“Darling, he’s dead,” Sayd said.
In front of him lay a mass of chains, swirling black echoes of the creature that was, now melding into the ashen cloud like sheets of dark mist. Beyond the pile of soot cloaked metal stood Wally, his eyes burned shut by the hot embers. He held a chain in each hand. He had ripped the scion of Droskar apart. Sayd stepped across the pile of chains and embraced his friend.
“You fought like a dragon,” he said, his voice startled with awe. In all his long years he had never seen a more dangerous warrior.
“Well sheeyit,” the mulleted berserker exclaimed. “Tweren’t nuthin.” But the tiefling could see that it was something. Lacerations from the chain and hammer marks covered Wally’s body. Sayd helped him out of the ash cloud, to where Kaede and Teret waited. As the cloud dissipated, the flame mephits skittered back cackling to the forge and entered it. Teret rushed to help the bound child where he lay.
“It took you long enough!” the pudgy Jurin Kreed cried as Teret released his bonds. “I assume my father sent you?” Teret look at the loose flesh hanging on the ingrates cherubic face, at his spiteful eyes, and saw all the aristocratic ponces he had backhanded in the military.
“Who is your father?” he said.
“Kreed,” Sayd replied over his shoulder. “That hatchet faced moron who runs the lumber mill in Hollow.”
“H-hatchet…why you—!” Jurin said.
“Can it, kid,” Teret said. He pulled the portly child to his feet.
“That chain,” Wally said, wiping the soot from his face and taking another pull from his wineskin. “It didn’t feel none to wholesome to me.”
“Indeed,” said Josef. “I believe this creature is what has been called a—”
“Forge scorned,” Kaede finished.
“That’s right,” Josef said with admiration. “The depth of your lore never fails to amaze, Mistress Kaede. This creature was tasked with endless toil, to bind the souls of its victims into a chain for Droskar, in whose unhallowed temple we find ourselves. I can feel the evil of that chain even from here. So many dead.” He paused. “Such tragedy. Tis the chain that holds the soulforce of this creature. Left alone, it may even return to complete its dark work.”
“We best bust it up, then,” Wally said, pushing up off the wall to stand—and then leaning back against it just as suddenly.
“Take your ease,” Teret said, placing a hand on the barbarian’s shoulder. “Josef has proven himself an able hand at kicking in doors. Let he and I give it a go.” And so they did, beating the chain upon the anvil until it broke, then taking up another section and beginning again. Of a sudden the entire length shattered, and Teret watched as ghostly blue wisps poured out of it with a pent up cry, like the sobs of a hundred orphaned children. It faded and the light was gone. Jojo looked across the anvil at him.
“It is done,” he said.
“But what of this?” Teret asked. He hefted a warhammer from a rack in the corner. “Is it not the one that beast swung? I could hardly see it for the smoke.”
“It is the one,” Sayd said. “The very same.” They examined the weapon. It was black as pitch.
“Tis heavy,” Teret offered, swinging it.
“Tis adamantine,” Kaede said. Yukimura chirped his agreement.
“Tis cursed,” Sayd replied jaggedly.
“None of you is wrong,” Josef said. They looked at him. The archaeologist ran a hand through his matted curls. “This is a weapon of great malice,” he continued, haltingly. “And it is adamantine for true. A matter as hard as the deeds that were done with it.”
“Well put,” Teret said, examining the material with more scrutiny. “I have never beheld adamantine, only heard whisper of its legacy. The hardest substance in the world, so sages say.” Then the tiefling’s delicate face was unnervingly over his shoulder.
“This thing will bring us nothing but woe,” Sayd said. “We should break it, ruin it. It’s existence offers grievance to the gods.”
“You say everything offends the gods,” Yelenya offered breezily. “Did you not say such of the silver daggers that saved our lives?” She was kneeling over Wally.
“Tis true,” Sayd admitted. “How is he?”
“He is sleeping,” she said, “no doubt put under the waves by your weighty arguments.” She brushed his forehead with a washcloth. Teret tucked the warhammer into his kit. Best to deal with it later.
They returned to the well room, though Yelenya tarried to examine a stone crevice too small for a human that disappeared like a tunnel straight down through the rock. Kimi Eaveswalker watched her from behind a natural pillar, then rushed to comfort Wally. Teret and Sayd carried the warrior between them and lay him down in one corner of the well room.
They examined the pit. A ten foot by ten foot wooden platform swung from a rope in its center, supported by a system of pulleys. Teret peered down into the dark, cursing his lack of darkvision. Anything could be down there. He looked over his shoulder to where Sayd, translated into draconic by Kaede, was grandiosly harassing the coward kobold, Keddremak. He listened as Kaede translated his responses, his details about what lay below. The halfling was challenging Sayd now, disgusted with his promises to the kobold. Kimi was getting restless.
“Enough,” Teret finally said. “There is one more child below, is there not?”
“Aye,” the halfling said. “What is your plan?”
“Plunge forward into darkness,” Sayd said, leaping onto the wooden platform. “And see what happens.”
“Why am I not thirlled with this plan?” Yelenya said, joining him. Teret moved to stand beside them on the platform, but Kaede stopped him.
“It is trapped,” she said. “Or shoddily made. So the kobold says. Regardless, it will not bear all our weight together.” She stepped onto the lift and Josef began to lower it.
“Why am I not in the van?” Teret said.
“We can see in the dark,” Sayd and Yelenya said in unison, annoyingly. The tiefling winked up at him.
“She can’t,” Teret said, pointing at Kaede. The elf smiled her soft, mysterious smile.
“I have my ways,” she said. A moment later and thirty feet below, the lift touched the ground and Kaede’s dancing lights shot down into the well after her.
As they lit up the room below, the three saw two hardy kobolds in chain mail and helms riding obscene, saber-toothed frog like creatures coated in a repulsive ichor wheel about, shocked. They’d been expecting comrades. Sayd stepped off the platform with his spear in one hand and a dark fire in the other.
“I am Sayd Krynn of Kaer Maga,” he smiled. “And you two are about to—”
He was interrupted as the slurk closest to him blurted out a massive gobby stream of disgusting slime that covered him head to toe like buckets full of mud, leaving nothing uncoated.
“—make me look like a fucking asshole,” he finished, the words bubbling out from where his mouth probably was. “Gross.”
“Ewwwww,” Yelenya said.
Kaede wasted no time, leaping between the two mounted warriors as Josef hustled to pull the lift back up. She struck with her double chain kama and deftly dodged their attacks as Yelenya loosed arrows. One of the slurks charged the dhampir and bit into her hard. Kaede’s head jerked in that direction in time to see the sultry stalker hit the floor, unconscious. A moment later, the giant blob that was Sayd scuttled back to back with her.
“Defenfive maneuverf!” the blob cried. “Thif ftuff is hard to moof iff!”
“Foolish roundeye!” Yukimura chirped in Tien, drawing a scolding glare from Kaede. The elf parried a short sword thrust with the flat of her hand then swung around with her double chain kama to entwine a spear thrust meant for Sayd from the other side. As she did, she kicked up a cloud of dust behind her with one foot, thwarting the slurk that tried to pounce on her unguarded flank. She leapt up as a spear went underfoot and swung her kama around again, slicing a rider. Sayd meanwhile somehow had to composure to use the hardened ichor to block the paws and teeth of the slurk who encroached on him.
Then the platform banged down again and Teret and Josef leaped into the fray.
“What the hell happened to you?” Teret said to Sayd, incredulous.
“Noffing ferioff,” Sayd replied. “Minor inconvenienff.”
In spite of everything, Teret had to laugh. “Let me help,” he said. He grabbed into the hardened goo and tried to pull it away, but the stuff wouldn’t budge. “What the hell is this shit?” he said.
The nearer slurk, apparently thinking Teret presented a better target, moved against him and was immediately rebuffed by a flurry of whirling steel. He cut into the slurk just as Sayd, who was somehow half-wielding his spear from inside the slimy cocoon, stabbed the kobold rider in the back.
“Well struck!” Teret said.
“Fankff!” Sayd replied.
[Editors note: this is when I had a cigarette break and missed the big finish, so we’ll imagine a few details.]
The distraction gave Teret a chance to leap, Achilles like, to the side and plunge his sword through the kobold’s armor at the shoulder. It screeched in pain and wailed in draconic. As it turned to flee it caught a shuriken to the throat from Kaede and slumped in its seat, held in place by ichor. The elf whirled back and, leaping over the upturned mouth of the slurk, caught the other kobold warrior’s head between her thighs. She cracked his neck with a smooth twist and a disgusting popping sound and sat momentarily perched upon his shoulders before twirling off and landing on the stone floor as softly as a falling petal.
“Impressive,” Josef said. They all heard a thunderous crack and looked to see the slime shell come crashing off Sayd as he stood flexing his arms underneath.
“What happened?” the tiefling said.
“We won,” said Kaede simply, and went immediately to kneel at Yelenya’s side. The dhampir was unconscious and very badly injured. “We should stop,” she said. “Rest.”
“Lay her out beside Wally,” Sayd said, brushing some remaining crumbs and tangles from his hair. “We still have a child to save.”
“Agreed,” said Teret.
They took some time to move Yelenya up the lift, then some more time for Josef to re-jigger the mechanism to hold more weight. Sayd, Teret and Kimi were lingering below when Sayd heard a rasping coming from a nearby room. He cautiously looked in and saw an abberation—tall, spindly, with tentacled fingers and an alien visage—gasping for breath in the corner. A spear was stuck in its shoulder.
“Can you understand me?” he tried in the common tongue, but the creature did not answer.
Teret approached it. The creature recoiled from him, wheezing. The young warrior knelt in front of it and pulled the spear from its shoulder. He looked at the substance on the spear tip. “Poison,” he said.
“Kill it!” Kimi demanded.
“Shush, girl,” Sayd said as Teret actually dug into his pack and applied a poultice to the wound. “Do not judge a tome by its cover.” He wandered back to look up the well and see how things were progressing.
“Why is Ser Teret helping that thing?” Kimi asked, following.
Sayd looked up the well to where Josef was working. “Because he is a just man,” the tiefling replied. He looked down into her eyes. “All we really have, Kimi Eaveswalker, is who we are,” he said.
She thought about it. “Why does everyone say you’re a bad man?” she said. He laughed, and walked back to watch Teret and the choker through the doorframe.
After he didn’t answer for a while, she crept back to his side. “Wally said you fought the Stag Lord before, once. He said he killed your friends and threw you into a canyon. Left you for dead.”
“Wally says a lot of things,” the tiefling replied absently.
She balled her fist up. “You know when my dad comes back, he’s not going to like you being with my mom,” she said. He looked at her then, his irises softly alight with green fire, for so long that it became unnerving and she looked away. Frustrated, she looked right back to find his gaze unaltered. “Say something!” she finally yelled. Teret came rushing back to the doorway at the sound.
“You poor girl,” Sayd finally said, and turned away.
The platform hit bottom again, this time bearing Silverwind. Teret went to attend to the horse. Soon his saddle and kit and gear followed, along with Kaede and Josef. They sent Kimi back up on the platform.
“Take care of Wally and Yelenya,” Kaede urged her.
“And try not to do anything foolish,” Teret added. Keddremak conferred with them. The main passage forward, where the slurks had retreated, was designed for ambush. The side passage to the east led to the mines, where Lekmek the Cruel lorded over an army of slave miners.
“Lekmek the Cruel is horrid and terrible! We should slay him at once!” Keddremak entreated.
Kaede went first, keeping her elven eyes sharp for traps. They heard the sound of mining coming from ahead, picks chipping away at stone. Presently they came into an open mine chamber where half a dozen slaves worked. Lekmek the Cruel stood above them all, a kobold with massive upper body strength but hilariously tiny chicken legs. He gripped a lash in one hand and a massive pick in the other.
He yelled something in draconic, probably intruders, kill them! or the like. “Kill him first,” Teret said, “and the rest will stop fighting.” Lekmek had other plans, though. A seasoned fighter himself, he easily dodged Kaede’s opening flurry of double chain kama strikes. Sayd charged forward and hurled his spear at Lekmek, but his aim erred by only a slight fraction and the kobold twisted, causing the spearhead to open a paper thin slit on his cheek but otherwise fly by. Teret hefted Glintaxe but in a stroke of ill fortune lost his grip on the weapon just as he went to swing, dropping it. Lekmek struck back hard with his pick, hacking into Kaede and wounding her badly. Before they could surround the overseer, they were themselves cut off by the horde of frenzied workers, so driven by their fear of Lekmek that they put no price on their own lives. Sayd tried to unleash his demonic magicks on the crowd but was tackled while doing so, ruining the spell.
Injured, Kaede drew back to heal while also striking down some of the slaves with her quick kicks and swinging kama. Sayd clawed one of the slaves, then hit it with the full weight of his greataxe and shattered the creature. Teret, drawing his sword, fended off attackers from both sides. They held the line. Josef healed Kaede and then stepped forward to shoot a precise bowshot through traffic that pierced Lekmek’s armor and caused him to give out a yelp. Seizing the opportunity, Kaede shadowstepped between two of the workers. Her eyes glowed with eldritch blue light and her hand seemed to produce an afterimage as she reached out and ripped the massive fire forged pick from Lekmek’s grasp with a twist. The move was so quick that Sayd could scarcely beleive it. The enraged overseer dove after her but was kicked hard for his troubles. Of a sudden, Kimi Eaveswalker emerged from behind the kobold line to shoot Lekmek in the back with a heavy crossbow bolt. Teret, breaking away from his attacker, used the opening to stab the open overseer hard. Lekmek turned on his tiny chicken legs to flee, but Teret hacked one of them off, then stepped over the still cursing overseer’s form and drove his sword home through his chest. The remaining slaves stopped fighting.
“How did you get down here, Kimi?” Teret asked.
“There’s a tunnel back there, going to the forge room. Yelenya found it, before she got hurt,” she said, breathless. “It led to this cave. There was a huge bat in there. It chased me!”
“You have to be more careful, Kimi,” Kaede said.
“Not good enough,” Sayd said. “When you do things like this, you put everyone at risk. We’re here, in some temple in the middle of nowhere, because you put all your friends at risk, leading them on this harebrained quest. It ends now. Are we clear?”
Her face turned red. “I was just trying to—”
Sayd’s tone softened. “Kimi, I do this for a living, ok? We do this for a living. If you want to help, you need to let us do our jobs.”
“I guess I can,” she said.
“Thank you,” the tiefling said. “These other kids need you to stay by their side.”
He switched gears, gesturing to the slaves. “Bring them up to speed, Keddremak,” he said. Kaede translated. They took stock of the situation. Wally and Yelenya were down. Teret and Kaede had some injuries. Sayd and Josef were out of power. They made the very hard decision to head back upstairs and camp.
“Where our demonic friend fears to tread, we would be wise to show caution,” Kaede said, echoing what they all felt. Sayd had not wanted to stop for anything. Even he admitted, though, that getting to the child before he was sacrificed would be meaningless if they all died in the process.
They slept in the ruined fane where Teret had boldly faced down the skeleton army only hours before. Sayd, Kaede and Keddremak spent several hours discussing Keddremak’s role in what was to come, the importance of letting the fued with the Sootscales die, and so on. In the morning, Keddremak proved useful by casting spells that healed Yelenya. Wally remained too tired to do much more than drink water and eat, with Kimi constantly watching over him. At one point Teret overheard Kaede and Josef discussing the barbarian in hushed tones, saying that the foul magic of the chain whip must have somehow made him ill, or perhaps the act of tearing apart that monstrosity with his bare hands.
“More like bear hands,” Teret laughed to himself. After a coarse meal, though, they were right back into the shit.
Yelenya led the way this time, sneaking along the next corridor and watching for traps. It wasn’t long before she found one, a ten foot long pit trap covered with a thin scree of debris. The tunnel was tight here.
“They say the gods hate a coward,” Sayd said, leaping over the area of the pit. Yelenya followed after him, putting a pile of stones to mark the pitfall’s edge. Sayd stepped forward. In the dark he saw two slurks in a room full of slurk cages, just as Keddremak had told them. Astride one of them was a mighty and gnarled kobold girded in armor and wielding a battleaxe.
“That would be Kathkep, the slurk master,” Yelenya whispered. “Oh never mind,” she said in a normal tone. “They see us.”
Kathkep, stuck to his mount by ichor, reared back and snarled in draconic. Sayd moved like lightning, taking one big stride out of narrow tunnel passage and then sliding across the greasy slime coating the floor like a dancer on a sheet of ice, his tail whipping behind him. A fifteen foot cone of black smoke and clashing red and black lightning erupted from his outstretched hand, blasting over the slurks and their master. The two slurks collapsed immediately, leaving Kathkep stuck on top of one of them with a look of fury on his curled back features.
“Oh hey,” the tiefling said, smiling. Yelenya followed after, loosing arrows, but Kathkep was a battle hardened veteran and dodged them adroitly as he unseated himself. Dropping his axe, he pulled out a bow, but his aim fared no better. Back in the tunnel, Josef pushed himself to the side. In his armor, jumping the pit was an uncertainty at best. Kaede leapt across it with a monk’s grace, though, and cursed their opponent with one of her witch hexes as Sayd advanced on him with his spear and Yelenya continued shooting.
Josef heard Silverwind coming around the bend before he saw him. He pushed himself back against the stones as Teret, astride the charger, came around the bend in the narrow tunnel, hunched, and leapt across the ten foot span of the pit without a second thought. The trap gave way as he did, adding to the spectacle and the drama. Charging out into the room, he backed Kathkep into a corner. He caught a lance from Teret, a claw from Sayd, strikes from Kaede, arrows from Yelenya. He could only hold them off for so long before going down. Silverwind finished the job with a hoof to the prone kobold’s head. They looked around. Before them lay a staircase headed north, up out of the inches thick floor slime. They knew what lay beyond. Keddremak caught up.
“Beyond lies the throne of Merlokep, first of his name,” the kobold said.
“And last of his name,” Sayd replied. “Come.”
TO BE CONTINUED