Tristan watched the gunboat settle above a housing complex right next to the clock tower. The flat roofs overlooked a square that spread out before Tristan as he watched the men weigh anchor. He was safely hidden behind a stack of crates on the flat roof of a clothing shop. The crates held loom parts, various threads, and a few bolts of fabric. Behind Tristan sat a massive loom that he figured wouldn’t fit on the first floor. Since the store sat under the shadow of the second level, it saw little to no rain so only a simple awning covered the rooftop.
From where Tristan sat he could travel across the rooftops around the square to where the ship was tied off. He looked around the square and found Kothar and Mish’Ka slip down an alley two buildings away from the airship. Searching some more, Tristan found Berwyn and Halfgrim crouched behind a small cluster of market stalls just out of sight of the portside guns. Berwyn caught sight of him and nodded in his direction that they were ready.
Mish’Ka and Kothar were going to supply the initial distraction to get as many men as they could off the ship. With the distraction, Berwyn and Halfgrim would hit the group from behind while Kothar would come through the alley. Tristan meanwhile would pick off the stragglers, and then make his way to the airship across the rooftops.
If all went to plan, he thought; as 4 crewmen came down the rope ladders. 2 were orcs in leather armor brandishing an axe and a sword each. The other two; humans, had a sword and crossbow each. The humans went to the edges of the roof looking down into the square while the orcs stayed near a set of stairs leading to the alley below.
“Come on, come on,” Tristan whispered as he knocked an arrow. A call from the orc with scars on his chest and arms was followed by one from the airship. Soon, 3 more crewmen came swiftly down the ladders. The first down was a human almost 7 feet tall and carrying a war hammer slung over his back. Wearing silken charcoal pants and a vest to match, he pointed to various locations and started barking out orders.
“Good,” Tristan thought aloud, “the captain has come off his ship.” If he was correct then there should only be 2-3 still on the gunboat above. However, try as he might, Tristan couldn’t see anyone poking their heads up and over the railings. He didn’t like not knowing the head count; too many things could go wrong.
The 2 crossbowmen stayed on the roof while the others began to head for the stairs. Tristan noted that the last 2 crossbowmen were twin human with red hair that braided down their backs to their waists. Their beards were braided into on long rope and they each carried a pair of scimitars. As Tristan took aim for one of the crossbowmen he heard a wail from the square. He smiled as he noted the crew running back to the edge of the roof to see what was all the raucous.
Mish’Ka, covered in a simple tan cloak with the hood off, came running into the square crying and yelling out, “Help me! Help me!” She frantically looked around searching here and there from one side of the square to the other. “Kothar!” she called out, “Son, where are you?” She knelt to look under a fallen cart and the split of her cloak revealed a bare leg up to her thigh. Tristan smiled as he watched the crew hoot and holler before taking off for the stairway behind them.
“Hook, line, and sinker. Now lets see about those bowmen.” He turned back to the rooftop to see the 2 split up. They each took a different corner of the building that overlooked the square. The one to Tristan’s left hid behind some crates, resting the crossbow on one of them for support. The one to his right leaned against the edge of the roof with the crossbow, watching the square as the crew made their way to Mish’Ka.
Tristan glanced at her to see that she was being slowly surrounded by the crew. Mish’Ka acted helpless, screaming at the men and throwing things from overturned carts and stalls as the men laughed and made crude jokes. Berwyn and Halfgrim tensed as they waited for Tristan’s signal, Kothar was nowhere to be seen. Tristan turned back to the bowmen, first taking aim at the one exposed on his right.
The seconds past by like an eternity…
Tristan pulled taught on the bow as he rose under the awning.
The arrow let loose, screaming over the square as Berwyn and Halfgrim rose from their hiding spot.
The arrow struck home at the center of his skill, burying the tip and several inches of the shaft. His head snapped back, his mouth open in silent agony.
Berwyn and Halfgrim rushed forward, weapons drawn, alarming the men. Tristan grabs for another arrow, knocking it to take aim.
Not knowing about his companion the other bowman rose as he fired a wide shot past Berwyn. Tristan took a deep breath as he aimed and released the second arrow.
The arrow screamed across the square before blasting through his neck, slicing his windpipe in half. The arrow tip erupted from the back of his neck as the shaft came to a halt. The man dropped the crossbow as he futilely grabbed for his neck as he fell off the roof.
Tristan fires one more arrow, piercing the scarred orc through the hand as he tried to throw a knife at Berwyn.
Seven seconds later two men dead, one injured, and the trap is sprung. Mish’Ka throws back her cloak and pulls out her whips, surprising everyone.
Tristan slides the bow over his back and makes a run for the first roof jump. Swiftly reaching the edge he leapt the 10 foot space, never breaking stride as he landed. 4 more rooftops and he would be under the gunboat. Try as he might as he ran along the roof, he couldn’t see anyone in the ship.
Berwyn The Carver, came barreling between market stalls at the group, his crescent shaped blades that when held arced down over his fists for several inches. With these twin blades he could slice, hook, or blade punch with them; hence the name, The Carver. He rushed forward right into the path of one of the red headed twins. Scimitars already drawn, the man sliced downward in a V-shape, hoping Berwyn’s moment would be his downfall. Berwyn knew what was coming as he continued forward, and so he crossed his arms in front and yanked up hard in opposite directions. Each hooked blade caught a scimitar, blocking the attack. Berwyn held his right arm up locking the blades, while his left twisted up and away. The move forced the scimitar out and away leaving his wrist exposed to Berwyn’s blade. The blade cut deep as it slid up the hilt and cut off 3 fingers. The man cried out, dropping the blade, as Berwyn ploughed right into him. The two fell backward into a nearby flowerbed, the man’s skull hitting the stone edifice, nearly knocking him out. Berwyn took the distraction and brought both blades across his neck in a crisscross manner. The man struggled to breathe as he vainly clawed at the bleeding ‘X’ across his neck. Berwyn left the man alone to die as he turned back to the main battle. He had no qualms about killing these men after seeing the murderous destruction they wrought on the city.
He had no qualms indeed.
Halfgrim slid into the legs of the orc Tristan had shot in the hand, tumbling him to the ground. The dwarf jumped on top of his chest and swung his battle axe down. However, the orc reached up and grabbed the axe with his good hand before the blade could split his skull. For what seemed like an eternity, the two pushed against each other through the axe, muscles bulging as the orc snarled up at Halfgrim. Finally Halfgrim realized it was a draw until he noticed the arrow still stuck in the orc’s other hand. He grabbed hold of the arrow and yanked with all his might. The arrow came ripping out, muscles and tendons snapping from the force. The orc screamed in agony, releasing his grip on the axe and grabbing his bleeding hand. In one swift motion Halfgrim swung the axe up high before it came crashing down with such force into the skull, the orc died instantly. The body twitched and lurched with fits of spasms until finally, the dwarf was able to rip the axe free.
He quickly surveyed the scene before moving on.
Meanwhile, Mish’Ka had thrown back her hood and pulled her whips free. She snapped them back and forth, side to side, the 2 weapons moving like living entities a part of herself. The big man, whom she surmised was the leader of the group, kept his distance. The war hammer sat lazily in his hands as he watched her move. His eyes followed her motion, drinking up every second as her body and the whips danced like a leaf on a gentle breeze. She could tell her movements held him, but there was something more in his eyes, something that ate at her. It wasn’t ownership, domination, or sheer joy of destroying her.
It was possession.
He didn’t want a part of her or all of her for a fleeting moment, or even an extended period of time. In those eyes she saw her mind, body, and soul taken from her for the rest of her life; however long that might be in his presence. He knew that she knew what he wanted, and that fueled his strength.
“You will be min, little sparrow,” he whispered with such a commanding presence that, for a second, she almost believed it.
“Never,” she swore to him as much to herself. With a growl, the man came charging forward swinging his war hammer in a wide arc left to right. Mish’Ka was taken off balance by his speed as she narrowly jumped backward. The hammer was still in its momentum as she lashed once, then twice, with the whips, tearing clothes and peeling back flesh and muscle on his left arm and leg. He howled in pain as he was taken off balance by both the attack and the hammer swing. He fell to his left knee as the hammer yanked his arm back behind him as it landed on the cobble stones, shattering them.
“You will pay for that girl,” he snarled catching her off guard as he inhumanly swung back the hammer one-handed. Before she could react, the hammer connected with a barrel sending it spiraling out toward her. Mish’Ka jumped back again lashing out at the barrel with both whips, splintering it in mid-air. The man used the attack as a diversion as he rose with the hammer in both hands, and lunged at her. Erupting through the barrel debris he slammed the shaft into her chest and then swinging around, under then up, with the butt to connect with her chin. Mish’Ka cried out in agony as she flew up and backwards, flipping over end to fall face down on the cobbled stones. One whip lay off to her left just out of reach as she slowly raised her head. Pain shot through her body ending in an explosion in her head. Licking her lip she felt an open wound and tasted the metallic flavor of blood. She started to rise, but a leather boot slammed down on her shoulder, smashing her face into the ground.
A throaty laugh bellowed above her, “You are mine now, no more games,” as he began to reach down for her, he was slammed in the back and went stumbling past her. As she rolled away to gather her other whip she was surprised to see Halfgrim hanging onto the leader’s back for dear life. The dwarf had his battle axe handle smashed up against the man’s throat as he swung back and forth, pulling tight with al l his might.
“Get…off…me, you little bearded rat!” The man coughed and sputtered as he stumbled around trying to pry the dwarf’s hands away from the handle. Mish’Ka took a second to gather her wits and survey the square. Berwyn was near the building where the airship anchored. He and the other twin kept circling each other and trading parries left and right but getting nowhere. She had never seen anything like Berwyn’s blades before in her life. He fought with them with and grace and mastery and they moved together as one as if they were an extension of his hands. Mish’Ka could see that Berwyn would be fine on his own.
She looked to the gunship and saw movement near one of the ballista. The great weapon began to turn toward the rooftops. She followed the movement and gasped as she saw Tristan racing across the roof two buildings away. She started to run toward him calling out, “Tristan look out! The ballista, lookout!” She pointed frantically as she took several steps toward him.
She skidded to a halt as the weapon fired, a resounding snap and twang reverberated off the buildings surrounding the square. The arrow, twice as tall as a man and as thick as Kothar’s leg, whistled through the air before blasting into a stairwell entrance that Tristan ran past. The building shuddered as the arrow pierced through the stairwell and upper floor. The entrance, a squat cube no more than 10 feet square, erupted from the impact and sent debris and Tristan barreling across the rooftop.
Mish’Ka gasped as she searched the roofline for any sign of him as she ran closer to the building. Frantically, she paced back and forth, her hand to her forehead shading her vision. She finally saw him rise slowly, debris and dust falling off of his shoulders like water. He brushed himself off, checked for injuries, and then suddenly grabbed for his bow as he looked up at the ship. She followed his gaze to the ship; her eyes widening in horror. The ballista was loaded and repositioning to fire on Tristan once more. She looked around for anything that might help; or anyone. Both Halfgrim and Berwyn had their hands full.
Suddenly there was a commotion up above on the airship. The ballista jerked hard to the left, then snapped back toward the right. Shouts rang out and metal clashed against metal, the ringing echoing around the courtyard. There was a scream, a blood curdling scream, and then an orc was flipped end over end off the side of the ship, smacking hard onto the street below. Tristan stunned, looked to Mish’Ka for answers. But she had none to give as she watched the ship sway back and forth and the occasional glint of metal as a blade popped into view. But then a glint of gold off of a 5-pointed star swung into view as ebony hands brought the weapon back down.
“Kothar?” she asked, her face scrunching in confusion, then it dawned on her, “Kothar! It’s Kothar, Tristan, he’s on the gunship!” She hopped up and down pointing to the airship.
Tristan immediately slung his bow over his back and began running the final distance across the rooftops. Before he could reach the ladder all became silent, and the ship settled back to its original sway in the wind. Tristan stopped at the bottom of the nearest ladder wondering if the silence was good thing or not. His twin blades at the ready as he began to cautiously climb up.
There was a cry behind Mish’Ka and then a crash. She spun around to see Halfgrim lying in a pile of broken crates, his body half covered in wooden shards. The leader of the group growled as he stomped toward the dwarf, his mighty war hammer dragging behind him. When he was close enough, he swung the hammer high above his head, “Your are mine now, tunnel rat!”
The now familiar snap and twang of the ballista sounded off behind her. Another shaft whistled through the air, slamming the man in the chest. It lifted him high off the ground, his war hammer thudding to the ground where he once stood. The ballista harpoon carried him several yards before slamming him into the cobbled stones of the square. The barbed tip and several feet of the shaft buried itself into the ground. Like a frog on a stick he hung there, arms and legs dropping toward the ground, his eyes wide in shock, as he stared at the sky above. The man’s body twitched a few times, his arms and legs spasmodically flailing about him in the death throws. Mish’Ka quickly looked away to find Berwyn had finished off the other twin and was now helping Halfgrim up.
“Oi, I feel like a salmon in a game o’ toss ’tween two bears,” Halfgrim shook his head as he reached back to rub a bruise on his neck.
“Eh, I have seen worse,” Berwyn nudged the dwarf with his elbow, causing everyone to laugh, though Halfgrim ground after a short chuckled as he put one hand to his ribs. Berwyn looked from the dead leader to Mish’Ka, “What happened?”
Just then a large shadow covered the square, engulfing them in shades of grey. Halfgrim and Berwyn grabbed their weapons as the airship slid low over the courtyard. Several rope ladders were dropped down as Mish’Ka made here was over to the other two. She watched the railings closely, her body tense. Tristan and Kothar suddenly leaned over the side, smiling down at them. Tristan was wincing a little, but Mish’Ka could tell he was trying his best to hide the pain from the blast. “Anyone care for a ride? I do believe that Kothar has good taste in ships, eh?”
“You two almost gave me a heart attack,” Mish’Ka relaxed her body and put her whips away as she headed for the ladder.
“Come on up,” Kothar waved them on as he walked back to the rope ladder to hold it steady.
Mish’Ka was almost to the top when Berwyn helped the dwarf to the ladder. Holding the ladder steady Berwyn turned to Halfgrim, “You first, old timer.”
Halfgrim muttered a few choices words under his breath as he grabbed hold and looked up. His bones began to ache as he realized how far he had to climb, I need a drink.”
As the dwarf groaned and then began the long trek up, Berwyn chuckled and then looked at the battle in the sky, once more somber, “We all do my friend, we all do.”
• • •
The vault was something to behold.
The entrance was a 10 story black obsidian facade that soared above the group as it ended in spires. When the city had first been raised above the plains by the mages, a massive deposit of black obsidian had been exposed. Dwarven craftsmen and Gnomish engineers carved the vaults using the entire deposit, down the last vein. The front entrance held several short towers capped in gold minarets as flying buttresses stretched high above trimmed in gold and emerald. Along a balcony several stories up, several white alabaster statues looked out over the lower level of the city.
Orin looking it over, whistled, “It looks more like a cathedral than a vault master Grimbolt.” He took it all in; every crenall, frieze, and column.
Hudmo chuckled, “Aye, dwarves and gnomes have been known to go a little overboard at times.” He had been here on many occasions and had gotten used to the sight. But now with these newcomers he took it in anew once more. He sighed in delight and admiration as he looked upon it once more. It was carved as if it was one solid piece, not a seam or crevice could be found.
Yes it is a wonderful feat of engineering, he thought as he looked upon it for quite possibly the last time.
He should know since he was there when it was built. He remembered it well as if it were yesterday.
Hudmo and a team of engineers and artisans were commissioned from Barnok to build the vault. In total, the project had taken 10 years before the entire complex was finished. There were 10 levels underground with both a staircase and a magical lift, like the one leading to the upper city, to reach them. In all there were 1,000 individual vaults, and a large reserve for the city itself for in times of need. Magical guards, dangerous dweomers, combination locks made of runes, and a personal guard of 100 soldiers protected its contests.
Hudmo smiled as he watched Brother Thomas and Lord Orin take it all in. “Come along gentlemen, the Keeper is old friend of mine.”
As they approached the entrance, Lord Orin spied 2 arbalests and 2 cannons that must be of Hudmo’s design, hidden behind the facade. Their crews kept a watchful eye on the trio as they reached the double doors of the main level. Brother Thomas admired the craftsmanship of scenes of Abydosian and Anorian histories were sculpted into the adamantine doors.
The left door swung open slowly, the great hinges bigger than a dwarf, creaked and groaned under the immense weight of the 20 foot high doors. An entourage of 10 human and Dwarven soldiers, clad in golden armor with black trim, escorted a tall slender woman toward the group. She was of middle age, deep auburn hair flowing down her back, and resplendent in gold and emerald robes.
“Othelia Trumane, my dear how are you on this most audacious day of days?” Hudmo strode up arms wide and embraced her as she bent over to greet him.
“My dear Hudmo, only you would find an attack on the city exciting and unconventional,” she smiled, though he could see the concern welling up in her eyes.
Hudmo shook his head and sighed, “Forgive me Othelia; the battle was not what I was referring to as ‘exciting’, though the battle is part of the reason why we are here.” He turned to introduce the others, “Brother Thomas and Lord Orin Greystoke of Helmcross, meet Othelia Trumane, Vault Keeper of the Abydos.”
The men bowed low, “A pleasure to meet you. Madam, though I wish it was under better circumstances.” Lord Orin kissed hand before stepping back.
“You are a long way from home, Lord Orin, but I see the trip has not dulled your memories.” She tilted her head in acknowledgement before turning to Brother Thomas. He bowed once more before sliding his arms into the sleeves of his robes. “Father Alban has spoken highly of you Brother Thomas,” She chuckled knowing she caught him by surprise. “Yes, Father Alban has a vault here as well. Though it has been some time since last he was here.”
Brother Thomas smiled, “Well he does travel a lot, but what could possibly be kept in a vault for a priest I wonder.”
Othelia stepped closer to whisper to the priest, “Actually there is something in there he left for you.”
Brother Thomas, taken aback by the statement, stared at her in confusion and wonder. He was momentarily distracted just then by the perfume she wore. He hadn’t noticed it before until she had whispered to him. She smelled of Nibian Roses that were found across the sea near the Elven capital, Instillende Sol. He had always loved that sweet smell, almost like fresh jasmine after the rain.
He came out of his daydreaming when Orin suddenly tapped him on the shoulder, he leaned in close, “Your blushing Thomas,” he chuckled then whispered, “Is that a color truly becoming of a priest?”
Brother Thomas scowled, “Hush Orin,” he quickly composed himself, “I know not what you mean.” Lord Orin patted him on the shoulder knowingly and then stepped back.
Othelia covered her smile as she quietly laughed to herself; she watched as Brother Thomas’ color turned back to normal across his face. Composing herself she turned back to Hudmo, “Now that the pleasantries are out of the way,” she winked at Brother Thomas, who quickly looked to the ground, “What brings you 3 to the Abydosian Vaults?”
Just then she heard heavy gears whirling behind them and noticed the golem for the first time. Othelia saw her guards gripping their weapons nervously as they eyed the machine. She chuckled as she waved her hands at them, “Stand down gentlemen. Sam’El will not harm you.” Turning back to the trio, she smiled as she noted Lord Orin and Brother Thomas’ surprise. “Yes I know of Sam’El, Hudmo and I have known each other for a long time now, haven’t we old friend?” She stood quietly then for a moment, lost in thought. She sobered as the realization of the golem’s presence washed over her.
The dwarf noted the change and his shoulders slumped as he sighed, “Yes Othelia,” he said with as much voice as he could muster just then in the presence of her pain. “It is time. Brother Thomas has come on behalf of Father Alban and Lord Orin, Berwyn his brother, and a dwarf, Halfgrim, accompanied him here.”
Othelia studied them for a moment, “And where are the other two?”
Brother Thomas looked into her eye, deep pools of pearl blue, “They are waiting back at the university, for a man Father Alban believes to be important to the quest that we are on.”
She stared right back into his eyes, never leaving his gaze, “Do you believe this man is important?”
Brother Thomas cleared his throat, “If Father Alban believes so, then so do I.” He held her gaze for a moment longer, “I trust the Father’s judgment.” He added as a confirmation as much for her himself as well as her.
Othelia smiled, “I believe you Brother Thomas,” she pulled her gaze back once more to encompass the others, “Well now Hudmo, if what you say is transpiring,” he nodded, “then it is indeed a day of days.” Othelia turned back toward the entrance, waving for the others to follow, “Now Hudmo I know you need access to your vault, but I believe Brother Thomas should be taken to Father Alban’s as well.”
Hudmo hurried along, the others following close behind, “Yes Othelia, that…”
He was cut off by the strangest of sounds. A low thrumming began to rise in crescendo, as if announcing the arrival of something quite large. There was a deeper base tone hidden behind the thrumming the seemed to reach deep inside of you and rattled your bones. The guards turned as one, swords and shields at the ready as they surrounded Ms. Trumane. Lord Orin saw the siege weapons take aim at something in the sky past the rooftops of the buildings across the courtyard from them. His axe at the ready he looked over to see Brother Thomas deep in concentration, his staff in hand pointed toward the horizon. A great shadow overtook what light the second level hadn’t taken from them yet as Hudmo unloaded his things and held his hand cannon at the ready. For some reason Orin saw that the golem, Sam’El, had not moved or armed itself yet.
Hudmo caught him looking at the golem and chuckled, “Lord Orin, don’t ye doubt that Sam is ready.” To prove the point Hudmo turned toward the war machine, “Dothein Doka!” The blue sapphire eyes gleamed brighter for a moment. Then within seconds, the golem swung its legs into a fighting stance, dropped the things it carried, and deployed its Keit’Ta’Na; its war lance.
“What were the words you just spoke?” Orin intrigued, moved closer to the two.
“Hmm? Oh! Those are command words for Sam’El,” he waved a hand at the golem, “A mixture of the angelic language of the Eschrehim and Dwarven and Gnomish dialects.” Hudmo peered over his glasses as if giving a lecture, “It’s how all the golems of Barnok were controlled when the city still stood.”
Lord Orin nodded in understanding. The language would be next to impossible to mimic or copy unless you knew the roots of the language.
Calls rang out as soldiers prepared to fire the cannons. Othelia was being pushed toward the entrance for her safety but she held her ground at the door. Everyone watched a gunship swing low over the rooftops, hugging the rock columns that held the second level of the city aloft high above them. Lord Orin looked back as he heard the whine of the cannons spinning as they warmed up to fire.
4 iron balls, the size of Orin’s head, erupted in fire and smoke as they raced across the sky, skimming over the rooftops. The airship veered hard to the left just as the cannon balls buried deep into the bedrock. The rock face exploded, showering the nearby buildings with debris. People screamed as they ran for cover or took off down one of the many streets in the opposite direction. The ship corrected its course once more as yelling could be heard from up on the deck. The gunboat slowed to a crawl until it stopped on the opposite side of the stone courtyard from the vault. Not once did it fire or even move a single weapons’ placement toward them which surprised the trio.
All weapons were aimed at the ship as Othelia held a fist in the air signaling the men to wait. Orin gripped his axe tighter as he saw Brother Thomas deep in his prayers and invocations. He could tell something was wrong as he watched the expressions on the priest’s face.
Brother Thomas suddenly opened his eyes, as he shot a glance toward the east of the city, “They are not the enemy, Orin,” he began to run toward the east, “the enemy is to the east! The east!”
Orin and Hudmo quickly exchanged looks before turning in that direction. A high pitched whine could be heard racing over the buildings, heading their way.
Hudmo cried out, “Othelia to the east!” He pointed before running after the priest with Orin and the golem close behind.
Another gunship came into view, a completely different one, from rudder to forecastle, compared to the first. The sailing wings and rudder fans were stained in blood and looked like flesh stretched thin over a frame made from the bones of some great beast. The hull was black as night, devoid of all color and light as it glided silently over the rooftops. The forecastle was capped with the skull of a drake and the bowsprit erupted from between the skull’s sockets like a twisted horn. The entire ship looked like an undead behemoth as it turned sideways, revealing 6 cannons that each looked like a dragon’s maw. Fear and despair seemed to radiate from the every angle of the ship as the feeling washed over the men. A black smoke rolled over the rails and cascaded off the side of the ship like numerous waterfalls before dissipating just above the rooftops.
Lord Orin’s stride slowed as the a invisible wave of nausea slammed into him, causing him to slacken his grip on his axe as he neared the others. Turning back to the vault entrance he saw others in the same state, some soldiers had even dropped their weapons altogether and were on their knees weeping.
Everyone was jolted out of the spell as 4 successive booms rattled off from the first ship. 2 smashed into and abandoned building below where the undead ship had stopped. The other 2 blasted into the bow of the ship; to everyone’s horror causing eruptions of flesh and gore instead of splintered wood. Blood and viscous fluids oozed and sputtered out of what looked like two open and festering wounds. The attack had seemed to stall the invisible attack on everyone, but Brother Thomas was taking no chances as he raced forward several strides toward the ship. He slid to a stop before slamming the staff into the stone squares of the courtyard shattering them around him. Light permeated from the staff as it began to glow brightly as a wave of light rippled away from the priest in every direction. The light chased away the effects of the ship on the men around him, each ripple growing larger and speeding up as it spread out. Lord Orin felt the relief from the priest’s incantation seep into his skin and flush through his bloodstream and it fill him up with strength and courage. He turned once more toward the ship as he noted movement above.
Stepping up onto the forecastle of the ship was a man, ghostly white, tattered robes of charcoal grey fluttering behind him on an unseen wind. His eyes were bloodshot as bluish purple veins bulged and snaked away from his eyes, stretching out across his face like the light from a dying sun. In his left hand he held a gnarled and twisted staff that ended in a balled skeletal fist wrapped around a blood red stone. The wood of the staff was as white as the man’s flesh was as he raised it toward the sky. He cried out something as he raised his other hand toward the sky, his eyes never leaving Brother Thomas. Shadows raced from every corner of the city toward the ship and the dark acolyte before them. The shadows pooled on the courtyard before the ship, growing in size and darkness. Lord Orin watched in horror as several shapes began to coalesce and take shape as they emerged from the pool rising up as black liquid forms.
10 humanoid forms stepped out of the black pool as the viscous fluids slithered down their bodies and disappeared back into the pool like snakes. They wore black robes that were tied at the ankles, wrists, and waist for ease of movement. Some 3 held whips and bastard swords that looked like they had been dipped in ash. 4 held a shield and scimitar while the other 3 held dual swords that were wickedly sharp and serrated in several places. For what skin Orin could see the hues were somewhere akin to bleached bone and as he looked into their faces, he gasped as he saw they had no eyes. It dawned on him then what they were, he had never seen one before but he had heard stories from merchants in the south near Feyraven Tower and villages in that province. “Dakkas Warriors,” he whispered to himself.
“Blessed Eschua, help us,” he heard Hudmo pray as the creatures stalked toward them. Several more were slowly forming behind them as the pool pulsated and swirled and more shadows raced toward the pool.
“DAKKAS! Brother Thomas you have to destroy that pool or they will never stop forming!” Lord Orin cried out as he ran past the priest, Sam’El close beside him.
Hudmo had stopped beside the priest and was quickly changing the cartridge on the cannon to use a different ammunition. As it clicked into place several more thunderous booms sounded behind him as cannon fire from both the other airship and the vaults defenses lit up. Several more wounds tore open across the bow but nothing seemed to do much damage. The shadow cannons on the gunship opened fire just then, sending forth a rain of fire and hot metal toward the airship. Wood splintered and erupted as several shots scored hits against its bow. One rudder fan took a glancing hit and tore the fabric apart rendering it useless.
Lord Orin was suddenly shoved to the ground hard by the golem as a hailstorm of miniature cannon balls rushed over their heads and tore into the lead Dakkas warriors. 2 of them got their shields up in time but the white hot metal tore through the defenses and shredded their shadowy bodies. The bodies suddenly exploded in ash as several more balls ripped through them. Orin could only think that maybe the ammunition was blessed somehow that Hudmo was using but he wasn’t about to complain about it. 3 more were torn apart before Lord Orin saw 6 more warriors form in the pool and step forward.
Sam’El helped him to his feet before turning on the first two shadow warriors that raced forward. Both held dual swords as they up on both sides of the golem and Orin, circling them. Sam’El held his staff at the ready, no expression on his metal face as he watched both warriors circle around him. The warrior in front suddenly surged forward as Orin took on the other one. The golem shot forward with the staff low, slamming it through the thigh of the warrior as its leg came forward as it had prepared to strike with its left blade. The sharpened end of the staff slammed into the stone courtyard and halted the Dakkas in its tracks. He reached down to try to yank the staff out, its blades still in its hands, but Sam’El was faster. He let go of the staff and reached forward grabbing the hands and the blades in its clawed hands. The claws pierced what passed for flesh on the shadow warrior and with all of the golem’s might slammed the blades into the chest of the Dakkas. The creature opened its mouth in a silent scream as Sam’El then ripped the staff out of its leg and slammed the point through its forehead, sending the body exploding into ash.
Lord Orin locked his axe in the v-shape the warriors blades made as it had struck out him. They held the blades there as they both tried to gain the upper hand, pressing against each other. Lord Orin’s muscles bulged as he put all he could into the press, but the Dakkas was filled with unnatural, unholy strength and pressed back harder. The head suddenly looked past Orin’s shoulder at something he couldn’t see in what he guessed was surprise. A metal staff sailed over his left shoulder, whistling past his ear, and slammed through the mouth of the creature, erupting out of the back of his skull. The creature exploded into ash around Orin as he stumbled forward from the sudden loss of weight against him. Sam’El stepped up next to him and pulled out its staff from the courtyard before rushing past him.
Lord Orin turned to see Sam’El take on two of the nearest shadow warrior; one with a sword and shield while the other held a barbed whip in one hand and a bastard sword in the other. Two more rushed past the trio toward Orin, sword and shields in hand. Orin gripped his axe tightly as he waited for the first attack, but it never came. A loud noise behind him was the only announcement as a large wooden shaft with a barbed tip flew past him and spearing both warriors, whipping them backwards and slamming them into ash against the ground.
“Hurrah! No one messes with me lord!” a familiar cry rose over the battle.
Lord Orin turned to see Halfgrim waving from the arbalest up on the first gunship as Berwyn and another man jumped down onto a rooftop in front of the ship. Shocked and a little angry he called out, “I send you to get the priest’s man and you come back with a gunboat?”
The dwarf shrugged with a big grin spread across his bearded face as he prepared the siege weapon for another round. An ebony woman and man appeared just then before heading below deck, he assumed to man the cannons. Berwyn and the stranger raced across the rooftops toward the other airship, the stranger firing his bow as he ran scoring hit after hit on the newly formed warriors. Orin quickly turned back to the fight in front of him as Hudmo fired another round into the growing number of shadow warriors. The Dakkas were torn down 4-5 at a time but still they came on. Orin tried to count as he split the head of one that rushed him on the right as Sam’El dispersed the two he was tangled with.
Behind him the vaults defenses and his companions’ airship continued to fire on the abomination above them but with little success. The ship seemed to be tied to the acolyte up above everyone; the life force of both seemed to flow through each other. Orin turned to Brother Thomas for a second as he found a slight reprieve in the battle. The priest was deep in concentration, angelic words pouring out of his mouth as he held his staff toward in front of him, still dug deep into the ground. As long as he held the darkness at bay he couldn’t work on destroying the pool of shadows. Turning back to the dark acolyte he realized that the priest was concentrated on keeping the pool alive and couldn’t directly attack everyone.
That’s some comfort I guess, he thought as he barreled with his axe into two oncoming Dakkas their shields raised to block him but both were slammed backwards by the weight of the barbarian lord. He quickly released the pressure on them and with the butt of his axe hooked the left shield pushing it out and away from its holder. Catching the warrior off balance he swung the axe down into the chest of the Dakkas while slamming his left foot against the shield of the other. The first exploded while the other slid backwards a few feet before gaining his footing and rushing forward once more. The warrior brought his shield to bear as he swung sideways towards Orin’s stomach. Orin slammed into the shield his right shoulder forward, almost laying against the shield as he brought up his axe to block to attack. After slamming the weapon away, he grabbed the top of the shield with his right hand and slammed it into the face of the warrior, before ripping away from his hand and flinging it behind him. Caught off balance once more the warrior tried to swing the sword with both hands but Orin slapped the blade away before smashing the butt of his axe into the face of the creature. Black blood and gore erupted from where his nose had once been and poured down his face, staining the bleached skin. Orin brought his axe down hard cutting the arm off that held the blade. The arm evaporated before it could hit the ground but Orin paid no attention as he swung his axe horizontally from left to right. The blade connected with its neck, severing the head from the body as the body dissolved before him.
“Hudmo, Berwyn!” He saw he got their attention as he turned and pointed up toward the acolyte, “We got to kill him to stop the Dakkas from coming forth.” Seeing them both nod in acknowledgement, he turned once more toward the battle and watched Sam’El take two side steps before leaping into the air to the left of one of the warriors who had snapped its whip where Sam’El had been only moments before. In midair the golem thrust its lance toward the creature, piercing it where the neck and shoulder met, splitting its collar bone. The sharp end erupted out its right hip as the body exploded into ash. Orin winced as he realized, respectfully, that he never wanted to go up against that machine.
• • •
Berwyn looked to Tristan as the man fired another arrow, the shaft blasting through the head of a fifth warrior. “Hey now, leave me someone to fight by the time we get there.” He called out as the leapt across another space between buildings. They landed simultaneously, rolled and moved on once more.
“No promises Berwyn, but I think it would be a problem as long as your friend can’t fight the darkness of the pool.” Tristan knocked another arrow and fired again, this once slamming into the shoulder of another Dakkas, causing it to drop its weapon.
“Agreed, Orin says the acolyte up there has to been stopped, or it will never go away.” Berwyn eyed two shadow warriors climbing up over the top of a roof of the next building in front of them. “But we got to reach him first, heads up.” He pulled his blades out at the ready on either side of him as he leapt across the next expanse.
Tristan slowed long enough to fire at the lead warrior piercing its neck; the body fell limp from the wall before shattering against the courtyard below. Two more came up behind the other one, leaping more than climbing up the side of the wall to get to them. Tristan leapt across the gap, landed, rolled and switched his bow out for his scimitars.
Berwyn saluted with his left blade before rushing the first one coming up on their left. He roared as he came in to block the first downward slash of the right blade, while he ducked under the attack of the left one and took a glancing hit on his back. The move gave him the opportunity to fist punch with his left hand, slamming the spiked pommel into the chest. Then launched upward, slicing the left blade up its chest and splitting its chin as he twirled around, using the moment to push the creature backward. It said something in the language of the Abyss as it grabbed its chest, black blood dripping from its chin. Continuing the turn around, Berwyn spun around counterclockwise low as he brought both blades in slamming them into the rib cage of the creature. It lurched sideways from the attack and dropped its blades. Berwyn finished it off as he came to rest in front of the creature before slicing upward in an x-shaped move that crisscrossed the blades across the neck, severing the head from its body.
Tristan rushed forward toward the other two as they came up over the rooftop ledge. As he ran, Tristan tossed his left blade up to grab the pommel so he held the blade above him like a spear. He launched the blade at the first, slamming it in the chest and lifting it up off the roof as it exploded into ash. Tristan scooped up the blade as he ran past the haze toward the second one. One blade held down, the other pointed up, he scissored his arms before him to knock both blades of the creature out and away before slamming into the Dakkas sending them both falling to the ground. The creature lost its weapons in the fall and was slammed into the roof, Tristan on top. In one swift movement Tristan plunged both blades into its chest, sending it back to the shadows.
Berwyn caught up as Tristan rose and wiped his blades on his pant leggings. “Not bad with a blade, but I think you should stick to your bow,” he jabbed as he slapped Tristan on the back.
Tristan took the slap with a smile, “I didn’t want to show off in front of you.” He patted Berwyn on the shoulder, “I thought you might get jealous.”
Both men laughed as they caught their breath before heading to the roof ledge to see how the battle was fairing. Explosions erupted across the bow of their captured gunship, but she held. The dwarf was still firing away where he could with the arbalest as the vault defenses held out against the onslaught by the dragon cannons of the behemoth ahead of them. One arbalest of the vault was in ruins, several bodies lay around it or hung over the ledge of the balcony. Tristan looked down at the battle with the Dakkas and counted 17 of the shadow creatures. What was more surprising was seeing a golem in the thick of them with a Keit’Ta’Na ripping them apart one by one. A barbarian lord, Tristan gathered from Berwyn as his brother Orin, was working on the left flank. The dwarf, Halfgrim called Hudmo, held some kind of hand cannon that was shredding apart the Dakkas wherever he aimed it. However, as Tristan watched the dwarf, Hudmo yanked a box out of the contraption and slapped another one into it before turning to the acolyte up above. He began blasting away at the acolyte but nothing seemed to happen; not a single shot torn into the priest.
Tristan watched as Hudmo tried several more times before giving up in a series of curses. The dwarf shook his head and turned back to the battle below. “Well I guess it is up to us, Berwyn,” Tristan knocked an arrow and turned toward the priest.
“Agreed, I will try to sneak aboard the ship while you take aim with your bow,” Berwyn started to go but then stopped and turned back to Tristan, “I have been wondering about something, Tristan,” Tristan lowered his bow for a moment, “Why hasn’t the crew shown themselves or even attacked us yet besides using the cannons.”
Tristan looked up for a moment and thought back to when he had been with his brother. The priest looked familiar and after another second he remembered his name, “Calabas.”
“Huh? What are you saying?” Berwyn confused, waited for an answer.
“Calabas is one of Malak’s, my brother’s, dark acolytes, in service of the Dark Lord Delnok.” Tristan thought back some more, sifting through memories until it became clear. “It was said that the priest was one of the highest in his order and second to none in the dark arts of shadow magic. The ship is a creation of his, an unholy conjoining of dark magic and engineering that is only crewed by him.”
Berwyn stared at him for a second, trying to process it all. “You’re telling me that whole ship is only run by one guy?”
“Yes its true, so if we take him out his ship will crash into the buildings below because it will no longer be powered by his magic.” Tristan took aim once more, firing one arrow toward the staff. Just before it reached him it disintegrated against an invisible wall.
“Black magic?” Berwyn guessed out loud.
“I believe so, but more to the point I think you will need to get aboard that ship, while I distract him.” Tristan pointed up toward the priest, “If anything is going to work its going to be because we took out his staff, because that is where his power lies.”
Berwyn nodded, saluted with his blade and then took off toward the ship, trying to find a way aboard the undead ship. He was under the hull of the ship when the cannons roared once more in succession, firing at the vault entrance. A number of soldiers and a woman dodged out of the way as the left doors were devastated by the attack. A loud creaking sound and then what sounded like a giant moaning preceded the door collapsing in on themselves; one falling over the other. Berwyn looked back to the hull and then around the ship across the rooftops. There was a stairwell entrance, shaped like a cube sitting on the rooftop near the back of the ship. It looked like it might be high enough to Berwyn but he wouldn’t know until he tried it out.
Running across the rooftop, he slid under where the hull almost touched the roof before reaching the stairwell. He grabbed some boxes nearby and stacked them against one wall so he could get on top. Though he was much higher up next to the ship there didn’t seem much of a way aboard. Remembering how the cannon shots looked like flesh wounds against the bow of the ship. So grabbing one of his blades he raised it high and then with as much force as he could, plunged it into the side of the ship. It smashed into the fleshy side up to the hilt, causing the ship to groan that gave Berwyn a moment to pause and think about it.
The ship is alive, Berwyn looked at the fleshy side and noted for the first time that it was moving. Not on a large scale that you could tell from a distance but up close as he was now he could see things moving under the ‘skin’ of the boat. Looking closer and focusing on one spot around where his blade was stuck, he could finally make out what he was seeing. His eyes widened as a face appeared near the surface, pressing against the fleshy side and silently screamed back at him. The skin looked a ghostly white under the black surface as it pressed forward and then slid back into the black void allowing other body parts to do the same.
“Eschua help us, there are people trapped in there,” he slid his blade out of the hull and watched as blood poured forth from the spot as if he had plunged the blade into the chest of a man.
“They fuel me little man, do not take them from me for I will not allow it,” a voice broke into his mind crawling through his brain and slithering over his body. Berwyn shuddered as he grabbed his head, shaking it violently.
“Get out of my head, creature,” He slammed both blades this time into the ship. The moaning was greater this time as if a giant was crawling up from the heart of Anoria from deep below. The ship shuddered and Berwyn was pleased until he watched as a face appeared silently screaming in agony. Where his blades pierced the hull they also were deeply imbedded into a body. His left blade pierced the left rib cage as his right blade had torn through the belly of the person. Berwyn looked closer at the face and through the dark fluids the flowed around he could see that it was a man.
“Nicely done, little man. You have just given his soul over to me,” the voice crawled through his head once more.
“What are you saying beast?” Berwyn ripped the blades out causing the ship to bleed some more.
“My hull is writhing with captured souls, slowly dying little by little.”
“When they die their souls become mine, feeding my own life force and giving me strength.” The voice rose and lowered in volume with each word as if it breathed every word into Berwyn’s mind.
“No, you lie demon. That’s not possible.” Berwyn stepped back horrified.
“Do I? How do you know what the Abyss is capable of?”
“Have you ever been there and seen what is in its eternal depths? Do you wish to go there?” That last question sent visions ripping through Berwyn’s mind causing him to scream in agony.
“Enough!” and even though he hated the possibilities he slammed his blades back into the ship and used them to climb up the side of the ship. Each time the blades pierced the hull another face came into view. Sometimes they were male, and other times they were female. One such face almost made him let go of the blades and plummet to the ground. The face that appeared looked too much like his beloved Cristiana.
“What have you done Berwyn? Have you just given your beloved to me?” It laughed, the sound reverberating through every inch of Berwyn’s body.
“Don’t worry, I will take good care of her…”
“NNNOOOO!” Berwyn reared back, eyes closed, and slammed his left blade into the ship once more. The hull shuddered and the face screamed in agony at Berwyn before slipping into the darkness. Tears rolled down Berwyn’s face as he opened his eyes and saw what he had done. Before disappearing into the darkness as well, Berwyn saw that he had slammed his blade through the heart of the female below the surface.
“Cristiana…” He saw her face for a moment smiling, and then the scene changed and she cried in agony raising a hand toward him, begging him to stop.
“How far will you go little man? How many will feed their souls to me?”
Through tears Berwyn looked up at the railing above his head, not much farther for him to go. That fueled him as well as what the ship was doing to his mind.
“No beast, I will free every last soul on here one way or another. I know Cristiana is far from here and far from your appetite.” Berwyn began to climb once more, blade by blade, but he no longer looked at the fleshy hull in front of him. He focused only on the top, of reaching the railing. All around him the sounds of cannon fire and metal clashing against metal could be heard.
“Know this Berwyn. I do not have her here with me now, but I know where she is.” The voice had become a whisper, as if realizing there was no more fun in torturing him.
“She is in danger herself, if a solution is not found soon, she will join us in the Abyss.”
“No more tricks beast, I know Cristiana is safe in Helmcross helping with the defenses of the valley.” Berwyn reached the railing and hauled himself aboard. Except for the constant stench of death and flesh and gore surfaces, the deck looked like any other deck of a ship. But it was devoid of life, not a single person walked its decks or clambered across its rigging. Berwyn looked around for a second to make sure he was alone before taking off for the forecastle where the priest would be found.
“She is not there, she is deep in the earth below the surface of Anoria.”
“You lie, demon. No more tricks, for I am done with you.” Berwyn took several steps forward.
“Do I? How can you be sure?” And with that the presence receded from him, its grip slipped away.
Is it true Cristiana? Have you left Helmcross? With who? Where? Berwyn growled at not knowing and he was angry for allowing the abomination to get into his head.
“Time for you to die priest.” Blades at the ready, Berwyn charged down the deck toward the front of the ship.