Chapter 13 - The Only Thing We Have To Fear is …Fear Ourselves!

It was nearly midday when the party came to the first fork in the road, as it were, since they embarked on this cliff-face path. Turning right from their current position, a narrow mountain pass led to the interior of the island, while the cliff path continued south, as did the looming 80’ drop always to their left.

Urol marked the spot on his map, “Well, I know we have had our share of difficulties along this route, but I still feel it’s safer, faster and more direct than trudging through jungle inhabited by velociraptors and tyrannosauruses. Tyrannosauri? Tyrannosaurs? Whatever. I think we should continue onward toward the coast to reach Tanoaroa.”

“I disagree,” Avner interjected. “You lot handled both the Tyrannosaur and two flocks of velociraptors while barely breaking a sweat. Well, with my help, of course. These gargoyles, however,” he pointed across the bay to the unseen far side where their aerie was believed to be located, “They killed one of my men and one of yours! Plus, there’s always the threat of plunging to a watery grave.” He indicated in the same direction, but more downward.

“Yes, but with no water and food, Tanoaroa is our best chance at restocking. Well, before Farshore, that is.” Urol argued.

“Tanoaroa? What’s that?” Saris inquired.

“If there are still Olman enclaves on this island, that is the most likely place to find them. See? Here on the map. It was once a center of Olman commerce – something of a port. It may just be more ruins, but it’s worth a shot, right?”

“Um, Gargoyles? Fall to our deaths?” Avner reminded everyone. “He just wants to see more old ruins and busted old native pottery.”

“Pottery would be helpful,” Ornrik noted. “It would be something to carry water in.”

“And as you are probably aware, I’ve been trying to get to Farshore as quickly as possible,” Viselys pointed out, “So faster and more direct certainly appeals to me.”

Avner just shook his head and held out his hands in acquiescence.

The path continued south with a bend around to the southwest. They hadn’t made it more than a mile when it soon became apparent that the path was growing more narrow. Eventually there was no way to continue onward. “I can’t tell if the path was left unfinished or if it’s eroded away, but clearly we have reached the end of the road, so to speak.”

“Well, that’s just great!” Saris said, exasperated.

Avner shook his head, “I told you, but again you wouldn’t listen.” He didn’t seem as bothered as one might have expected, presumably comforted by the opportunity to say “I told you so.”

Viselys was bothered, “What are our options?”

“What do you mean, ‘What are our options?’” Avner asked, genuinely shocked. “There are no options. We go back. I suppose we could just plant ourselves here and die,” his sarcasm was thick, “or why bother waiting?” he indicated the sheer fall to the rocky surf below.

“Well, I could cast levitate on the horse again,” Ornrik suggested.

“I didn’t prepare the spell to shrink her, though,” Urol pointed out.

“That’s okay. I think I can manage anyway.” The dwarf looked at Saris then at Viselys, “If I cast a ‘fly’ spell on you,” he said to Viselys, “You can take us one at a time. And I’ll take care of Thunderstrike.” Viselys nodded his agreement.

“What? You don’t mean…” Avner trailed off while pointing up. “Really? THAT’S your FIRST option?! Use magic to fly us over a mountain! That, to you, is easier than going AROUND the mountain? You people are INSANE!”

Viselys was frustrated and Avner was really pushing his buttons, “Look, we’ve pussy-footed around for far too long. We need to start making some progress and we need to start making it fast.”

Avner raised one eyebrow, “Oh? And you think that blundering blindly as fast as you can is a GOOD idea? How did that work out for you on the bridge back in the underground passage, Mr. Giant Centipede Bait?”

Ornrik wanted so badly to say something, but he put his head down and started looking through his spell book.

Viselys resisted the urge to move his hand to the hilt of his sword, “I should think you would be as eager as we are to get to Farshore and find Lavinia.”

“I am eager for this journey to be over, true,” Avner agreed, “but I’d rather get there slowly and safely than taking stupid chances and never getting there!”

Viselys, frustrated, decided to try a different tact, “Why did you come on this trip, anyway?”

“I’m financing this whole expedition. That’s why.”

“So, aren’t you concerned that, if anything happens to Lavinia, you will lose that investment?” Viselys looked poignantly at him as he awaited a rebuttal.

“Not really,” Avner dismissed the point. “I’m so rich, I wouldn’t even miss it. It’s not about the money.”

Viselys was confused, “So what is it about?”

“Lavinia,” Avner replied, matter-of-factly, “I want to get into her bloomers.”

Everyone was disgusted by this revelation, though not really surprised. Nonetheless, Viselys attempted to use this to his advantage in the debate, “Well, if she’s dead, you’re out of luck.”

Avner considered this for a moment, “First, if she IS dead, our getting to Farshore faster isn’t going to change anything. Second, ah, so what? There’s other bits of skirt to be had.”

“Well, we’re going over this mountain,” Viselys declared.

“Absolutely not!” Avner declared more strongly. “I refuse. I am not being carried by you over a mountain.”

“Alright then,” Viselys replied, “Then Ornrik can make you fly and YOU can fly us over.”

“Absolutely not!” Avner repeated. “I have no intention of touching any of you unless I have to.” His eyes stopped momentarily on Diamondback, but decided that wasn’t it, especially under the current situation. “Look, what do you do if this whatever it is attacks while you’re half way up the mountain? Or snatches us one at a time as you leave us alone to go back for the others?”

“So far this thing has only attacked at night,” Viselys retorted, though he was becoming more uncertain of his chosen course of action.

As if by way of response, Ornrik spoke up, “It’s here. I can feel it.”

“Did you hear that?” Urol said cocking his head. “Listen, back the way we came.”

Ornrik nodded, “It sounded like somebody screaming, back the way we came”

That was all Viselys needed to hear. “Someone’s in trouble? That settles it!” and Viselys set off back down the path.

Avner snorted and mumbled, "Of course," as he and the others followed Viselys.

When they arrived at the mountain pass, they listened again for the sound. They did not need to strain as the pass acted as a sound funnel, indicating the direction that the screams were coming from. “That sounded like Quenge!” Avner exclaimed, suddenly more interested in Viselys' chosen direction.

“How could that be?” Saris asked. “He leapt to his death miles back.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Viselys replied, “We have to investigate.”

As they started into the pass, the screams were loud enough for everyone to hear. “That’s Quenge’s voice,” Avner declared. As fear-inspiring as that thought was to everyone, it was clear that this was the way they had to go.

The shadows were growing long by the time they had traveled about five miles down the pass. It was Diamondback who first noticed something hanging by a root on the side of the rock wall at just the right height to reach. “Hey, check this out. It’s the saddlebags!” As the others gathered around, they realized that it was, indeed, the missing saddlebags that had disappeared from Thunderstrike during one of the attacks by the stalking enemy.

“Is there anything left in them?” Saris asked. “Any of the food or water?”

Diamondback was already taking the bags down to investigate. As she looked inside, her face blanched and she dropped the bags to the ground. Pushing past everyone she fell to her knees and started to retch. Having fallen to the ground opened, the saddlebags spilled their contents. Inside was the lard-treated burlap that had been used to wrap the crabmeat. However, the thick crimson dripping from it was certainly not from a crab, nor was the putrid odor emanating from the bundle. Further, the twine that had originally been used to enclose the wrapped bundle was not the twine they had originally used. It was Quenge’s Corgi protection charm.

Viseslys shook his head and turned to Diamondback. “I’m so sorry you had to see that, dear,” he said, with a sympathetic smile.

His use of such an endearment shocked her out of her fear and disgust. She returned his gaze, “I … I’ll be fine…” Then she slowly stood up, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. "The smell," she said as her checks colored a touch.

Viselys nodded at her before turning back to the bloody bundle. “Revolting as it may be,” he said, “we need to investigate this. Ornrik? Urol?” Together the three of them moved closer, though it was Urol who actually extracted a tool from his vest – some sort of wooden stick to use as a probe – to open up the wrappings.

“It’s a complete heart, a complete kidney, partial liver and a length of colon,” Urol noted, “These appear to be from an adult human, though I cannot confirm that with 100% certainty. Neither can gender be determined by these remains. However, I can tell you that they are relatively fresh – the victim hasn’t been dead for more than a day or two. Either these are from the same victim or they were removed from multiple victims at very close to the same time; the former seeming more likely.”

“Can you tell how they were extracted?” Viselys inquired.

Ornrik jumped in, “Disgusting as this display appears, the removal technique was very clean.” He motioned in a non-verbal request to borrow Urol’s probe and used it to point, “As Urol pointed out, the heart and kidney are intact. You can see a portion of the aorta and venae cavae are still attached, and close inspection reveals that these blood vessels were not torn, but cut.”

Urol concurred, “He’s right. Even the partial liver and colon, while not completely intact, were clearly cut.”

“So what does this all mean?” Viselys facilitated the discussion.

Ornrik just shook his head. Urol thought for a moment and then offered, “It tells us that whoever did this is intelligent, and has at least some understanding of anatomy. I don’t know why a heart, kidney, colon and liver – if the selection of these organs is relevant – or why the heart and kidney are intact while the other two organs are partial.”

“Fear,” Ornrik said, causing everyone to look at him in anticipation. When the dwarf realized they wanted him to elaborate, he proceeded, “Well, I don’t know why these organs, or why some partial and some intact either – as he said, if that’s relevant at all – but replacing our food with human remains, binding them with Quenge’s charm, and leaving it hanging where we were most likely to find it, it’s a message. It says, ‘Be afraid. I’m hunting you.’”

Viselys shook his head, “Okay, let’s move on.”

“What should we do with this?” Urol asked, indicating the saddlebags and their contents.

“Just leave it,” Viselys responded.

“I don’t think so!” Avner retorted. “Those saddlebags are genuine dragonhide, handmade by a master craftsman.” Everyone ignored Avner as they moved out, though he continued as he dumped the vile contents, “Arh! I’m going to have to have these detailed when we get to Farshore. I don’t think that stains going to come out. Sonofa…”

The mountain pass had been a 10-mile journey through twisting canyons of rock and by the time the pass opened up, it was almost night – the last rays of sunlight a deep orange-lavender. The party found themselves on the edge of a great and dark fog-shrouded jungle.

“There is evil ahead,” Ornrik warned.

As if in answer to his words, movement could be seen from the trees ahead as figures began to emerge. They were a ways off, but they could make out a group of humanoid figures. Two men with swords, a woman, a dwarf, a gnome, a man with a horse, two more men apparently leading the horse, and a man with a bow.

“Um, these guys look awfully familiar,” Saris noted. As their faces became clearer, Saris added, “And at least one of them is a really good looking guy.”

“Yeah, the one with the horse,” Avner quipped.

“Okay, this is weird,” Viselys noted, “and probably not good.” By now it was clear to everyone that they were facing their own doppelgangers with the addition of their fallen comrades: Skald, Barnaby and Quenge. Viselys had no doubt about how bad this was going to turn out, but his code of honor did not allow him to strike first. Instead, he called out to the new arrivals, “Are you friends or foes?”

The other Viselys responded, “We are you!”

“That’s not true,” Viselys replied, “We’re us.” After he said it, he winced at how bad that came out.

The other Viselys nodded, “Yeah, I lied, but here's the truth: We're totally going to kill you now.”

“No way!” Saris exclaimed, unable to wrap his mind around the possibility that this was reality.

“Yes way, Saris!” his counterpart replied. “We're fully able to do it.”

“Yeah, and we want to do it, too,” the other Avner added.

“That’s all I needed to hear,” Viselys said, mostly to himself, as he drew his flaming sword.

Urol evaluated the situation. “I have prepared no offensive spells. There is little I can do besides make sure Thunderstrike is safe,” he said from the rear of the party, taking the horse’s reins.

“Get clear, Urol,” Saris shouted, “You can’t do any more good back there.”

“Sorry,” Urol said as he quickly led the horse back down the mountain pass.

So, the thumping of horse's hooves they heard in front of them was the other Thunderstrike, and it was bearing down on Viselys, a tactic that nobody expected. Then a clap of thunder rumbled above and a bright flash momentarily blinded everyone as lightning shot down from the sky to blast Ornrik. Before he could recover from that surprised, he was peppered by four glowing magical missiles and a shot from a regular arrow.

“They have our abilities, too,” Ornrik noted.

The evil versions of Saris, Diamondback, Viselys, Avner, Quenge and Barnaby charged forward to engage.

“This has to end fast,” Ornrik noted and he hurled a huge fireball that exploded in the midst of the impostors, causing small collateral fires to ignite in the surround jungle. Those that were within the blast radius were a little scorched, Barnaby and Quenge dropped, but otherwise the amazing display did nothing to end the battle fast. For his trouble, Ornrik was met with another volley of magic and normal missiles.

The Viselys impostor charged right through the group, incurring reactionary attacks along the way, to strike down Ornrik with his Vicious Great Sword. Ornrik was out of the fight.

The melee became a free-for-all and it was difficult to be sure who was friend and who was foe. However, it was clear that the Skald, Urol and Ornrik impostors needed to be taken down right away, so Viselys instructed that those not currently engage close the distance to where these three were. That charge was answered by Diamondback and Avner.

Meanwhile, Saris and Viselys fended off attacks by the evil Diamondback, Viselys, Avner and Thunderstrike.

“It will be so satisfying to cut you down,” Saris said to the evil (more evil?) Avner.

“You don’t deserve the privilege,” was the impostor's response.

“Maybe not, but it’s mine nonetheless,” Saris said, dispatching his opponent, who was already weakened from the flames of the fireball.

Together, Diamondback and Avner were able to take out the evil Urol and Skald, but not before Avner was seriously wounded. He could barely stand.

“Fall back,” Viselys called out. "Avner, get to Ornrik. See if he has any healing potions. If you can revive him, he can heal the rest of us. Diamondback, You can’t stay out there alone, get back here."

Despite dealing some incredible damage to the horse, Viselys couldn’t seem to take it out of the battle, but it was just a horse, so he turned his attention to his own doppelganger. Because of his semi-mystical abilities, the impostures were having a very difficult time hitting Viselys, but they were occasionally, and his back was to the wall.

Saris was near death. He pulled back to go in search of Urol for healing.

Diamondback took several Magic Missile hits before rendezvousing with Viselys. She was dropped by the evil Viselys’ greatsword just feet away from an awakening Ornrik.

This drove the real Viselys a little over the bend. He began feverishly and relentlessly attacking his counterpart.

Back in the game, Saris crossed the battlefield to stop the evil dwarf and his magic missiles, while the real Ornrik healed Viselys so he could stay in the battle. The evil Viselys fell. Seeing that the horse had not taken near as much damage as she aught, Viselys knew he had to do something drastic. Dropping his sword, he drew his Vicious Greatsword. “Ornrik, keep me in the game,” he shouted, knowing that the sword would do damage to him as well as his opponent.

As he turned to be sure that Ornrik was with him on that plan, he realized that Diamondback’s body was gone. “Where’s Diamondback?!”

“Gone,” Avner replied, “Like she just disappeared.”

With a cry of rage, Viselys unleashed vengeance on the horse, and was shocked by how many times he actually had to swing to take it down. Then he turned to the final enemy – the one in the form of Diamondback. Saris moved to flank her, but Viselys told him to hold, “Don’t. Just keep her here. I’ll take her.” Then, to the impostor he said, “Where is Diamondback?”

“I am the only Diamondback now,” she purred seductively.

Viselys was momentarily uncertain what to do. She seized that moment to act. Grabbing the end of his sword, she thrust herself onto its point and forced herself forward. Everyone was shocked, most especially Viselys.

The impostor Diamondback continued forward until her abdomen was against the hilt of the sword. She reached up to touch Viselys’ chest and whispered, “I have waited so long to be impaled by you…” then she fell to the ground.

“Um, what just happened here?” Saris said confused.

The confusion became even greater as the bodies of the impostors changed. It was like they were decomposing at an accelerated rate before their eyes. When the morphing effect stopped, the “Diamondback” corpse appeared to have been decomposing for over two weeks. On the other hand, Quenge’s corpse appeared very fresh, though vivisected.

Urol began examining the battlefield, “Skald, Quenge and Barnaby – these three are exactly who they appear to be. These others were people we knew from the Nixie. See?” he pointed to the one who had been Diamondback, “This is Shilaqui Russeau, the seamstress.”

“Ironic,” Saris said, “She said she had gotten tired of life in Sasserine.”

Urol moved to the body of the Viselys imposer, “Enlaf Briholt. He was quite sweet on Shilaqui. He had no discernible talents that I’m aware of.”

Avner spoke up, “It would appear whoever orchestrated this illusion was deliberate in who he cast in our roles. The romantic implications and no discernible talents…”

Before he could finish what would very certainly set off an already dicey Viselys, Urol indicted Avner’s doppelganger, “Dr. Peter Blood. A physician who had just recently become a sailor.”

Avner nodded in agreement, “Educated, possibly from a noble family…”

Ornrik went to his own analogue, “Captain Cargath. The only Dwarf on the Nixie; the Captain. He loved his rum.” He pointed to Urol’s stand in, “So I’m guessing that’s Glim Glitterbrook, the only Gnome on the Nixie.”

Saris knelt by the body that had only recently appeared to be him, “Sigmond Ulivat. The navigator. Well, sorry, buddy, but at least you got to be me for a little while. Must have been the biggest thrill of your life.”

Everyone remembered the horse and they knew there had been no horses on the Nixie. What they saw in place of the corpse of a horse was possibly more shocking than having to fight and kill their mirror images. The front of the “horse” was Maxx Fischer, the half-orc sailor/playwright. His genitals were missing. Sewn to his backside was a patchwork of flesh that formed the body and hindquarters of the horse shape. The craftsmanship was disturbingly good, and much time had been spent reshaping the female torsos into one unit … with the gender indicator in the appropriate location for a horse. Two female legs extended down from the haunches and a female arm dangled down to make a tail, with scalps with long hair sewn to the surface giving an appropriately hairy appearances. Likewise, scalp pieces were sewn down Maxx’s back to form a mane. It was a truly horrible and disturbing sight.

Ornrik realized what they were looking at, “These others may have been animated corpses, but this wasn’t a zombie. It was a construct called a golem. They are very strong and very difficult to kill.”

Saris was more caught by the mention of zombies then the bizarre patchwork creation, “These were far more difficult to kill than zombies.”

Ornrik shook his head, “That was part of the illusion. They were as powerful as we expected them to be. Or, more likely, as powerful as the creator of the illusion expected us to be. In any event, the whole battle was an illusion. The magic missiles, the greatsword, all of it.”

“So our injuries were illusions too?” Avner asked.

“Yes,” Ornrik replied, “However, the illusion was so real, that even illusionary damage had physical manifestation. It’s a mystical thing.”

“You know,” Viselys noted, “I realized during the battle that, while my greatsword does damage to me when I wield it, it appeared that his greatsword actually healed him.”

Ornrik nodded, “That makes sense. Vicious weapons work on negative energy – the same energy that empowers the undead.”

“This is all so creepy!” Saris exclaimed.

Viselys blew out an exasperated breath, “I want to find Diamondback. Ornrik, do you have a spell that can locate her?”

The dwarf thought a moment, “I can locate an object she might have been carrying. Her prayer beads?” He opened his spellbook and proceeded with the process. After it was in effect he said, “The prayer beads are not nearby. However, if we search, while this spell is in effect, I can use it almost like a divining rod – if I step within range of those prayer beads, I will know, and I can home in on their location.”

Viselys pointed to the jungle before them, “You said you sensed evil in that direction. That seems like the logical course.” They made their way into the trees.

They had not gone far before complete darkness and the thick jungle made the way onward almost impossible. “Okay, let’s camp her and pick up the search in the morning,” Viselys suggested in grudging resignation.

“How do you want to work the watch shifts?” Saris asked.

“Like usual, I want the spell casters to get a solid rest, so Urol and Ornrik get third watch. Saris, you’re on second with Avner. I’ll take the first watch.”

No one argued.

Continue to Chapter 14...

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