We returned to the demon’s room to get some rest. The tension was palpable now. Having returned to the herbalist lady in the basement, we found her in the same state. Tired, hungry, angry. In a magic prison. With Thoradin back with us, a second dwarven sense let us be sure there was only one room left to explore. So that was it. The current Lord of Rivenroar expected us, after the last one’s death some decades ago. Could he be the Emissary Sinruth was trying to appease? So he could better control his new lapdog?
Barring Thoradin, all of us were very young. Aran (who waited for us at Brindol), Wil and I were all around the same age. Occam very slightly out-aged us, although his countenance and heavy chain vest made him look even older. Ugarth was no longer a child by orc standards, but neither was he as lived as either of us. So one understands how thrilled we were for finally meeting the one responsible for all the mess in the area. A healthy amount of excited fear walked with us, with every step we took down the corridor. Although well lit, the countless columns shed many shadows, fueled by the braziers wavering in the breeze. The 100 feet of cold stone corridor ended in a heavy wooden double door. Thoradin was not feeling too paranoid, so I pushed the doors open.
We found ourselves in a well lit hall. It was the throne room of old Rivenroar, and now it had been made so again by whoever had taken it. The throne was still there, at the end of the hall. And so were the remains of its last Lord. The cloth of his black robe didn’t seem worn out at all. Much less so did the longsword resting next to the throne. Its luster was of recently forged steel, a clear sign of its magic. I stepped forward: my reward was due. Thor held my arm. The cold grasp of a gauntlet, with the warmth of friendly paranoia. I quick saw why he had stopped me, since everyone else had noticed too.
What a fool I was, wanting no more than a sword, when doom stood in front of me. Only the Lord of Rivenroar seemed to have suffered a different fate than the rest of the castle. In fact, while the whole court was littered with bodies, twisted in the most horrible positions and visages, the lord sat high on his throne, hands resting in his lap, a grim smile in his white face.
“Waeit, lad. Lemme get’ya the sword, and we’ll beat it. Ev’ryone’s deiad hear.” – Thor whispered, as if to not wake the dead.
And he took off. Thoradin crossed the hall while we waited closer to the door. When he got to the throne, he took a bow at the deceased Lord, and reached for the sword.
“I was told” – hundreds of voices spoke at once – “of a paladin of a dragon-god roaming my castle”. Everyone was terrified of finding out where the voices came from. The voices – all of them – belonged to the lord of Rivenroar. “I had a dragon once. But I broke it…” The corpse lifted its head and his eyes shone in a blood-red glint.
Startled, Thoradin took half a step back. He went for the axe in his back and swung it wildly, shaving the corpse’s head clean off.
“That… Was uncalled for.” – the head rests on the undead’s lap, but it does not seem to bother him enough to stop the monologue – “You haven’t even heard my offer, stone man.”
Thoradin barely heard him. He drew a hand over the axe’s flat and it shone in its yellow glimmer. “DIE, unholy one!” “Too bad. Many would give their hand just to hear such an offer.” The creature stood up, holding its own head in one hand, and lifted a hand at Thoradin’s height. It held its palm up.
“Well, a head will have to do.”
With a devilish burning sound, the Lord’s hand burst into flames, to be soon after mimicked by Thoradin’s head. How it pains me to remember how he stood still for a moment, before falling to his knees with a thud! The clang of his waraxe hitting the ground resonated all over the empty castle, leaving behind a sad, metallic hum. The warlock left us no time to be in shock. He dramatically flung his arms open wide, infused with dark power. Three of the less decomposed bodies slowly rose to their feet. Even now, I cannot say why we didn’t stop them. We could have slain every creature in the room and more, had we moved in time. But… It was the warlock, or the undead, or perhaps the place itself; it was Thoradin, his axe, or the place that once used to be his bearded head; it was terror. It was all that stopped us from moving. But it took only one thing to lead us forward.
The rotting undead were already moving for us, when the warlock waved a hand over Thoradin’s body. And as if an invisible claw held him by his heart and pulled, he rose to his feet. Upon his golden armor was cast a black shroud, over his shoulders and down to his feet. “Now.” – the warlock started, as he put his own head back in place – “How about you?”
That certainly was enough. I dashed forward the length of the hall, aiming for the warlock. One of the undead barred my passage, only to be defeated by a raging swipe. Soon, though, the others were all over me, giving the condemned a few more seconds.
Occam had much more breathing room. He stepped into the court, the wider area in he room. In his eyes, usually dull and blank even in the thickest fight, violence and anger burned. He closed them for a moment, begging his god for the strength to clear the world of this dark. And when he opened his eyes again and raised his staff, a sphere of ghostfire flashed for a seconds, mere yards away from him. When the flash worn off, the angel in the fiery mane stood in the spell’s place. It conjured its red flamberge. The nearby undead cringed at the hot emanations. The undead began to step back, away from the flames. And, as if Occam’s anger was his own, the undead were decimated when the angel opened wide his vests, revealing his true form of light. A sea of flames engulfed the returned, filling the air with a crisp smell.
The Lord was not amused by this. A wave of his hand cast a dark shadow around my neck. It did not hurt, not at all, not until fire flashed in his hand and darted straight at my heart. Then, it hurt. The shadow closed in around my neck, a guillotine of nothing that delivered me to the ground, gasping for breath. Looking up, Ugarth was lunging at the warlock. At the last moment, though, it vanished.
Wil had yet to do a thing. I wish he never had. “And what offer is that?” Horror. Would Wil sell us for his gain?
The voice came from behind, from the southwest corner near the wall. “Kill’em. We… may discuss this later.” Dread. Losing Wil would put us to a terrible disadvantage. Fortunately, Thoradin left him no time to ponder. He charged Wil, axe burning in a dark flame. Wil dodged, grabbed the axe with the gauntlet hand, and pushed him for a spin. It gave him just the time to reach for the sword. Thoradin no longer got dizzy, or unbalanced, or lost sight of his target. He spun around in a large cleaving motion, holding his oversized axe to the side. A large plate flew away from Wil’s shoulder, along with the head that belonged to the undead behind Thoradin.
Occam cast a word of binding at Thoradin, and let him to Wil again. A complex circle of light was drawn on the floor around the two, by divine guidance compelling them to fight one another. Occam refocused is fire on the Lord, and he too reached for his throat, and the shadow that grasped it.
Ugarth had reached his foe again. With dreadful accuracy he plunged Rising Sun through and through the Lord’s chest. “Curses” – he said, staring blankly at his new hole – “It appears I have sprouted a steel rod in my chest. With some half-bred on the tip. Take him away! Chains of Levistus!” Ghostly shackles of ice bound Ugarth and dragged him across the courtyard. His shadow constricted as well, hovering midair like a crucified hangman.
A sickening crush rang in the holy duel ground. Thor had bashed Wil with his shield, knocking him prone. Wil’s size advantage lost – over twice Thoradin’s size, now that the dwarf had been… significantly shortened – he could no more but raise his sword to stop the giant axe reaching for his head.
No other sound came from the holy ground.
I finally gathered enough of my surroundings to find myself lying beside the throne. Beside the sword. I picked up Left Fang from the ground near me, and grabbed the new sword with my right hand. I took a moment to feel it, and its power (which was, in retrospective, quite the bad idea). It was lighter, much lighter than either Fang, despite being larger. The blade slightly curbed upwards, more akin to the scimitar than the knightsword.
“Hell no, you won’t.” Damn it. “Hellfire!”
Six rings of flame surrounded the caster. They took their time, exploding in their coordinated rhythm that maximizes pain. Both Occam and I were caught in the blast. a seventh flare was started next to me, and I realized it was the angel, freed from his binding to Occam by him being delivered a crapload of damage to the head, that returned home in a massive burning sphere.
Lying down, barely breathing, I could see Ugarth and the warlock fight in a shrouding mist. Our orc leaped monstrously from side to side, dodging the Lord’s barrage of death bolts. The undead sidestepped away from Ugarth’s rapier with uncanny agility. The dark mist closed in more and more, and my eyes closed of their own accord. I still heard Ugarth’s heavy stomps, but they seemed so far away. Far away. So far away from here. Far as… Home?
My dazed contemplation was stopped by a sudden silence. A feeling of dread, accompanied by the understanding: I could no longer feel Ugarth.
Hope was gone with one last stab of pain in my heart. He had been beaten. I had been beaten. Occam, Thoradin. No more.
I never felt Ugarth get on his knees and leap on the Lord’s back. I never saw, heard, felt, the end of my story.
I was Claidheamh Geamhradh, the Sword of Winter. I quested for glory, I traveled, I fought. I won, and, ultimately, I lost.
This will not end here.