dar, he knew that there was at least one powerful cleric amongst their foes. But with the demon rounding on Shay, he acted, hurling the magic at the outsider, shearing away its powers through the force of his will. The images vanished, and the demon seemed to deflate slightly, as he likewise dispelled its heroism.

Dar dodged back a step as the hobgoblin swept its sword at him in a powerful arc. The blow, had it connected, might have driven its foe down from the sheer force of it, but the veteran fighter had expected such an all-out stroke, and as it slashed past, he followed it in, bringing up Valor with both hands and his considerable strength behind it. The sword hit the foe at the base of its breastplate, penetrating the layered chain links and thrusting deep into the enemy’s body. The hobgoblin, for all its stamina, could not shrug off that hurt, and the light faded from its eyes as it slumped to the ground.

Dar looked up to see Talen battling the giant snake, which already bore a deep gash in its neck from the knight’s holy sword. His side throbbed with each breath he took, but he yanked Valor out from the body of his foe, ready to rejoin the fray. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the demon battling Shay. His jaw tightened; he wasn’t sure if that was the same vrock he’d fought in the first temple of Orcus, but if it was, he had a grudge to settle with it.

As he started to turn toward the demon, however, he felt a cold chill fall over him, and even as he tried to marshal his will, was overcome by another hold person spell. Too late he saw the two small but dangerous foes behind the long coils of the serpent. Even as he watched, helpless to intervene, one completed a spell, and summoned creatures out of the aether, a trio of small, bloated demons, which lurched forward at once toward the paralyzed fighter.

With her target now clearly revealed, Shay continued to harry the demon. She refused to remain still long enough for it to unleash a full series of attacks upon her, but its spores were burrowing painfully into her skin, and she bled where its claws had caught her on the arm.

She darted in and stabbed it in the side, but again her thrust did almost no damage. Again she tried to leap back, but this time the demon flapped its wings and hurled itself after her, seizing her by the arm with one bony claw. It was far stronger than she, and she found herself bound up in its grip, dragged up to its powerful beak.

But before it could deliver a killing blow, she felt the demon stiffen and shriek. Looking down, she saw Varo, his hand pressed against the vrock’s side. A red glow sank from his fingers into its body, and where that power touched, bloody cracks opened in its flesh. The demon hurled its victim away and turned upon the priest, hacking and tearing. It remembered this enemy and his deadly touch, and this time it wasn’t going to let him escape with only a missing eye.

Talen staggered back as the huge viper tried to smite him, but its dagger-shaped head glanced off his shield. He brought Beatus Incedia up in a glittering arc that caught the snake right where its body met its head. The holy steel flashed, and the fiendish creature’s head was severed, its long coils gyrating as it began to dissolve into nothing.

Talen took in the rest of the battle at once; the goblin clerics back near the bend in the passage; the small demons that waddled toward the paralyzed Dar, claws outstretched; the demon that was tearing at Varo, ignoring Shay as the scout tried to stab it in the back. Allera had made it around the demon and was running toward Dar; it looked as though she would reach him at the same time as the dretches.

All this chaos the knight absorbed in a second. He lifted his sword, but before his choice became obvious, he was obscured by a burst of noxious vapors, a dense eruption of sick green smoke that spread across the entire breadth of the tunnel in moments. The stinking cloud, summoned by one of the dretches, engulfed Talen, Dar, Allera, and those battling the vrock demon, which stood silhouetted on the edge of the swirling bank of mist, huge and terrible.

Varo felt a blazing pain erupt in his side and across his face as the demon laid into him with its claws. Its beak shot down toward his remaining eye, and while he drew back in time to avoid losing it, the hooked end caught on his metal cap, taking it off along with a long strip of flesh just above his left ear. The demon flapped its wings violently, lifting just a few feet off the ground, but enough for its talons to smash into Varo’s legs, opening deep wounds in both limbs. The full attack was devastating, and most foes would have been torn to pieces by the fury of the demon’s assault.

But not only did Varo not go down, he somehow was able to keep standing. Half-blinded by the blood streaked across his face, he stabbed his arm forward like a dagger thrust, jabbing the demon in the gut. He hit it with another inflict critical wounds, punching through its spell resistance and its considerable willpower to unleash a violent fury of negative energy that tore mercilessly through its innards.

But the cleric stood alone; both Shay and Baraka had been overcome by the sick vapors of the stinking cloud, and they staggered back, coughing violently.

No, not entirely alone. Two others rushed forward to the cleric’s aid. Serah rushed up to Varo, her hands glowing with the reassuring shine of positive energy. The demon saw her coming and shrieked at the challenge to its kill. It lashed out with a claw, but the cleric of the Father ducked under its sweep, its talons tearing long gashes in her cloak, but failing to cut to her flesh. The priestess all but fell forward into Varo, but delivered her spell, infusing the stricken cleric with a cure critical wounds.

Kalend came forward as well, the legionary braving his terror to attack this terrible opponent. Wary of the stinking cloud, he remained on its outer edge, stabbing at the demon’s legs with his sword. The attack did no damage, but it certainly drew the rage of the creature, which let out another loud shriek. Another cloud of spores erupted from its flesh, the burrowing growths seeking out the skin of those facing it. It readied another full attack, its full strength marshaled behind the blows, its intent clear to take out all three of the enemies that faced it.

Dar felt nausea clench his gut as the vapors of the stinking cloud obscured all details of the tunnel in front of him, including the dretches that were rapidly approaching. He tried to fight off the hold person spell that was holding him paralyzed, but his will was not strong enough to overcome the power of the goblin clerics. Gobbos! The thought filled him with rage, and his limbs trembled.

Then he felt claws tearing at his armor, and knew that the demons were upon him.

He sensed a familiar presence behind him, although he could not feel the touch through his armor. But he did feel Allera’s power coursed through him a moment later, sundering the paralysis like a surging wave. One of the dretches hissed and reached around him to claw the healer.

That was the last thing it ever did.

As the vrock lifted its claws to strike, Talen materialized from the mists, his sword a shining beacon in the fog. The blade flashed in his hand, and it tore deep into the vrock’s back, unleashing a spray of hissing black ichor that splattered across his shield. The vrock had taken a beating, and as it had several times before, it summoned its magic, and teleported away. There was a backblast of energy from the spell, and the companions immediately surrounding it were knocked off their feet, momentarily dazed.

“What... what was that?” Kalend said.

“Some other energy is interfering with the demon’s magic,” Varo replied. “If we are lucky, it materialized somewhere deep within the planet’s crust.”

“Luck hasn’t exactly been our forte,” Shay said, her face twisting in disgust as she pulled at the tendrils sprouting from her arms and neck.

“Leave them until after the battle,” Varo said. “Healing them will cause less damage.”

“Can you dispel this fog?” Talen asked him, the unholy green mists swirling around his flaming sword.

“No need,” Varo said. And indeed, the magic commanded by the dretches was weak, and the stinking cloud rapidly began to dissolve only about ten seconds after it had sprung into being.

They saw Dar, Allera at his back, standing over the mangled bodies of the three dretches, already dissolving as the corpses were cast back into the Abyss.

“The clerics!” Talen yelled, pointing with his sword. The goblins were falling back in good order, continuing to cast spells as they went. Dar was likely their target, but the warrior showed no effect this time as he charged forward, ignoring the pain from his multiple wounds.

The goblin priests rounded the bend in the tunnel, Dar close on their heels, the others chasing behind. But even as Dar reached the bend, they could all hear the sounds of metal clashing on metal, accompanied by a loud cry of pain. Dar slowed up, wary of another ambush, giving them a chance to catch up to him. There were a few more loud clatters, and another shout that was abruptly cut off, and then silence.

“Now what?” Dar muttered. Wary of a trap, Talen led them around the tunnel bend.

The tunnel straightened out again on the far side of the curve. They could see, up ahead on the edges of their light, what looked like a ruined barricade next to an opening in the side of the passage. There were signs that this area had served as a camp, with an assorted litter of bedrolls, old bones, and other discarded trash.

The bodies of the two goblin clerics laid on the ground, still oozing blood. A ring of over two dozen goblins and several hobgoblins faced them over the corpses. The newcomers were clad in armor of varying types and quality, but all bore multiple weapons ranging from compact bows to axes, spears, and swords. In the center of the line stood a tall figure clad in plate armor, with a greatsword bare and bloody in its hand. A goblin stood at his side; Filcher, they belatedly realized. None of them had seen the goblin leave their company during the battle back down the tunnel, but it was becoming increasingly clear that there was more to the creature than was apparent at first glance.

Although the surrounding goblinoids did not ease their wary stances or lower their weapons, the leader reached up and removed his helm. The man was a hobgoblin, that much was instantly obvious, but the bestial elements of his features were less pronounced than the others, with smaller jaws and ears, and eyes that were more closely spaced than was common with most of his kin. In the poor light, and at a distance, he might have almost passed as human. There was also a clear glint of canny intelligence in his eyes, accompanied by a calm self-confidence as he scanned each of the companions from Camar.

“So,” he said, finally, his Common only faintly accented. “You have come to challenge the cult of Orcus.”

Talen spoke, his features outlined in stark relief by the flames that continued to pour up and down the length of Beatus Incendia. “We have, Herzord.”

The hobgoblin let out a dry chuckle. “Good. Come; there is much to be done.”
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
Glad you're enjoying the action and intrigue, RR. I aim to please. :)

* * * * *

Chapter 172

HERZORD’S BARGAIN


The meeting room was compact and crowded, with a large table in the middle of the room, and several cots pushed up against the far wall. A strong smell of unwashed bodies hung in the air. The place had seen combat recently, it seemed; a tapestry that had once hung from one wall now dangled limp, deeply gashed by sword strokes.

“Some wraiths decided to make an unannounced visit,” Herzord said, as they noted the damage.

“It is impressive that you were able to hold off the enemy force,” Talen said. “We’ve tangled with the cult a few times already, and they have hit us with quite a few surprises.”

The hobgoblin gestured for them to file in around the table. Maps that they recognized as showing the tunnels of Grezneck were scattered across its surface. Behind them, a pair of hobgoblin guards took up position unobtrusively near the door, and three goblins, including Filcher, moved quietly to an unoccupied corner. “Yes, I have heard of your exploits against the dark temples,” Herzord said. “I had warned the leaders of Grezneck about Tribitz’s treachery, but they would not listen. It is fortunate that we were not all blind to the threat posed by the cult of the Demon.”

“You had forewarning of the attack?” Baraka asked.

“I was not told directly,” the hobgoblin admitted. “But I had eyes, and ears, and a warrior’s instinct. Perhaps you understand?” he added, nodding to Dar.

“It is likely that the goblins preferred to listen to one of their own, instead of a half-breed,” Varo said.

Anger flashed in Herzord’s eyes, but after a moment, he nodded. “You speak the truth, priest of Dagos. Now the goblins pay for their choice. The human clerics have dragged the goblins of the city off in chains, to serve their dark master as unliving slaves. Already we have battled those who once were our brothers, but now they are just empty shells, weapons to use against us.”

“Weapons can be broken,” Dar said.

“Yes, warrior, but each one we break leaves us weaker. And the human clerics can call upon terrible magic, summoning great beasts and terrible spider demons, against which even our strongest warriors cannot stand.”

Allera stepped forward. “Their plans threaten all lands, not just the citizens of Grezneck,” the healer said. “That is why we are here.”

Herzord nodded. “You have great power and magic, and we know the tunnels of Rappan Athuk well. We fight against a common enemy. If we become allies, then the cult will be at a disadvantage.”

Allera glanced at Talen, who nodded. “We seek the third temple of Orcus, to destroy it as we did the first two.”

Herzord did not seem surprised. “It will be difficult. There is a way to the temple through the slave pits, but powerful human priests, trolls, and other guardians lie along that path.”

“Great, more clerics,” Dar said. “How many of those bastards does the cult have?”

“There are many who have been swayed by the power offered by the Demon,” Herzord said.

“Can you help us get to the slave pits?” Talen asked.

Herzord leaned over the map. He picked up a dagger that was lying on the table, and pointed to a complex of tunnels and chambers on the opposite side of the city from the entrance and the market cavern. “The way lies in this part of the city, which is the province of the priests of the Demon. You will first need to deal with Tribitz, and his followers.”

“Filcher mentioned this Tribitz,” Shay said. “I take it he’s a powerful cleric?”

“Indeed. He commanded the stone colossus, and a powerful spider-demon that slew many warriors. He has been utterly corrupted by his service to the Demon, and eagerly betrayed his own people to the cult.”

“Sounds like a guy that needs a few feet of steel shoved into his gut,” Dar commented.

“Let us say that we agree to assist you,” Talen said. “What help can we count on from you and your forces?”

“My first responsibility is to the hundreds of survivors of Grezneck,” the hobgoblin said. “But I will send with you a cadre of my own elite guards, a team of scouts, and the one goblin that has seen the interior of the third temple and lived.”

The eyes of everyone in the room turned on Filcher. The goblin swallowed, and looked decidedly uncomfortable.

“And you will have a secure base of operations where you can rest and restore your strength, no small boon in a place such as Rappan Athuk. Well, human soldier?” Herzord said, looking up at Talen.

The knight nodded. “Agreed.”
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 173

TO KILL A CLERIC


The newly-enlarged company traveled in silence through the dark and empty tunnels of Grezneck. There was little conversation; few of their new allies spoke Common, and the companions from Camar kept their thoughts to themselves, as they headed forward and deeper into danger.

They took a slightly different route back, presumably to avoid any patrols by the forces of Orcus. Talen whispered to Shay and Baraka to pay heed to their route, in case the goblinoids were leading them astray, but before too long they once again found themselves in familiar tunnels. They made their way back to the room with the fighting circles, where they had battled the goblin cleric and its minions, but instead of returning to the great cavern, their scouts took them down another tunnel that led still deeper into the complex. Talen noted that this was the way that Varo had originally wanted to take them, when he’d been guided by his find the path spell. He looked over at the cleric, who nodded back.

The new members of the group moved with the quiet efficiency of ones who knew these tunnels intimately. Herzord had assigned a considerable force to them, more than doubling the size of the group. There were five hobgoblins, clad in armor and bearing both melee and ranged weapons. And in addition to Filcher, they had a full complement of goblin scouts, six in all, with light armor and small weapons that were nevertheless of masterwork quality.

The eleven newcomers brought their total strength up to nineteen. A small army, still, but a determined one, united by their hatred of the followers of Orcus.

They came to another large cavern, this one illuminated by geysers of flame that spurted from vents scattered about the room. The gas emissions were apparently random, erupting from the earth without advance warning, but the goblin scouts were careful to point out the vents, allowing them to avoid the hazard.

As they moved through the cavern, they passed a large heap of rubble off to one side. Talen took a double-take as they moved past; he saw what looked like part of a stone fist, jutting from the mound.

“Stone warrior, one-eye,” one of the hobgoblins said, noting his interest. “Kill many goblins before Herzord kill.”

“A stone golem of some sort,” Varo said. “An impressive feat, to destroy one so large.”

There was some blood streaking the stones, but no bodies. It was a reminder that they would likely encounter more undead, and Talen quietly urged Shay and Baraka to keep a close eye out. While their goblin allies with their darkvision would almost certainly see any threats before their own scouts could, Talen was not about to have them let their guard down. Dar’s earlier words about trusting the goblins worried at the back of his mind, and while both sides stood to gain in this arrangement, he doubted that Herzord’s motives were entirely altruistic.

There was another tunnel on the far side of the cavern of the gas vents. The air rapidly grew colder as they moved on, and they could hear a familiar sound: rushing water. The goblin scouts slowed, their wariness sharpening to the fineness of a dagger’s edge; even the hobgoblins grew silent, as if reluctant to let the slightest clink of their mail coats disturb the stillness of the tunnel.

“What is up ahead?” Talen asked.

“A great underground lake,” Filcher reported, “Fed by several rivers. A bridge of stones leads across, but be cautious; the way is treacherous when the flow is surging.”

“And beyond?”

“Beyond is the province of the servants of the Demon,” the goblin said.

“And you know where to find this Tribitz?”

The goblin shook his head, but the hobgoblins had heard the exchange, and the one that had spoken to them earlier came forward, accompanied by a companion. “I know the way,” the second creature said. It reached under its cloak and drew forth a familiar icon, for it was almost identical to the device that Varo wore on the throng around his neck. The cleric nodded, as if not surprised by this development.

“You are a priest of Dagos?” Talen asked.

The hobgoblin nodded. “I summon once to attend on goblin high priest. Much danger, but I know way.”

“Yeah, well, ‘much danger’ is pretty much a given,” Dar said. “Time for you boys to earn your pay.”

“We earn pay in blood of servants of Demon,” the other hobgoblin said. “Nakrat durkat!” it growled, the words echoed by the other warriors.

“What did it say?” Talen said in a quiet aside to Shay.

“Death to traitors,” the scout replied.

The bridge of stepping stones looked as precarious as Filcher had promised. Almost one hundred feet separated the two banks of the underground river. To their left, it opened onto yet another vast cavern, filled with swirling water for as far as they could see. The sounds of water cascading into that lake from waterfalls high above filled the cavern, echoing off the walls and making conversation a bit difficult.

The goblin scouts started across the bridge of stones without hesitation, nimbly leaping from rock to rock. Some of the stones only showed a few square inches of uneven space above the swift-moving water, but the creatures seemed heedless of the danger.

“Let me go first,” Shay said. “I’m the best swimmer in the group, and I will string a guide rope across. It looks like there’s a larger rock formation in the middle that I can use to set a few spikes.”

The hobgoblins stood at the bank, wondering at the delay, but they quickly divined their plan, as Shay uncoiled a rope and headed after the goblin scouts. She reached the midway point of the bridge without difficulty, and hammered in her end of the rope there, while Baraka secured the other end on their side.

Their caution paid off. It took the better part of a half hour to get everyone across the river, but despite a few slips, none of them fell into the lake. The scouts reported that the area on the far side of the river was clear, so they paused for a brief rest while Shay recovered the rope.

“Strange,” Filcher said. The goblin indicated a stone platform, some ten feet high, that jutted out over the lake. Talen could see that it provided a clear vantage over the stepping stones. “Usually there are guards here, all the time.”

“Maybe the clerics figure they don’t have to worry about threats any more,” Allera said. “The leader may not yet have heard about what happened at the barricade.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Dar said. As Shay rejoined them, they moved out again, the goblins darting ahead to scout without having to be told. Their guide, the hobgoblin fighter/cleric that had visited the priests’ quarters before, moved forward to direct them.

“While hobgoblins tend to be fairly organized, I have never seen goblins with such discipline,” Kalend observed, as they made their way ahead along the edge of the lake. The cavern along the lakeshore extended for over a hundred feet ahead of them. To their left, they passed a small stone dock that extended out over the lake; to their right, the cavern wall was just visible in the shadows.

“It’s this place,” Baraka said. “It compels survival, or death.”

“Cheery,” Dar said. But his eyes were sharp as they scanned the surrounding darkness.

Their scouts led them to an opening at the far end of the cavern. The sounds of the lake fell away behind them as they passed through into another huge open space, a broad cavern with a bare stone floor worn smooth with centuries of time and passage. They could just hear the air whistling softly through the cavern ahead of them, suggesting that it continued on for quite some distance ahead.

The goblins started forward, but the others had only just begun to follow when the diminutive scouts suddenly froze.

“What is it?” Talen asked, but before the scouts could respond, they all heard it, a familiar clattering noise from the darkness ahead.

Talen and Dar shared a look. “Skeletons,” the knight said.

“Big ones,” Dar returned, already reaching for his club.

The goblins fell back and spread out, just as the source of the noise entered the radius of their light sources. “Real big,” Shay said, lowering her bow.

The creature had been a quadruped in life, a carnivore by the look of its jaws. It was over twelve feet long, and it was almost as tall as a man at the shoulder. Now it was animated in unlife, a monstrous skeleton that stalked forward, its bony claws clicking slightly on the stone floor.

It wasn’t alone. Dark forms shifted in the shadows to either side; two more of the creatures, indistinct in the darkness.

For a split-second, the two sides faced off across the empty expanse of the cavern. The the hobgoblins shattered the still, shouting war cries as they hurled javelins at the giant skeletons. The three skeletal cats sprang forward, jaws opening wide in silent roars of challenge.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 174

NEW ALLIES TESTED


Dar grimaced as he yanked out a jagged piece of claw that had gotten stuck between two of the interlocking plates of his armor. The end of the claw was bright with his own blood. He was reminded that it could have been worse, as one of the hobgoblins let out a cry of pain between clenched teeth. Dar turned to see Allera pull a tooth as long as a shortsword from the creature’s chest. The tooth was covered in the hobgoblin’s blood, and even fifteen feet away Dar could make out the bubbling gasps that indicated a pierced lung. The injury would have been fatal for most combatants, but the healer closed the vicious wound with her magic, leaving the hobgoblin weak but alive. The other two hobgoblins watched mutely. Both of them bore wounds, but they seemed to accept physical suffering with equanimity. If anything, they appeared to sneer slightly at the noises made by their companion as he was treated.

“We got off light,” Talen said. Dar followed his gaze to the prone figure covered in a bloody cloak, lying a few paces away. The hobgoblin had fallen in the initial rush, as one of the skeletal dire tigers had pounced on him and spread his entrails across the floor with tearing gashes of its claws. A second, the one that Allera was treating, had nearly joined it, but Allera’s mass cure spell a few seconds later had drawn it back from the brink of death.

The battle had lasted only a few seconds... not more than twenty, Dar figured. In the fray, it had seemed much longer, of course. One of the dire tigers had gone for Talen, but the knight had lowered his shield and taken the charge, suffering hits but keeping his ground, waiting for an opportunity to strike. His sword had shorn away half of the skeleton’s jaw, but it was Dar, attacking with his magical club, who had crushed its spine. Allera’s mass cure had damaged the skeletons even as it healed her allies, and just like that the first foe had been taken out, coming apart as the blue fire enveloped its body.

“They acquitted themselves well enough, I suppose,” Dar said. Allera’s spell had weakened the other two skeletons, but neither had been seriously damaged by that point. The two hobgoblins had not faltered against the foe that had taken down their companion, spreading out and attacking its flanks. Their blows had done little damage, but they’d kept it busy, distracting it from finishing their crippled comrade. The other skeleton, the one that had slain the first hobgoblin outright, came under missile fire from the goblin scouts, but before it could respond it had been attacked by Shay and Baraka. The two had dragged the skeleton’s attention around, forcing it to deal with them. They were careful to dart in and out, making it continue to shift and turn, not letting it get in a full attack that could prove devastating. Shay did take a pair of nasty gashes from its claws, but then Talen arrived with Beatus Incendia, and that was that. Dar put a similar decisive end to the one tussling with the hobgoblins, just in time to keep them from joining their companion.

“I wonder why they didn’t heal their own companion,” Talen mused quietly. “They have a cleric, too.” They were waiting while the goblins and their own scouts checked the rest of the cavern, verifying that no more enemies waited in the shadows. Shay and Baraka were visible by the lights that they carried, but the goblins were invisible, disappearing into the darkness without apparent effort. They were tough to see even when one was standing next to you, a fact that Dar had already commented upon earlier.

“Probably waiting to see if we would do it,” Dar said. “This way, they get to save their resources.”

“Or it could be that their own resources are limited,” Varo said, the cleric approaching silently to join them.

“You trust them?” Dar asked.

“I trust them as much as you trust me,” the cleric said. He smiled, but it was a cold gesture, and he turned to walk away, joining Kalend and Serah as they checked through the smashed bodies of the skeletons for anything remarkable.

“How in the hells did I get signed onto this mission,” Dar grumbled.

“You volunteered, colonel,” Talen said. Adjusting his helmet, which hadn’t fit well ever since the shadow dragon had nearly crushed it in its jaws, the knight walked over to meet Shay as the scout returned from her reconnoiter.

“You had to remind me, you bastard,” Dar muttered. He looked down at the hilt of his sword, and frowned.

The company gathered again around the scouts. “The rest of the cavern looks clean,” Shay said. “There’s a few smaller chambers to the side that looks like they were barracks, until recently. There’s also a long hall, flanked by two rows of pillars, that leads a long way down to somewhere on the far side of the cavern. But there’s another smaller, natural tunnel to the left... that’s the way Jehtak, our guide, says we’re going.”

“You could have warned us about the skellys,” Dar said to the hobgoblin.

“No here, before,” the creature said.

“I think I know what they were,” Filcher said. “Grimb, he was a tunnel scout... he kept three dire tigers as pets. Fearsome things, they were.”

Dar looked back at the piles of shattered bones. “Not any more.”

“Let’s move out,” Talen said. “Jehtak, let us know if there are any defenses you do remember.”

The tunnel they chose was a relatively narrow one for Grezneck, tightening until it was barely eight feet across. They passed a small side chamber that was bare of any notable features, and then had to squeeze through a relatively tight space before the passage opened onto another large cavern. Old bones crunched beneath their feet as they entered.

Jehtak said something in his own language.

“He says there’s a secret door near the entrance,” Shay translated.

The goblins started searching that wall immediately, but before they could locate the hidden portal, each of them felt a sudden cold chill, a terrible feeling that crept up their spine like a premonition of sudden danger.

“There is a dark presence here,” Varo said.

“No, really?” Dar said, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. “What else you got, cleric...”

He was cut off as a form materialized in the center of the room. As it took on substance, they could see that the figure was that of a robed elf, hovering slightly above the floor. Even fully manifested, it remained insubstantial, their light passing through its hollow form as though its flesh were wisps of cloud floating in the air. Its features, while cast in a noble mold, were warped by a keen malevolence that shone in its eyes.

“A ghost!” Serah warned, even as the full power of its corrupting gaze swept over them. The goblins cried out, and one slumped to the ground, unconscious, as the fell power of that stare overcame it. All of them felt that cold power, sucking at their energy, and only the strongest among them were able to fight off the chill that clenched at their souls.

“Die, abomination!” Talen yelled, Beatus Incendia flaring to life as he drew the holy blade from its scabbard. He charged the ghost, which wavered before the power in that weapon. His swing, however, passed harmlessly through the ghost, which fluttered up into the air.

“It flees!” someone yelled. But Varo, recognizing the ghost’s tactic, knew better. He called upon the power of Dagos, already knowing that his power was not enough to faze this adversary. His fears were confirmed as the dark violet tendrils of power swirled around the ghost, not quite touching its insubstantial form.

Nor was it enough to stop the ghost from drifting back down at Talen. The knight recovered and brought his sword up again to strike, but neither he nor the others behind him were quick enough to attack it before it seeped into the body of the living man, disappearing from view.

Shay came to an abrupt stop behind him. “Talen?”

Her only answer was Talen turning around, lifting the holy sword, his menacing smile echoed by the unholy light that burned behind his eyes.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 175

PHALEN’S FURY


Talen, his body possessed by the spirit of an elven ghost, swung Beatus Incendia at Shay. The scout, overwhelmed by the transformation, fell back too late to avoid the stroke. The blow was clumsy, swung without the knight’s usual skill, but the edge still clipped her side, splashing white fire against her torso.

The goblinoids, confused at first by what had transpired, could understand this threat, but as the hobgoblins leapt forward to engage, Shay yelled, “No, don’t hurt him!” Even as she fell back, favoring her side, she repeated the command in the goblin language. The hobgoblins hesitated, exchanging a wary look.

“We need to incapacitate the body without killing the commander,” Varo said. Serah tried to put his words into action as she cast a hold person spell, but the magic faltered against the incredible will of the ghost.

“He’s... he’s too strong,” the priestess said.

Dar did not hesitate, coming forward with Valor held at the ready. The possessed knight swung his sword at him, but the veteran warrior easily avoided the clumsy stroke, and stepped inside his reach.

“So, who the hell are you supposed to be?” Dar said, smashing the hilt of his weapon up into Talen’s gut. The blow knocked the air out of the knight despite his armor, and he staggered back a step. “You know, I might actually enjoy this,” Dar said, coming forward for another strike.

The knight smiled. “I am named Phelan, human, and it wil be the last name you ever hear.” The voice was Talen’s, but the words were spoken in an archaic style, the Common heavily accented.

“Grab him,” Varo said, as the hobgoblins came at him from the left, while Baraka and Kalend came in from the right. Talen held his ground as Dar came at him head-on, bringing up his sword again to hit the knight in the face. Talen did not attempt to defend himself, but instead dropped his sword, and wove his hand in front of him in an obviously arcane gesture.

“He’s spellcasting!” Varo warned, driving Serah back behind him. Kalend paused and leapt back, seeking cover. Dar tried to hit Talen before the ghost could complete the spell, but he was just a heartbeat too slow.

Talen laughed, the sound followed by a hissing that exploded into a bright roar of flame. The empowered fireball erupted from his hand, blasting Dar with the full force of the spell, knocking him back. The flames spread outward into a globe a full twenty feet across, engulfing almost all of them in their radius. Screams echoed through the room, several of them abruptly cut off as charred bodies slumped to the ground.

Dar surged forward through the dying flames and trailing wisps of smoke, his face blackened under his helmet. He roared defiance as he smashed the hilt of his sword into Talen’s face. The knight’s helmet absorbed some of the force of the blow, but he was still staggered by the sheer force of the impact. Talen’s body had also been heavily damaged by the fireball, and he moved sluggishly. Dar hit him again, the blow snapping Talen’s helmet strap again, knocking the protective headgear free. The skin of Talen’s face was crinkled and oozing blood, but the evil glow still shone in his eyes, and laughter still trickled from between cracked and bleeding lips.

Shay rushed forward; the scout had been shielded from the fireball by Dar’s body, and she’d escaped serious damage. Varo, too, was still in the fight, and he came forward as well, placing himself to flank the knight. The hobgoblins were all down, dead or dying. Allera was tending to Serah, who had been caught on the edge of the blast; Varo’s push had probably saved her life, but she’d still been seriously burned. The healer’s own wounds were considerable, but she characteristically ignored them to tend to another.

Shay lunged forward to grab Talen. The possessed knight tried to block her with his shield, but she yanked it back, pinning his arm. Talen drew his dagger, and the scout shifted to defend herself. But instead of trying to stab her, Talen smiled darkly.

Too late, Shay realized what the ghost intended. “Talen, no!” she yelled. She lunged for the knife, but wasn’t quick enough to stop him as he reached up, and drew the blade across his bare throat.

Blood exploded from the wound, and the knight’s laughter turned into a wet gurgle as he collapsed.
 

jonnytheshirt

First Post
And again

Oh Just a browse back to old enworld..for the craic..I tried other threads but no dice.

The travellers was highly enjoyable LB but there IS a difference here. With the Travellers I could see the mod roll out, as much as I enjoyed it immensley - however here RA, a very one dimensional mod turned into something extraodinary with a matured style of writing. I am hooked once more.

Great kudos, and keep it up. All I can think is Robert Jordan and how he can't even make me remember which books I have read up to. Gettin better LB and thanks; TOP stuff. Back to catchin up!
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Glad you're enjoying the new story, jonnytheshirt.

* * * * *

Chapter 176

THE SPECTRAL GUARDIAN


“Talen!”

Shay tried to hold up Talen as he collapsed. Blood spurted through her fingers as she tried to stop the flow of blood from the self-inflicted wound. It was futile; the cut had been deep, and it had severed the major blood vessels connecting the head to the body.

“Varo, Allera, help!” the scout yelled.

The ghost rose up out of the fading knight, a satisfied expression the dead elf’s face. Dar roared and hacked at it with Valor. Again the sword cut through the wispy form, but this time, the edge of the blade flared blue as it passed through its insubstantial outline, and something that might have been pain flashed on the ghost’s face.

Varo, his expression torn with frustration, had been ready to hit the ghost as it left Talen, but aborted his attack to aid the stricken knight. He knelt beside him, pouring a potent healing spell into the dying man. The flow of blood eased, and after a desperate second or two Talen drew in a struggling breath. The glint of life returned to his eyes.

An arrow passed harmlessly through the ghost. Kalend had survived the fireball and unlimbered his bow, but the non-magical arrow had absolutely no effect. Instead of trying another shot, the thief instead came forward again to help Baraka, who lay unmoving on the ground. He grabbed the ranger by the shoulders and dragged him back out away from the melee. The goblins that had survived the fireball, including Filcher, remained back, unwilling to risk a direct confrontation in the crowded melee around the ghost.

Dar lifted his sword to finish the ghost, but the creature drifted forward again, clearly intent on gaining another powerful puppet to control. Dar drew back reflexively, but the ghost was too quick to escape.

“Get off me, you dead prick...” the fighter snarled, as the ghost passed through his armor, its cold touch suffusing his flesh. Valor flared in his hands, and the ghost was rebuffed, its lean face twisting in an expression of anger.

Dar swept his sword down in an arc that would have decapitated the floating elf, had he been mortal. But this time Valor failed to bite into the incorporeal form, and Dar staggered to the side, thrown off-balance. The ghost began spellcasting once again.

Allera suddenly appeared, lunging past Dar. Burns streaked her head, neck, and slender arms. Snaggletooth was partially visible on her shoulder, the faerie dragon surrounded by a cloud of drifting char that highlighted the outlines of its tiny form. It hissed angrily, but managed only a smoky cough.

The healer surged around Dar and stabbed her fingers into the ghost’s lower body. Blue light erupted from her hand, tearing into the fabric of the ghost. The cure critical wounds spell ravaged it, and a hollow shriek sounded from the undead entity. The ghost drifted upward toward the ceiling, its spell aborted, focused now on either escape or a tactical retreat.

But before it could get away, Shay leapt up into the air after it. Beatus Incendia flared in her hand. Her vertical leap carried her up through the ghost, and as she passed through it, the holy sword carved a broad swath through its body. With a final empty cry, the insubstantial elf came apart, dissolving into nothing.

Shay landed on her feet, sagging wearily. Talen’s sword fell from her grasp as she knelt beside him; the knight was already trying to get up. He tried to talk, but blood still choked his throat, and he could not speak. Varo pressed him down, and touched his healing wand to the knight’s ravaged throat.

Allera and Serah had already turned to aid the other fallen. Two of the hobgoblins were still alive, but the cleric of Dagos did not stir; he was dead. Two goblins had perished within the fireball, but the other four had evaded the blast, and were in good shape. Baraka was alive, and quickly stirred under the touch of Allera’s healing wand. Black, ruined flesh crinkled off him as the blue glow spread through him, revealing new pink skin underneath.

“So much for our guide,” Dar said, looking down at the corpse of the hobgoblin.

“We’ve found our own way before,” Allera said, snapping at him.

Shay stayed with Talen until a few more charges from Varo’s wand had helped him recover enough to stand. He’d coughed up more blood, and it stained his face and the breastplate of his armor in gory trails. “Thanks,” he rasped, as Varo stepped away to attend to his own injuries; the fireball had not spared him.

“Sorry,” the knight said to Shay and Dar.

“There was nothing you could do,” Shay said. She brought Talen his helmet, battered even more after the recent encounter. The strap was once again ruined, but there was no time for repairs now; Talen made do with settling it on his head for now, adjusting it as best he could and leaving the bent visor in the up position.

“If only your will was as strong as mine,” Dar said. “Still, beating the crap out of you had a certain... satisfaction, commander.” He turned and walked away, leaving the pair of them looking after him.

It was Kalend who finally found the secret door, although getting it opened required a crowbar, as they could not locate the hidden latch. The portal, once revealed, opened onto a tunnel that led about eighty feet before ending in another concealed door. From this side the latch was obvious, and they opened it to enter yet another considerable chamber.

The purpose of this place was obvious from the diminutive sarcophagi that lined the walls. The place had a dark, sinister aura to it. For a moment, Varo held them back, not even letting the scouts go ahead into the room.

“What’s the matter?” Talen asked.

“Chaos,” Varo said. “Evil. It pervades this place.”

“I see nothing,” Dar said, looking through the open doorway.

“It is not something that can be seen...” Varo said, but was interrupted as Shay said, “Look!”

Tendrils of black fog had appeared, drifting down from the ceiling above. They were insubstantial, like wisps of thread drifting off some garment that had been torn asunder, but even so there was something darkly malevolent about them.

“That doesn’t look promising,” Allera said.

“Let’s send a gobbo in and see what happens,” Dar said.

Talen frowned. “How do we get past?”

Varo looked at Serah. “Priestess, you have the power to repel chaos.”

The cleric of the Father nodded. “I do not know if the protection will be enough to repel... that.”

“Let us hope that the spell is stronger than your faith,” Varo snapped. “I believe it is our best option, commander,” he said to Talen. “We will all have to remain close to Serah; the protection of the spell only extends to a few paces distant from the caster.”

“All right,” Talen said. He drew Beatus Incendia, while Shay passed on Varo’s instructions to the goblinoids. They crowded around Serah, as she cast the spell. Varo had to suppress a grimace as the casting was completed; the spell made his skin prickle.

“How long does the spell last?” Kalend asked, as they gathered around the entrance to the room. The tendrils of mist had thickened, until they resembled a forest of vines dangling down into the chamber. It looked virtually impossible to avoid them, now.

“A little over an hour,” Varo said before Serah could respond.

“Remember, we’re just looking for the way out of here. Don’t touch anything,” Talen said, looking at Dar as he spoke the last.

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t touch us,” the warrior quipped.

“All right, stay close to Serah,” the knight reminded them. He took the lead himself, the others pressed in close around.

A few tendrils of fog probed toward him as he stepped into the room, but they were diverted aside as they struck the barrier of Serah’s spell. With the thirteen of them forming a tight circle around Serah, they shuffled forward into the room. The fog swirled around them, probing at the edges of the magic circle as if alive, but it failed to penetrate the sphere of protection.

They made their way to the far side of the room without incident, but found only an unbroken expanse of cavern wall. “All right, let’s check the perimeter, but give those stone coffins a comfortable berth,” Talen said.

It took the better part of five minutes, but they finally found the secret door, about halfway across the room on the eastern side. This one, once pried open, accessed a smaller cave, a barren chamber with a single exit that led out into a twisting warren of catacombs. The fog did not follow them through the secret door, and after warily testing the edge of Serah’s spell, they spread out again, the goblins cautiously moving ahead to search.

Shay sniffed the air. “Air’s moister here, and fresher,” the scout reported. “We must be getting near another underground river.”

“Let’s keep on,” Talen said. “We may need to come back this way, and if so we’ll need Serah’s ward intact against that fog.”

They headed out into the next tunnel. A number of small chambers, similar to the one they had just left, exited off the passage. Bending low, shining her everburning torch upon the ground, Shay indicated faint traces on the ground.

“It looks like the traffic heads this way,” she said, indicating a tunnel that twisted into darkness to the north. Filcher started in that direction, but before the rest of them could get moving, a strangled cry of alarm drew their attention around. One of the goblin scouts emerged from one of the side chambers, his face deathly pale, his steps uncertain.

The source of the creature’s discomfiture became obvious a scant second later, as a wraith followed it out of the chamber, a vaprous form that seemed to swell with the life energy it had stolen from the hapless creature. The goblin looked over its shoulder and let out a chirrup of terror as the monster descended upon it, its insubstantial arms extended to enfold the poor goblin in its embrace.
 

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