CAS

CAS

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 125



He felt sick to his stomach and his head ached. Talberth opened his eyes but everything around him was dark. "No light..." he said aloud and that was wrong. His hands felt at his chest and touched the metal of his amulet. There should have been light, his talisman would glow till the life of its enchanter ceased and Talberth had enchanted it himself. "What..." he began to say and pulled at the amulet, the chain dug into his neck and he tried to rise. Talberth's head smacked against a frame of wood, a dusty piece of cloth slapped him in the face. He coughed. "Blehhh!" Talberth spat out a mouthful of the dust, it dried his tongue and went up his nose. He let the amulet go and tore at the cloth; it broke apart in his hands like leaves dried in the sun.

Light appeared; first a ragged line where the cloth began to split and as he clenched his hands a gap showed but he still was in the dark. Talberth was head and shoulders beneath an ancient bench. He had to wriggle free, bracing his hands against the wooden frame and crushing more of the decaying cloth, he pushed. There was something wrapped within that felt like the branch of a tree, but it moved even as his fingers came in contact. A shower of dusty fragments rained down on his face, Talberth brought up his arm to hide his eyes; he turned his head away and rolled.

He heard a scratching on the tiled floor. Near to his head he saw a pair of bony feet, they were specked with black, pieces of the cloth that hadn't dropped away or were caught in the nooks of the skeletal feet. The feet shifted, Talberth looked up, he followed the legs to the hollow frame, the empty cage of its chest, a grinning skull looked back from dark pits where its eyes had been. The skeleton had no flesh; no lungs to pump the air, no vocal cords to make the noise, no tongue to form the words, but it spoke, or tried to. "Zzzziiii Vvvviiizzz Ppppaaazzzz..." hissed out like air escaping from the bellows at a forge.

"Yiii!!!" Talberth squeaked. He squirmed away on his elbows and kicked with his heels, a man's length back and he banged against a wall.

"Pppaaazzz!, Pppaaazzz!" the skeleton clacked toward him, it's claw-like hands outstretched. Shadows danced behind it, the light from Talberth's amulet throwing them against the far wall. From out of these shadows came more and more of the skeletons; a half dozen behind the first, another half-dozen behind these others.

Talberth pulled a dagger from his belt and slashed at a bony hand. The blade notched the arm, carved out a divot, but the hand had him by his wrist. The mage stood and shook the skeleton, he lifted it from the tiles but he could not break its grip. The groaning voice was in his ear, the creature held one wrist in either hand; strong as a full fleshed man it had him fast; it's long strong teeth near to his face. Talberth was on his feet and bashed the skeleton against the wall. He slammed it again and one hand came free. Before it could catch his wrist Talberth grabbed and caught the clawed hand still holding him. With two hands he swung it round and brought it against a wall hard enough to break its collarbone.

Hands caught Talberth by the neck, wrapped around his arms and dragged him away. The tall, thin mage screamed and kicked with his feet. He struggled in the skeletons' grasp as they took him from the room and through a hidden panel that opened in the wall far opposite the door. With its arm hanging loose the first skeleton still held Talberth's wrist in its other hand. "Zzziii Vvviiizzz Pppaaazzz." it hissed into his face.

* * *

"Telenstil! Telenstil!" Harold shouted across the pillared hall. His voice echoed from the vaulting roof and broke the silence that held the room in its embrace. The halfling was startled by the sound of his own cries coming back to him so he called no more. His footsteps and Little Rat's were all that he heard at first after the echoes died, but when he was halfway across the room the sound of voices talking in earnest reached his ears. Harold could hear the clear tones of Telenstil's elven throat and Ivo's deep bass replies so typical of a gnome. There was another elven voice, Ghibelline no doubt and the grumble of the ranger. As he neared the entrance to the hall Harold could see them now. A magic light had been lit; one of the wizards had enchanted the end of a torch and placed it in the outstretched hand of the golem carved into an ogre's shape. They stood around the stone creature looking much as they had when Harold had left them to follow Talberth.

The warrior elf Ghibelline faced the others, his arms rising with the volume of his words. Telenstil saw the thief and his shadow, he said something that Harold could not hear, which silenced Ghibelline, and waved. Harold waved back and hurried to reach the wizard and the others.

"...you have a quest, but..." Ghibelline was saying before Harold interrupted him.

"Telenstil!" Harold shouted in a hoarse whisper. "Telenstil." he said again after clearing his throat. "Talberth's gone. There was a magic trap, I told him not to go ahead..."

"Take me to this place," Telenstil said firmly and shook his head. Talberth had been his apprentice, but to the seemingly ageless elf it had been only a short time ago that Talberth had left his tutelage. In Telenstil's mind the young mage appeared as the gangly youth whose academic skills were matched only by his hunger to learn.

"Telenstil," said Ivo, "I will go. Magic tricks and traps are part of my craft as you know."

"Talberth is my responsibility," objected the elf.

"This quest is your responsibility, you were just saying as much to Ghibelline," Ivo told him. "You command the golem, your powers are more direct, mine are better suited to this."

"I'll go," offered the ranger.

"Yes," said Telenstil, "I would feel better knowing that a strong arm and able sword went along."

"Follow me, it's down the side passage we found, it's quite a ways," said Harold.

"Then we'd better get started," said Ivo.

"Take the light," said Telenstil. "You will need it for Harald."

"You humans..." Harold said under his breath.

"Halflings..." Harald answered him.

"You have good ears," the halfling said, surprised that the ranger had heard him.

"Return in an hour," cautioned Telenstil.

"If we can," said Harold.

"We will be back in an hour or send someone back," said Ivo. "I will make sure that we do not get in over our heads."


The ranger looked at the old gnome standing by the young scrawny orc and the halfling and smiled, then laughed. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Lost Library of Q'Sh (Revised) - Location 1



The Lost Library of Q'Sh

References as to whom or what Q'Sh was are uninformative but the Library of Q'Sh is mentioned in several journals and histories as a minor location of sagacious lore. Until recently its location was unknown but several traders have recently acquired items which bear the name and markings of Q'Sh.

A group of miners exploring this area in search of a famous but abandoned mine have come under attack by marauding goblins and their guild has both mounted a rescue mission and a placed a reward for the head of any goblins brought back to their guild house at the border outpost. They have the intention of seeing the area cleared.

Hunters returning to the border fort report tracking goblins to a hilly region where they were surprised to find the entrance to some large building cut into the side of one of the hills.

Note: The actions of creatures at location 2). will probably occur before characters reach location 1).

Location 1).

The stairs are marble and very worn. Several have been cracked into fragments and all are slick with a green fungal slime. Movement on the stairs is at 1/2 speed and anyone running on the stairs must make a fumble roll as do those initiating combat.

Combat on the stairs is at -2 to hit and combatants must roll a d20 at the start of each combat round in which they are attacking (before any attack roll can be a made) to see if they lose their balance.

(a natural roll of 5 or less is a critical fumble and any item held in hand or hands will be dropped while 1d4 damage is taken and the combatant will tumble down the stairs with the possibility of tumbling into someone below them who then must roll to see if they fall as well whether they were attacking, defending or not. These fumble rolls are taken separately so that a combatant may have to roll more than once to see if they lose their balance or are knocked over by someone else losing their balance).

(a natural roll of 10 or less results in a combatant losing their footing and falling to their knees or back on their butt and suffering 1hp damage as well as giving any attacker a +2 to their to hit roll. Any attack they were attempting make will be negated).


The green slime upon the stairs is a living organism but is harmless. It may be consumed and is both tasty and nutritious.  8 ounces of slime is = to a day's rations. It consumes vegetable matter and can double in size once a week if fed 4 times its starting weight daily, but it needs to be stored in a cold and damp environment or it will dry out and die in a day. 5 gallons of slime can be collected from the front stairs. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Hill Giant Chief - Nosnra's Saga - Part 124



He could feel but it was as if he stood back from his body. The Keeper's wounds knitted but did not heal. The cut which split his skull closed, a knotted lump of bone ran from his forehead back along the crown and to his bald pate. Skin stretched to the edge, purple and discolored. His severed thumb rejoined but here again the skin did not close and the same with every scrape and gash that crossed his flesh.

The orcs had carved him, scrawled foul words in their crude tongue with the points of knives. The Keeper lived again but only vengeance was on his mind. First he would hunt down those orcs, he could feel them; they were near, so close that his spirit could taste them. Those that had cut him while the last sparks of life were held within his dying frame.

Ardare, the spirit of fire housed within the blade he wore beneath his belt, it sought to turn him to his greater prey, the human warrior who had used the very blade the Keeper now wore; the human warrior who had slain him. The undead giant could see him, could feel the man sleeping with troubled dreams. With a shake of his great maimed head he scattered the vision. He knew where the man lay, but before the Keeper would leave this place he would crush and grind the bones of those orcs who had helped to bring him low; they had retreated back into the small caves nearby. While he'd lived the Keeper had never considered them of any consequence, a few dozen orcs left to starve on scraps and scrapings. Now he had a thirst that only their deaths would quench.

* * *

"Hells, we've lost the wizard," Harold cursed. "Come on you," he said to Little Rat, "We'd best go find Telenstil and quick."

The young orc did not reply. He'd been screened from the blinding pulse by Harold but he'd seen the mage Talberth thrown through the air and disappear into the solid seeming door. Little Rat's mouth hung open shocked by the display of power, frozen in place till the halfling tugged his arm and the two ran back the way they'd come.

* * *

The passages beneath the steading rang with the sound of hammer upon stone. Metal sparked and rocks flew into splinters as the Keeper smashed open the entrance to the cave which housed the rebellious orcs. Beyond the entrance there ran long rough corridors, natural tunnels widened by the orcs. Each boom echoed down these hallways with a painful jarring noise that made the orcs cringe and start. They hid, these few survivors of the mage's lightning and the mad scout Edouard's attacks, they cowered behind boulders or wedged themselves into dark corners of the cavern's walls.

There were adjoining caves that lead deeper into the Oerth beneath the giants' hill, but these were home to creatures fiercer than the orcs. Nearby lived a group of troglodytes, beyond them were huge lizards that had never seen the light of sun or moons, and further still there was a vast chamber split by a fast running subterranean stream. Along the banks crawled insectoid scavengers that feasted on refuse seeping from the giants' latrines and on the mire which was washed onto the muddy banks. The orcs could flee but the troglodytes would not welcome them and the lizards and insects offered them a simple fate, the same that the booming of the giant's hammer foretold.

The fiercest of their number had died; these had been the last to join the fray, the first to run. The hammering beat upon their spirits as the metal cracked against the stone, sending shivers down their spines. One orc whimpered and dropped the rusted blade he carried then turned and ran for passage which led to the troglodyte cave. He brushed past another standing near; that one ran as well. One shrieked, others saw them run and then all the orcs were fleeing. A smile raised the Keeper's lips, one corner lopsided by an orcish rune cut into the giant's cheek and running across his mouth and down his chin. He could feel the terror of the orcs, their presence drawing back, the giant knew they had no escape or place to hide. The hammer struck again, the Keeper put a joyful force behind the blow. A boulder half the giant's size tore loose and bounced down the corridor, but the ceiling groaned. Stones began to fall; they rained down and knocked the giant from his feet, bruised his lifeless flesh and buried him beneath tons of rock and dirt.

Small patters of loose oerth made the only noise, they stopped. The dark passage became still, the entrance neck deep to an orc in fallen stone. The rocks began to move, gravel shifted then the debris exploded out in all directions. The Keeper flew to his feet, his head bounced from a boulder trapped between the upper walls when the ceiling dropped. He reached up and placed his hands along his head and snapped the column of his spine back into place. Loose dirt sprayed out, he shook his head like a wet dog shaking the water from its coat, and then he laughed; ugly shrieks, high pitched and skittering like fingernails down a chalk board came from him.

It was good to be alive, even as a living corpse, he thought to himself. He'd be more careful with his hammer. The Keeper crawled on his belly like a snake and wiggled his way down the uneven corridor.


End 124

Beyond the Forest of the Dead - End



7

It was all white and cold. The snow was clean and its taste was pure with youth. The snow was young. It whipped across my face as we sailed down the side of a hill any reasonable man would have called a mountain. My brother was beside me, wild and irrepressible, and we laughed.

And the memory was gone.

Night had fallen as I stood in the road that lead deeper into the valley or back into the hills and mountains and wasteland beyond. The bright stars hovered low in the sky and filled the empty sockets of the old God's skull with silver-mystery. I found my sword near the severed stump. The gap between the neighboring thorn-bushes stared at me and a sweat broke out across my brow even though the night was chill.

The weight of my pack was missing and I used it as an excuse to myself to back away and search for where I'd left it. Turning back toward the mountain I could see the fire that was burning on the ridge where I'd begun my decent into the valley sometime before, sometime, because I could not say how long I had stood there in my reverie with the skull in my hands and the memories that I knew were not mine ringing in my head.

I had an urge to turn back, to keep walking toward the ridge, toward the mountains, to find those swine-like beasts and kill them till there were no more or have them kill me and end this journey I found myself trapped within. The sword felt good in my hand and the skull dangled from left. If I had not stumbled over my pack I know that live or die the wasteland would have claimed me and from that there would be no returning. Instead I cursed then set sword and skull down and donned my heavy pack after placing the skull securely inside. I sheathed my sword and made no move to find a torch. The starlight would have to do or I would walk this road in the dark, but without shelter I would not sleep this night.

After a distance I loosely judged to be three miles I drew my sword again. The lines of bushes on my left had disappeared and what seemed to be another road angled off to my left and shrank with distance as it curved across rolling fields and depressions. At the corner where the road I followed met or perhaps fathered this other road I could make out a wall lit with the starlight so that it glimmered pale and white against the darkness behind it. I approached eagerly but with what caution I could muster. As I neared I could see the worked stone set together locked in place by shape and weight if not my mortar.

A wall. It had been long since I had seen the works of man; the ruin of the wagon back along the path through the hills had been the only thing of craft within the hills. I reached out and felt the cold stones and the slight grooves where they were joined. Somewhere there would be a dwelling. Somewhere I would find people again and perhaps sanity in this nightmare land.

The wall was not too high and I pulled myself over the top, pack and all ,with, what I can only say, a maniacal strength that I did not know I possessed. I fell with a crash and struggled to my feet amid the crushed remains of a small chicken coop long neglected and unoccupied. At first I kicked at the wire and broken boards with a sullen embarrassment but as I swung my pack back upon my shoulders I glanced up.

Outlined by the silver starlight a small squat figure sat upon the wall I had just crossed. It gave a grunt as its eyes met my own and threw itself upon me. My arms were within the straps of my pack when the standing-pig crashed into me. In its hand it held one of the short stabbing spears I had seen them with. The stone edge shattered upon the hairy vest and the swine-creature squealed in pain or outrage as I fell backwards and carried it with me.

***

The mud was cold and wet along the wall of the gouge, almost frozen, but it shimmered in the starlight except where the opening formed a black square that could not be illuminated. It drank the light of my torch and revealed nothing. The frame around the darkness appeared to be stone or wood that had been covered in a thick plaster. Something was painted or perhaps carved along its inner edge where it pressed against the void. Letters, figures, they seemed to move as the torch flickered, I could see them swirl as they crawled like wounded men across a field of blood.

And the memory was gone.

***

I let the straps fall from my arms and rolled to the side and then to my feet and grabbed for my sword. My hand slid along the steel blade as I pulled myself to my feet, touched the hilt and whipped the blade around in an arc. The early-morning sun was peaking over the stonewall behind me.

Daylight. I blinked and narrowed my eyes. The night was gone, fled in the moment of my relived memory. I was on an unkempt and weed-choked lawn. Behind me was the short wall of thick heavy stone and the shattered remains of the chicken coop. Ahead the lawn ran in a gentle slope till it reached a hedge of the same thorn I had passed along the road, but above the hedge were the high walls of some dwelling. The dark reddish brick had not been illuminated by the starlight as had the wall. I could smell the scent of roasting flesh and a grey-white smoke came from the top of the chimney high upon the roof.

With first one hand then the other I swung then settled the straps across my shoulders letting the pack rest high on my back. I kept the other on the hilt of my sword. The point of my blade was forward and at the ready as I trotted down the lawn. About me the wall curved to my right and from my vantage at the top of the slope I could see over it and into the empty roadway and the wide field beyond the wall. Spots of blackness moved across the field, crows or ravens or carrion birds picking at the turned ground for flesh and the waste of battles. Their claws and beaks would be painted with the drying blood of the dead. They seemed to form shapes like letters carved or painted on the frame of a doorway I did not want to remember and so I turned away.

The hedge was broken by an arbor long overgrown but with quick work of my sword I sliced away the reaching arms of the thorn-bush and crossed to the front of the house. The stone walk was cracked and weeds poked through the uneven paves. Steps led from the walk and curved as well to meet a wider stair. I could see the face of the house and it smiled at me, a smile that I returned with eagerness and longing.

She opened the door as I as approached. Her hair was longer, a mass of black curls. Her dress was faded blue and she was thin, the planes of her face sharp and her eyes hollowed deep. She raised her arms to embrace me, her lips touched mine and my own arms reached around her feeling the delicacy of her wings as I lifted her. Those wings, black as the ravens in the field.

"You are home," she whispered in my ear.


End


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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda

Friday, June 12, 2015

Beyond the Forest of the Dead - Part 6



6

I ate my meal with more hunger than I imagined I still possessed but carefully I watched my supplies. The horsemeat would not keep and, though I had eaten as much as I could after finding the skinned carcass amid the remains of the broken wagon, I had no salt to preserve it and no place to properly smoke the flesh and most would go to waste. I could, as well, carry only so much of the tough and slightly burnt meat and I was determined to make it last. The creatures that hunted me, haunted my last few nights, were foul to the taste and thin. There seemed no other game in this wasteland. I had no doubt I would be killing more of the black-blooded fiends but had no desire to consume their flesh until no other choice was offered.

They were like short pigs that walked on two broad, cloven hooves with sharp-nailed three-fingered hands. They did not clothe themselves but wore belts of tanned skin and held small stone-headed spears in their short and powerful arms. These were stabbing spears not meant for throwing and they used them to good effect, but my arm and blade were long and I learned quickly to show them no mercy as they surely had no such feeling within themselves and would show none to me. I had seen them eagerly lapping at my blood even fighting among themselves for the mere taste at a small stain of it after they had wounded my leg and forced me to flee. The sight had enraged me and I returned, fell upon them, and slaughtered the small party of the standing-pigs. The irony of my eating of their flesh was not lost upon me.

The sun was rising toward noon but still some hours remained before the short day would end and another of the interminable nights began. I had seen smoke in the distance from the vantage of the ridge I'd camped at and the going down-hill on the worn track was a relief from the long journey first up the mountain then across the endlessly hilly land I'd been travelling. The boulders and split rock that had lined the track disappeared on this side of the ridge and became a rough land of short weed-grass and brambles. I was overjoyed. Here was life again instead of waste and barren hills.

I sat and let my fingers pluck out the tough curled growth. It was as thick as a woven matt. I dug into a patch with my knife and cut free a small square of the turf. The roots were long and oozed with a green-yellow serum, but the earth beneath was a rich dark loam and a fresh tantalizing scent arose that tickled my memory but could not quite recall.

Several miles went by and I found myself descending into a deeper valley that stretched far into the distance. If I was not mistaken I could make out the tops of trees in full leaf and nearer ahead were bushes and beyond them the squares and lengths of fields perhaps separated by the walls of gathered stone that had been unearthed by years of plow and spade.

The bushes were thorn, wiry stuff, but very green. They had obscenely long thorns of needle sharpness, curved like the beak of some predator bird and many had ragged strips of cloth caught in their grips. These fluttered in a rising breeze and tossed and waved at me as I neared them as if in greeting. I could hear the moan of the wind and a tearing sound high above me.

Looking up I saw many clouds white and fluffed. Some seemed to be a wave of men rushing toward the sun and the far horizon and the ridge I had just descended; others were ships, horses, a castle with a tower shaken down. I was bemused and almost I forgot the coming night and the creatures it would bring. These bushes around me would be too green to burn but the thought of trees and perhaps even people made me turn my eyes and my thoughts back to the trail I followed and not the clouds.

With a start I realized that the trail had become a road. Old ruts and the shape of hooves in what had been mud and was now hardened dirt filled the track. On my left the line of bushes slowly grew higher than I was tall but on my right the short scrub had become weeds and wildflowers. There was little color but for some white lace and a sprinkling of small yellow petals in a shallow ditch that still bore some water that must have come from a recent rain. If I could find a stream or spring I would empty the brackish liquid I'd collected from a mountain pond and drink till I would burst. I husbanded my water even more than the meat I'd collected, but thankfully my thirst had been kept at bay for most of my journey.

As I passed a line of bushes I thought I saw a face staring at me from amid the green and thorny branches. I rushed toward the spot and found only a section of hide vest still bearing a woolly brown hair on one side and the soft feel of worn leather on the reverse. Carefully I removed this trophy from its captive branches and to my surprise it came free easily without snagging or tears. It was surprisingly light and seemed clean; at least clean enough for a weary traveler with torn shirt and ragged canvas cloth for a cloak. It had a musk to it, not unpleasant, animal certainly, but something that stirred a feeling from the base of my spine to the back of my head. My groin stirred too and I hardened, the thought of my last love, her lips, her open thighs... I shook myself and would have tossed the vest back into its thorny embrace, but the nights had been cold and I had to laugh at my own embarrassment in this empty land. I could have walked these miles naked, traveled from... I paused and tried to remember but it was gone. Where this strange journey began was lost to me. Though I racked my brain and sifted backwards through my memories all that ever came to me was a door, black and empty.

I dropped my pack and set my sword, point first, in the ground at hand and ready as I slung the vest around my back and dropped first one then another arm through the holes. It settled against me like a second skin. The warmth came first from my back, then my chest and quickly suffused my entire body. I inhaled deeply and for the first time in longer than I could remember I could smell the beauty of the land around me. The lush greeness of the thorn bushes, the earthy mold and loam beneath them, the small tang of the weeds that poked their green stems from between the wildflowers as they fought for the bounty of the sun. A sharp and unpleasant scent crept into the rich odor and beckoned to me. I followed it pace by pace down the road with my naked blade in my hand.

The bushes looked the same since I'd noticed the first of them lining the road like a green wall. They smelled the same, but amid them was a foul stench of decay. My sword flashed out and severed them like a scythe through long summer grass. The wiry branches sprang apart. The steel touched on old thick brambles that were entwined into a gnarled limb like a gripping hand and parted it as if it were flesh. The stump of the bush was as thick as the thigh of a rich man and still my sword cut better than any axe. The roots came free of the earth like snakes, twisted and frozen, and I tossed them aside.  

In a shallow hollow of dark earth the body was curled into a ball. All bones really; naked chest, now ribs and spine, and pants of thick woolly curls and cloven feet. The head was turned inward with the long bones of the arm over it and a scattering of fingers, and knuckles and wrists before it. I reached down and lifted it out by a horn, small but pointed, that sat upon a human skull. The jaw fell away as I raised it and looked into the open graves of its eyes. The thrill of the God long dead but never forgotten came through me and I rubbed an affectionate finger along the edge of his cheek and remembered.


***

(If you are enjoying this story please consider sending a gift to jasonzavoda@aol.com 

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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Monstrous Miscellanies 1) Aerial Servant



Monstrous Miscellanies

1) Aerial Servant

Gralax Mar gazed out from the window of his spartan room overlooking the Avenue of Temples and down the wide paved way toward where it crossed the Avenue of Bells and the churches and temples of the lesser Oerthly deities. The followers of Zilchus would have been shocked at the bare and functional room their High Priest dwelled in. He had a vestry for his fine cloth-of-gold garb and a locked and guarded vault for the relics and holy items that Zilchus bestowed upon his great cathedral in the City of Greyhawk.

The only sign of vanity in the room was its location; the top spire of the Cathedral of Zilchus sitting above the transept and the vaulting crystal dome that sheltered the altar and his throne. There were windows on each wall and only the Temple of Pelor could match the lofty height of Zilchus' dwelling place on Oerth.

The summer solstice approached and the evenings were light with a long dusk. This was Gralax's favorite part of the day and he would stand at the eastern window and watch the shadows lengthen in the time before true darkness fell and the lamps and torches sprang up like stars across the streets of the city.

"Lorel," Gralax said quietly.

From a small table a platter arose. A small pot steamed upon it with a delicate white bowl resting beside it. The platter floated toward the high priest and the pot tipped out a light brown liquid into the bowl. Gralax reached out his hand casual and the bowl now lifted from the platter and gently nestled against Gralax's hand.

With a small sip Gralax completed his ritual reached out with the bowl in his hand and whispered "Thank you, Lorel," as the bowl, pot and platter drifted across the room and settled upon the small table.

Gralax sighed as the lights began to appear among the darker side-streets of the city. He did not hear the door open behind him, or the grey-clad man slip soundlessly into his room. A dark knife glistened with venom in the figure's hand as it glided up behind the priest. The arm moved forward then suddenly it was pulled back, hard.

There was a small sound, a cry, a grunt of pain or surprise, no louder than the squeak of a mouse, but Gralax whipped around and stepped aside as the figure behind him was raised high and thrust forward with great strength. The glass window shattered, the figures leg caught the frame and splintered the wood. The body shot forward, slid across the knife-sharp edges of the enchanted crystal dome and came apart in pieces as it rained down upon the manicured lawn of the cathedral.


Gralax gasped then gave a laugh, "Very good Lorel," he said to his invisible servant. "We will need the workmen, but I will have them leave the wood and glass outside. Any but myself who enter here... Out the window, as I command."

Beyond the Forest of the Dead - Part 5




5


I awoke to darkness. How I clawed myself from beneath that tide of mire I do not know. I was still half-buried and choking with the drying muck on my lips, lining my mouth and throat. I could not reach my canteen, could barely move my arms, and I hacked and coughed myself raw but still felt and tasted damp decaying earth, as if I had been exhumed from a grave.

Laughter burst from my skinned and bleeding lips, crazed and uncontrollable, till tears came to me. Each wild exultation racking my lungs, searing my tormented throat, causing a dozen razors of pain to escape from my mouth and my only audience were the wheeling stars that listened from the cold black sky. With a despairing gasp my laughter ended and some measure of sanity returned.

The night was cold. The ground had hardened beneath me. The muddy wall had become a solid weight pinning me to the ground. At first I broke thick clumps of it free with my hands but then found the knife at my belt and used the keen-edged blade to slice and stab at the earth and then with frantic haste yank my legs free. I was thankful to find them whole and unbroken. They had long since succumbed to numbness and cold and I jumped to my feet, heavy pack with its extra load of dirt and clay notwithstanding, and stamped feeling and warmth back into them with pleasure and joy.

The night was cold but a fire burned inside of me; a fierce sense of life and victory, basic and feral, that I had never quite felt before. Death had held me in her embrace and would surely have drawn me down into her icy realm but I had broken free and lived. The air tasted cold and sharp and sweet as if a kiss still lingered from every woman I had ever loved.

My knife was still in my hands, clotted with mud, and I cleaned it on the hip of my trousers that had remained mud free beneath my sodden wrap of canvas shelter I'd been using as a cape. My face and hair were thick with dried mud and my hands filthy. I unshouldered my pack and drew a canteen from it. I wasted three mouthfuls cleaning the muck which I'd swallowed before drinking a fourth and putting it, regretfully, away.

Around me several lengths of the gouge were narrowed by the collapse of the wall and a scallop of land had been taken from the edge, but still there seemed no foot or handhold that I could dare to pull myself out.

I had judged the gouge to run somewhat to the North and East, and of course, South and West, but the stars did not look right. They were very bright and far too many and in no pattern that I had seen before. A silver glow made this gouge through the earth shine as the silver river had shone. Whoever had carved this path, and I did not doubt for a moment that men had done this work, had made some effort to place turns and bends in its course. Beyond the length where the earth had fallen I could see the turn begin.

The way for me was North or at least what I had thought was North during the previous day and so I kept the small fall of earth on my right and walked the silvery pathway toward what I could not hazard.

Atop my pack were several longer lengths of the wood I had broken from the ruined tree and with these I might have fashioned a torch, though my supply of cloth was small and my supply of oil even smaller, but the light from the stars was enough. In all my travels I had heard nothing of this place, not even rumors, and I had sought them out knowing well what my fate would be should I escape from Ang. Nothing in this wasteland made me fear that my sword could not deal with what I might encounter and with a sense only of precaution I unsheathed the blade and held it ready.

Past the turning the pathway began a series of sharp angles all right then straight then right again. There were four such when I found myself facing a branching of the way. The gouge now went in what I still believed to be vaguely North but on my right another passage was cut. I stood for first one minute then another undecided before choosing to explore and change my direction. The walls of the gouge were still as high, the banks of the silver-light river of earth still as unassailable. After a dozen feet I stopped.

Pacing from one side to another I counted each footstep then turned back the way that I had come. I paced the distance again between wall and wall in the passage I had been following. A smile came to me as I counted out six footsteps more. So small a thing, but finding some difference between one pathway and the next gave me hope. I did not question it.

I turned back toward this new, smaller passage. It ran straight and with as little bend as could be expected as any excavation through this mire. Soon there came a depression to my left and then another. These were no more than a dozen feet in depth and perhaps half as much wide. An irregular mound of earth floored each and the even line that formed the top edge of the wall was rough and irregular as well. I tried standing on these mounds thinking that the extra feet might help leap toward the top of the wall of the gouge but the earth was especially loose and muddy and I had no wish to be buried again.

After travelling no more than a score of yards I could see a dark space on the wall to my right. Unknowingly I slowed my approach and found myself creeping toward this dark space in the reflected starlight that came from the damp surface of the wall. My fingers were white along the hilt of my sword and I flexed them one by one so that my grip would be sure. With the point I reached out into the dark space and found nothing blocking my way. No I wished for some light and I backed away to prepare a torch.

I fumbled for my pack and dropped my sword then wildly glanced up preparing myself for an attack that did not come. All sense of cold was gone in that sudden taste of panic and with careful breaths I calmed myself. The torch was in my hand and with sword and flame I approached the dark opening in the wall.


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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda