The Stench of Decay
Vylasgarden noticed that Azariah tried her best to sleep despite the commotion going on all around them. She even noticed the sound of crashing and smashing in the saloon but considered it to be a friendly bar fight as it was a custom of the east she had only heard stories of. Azariah was curled up and tucked in her cloak and skirt with her knapsack over her head to block out the noise. Vylasgarden went back to reading the tome and sat crossed-legged on the floor with a lit candle. She could not understand the cipher written in elfish but she read well into the draconic documents. It would seem from her findings that the early sarkany feared the dvergar because among their ranks were descendants of ancient dragon slayers. No wonder, she thought. She read that when the elf and human armies united, it did not take much convincing for the sarkany clans to join the Alliance out of fear. Vylasgarden paused for a moment and reflected. The moaning from the neighboring rooms took her away from her thoughts but she quickly snapped back into focus. In all her life, she had never learned this information about the Alliance. If not for the aged parchment and legitimate draconic writing, she may have had dismissed it as false. She glanced back down at the book and turned the page to a section written in common:
…and in the distance over the hills the dvergar carried out a war horn the size of a mammoth’s tusk and stunned the battlefields with its sound. The sound that announced his arrival, the Dark Realm Dwarf. Most on the Alliance’s side believed his arrival in battle was both a blessing and a curse. When the thunders of the horn were heard, it told general officers that our side was gaining the advantage; however, when he came the tide quickly turned…It was his sword that carried his power. When he unsheathed it, all within miles of him felt the presence of his dark magic he used to cut down his enemies…It was only when we separated him from the sword that the war finally ended.
Vylasgarden continued to read till she came across a revelation that alarmed her so much that she immediately closed the book and went to Azariah to wake her.
“What is it?” Azariah eventually answered in a groggy tone.
“We need to find the others and see this mausoleum now,” Vylasgarden said hurriedly. He voice cracked from her usual feminine tone to a growl.
Azariah jolted awake and onto her feet. “Is something wrong?”
“I will explain on the way but there is not another minute to lose,” Vylasgarden said waiting for her at the door. When they reentered the saloon the first thing they noticed was that there was no one in sight. The second thing they noticed was the blood and gore on the floor and walls.
“What happened here?” Azariah pronounced slowly.
“You don’t think…” Vylasgarden started.
“The men you did with,” they heard from behind the bar. The bartender came from a back door and was covered in blood. “Them slaughtered a group of thugs that did messing with the drunk one. Leave me with clean up, them did. Me did have to close me bar.”
“Where are they now?” Azariah asked.
“Them take one to the deck ’bout half an hour ago,” the bartender replied as she started to clean bloodied walls with a rag and saltwater. The women left to go upstairs to the deck of the boat where they found Kruzco and Riker. They were sitting against the ship’s mast covered in blood. Riker held his rapier loosely and Kruzco knuckles were raw and bludgeoned. Before them was a human zionder lying on the ground tied to a chair in a pool of his own blood.
“Look who it is,” Riker announced.
“What did you do?” Azariah accused.
“We found the location of the mausoleum,” Riker started. “This patchwork pigeon brain said he and his gang has a hideout near it. Says the locals don’t venture near the area out of fear of the ‘ghost’.”
“Ghost?” Vylasgarden questioned.
“Yeah, apparently when the Alliance put the Dark Realm Dwarf to rest, he wasn’t exactly dead,” Riker continued.
“Aye, pigeon brain said locals hear scream and moans from little islands,” Kruzco followed.
“That is where the mausoleum is apparently,” Riker said standing up from the deck.
“Well we need to go there as soon as possible,” Vylasgarden said abruptly. “The sword is the key.”
Riker cocked his head, “What?”
“Yes,” Azariah chimed in. “Vylasgarden discovered that the Nekodarz wants the Phoenix Flame to unite with its sword!”
“How are you sure of this?”
“The documents,” Vylasgarden said. “I read that the flame, like other relics of magic need a vessel to be harnessed efficiently.”
“Okay, lets make our way to the horses,” Riker said as he helped Kruzco get on his feet. “We will need to start heading south to the forests until we reach the river. That is where we’ll find the mausoleum.” he said as he performed an illusion with his lyre that concealed his and Kruzco’s uncleanliness. Kruzco carried the dead zionder (still tired to the chair) to the railing of the ship and tossed him overboard into the harbor. The body sunk with the chair as the foursome ran back through the village.
By the time they found the river on horseback it was already beginning to dusk. The surrounding area felt unnaturally bleak and desolate. Krzco did not see or hear any animals in the forest or near the shore and the thought of what might have drove them away created a chill down his spine. The group persisted ahead and eventually found the isles Kruzco had mentioned earlier. Individually they were hardly land masses but together they formed a chain that connected from one to the next in the mouth of the river. One of these isles was a steep plateau that stood about six and a half meters taller than the rest. It was a true marvel that featured architecture that complimented the natural formation of the plateau with dwarven effigies that guarded what looked like the mouth of an entrance to its inside.
“Think someone home?” Kruzco whispered to Riker.
“I hope not…” Riker whispered back. Azariah was the first to wade into the brackish waters toward the plateau. Despite being in a tropical region, Kruzco found the water to be freezing. He even saw thin layers of ice break apart as they all waded through. His instincts told him to run as far away as possible but Kruzco fought against the urge. He brought up the rear as they snuck up to the plateau.
“I hear no screaming,” Kruzco commented.
Riker paused and looked back, “Yeah I noticed that too.”
“Best we stay quite so we do not give away our position,” Azariah said as she took the first step onto the land mass. Kruzco immediately noticed that a pair of heavy iron doors were lying on the ground before the entrance. He concluded that they were meant to barricade the inside. Something with immense strength must have broken them, or at least six men brought them down together. Together they quietly flanked the entrance; Vylasgarden and Azariah on the left and Riker and Kruzco on the right. They slowly stepped inside the chamber expecting it to be grim inside but found there to be a skylight on the ceiling that shined the moon’s twilight within it revealing a square and abandoned mausoleum in the center. Its rusted gates were unhinged and opened with two humanoid corpses lying on the floor in front of the entry.
“What do you suppose happened?” Vylasgarden asked. Riker knelt near the corpses and saw on the surface that they both were dwarves, but both of them looked as if they had died years ago.
“They have been her a while,” Azariah predicted.
“No,” Riker objected. “These bodies are more recent.”
“Are you blind? There is almost nothing but bone left of them,” she refuted.
Riker paused for a moment. “Do you see any wounds?” he said unrelentingly.
Azariah opened her mouth to protest but did noticed that both corpses had no obvious wounds. “So, they don’t have any slashed or severed limbs. That doesn’t mean they died recently.”
“I think it was dark magic,” Riker said standing up.
“Are you saying the Nekodarz did this?” Vylasgarden asked.
“I am almost certain of it.” he replied. “These dwarves must have been descendants of dvergar that knew the location of where the Alliance buried⏤”
“And if they knew where he was…” Vylagarden interrupted. She began to follow Riker’s theory. “…they would know that he was undead.”
“But why would he kill them?” Azariah asked.
“Judging based on what I know of dark magic, I would say that when they let him out he fed on them to regain strength. I think he feeds on life force or qi as Vylasgarden would put it.” Riker answered plainly. An expression of disgust washed over Azariah’s face.
“He inside?” Kruzco whispered.
“If he isn’t, I would imagine it won’t be long before he returns,” Riker replied.
“Right, we should find out if the flame is here and get out while we can,” Vylasgarden insisted. They all neared the entrance of the mausoleum. There was a chilling wind current that came from within. Just as they were about to take a step inside the mausoleum, faint sounds were heard from outside the tomb.
“Hide,” Azariah whispered as a pair of silhouettes emerged from the tomb’s entrance. The foursome sneaked to the back of the tomb behind the mausoleum. With their backs against the wall they all listened for the intruders.
“Do you think they made it here yet?” a gruff voiced said. Its dialect was that of the Shining City.
“If they are not, they cannot be far away,” a second, feminine voice said. “If we had not decided to land the hippogriff, we would not had lost them,” she said accusingly.
“Well at least we know they are here doing what they are supposed to do,” the first voiced replied.
“Keep your voice down,” the woman hushed. “We could be on their heels. Let’s scout the area before going back to the village.”
Azariah began biting her lip as excitement and anticipation rose within her. Suddenly she felt a gentle touch on her shoulder and noticed that it was Riker beside her. He rose a finger to his lips and his eyes plead for self-control. He looked over his shoulder and gave Vylasgarden an Kruzco a nod as he slowly unsheathed his rapier. Azariah reached down and gripped one of her daggers. The footsteps came closer to the mausoleum with each step matching the pounding beat of her heart. She was ready to act when suddenly, a pungent smell assaulted her nose.
“Ah! Do you smell that?” the woman’s voice cried.
“How can I not? It’s putrid,” the man’s voice answered. “Wait… Do you see that?”
“What?” the woman replied.
“We have a pair of bodies over here,” the man said as his heavy footsteps carried his location to the entrance of the mausoleum.
“These are too old to smell like this,” the woman argued. “There must be a fresh body inside or nearby. Be on your guard,” she said followed by the sound of an unsheathed sword. Just as Azariah became certain they were discovered, a guttural noise filled the tomb. Azariah felt Riker clinch her cloak behind her. The noise was so haunting and frightful that she stiffened with fear.
“Quick! Get inside the tomb!” the woman shouted as the sounds of her and the man climbing into the narrow crawl space came from the other side.
“What d-do w-we d-do?” Azariah whispered to Riker. To her surprise, her confidence from before melted away into sudden fear. Riker only mouthed the words: Stay calm. They waited but Azariah could not hear anything. The suspense alone made her shiver despite the feeling of the dead of winter surrounding them as frost crept on the walls of the tomb like slithering snakes. The throaty noises began again. This time they were lower and unruffled. Each breath that came from Azariah was shallow and hard as if being taken away from her. She reached over and squeezed Riker’s hand. He squeezed back and she could tell that he too was equally terrified.
“Hmmmrrr…” came from the other side along with footsteps that came toward the mausoleum. The footsteps were met with the battle cries of the man as the sounds of him charging emerged from within the tomb and out into the open. A stabbing sound followed with the dripping of liquid against the stone floor. Azariah covered her mouth with her hand. Next came the whimpers of the woman within the mausoleum. Those whimpers turned to cries as the sounds of her body being dragged out of the small building could be heard on the other side.
“Please, no! Please no!” she cried. She pled but all that was returned was the familiar deep throated gurgles from before. There was a struggle until the sound of a neck snapping silenced her. Azariah carfully peered around the corner and saw the creature. It wasn’t very tall. It was a dwarf’s height but hunched as if its upper back failed it. It had a mangled white beard, but everything else about it was hardly recognizable as a person. It had no nose or lips and in the place of eyes were ethereal white lights as if what left of its soul was housed in its skull. And there in its right hand it carried a magical flame. Azariah watched the creature drag the woman’s dead body into the mausoleum. When she retreated he head back, she heard the sounds of bones cracking and flesh popping from inside.
“What do?” Kruzco whispered.
“I have a plan,” Riker replied as he stepped out in front of the mausoleum’s entrance.
“What are you doing!?” Azariah exclaimed before the creature howled at his new intruders; and as it began to step toward Riker, Riker used his lyre to cast a wave that rung within the tomb so loudly that the aged mausoleum collapsed on itself with the Nekodarz in it.