Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Chapter Two - Entering the Crypt

I knew next to nothing about the people I was traveling with.  In all, there were seven of us.

There was Averett, a lecherous elf, who seemed content to spend the majority of his time brazenly ogling the younger women in the camp.  When I tried to point out to him that he’d have better luck with the ladies if he took a more subtle approach, he simply said, “I can’t help it, man.  I see a nice rack, and I just wanna watch ‘em jiggle”.  Hell, I couldn’t argue with that.  If nothing else, he knew what he liked and made no apologies for it.  The other elf, Arenvor, was a witch, who was generally so lost in his own thoughts that most conversations ended with him asking what were we talking about, and me replying, “Nevermind”.  Regardless, he knew some healing magic, and I wasn’t about to complain about that.

The woman with the odd two-handed sword—she called it a nodachi—was named Ariah.  She was nice enough—a tad reckless, maybe, but then every adventuring party needed someone willing to take the point.  She claimed to be a dragoon fighter, but when I asked her where her mount was, she started mumbling something about cats.

Then there was Talib.  He was aasimar and claimed to be unable to remember anything that had happened more than five years ago.  In that time, he’d married and had two kids.  But why he wasn’t looking for them instead of heading off to Kassen with us, I couldn’t say.  That said, he was a sarcastic son-of-a-bitch and had a sense of humor.

The final members of our party were the celestial and the girl.

Talib and I had done our best to convince them to stay with the Tamranian refugees, but the girl was having none of it.

“Come on, Mae”, I said.  “Don’t you think you’d be happier staying here?  There are lots of other girls your age here.  You could do…um, girl things.  You know.  Play with dolls, or whatever it is that little girls do these days”.

“I’m not a little girl”, she insisted.  “And I don’t want to play with dolls.  I wanna go with you”.

“Well, you’re not”, said Talib.  “The road is dangerous, and it’s definitely no place for someone your age.  Bud is right.  You should stay here.  You’ll be safer”.

“No!”, she shouted.  “I won’t stay”.

Oh gods, I thought.  I looked at Ghaele, hoping for some help, but the celestial just stood there silently, expressionless.  I mean, it was almost as if she was taking orders from the girl.

“Fine”, I sighed.  “But your silent friend here can take care of you.  I, for one, ain’t gonna fuckin’ babysit nobody.  Fuck!”.

I was done arguing.  We needed get moving.  No one wanted us here anyway.  Indeed, in the two days we’d spent among the refugees, it had been made quite clear that no one wanted anything to do with us.  The tale of the nightwalker had made its way through the camp, and pretty much everyone was ready for us to be on our way.

We had commandeered a wagon and a draft horse (who I had dubbed Slappy), and Ariah and Averett took turns at the reins while the rest of us slept or made small talk.  A bit north of camp, we came upon a small trading post, and my companions blew what little coin they had on minor trinkets, while I opted to save what I had and buy something nice once we got to a proper city.

Along the road we did get one good bit of news—a rider heading north told us that a strange cyclone had supposedly destroyed a fifth of the Multhoni navy near the Isle of Terror.  Other than that, the ride north was fairly uneventful, which is to say that I was bored shitless.  Mae was still a bit peeved that we’d tried to pawn her and Ghaele off on the refugees, and her mood shifted between adolescent petulance and an odd aloofness.  Arenvor would occasionally start in on some story, but then trail off as he lost his train of thought.  When they weren’t driving the wagon, Ariah preferred to sharpen her nodachi, and Averett preferred to stare at Ariah’s chest.  I spent my time sleeping or playing cards with Talib.

In all, the trip to Kassen took us a little over a week.  We arrived on the last day of Abadius.  It was still quite cold, but at least we hadn’t had to deal with snow on the road.

Kassen itself is a small town of about seven hundred or so commonfolk.  A wooden palisade encircles the town proper, most of which lies on the south side of the Tourondel River—though a small section of town does lie along the northern bank the river, connected to the rest of town by a stone bridge that’s just wide enough for a wagon to cross.  Rising above the roofs of town, the spire of a large temple caught our eye.
“What’s that?”, Talib asked.

“I think it’s a temple of Abadar”, Arenvor replied.  “At least, I think that’s what I remember someone saying back in the camp.  Gotta admit, I wasn’t really paying attention”.

“Really?”, Averett grumbled.  “Why would these people build a temple of Abadar out here?  I mean, you’d think they’d go in for someone like Erastil or something”.

I shrugged.  “Fuck if I know”.

“Um, fellas”, Ariah cut in, “have you noticed that there’s no smoke coming from any of the chimneys?”.
She was right.  Not a single wisp—though it was cold enough that we should have seen wood smoke rising up from nearly every roof in town.

“Come on”, I said.  “Let’s take a closer look”.

Heading down the muddy road that led into town, it was hard to ignore the eerie silence that permeated the area.  Here and there, livestock did move listlessly through the fields, but there were no people, no children playing.  As we passed through the town gate, we began to wonder if, perhaps, the entire town had been abandoned.

“Hello!?”, Talib called out.  “Anybody here!?”.

No answer.

“What now?”, Mae asked.

“I don’t know.  The nightwalker said to come to Kassen lest his ‘succor turn to scorn’.  And here we are”.

“And…?”, Mae asked.  

“Fuck if I know”.

“Maybe”, Ariah offered, “we’re supposed to figure out where everyone went”.

Arenvor shrugged.  “Perhaps they all ran off when word of the Multhoni invasion reached them”.

“Hey”, Mae said, pointing toward the temple.  “Why are the doors to the temple chained shut?”.

“Well, why wouldn’t they be?”.  I asked.  “They left town; they locked up.  Right?”.

Averett had walked over to the door to take a closer look.  “Look at this.  Blood.  A lot of it”.  He was hunched over, examining the ground around the temple.  “There are some odd footprints here”.

The rest of us crowded around.

Indeed, there on the ground, mixed in with dozens of boot prints, were strange, lupine tracks.  But these were too big to have been made by a dog or wolf.  Carefully, Averett followed them around the temple, while the rest of us hung back a bit so that we didn’t spoil trail.

The tracks ended at a pair of double doors—one of which had been smashed in.  Averett stuck her head in, then turned a slight shade of green.  She groaned and looked ready to vomit.  “There’s something dead in there”.

“Alright”, said Talib.  “Mae, you stay here.  We’ll check this out”.

“What?  I’m going, too”.

“No, you’re not.  A girl your age doesn’t need to see what I’m suspecting awaits us inside”.

“I’m almost a thousand years old”, she pouted.

“Sure you are”.

“I am”.

“Uh-huh.  Right.  And I’m the King of Korvosa”.

“But I am”, she insisted.

“Come on, Talib”, I cut in.  “You’re not going to win any arguments with an eleven-year old”.

Ariah drew her nodachi and stepped inside.  The rest of us followed.  The stench was overpowering.  I, too, came close to emptying my stomach, but managed to choke down the bile.

We were in a kitchen, but it was clean.  The stench was coming from further inside, and we continued in.  Entering the sanctuary, we found dozens and dozens of dead bodies.  Not a single one was intact; rather, they had all been ripped apart.  We poked around for a few minutes and found three things of note.  First, the word “FATAL” had been scrawled on a wall by something with wolf-like hands.  Second, we discovered a strange creature—something like werewolf, but larger—that began to shrink before our eyes.  It had been slashed and cut and was now dead—or something.  But it was the last discovery that finally gave us some direction.

We were just getting ready to exit the temple when one of the more intact children among the dead suddenly floated into the air, hovering ten or so feet above the floor.  It turned to face us, its eyes glowing blue.  When it started talking, the voice that emanated from the corpse was not that of a child but, rather, that of the nightwalker.

“The things you have found here are irrelevant.  Your quest lies to the east— in the town graveyard.  On the edge of the cemetery you will find a low hill.  At the foot of the hill are two doors that open into an ancient crypt.  You must enter this crypt and explore its  depths.  Reach its terminus, and I will meet you there with further instructions”.

“Who are you?”, Mae asked.

“I am your benefactor”.

“Listen, Benny”, I said.  “I can call you Benny, right?  Um, what in the fuck happened here?”.

“As I said, it is of no consequence.  Neither I, nor the denizens under my control, have anything to do with this.  I have nothing else to say on the matter.  Go to the graveyard, enter the crypt, and we will meet again there”.

And with that, the child’s body dropped to the floor.

“How about that”, Ariah said.

“How about what?”, I answered.  “I mean, why didn’t that fucker just tell us to go to the graveyard back in Kassen.  If you ask me, he’s toying with us”.

“Maybe”, said Talib.  “But at least his succor hasn’t turned to scorn yet”.

“Come on”, said Arenvor, heading for the door.  “This place stinks”.

“Wait”.  I pointed at the dead bodies.  “Aren’t we going to clean this place up?”.

It’s was Talib’s turn to wax incredulous.  “You don’t seriously want to spend half the day carting dead bodies out of here, do you?”.

“I don’t know.  We might earn some favor from Abadar, if nothing else”.

“Well, have fun, Buddy”.

I tried to convince the others, but they weren’t interested either.  And I wasn’t interested in doing it by myself.  At the very least, we might find the party responsible for the carnage and avenge the dead.  That, I hoped, might at least earn me a few brownie points with Calistria.

As it was, none of us were that excited about poking around some tomb, but the thought of doing so at night was even less appealing.  And so we trekked out to the graveyard, quickly locating the tomb the nightwalker had mentioned.  Slappy was none too happy about being tied up and left alone, but I did my best to sooth him before we wrenched the doors open.

On cue, a group of sword-wielding skeletons jumped up and attacked.  Not for the first time, I regretted my lack of a bludgeoning weapon.  But thankfully, my companions were able to send these bones back to their graves.

“Look here”.  Ariah had found a small notebook and was flipping through the pages.  “It looks to be a journal of some kind”.

Arenvor walked over to her.  “Anything interesting?”.

Ariah took a minute to read through the last couple of entries.  “Well, it looks to have been penned by a Pathfinder named Renaldo.  He and his companions seem to have spent some time exploring the crypt.  There’s mention of a fair number of traps—a pit maze and a hall of blades”.

“Does it say what happened to him?”, Averett asked.

“No.  Nothing”.

Talib turned to me.  “Well, it looks like you’re taking the point, Buddy”.

“How’s that?”, I said.

“Traps, pal.  That’s your forte, right?”.

I shook my head, but had to admit he was right.  And that’s when the wailing started.  It was coming from beyond the door to our right.

Ariah nodded toward the door.  “Shall we?”.

The door creaked open on rusty hinges.  Through the gloom, we could make a series of crisscrossing halls—most likely it was the maze the Pathfinder’s journal had mentioned.

“After you, Buddy”, Talib said—a bit too cheerfully.

“Okay, but how about a little light?”.

Arenvor cast the appropriate spell, and I slowly made my way into the hall.  Moving carefully, I was able to locate and number of pressure plates spread out through the maze.  I also located three levers.  Talib pulled one of them, and was able to open a door at the far end of the maze a few inches before it slammed back down.  It was then that Arenvor stepped on a pressure plate I’d missed and fell into a shallow pit.  Luckily, someone had removed the stakes that had lined it, and he managed to climb out with only scrapes and bruises.

“Sorry about that”, I offered.

“No worries”, he said, dusting cobwebs from his overcoat.  “Look at this”.  He held out a sheet of paper.  “I think it’s from that journal Ariah found.  It says we need to pull all three levers to open the door”.

“Alright, then.  Let’s do it”.

Just as the note had said, the door swung open once the levers had all been pulled, and we rushed through just as it slammed back into place.  The wailing was louder here and seemed to be coming from a door at the end of the hall we now stood in.

Once again, I took the point, checking for traps.  Reaching the door unscathed, I called out.  “Hello?  Anyone in there?”.

“Go away!”, a male voice cried.

“Come on.  Open up.  We mean no harm”.

“No way”.

Mae stepped up next and tried to soothe whoever (or whatever) was behind the door.  I’m not sure if it was the sound of a child’s voice that did the trick or not, but the door opened just a crack.  That was all we needed, and, pushing hard, we forced the door open.

Inside was a grizzled old man—wild-eyed and quite crazed.  He was holding a crossbow and looked ready to use it.

“Listen, fella”, I said.  “Put that thing down before someone gets hurt”.

“Just stay away.  Okay?  The shadow.  The flame”.  He grabbed his head.  “Make it stop!”, he screamed, then suddenly his eyes cleared.  “You need the key for the woodblock; you need the shield for the door”.  It was gibberish.

A moment later, the man disappeared, only to be replaced by the dried-out husk of a corpse.  Reaching down, Averett pulled a wayfinder off the body.

“Do you think this is Renaldo?”, Ariah asked.

Arenvor looked confused.  “Who’s Renaldo?”.

“Nevermind”, I said.  “Let’s keep moving”.

As we continued to explore the crypt, we discovered multiple passages and rooms.  There was one that contained the carapace of a long-dead, over-sized bug and a staircase leading down to another level; there was another where we encountered and dispatched a shadow that managed to sap some Talib’s strength before fading away.  In that room, we found an odd-shaped key, which I tucked into a pocket.  Next, we passed down and then up a strange staircase filled with a recondite darkness that the spellcasters could not penetrate.  As we emerged on the other side, we found ourselves in a split-level room.  To our right stood two statues of lupine-like humans, massive spears held high.  To the left were parallel staircases leading down to another massive statue—this one being a giant crafted of wood—that held massive tower shields in either hand.

I motioned toward the two statues.  “Check those out.  I’m going to head down and take a closer look at Woody”.
As soon as I stepped on the staircase, I thought to myself that perhaps I should’ve checked for traps first.  But it was too late.  As soon as I stepped the second step, the whole thing collapsed, and I slid down, landing in a heap at the foot of the giant.  But, alas, this was no mere statue; it was friggin’ construct.  Indeed, as I stood, the thing’s head turned and looked down at me with angry wooden eyes.

In that moment, the nightmares of my childhood sprang to mind, and I stumbled back, shaken.

In the melee that followed, I struggled to maintain my composure, but my longstanding fear of constructs had gotten the best of me for the moment.  I did manage to keep myself out of harm’s way, but it was Ariah, Averett, and our spellcasters who performed the majority of the proverbial heavy lifting.  However, the honor of the killing blow was all Talib’s.  Launching himself from the upper level, he landed on top of the golem and began hacking at the creature’s head and shoulders.

When the thing finally collapsed in a heap of broken beams and splinters, I sighed and rubbed my eyes. 
“Godsdamn, fucking constructs”, I spat.

“You okay, Bud”, Ariah asked.  “You looked like you were about shit yourself there for a moment”.

“I’m fine.  I just hate golems”.

“Why?”, Mae asked.

“None of your fucking business, kid”.

Talib was looking through what remained of the construct.  “Hey, Buddy.  You still got that key?”.

“Yeah.  What of it?”.

“Nothing.  It’s just that there’s a keyhole in the back of this thing”.

I fished the key out of my pocket and walked over the thing.  The key fit perfectly into the lock, but nothing happened.

“Weird”, Talib said.  “Maybe it’d have done something had we not smashed to bits first”.

“Hey, guys”, Averett called out.  “Check this out”.

The ranger was standing near a table.  On the table lay six packages, our names written on each in an elegant hand.  In the center of the table lay a sheet of parchment.  On it was written, “You might find these useful”.  It was signed, simply, “Benny”.

Arenvor looked confused.  “Who’s Benny?”.

Ariah shook her head.  “I’m guessing that Benny is our mysterious benefactor, the nightwalker”.

“Ohhhh”, Arenvor replied.

I opened the package with my name on it.  Inside were two potions, which Mae’s wet nurse identified for me: a potion of cat’s grace, and another of invisibility.

We were about to head back up the stairs—which had, thankfully, reset once the golem had been defeated—when I remembered something Renaldo’s ghost had mentioned.

I pointed at the two wooden shields the golem had held.  “I think we should grab those shields.  That ghost said something about needing them to open a door”.

Shields in hand, we continued our exploration the crypt.  The next major obstacle was the hall of blades that the Pathfinder’s journal had described.  It was bitch to disarm, but—after more tries than I’d care to admit having to make—I finally disabled the damn thing.  At the far end was an empty room with a large pool.  There was nothing else of interest there, and we moved on to see what other surprises the crypt had yet to reveal.

It didn’t take long.

Turning a corner, we came to a door with an engraving that matched one of the shields we’d claimed.  Pressing it into the door, we heard the soft sound of lock pins dropping, and then the door opened.  In the center of the room that lay beyond stood a single pillar.  Almost immediately, it began to spin.  In the split second it took to realize that the thing was yet another trap, Talib held up the shield just as the pillar fired dozens and dozens of arrows in all directions.

We did our best to line up behind Talib and stayed there until the thing had emptied every last bolt.

“Who the fuck dreams up these stupid crypts?”, I asked of no one in particular.  “I mean, this shit costs money, right?  And, seriously, what’s up with all the piddly little traps.  If you don’t want someone to fuck with your tomb, then just build a really good fucking door for the thing, seal that fucker up, and bury the whole damn thing.  Problem solved.  Better still, just have your fucking body cremated and leave all the damn gold that you couldn’t figure how to spend when you were alive to someone who needs it.  Or dump it in the fucking sea, if don’t feel like sharing.  I mean, fuck!”.

“Calm down, dude”, Talib said.

“I will not fucking calm down.  This shit makes no sense”.

“Who fucking cares?  Okay?  Let’s just clear this thing and be done with it”.

“And be done with it?  Are you fucking kidding me?  I mean, do you seriously think that Benny is done with us?  Fuck!  That motherfucker’s probably going to have us running his bullshit errands until the fucking cows come home”.

Now it was Averett’s turn.  “Buddy.  Seriously.  Relax”.

I took a deep breath and tried to focus.  “It’s okay.  I just had to vent”.

“Did it help?”, Mae asked.

“No, it didn’t fucking help”.

“Come on”, said Ariah.  “Let’s go”.

There was only one place left to go.  Down.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chapter One - Tamran

I had taken a seat at my favorite table in the Freshwater Squid, a dive bar that sat on the shore of Lake Encarthan in Tamran.  The winter sun had long since set, and a gibbous moon was rising slowly over the icy waters that stretched toward the horizon.

I took a sip of the brown ale favored by the locals and thought about Mädchen.  She’d been gone two months now and, truth be told, I hadn’t accomplished jack shit since she'd left.  There was no point in trying to kid myself, I was depressed, and I’d already spent more than enough time trying to drink a smile onto my face.  And though I was sometimes successful, my misery would simply double in the morning light.

“I can’t keep doing this”, I mumbled to myself, taking another swig.

I looked around the bar.  It was starting to fill up.  Tamran locals and the odd traveler sat contentedly supping on that night’s stew or downing pints of ale that Devon, the dwarven bartender who laughed just a little too loud at his own jokes, had poured for them.  At a nearby table, two druids were arguing about beavers.  The dumber of the two was trying to convince his pal that a beaver was a fish, and I couldn’t help but shake my head and chuckle.

Just then the door swung open, the winter chill sneaking in to tangle with the heat coming off the hearth, and a grizzled, one-eyed ranger stepped in.  If I guessed right, he was none other than Forest Marshal Weslen Gavirk, de facto leader of Nirmathas.  The battered scabbard of a longsword hung below the fur-lined cloak the draped across his broad shoulders, and he stood for a moment, looking around the room with his one good eye.  A fighter in half plate stepped through the door behind him, the golden eagle of Andoran pinned to his collar.  The two whispered to each other before the Forest Marshal called out, demanding attention.

“Pardon me, comrades.  But I would ask for a moment of your time”.  There was a bit of grumbling—and a little bit of muffled chuckling—but conversation slowly fell off, and the Forest Marshal continued.  “I am Weslen Gavirk, Field Marshal of Nirmathas, and this”, he gestured toward the Eagle Knight, “is Captain Kryn, an envoy from the nation of Andoran.  We have news you will all want to hear, and, unfortunately, it is not good.  Our enemy to the south, Molthune, is poised for a major offensive.  Indeed, we have received word that their navy is, at this very moment headed this way, and a blockade of the harbor seems inevitable”.

“And what does the Andoran fella have to do with all this?”, slurred Two Copper Jym, a surly old-timer already in his cups.

The Eagle Knight took a step forward.  “Freedom”.  He let the word hang there for a moment.  “Freedom.  That’s what I have to do with it.  How about you?”, he stared down the drunk.  “Do you value it?  What about the rest of you?”.  He looked around the room.  Some nodded; most stayed quiet and waited for him to finish his piece.  “Now”, he continued, “maybe I took a wrong turn on the way here, but I’m pretty sure that this is Nirmathas, and I have heard many, many good things about the Nirmathi.  I have heard that they value their freedom, that it is precious to them, and that they will fight, if need be, to keep it.  I am also very aware of the longstanding hostilities that have festered over the years between the good people of Nirmathas and their neighbors to the south.  Well, your neighbors are on the march again, and they want your city, your farms, your country; they want your freedom.  That said, and if the tales I have heard are true, and if people like the Forest Marshal here are any indication whatsoever of the type of men—and women—who proudly consider themselves Nirmathi, then we—you and I—have something in common.  For we Andorans also love our freedom.  And seeing a kindred people in need, we are here to offer help as best we can”.

Two Copper Jym now sat staring sullenly at his mug, but the Captain had the attention of everyone else.

“As your Field Marshal said, the Molthuni navy is heading this way—as is its army.  Our spies within Molthune say that an attack on Tamran is imminent and will likely occur within the week”.

Again the Field Marshal spoke up.  “What we need is for anyone able and willing to step forward and join us in helping to evacuate the city”.

At that, a few offered up half-hearted "ayes", but most began to grumble and call out questions.  The Field Marshal held up a hand.

“I know you have questions, and I know you’re probably thinking of your families, of your parents and your children.  But bear with me”.  Again the room fell silent.  “We must pull out of Tamran, we must organize, and we must prepare to take back what we simply are not in the position to hold onto at the moment”.

I cleared my throat.  “Forgive my ignorance, sir, but I’m new to these parts.  And I don’t understand why we’re running.  Why don’t we stay and fight?”.

“A fair question”, the Field Marshal replied.  “But the truth is, we simply don’t have the men to hold the city right now.  Nirmathas does not maintain a standing army.  And while there is many a sword hanging above a hearth in Tamran, and many a bow waiting to be strung, the Molthuni army is on the march.  They’ll be here within a few days—at most.  Maybe if we had a guaranteed week to prepare, we might stand a chance, but we don’t have that much time.  No, we must give thought to the elderly and to the children.  To stay and fight would be folly.  We must give up the city, get those too young, too old, or too weak to fight some place safe, and then, well then, my friends, then we send those Molthuni bastards back home!”.

At that, most everyone cheered—though a few stood, hastily grabbing their belongings, likely already giving thought to flight.

I took a sip of my ale and noticed it was almost empty.  Looking over toward the bar, I saw that Devon had disappeared back into the kitchen.

Suddenly, armed Multhoni soldiers burst through all three doors leading into the bar.  A fourth contingent appeared from the kitchens—among them a tiefling.  There was a moment of stunned silence, and then chaos.

A number of patrons dove beneath tables or cowered in corners, but two elves, a woman wielding a curved two-handed blade, an aasimar with a massive greatsword, and a stunning beauty—likely a celestial—jumped up and joined the fray.  The celestial drew a sword and took a protective stance near a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than twelve.  The rest joined the Field Marshal, Captain Kryn, and myself and attacked the Molthuni.

At first, it looked as if we might be able to overpower them.  One of the elves had managed to cut himself a path to the door, forcing two Multhoni soldiers out of the bar.  And the others were at least giving the southerners a run for their money, while the Field Marshal, the Captain, and I gave two of the tougher brutes whatfor.  And then the tiefling starting casting spells—powerful spells.  I wasn’t sure how seasoned the others were, but I was kind of new to all this, and I was starting to think that running was smarter than fighting.

Without warning, flaming tar balls crashed through the roof—most likely having been launched from ships in the bay.  Indeed, it seemed that the Multhoni invasion had begun a bit earlier than anyone had anticipated, and the situation, as they say, was turning to shit faster than well-chewed gravy.

I had already managed to cut down one soldier and was working on a second when another tar ball crashed through the bar and then—I kid you not—stood up and stepped on Two Copper Jym.

“They’ve got a fuckin’ elemental!”, I heard someone shout.  It was definitely time to run.

The fellow in front of me grinned and swung his sword.  I stepped to the right, avoiding the blow, then parried his thrust, feinted with the rapier I favored, and slashed at the jackass with the shortsword I wielded with my off-hand, cutting deep into his neck.  Blood gushed, and he grabbed his throat, struggling in vain to stop the bleeding before he collapsed on the floor at my feet.

Then I ran.

The last thing I saw as I exited the building was the Field Marshal pushing the Andoran through a window before launching a volley of arrows at the elemental.  I doubted that I’d ever see either of them again.

Those of us who had managed to get out, stuck together and made for the main gate.  Looking to my right, I could see at least two dozen ships on the lake, huge balls of flame occasionally arching from their decks towards Tamran.  Everywhere I looked, fires were burning, spreading slowly despite the fat flakes of wet snow that had begun falling.  People ran wildly, screaming, crying, calling out to friends and family, and doing their desperate best to avoid the Molthuni soldiers marauding through the streets.

“This way!”, the elf shouted before ducking down an alleyway that opened up near the gate.  To our left, a badly wounded ranger was leading a group of schoolchildren toward the road.  The aasimar seemed to recognize one—maybe all?—of the children and ran over to aid the ranger.

Just beyond the gate we could see a small contingent of Molthuni taking positions.  Despite having only a dozen or so soldiers on hand, they had managed to wheel two trebuchets—as well as a ballista—into place perhaps a hundred yards or so from the wall.  Two Nirmathi archers had taken positions atop the towers that flanked the gate and were doing their best to distract the crews manning the trebuchets.

Ballistas and crossbowman be damned, we had no choice but to rush them.  If we didn’t cut a path out of the city soon, Molthuni reinforcements would likely arrive, and the going would only get tougher.

Just then Devon rode up behind us astride a war pony, gave us the finger, and rode out to join his friends—the fucking traitor!  Why one of us didn’t put an arrow in his backside, I can’t say, but it did make me ask myself who exactly I could trust.  For now, though, I just wanted to get out of the city and take cover in the relative safety of Fangwood Forest.

The elves and the woman with the curved sword led the charge, taking out a few crossbowman who had foolishly come in close for a shot at the Nirmathi on the towers.  The aasimar and the celestial, who was still doing her damnedest to shield the girl I’d seen at the bar, ran through next and engaged the enemy.

Me?  Well, both swords in hand, I ducked through the gate and made a bee-line for the ballista.  The halfwit manning it was hurrying to reload—but he wasn’t fast enough.  As I approached, he stepped back, reached for his sword, but, luckily, was a tad slow on the draw.  I slashed with my rapier, forcing his guard down, and stabbed the poor bastard in the gut with my shortsword.  He fell to the ground and moaned, and I ran him through just to be sure.  I then quickly finished reloading the ballista, swung it round, and lined up a shot.

At that moment, three Molthuni on horseback rode out of the forest and bore down on the woman with the curved blade.  Gods be good, she held her ground, raising her blade as she steeled herself for the impact.  But before they reached her, a massive figure, arms little more than stygian greatswords, appeared, radiating an unholy darkness that seemed to sap the light of the sun.  Two huge, ram-like horns extended from its grim-faced head.  The next thing I knew, a cloud of inky darkness had enveloped one of the trebuchets.  For a moment I considered firing the ballista at the new arrival, but thought better of it, and fired at the one trebuchet still visible.  Happily, my aim was true, and the bolt broke a supporting beam, sending the top half of trebuchet down on its operator.

After that, things got really weird.

The black giant—what I later learned was a nightwalker (basically a wellspring of pure hatred spawned in the void between the Plane of Shadow and the Negative Energy Plane)—let out a roar that sent shivers down my spine, left half of my allies cowering helplessly, and turned our enemies to dust within a seconds.

In the eerie calm that followed, the thing turned and looked down on those of us who remained, its eyes glowing cobalt blue.  When it spoke, its voice was like the low grumble of the ocean.  “You”, it began, “are, I suppose, worthy enough.  Finish your business here.  Save your people, and then come to Kassen.  If you obey, I will assist you.  If you do not, my succor will turn to scorn.  Trust me, I can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy”.

He said nothing more, but simply turned and strode forth, heading north into the Fangwood.

I looked to my companions, who were slowly shaking off the dread that had overcome us all.  Why the creature had chosen us, I could not say.  It seemed unlikely that destiny had brought us all to the Freshwater Squid for this, but then the gods work in mysterious ways, and the denizens that inhabit the far corners of creation are unpredictable.  And Lady Fate?  Well, I wasn’t about to pretend I understood the whims of the Eternal Rose.

“I think we should follow it”, the aasimar managed.

The others nodded or simply stood, silently rubbing their temples.

I shrugged.  “Lead the way,…”.

“Talib”, he said.

“Good to meet you, Talib”.  I extended a hand.  “You can call me Bud”.

“Come on”, the elf urged.  “It’s moving fast, and we’re likely to lose sight of it if we tarry here much longer”.

Quickly, we stripped the dead Molthuni of their gear, commandeered a wagon and a draft horse, and headed north.  What awaited us in Kassen, I couldn’t say, but at least I was finally on the move again.

If only I had something stronger than water to drink.

Preface - From Nex to Nirmathas

To understand the tale that follows, a bit of introduction is necessary.  My name is Budagar Elvon Pallinor—though my friends, few as they may be, call me Buddy Pal.  And while it is not the happiest of tales, I feel compelled to put pen to paper.  Call it vanity or boredom, I do not care.  Everyone has opinion.  If there was ever an absolute, that one surely sits near the top of the list.

This particular tale begins far to the south, in the Nexian wastes of Garund, where my parents met.  My mother was a cobbler’s daughter who had won the love of a mighty warrior, who had achieved fame and glory battling alongside his brothers in the wastelands of Nex.  To many he was a hero, but to my mother, he was the kindest and most sincere man that she had ever known.  Unfortunately, to one man, he was a means to dark and twisted end.

You see, after my father met my mother, he hung up his sword, and the two of them settled in the city of Oenopion, an oasis of learning and industry that stands in the center of the barren wastelands that cover most of Nex.  And in that city, there was a wizard named Krom.  Krom had made a name for himself in the golemworks of Oenopion, but his preternatural lust for power had driven him to seek knowledge in the darker corners of the Universe.  He sought out alliances with the infernal denizens of the Abyss, and from summoned devils learned the means for creating an akaruzug, a foul construct that he crafted in the form of a grim angel.   Unlike most golems, however, the akaruzug requires the soul of a mortal to become sentient.  From what little my mother shared with me, I know that in the process of creating one of these constructs, a powerful warrior is entombed alive within the massive sculpture.  As the statue’s shape is refined and empowered, the warrior inside slowly dies.  The akaruzug is then bathed in hellfire, a process that reduces the body inside to something resembling packed ash.  These remains and the magic throughout the construct prevent the escape of the lingering soul within.  At this point, the akaruzug’s “soul engine” is complete, yet the construct still requires spirit energy to animate.  As such, Krom constructed his abomination with shackles upon its breast.  He then planned to crucify a second victim upon its chest.  This second infusion of stolen life force would activate the construct.

Using deceit, Krom lured my father to his workshop and imprisoned him within the akaruzug.  He then sacrificed another unfortunate to animate the creature.

When my mother learned the fate of her beloved, she snuck into the wizard’s home and killed Krom’s secret lover—his own sister—and then managed to escape.  But a man like Krom does not forgive and forget, and he sent his minions out to find and kill my mother.  Luck alone saved her that night, and she fled the city and headed north for the relative safety of Katapesh.

Unbeknownst even to herself, she was but a few months pregnant when she fled but was able to navigate the wastelands of Nex and escape across the border.  In time, she came to an inn on the outskirts of the capital city.  By that point, her pregnancy had progressed to term, and she gave birth to me in a rented room in a foreign land.  The husband and wife who ran the inn knew nothing of my mother’s past, but they were kind to her and did their best to make her comfortable.  The delivery was not easy on my mother, and her recovery was slow.

As luck would have it, I was with the innkeeper’s wife when Krom’s hired assassins finally caught up with us.  They stole into my mother’s room one night and killed her in her sleep.  Had they known of her pregnancy and her child, I doubt I would be here today.  And that, I hope, will be Krom’s undoing, for I have sworn on all that I know and love to avenge the death of my parents, to destroy the akaruzug that acts as a prison for my father’s soul, and to send Krom to the Abyss and the fate that surely awaits him there.

The innkeeper, Owen, and his wife raised me as their own, and I lived with them until my tenth name day.  On that day, they finally decided to give me the journal my mother had left behind.  From it, I learned of my father’s fate and of the hardship my mother had known during the last eight months of her life.  A few months later, I returned home after a day of play with friends to find my adoptive parents dead.  I could not say whether or not Krom had finally learned of my existence, or if their death was simply bad luck, but I was not about to take any chances.  I fled, and I’ve been running ever since.

I lost myself in the city of Katapesh, eventually finding work on a ship bound for Sothis, in Osirion.  From there, I made my way to Absalom, then Almas, Egorian, Magnimar, and Riddleport.  By the time my travels had taken me to Korvosa, I was sixteen, and I immediately fell in love with the city.  I had been on the move for six years, and I decided to risk a longer stay, finding work in East Shore at a warehouse near the newly erected Temple of Calistria.

I ended up spending two years in Korvosa, and they were probably the best two years of my life.  I had girlfriends (and, happily, didn’t get any of them pregnant—that I know of); I learned to focus my anger and my desire for vengeance (thanks to the priestesses of Calistria); and I learned to defend myself, spending long hours in the training room at the Orisini Academy.  But I never forgot where I came from, and I never forgot Krom.

Anyway, after a few months, I quit my warehouse job.  I’d fallen in with some others like myself—young, hungry for life, and reckless.  We called ourselves the Young Lords, came up with secret handshakes, our own cant, and our own agenda.  It began with pranks and soon evolved into petty thievery.  Our antics seemed fairly harmless (at least in our minds), but we soon drew the attention of the actual Korvosan thieves’ guild.  We were given a simple choice, join and pay tribute or disband and find something “more productive” to do with our time.  Some of my friends opted for the latter option, but me and my friend Bosco decided to join.

We started out working as lookouts, which may seem like step backward.  But the guild was good to us.  We never went hungry and always had a place to sleep.  Better, the older members acted as mentors to Bosco and me, teaching us the rogue’s art—lock-picking, pocket-picking, trap-finding, sleight-of-hand, and the art of stealth and surprise.  To say that the new “job” suited me well would be an understatement.  I took to it like a fish to water.

Unfortunately, a promising career in the Korvosan thieves’ guild came to a premature end.  But it was not the City Guard, nor the Grey Maidens, nor even my guild brothers who forced me to leave my adopted home and move on.  It was a woman.  Her name was Mädchen, and she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever known.  But she was wild, the city too small, and the wide world too tempting to keep her in Korvosa.  I had met her through a friend I’d met at the Orisini Academy.  She had the kind of eyes you could fall into and never surface, and her kisses held hot promise.  I was smitten from the get-go.  When she told me of her plans to leave the city, I knew I had no option but to follow.

We headed north toward Janderhoff, the city of the Dwarves, where were tarried for a month or so in search of an adventuring company willing to take on two as green as ourselves.  Eventually, we were hired on as escorts for a caravan bound for Tamran in Nirmathas.  We were a few days out of Skelt when Mädchen broke the news to me.

We were riding at the head of the wagon train.  A light rain was working its way through the forest canopy, and I had pulled my cloak tight around my shoulders.

“Bud”, she said, “I can’t do this”.

“Do what, babe?”.

“Us”.  The simplicity of her answer cut like a razor.

“What do you mean?”.  I honestly didn’t get it.  Things were going so well.

She lowered eyes and sighed.  “I guess I just need some space.  At least for while”.  She turned and looked at me, her blue eyes like pools of ice, and I knew she could see my heart sinking.  “Bud, listen.  It’s not like that.  It’s just that I need to go it alone for a while, and I think you should, too.  I know it’s not what you want, but I think it’s what we both need”.

“So, what?  You’re just going to ride off?”.

“No, Bud.  I’m not going to ride off.  We finish the job.  But once we reach Tamran, I can’t promise that I’ll stick around for long”.

“Mädchen, I don’t want to let go”.

She took my hand.  “I don’t want to let go either.  Trust me, this isn’t easy.  You have my heart, and you always will”.

I looked away to hide my tears.

“Bud, look at me.  Two years.  That’s all I’m asking”.

I let the silence stretch for a minute.  The rain had picked up, and I could feel it beginning to soak through my cloak.  “Okay”, I said at last.  “But what happens in two years?”.

“We meet again.  In Korvosa.  For the Riverwind Festival.  It’ll be like last summer.  We’ll get drunk, I’ll take you home, and I’ll fuck your brains out”.

I laughed, she smiled, and everything suddenly seemed okay—because I knew she meant it.

“Mädchen, I love you”.

“I love you, too, Bud.  I always will”.

I didn’t bring the subject up again, and the rest of the journey progressed without incident.  When we finally reached Tamran, I secretly hoped that she’d changed her mind about the whole thing, but then woke one morning, and she was gone.

“Two years”, I sighed.  There was nothing to do but make the best of it.  Going back to Korvosa didn’t sound that appealing to me.  It would be like taking two steps back.  And surely there were others out there in need of someone with my particular skill set.  And surely down that road, fame and glory waited.

I looked over at the empty bed.  “Two years.  Damn”.