"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER SIXTEEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
I had guessed wrong. On two counts.
The first was that the Jengchan priest wasn’t standing right beside the door. When I slammed my shoulder into it, the door swung open as fast, as furiously, as I had wanted. It crashed into the wall, the hinges were screaming in protest. But the Jengchan priest stood more than a foot away from the door, safe from it.
And the second count? I had forgotten how deadened my nerves were from my own blessing. I had no way of steadying myself, all I did was slide into the room, onto the dirt floor, a useless projectile that buried itself into the ground.
At least there was no pain. My breath was knocked from my lungs by the impact, I didn’t waste time to catch it. I got my arms under me, pushed myself up – heard a woman scream my name. Valanda! Give me just a little more time! Up I went, too far, my arms were flailing again.
For once I was lucky, for my armored right arm smashed right into Wharfrat’s face. The little twerp must have let go of Valanda, was running towards me, to attack me and protect his precious master. Whatever, my involuntary hit disabused him of that notion for a moment.
More shouts. Bluff and Scraps, coming into the room as well.
Let them take care of the priest, I thought. Wharfrat belonged to me! My sword arm went out, Wharfrat wanted to throw himself against it, careen me out of balance, but something stopped him, once more. I swung my arm back, to slice the blade deep into his neck and see those hateful eyes bulge out in shock.
Except that there was no sword in my hand. I must have dropped it. And my fingers were a meaningless weapon now. Wharfrat dove under my swing, as surprised as I was that there was no blade. He punched up from his crouch, his fists deflected well before they could hit me.
“Duck, Ahnfredas!” a woman shouted. Shouted, not screamed.
I didn’t have much of a choice here, since the various movements had brought me off balance already. And like a sack of flour – a familiar image, right? – I went down. The moment I hit the ground, I managed to roll over, my face up again. Just in time to see a ball of fire whisk past my head. I should have felt the heat, should have recoiled from it.
No sensation. Good. Now where was my sword?
Ah, there. Why was it flying through the air?
Because Bluff was throwing it towards me, I realized the same moment my hand went upward to snatch it from the air. A miracle occurred, and I got it. Wharfrat was yelling. My head snapped around, to see where he was. Like a wraith – twisted, torn – he rushed through the room, towards Bluff and Scraps, his arms spread wide. So fast, too fast it seemed for my friends to avoid him.
Scraps did leap sideways in time, but Bluff wasn’t quick enough. Wharfrat caught his fingers, wrenched them back – Bluff roared in pain, was dragged backwards, along with his arm, towards Wharfrat. “I’ll kill you!” the one-time sailor screamed in joy. Bluff slammed his free elbow back, the metal impacting Wharfrat’s breastplate. The dungworm didn’t notice, wrenched on Bluff’s fingers with more force, in another direction. The arm jerked out of the socket, Bluff roared again, his eyes were bulging out. His arm wasn’t torn apart, not yet, but Wharfrat was readying his muscles for another tug, one that would surely burst the armor, burst the flesh and the bones.
Scraps’ sword interrupted him, flying at Wharfrat’s unprotected neckline. The blade dug into the flesh, the spine broke with an audible crack, and Wharfrat let go of Bluff’s arm. The tall man sunk to the ground, tears running from his eyes, twitching, trying to reach his arm, put it back into the shoulder – trying and failing.
But Wharfrat wasn’t down yet. Scraps must have anticipated this, for he was done when the sailor – sans spine – smashed his arms around, crashed them into the wall right where Scraps had been moments before. A frieze sprayed apart under the fore of the fingers, chips flying in a cloud of dusty debris.
“No!” the Jengchan priest’s voice bellowed. “Don’t touch the panels!”
The priest! Where was he?!
Blue lightning, twisting, dancing, flashing, showed me the way. One end of the lightning were Valanda’s hands, still standing on the central frieze, her eyes reflecting the blue-white light shooting from her, her face as grim as I’d ever seen it. And the other end of the lightning strokes was the priest, reeling under the stings of oh so many tiny points of blue light swirling over him, leaving black marks wherever they hit. The priest was caught in a thunderstorm, myriads of tiny lightnings scouring him. But he wasn’t going down. His robe was starting to smolder, but not his flesh.
I was distracted again. Scraps. Shouting something. I didn’t understand it. Still, I saw him leap away from Wharfrat, the sailor rushing after him with outstretched arms, his head bent aside, no longer supported by his spine. But moving. Running close to me, after Scraps who flew past me.
“Bastard,” I growled, fastened my grip on my sword – hoping that it was actually still within my fingers -, and swung it up with all my strength. Judgment Day was here. I was a priest of Decirius, I was the embodiment of the Messenger of Death. And Wharfrat was going to face the Final Courtroom.
The sword hit him right underneath the breastplate. We wore pieces of chainmail underneath – soft, supple material connecting with the leg armor. Chain rings went flying under the assault of my blade, Wharfrat folded over, legs and upper torso going forward, the middle stopped by my sword. I watched, amazed, as the blade kept going, eating through the chainmail. Further and further it dug in, splitting the mail, splitting the undershirt, and then reaching his flesh.
I shouldn’t have been able to do that. Not as an ordinary man. But I was a priest of Decirius. Judgment was delivered.
An unnatural scream rose. It took me moments to realize it was coming from Wharfrat’s mouth, and some moments longer to see that his torso was flung forward, separate from his legs that fell apart before me. The torso landed on the ground, face forward, the arms were moving, fingers crawling together, pushing Wharfrat up. “He promised me! He promised!” the voice from his mouth was yelling, but it wasn’t Wharfrat’s. This one was distorted, unnatural.
I didn’t think. I just swung my sword back, at Wharfrat’s neck. His head had rolled forward, well exposing the open area between helmet and backplate. As well as the bloody gorge that Scraps had dug into it. My sword finished the job. Wharfrat’s head flew from his neck, and the unnatural voice kept spouting words, even when the head was rolling across the floor, without any blood spewing from either neck or base of head as it should have.
“He promised! After I came here, he promised that I’d be powerful, and that –“
A boot stopped him from talking forever. Scraps’ boot, to be precise, smashing into Wharfrat’s chin with all the force that his armored leg could give him. The kick unhinged the jaw, tore it aside, letting it clatter, allowing only more of the distorted screams to come forward.
My breath was coming hard. So was Scraps’. He was heaving dry, doubling over, holding onto his sword with sheer determination. Then he brought it forward, about to attack. Whom?
The priest. Scraps was swinging his sword at the lightning-clouded figure of the Jengchan cleric – but he never connected. The priest flicked his wrist, negligently, and a gust of wind hurled Scraps off his feet. He landed on his back, and he kept sliding, towards the wall.
It didn’t stop him, he was scrambling back to his feet immediately – but he didn’t attack again, instead glared at me. “Ahnfredas!” he shouted.
“Yes, I know!” I bellowed back. My turn. Again.
I forced myself to my knees, ready to stand up. Then I felt the glance of the Jengchan cleric upon me. I had to look up, meet his gaze, almost hidden behind the flare of Valanda’s attack. It was hurting him, I could see that much. Good. But he was still holding up, and he was saying something. I didn’t quite understand it. But I saw enough of his mien to see that he wasn’t worried one bit. No matter that Valanda was hurting him, no matter that his servant had been cut into several parts, he was still sure of his victory.
Something was about to happen.
A moment later I knew what that something was.
Each of the friezes – even the one that Wharfrat had broken – started to glow. No, not really glow, as in brightness. It was a black light, if you can imagine that. As if there were flames licking out from the stone that sucked up all the light, that represented utter darkness. Darker than a moonless night. Darker than anything you can imagine.
The blackness descended from the friezes, like a fire’s sparks first, then more like a thick liquid dropping globs down into the grooves. Mere heartbeats passed, I might as well have counted them on one hand, until there was a steady stream of black into the grooves, so much that the liquid light poured onward, rolling towards the central frieze.
When I would have run out of fingers to count my heartbeats, the light reached the central frieze, on which Valanda was still standing, pouring all her strength into the lightning storm. Until the light flowed up, into a column of blackness that shrouded her from my sight. Did she scream? I don’t know. I never asked her what she felt at that moment, and I never will.
The priest cackled. The blue-white lightning ceased around him, revealing that his clothes were singed, smoke rising from them. His skin hadn’t escaped the punishment, and there were signs of pain on his face, but he ignored them. “Now,” he said to me, “I must think about how to deal with you. I was rather fond of my servant. Unlike the dwarf, he was a willing subject, you see, and I would have liked to keep him for a while longer.”
He raised his arms, crooked his head in pondering.
I didn’t care. I was judge, jury and executioner. And I was holding a sword in my hands.
From the edge of my eyes I saw Scraps fighting his way up to his feet, too, trembling hands fingering his sword, holding it tighter. I rose as well, breathing steadily. There was no pain. Fortunately. The sword that had cut through Wharfrat would do the same to the priest, and then Valanda would be free.
“Oh,” the cleric said while Scraps and I stalked towards him, covering the few feet between us, readying our swords. He couldn’t see Scraps, only me. Focus on me, you bloody Tyrant’s servant. If you have any spells left, waste them on me, and then see what Scraps will do to you. “Is that my Lord Conqueror’s blade?”
What? I didn’t stop, just wondered about the statement. And it was a statement, not a question.
The priest laughed, mouthed something – and then my sword wrenched itself from my fingers, clattered to the ground. It refused to stay still, slid away, as far away from me as it could. To a place on the wall where it was joined by Scraps’ sword as well.
The cleric’s head swiveled around, focused on Scraps – my friend standing there rather silly looking, with his arm raised to swing his blade, but no sword in his fingers. “A backstabber, are you?” the priest laughed.
“Duck, Scraps!” I shouted, and my friend proved once more that he was very adept at doing that.
A sliver of the black light liquid hopped up, darted up, elongated, grew into a spear – all in the matter of a heartbeat when a metal skewer had formed, then rushed through the air, lancing into the space where Scraps had been a moment earlier.
The spear dissolved into black light a heartbeat later, spraying out drops like a dog shaking itself. Some of those drops hit Scraps. He howled in sudden pain, rolled around on the floor, beat himself as if he were on fire. “You’re not that fast,” the priest laughed.
Then yelped. A crossbow quarrel sprouted from his breast, at best an inch above his heart, blood flowing from the wound. His eyes traveled up, towards the entrance. Mine did, too, and at the same time as he did, I gasped.
Red was leaning against the door, one of the crossbows from the foyer in his hand, the free hand wriggling a second quarrel loose from his pocket, about to insert it. “Fast enough,” he muttered, while working the quarrel down.
The priest howled. He raised his arms.
Did he get to fire another blessing? Call up a windstorm, or have the black liquid form another projectile?
Ahh, you know he didn’t. He had the problem of an armored Decirius priest slamming into his side, ramming him off his feet, and burying him under an awfully heavy suit of armor.
Me, I didn’t feel anything. I wanted to slug him the next moment, the way that Bluff had handled the dwarven bard. Another slave of this priest’s. Unfortunately, my body didn’t keep up with my thoughts. I was slow to raise my arms, gave the cleric the pause to slam his arms up, into my sides.
Well, he was a bit foolish. My armor wasn’t particularly troubled by naked fists.
So I was slow. So what? I still had the strength to plow my fists into his face, tell him what I thought of him, in the nice way of a very angry Decirius priest. Except that I saw his eyes. They weren’t human. Not anymore. I had seen them before, a bit cold, but not filled to the rim with the black light spewing from the friezes.
Not a reflection. The light was in his eyes, filling them, shining from them.
But why was there fear in those eyes? They were blacker than the night, but when they locked with mine, utter despair flooded them. “No! Not you,” the priest whined, too little air in his lungs for a shout. “The power belongs to me, to me!”
His arms came back up, not to strike me as uselessly as before, but accompanied by a gust of wind like had happened before. “Get off me!” the priest yelled, and his wish was accomplished by the wind that ripped me off his chest, flung me backwards, flipped me upside down.
The circular room careened before my eyes. I saw Red tightening his crossbow for the second shot, so determined, ignoring the pain from his leg and the impromptu splint fashioned from a table leg and the ever useful strips of your own clothing. There was Bluff, sitting up now, trying to move forward – no, just to move, suppress the pain as well as Red did, but failing. And Scraps… Tearing Wharfrat’s sword – not a Jengchan blade, but one of ours – from the scabbard around a severed leg.
Flashes. Images. Flooding me, until…
Until there was only the column of black light over the central frieze, behind which Valanda was hidden. I realized that I would join her now. For better or for worse, eh?
The magical wind hurled me into the column, and all I saw was black light.
Red saw me fly off the priest, his glance torn up by the sudden movement while he was working the quarrel back enough. Can I give you an idea of the pain he was in? Perhaps if I tell you that his eyes glaze over even now, such a long time later. Oh, not really so long, but it seems that way.
Yes, if you’re wondering, Red survived this battle. Red’s still around. One of the few, the proud.
He heard the thwock sound of the wrench hitting the end, the string wound as tightly back as it could. Instinctively he looked down, lost sight of the priest.
The Jengchan cleric stared after me, rolled himself around – at the same time when Red looked down. He breathed deeply, mumbled something towards the black light in the grooves. But it didn’t respond, not as it had before.
The cleric shot to his feet, shouted at the black light, fully consumed with commanding it. Why wouldn’t it follow his orders? Why wouldn’t it form another spear, to skewer his enemies? The Lord Conqueror had ordained him, and he was destined for greatness.
Red saw him then, and he never noticed any of the malicious black light I had seen in the cleric’s eyes. The eyes were normal – if frantic and desperate. “You will obey me!” the priest yelled.
Those were his last words.
A human body doesn’t take kindly to a sword stabbing in his side, wielded by a maniacally grinning drummer boy named Scraps. Nor does it suffer a crossbow quarrel very well, not when said quarrel lodges itself in the throat. Blood spurted from the two openings in the priest’s body. For a moment he stayed on his feet, held more by surprise than anything else.
Then he toppled over, falling right into one of the grooves of black light. The light squirted up, forming tendrils that eagerly lapped at the body, swept over him, in a heartbeat only – yet to Red and Scraps, it seemed to be a languid, ecstatic motion of the black flames as they surrounded the priest’s body, caressed him.
And dragged him into the groove. Was there a scream? A final utterance from the cleric before the black light consumed him?
Neither of my friends paid much attention. They turned to the central frieze where Valanda and I had vanished. Bluff groaned, Scraps took a tentative step towards the black column. Red shouted my name.
I was otherwise occupied at the time.
There’s something else I should mention. Red never saw the black light in the Jengchan priest’s eyes. But he saw it in somebody else’s.
When I was hurled off the priest, back into the column. Yes, my eyes were black. The malicious fluid in the grooves, from the battlelines was in me. And that was what the priest had seen when he screamed that the power belonged to him, not to me.
You know, it’s all the dwarf’s fault. All along, I mean. Ever since we stepped into this underground realm, and nothing seemed allowed to hurt me. Not the earthquakes, not the stone creatures, not Wharfrat. All because of a silly dwarven bard who couldn’t tell one human priest from another. That Jengchan priest whose name I never found out, he had enslaved the bard in some fashion. Made him kill his own people, the wild dwarves we found in one cave above. Made him bring us down here, because he needed – and probably wanted – Valanda.
The latter… Well, I can’t think badly of him because of that. I wanted her, too.
But I was talking about the dwarf. Enslaved as he was, he wasn’t permitted to hurt the priest, and neither could any of his spells. Oh, yes, it was a part of his magic that twisted Wharfrat into the creature he’d become. The bard had no idea there was another human priest down here. Even if he had, I don’t think he particularly cared either way.
He was mad. Driven mad by this circular room, this chamber we were in. The priest had forced him onto the frieze, driven the black light onto him with his chant, and made the bard join the battlelines. This place had never been designed for a dwarf, even one whose nature merged wizardly and clerical powers much as the magepriests had done.
Not that the priest cared. He only wanted to use the dwarf as a conduit, so he could Valanda and perform the ritual with her. Enslave her to him, make her his wizardly bride and conduit, so he could wield all the power of the battlelines.
So much power, so much strength. Enough to make you drunk on it, enough to make your head reel. Enough to rip the humanity from your mind and leave the savagery of the ancients behind.
Yes, it’s all about power. The power of the magepriests. The ancient evil. Oh, it’s certainly evil.
I should know. After all, I was thrown into it.
And I fell into it.
Read on in Chapter Eighteen!