The Mists of Daven

Part Four

By R. Krommydas

PREVIOUS PART

Crow, public domain

He could hear thunder and see lightning, but with neither high wind nor lashing rain, Little Wulfram knew well enough that this was a magic storm being conjured ahead. He forced himself to halt, panting heavily and looking wild-eyed behind him for his unnatural pursuers. The fog swallowed all sound save that of the ferocious battle the adventurers were fighting, just one corner away. Knowing they yet lived, and grave-loosed horrors were closing in on him unseen, made the gnome nearly catatonic with fear.

An invisible weight fell upon his shoulder and he almost collapsed, until the harsh voice spoke in his ear: "Fret not, mortal. I did see the scheme you devised for those interlopers and was well pleased by it. The fault was not yours for its failure. None in this heap of dung naming itself a city might have foreseen the force and fortitude of our mutual foes."

The crow - though it was no more a bird than Little Wulfram was a giant, he could see that now - became fully visible for a few moments, then shrouded itself again, more carefully, so that only the crimson glow of its eyes remained. Little Wulfram started to breathe a sigh of relief, but the messenger of the New Master had not yet finished.

"Yet know that they will triumph here. There is not strength enough above or below to halt their rage. So steel yourself! The test of your courage is upon you! Follow in my wake. We shall lead them a merry dance indeed below the streets. As they struggle to learn the steps, we shall depart and join our master beyond the walls."

Little Wulfram grimaced but understood that remaining in Elder Daven was not an option anymore. The undead had caught his scent, for one thing. For another, the adventurers would be eager to get revenge for trying to ambush them. Third, it wouldn't take long for the story to get out about the Farlandish triplets. The rest of the boys would know or at least suspect that he had something to do with that, so going back to Swallowsnest was out. There was nothing left for him here.

The weight left his shoulder as the messenger lifted up and turned the corner. Little Wulfram took a deep breath, tasting the heaviness of the fog and the growing foulness of the undead that hunted him, then followed. In five paces, he reached the alcove and almost threw himself down the ladder, much as the half-elf had done before him. He could hear himself screaming all the while, knowing it would draw attention and no longer caring. All that mattered was catching up to the evil redness in the dark, glinting at him so that he knew which way to run.

Things could clearly get no worse.

♢♢♢♢♢

"Things are going to get worse!" shouted Isolde, spotting the gnome dart back into view and then disappear below ground. "More company to our rear inside of two minutes, I'd say! Make that one minute!"

Though the rushing of blood in her ears all but drowned out the words, Embla heard the tone clearly enough and howled joyously. The true battle-madness was upon her, for the first time since her sickness, since the Ruin Woods, since before even entering this blighted land. A hint of memory threatened to tell her the exact moment she last gave herself up to the bliss of Ylsmyr's Embrace, the deific berserker fury, but she thrust it aside. There were finer pleasures to be had now.

Thunder sounded around her, shaking the false stones on which she stood. This was the work of the dauwalth, she knew, the aged dwarf. He used the Clever Craft well. Had he not called down a spark of the sun itself to light her terrible way? Had he not turned the summoned storm back onto his opposite, blasting its staff to so much ash and futility? Fire blazed on steel with each swing, polluted blood bubbling and hissing as it was spilled from unclean flesh. Embla exulted in the destruction she inflicted.

"Fall back to the underground," came Aidan's voice from across the world, a stinging gadfly in her ears. "We can hold ten times the number there. Brokk, keep a counterspell ready if that thing stands back up. Isolde, stay by Embla! Embla, leave them, they are not worth it. Embla, fall back, damn you!"

In a distant corner of her mind, she understood the reason and loathed the order all the more for it. Again she swung her immense blade, cleaving through two zombies at once. The thunder had stopped and there was an emptiness at her back where her allies had once stood. The hint of memory came back, insisting she take notice and again she turned away. It presaged a far less pleasant memory and neither would serve any purpose here.

The undead, courage bolstered by the approaching and unwitting reinforcements, closed rank against her, sheer numbers now telling. A fist, weak and rotting, scraped her side and broke from its owner. There was no pain, only outrage at this affront. Embla screamed furiously, seized the offending zombie by the throat and tore its head loose, her sword turning with her to continue its brutal dance with its fellows.

In the wake of this slaughter, she saw something that was nearly a path through her surrounding foes. Some distance beyond them, Aidan watched the melee helplessly, guarding Isolde and Brokk as they made their way below ground. With reality starting to make itself known to her, Embla forced her way through the crushing mass. Her fury only grew at this, though its heat was subsiding into a colder, more savage, burn in her heart. Aidan did not wait, abandoning the surface as soon as he saw her on approach, as if he feared Embla as much as any army of the dead.

She reached the alcove and stood for a moment, watching the oncoming hordes merge into a greater whole. Behind her, a chill darkness waited below the earth. Her allies were within, as scared as they were valiant. Embla allowed herself to wonder if perhaps they had already seen what she had refused to, then she followed. This time, when the memory rose up in her mind's eye, she did not turn away.

It was Mavarra all over again.

FIFTH INTERLUDE

The warlocks in the catacombs had apparently never been a real problem before, but since the ascension of the new coven master, entitled the Flayer, they had taken an interest in the living. Embla had heard the stories, just as Aidan and the others had on arriving, but had paid them no mind, for that was not her purpose here. Wailing ghosts had been replaced by screaming farmers, arrogant novitiates had been converted into shambling dead - all the better to serve their new master - and only when the first children were taken below did the villagers call for outside aid.

Aidan had answered the call, gathering the others to him in readiness to destroy the coven and free Mavarra. They had done well enough on the journey there, fighting off bandits on the road and even taking a brief detour to slay a cockatrice, then putting down the undead that guarded - poorly, as it turned out - the ways in and out of the village. The response from the Flayer had been swift and completely unexpected.

Subtle enchantments placed upon several key members of the village were activated and the companions were attacked in their sleep that night as they recovered themselves. Though taken by surprise, Brokk's magic and Embla's strength proved the greater in their own contests. Aidan and Isolde were bound and taken below and, naturally, the halfling slipped her shackles within minutes. Embla marked well the harrowed look in her eyes when she returned, blood-streaked from cutting her way through the last living warlocks to rescue Aidan from their profane altar, the half-elf himself clearly shaken from his near-sacrifice.

They had gathered outside the catacombs afterward, to try and plan their assault. The remaining villagers had left them to it, understanding but not forgiving the deaths of their enraptured fellows. All save one. Aidan had spent nearly an hour arguing with a small boy, one of the few still free. An orphan, Ewen by name, foisted off as an apprentice to the gravediggers. The last who was familiar with the labyrinth of the catacombs, now his ostensible wardens were themselves dead.

His eyes were the blue of ice and even harder. Embla thought she had never seen such eyes on a child so young. He had seen his friends stolen away and his innocence had died. He had seen the adventurers fight back and his hope had been reborn. Ewen said he could lead them to the Flayer by small, secret ways. To where the Flayer kept his friends and did his worst deeds. Aidan had refused to put a child in danger, but Ewen had stood his ground. At last, Aidan had agreed, his expression belonging to one who had dealt with a devil.

They followed the boy, not yet ten, into the darkness. When they reached those narrowest parts, Embla had listened well to his directions, that she might meet up with the others further in, once they had scrambled through the gaps she was never going to fit through. Twice had Aidan walked with her in that bleak realm, his silence a grim ballad of self-loathing, so sure that disaster was readying itself to strike them down.

He was to be proven right, though much later than he had feared and for a reason far more terrible than he could have suspected. Aidan had seen Embla fight before, of course. He had even heard her speak of the savage joy that came with losing oneself in the stark simplicity of bloodshed, no matter who shed it. What he had not then understood, perhaps in part because her grasp of the language was poorer then, or more likely because he did not wish to understand, was how utterly literal she was being.

♢♢♢♢♢

The Flayer was sitting on a makeshift throne, applauding. They would always remember the scene. A young, wide-faced man with delight in his voice and sun-browned hands, welcoming them to his humble abode. Once he would have been at home among any community of farmers and peddlers, but they saw he had turned from that bright path to a fouler one. At his feet, the last children of Mavarra played in mindless imitation of their lost freedom, eyes blank, shielding the monster who had bound their minds to his whim. There was not the slightest hint of sanity in his face.

"Come closer, brave heroes, do please!" the Flayer had invited them, gleefully. "Do critique my decor, I beg, the tapestries in particular. Is my needlework improving, do you think, from the early efforts?"

Embla could hear Brokk struggling to keep from vomiting. He had made the error of examining the 'tapestries' that lined the walls of this great burial chamber. When several of them began to scream, her body felt much the same way. She felt her thoughts receding, blinding her to all save the giggling corrupter of flesh and sinew, keeping her sanity safe. She did not need to see the unified forms of lost villagers, former coven members, and even the remains of the dead, writhing together in conjoined and impossible agony. Her cheeks felt damp nonetheless and she blinked away the tears hastily, feeling the battle-madness rising within her.

Behind her, the boy Ewen was complaining to Aidan that he wanted to see, that he could call to his friends and they would know to run to him to be free, to let him go and let him see what was happening. Then Brokk spoke a word and he fell limp into Aidan's arms, sleeping and insensate to the abomination before him. What remained of Embla's awareness wished that she could join him, but even that faded quickly.

Now the dead drew in, lurching and crawling and shuffling from all corners and tunnels of the catacombs. The Flayer had worked swiftly on them, crudely by some standards, many already falling apart, to please his own unspeakable tastes of form. Even Isolde was able to split them apart, reducing them to their component limbs with startling ease, whilst Brokk's magic tore through them by the dozen, until his energies were spent. Only then came the remainder of the warlock's living slaves, whose eyes, unlike those of the children, showed horrible awareness of everything their bodies were forced to do.

The Flayer was nearly bent double at the sight, rocking back and forth in peals of laughter. Isolde screamed hatefully at him and flung a dagger, seeking only to end the dreadful sound. The warlock easily stepped aside, but his concentration was momentarily weakened. They all saw his slaves falter in their advance and a glimmer of awareness return to the children, then his dominance was resumed.

Brokk had known what this meant and shouted: "All his power is being spent on keeping them controlled. He must release them if he is to cast any other spell! He is helpless otherwise."

The Flayer only laughed the harder at this. The villagers closed in on Aidan, standing protectively over Ewen's slumbering form, for the Flayer knew well that the paladin would struggle to kill the entranced townsfolk, even though his life depended on it. So Embla took the decision out of his hands and advanced on them, her sword raising and lowering with bone-shattering force, a crimson wake about it.

"So beautiful," the warlock cooed, his admiration as unfeigned as his madness. "What glorious destruction. Artistry beyond anything I had dared!"

She would vaguely remember hearing the others screaming during this time, but only afterward would she understand the words were pleas for her to stop the butchery. She would later try to explain that when in Ylsmyr's Embrace, she could only see shapes, not identities. That had one of them stepped in front of her at that moment, Embla would have tried to cut them down just the same.

♢♢♢♢♢

The slaughter was nearly complete. Here was Embla, dripping sword in hand. There was the Flayer, drawing a many-tailed scourge to his own. The children, moments ago at his feet, had stopped their horrid mockery of play and were standing, surrounding one monster to protect against another. Aidan was running towards her, knowing he had broken free of his shock too late, that he would not reach her in time to stop her cutting through the children.

"Beautiful one," the Flayer whispered again in awe, eyes following the rising sword. "Mother of ruin."

Embla blinked at him through a red haze, suddenly stilled. The scourge, its barbed tails twitching with eagerness, seemed to grow in her sight. It was vitally important somehow, though she was then unsure as to why. A moment later, Aidan was at her side, wrestling her sword from her grip. Embla wondered later that she allowed this, for the rage was still on her and by rights, she should have struck her friend dead for getting in the way.

Some of this must have shown on her face because again the Flayer resumed his deranged cackling. He was still laughing as he lashed out, knocking aside his own unwilling bodyguard and bringing the scourge up to rip at Embla. She felt the pain in her side, felt the blood flow eagerly... and for the first time, felt the coldness that marked the most intimate aspect of Ylsmyr's Embrace take hold.

Her hands came down. One took hold of the scourge, three of its tails still embedded in her, and tore it loose from both Flayer and flesh. The other took hold of the Flayer by the jaw and lifted him from the ground, breaking bone and concentration. Almost at once, the children began to come to, dazed and scared. As Embla held their captor overhead, the other three hurried forward to lead them away, bidding them close their eyes and try not to stumble on the soft, slippery, uneven floor.

All the while, the Flayer's laughs continued, though barely distinguishable from gargled shrieks. When it was just the two of them left in that charnel-pit, Embla dropped him and instead raised up the scourge. Now she understood why it had seemed so important to her. She spoke then in her own language, though perhaps he knew her meaning well enough at the end.

"Mother of ruin," Embla said, almost thoughtfully, though fury still coursed through her. "What Aslaug would I be to deny a gift so precious, so rare from such as you? A naming by a foe is a great thing indeed. I fear I am unworthy yet."

The scourge came down.

♢♢♢♢♢

"I can track him easily enough," confirmed Isolde, her expression unreadable. "So I'm just as worried now as I was back up there. That gnome seems to have a nasty habit of turning things around on us."

For a moment, Aidan was tempted to swear, then smiled. The way this evening was going, it was the turn of good luck to come their way again. When Embla thudded to the floor behind him, her breaths surprisingly slow and shallow, he knew that this was indeed the case.

"Then track him, Isolde," he decided. "We can handle whatever trickery he has planned."

The halfling muttered at that, but bent her head to the task and set off, with infinite caution, down the ancient passage. Brokk walked at her side, a flickering torch already in his hand, giving her the light she needed to see. A few paces behind, Aidan and Embla followed, the former with his hammer slung over his shoulder, having already learned there was barely enough room to use it properly, the latter crouched down and with sword sheathed for the exact same reason.

Faint groans and moans from the zombies at the street level reached them but grew fainter as none pursued. Perhaps even their near-mindless hunger had given way to self-preservation, for the advantage of their numbers was nullified by the narrowness of the passage. A skilled warrior could block their advance with ease, cutting them down one by one. It would be exhaustion that felled him, not the undead.

"We run a great deal," said Embla suddenly, startling Aidan. "Into the earth and out from it."

A chill crept along his spine, for he knew what she meant. "Embla, this is not-"

"It is the only time!" she snapped back, a hint of her dreadful anger audible in her voice. "Climbing down that ladder is the hardest thing I have ever done. Even now I feel the urge to turn back. It eats away at my reason like a fire. You think I don't know where we are? I will say it if no other will: we are again beneath Mavarra!"

Aidan blanched. The bobbing light ahead of them halted and swung around, Brokk turning to them in shock, Isolde's ashen face peering over his shoulder wide-eyed. They had been reminded of that also. To have it stated so baldly, however, was a thing they had not known they feared so greatly.

"We always run from it! We run and run and run and get nowhere! It must stop, else I shall lose my mind. Yes, say your thought, Aidan, I see it in your eyes. Say you oft doubt I have a mind to lose, so freely do I give it up! Do you deny it?"

The paladin lowered his gaze, ashamed. "You killed them, Embla. They were farmers, shopkeepers, handymen. Unarmed and scared, and you killed them. You could have pushed through them, you had the strength. And I... didn't try to stop you. I watched. Neltak knows, he saw me! I stood and watched."

"We all did." A small voice, Isolde's. "Brokk is excused, his magic was exhausted. But I was there too, Aidan. I might have tried to cut across her sight. Or just cut a heel, if that failed. I didn't. I know why I did too. I know why we did nothing, even if we could have."

Brokk let out a choked whine, acknowledging the bitter truth when it came. "We wanted her to kill them. They'd known about the coven below their village and said nothing to nobody. They smiled at us and thanked us and fed us when we came to help and then tried to take us below. Yes, the ones who attacked us were forced to, but I remember hating them for it. Just as I remember what I did when I got free. And... and what you did, Aidan, to the one who held the knife over you."

Aidan remembered it no less clearly. The young warlock had been nervous about her duty, an acolyte still unproven, but determined to see it through. With the threat of joining the rest of her coven in undeath hanging over her head, she had performed the rites with care, ensuring no detail was overlooked. Even when the screams of her fellows reached her ears, courtesy of Isolde's own brand of savagery, she had persevered with the incantations and the carvings - faint scars next to some he bore, but Aidan knew they would fade no sooner.

Then she had fallen, hamstrung. Isolde was the barest instant away from slitting her throat when Aidan called to her to wait. Isolde had understood his wish and released him from his bonds. Then she waited while he beat the screaming acolyte to death, breaking one of his fingers against her in the process. He had begged the gods' forgiveness for this deed in his prayers every night since but received no satisfactory answer.

After a short silence, Brokk's grim tone gave his own confession: "I was not without any magic. I had one spell in reserve but chose not to cast it. It might have stilled you then Embla, as it did not a week past when the fever had you, but I did not want that. Isolde spoke true, otherwise. I wanted to see them dead. For their stupidity, in part, but mainly for my fear. I feared becoming one of the Flayer's skinless works of depravity."

The friends looked at each other, feeling a weight lift from their shoulders. Not completely, but the pressure had loosened somewhat. They would need to talk long and hard about this afterward, but the first and most difficult step along the road had been taken. For now, there was a gnome to track.

♢♢♢♢♢

For all the cramped quarters and the poor light, they moved swiftly and ever deeper through the age-old corridors running below Elder Daven, relics of its earliest days, when the lower classes were expected to keep themselves as apart from their masters as possible. From time to time, they would emerge into a small circular chamber that had once served as house and home to ten or twelve servants, sleeping on straw piles and eating cold foods in near or total darkness, for only a few were so blessed with flues and vents to carry a torch's smoke away, or so wealthy as to afford a lantern's oil.

Even Brokk, born and raised underground, who had not seen the sun until his seventh year, found it oppressive. There was a forgotten history in these stones, one of unending weariness and thankless toil, as generations lived and died in squalor to keep the lords and ladies of the land in the manner to which they had been accustomed. Wars and plagues and famines had gradually sapped what pitiable life there was down here. The under-paths of society were abandoned and mostly sealed, save for a very few to allow maintenance of foundation or sewer.

The dwarf shuddered. This was no pure mountain hall, or even hositan burrow - though if challenged, he would ever deny this architectural prejudice, for, like most dwarves, he truly didn't realize consciously that he held such a view - but a makeshift tomb denied even the honesty of that name.

Close to an hour after they had descended into this bleak place, they came to one room that had obviously been a hub of sorts, with several passages leading off into the unknown. Here, the gnome's tracks showed confusion, passing through one arch, emerging again to choose another, but with no apparent final direction. Isolde snorted in annoyance, but took the torch and confidently turned her eyes to the walls instead, looking for the scuffs and scrapings of his hands as he sought his way in the dark.

Brokk, however, felt distinctly unsure about the way she seemed to choose. There was a heavy feeling in the stale air, a weight that was not physical. It was a familiar and unpleasant feeling. The same one, in fact, that he had felt pervading the city ever since entering it, although down here - closer to the source, he thought to himself - it had a more present, a more there, aspect to it.

Then he heard Isolde calling that she had found the way and he automatically began to follow. Three steps later and he halted, turning to look back with growing certainty. "We want to go elseways, my friends. Aye, I trust your judgment Isolde, never doubt that, we're on the gnome's trail all right. But he's leading us away from why we're down here to begin with."

They gathered back in the room and Isolde inspected the route he pointed out. "This way hasn't been walked in years. See here? Those cracks weren't there before the moss got to the stones. That's how long the growth's been working on them. What's your argument, Brokk?"

"It slopes upward," he answered, though the others saw no such thing. "The air is lighter that way, fresher too. I would hazard a guess that-"

He never finished his sentence. A howling gale shrieked down the corridor and slammed into him, sending him stunned and spluttering to his knees. Some moments later, he recovered enough of its wits to let out a grim laugh. He accepted Isolde's arm, helping him stand again, then looked at his friends, vindication in his eyes.

"You felt nothing then, nor heard a thing, did you?" he asked, knowing the question was rhetorical. "I did. I just lost the use of all my cantrips. Ah, hedgerow magics, if you will, cheap tricks for the most part. They were plucked from my mind and drawn away. Upwards, not down. At least it was only them. Had it been anything stronger that was stolen from me, I would still be lying there in a daze. We should hurry, in case the last spells I have are taken before we reach our goal."

Aidan raised a querying eyebrow at Isolde, who shrugged. "I can trail just about any living thing, or dead one come to that, through this place. I know you or Embla could do much the same out of a city. But when it comes to magic, we follow Brokk, don't we? He says we need to go that way, it's good enough for me."

It turned out to be 'good enough' for the other two as well.

♢♢♢♢♢

Perhaps twenty minutes later, the corridor widened out enormously, ending in a set of steps, leading up towards the surface. On each of the great stone slabs was engraved a heraldic crest, each subtly different from the other, and encircling each crest was writing in a language far older than any of modernity. Brokk was able to deduce it was not a descendant of the pre-Farlandish languages of the east, but whether it was a lost western cousin, or a bastard child of the long-dead Lorindish dialects, or something else entirely, was beyond him.

Then, to everyone's surprise, Aidan spoke with a wistful tone in his voice: "These are headstones of knights. No, I cannot read what is written there, but I can guess well enough. Name, title, and manner of death. They were buried here so that, even in death, they would serve to protect their sworn lord. This way was perhaps a final bolt-hole, a last desperate path of escape should all else fail. Most of my people - well, my father's people truly, you understand - no longer keep this custom, but he told me once that he'd heard tell of its revival in Belendale."

He smiled sadly, running his hand over the nearest crest. "But if ever there were spells at work here, they will have long since evaporated. Such is the nature of the binding oaths. The blood of the old kings is long washed away in time's river, dried up or diluted beyond the measure of mortals. Still, we may at least show respect to these heroes of the Elder Days, such as the kingdoms of men might reckon them."

The half-elf then knelt, bowing his head, the others looking on uncertainly. He murmured words that even Isolde's keen ears could not catch, though even had she known any Altarian, the so-called elven 'high speech', it would have done her no good. As his heritage was that of the self-exiled ranarim, he spoke the mercuric, rolling dialect Rhunsdhain - literally, 'Cleft-in-Twain', often derisively called the Sundered Speech. Many found it a disturbing language, Altarian singsong rhythms mated to orc-like gutturals, neither one nor the other.

When he finished this short prayer, Aidan stood, looking just as confused as the others, as if unsure as to where this sudden burst of piety had come from. It seemed a compulsion had come over him suddenly, with overwhelming urgency. He wondered if perhaps he had been mistaken in his assertion that there was no magic left here. Had they the time, he knew, they would undoubtedly have stopped here for a while to investigate further, but that was not possible.

Besides, Brokk had already mentioned that he had only the barest minimum of spells left, none of which were useful in this situation even if they did stop. Better to press on and think on this matter when they were back above ground. Not all mysteries, Aidan reminded himself, needed to be solved, either immediately or at all. With that thought in mind, he beckoned the others to follow and began the ascent. Both the nature of the steps and his gut instinct were telling him they were nearing their objective.

To be on the safe side then, better to have someone in the lead who could take a hit and see in the dark.

♢♢♢♢♢

The smell hit him first, giving Aidan enough time to shield himself with his weapon, partially deflecting the actual blow from the hulking monster hiding at the top of the stairs. Its claws scraped along the shaft and one nicked the back of his hand. He felt his muscles freezing up, a paralytic impulse spreading from the minor injury, an irresistible tension. Snarling, the paladin resisted the tension and pushed forward, knocking the ghast off-balance, its ambush already spoiled.

"You'll not be eating me alive, you overgrown ghoul!" he shouted, opening his mind's eye to the unseen world.

At once, the sense of undeath rushed into him, a choking putrescence that wanted only to drown him in decay and filth, but nevertheless focused him onto its source. Aidan hated doing this more than almost anything else, but it strengthened his connection to the divine powers he was sworn to serve. He imagined the cleansing purity of holy light spreading out from his soul, out on his breath and along his arms, to wrap itself around the head of his warhammer, ready to smite any foe of Goodness. When his heart told him the moment was right, he swung the great weapon.

The first impact shattered the ghast's right arm, a blackened mark like a brand appearing on its unholy flesh. The monster reeled in a full circle, shrieking in pain and fear as it sensed its final doom. The second impact broke open its chest, reducing its dune-dry innards to so much powder and mulch. It collapsed at once, irrevocably destroyed. The exchange of blows had lasted less than ten seconds.

"Save some for me, why don't you?" Brokk smirked when it was his turn to step around the corpse, joining the others in the chamber they had reached.

"Cast a spell to lengthen your stride and I will," Aidan retorted good-naturedly and was rewarded with a full laugh. "Better yet, tell me what in Heshtail's name I am looking at here. Because I can't tell where the hell-tree artwork ends and the funeral-for-five bier begins."

Brokk frowned bemusedly at the description, then took a closer look at the bizarre setpiece in the middle of the room. On first glance, it indeed resembled a madman's idea of a tree, metal branches curving away in all directions from a stone trunk, sculpted with many-jointed fingers instead of leaves at the tip of each one. Five marble plinths around its base completed the illusion, as partially exposed roots. Bones of all kinds were scattered on and around four of them, all marked with various arcane symbols, but the fifth was blank.

"It is more recent than these halls by some centuries," Brokk answered confidently. "To judge by the condition of the stone, I would say it was installed here sometime in the last three hundred years. The symbols you see here? They are a variation on the usual necromantic sigils employed in the making of flesh golems. An extremely unusual variation, at that."

He spoke hesitantly now, more to himself. "They look almost... it's not quite right, actually, closer to... no, that's ridiculous. Unless you altered the input. My spells. You genius. Whoever you were, you deranged, twisted, spell-thieving genius. No wonder it is taking so long. The exodus to Kale, the Driddaren patrols. Even people like us, or those three waiting for us. Daven should have been clear by now."

The wizard turned to the others, eyes shining excitedly. "My friends, what we have here is a forgotten relic of the Dark Occupation, perhaps even a precipitant of it. The laws of necromancy state that, once destroyed, an undead creature cannot be raised again. Now, what if someone found a way to bypass that limitation? For example, by using necrotic energies to animate an amalgam of former undead, as if creating a flesh golem!"

Aidan paled at the implications. "This thing can resurrect the undead?"

"Well, the term 'resurrect' is more commonly used, ah what does it matter, we could argue the semantics for years," Brokk forced himself away from the tangent. "Essentially, yes. You place the bodies of the undead on the four marked plinths, at least two of them anyway, then charge the artifact with magic, any magic. That would be why I lost the use of random spells, you see. Once it gathers enough magical energy, it will divide the bodies and reconstitute choice portions into a new whole, before animating it using said gathered magical energy. Almost like a flesh golem, made up of many parts, but not quite."

"That is why Daven is still overrun with the undead, even after so many of the living have fled or even taken up arms to destroy them. I'll warrant there is one of these in the vicinity of each major settlement in the country, just waiting for a spellcaster to come within its range and siphon off some of their magic. Likely when they are sleeping, so the morning finds them with their full capacity and a bad dream. Do you see? For every two to four undead monsters that are not utterly destroyed, another can be produced from their remains! We must destroy this at once. And then inform the authorities!"

A few moments passed as the four friends looked at each other, silently taking in the situation. This was an incredible discovery - incredible, almost literally in fact - and its importance was not lost on them. Then without warning, the silence was shockingly broken.

"The authorities, Herr Dwarf, are already informed."

♢♢♢♢♢

The voice seemed to come from thin air, echoing about the room as the adventurers spun, searching for its owner, wondering how they were snuck up on. Then they heard the grating rasp of stone against stone, and a widening sliver of light appeared in one of the walls as it swung backward. From the newly revealed passage, a broad figure emerged, the strangely bright candle he held in his right hand clearly illuminating both his craggy features and the heraldry emblazoned on his tabard. Behind him were eight other men, armed with thinly-curved swords and bulky crossbows, the latter already aimed into the room. Seeing this, even Embla softened her stance, not wanting to risk being cut down before even reaching their line.

"That is a wise move for us all," the leader of this assembly said. "You may know of me. I am Marshal Dieter von Lanburg. Captain of King Rodric's Driddaren, Grand Warden of the Interior and many other overblown titles that have no bearing on what I actually do in this benighted city. Which of you will speak for the others?"

There was a pause, then Aidan stepped forward. "I will. Aidan, child of Zel, servant of Heshtail the Merciful. And probably many fewer grandiose titles than yourself, Marshal von Lanburg, for much the same reasons."

A thin smile briefly acknowledged the witticism but vanished immediately after. "Then, as you invoke the name of Heshtail, I will expect honesty. Do not disappoint me, Aidan of Zel. My unit was dispatched to exterminate a large number of the risen dead observed approaching the inner walls. They did not fall into our trap, however, because it changed course to meet up with another. One that appeared to have been considerably depleted by the time we arrived to clear them all out."

"Upon interrogation, extremely concerned citizens in the vicinity reported the sounds of battle and thunder, along with lightning flashes. Obviously magical in origin, if we consider that spell-hurling skeleton abomination we lost three men, good men I was proud to command, in destroying. It kept screaming something about breaking us like its staff. Then we found an entrance to these old passages that seemed recently used. And now, on further investigation, we find you four here, in an extremely sensitive location. So tell me, exactly what is your role in all this?"

Aidan resisted breathing a sigh of relief, aware that that would certainly make him look guilty of something, then answered: "We were hunting a magical anomaly that tried to harm my dwarven friend, Brokk. We strong-armed a knowledgeable lowlife into leading us to it but got caught between the two undead groups you mentioned. Our would-be guide fled down here and we followed when we felt we couldn't beat all the approaching zombies. That skeleton monster you describe was among them, but Brokk, was only able to shatter its staff before we had to flee. Once down here, it was only a matter of time before we found our way to this place. Our intentions now you heard from our own lips. Neltak be my witness, for I speak truth."

For some seconds, the marshal's flint-hard eyes turned to his lantern, staring hard at the flame. When nothing changed, he visibly relaxed, a genuine look of relief spreading across his face and making him twenty years younger. He nodded at his men and they lowered their crossbows. The change in mood was palpable, a heavy weight lifted from the shoulders. Only Isolde, her tendency to paranoia never more needed, remained wary and suspicious, keeping her hands close to - but not on, just in case - her daggers as the marshal stepped right up to Aidan and extended his hand. The half-elf smiled and took it in his own.

"That's a Candle of Lie Detection isn't it?" he asked the marshal, who nodded. "Learned about them during my training. Was exposed to them more than once, actually. Sometimes wish I had a few dozen of them on my person too. I can feel that scowl, Isolde."

From both his own experience and the amused expressions of the Driddaren, he didn't need to turn around to know the halfling had immediately wiped the look from her face and replaced it with that of wounded innocence.

"Marshal, I dare venture to say our goals are aligned her," he continued, half-questioningly. "But I must ask, if you already knew about this... this atrocity, then why has it not already been destroyed?"

"We ran out of funds months ago," von Lanburg replied sourly. "We started by just trying to hammer it to pieces, but the damned thing must be invulnerable to mundane weaponry. It ignored us until we started hiring wizards, who are rare in this parts and cursed expensive. More than a few took one look at the task and absconded. The rest were killed trying to unravel its wards, for it defends itself against the living just as well as tears open the dead. Or it did, anyway. The last poor fool who tried his luck did some severe damage before paying for it with his life. After that, it began to try stealing magic at random intervals, not just at night as with the other examples, Herr Brokk."

"We haven't been able to get anyone else down here for nigh on a year now. The few priests we have in the city lack the necessary skills and if they can't do it, we've nobody else in all Daven who can. All they can do for us keep an eye on the ones we've found and try to limit their use, you were correct about them having been hidden around the major towns, Herr Dwarf. But they were built to last and it shows, damnation!"

The marshal appeared more dejected than angered by this. Clearly, the pure unending stress of knowing such a hellish device was right below his feet had served to wear him down over the years. Aidan opened his mouth to commiserate but was not surprised to hear himself volunteering to find a way to help. Supportive murmurs behind him made it clear that he was not alone in this.

♢♢♢♢♢

"If we ignore trying to apply mostly futile, expensive, fatal, magical brute force to them," von Lanburg explained, sometime later. "The only other success we seem to be having is in the town of Arden, past the Great Daven Lake north of Irrol. My associate there reported success anyway, but he went silent four months ago. I don't know why. If you want to help me and help His Majesty the king, that is where you'll need to go. See what you can dig up there."

Aidan and Brokk nodded in agreement, knowing that it was likely going to be on their heads to remember the details of this mission. The Driddaren had taken them through the secret passageway back to the surface, emerging in the north-eastern portion of Elder Daven, formerly a temple quarter that had been almost razed to the ground during the Dark Occupation and never rebuilt, then straight to the castle to be fed and rested. The marshal had arranged what was practically a feast, especially for usually-hungry adventurers such as they, and both Isolde and Embla became effectively dead to the world on seeing the repast laid out for them.

"Obviously, if you bring back anything useful, you'll be paid as handsomely as we can afford. Which will probably not be as much as you deserve. All depends on how quickly we can finish cleansing Daven of those things and start imposing some genuine order... and collecting taxes. We'll be lucky to get anywhere significant in the next five years, but I'll take just about anything these days. As, I suppose, will you."

At the mention of payment, Isolde lost all interest in the food and began to pay extremely close attention. Simultaneously, Aidan stepped away from the conversation, unwilling to take the theoretical risk of playing down the need for a reward - and the very practical risk of enraging Isolde by doing so. He remembered thinking earlier that night about how their luck was due to change, given the way things had been going thus far. To his pleasant surprise, it seemed as though their luck was not only changing but doing so both continually and for the better.

"I can't help regretting us not catching up with that deceitful gnome though," he thought aloud. "Even though we did end up somewhere we were needed more by chasing after him."

"What I can't help is having the feeling we'll meet again one day," Isolde prophesied, a hint of bloodthirst tingeing her tone. "Sure as muck is muck, that Little Wulfram will be turning up in our path again. He won't be happy to see us, that's for sure! Wonder how we'll react?"

They waited expectantly for the obvious response, only to stare at Embla in surprise when she said nothing. For a few seconds, she was clearly unaware of their scrutiny. Then she noticed the silence and paused mid-chew to look around in suspicion. With roguish insight, Isolde edged away slowly.

"Were you listening to any of that?" Brokk asked, grinning when she shook her head. "We just mentioned the gnome. The one that we followed. We were wondering what to do about him getting away. What we'd do if we met him again. Maybe even on our way to Arden, who knows?"

Embla gave him a withering look and answered by returning her attention to a suckling pig, picking it up and splitting the body in half with a sudden burst of force. Its juices sprayed everywhere and from somewhere below the table, Isolde's giggles could be heard over Aidan's disgust as he tried to wipe himself clean. More than one of the Driddaren, von Lanburg included, hid their own smiles. As strange as they found this towering warrior woman, her attitude was entirely familiar to seasoned barrack-brawlers such as they.

♢♢♢♢♢

About one hour before dawn, Little Wulfram finally collapsed two miles outside of Elder Daven. He was too exhausted even to gasp for breath properly, a hideous whistling coming from his ragged throat as he fought to stay conscious. His palms and knees were bloodied from countless scrapes in the lightless passages below the city, his thighs and back screaming due to a fall down an unseen flight of stairs, and his forehead was already bruising spectacularly following a meeting with a low ceiling on his emergence from the underground.

As he lay in the grass by the western road, the eerie messenger of the New Master became fully visible again, settling itself on a hummock nearby to watch him. It appeared quite unconcerned by its literal flight from Elder Daven, or in any way tired from the exertions that had nearly done for Little Wulfram himself.

"I had thought you would fall some distance back," the not-crow commented in an amicable tone. "You are pleasingly resilient for a mortal. You may rest for a while. Laub and our master are some days' hard travel away. Even as the crow flies. Do not trouble yourself to attempt a laugh, it will only choke you."

Relieved, Little Wulfram closed his eyes and gradually began to settle himself. His wounds were not serious, but his situation was. For the first time in his life, he was alone - well, he reminded himself, except for something that looked like a bird but really wasn't - and worse still, outside of the city, the only place he had ever known. Then his mind seized on the name he had been given and he moaned despairingly.

He'd always heard places like Laub and Necrovia, according to the boys who'd been out that far, could call themselves lucky to be called one-mule towns. They were so far away too. He had no food or water, no spare clothes, and no skills of use outside of somewhere like Swallowsnest House. He'd never make it. He'd starve or get sick, or wolves or bandits might get him, or just twist his ankle on the way and lie in a ditch to freeze overnight, or-

Powerful wings struck him about the ears, driving out the panic with shock. "I told you once that you must stand strong if you are to be esteemed. This is as true now as it was in Elder Daven. All that has changed is the surroundings. If you are unable to do so, then you are of no use to our master and shall be discarded as any broken tool. The choice is yours, Wulfram Crowsherald."

"Yes, mortal. You were small of stature next to those fools who mocked you daily, yet your spirit had strength beyond any ten of theirs. Stand now and look me in the eye, yes, just so. You have earned the right to do so. It is time to leave behind that which once you were and take up the great destiny laid out before you. Together, we shall announce the might and majesty of our master to all those whose his gaze turns to."

Little Wulfram - no, that was wrong, he was Little Wulfram no more, though he would surely catch himself in his thoughts by that name from time to time - Wulfram felt his resolve harden. He knew know there was undoubtedly more magic in the New Master's messenger than just turning invisible or making its eyes glow, else he'd still be whining and groaning on his back. Then a thought occurred.

"The New Master is in Laub, you said? Sorry, the Master, just the Master. I thought he was in Elder Daven with us... but if he isn't, who killed the boss back when I was just one of the boys?"

"Another of our master's servants," the not-crow answered dismissively. "A former court wizard condemned to ignominy and a pauper's grave for his sins. His bones are dust by now, I should think, for I summoned him to face those adventurers before they went down below after us. I certainly saw his staff shatter. The rest of him is unlikely to have lasted much longer."

Wulfram took a few minutes to process this, wondering at the strength of one who could command such a power as a mere servant. Now that he knew that, his lingering doubts vanished. For him to have been picked out from the rabble to serve someone like that, well, that could only mean good things for him. All his trials and tribulations thus far had clearly been a test by the messenger, to see if he was worthy enough to join their ranks.

"One last question then, then I think I can keep going for a bit. What do I call you? Now that we's working together and all?"

"I am Marchosias, though it amuses our master to address me differently. In his presence, simply call me Imp. Now, to Laub!"

TO BE CONTINUED