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 Post subject: By Steel and Spell (A work of Fantasy) PostPosted: 2012-09-16 10:29pm
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Joined: 2012-04-09 11:06pm
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This is something different for my, and I hope that you folks enjoy it. Like all myths and legends, this one is true . . . from a certain point of view. It is actually an account of a D&D game in which I played several years back, told from the point of view of the characters. It was a great group I was with, and while some of the words are not exact, the gist of the game is carried through in full. Anyway, this tale won't last long, but I do hope that you manage to enjoy it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. And yes, I know that D&D Warlocks do not cast spells; we were actually using Pathfinder rules for this game and the person playing Mordecai ran a Pathfinderized (is that a word?) warlock that combined bard-style spell casting with his eldritch blast. It made for a fun and versatile class.

I am not exactly certain if it goes here, in User Fiction. But after browing through Fantasy, it seems to be dedicated to discussing existing works of a fantastic nature. Anyway, if I am posting in the wrong section, Moderators are more than welcome to move me.

Anyway, let's get to the story.

MA

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 Post subject: Re: By Steel and Spell (A work of Fantasy) PostPosted: 2012-09-16 10:30pm
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BY STEEL AND SPELL

PART ONE

As the flash of lightning lit up the late evening sky followed by the crack of thunder just scant moments later the horse that Mordecai was riding balked, his hooves shuffling nervously in the center of the dirt road atop the rocky and high ridge.

“Whoa, there,” he said in a soothing tone as he pat the neck of the high-strung war-mount. “Don’t like the storm rolling in, do you, Red? Well, neither do I, my friend, so let’s get to some shelter before it arrives in full fury.”

Calming down at the encouraging words from the rider on his back, the stallion snorted and shook his head, even as the first drops of a cold autumn rain began to fall around the two. Mordecai stood in his saddle and took in a long look at the valley laid out before them. For the most part the valley was filled with old growth forest, but despite the rapidly failing light he could make out the earthen tor upon which the village of Chelas had been built. It was perhaps a mile—two at the most—distant, nestled snug between the thick woods and a small river.

Will wonders never cease, Mordecai thought with a smile. The map was actually correct for once; which made for a most pleasant change of events. The border lands here in the Timberway Forest north of Marner were not known for ever having been comprehensively mapped, and Mordecai had been more than half certain the map he possessed would prove nigh useless. Being proven wrong—this time—was something that the adventurer was more than happy to live with.

“You ready for a warm stable and some dry hay? Let’s get a move on, Red.”

Moving slowly and carefully down the steep slope, the two avoided taking a spill as the dirt quickly turned to mud amidst the rain that fell heavier and heavier. Surrounded by the heavy branches of the tall evergreens at the base of the ridge, the little light remaining faded away and Mordecai pulled his steed to a halt. Half closing his eyes he focused his will and slowly chanted words in an ancient tongue, a tongue that few living would have recognized. He lifted his leather clad hand and made a single sharp gesture, perfectly timed with the final words of the chant, and then the rider’s vision (and that of the equine beneath him) suddenly sharpened and the pitch black of a stormy northern night became as clear as daylight.

The horse snorted again, but Mordecai gently patted the beast’s neck and the powerful animal once again calmed down—although he still did not trust the magics that now coursed through his body.

The rainstorm grew in intensity, but down here in the valley the tall trees and their widespread branches overlapped the road, diffusing the heavy drops into a drizzle. Unfortunately, the tall pines, spruces, and firs gave no protection from the cold; nor did the padded tunic, shirt of fine mail links, and the leather cuirass and greaves that Mordecai wore offer much resistance to the drizzle that felt like frozen needles and soaked into his skin. Flicking the reins, he and his mount moved forward through the forest, hoping that the next turn of the road would reveal the wooden walls of Chelas.

At long last, they approached the winding ramp that circled the southern end of the village, and ascended to the closed gates marked by a series of flickering lanterns set on high poles. Naturally, there was no guard present, and the heavy gate was closed. Mordecai rang the bell set to one side and waited. He rang it again, and waited. Leaving the bell, he walked the horse over to the gate itself and pounded against it with his clenched leather-clad fist.

A small port in the gate opened—finally—and a scratchy voice called, “Here now! No cause for that; it takes these old bones a while to walk out here in the rain and all. Who be ye, and why ye be pounding upon the gate?”

“A traveler seeking shelter from the rain for a night.”

“Chelas be done locked up for the night, stranger, find ye own self a soft bed of pine needles underneath a willow.”

Mordecai scowled, “I’ve ridden hard for four days and three nights, friend. A warm fire and a draught of mead is all that I ask.”

“Are ye deaf? I said go away. No one gets in past sundown.”

“In that case open the gate, the sun isn’t down, it just the storm clouds have blocked it out.”

A harsh laugh came through the portal. “Aye, and I be the Overking of Aerdy.”

With a sigh, Mordecai fished two coins from his belt pouch. “In that case, perhaps I need to pay my back taxes, my Lord. How much do you think I owe to the crown?”

“Now that is a horse of a different color, stranger. Belike the sun hasn’t quite set after all. I think a silver eagle should grant ye amnesty from the tax collectors.”

Mordecai passed a single silver coin through the portal and slid the gold sovereign he had also pulled out back into the pouch.

“Aye, not a night fit for man nor beast, stranger. I’ll have the gate open right away.”

Within a minute, the well-oiled gate slowly swung open just enough to allow Mordecai and his horse entry, and then the old man pushed the gate closed and slide the bar back to seal it.

“My thanks, friend,” the rider said. “Can you recommend an inn for the night?”

“Aye, but since we have only the one it won’t do ye much good, regardless of what I say. The Wild Geese be down the main street, stranger, on ye shield-side. Good stout building of stone and wood, three stories tall, with a wooden shield over the door showing three mottled geese in flight.”

The old man peered out through the hood that covered his head. “Ye have a good taste in horse-flesh, there, lad. Nyrondesse courser?”

“Aye.”

“Stolen?”

Mordecai laughed. “Bought and paid for.”

“None o’ my concern anyway, stranger. Be mindful of ye actions; we in Chelas aren’t too welcoming to those who raise the Hells in our little town.”

“I am obliged to you for the advice and for allowing me passage. Good night.”

“It be a long night, a-watching a gate I not to be opening.”

And with that, the guard turned around and ducked back out of the rain into a small shack set against the wooden palisade. Mordecai pulled on the reins and sent Red ambling down the muddy street. It wasn’t any great surprise that the thoroughfares were empty; small towns and villages such as Chelas often shut down once the sun had dipped beneath the horizon. But the buildings were well constructed and stout, and showed signs of being well-kept. Unlike many such communities, the houses of one and two stories were roofed with tiles of slate rather than thatch, and the streets were nearly straight . . . and wide to boot, with a shallow brick-lined ditch to either side to allow rain-water—and human waste—to run off in the forest below. A proud community, even if small, the rider thought.

He spotted the inn ahead of him on his left as he rode, and then he spied the stable alongside. He rode up to the stable door and dismounted, pulling open the door and leading Red into the warmth and dry air within. A young boy came running up.

“Ye want yer horse stabled for the night, master?”

“Aye, lad, and he needs to be rubbed down and his coat combed out; he has been ridden hard these last few days. Good fresh hay in the stall and a bucket of oats—fresh oats, not moldy, mind.”

“I’ll check his hooves as well, master. Ye’ll need to settle up with Ivan, he runs the inn.”

Mordecai fished out a silver half-eagle from his pouch and held it up in the flickering torch light. “You see this coin, lad?”

“Aye.”

“I’ll be checking on Red before I turn in for the night; do a good job with him and the coin is yours.”

“Ye won’t have any complaining to do about my work with your steed, master. I’ll care for him as if he were me own.”

Mordecai stripped off the saddle, bags, and blanket, and started to throw them up on his shoulder.

“Here now!” said the boy. “We have no thieves at the Wild Geese, master. Yer stuff will be just as you leave it. I’ll take good care of the livery, I will, all cleaned and oiled and polished up.”

The adventurer smiled and handed the saddle and blanket over, but kept the bags. He also unhooked an iron-shod mace that hung from the pommel by a leather strap, and attached it to a hook on the broad leather belt that he wore. “I’ll need the bags for they carry my spare clothes, lad. But I’ll trust you with the saddle and other tack.”

Tossing the twin saddle bag over one shoulder, Mordecai opened the door to the stable again and gritted his teeth as he rushed back into the cold rain and slogged through the mud to the doorway into the inn itself. Standing under the eaves, he concentrated on a simple cantrip and felt a wave of magic rush over him, drying his clothing, removing the mud from his boots, and erasing the stench of his journey.

Opening the door, Mordecai walked into the inn, and was instantly greeted by cat-calls, boos, and yells for him to shut out the cold air! The inn was filled with locals, and the packed bodies, along with the two roaring fireplaces, assured that the night cold was quickly dispatched. The heavy door had mostly shut inside the noise of the place, but here, in the interior, it was loud with patrons talking and shouting and laughing. The adventurer made his way over to a man who wore a leather apron and was keeping a close eye on his guests.

“You must be Ivan,” he said.

“Aye. And I am after thinking that ye must looking for a room for the night. The price is a silver eagle for you, and that includes a hot meal tonight, another tomorrow morn, a stout drink, and a comfortable bed. Mugs after the first are extra, and ye want something special extra to eat it’ll cost as well. Ye stabling a horse?” the owner asked, eyeing his saddlebags.

“Aye.”

“That’s a half-eagle extra, then.”

Mordecai handed the innkeep a gold half-sovereign. “This should cover my expenses for the night, I believe.”

Aye, and more besides.”

“I’m looking for some friends of mine—a Fruztii, an elf, and a priestess of Wee Jas.”

Ivan smiled. “Aye, I know them; they be staying here, but went out a while ago. Would like a room near them?”

“I would.”

“Take a seat, then, master, and I’ll have your food sent right out. Meanwhile, I’ll have me daughter Sascha arrange for your room,” he looked over the common room with an appraising eye. Finding what he was searching for, he called out. “Harlan! Ye’ve been taking up that seat by the fireplace long enough—make room for a paying customer to warm his bones!”

A young rascal next to one of the stone fireplaces picked up his mug and left the comfortable chair he had been sitting in at an oak table set next to the roaring blaze. “There you go, master, best seat in the house. Should any of ye friends be after asking for ye, what name shall I give to them?”

“Mordecai.”

“I’ll make certain to remember that, I will.”

Mordecai crossed the common room and deposited the saddlebag on an empty chair before he unhooked his cloak and hung it from a stud on the wall. Then he took a seat for himself, just as a pretty young woman walked up with a platter full of food and a tall mug of mead.
“If ye need anything, my Lord,” she said with a curtsey and a wink, “anything at all, my name is Amelia.”

He smiled, taking in the steaming platter of meat, bread, and cheese, the large bowl of stew, and the barmaid’s cleavage. He placed a silver eagle in her hand and shook his head. “Not at the moment, but perhaps later.”

She grinned broadly, and then demurely looked down at the floor before she sashayed away into the crowd.

A short time later, Mordecai pushed the nearly empty platter away from and finished draining his second mug of a very tasty honey-mead. The girl—Amelia—was right there again with a cocked eyebrow. “Another?”

Mordecai shook his head. “No, I think I have had enough for tonight; is my room ready?”

“I’ll check—Sasha should have already finished preparing it.”

Suddenly, the door flew open, and Mordecai grinned as the three people he had traveled so far to meet rushed into the Inn, the cold night air streaming in as the inn erupted in protests and yells to shut the damn door! Ivan walked over to the trio and exchanged a few words, pointing back to the table where he sat. The tallest one of the three, a dark-haired and blue-eyed man with taut muscles and a massive sword slung over his shoulder began to laugh.

“MORDECAI!” a booming voice called out. “You damned old witch, how the Hells are you?”

The three made their way across the common room—with Joachim clearing a path through the patrons. Mordecai stood at their approach.

“Joachim, Nath’anatel, and Lady Katherine,” he said with a bow. “It is good to see you again, my friends. I see Joachim is still as tactful and stealthy as ever: you know I am not a witch, Joachim, I am a warlock.”

“Indeed, Joachim’s bluntness is a handicap under which we all share a burden,” answered the elf rogue as he drew up a seat. “Luckily for you, Chelas doesn’t burn wielders of arcane magic on sight.”

“Witch, wizard, warlock . . . what’s the bloody difference, all of you use devil magic,” boomed the northern barbarian. “Damn glad to see you again, though!”

“I trust that by the grace of the Stern Lady that your journey was uneventful,” the priestess asked.

“Nothing more interesting than some new aches in my buttocks from spending four days in a saddle; I could have vented my frustrations on some humanoid bandits, but alas the goblins and hobgoblins had better sense than to accost me.”

Chuckles arose from the table as Amelia reappeared with a tray bearing four more mugs. She set them down on the table and pushed one across to Mordecai. “I thought you could do with one more, since your friends arrived. This one is on me.”

Joachim grinned, “And what’s this, love? Am I not your friend anymore?” he asked plaintively as he placed a hand on her hip and patted her in a playful manner.

She slapped away his hand from her hip, but she smiled as she did so. And then she left to take care of another group of customers.

“She’s a handful, Cai,” Joachim said as he laughed. “Might just be worth the four-day ride, though—if you live through the night.”

The warlock joined in the laughter. “But to do so would ruin your future chances with her, Joachim. Her memories of me would drive all thought of you from her mind. Surely you would not want that?”

The northern barbarian burst out laughing, and then he lifted his mug, took a deep swallow of the ale, and sighed in contentment.

“But seriously, why the urgent summons? It was only by the graces of the Goddesses,” Mordecai asked as he smiled at Katherine, “and Gods that I tarried in my travels in Marner. Two days more and I would have sailed south en route to Irongate; the ship-master was not at all pleased when I informed him he would have to find another arcanist for his crew.”

“By the grace of the deities, indeed, my friend,” answered the elf. “We have discovered an evil here in the northern marches, an evil that needs to be dealt with.”

“By just the four of us?”

“No,” answered the priestess. “Erestan and Zephraim are also journeying here as we speak. Once again, the Company of Steel and Spell shall be assembled. And then we shall deal with this threat once and for all.”

“And this threat is?”

“My friend,” the elf said softly, “do you know of the legend of Ravenloft?”

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 Post subject: Re: By Steel and Spell (A work of Fantasy) PostPosted: 2012-09-16 10:31pm
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Joined: 2012-04-09 11:06pm
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PART TWO

Ravenloft? My map had a ruined castle by that name marked on it; in a valley several days to the west.”

“Indeed,” answered the elf. “And it is from that valley where this evil has emerged.”

“Cai, my people have known of this place for many years—it is an evil place where even the bravest of Frutzii warriors dare not to tread. A place avoided by all but those who seek death,” Joachim whispered. And then he smiled. “Of course, we are smarter and stronger than bands of raiders gone a-viking.”

Katherine shook her head. “Do not dismiss the danger so lightly, my friend. I have received visions from the Witch Goddess of an ancient evil that once more stirs—an evil given shape by the depths of the Abyss. And we have a witness to that evil here in Chelas, one whose tales strain the imagination, yet bear the ring of truth.”

Joachim squirmed and looked uncomfortable. “He arrived badly wounded, his arm torn and a hole in his side from a blade—but gentle Katherine made short work of those injuries. Yet, his spirit falters and fades . . . as though he labors under a curse.”

“Joachim speaks the truth here, Malachi,” Katherine nodded in agreement. “He seems to bear within him a poison, but not even the divine invocations granted me by Death’s Guardian can grant him ease; he withers away despite all that we can do to aid him.”

“And he begs any that listen to travel to this valley—to the village of Barovia—to protect his niece Ireena Kolyana from an evil that cannot be named—an evil that must not be named,” said Nath’anatel. “All he will say is that she is in grave danger from the sleeper who has woken, and that if the unholy union succeeds, all of the Flaness will become a realm of dread.”

Mordecai shook his head. “What union? Who is this sleeper? What is the source of the evil? My friends, you are not normally so cryptic.”

Nath’anatel looked embarrassed for a moment. “No. We have none of these answers, and know little more than you. Even our priestess’s attempts to commune with her Goddess have been . . . clouded.”

“My answers are cloaked in a grey mist, Mordecai, as though a vast gulf is interposed between the Taker and her servant—yet, I sense that she too is concerned and that I must travel there. It is most strange, for never have I heard her call so faint.”

“And this witness?” asked Mordecai, “Can he not answer any of your questions?”

“You will understand once you see him, Cai,” answered the barbarian. “He struggles and he fights for his next breath, and it is a battle I would gladly wage for him, if but I could. But he drifts between the waking and the sleeping, neither fully in one or the other. He babbles madness, but I can taste the fear he sweats, and I find myself growing angry at the one who has reduced this man to such. This creature has much for which to answer.”

The elf and the priestess nodded their agreement. And Mordecai frowned. “When can I speak with him?”

“He lies in the House of Healing,” Katherine said. “If you are prepared, we shall take you there now—for he may not last the night.”

The four stood from their table and Mordecai threw his travelling cloak across his shoulders, pulling up the hood over his head. “Let us be off then.”

The cold air outside was twice as bitter after the warmth of the Grey Goose, and the rain had grown even heavier. But the walk was short and soon enough Mordecai was standing inside the House of Healing, where an acolyte of Beory took their cloaks and hung them over the fireplace to dry.

“He grows weaker, mistress,” a second healer said to Katherine. “I fear that his time is nigh.”

“We must speak with him again,” she said simply.

“If you must . . . but I beg of you to be mindful of his condition and not overly tax him.”

Mordecai followed his companions up a set of wooden stairs to the second floor, and then into a room where a man lay in a bed. The room stank of sweat and blood and sickness, and the man’s labored breathing was harsh and guttural as he struggled for breath. His skin was hot and flushed, covered with the sheen of sweat, and his muscles shivered despite the heavy quilts piled atop of him.

The warlock stepped closer and looked down upon the man—who suddenly opened his eyes. “Is it you, Andre? Have you returned from death to bid your father one last goodbye?”

Then the man’s eyes cleared. “No, I see that it is not my Andre. Are you here then to aid my niece?”

“Tell me of this creature,” Mordecai commanded gently.

“He sleeps, we thought him dead and gone these thirty years, but he slept away the decades. The mist has returned, the mist which ensnares us, prevents us from fleeing. He will not stop, he cannot stop until he claims her.”

A wracking cough tore through the man’s body, and bloody spittle flew from his lips. “I burn!” he screamed. “I burn within as though thrown onto a pyre!”

He reached out and grabbed Mordecai’s arm with a feverish hand, his eyes growing wide. “He cannot claim her, she is not his—she cannot become his . . . bride. If the union is consummated, he will no longer be chained to our valley, but free to walk the Flaness. Free to spread death beneath his wings—and the horned one who bears the skull-mace will laugh as your kingdoms fall into his domain.”

The man screamed again, and then fell into a deep sleep, his eyelids fluttering.

Nath’anatel shook his head. “He says the same things, over and over. Always he asks for this Andre. Always he recites the same warnings.”

“Aye,” whispered the barbarian as gazed on the dying man. “And a shame too; it is not right that anyone die like . . .” suddenly Joachim broke off and twisted his head towards the door.

“I heard it too,” said the elf as he drew his elegant curved sword.

From outside a sudden scream rose from the acolytes and the elf and barbarian rushed through the door and down the stairs, quickly followed by Katherine and Mordecai. The priestess stopped on the edge of the balcony and began to chant as Mordecai saw a horde of skeletal and rotting carcasses pour through the shattered door. The walking dead!

Joachim had not bothered with the stairs, but instead leaped to the ground floor, drawing his two-handed blade and cleaving through two of the creatures as he gave himself fully to his primeval rage. The elf ran down the stairs and tumbled past two more before rolling to his feet and slicing apart the zombie who loomed over one of the acolytes with his razor-sharp elven blade.

Mordecai felt a wave of energy press against his body as Katherine finished her chant, holding her holy symbol of Wee Jas high as it radiated a cold, harsh light. The dead who walked recoiled, as their skin began to smolder and burn, but then the radiance died, and they continued their advance.

“These are not mere skeletons and zombies,” Katherine yelled out. “Beware, friends.”

Ya’ think!” bellowed Joachim as one of the creatures parried a slash that should have torn it in half.

Mordecai heard a crash behind him and pivoted just in time to a very large, very powerful looking creature standing amidst the shattered remains of the window. Thick fur covered the creature from head to toe, and it had the head of an angry wolf atop its humanoid body. Oh joy, he thought as he focused his will and thrust his left arm forward. A bolt of raw eldritch power crackled across the room and caught the creature in his chest, staggering it.

It snarled in pain and fury, but it turned away from Mordecai to concentrate on the sick, dying man. “No escape for you, Dmitri Kolyana; the Master has commanded your death for fleeing. For seeking others to wage war against him, as futile as that may be, he has ordained your execution.”

The wolf-man howled mightily and raised both clenched fists towards the heavens and then drew his arms down, opening his clawed hands. Dmitri screamed in agony as the bed upon which he lay erupted in flame.

And it casts spells,” Mordecai whispered, shaking his head before he yelled out to the others. “I could use some help here!”

From the common room outside, he could hear the clash of steel and Katherine chanting again, and Mordecai gritted his teeth and loosed another blast, the second one opened gaping wounds on the beast’s hide which oozed blood in a constant stream. The creature howled in pain, but he turned to face the warlock, charging forward with his claws raised.

Mordecai ducked beneath the first claw, but the second one backhanded the warlock through the door, over the banister and he landed hard on the wooden floor beneath. Perhaps luckily, one of the zombies partially broke his fall.

“Heh,” chuckled Joachim, “interesting technique, there, Cai.”

Mordecai, hugged his free arm against his broken ribs, and struggled to regain his feet. A third wave of positive energy expanded through the room, and the last of the undead creatures finally dropped to the ground. And the wolf-man stepped out onto the balcony.

A wicked dagger of mithril steel flashed through the air—flung by Nath’anatel—and caught the beast in the shoulder. But he remained up, and loosed a powerful howl that resonated through the room, causing the four adventurers to wince in pain.

The warlock fought with the pain and concentrated on focusing his energies. He flung one hand forward, and the spell took shape as he chanted the ancient tongue. Dozens of black tentacles materialized around the wolf-man, each radiating cold beyond that of the grave. Three of the rubbery suckered limbs grabbed the creature and began to constrict as he struggled in their grasp. Katherine moved down the steps rushing to aid Mordecai as the elf and Joachim charged back up the stairs. Once they were in position, Mordecai uttered the words that would return the summoned tentacle to whence they came, and—although they resisted—slowly they faded from existence.

The beast lurched as he fought against forces no longer in effect upon him, and then Joachim was there swinging his mighty sword down into the junction of the beast's neck and torso. The wolf-man fell to his knees and Nath’anatel reached past the barbarian to plunge his own blade into the creature’s throat. Finally, the wolf-man collapsed. His body shrank and the hair was shed, and instead of beast there lay a naked man on the floor.

“Did he bite you?” Katherine asked urgently.

“No, but I think he broke a couple of ribs,” Mordecai grunted as he staggered to a stool and sat down.

“Hold still,” she said as she pulled off his cuirass and the shirt of mail, laying a cold hand directly atop the broken bone. Mordecai winced as he gentle touch set his side afire. “Hold still, I said!”

The warlock gritted his teeth as she pressed down and began to chant—and then the pain began to fade as the two broken bones knit themselves back together, the swollen tissues surrounding them receded and the bruises faded away.

“My thanks, priestess,” Mordecai said.

“You should rearm yourself; there remains the small question of how these creatures got through the gate without sounding an alarm.”

The warlock quickly pulled his chain shirt back on and with Katherine’s aid he secured the leather cuirass as well. A cursory check ensured that the acolytes were still in good health, and then the four adventurer’s cautiously made their way back outside into the rain. At the gates, they found that the night watchman was dead, his chest torn apart by those great claws and the gates themselves swinging freely in the cold night air.

Joachim pushed the gate closed and secured it once again, as Mordecai and Katherine checked the body. “Nath’anatel, have you that bag of wolfs-bane?” she asked.

Without a word, the elf passed across a small leather pouch, and the priestess placed the herb within the words and then chanted a prayer for the dead. Mordecai summoned his power as the priestess backed away from the body and then unleashed a blast of fire that consumed him to ashes. “It is the only way to be sure,” he said simply. None of his companions argued the point.

“I’ll watch the gate,” the barbarian said. “If there are more of them, they won’t be getting past me so easily. But I think you three had best inform the Mayor.”

“Aye,” Mordecai answered as alarm bells began to ring, “but I do believe those women from the House of Healing already have.”

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 Post subject: Re: By Steel and Spell (A work of Fantasy) PostPosted: 2012-09-17 12:17am
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Joined: 2012-04-09 11:06pm
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PART THREE

Joachim grinned widely as he spied the half-elf and the dwarf slowly ascending the ramp, lit by the morning sun. Loping beside the two was a great northern timber wolf, whose fur was as black as coal. And then he forced the grin from his face and frowned at the trio. “Here now! Don’t you two be thinking you be showing after the battle is over—again!—and sharing in the free ale the rest of us have earned!”

The wolf growled in a menacing tone, and Joachim stared at the creature as the hackles on the back of its coat rose and it bared its teeth, snarling at the barbarian.

“Shush, Howl,” said the half-elf ranger as he lowered the hood of his travelling cloak. “It is only Joachim the Braggart, after all.”

The dwarf beside him snorted as he shouldered the war axe that he carried and spat on the ground. “Aye, Erestan, and be-like he’s gonna tell us that he single-handedly defeated an entire army, just before we arrived.”

“Nay, my good dwarven friend, it was not alone that I slew the dead that walked and an evil rabid wolf-man, but our boon companions who aided in that task: sneaky Nath’anatel, sweet Katherine, and our very own witchling Mordecai.”

Three townsfolk stood at the gate with Joachim, and now one of them frowned and stepped forward, his halberd extended. “GIT!” he yelled, prodding at the wolf with his weapon.

The wolf barked twice and backed up, crouching low and growling deep within his chest.

“I think it would serve ye, best, lad, to stop poking that stick at my friend’s pet,” Joachim drawled.

Companion,” said Erestan.

The barbarian shrugged. “Whatever you want to call that mangy cur. But you really need to leave the puppy alone, lad.”

“I’m not to be letting another hell-wolf into the town, not after that first one tore out poor Liam’s throat,” the guard said as he took another step forward.

Joachim sighed and stepped up to stand right beside the guard. “And I suppose that ye won’t listen to reason then, and pay attention to what your betters have to say on the subject. Will ye or won't ye?”

“The beast can stay outside in the forest—or decorate the mantle of me fireplace. Ye words will make no difference.”

Then the barbarian grinned. “I was so hoping you would say that, lad; I get tired of trying to talk our way through these little problems life presents.”

The guard stopped and turned to look at Joachim just as the Northman slammed an elbow covered in heavy mail and leather into his nose and mouth, knocking him to ground. The wolf sat down and began to pant with his tongue extended as Joachim bent down and lifted up the halberd.

“You see, that hell-wolf there might be a mangy cur and a man-eating beast,” he said as he snapped the weapon in two across his knee, “but it is my friend’s pet . . .”

Companion!”

Whatever. And I don’t particularly like,” as he broke the two halves of the weapon in two again, “when people draw weapons on any of those that travel with me: be it man, elf, dwarf, priestess, beast, or witch. Or a mangy cur from Hell.”

Yah broah mah nas!” the guard screamed through the blood rushing down his face.

“Aye. Either of you two have a problem with that?” Joachim casually asked the remaining town guards. Both of them quickly shook their heads. “Ah, well, perhaps next time then. And as for you, lad,” he said at the young man still lying on the ground. “Next time when I tell you to put your weapon down, you might want to consider doing so while you still have a weapon—and before you lose what’s left of your good looks.” He dropped the broken pieces of the polearm on the guard and waved one hand towards the gate. “Everyone else is meeting with the mayor of Chelas down at the tavern. Come on, I’ll show ye the way.”

The dwarf chuckled. “Same old Joachim, do ye know the meaning of subtlety, lad?”

“Aye, Zephraim, I know the meaning of it, but why waste time with talking? That boy will never forget what happened here today and he’ll think twice before he talks back to me again, won’t he? And anyways, I asked him if he was willing to be talked out of it, and he said no.”

“That ye did, Joachim, that ye did,” laughed the grizzled dwarf as he followed the barbarian down the street, with the wolf and Erestan bringing up the rear.

****************************************************************

“It will take ye four or five days a horseback to reach the Old Svalich Gates in the foothills of the Rakers,” the Mayor said as he traced out a winding road through the forest on Mordecai’s map. “Perhaps two or three days more on foot, for the road is not fit for fast travel. We don’t be after getting much trade with Barovia these days, and the folks there mostly keep to themselves. The whole valley be cursed, lad; are ye certain that you and yours wish to travel there?”

Mordecai nodded a somber face. “Aye, it may not be the smartest thing we’ve ever been after doing, Lord Mayor, but what lies in that valley may not stay in that valley. As we witnessed last night. And your town is not the only one that rests in the deep of the Timberway.”

The old man looked down at the wooden floorboards, and nodded. “I was hoping that would be your answer, but I must admit, I am feeling guilty at sending you to what may be certain death.”

“Death visits us all, in the fullness of time, elder,” whispered Katherine. “The Stern Lady spares nothing in the end, and cowering will not stop her if it is your appointed hour.”

“Besides,” continued Mordecai, “we have probably faced worse odds and come through. Probably.”

“In that case, may the blessing of all the Gods and Goddesses travel with you. I have asked Master Ivan to prepare several packs for the journey, with fresh food for the first days and dried rations for the rest. The smithy stands ready to repair any of your armor or weapons that require such, as well. We haven’t many merchants, but those in the township are willing to supply you with such as you may need.”

The elf shook his head. “I think we are already prepared better than Chelas could provide in arms and armor and general supplies, though the food is quite welcome. You have our thanks.”

“When will you be leaving?”

“As soon as the last of our companions arrive and have had a chance to shake away the dust and weariness of their trek,” Mordecai answered, just as the door opened and Joachim stepped inside.

“Look at what just dragged themselves into town! Reminds me of a joke I once heard about a half-elf, a dwarf, and a witch who walk into a pub . . .”

Mordecai and Nath’anatel laughed, and in one voice answered, “spit it out, ye bastard!”

Zephraim chuckled, as Joachim looked glum. “Lad, ye need to learn another joke. We’ve all heard that one a hundred times if we have heard it once. The big fella filled us in on the walk over to here: undead and werewolves, huh? Well, we are game, right Erestan?”

“Aye,” the ranger answered as he scratched his wolf behind one ear. “When do we leave?”

“If you are prepared, then, we can head out right now,” answered Mordecai.

The dwarf stared, and he began to frown. “You do mean after a tankard or three, I hope? There’s plenty of food in them there woods, but precious little ale or mead!”

The group laughed, and Mordecai shook his head. “Just three then, Zephraim. I’ll see to the steeds while you test Master Ivan’s kegs.”

****************************************************************

Five days later, the adventurers arrived at last at the Gates of Barovia. The weather had not proven ideal for travel, with thick clouds, cold winds, and bitter rain dogging their heels the entire way. The road had turned into a morass two days earlier, and the five horses and one pony on which the companions rode were caked in thick mud to their hocks. But now they were finally here, on the outskirts of the village they were seeking.

To either side of the road there stood a granite pillar, topped with a fearsome statue of a gargoyle. And to the pillars were attached a pair of wrought iron gates, covered in a patina of rust. The gates stood open, and beyond the road wound through a dense primordial forest, dark from the intertwined branches that blocked out what little sunlight passed through the clouds.

“Well, at least the rain has stopped,” said Joachim as he rested his horse for a moment.

“Aye,” answered Mordecai, who gently patted the neck of his own steed, calming the beast who seemed spooked. “But I don’t like the look of this thickening mist—and the sun is soon to set.”

“Listen,” whispered the ranger as his wolf companion whined. “There are no bird cries, no animal calls; the forest is afraid. Howl senses it too, as do the horses.”

The dwarf shivered for a moment and then shook himself. “Bah! Cheap tricks meant to frighten away strangers. I say we press on; the village is just a mile from the gates by the map.” But he drew his waraxe and held it ready in one hand.

The six companions began forward, but the horses and pony refused to pass through the gates. As one, they began to grow more and more nervous, stamping and bucking and backing away. Finally, each of the adventurers recognized that the beasts simply would not proceed any further, and they dismounted. As soon as grips on the reins were released the horses (and pony) began to run back down the road towards Chelas.

Even Mordecai’s fine stallion could not be convinced to pass, although he did not flee. “Zephraim, do you still have that bottomless bag of yours?”

“Aye,” the dwarf answered.

“Well, let’s save the tack at least,” the warlock continued, as he began to unstrap the saddle and remove the rest of the livery. The dwarf placed each item within a normal seeming bag as Mordecai pulled them off the horse and placed them onto the ground. Finally, he patted the big red horse once more on the side of the neck. “Take care of yourself, Red.”

The stallion snorted once, and then twice. He cantered back a few steps and then rose on his hind legs and snorted; then he turned and shot down the slope like the hordes of the Abyss itself were in pursuit.

“Hellfire and damnation!” the dwarf suddenly exclaimed.

With a ringing of steel, the rest of the companions spun around and drew weapons, but saw nothing except the dwarf pacing and muttering curses.

“Zephraim, what has upset you so?” Katherine asked.

“The pony—that bloody damned pony! It was carrying all of the spare ale!”

****************************************************************

Past the old gate, the mist thickened into a heavy fog that clung low against the ground and the ancient oaks that lined the road. Mordecai felt a shiver run through his body at the chill, a most unnatural and unwholesome cold that seeped deep within his bones. He tightened his grip on the mace that he held in one hand and glanced at his companions. They too felt it.

The continued their slow walk, straining their eyes to see through the thick coils of vapor. But then the mist suddenly lifted, revealing a deep valley before them, filled with ancient forest. Dark clouds covered the sky, diluting the rapidly decreasing light; but even so, no illumination glowed at the windows of the village below. On the far side of the valley, a waterfall fell from the top of the sheer cliff-face, slashing down into a lake at the base. A long and treacherous road ran back and forth along the cliff face, before vanishing into a tunnel. Mordecai nodded to himself. That road must circle around and lead to the brooding castle that perched on a granite spur that hung over the valley, connected to the cliff top by a narrow draw-bridge.

The fortress brooded over the valley, rather.

“By Moradin’s Beard,” whispered Zephraim. “If the walls of that fortress be manned, it could not be taken with less than a thousand men—or a hundred dwarves.”

“And yet, not a single guard walks the battlements, friend Dwarf,” replied Nath’anatel. “But its name of the Raven’s Loft was well chosen, for the black-winged Stormcrows nest there in great number.”

Joachim snorted, and laid his mighty two-handed sword across one shoulder. “I’ll trust your sight, Nat, but even without defenders, that’s some cliff face to scale by rope. If that drawbridge can be raised, it’ll be the devil’s own work getting in, defended or not.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Mordecai said with a smile, causing Erestan to groan in pain at the deliberate pun. “In the meantime, friends, I suggest we get to the village before the light fails completely.”

“And ye say my jokes are bad,” Joachim muttered as he lifted his sword once more and trotted down the road.

****************************************************************

Clearly, something was afoot in the village when the weary travelers finally arrived. Scores of townsfolk were gathered in the square, and each carried a burning torch lifted high. Some held pitchforks as well. And in their center a man stood upon a crate, and bombastically addressed the crowd, whipping them into a fervor.

“Brings back memories,” sighed the dwarf, but he carefully adjusted his shield and drew his axe.

Mordecai spotted a man that shook his head, walked away from the crowd with two others in tow, and moved towards him. “Ho, there. What is the cause for this, friend?”

“Are ye blind, strangers? They mean to burn the girl as a witch, to put an end to these cursed times and make the creature on the ‘Loft sleep once more. No part of it, I or mine will be; there comes no good of fighting evil with evil, I say.”

“Why do they blame her?” Katherine asked.

“Irena is different, priestess,” the peasant answered. “Our burgomeister, Dmitri Kolyana, adopted her as his own daughter after she was found in the woods as an infant. And strange things happen around her. Now, Andre has gone missing, and many other of our folk. And the burgomeister himself has vanished. The fools think that the creature will be sated with her death, that she is cause of our misery. I shan’t be here when they throw her living body on the pyre. Now, I must return home, strangers, good night.”

The peasant motioned at his sons and they hurried off to a nearby home, and then shut and barred the door behind them.

“A fair damsel in distress,” Joachim said stretching, “at least we have not come this far for nothing. How do you want to play this, witchling?”

“A more subtle approach might bear fruit—perhaps they can be reasoned with,” the warlock answered and he began to move towards the center of the square.

From a large home at the edge of the square there came a high-pitched scream, and three men hauled a woman forth, throwing her roughly on the cobblestone steps of her manor.

“THERE!” the instigator shouted wildly. “There is the witch who has cursed our lives, our crops, our fortunes! The changeling who should have died as a babe, but for the ill-thought kindness of our missing burgomeister! SHE is the one who has brought this doom upon us!”

“Vladimir Chenko! What is the meaning of this?” the woman yelled. “You know me! You all know me! Father will skin you alive when he returns if you do this!”

“LISTEN NOT to the devil-spawn in human guise, my friends! She is the cause of our misery! Fix her to the stake, and let us return her to the Abyss in cleansing fire!”

Mordecai stopped as the crowd roared for Irena to burn, their bloodlust raised. It would be useless to try and deter the mob, who where now whipped into a frenzy expecting the girl’s death. He would only be shouted down, or worse, hauled up to the pyre alongside her. But unlike the girl, Mordecai was indeed a warlock of no small power.

He drew upon the anger within his soul and he thrust one hand forward; at his direction a jagged bolt of lightning leapt from his hand to impact the stacked lumber of the pyre with a thunderous CRACK, the explosion knocking the leader of this mob from his crate.

“You know, I rather like this definition of subtlety,” Joachim said with a grin as he drew his sword, advancing right behind Mordecai; Katherine, Nath’anatel, Erestan, Howl, and Zephraim trailing along with weapons drawn—and fangs bared. “Quite a way with words there, Cai. I’ll be remembering it for the next time you get on me for not being subtle.”

“Release the girl,” Mordecai said in a low rumble that resonated throughout the entire square. “No one will be burnt tonight.”

“Another witch! Quickly, grab hiMMMMM!”

The instigator screamed as Mordecai unleashed a second blast of eldritch magic, this time burning in ochre flame, at the feet of the speaker, singing the man, but leaving him alive.

“I AM A WARLOCK, YOU PEASANTS!” he thundered. “CHALLENGE ME AT YOUR PERIL!”

Chenko had clambered back atop the pile of stacked wood, and rested on hand on the stake to maintain his balance. “The demon-spawn cannot kill all of you, you fools! Take him! AIEEEE!”

From the back of the companions, Erestan had nocked an arrow and sent it flying through the crowd; it struck Chenko in the hand and pinned him to the stake.

Katherine strode forward, her holy symbol proudly displayed upon her chest, and the mob paused as they recogonized the rainments of her Church. “The warlock travels not alone, and no spawn of demons he is, good folk, but a slayer of them. Or do you doubt the word of a servant of the Stern Lady?” she asked as she lifted her arms and chanted a short mantra. And the crowd gasped as she grew in stature, doubling her size to nearly eleven feet in height and she began to glow with a fell light.

“DO YOU DOUBT THE RIGHTEOUS FURY OF MY GODDESS?”

The mob broke apart and ran, as Joachim grinned wildly at the enlarged cleric. “I think that yon tremendous cleavage has frightened them into flight, gentle Katherine; I must confess, it is quite intimidating even for ME. And strangely alluring, all the same.”

Zephraim snorted and he clambered up the pile of kindling and yanked free the arrow that pinned Chenko to the stake. “Go home, lad. Be smart now and tend your wound while ye still can.”

The villager tumbled down the stack and took off running like the hounds of hell were at his heels.

“Aye, a definition of subtle that I like, methinks,” said Joachim again as he walked toward the young lady lying on the ground. He frowned as he knelt, and then he turned back to the rest. “She has no wounds upon her, but she is unconscious.”

“Get her inside, Joachim. I fear this night has only just begun,” said Mordecai.

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 Post subject: Re: By Steel and Spell (A work of Fantasy) PostPosted: 2012-09-18 02:41pm
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Joined: 2012-04-09 11:06pm
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PART FOUR

Joachim lifted the unconscious woman from the ground and he moved towards the house—the dwarf Zephraim ahead of him to make certain that no surprises waited inside. Katherine trailed in their wake, digging into her healing bag as she went. The warlock frowned as a break in the clouds showed that the sun was slowly dipping beneath the peaks of the Rakers. “Nat,” Malachi ordered, “I want you and Erestan to make a fast sweep of the house—attic to cellars. Make sure every window is shuttered and barred, every door is secure, and that there are no uninvited guests on the grounds. We don’t have a lot of time before the nightfall.”

“You are thinking they only come out at night? Mostly?” Nath’anatel asked with a wry grin. Then he held up his hand. “The answer is not needed—we shall search the house fastidiously and with a lightning pace. Perhaps it would be best if we split up, however? Cover the twice the ground in the time we have.”

“Do it,” the Warlock ordered. “Erestan take Joachim with you—Nat, you’ve got Zephraim. I’ll watch over Katherine as she tends to the girl.” Malachi shook his head and he grinned slightly. “And Nat?”

“Yes?”

“We aren’t here to rob the girl blind—try and leave her a few knick-knacks at least.”

Erestan chuckled, even as the elf’s head snapped around, a pained look on his face.

Knick-knacks? Please? I am no common thief—I am a master thief. Knick-knacks are quite safe from my pilfering, I only seek the most valuable of treasures, not goods that can be fenced for a silver half-eagle,” the Elf seemed genuinely aggrieved, but he and Erestan rushed into the house, the rogue still muttering. Malachi smiled again, and taking one final look at the blood-red sun sinking into the peaks, before he too walked into the house.

“How’s the girl, Katherine—and what is the god-awful stench?” he asked as he closed and barred the door.

The priestess did not stop her chanting and her hands glowed as she laid them upon the unconscious Ireena; the glow flowed from her hands into the young woman’s body and then faded. And the cleric of Wee Jas stood from where she knelt next to the sofa on which the girl lay.

“She has lost a great deal of blood—to these wounds here,” Katherine answered, peeling back the Ireena’s bodice to show two inflamed puncture marks on the curve of her breast, directly above her heart. “And the smell comes from the bulbs of garlic that hang throughout this room, and I would wager a guess the entire house, covering the lintels above the door and all the windows.”

Malachi sighed. “This just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?”

“Aye, friend Malachi. And note the number of mirrors along the walls—there is nowhere to stand where one cannot see his own reflection.”

The warlock snorted. “So this beast is a vampire, then?”

“They have taken precautions that would seem to indicate that—and her wounds and weakness confirm it,” Katherine answered, as she laid a cold compress upon the girl’s brow. “The restorative has alleviated the worst of her symptoms—she merely sleeps now. But if the villain is indeed a vampire, he may be returning soon to finish turning her.”

“I hate vampires,” muttered Malachi as he opened the chimney flue and knelt beside the well-seasoned wood resting in the fireplace. He touched the timber and uttered a single word, and the wood crackled with flame and caught.

“As the Ruby Sorceress herself does, my friend,” the priestess said. “She is the Goddess of Death and Magic—Vanity as well—and such creatures as this seek to avoid entering her domain; they break the cycle of Life in an unholy manner.”

The warlock moved from window to window, drawing the heavy shutters closed and placing a thick oak timber in the slots. As he reached the last one, the last glow of the fading sun vanished and the howls of wolves in the nearby forest began to sing.

Joachim, Erestan, and Howl came down the stairs from the upper floors. “All windows are secured, witchling,” the barbarian said tightly, but his face looked worried. “Many of the rooms are filled with dust, cobwebs, and detritus, as if they have not been used in recent memory—the walls and shutters are strong, though. There is a small armory upstairs, with a few coats of mail, some crossbows and plenty of bolts, and a handful of swords and daggers; good weapons all, some might be magical.”

“Aye, and the attic is cluttered with chests of old clothing and furniture in disrepair—but there be no holes in the roof nor any living thing other than a few rats,” the ranger added. “Still, the shutters won’t keep anyone who wants to get in out for long.”

Before Malachi could respond, the Dwarf’s voice came up from the basement. “Best ye get down here, lad. Bring the lady priest with ye.”

The warlock pointed at Joachim, “You two watch the girl; yell if anything happens, but do not leave her alone. Lady Katherine?”

“After you, friend Malachi,” she said as she drew a long and slender athame forged from cold iron, inlaid with silver, with a handle of darkwood the shade of coal.

He made his way down the narrow stairs into the basement, ill-lit by a single sputtering torch held by the Dwarf. Along one wall, several cords of wood were piled, vermin crawling over and through the dried logs; the second contained several casks and kegs, slowly dripping ale and mead through their loose spigots. But on the far wall, Nath’anatel and Zephraim stood facing an iron door sealed with runic symbols.

“Tis a bit strange, friend Malachi, Lady Katherine, to find such a door in a common home—a home without items of any value worthy of a master thief. And unless I am mistaken, there is an aura of magic about this portal.”

Malachi nodded, he could feel the mystic energies that were embedded within the wrought iron; they flowed from rune to rune, forming a circuit interlaced with the frame in which the door was set.

The priestess hissed and she pointed her athame at the central rune. “I know that symbol well—he is an enemy of the Taker, and it must be the Horned One whom the burgomeister referred to in Chelas. It is the symbol for dread Orcus, a Lord of the Abyssal Realms.”

The Dwarf shuddered. “Demons. Why did it have to be demons?”

“Can you open the door, Nat?” Malachi asked.

“You wound me, Malachi,” the elf answered, but then he frowned. “I can open the lock certainly, but I would rather not lose my soul in the process—can you dispel the magics here?”

Malachi shook his head. “Not alone—this door is warded by the arcane and the divine. But if Katherine has the proper spell available, then perhaps together we can.”

She nodded. “You speak the truth—we must act in concert, and we must strengthen our magic with our life-force,” she said as she cut the palm of her hand with the ritual blade she carried. Malachi took off one leather gauntlet and he held out his hand, and he winced as the razor-sharp edge sliced through his flesh.

Katherine placed her bleeding hand atop of the warlocks, and as their blood mixed, she began to chant. Malachi closed his eyes and he too drew upon the power within him and he spoke the ancient words in harmony to her own. A red glow emerged from their hands, as the mingled blood heated and began to illuminate itself through the Power contained within it—and then, on the final word of both spells, the two pulled apart their hands and the blood vanished into the ether, the wounds closing.

The door took upon itself the red glow, and the runes flared with an unholy green light; it was an angry and harsh light, but the power of their magic subdued it and the illumination slowly faded.

“Quickly, Nath’anatel,” Malachi gasped as he knelt on the floor, not trusting his shaking legs. “I do not know how long the magic will be suppressed.” Katherine swayed, but the Dwarf held her upright, and she nodded her thanks.

The rogue knelt at the door and inserted his tools into the complicated lock and then there came a CLICK from within. He gingerly took hold of the pull ring and with a single strong exertion, he wrenched the door open.

Within there was a small room, no more than five foot across. Against the far wall there was an altar—an altar devoted to Orcus, the Lord of the Undead, complete with two ram’s skulls and the black candles which flared to life. And on that alter rested a book. A book and a sacrificial knife encrusted with old blood.

“Traps?”

“Working on them,” answered Nath’anatel as he felt around the edges of the flagstones. There was a muffled click, and the elf muttered, “Got it.”

He took a careful step into the room and he turned the pages of the book and shrugged. He tossed it back to Malachi. “I don’t know the language, Mal—perhaps you and Katherine can make sense of it." He then began to examine the altar and the room and then he cocked his head. “What have we here?” he asked quietly, pulling his tools out again.

Within a few seconds, a hidden compartment on the altar popped open and the elf extracted a small object wrapped in cloth. He stepped out of the hidden shrine and unwrapped the cloth, to reveal an elegant figurine of a raven, cast all in silver.

He whistled. “This be no mere knick-knack, Malachi. I can feel the power coursing through it—and I am no mage.”

Katherine frowned and her eyes turned dull black; she gazed upon the object and then the green irises returned. “It is not evil—although the altar and shrine both are unquestionably so.”

Malachi stood as he regained his strength and he nodded. “Back up the stairs—I will deal with this shrine,” he commanded as he pulled back on the leather gauntlet. Once his companions were safe above, he pointed his hand at the altar and he spoke one harsh word. The skulls shattered and the altar broke in half; the sacrificial knife sundered into dozens of pieces and the iron door was cleaved in twain.

The malignancy of the profane altar swelled in fury and outrage, but denied a desecrated place to reside in the waking world it faded away. Malachi knew that the Power behind that altar had marked him, the one who had destroyed his hiding place—and that it would remember him if they ever met again. The warlock nodded, acknowledging that a feud now existed between him and the Demon Lord in his cold Abyssal home, and then he too climbed the stairs and closed the door on the darkness below.

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