Chapter 16 - …And in the master’s chambers, They gathered for the feast, They stab it with their steely knives

But they just can't kill the beast…

The party hiked most of the day with the eeriest, creepiest feeling. They were almost used to that “being watched” feeling by now – almost – but this was different. There was a pervasive, oppressive feeling to this place and everyone was sensitive to it, especially Thunderstrike.

Ornrik again cast his spell of Evil detection. “Remember how I said last night that the glow of evil was like the lights of a city up ahead of us?” he said to everyone in general. Everyone nodded and a few voiced an affirmative. He continued, “And we moved in the direction of that evil looking for a sign of Diamondback?”

“Yes?” Viselys replied, impatiently.

“Well, we are definitely within the city limits,” the dwarf declared. When he was met with confused faces, he elaborated, “Whatever that evil ‘area’ was, or is, we are in it.”

“What the heck is going on?” Viselys asked rhetorically in frustration.

However, Ornrik seemed to take the question at face value, “The only way I can describe it is that we are surrounded by … currents … yes, currents of evil. It’s like we are wading though a river.”

“And which way is the river flowing?” Saris asked.

Ornrik made a sweeping motion with his hands that indicated that the “flow” was moving roughly perpendicular to the direction they had been walking. “The question, though, is the ‘river’ flowing to something or away from something.”

“What does that mean?” Avner asked, his contempt muted slightly by nervousness.

Ornrik struggled to find an explanation, but Urol offered, “If I may? If my understanding of the analogy is correct, it’s like asking if the river is flowing away from a source, like a river flows from a melting glacier to a gulf, or if it flowing TO something, like the currents of a lake being drawn into a whirlpool.”

Nodding, Ornrik agreed, “Yes, that’s it, exactly.”

“Well, in this instance, I think we should be moving towards the evil, not away,” Viselys stated. Ornrik nodded in agreement?

“Absolutely NOT!” Avner declared.

“Yeah, I’m with him on this one,” Saris added.

As if she were adding her vote, Thunderstrike whinnied and fussed.

While trying to calm the horse, Urol offered, “Well, we still aren’t sure which way that is – with or against the flow.”

“I think the emanations of evil are deriving from a source. We should go against the current, and we must hurry,” Viselys said.

“And wh-why is that?” Avner asked nervously.

“You saw what happened to Quenge. The same may be happening to Diamondback right now!” Viselys's rising sense of urgency and frustration caused everyone to shift uncomfortably.

“Better her than me,” Avner said soto voce. If Viselys heard him, he pretended not to.

“Viselys,” Saris said, “Um, man, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but Diamondback’s dead.”

“SHE IS NOT DEAD!” Viselsy retorted loudly, lurching forward as if he would cut Saris down.

“Dude,” Saris responded, “I saw her get nailed by that evil you. There’s just no coming back from that. She dropped like a stone. He nailed her real good…”

Even Avner was looking at Saris askance for his insensitivity.

However, before Viselys could, in fact, take some horribly rash action, Ornrik spoke up, “In all fairness, though, Saris, all of us have been at Death’s door on more than one occasion and survived. She was not without her own access to healing. Plus, her very absence aught to infer that she is still alive.”

“How do you figure?” Saris asked skeptically.

The dwarf continued, “Well, I can only see two possibilities. Either she got up and walked away – which admittedly seems unlikely. There were no footprints to indicate she had taken such action, and surely we would have found her after the battle, assuming she was unable to return to us under her own power. The other, more likely option, is our Predator companion jaunted away with her just as he apparently did with Quenge.”

“Which means she’s dead,” Saris stated, as if vindicated.

“I disagree,” Ornrik countered. “The Nixie crew, Skald and Barnaby were all taken after they were clearly dead and buried. Quenge – well, frankly, we don’t know when he was taken. He could have been taken the moment he dropped out of sight, after he hit the rocks or drowned, or, for all we know, he was taken in his sleep and it was only an illusion that we saw leap off the cliff.”

Urol, non-committal to the argument, took a fascination in the turn of logic, “That makes sense. We know that the edge of the cliff was an illusion. Viselys and Ornrik almost fell to their own deaths because of it. The image of Quenge probably was an illusion.”

“So why take Diamondback before we buried her –literally right under our noses - unless Predator wanted her alive? I have to agree with Viselys on this one.” Ornrik hoisted his pack and indicated the direction Viselys wanted to go – against the flow of the torrents of evil.

The party hadn’t gone very far before Urol spoke up, “Well, Thunderstrike seems pleased with the direction we have chosen.”

“How do you mean?” Avner asked.

“She’s almost pulling me along,” Urol replied, “It’s taking everything I got to make her overcome her own will, because if she really wanted to get away from me, I’m too small to stop her. This is the way she wants to go.”

“Great, now the horse is leading us,” Saris bemoaned.

“Might be an improvement,” Avner murmured to Saris.

As they walked, Urol again broke the silence, “You know that Farshore is South of our current location, right?”

Viselys nodded, “Right. Which direction are we traveling in?”

“That’s a very good question,” Urol replied, “Normally, I have flawless direction sense, but since we came into this – I don’t know what to call it – this sink-hole of evil – I haven’t been able to get my bearings.”

“The sun doesn’t help, either,” Ornrik pointed out, “It’s been overcast all day. No way to tell where the sun is.”

Night was falling when Thunderstrike suddenly stopped. This brought the whole party to a stand still, causing Avner and Saris to exchange a wry look.

“What is it, girl?” Urol said, moving around to face the horse.

In a typically equine manor, she inclined her head and bolted it back several times in rapid succession in a fashion that seemed to say, “I smell something I don’t like and I’m getting scared.”

Everyone grew quite and listened. From up ahead beyond some thicker growth, came a sound very much like a predator gnawing on its prey.

“Sounds like a lion with a dear,” Saris noted.

“In this jungle,” Avner replied, “it’s more likely one of those big reptiles.”

“We could proceed under the cover of invisibility,” Ornrik offered.

Viselys shook his head, “The use of invisibility in combat is dishonorable.”

Literally everyone, but Thunderstike rolled their eyes. “Who said anything about combat?” Urol pointed out, “We just need to scout out what’s ahead."

“Right,” Ornrik agreed, “It’s an area of effect. Stay close to me and you’re invisible. Move 15’ away and you’re visible.” Under those conditions Viselys grudgingly accepted.

“I don’t know if the area of effect will cover Thunderstrike,” Urol noted, “but she won’t go any closer anyway. I’m going to tie her to this tree, first. Hold on..”

As they moved, they believed, unseen into the clearing, they could see what appeared to be two people sitting on the ground sharing a meal. They were on opposite sides of a stone, which they were using as a table. As the group approached, however, they were horrified to realize that the “meal” was not an animal, but a person and the dining couple weren’t exactly all living. They were, in fact Vermund and Vialia Rowport from the Nixie. Or, at least, they had been.

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This immediately begged the question for everyone who the “dinner” was. Viselys was relived to discover that the victim was male. Specifically, he had been Benedict Charles, an eleven hunter who had come over on the Nixie.

Suddenly Vermund looked up directly at the party and said, “The hunter offered to provide food for us on the island. Wasn’t that nice of him?”

“I’m not so sure Benedict feels the same way,” Saris replied.

As if in answer, the partially consumed hunter’s head lolled and a series of wet groans issued from his mouth.

“Oh! He’s still…” Saris began.

“How can they see us?!” Ornrik was aghast.

“The undead are immune to illusions,” Urol pointed out. “They have no minds to fool.”

“Have you seen our boys?” Vialia said, drawing to mind the twin boys, about ten years old, who had run around with Gidrick whenever the two ships had been in port.

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Suddenly, from the bush came the figure of the boys. However, as he came into the light, it quickly became clear that this ‘one’ was, in fact, both. It was one child’s body, but on either side of a nasty looking suture at the top of the torso were two almost identical looking heads. Two forearms branched from each elbow resulting in four hands. The sight was horrific, and it was charging directly for them.

Saris wasted no time. “Abomination!” he shouted as he met the Rowport twins-thing.

Avner looked at the other members of the party, then at the zombies, and shook his head. “Oh, man!” he said as he reluctantly drew his sword and attacked Mrs. Rowport.

“My sword is not doing as much damage as it aught,” Saris announced.

The four-armed child lashed out, two hands slamming into Saris, the force of which took him completely by surprise. “Uh, that really hurt,” he said, barely managing to stay upright.

Suddenly a whistle and a bright light cut through the twilight. A fiery explosion burst behind the Rowports, setting the parents and their meal aflame.

“Hey, watch it there!” Avner shouted, jumping back with lightly singed brows. He quickly moved around behind the remaining monster to give Saris the aid of flanking.

Ornrik fired several mystical arrows into the fiend, but they had no apparent effect. Urol ran to heal Saris.

Viselys moved in to engage the creature from the side, taking up a position next to Avner. Avner took a mighty, solid swing … and missed. Well, he missed the monster anyway. His blade followed through and struck Viselys, drawing blood. In a rare moment of humility, Avner said, “Oh, sorry!” In response he received a glare form Viselys that startled him.

Meanwhile, Saris was being healed and clobbered and healed and clobbered over and over, with both Urol and Ornrik focusing all their magical abilities on him. The routine had grown old for Saris before the first swing, “Viselys, I could use a little help here!”

“I’m doing my best!” he retorted, taking a guarded swing at the aberration that missed completely.

“Hardly,” Ornrik growled, “You are fighting defensively. You can’t hit it, and it can’t hit you. You might as well not even be there.”

“Not to worry!” Avner said, sinking his blade into the child’s back, “The nobility will handle this matter for you commoners.”

“It would appear that way,” Ornrik replied.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Saris bemoaned as he staggered from another slam of tiny fists.

“I don’t know what you expect me to do,” Viselys shot at Ornrik.

“Well, you might pull out the big sword,” Saris suggested, “Now would be a good time!”

Viselys appeared to be ignoring that suggestion, taking another swing with his flaming rapier and utterly missing.

Ornrik cast several rays of flame at the creature, but again there seemed to be no damage. The dwarf uttered some curse that could only be understood by those who knew the Dwarven language.

Saris encouraged him, “It’s not without effect. The flames seem to slow him down –oof!” he was cut short by another slam, “Lucky me!”

“Use the blasted great sword!” Ornrik screamed.

“No!” Viselys said, emphatically.

“It’s time to get vicious, Viselys!” Saris pleaded, “Actually, it’s way past time!”

Avner sunk another blow into the beast.

Now Urol moved to strike with his staff. He landed the blow, but it clearly did no damage. Had the situation not been so dire, it might have been comical. However, none could doubt the gnome’s courage.

Suddenly, everyone began to notice that Viselys had stopped moving. He was frozen in mid-swing. Not only did his companions notice this, but the Rowport twins did, too, and they struck him with savage force. This seemed to break whatever enchantment that had held him, and he donned the Crown of the Gargoyles. Invoking it’s power for an elemental smite he swung …

… and missed again.

Saris and Avner struck successive blows, and it became clear that the over-appendaged child would not last much longer. Finally, Viselys succeeded in scoring a glancing blow that apparently finished the job.

Nobody was about to give Viselys any credit for the kill though.

“Do you realize that if you had actually FOUGHT, this battle would not have gone on so long?” Ornrik began to berate Viselys, “As it is, I’m completely out of magic from this ONE BATTLE! Do you realize what that means? What your namby-pamby pussy-footing cost us?” The two began verbally assaulting each other with gusto.

“I agree completely with the dwarf,” Avner said, quietly, to Saris, “but I’m not telling either of them that.” Saris just shook his head in agreement.

While the guard and the dwarf verbally sparred, Urol examined the bodies of the enemies. Unfortunately, they were too badly charred to reveal anything useful. The golem, like the one that had acted as a stand-in for Thunderstrike, was assembled in a disturbingly functional way. The vile craftsman of this monstrosity was clearly adept with anatomy and nimble of finger (or whatever it used for manipulation).

“We need to make camp for the night,” Avner announced, cutting through the bickering, “And this place is not where I want to sleep.”

“Agreed,” Saris added.

From the vile clearing littered with the corpses of more of their friends from the Nixie, the group branched out looking for a good camping spot nearby. Meanwhile, Viselys looked for evidence of their Predator, whom he assumed had cast that paralyzing spell on him, but there was none to be found.

“Over this way,” Urol said. The group came together, and followed him a little way into the brush. In a relatively dry clearing, they found some old ruins comprised of crumbling, moss-covered walls. Small piles of rubble dotted the ruins, and an empty fire pit sat in the center.

“The Olmans?” Saris asked.

Urol shook his head. “They are ancient, but do not feature the Olmans’ architectural style. See?” He indicated, “Simple stone blocks, the walls bear no designs or patterns …”

Off in a corner of the ruins stood a crude wooden frame in the shape of an “X.” Bound, upside-down to this frame was a female figure, her legs high in the air. Even from afar, it was easy to tell that there was a gaping wound in the center of her chest – there was no way she could be alive.

Viselys, fearful that this, finally, was his much sought after Diamondback, approached the cross, followed closely by the curious Urol.

“More than two weeks dead,” Urol noted. “This can’t be Diamondback,” he spoke to Viselys’ concern. Seeing that Viselys was dubious, he continued, “No bloating, the outer surface is blackish green in color. It’s impossible, even in this humid climate, for such black putrefaction to be so advanced. And look, vermicular life forms apparent in larval stages. That’s ten days, absolute minimum, regardless of humidity.”

From behind them, Ornrik concurred, “It’s Liftas Lanaw,” he said, sadly, “She had been a priestess of Isilahr aboard the Nixie.”

“And unless I’m mistaken,” Urol, noted, “we’ve accounted for the entire crew of the Nixie, with the exception of Lavinia and the Jade Ravens.” As he looked a little closer at the chest wound, he saw something that did not belong there, “Hey, do you see that?”

Viselys looked where he had indicated. He fought his revulsion and snatched it. It was a signet ring … on a finger.

Urol looked closely, “That’s not more than a few days old – it’s certainly not hers. I’d guess it was a man’s.

Ornrik could now see the ring with its stylized “S.” He turned to Viselys, “It’s your brother’s.”

“I don’t HAVE a brother!” Viselys exclaimed in a voice boarding on a whine.

“Whatever,” Ornrik dismissed, “That’s the ring Adameus was wearing. ‘S’ for ‘Shadowboren.’”

They didn’t have much time to dwell on that. Everyone was startled, though not completely surprised, when the corpse of the crucified priestess spoke, “Welcome to my home, travelers. You come a long way only to stay here forever. At least you live. That is good, for now. My home is your home, now and forever.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Viselys asked the priestess.

“You asking me the last thing I remember,” she replied without irony.

Viselys shook his head, “Okay, what’s the first thing you remember?”

“Hanging here. I’ve always been here," she replied solemnly.

“Who put you here?” Saris asked.

“The master of Fogmire.”

“What’s ‘Fogmire’?” Avner asked, surprised with himself that he was participating in a conversation with a dead woman.

“This place,” she answered without inflection.

“Do you remember being alive?” Viselys tried another tact.

“I don’t know what it’s like to be alive. You will know what it’s like to be dead, though, very soon.”

“This is repugnant,” Avner noted.

“I agree. We should dispatch it immediately,” Saris stated.

However, the two noblemen realized that their words had not been heard as another argument had broken out between Ornrik and Viselys.

The zombie priestess spoke during a lull in the fighting, “Is this what people do when they are alive?”

Ornrik nodded, grimly, “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Being dead is much more peaceful,” she replied.

“And with that…” Saris said as he lit a torch and set fire to the crucifix.

As the wooden structure burned, it collapsed, freeing its flaming prisoner. She stood, awkwardly, and everyone drew his weapon. She made no aggressive move, though. Instead, she said, “I’m burning – just like you will … soon…” then she fell lifelessly to the ground.

Continue to Chapter 17...

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