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Sword of Serengeral - Chapter Three

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    October 27, 2020 4:47 PM PDT

    Chapter Three - Into the mountain


    Nisto sits on a rock with his head down, lost in thought or memory. Jalasko walks over and sits next to him.

    "This isn't going as you planned," he says.

    "Planned." Nisto laughs silently. "I've been improvising since the beginning. Do you know what it is to be a soldier in the wilds?"

    "No. I don't take orders well. But I know what it is to be alone in the wilds. Living from one job to the next. Guide, hunter, tracker." Jalasko looks up as the wind picks up, and the pine needles hiss overhead.

    "We looked out for each other. The lords giving all the orders were comfortable in far away estates. They need a fort here, a fort goes here, hold the line, keep the orcs controlled."

    "How did that work out?"

    Nisto laughs. "They aren't controlled. The lines are always shifting."

    "Can I ask a question that might be..."

    "Sure, go ahead."

    "How did you end up a guard in Harrow?"

    "I had trouble with a noble. Then I was wounded. My leg wouldn't heal."

    "No healers at the fort?"

    "No good ones."

    "You don't seem to have a limp."

    "One day a wealthy noble paid the fee. Healed. But he wanted information in return."

    "The cave?"

    Nisto nods. "It's his money paying you, and Foal. Not mine."

    "So whatever we find in the cave goes to him."

    "What he wants and what I'll do might be different things, when it comes to it."

    Jalasko laughs for a long time. "A free agent. That I can understand. What do you think is in there?"

    "Treasures. Magical artifacts. And if the legends are true, a sword of great power."

    Now Jalasko looks at him. "So the sword is yours."

    Nisto nods and stands up. "Yes, the sword is mine."

    Commander Lenquin of Krondol Fort stands at attention before his guest.

    "My lord," he begins, "you must understand that this has never happened before. We always receive our orders through the chain of command."

    "Of course," says Choath. "But I felt a more personal visit was called for."

    Choath is sitting in an elaborately decorated chair that has been pulled out of storage and dusted off.

    "Is the council..." Lenquin searches for words, "unhappy with the situation here?"

    "No no, not at all. You are keeping the peace, trade caravans and travellers are mostly alive at the end of the day. All is well here." Choath leans forward and steeples his fingers in front of him. "I'm here about another matter. I believe you recently had a visit from one Nisto Krevin, who used to be stationed here."

    "Yes of course. He asked for supplies for an expedition he was conducting on behalf of... um..."

    " On behalf of me."

    "Yes, my lord. He said that he could not divulge the name of his benefactor."

    Choath waves that away. "Tell me, commander. When did he leave?"

    "Two days ago they headed into the foothills. He could not tell us exactly where he was going, but said it was extremely important."

    "Oh, it is far more important than you can imagine. I intend to follow him. And though I have brought my own guard, I feel that with orc settlements in the area, it would be propitious if I had soldiers from this fort to accompany me."

    Lenquin blinks. "From..." He clears his throat. "This is... unusual, my lord..."


    "My lord baron." He takes a breath. "I will choose ten of my best, my lord."

    Choath leans back in his chair and smiles. "Good. We leave in the morning."

    The commander bows. "I should prepare your guard."

    "Yes, you really should."

    After Lenquin takes his leave, Choath sits quietly for a time, lost in thought.


    "My lord."

    "After they sacrifice their lives on behalf of my safety, you will be able to raise them all quickly, correct?"

    "I've prepared the spell, my lord. As long as I am protected, I can raise nine, maybe ten, in moments."

    "And they will follow your commands?"

    "Anyone raised into my service has no other thought, my lord."

    "Good. Tikaisten, you will protect Geevo while he works. We must have an undead guard before we enter the cave."

    "What about the paladin?"

    Chaoth sighs. "Alas, our friend did not manage to kill the paladin, so we will have to plan for that contingency."


    Sunset flame blankets the eastern plains beneath them. East and south she can see green and grey lands she has never visited. Somewhere beyond those lands sleeps Wild's End. Something tugs at Crowsinger as she tries to strain her eyes farther into the indistinct ends of the earth.

    Little of that sun reaches her here, on the slopes of Serengeral. The sun has long since passed the summit into the west, leaving this slope of the mountain in shadow. With sunset comes the brittle cold of early winter. The slopes around them are a patchwork of snow and stone dotted with evergreens.

    "It has to be here," mutters Jalasko. He breathes mist as he speaks. His hands absently unfold the parchment again.

    Crowsinger summons a large firefly, which drifts over hover near the map. Jalasko holds up the map, trying to see it in the glow of the firefly.

    Adjusting his sword, Nisto sighs and sits down on a rock. There have been many of these pauses in the journey.

    Crowsinger wraps her furs closer, then breathes into her hands while looking around. The paladin Hera stands in the front as always, a silhouette watching the mountain rise along their path. Watching for danger. Nisto strokes his beard, studying the ground. The elf is still, head raised as if listening to something to something only he can hear. The intricate scrollwork of his staff glows even here in the mountain's shadow.

    The wind picks up, ripping the map from Jalasko's fingers. Nisto reaches up without looking and grabs it from the air.

    "Do you know where we are, ranger?" he rumbles.

    But Jalasko is silent. His arm moves, hand searching along with his eyes. At last he points. "There."

    Crowsinger tries to follow the line of his arm, ahead and slightly to the left, but sees only darker shadows in the dusk.

    Eske'drai steps forward and goes to stand next to Hera. "It is a cavern," he says, and looks back. "Well done."

    Nisto stands and joins them in the front. He hands the map to Jalasko. "Then let us venture within and get warm."

    Crowsinger adds the word 'venture' to the list of human words she is learning. It seems to be another word for 'go'.

    "Let's go then," she says.


    They walk in near silence but for the sounds of leather and chain, of water dripping from the ceiling above. The cave floor is smooth from some long-ago underground stream.

    They hold off the darkness with torches crafted by Jalasko, and the druid is accompanied by a large firefly.

    Finally they come to a larger room with a still dark pond. Drops of water from the ceiling make the only sounds apart from the intruders. The room is filled with an almost smothering moisture.

    "I don't understand," says Nisto. "Do you see another passsage?"

    "I can hardly breathe in here," says Jalasko.

    "Interesting," says Eske'drai.

    Nisto turns. "You see something interesting? I see water and unhewn stone."

    The elf raises his staff and intones words the others can't understand. As if a fog has lifted, the choking moisture dissipates, and the pond is gone. They stand on old, cracked tiles in a perfectly round room. At intervals around the walls, crystal spheres glow amber, giving light to murals nearly faded long ago.

    In front of them, columns of twisted red marble frame an obsidian circle carved in the likeness of a person's face of indeterminate species. The face is about the height of a human. The expression on the face seems to brood and plot.

    "Illusion." Eske'drai looks around. "In the early days of this sanctum, it would have been far more powerful. Only in this latter day, when the magic is fading, am I able to counteract the effect."

    Nisto stares at the large face. "This is much better." He looks at Jalasko. "Thanks for bringing the elf along."

    Eske'drai raises an eyebrow but says nothing.

    Foal walks slowly up to the face, sometimes kneeling to look closely at the floor. When she reaches the face, she examines the edges, then her attention moves toward the center.

    "Ah," she says, and runs her hand along the brow line, then pauses near the edge of the right eyebrow.

    ** VERY CLEVER **

    Foal falls backward and rolls, her weapons out. Hera runs forward and stands next to her, watching the door.

    The voice is deep, resonant, and—though perhaps this is imagination—amused.

    Nisto takes a breath. "Tell me the mouth moving was illusion."

    "It was not."

    "That mouth is the size of my head," whispers Jalasko.

    Eske'drai steps forward until he is close to Hera and Foal. He holds his staff forward and says something in elvish.

    A deep chuckle sounds through the room, but there is no answer.

    "I could swear that's a door," says Foal. "And that I found the latch."


    After a moment, Hera says, "Are you indeed."


    The mouth grows larger, and inside there is a light flickering in darkness. The mouth keeps opening until the lips form a doorway, a passage into a dimly lit hallway.

    "I am not..." begins Jalasko, then stops.

    "If that is our only way in," says Nisto, "then I fear we have little choice."

    Hera says, "If it is your intention to proceed farther, then I must be the first through."

    "I don't think so," says Foal, and then she is gone.

    "Foal!" says Nisto.

    Foal appears in the hallway on the other side of the door. She examines the edges closely, then does something that makes a rattling sound.

    "If I understand what I'm looking at," she says through the mouth, "then I've locked it open."

    Hera holds sword and shield ready, then walks slowly forward.

    "Is that thing alive?" Jalasko asks Crowsinger.

    "No," she says. Then louder: "Wait."

    Hera looks around. "What?"

    The druid looks at the elf. "You were speaking elvish, not a spell. What did you say?"

    "I answered in elvish because it spoke in elvish." Eske'drai smiles. "Or did you hear something different?"

    "Kiri," says Crowsinger.

    "Trade language," says Jalasko.

    The elf looks at the opening. "There are layers of illusion here. I will try to do what I can."

    "Counting on you," says Nisto. When Hera begins moving again, he follows.

    They pass through one at a time, until Jalasko waves Crowsinger forward. They are the last two. Crowsinger steps through, convinced that the mouth would suddenly close if she doesn't move quickly. When she is through, she turns back and sees Jalasko ready himself, then leap through and roll on this side.

    He stands. "Just in case."

    "Close it?" asks Foal.

    "No." Nisto stares at the opening. "Let's not."

    Foal nods and moves to stand in front next to the paladin.

    They continue on through the darkness.

    They come to another circle room, only this one is nearly filled with a rough pit into the earth. Around the edges of the room they find several smaller rooms, but whatever they had once contained, they are now empty.

    A rickety wooden ramp spirals down into the pit, secured to spikes in the walls, and there is nothing but inky black beneath them. They descend the ramp with Hera in the lead holding a torch, and Nisto behind her. There are no side passages now; just a descent into the dark. The old planks creak under their feet, but the ramp holds.

    The air feels thick, still, waiting.

    "A light," says Jalasko. His voice echoes strangely in the well.

    They look up, but see nothing above them but darkness. Nisto looks back in the torchlight and glares at him.

    "There was a light," whispers Jalasko, but he says no more.

    After a long descent, they reach a large platform of stone. The well dives further, beyond the reach of their torches, but the ramp goes no further.

    "I do not like how our voices echo here," says Nisto.

    "Agreed," says Hera. "Let's move down this corridor a few paces."

    The passage they travel is nearly perfectly round, with many small holes in the walls, spaced seemingly at random.

    "This is not my world," says Jalasko. "Not my world. Sun, trees, animals. Not this."

    "I feel the same," says Crowsinger.

    "Can you feel life anywhere?"

    She can hear the others pause as they turn to hear her answer. She places a hand on the soft stone wall and tries to find something, but the massive network of roots and vines that speak to one another beneath the dirt above seems absent in this place. She shifts her hand slightly until a finger finds one of the holes, then pulls her hand back with a shiver.


    "Something... is there."

    "Let's keep moving," says Hera. She turns and begins to walk again, but soon a loud metallic sound rattles in the passage.

    "Look at the floor," says the elf.

    Those with torches lower them until they can see clearly. Along the floor of the passage are pieces of armor; a chain shirt, a vambrace, a boot, a helm. Enough armor, it seems, for several people.

    "No bodies," says Nisto, "not even bones."

    "Crowsinger," says Hera. "Could you send a firefly before us?"

    "I can send two."

    In a moment, two fireflies, each the size of a halfling hand, fly along the passage past the others, and the passage ahead is caught in their pulsing glow. It looks the same for another dozen yards—circular, with many holes in walls and ceiling—and then seems to open up into a larger room. The fireflies begin to return.

    "We need to move," says Crowsinger. He voice carries a tremor that wasn't there before.

    Hera says, "All right, forward, watch your feet—"

    "DOWN! NOW!"

    Several throw themselves to the floor of the corridor, but Hera and Nisto instinctively take guard positions. When the vines emerge from the walls, both fighters are caught in them. Nisto yells.

    Torches drop to the floor, and fireflies sail toward the halfling. In the pulsing, flickering light, Jalasko sees vines with long thorns, only they writhe and reach, grasping. One strikes his arm, and begins to curl around it. Thorns penetrate his flesh. Still he doesn't scream until he sees the eyes scattered along the vine, between the thorns, looking at him.

    "Druid, the vines!" yells Hera.

    "They aren't listening to me! They're not vines."

    There is otherwise little sound but the thrashing of tentacle vines and armor—and Foal diving in and out of shadows, hacking at vines with two long daggers.

    "Move!" yells the paladin, "when you can! Don't let them wrap around—"

    Jalasko screams again.

    Crowsinger has already woven a cloak of the natural world, her world, around herself.

    —plants Verdanfire seeds in Jalasko and Nisto

    —sends Hirode to prepare a Crysalis for Jalasko

    She beats at the tentacles holding Jalasko until they withdraw, multiple eyes searching frantically for her.

    Nisto shouts again; several larger tentacles have wrapped around his arms, coming from a cluster of holes close together.

    Crowsinger sends a barrage of Verdanfire spears at the cluster. The vines unwrap from him, screaching, and withdraw toward the holes.

    Bending down, she lifts Jalasko to his feet and whispers to the Wolf. She looks up and sees Eske'drai standing nearby, grasping one of the tentacles tightly. Strangely it seems to be trying to pull away from him. Eske'drai mutters an incantation. The tentacle begins humming, screaching.

    All of the tentacles withdraw into the walls.

    "Run," he says.

    They run.


    "The light is gone," says Tikaisten. "I think they've gone into a side passage."

    "How far down?" says Choath.

    "Some distance. And... I think I hear screaming."

    "Ah." Choath turns toward Geevo. "I think your minions should go in the lead now. They won't fall off the ramp?"

    Geevo looks at his gathered undead. "We might lose one or two. They are clumsy."


    "Hold still," says Crowsinger.

    "What were those things going to do?"

    "Inject a venom that dissolves you from the inside."

    Jalasko stops moving. "Oh."

    She stands up. "Don't worry. I've cleansed the poison."

    Once druid and paladin have healed all of their wounds, they look around the room they find themselves in. Unlike the passage they just left, this room is a smoothly carved rectangle of stone, with tiles on the floor and faded murals on the walls. They seem to depict scenes of battle and homage.

    "Dragon," whispers Eske'drai, tracing the lines of an image with one finger.

    Hera holds up her torch and see runes on one wall. "Eske'drai?" she says.

    The elf looks closely, then shakes his head. "I have never seen runes like this. Whatever language this is, the Archive knows it not." He looks down. "The tiles are different here. I suspect we have traveled through several routes, natural and unnatural, made in different time periods."

    Jalasko points to the tunnel behind them. "Who would even build something like that next to..." he waves at the room they're in.

    "No one," says the elf. "I believe something created that long ago, breaking into this room... and whatever lies beyond."

    Nisto walks over to Jalasko and claps a hand to his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

    Jalasko shakes his head. "I'm a ranger. I live in the sun. This wasn't...."

    "I know. This wasn't the job. But I have a feeling we'll need your arrows before this is done."

    "Arrows!" Jalasko looks back into the tunnel they just left and sees his quiver lying on the floor three yards in. "My quiver..."

    Suddenly Foal appears next to his quiver, takes it in hand, and then appears next to him. "Your quiver."

    Jalasko laughs. "I thank you."

    Hera drinks from a water bag, then seals it. "There are small passages on the sides, but I suspect we need to take the large hallway in front of us."

    "Let us go then," says Nisto.

    They don't have to travel far. They walk through a long hallway, with a floor of tiles and mosaics, until they reach a large room.

    On a platform above them is a seat shaped something like a lyre, and curved arms reaching up high on either side of a couch.

    Sitting on the couch is an orc. He wears warm robes and furs, and on his head is a silver crown. Gems like sapphires ring the crown, glowing softly.

    Eske'drai steps forward and says something in orcish.

    The orc smiles.

    ** NO NEED **

    He points to the crown on his head.


    "What are you doing here?" asks Nisto.

    The orc smiles, baring teeth.



    continued in the final chapter:

    This post was edited by Crowsinger at February 5, 2021 4:14 AM PST