Groad unrolled his bed-roll onto a patch of soft Artanian grass and cursed the fact that he would not be able to make any campfire tonight to warm himself, cook his meat or more importantly keep wild animals at bay. Even though he had taken precautions to be well hidden in a clearing behind a patch of thick shrubbery, a campfire, no matter how small, would still be visible for miles around.
It had been four days since he left Frybur. It had taken two days to travel across the plains of the Kazor Dee valley. Early this morning, before the sun had risen, he had crossed the H’yohr* river; the H’yohr forming a natural border between Kith and Artania.
Although the long war that had raged between the nations of Kith and Artania had ended a long time ago, there still existed many open and sensitive battle-wounds between the two countries. These were the festering psychological wounds of prejudice and contempt. These wounds would take much time and patience to heal. If Groad’s military exploits were well known in the countries beyond the Kriti Dakur, then the Son of Zemth’s name was definitely a household word amongst the barbaric nation that had been instrumental in shaping the future of the second most hated Kithian amongst the Artanians. Even dead, Zemth was still the most hated.
Groad had spent a good part of the late afternoon collecting large amounts of small dry twigs. These were not to be used as fuel for any fire, but were scattered in a wide circle around a large tree under which he intended to bed-down for the night. This was an old Kithian routine he had learned many cyclans ago from Zarkas. Should some form of predator approach a slumbering Kithian, it is hoped that a snapping twig will give a timely warning of the advancing danger. It was a labour that Groad abhorred. He had done this burdensome chore innumerable times, yet never once had it borne fruit. It did, somehow, give him a certain piece of mind that helped him to sleep with more ease.
Once across the border, Groad had maintained a very low profile. Keeping off the main roads and hiding from other travelers had made the progress towards Maggoth’s keep slow and frustrating. The little patience that he had was all but spent. He was a warrior and despised the fact that he was being forced to run and hide like some cringing coward. He knew that he would have to take command of this sense of irritability before he neared Maggoth’s keep. He would not be able to release these frustrated emotions in any battle cries or flamboyant swordsmanship. He would have to use stealth and every ounce of his cunningness to obtain the Eldritch Blade.
Although these were the chief problems that Groad faced, and over which he mainly pondered, there was something that had been nagging his subconscious since he left Frybur. These troublesome thoughts that simmered at the back of his head had eventually boiled over into his conscious mind. They were of the Thonatian called Beetor. There had been something strangely disturbing about the small bald man from Yarsi.
Groad knew for certain that he had never met or even spoken to an inhabitant from Thonatia, yet something about Beetor’s mannerisms and nasal sounding voice were all too familiar. Groad had definitely heard that whining voice somewhere before.
Groad had also been perturbed by the man’s uncanny knowledge. Beetor knew things about Kithian history that were unknown to most Kithians. It was also most unnatural for a foreigner to greet or wish blessings upon someone else in the name of a Kithian god, even if that someone else happened to be a Kithian. And how could Beetor have possibly known that the next golden sleeper would be placed opposite the mummified corpse of the great Kith himself.
A snapping sound in the darkness abruptly broke Groad’s train of thought. Something or someone had trodden on a dry twig. In an instant Groad had climbed to the first bough of the large tree. With sword ready he crouched low like some wild animal waiting to pounce. The moon had not yet risen, making visual location of any possible enemies that lurked within the inky blackness near impossible. Another twig snapped. Whoever or whatever it was, was definitely coming closer. And whoever or whatever it was, was definitely not careful about concealing its approach towards him.
Flashes of every predator that posed a threat to a short Kithian warrior passed swiftly through Groad’s mind and stopped abruptly at a horrible vision of the ugliest zin-za that he had ever imagined. He almost cursed himself for having such a vivid and fertile imagination, but realized that sound and logical reasoning backed his fears.
Grimwald forest, the normal habitat of the zin-za was merely a day’s ride from here. If some of the zin-zas had been reported as far south as Matmar, then it was possible that this area could be infested with the dreaded beasts. It was also a known fact that the zin-zas were chiefly nocturnal hunters, using their fine sense of smell to sniff out their prey.
A tremor ran through Groad’s body as he realized that the average height of a zin-za was about twenty feet. The branch he was crouching on was no more than fifteen feet above the ground. To move now would certainly give his position away.
Groad’s horse was tethered to the tree beneath him. He took comfort in this, remembering that whenever a hungry zin-za finds food it usually looks no further for any extra sustenance. The fact that the horse was showing absolutely no signs of nervousness, as it had done outside the cave at Frybur, was an added sense of security.
Groad stared hard, almost willing his eyes to see in the dark. Then he saw it. A small dark shape moving amongst darker shapes and shadows. He wondered if it was a forager trying to make some dishonest pickings. Artanian bandits were generally a cowardly lot. This meant that this uninvited guest would most likely not be traveling alone. He scanned the rest of the area, but could distinguish no other movement in the murkiness.
Although the figure in the dark was definitely trying to approach with stealth and caution, whatever or whoever was not doing a very good job of it. Every now and then a dry twig would snap or the grass would rustle. The figure eventually came to a halt directly beneath Groad and looked around in a nervous and puzzled manner.
There was no early evening breeze, and it was only now that Groad was able to sense the figure’s odour as it wafted up into the tree. Perhaps stench was a better word to be used for the offending smell that invaded his sensitive nostrils.
Groad knew at once whom the small figure was that stood below him. The reek was unmistakably the same as that of the Fryburian livery stable.
“Whatever possessed you to follow me into this godforsaken country, girl?” bellowed Groad angrily.
With just a hint of being startled, Turpane looked up into the leafy darkness. “Oh, there you are,” she said nonchalantly. “Why do you suppose the great Groad is hiding up a tree like some shivering rooniturb*? You do not suppose that he was frightened by the approach of the all-powerful Turpane Tinna, do you?”
“Dakur’s eyes!” cursed Groad leaping to the ground. “For one so small you certainly make a big noise!” Groad grabbed her by the shoulders. “Answer me, girl, why have you followed me here?”
“I thought that would be obvious!” said Turpane shrugging away from Groad. “Did you really expect me to be safe in Frybur after your idiotic display of male egotism?”
“Idiotic display was it? Is this the gratitude I get for sparing you from what would have been an extremely painful whipping?”
“You still do not seem to realize it! I was used to their frequent curses and physical abuses. There was no doubt that Coar Rel would let his humiliation by you pass without some form of retribution. Once you had left on your way to certain death at Maggoth’s keep, I feared for my own life.
“It was not long after that my fears were verified. Coar Rel disappeared into the ale-house. I knew that it would not be long before he had filled himself with enough of that vile false courage that is served in places of that sort. I knew too that my only chance for escape would be whilst he bloated his belly and the zin-za slept off its last meal. I hastily saddled Coar Rel’s finest stallion and, without looking back, rode out of Frybur. My only regret in leaving is that I did not get to see the look on Coar Rel’s face when he realized what I had done.”
*Refer to Glossary!With that said, Turpane disappeared back into the darkness from where she had come.
“By the elder gods!” guffawed Groad. “You certainly are a wild spirit for one who has only recently left her mother’s skirt. Whether you are a brave wild spirit or a foolish one, I shall still have to decide.” Although angry, Groad was highly impressed with the young female Valacian. Never before had he encountered such hot-bloodedness in any of the small people that lived southeast of the Kithian border. A short while later, she returned, leading a magnificent young thoroughbred. “How…?” said Groad about to ask a question.
“How was I able to follow you across Kith without your knowledge of it?” interrupted Turpane whilst tethering the horse next to Groad’s larger war-horse. “It was quite simple really. You are so obsessed with reaching Maggoth’s keep that your only concern has been for that which is ahead. Why should you have suspected that someone might be on your tail? And believe me, a war-horse that size leaves a very easy trail to follow.”
“You are correct,” said Groad. “This whole business has made me inattentive. I have to plan things more carefully or I might be meeting Dakur before the right time.”
“Dakur?” asked Turpane frowning. “Who is Dakur?”
“Death!” said Groad looking highly insulted.
“Yes!” said Groad irritated. “Dakur is the great god of death!”
“Oh!” said Turpane sarcastically. “The great god of death. There is a right time for meeting this Dakur is there?
Groad sat down with his back against the tree, pulled a dagger from the side of his leather boot and started to whittle a piece of wood. “You would not understand.” he muttered.
Turpane knew only too well the Kithian obsession with death. In fact, a favourite Valacian past time was telling jokes about Kithians in search of the perfect death. Unfortunately, some of these jokes had been retold a little too loudly under the influence of Valacian ale. Kithians with excellent hearing, but very poor senses of humour, had resulted in a few Valacians meeting anything but a perfect demise.
“And what does the great Groad consider to be the right time?” said Turpane sitting down cross-legged in front of Groad.
The moon had started to rise above the brush. Groad decided to use the moonlight for effect. He sat forward and scowled at Turpane, allowing the light to glint off his eyes.
“I said you would not understand!” he growled. “I have no desire to enter into a religious discussion with a wet-nosed gruntling.”
“A religious discussion? This is a religious discussion?” said Turpane leaning forward. She scowled back at Groad. “Are you trying to frighten me? Well it will not work on this wet-nosed gruntling.”
Groad sat back with a deep sigh putting the dagger back in his boot. Folding his arms he closed his eyes.
“Alright, let us change the subject.” The sarcasm was gone from her voice. “What is the Eldritch Blade?”
Groad’s eyes flashed open. “A sword with tremendous magical powers,” he said staring intently at the little Valacian girl.
“You intend to use this sword to destroy the zin-za?”
“I thought Kithian law forbade the use of the dark arts?”
“It forbids the practicing of the dark arts.”
“The practicing of the dark arts?” said Turpane, the sarcasm returning to her voice. “Oh, I see. It is forbidden to create a magical sword using sorcery and the dark arts, but it is permissible to use a sword created by sorcery and the dark arts?”
It was more important for Groad to convince himself rather than Turpane that he was right. The reason for this being that every fibre in his body was screaming that it was wrong. Yet, imploring even louder was the call of the Golden Sleep.
“Yes, of course.” he said rather unconvincingly. “An army of Kithian warriors are stranded in western Artania in the great Ira Hal Ak* wasteland. They face certain death by thirst or starvation. One of the Dark Wizards appears and uses his powers. He creates enough food and drink to sustain the army through the desert. Would it be right for them to refuse it and die or would it be right to partake and live?”
“Why would one of the Dark Wizards want to help an army of Kithian warriors in the middle of an Artanian desert?”
“That is not the point here. Just answer the question.”
“Wait, I know!” exclaimed Turpane squinting. She pointed a finger towards Groad. “It is a test. The Dark Wizard does not really want to help them. He only wants to find out if…”
“By the elder gods!” interrupted Groad slapping his forehead. “Just answer the question. Is it right to partake of the food and drink or not?”
“Hmm,” said Turpane pouting her lips, “Personally I believe it would be more wrong to allow oneself to perish if there is a means to survive.”
“Precisely!” smirked Groad.
“But, I use the expression more wrong because it is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.”
“So?” shrugged Groad.
“It is a matter of life and death.”
“So now you answer some questions.”
“Are you dying of thirst?”
“No!” said Groad angrily.
“Are you starving to death?”
“No!” even more angry.
“Did the food and drink created by the Dark Wizard have tremendous magical powers?”
“No!” bellowed Groad. “Now hush yourself. I have no desire to enter into an ethical debate with you!”
“Oh! First it was a religious discussion, now it is an ethical debate!”
“This is a matter of life and death you know!”
“The villagers of Frybur!”
“You want me to believe you are willing to risk your life for some worthless scum in a Valacian village. Their lives mean nothing to you. You are only interested in the gold!”
“It is not just Frybur. If the chooklas have managed to travel as far south as Matmar, then the whole of Kith could be infested with the beasts.”
these beasts could bring you much gold?”
“I expect so.”
“Ha! It is not a sense of duty or obligation that stirs you to action. It is a base desire called greed!”
“Yes, you are right.” said Groad staring up into the night sky. “I do want gold, but not the gold of which you think. My desire is noble. In fact, it is every true-blooded Kithian’s duty and obligation to seek and strive unrelentingly for that gold.”
“What gold is that?”
“The gold of the Golden Sleep.”
“The Golden Sleep?”
“Yes! It is an honour that is reserved only for the greatest Kithians. Kithians who have died great and glorious deaths. Kithians who can walk proudly in the presence of Dakur. Kithians who…”
“Groad!” interrupted Turpane.
“You are back on religion again.”
A long silence passed before Groad spoke again. “I have to get that sword.”
is your plan of action?”
“Yes, plan! I am sure that you do not intend to ride up to Maggoth’s keep, knock on the door and say, ‘Do you mind if I borrow your magical sword for awhile. Just until I have killed all the chooklas on Baltrath.’ ”
“Slark’s slime!” growled Groad. “Must you be so offensively whimsical?”
“If you find me offensive, it is because most Valacians have something which is importantly lacking in you Kithians.”
that would be?”
“A sense of humour. You take life; and especially death just too seriously.”
“I…we…we are not always serious. We do laugh as well.”
“Sometimes, yes, but never at yourselves.”
“Yes, at yourselves.”
“Why would we want to laugh at ourselves?”
“Is there nothing humorous about yourselves?”
“No, of course not!”
“Exactly!” smirked Turpane. “As I was saying, ‘No sense of humour.’ Do you know what your problem is?”
“You live life to die, when you should be living life to live.”
“But surely Valacians believe in an afterlife?”
“Then surely you must know that this life is no more than a test?”
“Yes, of course! This life is a test to see whether we are worthy of entering the existence of true importance.”
“But is it not possible at the same time to also simply enjoy the gift of being whilst seeking your kingdom of eternal happiness?”
gift of being?”
“Yes, being alive! Breathing, smelling, eating, drinking, loving, hearing, feeling, tasting and seeing the things around you. The sky, the trees, the mountains, the flowers!”
“Forget the flowers. Enjoy everything else!”
“We experience joy when gruntlings are born.”
“That has nothing to do with a sense of humour!”
“Not at all. You experience the same type of joy crushing an Artanian’s skull to pulp.”
“Well, it is humorous is it not?” smiled Groad wryly.
“I was wrong about you, Groad,” said Turpane grimacing. “You do have a sense of humour. A very twisted one.”
Another long silence passed before Turpane blurted, “You were about to tell me of your plan of action?”
“Well, if you expect me to help you, then it would be better if I know the plan as well.”
“What?” shouted Groad standing up. “Are you out of your tiny little Valacian mind? There is no way…”
“There is every way!” interrupted Turpane. “And you can not stop me. There is nothing left for me back in Frybur or anywhere in Valacia. I have no family, no friends and no future. I do not even have a past. I am not going back. You will have to kill me or tie me to a tree, because I am going to follow you all the way to Maggoth’s keep, and you know how easy it is for me to do that!” Groad was dumbstruck. He stood in front of Turpane gesticulating. His mouth was forming words, but no sounds were being produced. “Are you feeling alright?” asked Turpane with a worried look on her face. “It could be the moonlight, but you appear to be rather pale.” Groad raised his arms towards the night sky and stood there clenching and unclenching his fists. “You know what you look like?” she asked rhetorically. “You look just like a fanatical Wahmi Priest*.”
“Why me? Why me? Why me?” moaned Groad.
“Now you are even starting to sound like one!” Groad’s arms fell limply to his sides. He gave a heavy sigh and sat down against the tree again. He stared harshly at the young girl. “What?” she queried. Groad smiled. “What?” she said frowning. Groad started to chuckle. “What?” she repeated starting to smile herself. Groad threw his head back and roared with laughter. A rooniturb that had been roosting in a nearby tree gave wing with a startled cry. Turpane started to laugh as well. They laughed and laughed until tears were running down their faces. “Oh!” she exclaimed noticing the small scarlet rivulets on Groad’s cheeks. “You are hurt?”
“No,” said Groad wiping the blood from his jowls, “I am fine. It is just a Kithian thing.”
“They say that laughter is just a release of frustration.”
“We must both be very frustrated,” said Groad laughing again.
“You know, maybe your sense of humour is not too bad after all.”
“Well, thank you very very much,” said Groad reaching into his waist-pouch for a piece of dried salty meat. He cut it in two and handed half to Turpane. “What do you expect to gain from this daring enterprise?”
“I want the fifty gold pieces,” said Turpane biting into the meat.
“All fifty pieces?”
“And you call me greedy?”
“Listen carefully. I help you get the sword. You then use the sword to kill the zin-za at Frybur. You give me the gold, all of it. This will be my rather ironic revenge upon the Fryburian elders. After that, neither you nor the Fryburians will ever see me again. So then, you will still have the Eldritch Blade. Any further income which you may acquire by its use will be solely yours.”
Groad pondered this matter transiently. He definitely liked the idea. Two must surely be better than one. A small Valacian girl could probably go into places where a large Kithian warrior would not be able to fit. This would be most useful as extreme stealth and caution would be needed to gain the magical sword. What would fifty gold pieces be compared to the fortune he would amass with the Eldritch Blade in his possession. Fifty gold pieces would be a small price to pay in order to receive the honoured Golden Sleep. “I like it!” he exclaimed.
“It is a pact then?”
“A pact it is!”
“Then let us spit on it.” They both spat. “Ha, ha!” shouted Turpane clapping her hands together. “Now tell me the plan!”
“Well…I…I do not really have any set plan as such.”
“Now why does that not surprise me?” said Turpane disgustedly.
“Have you ever seen Maggoth’s keep?”
“Well, neither have I. In fact, I am positively sure that very few inhabitants of Baltrath have had the nerve to venture close to it. All I know is that the rumours say it lies somewhere in the Artanian marshlands. For all we know, that is all they may be, just rumours. My only plan right now is first to find the keep. Once we find it, we can then make further plans on how to gain access. I can tell you this though, we will have to use stealth, and be in and out as quickly as possible.”
“What? No Kithian war cry? No daring display of your magnificent strength and swordsmanship?”
“No!” said Groad knowing very well that Turpane was being sarcastic again. “Those methods will be of no use against the arcane forces wielded by a Dark Wizard. Our only hope is to be long gone with the Eldritch Blade before Maggoth notes its absence.”
“Do you assume that Maggoth is going to have the Eldritch Blade just lying around where anybody could simply walk in and steal it?”
“Well, what sort of plan do you suggest we follow?”
“I do not know,” said Turpane pouting her lips. “I believe we will have to go with yours for now.”
“At last, something of mine with which you do agree!”
“I am cold,” said Turpane folding her arms.
“That is because we are close to the marshlands. It is the moisture.”
“Let us make a fire.”
“No! I have no wish for this quest to be done scarcely before it has even begun. Lighting a fire might bring a band of curious Artanian cutthroats our way.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Just cautious. If word gets around that the Son of Zemth has crossed the border alone, every Artanian with a grudge against me will be saddling his horse to go off on a quest of his own.
“It must be wonderful to be notorious?”
“Famous!” exclaimed Groad. “I believe the correct word is famous. Listen, I will build you the biggest bonfire you have ever seen once we have crossed over the border again. Right now, try to get some sleep. You will need all the rest you can get. Tomorrow we must traverse the marshlands. It will not be easy-traveling.”
“I do not think that I will be able to fall asleep.”
“Are you afraid?”
“No. Just cold. Very very cold,” whined Turpane. An anguished look on her face, she eyed Groad’s bedroll and sighed.
“Oh, all right,” muttered Groad reluctantly.
“Thank you!” beamed Turpane jumping up.
“Wait!” shouted Groad. “When last did you bathe yourself?”
It was too late. Turpane wrapped herself up snuggly in Groad’s bedroll. “I am allergic to water!” she said closing her eyes and smiling.
“By the elder gods, girl!” grumbled Groad. “Stealth will be of little use to us if Maggoth can smell you coming from a great distance. It will take a cyclan of washing to get the stench out of my blankets. Tomorrow you…”
“Could you please keep quiet!” interrupted Turpane. “I am trying to get to sleep. You said it would not be easy-traveling. I need all the rest I can get.”
Groad kept quiet. After awhile Turpane fell asleep. Only when the moon was high in the sky did Groad eventually fall asleep as well. He was still sitting with his back against the tree.
Groad was right. The next day the journey was anything but easy-traveling.
After an early breakfast of herb-biscuits and some more dried meat they had set off in a southwesterly direction.
Just before noon, the vast Artanian marshlands stretched out before them. A first attempt to enter the morass on horseback had failed. Both horses were too large and heavy; they sank overly deep into the quagmire, making progress impossible. After returning to dry ground, they had tethered the horses in an ideally situated grove.
The second attempt, although successful, was painstakingly slow and extremely tiring. Each step was taken with deliberation as the black foul smelling mud sucked at their feet and legs.
Later in the day a breeze from the north brought a light mist. Although the mist did not retard their already slow progress, it did add a somewhat sombre atmosphere to their already dismal surroundings. By late afternoon the situation worsened somewhat.
Turpane saw it first. The skull grinned menacingly down at them from the pole on which it had been impaled. Some marsh bugs had taken up residence in the hollow eye sockets.
“I do not like the look of this!” said Turpane with a wry expression on her face.
“I like the look of it very much.” said Groad smiling.
“You would,” said Turpane gritting her teeth in disgust. “You Kithians have a perverted fascination with death, do you not?”
“It is not that!” said Groad pointing at the skull. “Do you not see? This is a message.”
“Yes, a message. Do you not see what it says?”
“Of course I can see what it says. In any language its saying, ‘Turn back or die!’”
“Exactly!” exclaimed Groad. “And who do you surmise put it there?”
“Of course! And look, another one!” said Groad pointing into the distance at a second similar warning sign. “Maggoth’s done us a favour. Instead of scaring us away, he’s going to lead us all the way to the keep.”
“He may not be scaring us away, but that does not mean that I am not afraid. I just hope that our heads do not also end up on poles in the middle of this marsh.”
“Be quiet, girl,” muttered Groad moving off towards the second skull. “It is not good to articulate such disheartening thoughts. True courage is being able to hide all signs of apprehension. Your enemy must never know that you are frightened. More important is that you never reveal your fear to your fellow warriors. Fear is a disease, it can spread like wildfire through the ranks.”
“Fellow warriors? Ranks? You talk as though we are going to war.”
“Correct! You must think of this as going into battle. Your thoughts must be only of victory. There can be no failure. Failure means death. There will be no second chances.”
“So, you are also scared then?” said Turpane trudging after Groad. “Just able to hide it well, hey?”
“I am not scared,” grumbled Groad insulted that someone should think him afraid.
“Liar!” teased Turpane. “I will wager that large Kithian heart of yours is racing like a stallion at full gallop.”
“Slark’s slime!” spat Groad spinning around. “What does it take to keep you quiet?”
“Now there is something else I had not thought of,” said Turpane looking around nervously.
“Slarks! You do not assume there might be slarks in this marsh, do you?”
Groad’s eyes darted back and forth across the turbid water, his large Kithian heart racing like a stallion at full gallop.
By early evening the mist had become more substantial and swirled about in eddies across the marshlands. Turpane imagined them to be the restless spirits of Maggoth’s unfortunate victims, and the eerie sound of the breeze passing through the marsh grass and trees, their tormented wailing. She felt it best not to share this fantasy with Groad as he still seemed unsettled since her query about the slarks.
“That is twenty-three!” she said with a hint of exhaustion in her voice.
“What?” said Groad turning around slowly. The going was tougher for him. Gravity pulled his larger mass deep into the mud so that he was forced to lift his legs high in order to take the next step forward. His left thigh muscle was starting to cramp.
“I said, ‘That is twenty-three.’”
“What is twenty-three?” frowned Groad rubbing his legs.
“That is twenty-three!” said Turpane pointing to an impaled skull in the distance.
“You have been counting them?”
“Not much else to do,” she said pulling her mouth askew. “Count skulls and swat insects. You are not much of a conversationalist.”
“Twenty-three, hey?” Turpane affirmed with a slow nod. Groad gave an enormous sigh, and then looking around said, “Let us find some dry ground and rest for awhile.”
They sat with their backs against an old dead tree. Groad handed out some more herb-biscuits and meat. The moon, although high, was hazy and dim behind the curtain of mist. The breeze had turned painfully cold, and the small marsh creatures had become annoyingly noisy. Turpane pulled her legs close up to her chest and pressed her face against her thighs.
“This reminds me a lot of my youth and the Ana Iram,” said Groad proudly, his mouth full of biscuits. “I spent almost a quarter cycle of a moon inside the great Ana Weezi. I had been naked and alone.”
“Correct me if I am wrong,” said Turpane lifting her head, “But you sound as though you are starting to enjoy our insane excursion?”
“Alone and naked for a quarter moon, you start to learn things about yourself. Things that you never dreamed possible. The body is a complex survival organism. When threatened or starving, it is able to react as you would never have thought possible.”
“Could we change the subject?”
“Do you know that I ate bumbas to survive? Not the brightly coloured ones though; they are extremely poisonous. At first I just caught the smaller ones so that I would be able to swallow them whole.”
“Please change the subject!”
“Most would say that the brain rules the body. This is probably true, but in the end it is the stomach that rules the brain. You see, the mind finds it hard to comprehend that it is fundamentally harmless to place an ugly living creature in your mouth, chew it and then swallow. If the stomach is hungry enough, it will convince the brain, with very little effort, that it is acceptable.”
“Do I really have to listen to your nauseating philosophies whilst I am eating?”
Groad only half-heard Turpane’s complaint. He was staring into the distance. He pointed into the mist. “Look,” he whispered, biscuit crumbs falling from his gaping jaw.
“I do not see anything.”
“Just keep looking. Wait for the mist to open again.”
The mist cleared for a moment and Turpane saw it. A shimmering sheet of rippling light fragments. It appeared similar to the effect intense heat causes above desert sand.
“What is it?” asked Turpane.
“Let us find out,” said Groad standing up. He jumped down off the small island into the black mud and squelched cautiously towards the weird glimmering sight. Turpane watched as Groad faded into the mist. She scrunched her eyes closed, willing her ears to hear any sound that Groad might make above the cacophony of the nocturnal marshlands.
A long time passed. She was starting to get anxious when Groad materialized through the moist swirling whiteness.
“Come look at this!” he shouted, beckoning to her, “It is uncommonly strange.”
“What is it?” she asked following after Groad.
“I do not know!” he shouted without looking back. “I have never seen anything like it. Look!”
Turpane stared transfixed at the translucent undulating wall. Beyond the wall she could make out the distorted images of some black jagged rocks.
“It is like liquid glass,” said Groad. “I wonder how it manages to stay erect like that?”
The size of the wall could not be determined as its summit and sides both disappeared into the mist.
“I believe I can guess what this is,” said Turpane looking worried.
“It is a product of the dark arts. It is some sort of mystical barrier created and placed here by Maggoth’s sorcery. The keep must be on the other side.”
“I do not know about that. I stuck my sword through it just awhile ago. It did not do the weapon any harm!”
“Did you stick your hand through?”
“Well, try it!”
“Why do you not try it?”
“Are you scared?”
“You are lying again!”
“There is a difference between being scared and being careful!” said Groad looking around. “Let us see if we can find a bumba or something.”
“Are you still hungry?”
“No!” said Groad agitated. “We can tie the bumba to a stick and push it through the barrier. If it comes back unharmed, then…”
“Then you will eat it!”
“By the elder gods, girl!” said Groad angrily. “I will wager the residents of Frybur are only too happy to be rid of an irritating little waif like you.”
Turpane looked hurt. “If you will not do it, then I will!” she said moving closer to the barrier, her arm stretched out.
“Wait!” said Groad forcing her arm down. “I will do it.”
Pushing Turpane gently backwards, he raised his left arm and then very slowly pushed a finger into the barrier. The impression was similar to that of stirring a thick liquid, only there was no sensation of wetness. He hastily drew it back out again and carefully scrutinized the digit. For a brief moment, a bluish corposant flickered on his fingertip.
“Is it painful?” asked Turpane frowning.
“No, it merely tingles.”
“Let me try it as well,” she said sticking her arm into the barrier. She pushed it in all the way up to her elbow. After withdrawing it, her whole arm radiated with the same eerie bluish glow. “It looks beautiful,” she remarked waving the arm slowly in front of her face.
“It does not make any sense. The barrier does not prevent us from entering nor does it do us any harm. What purpose could it possibly serve?”
“While you try to fathom it out, I shall be waiting for you on the other side,” said Turpane stepping towards the barrier.
“Wait!” shouted Groad trying to stop her. He was too slow. Turpane stepped through the shimmering wall.
Groad could see her on the other side. The optical aberration caused by the rippling effect of this strange lattice made her look grotesque. This did not disturb Groad, for he could see that she was unmistakably beckoning for him to follow.
Closing his eyes and holding his breath, Groad stepped forward, his arms outstretched. Once again he felt the same sensation of being immersed in a dense mercury-like liquid. As his chin touched the barrier, he felt his hands exiting into the air on the other side. Then, as his head passed through the wall of quivering light, his mind was abruptly filled with a peculiar vision. He saw an enormous red gemstone. A ruby, broader and taller than the largest Kithian warrior. In the centre, suspended like an insect in amber, levitated a darkly clad figure with long white hair and beard.
Groad sensed for a moment that his body was not displacing this unnatural substance as he passed through it, he imagined that it was instead, passing through him. It was as if his molecules were sharing the same space as those of the barrier. Emerging on the other side he shook his head, not only to clear it of these bizarre apparitions and speculations, but also because he thought that his ears were blocked.
“That was not so bad, now was it?” asked Turpane smiling.
It was only when she had spoken that Groad realized his ears were fine. The complete silence on this side of the barrier was even more disturbing than the relentless din it had replaced.
“Do you hear that?” whispered Groad, his whole person aglow.
What?” asked Turpane whispering as well.
“Yes, nothing. I can not hear any other sounds except for those we make. No wind. No insects. Nothing.”
“You are right.”
“And look, no mist.”
“This is unquestionably the work of sorcery.”
“Why are we whispering?”
“I do not know,” said Groad in a normal tone. He studied the terrain. The ground on this side of the barrier was firm and void of moisture and completely barren. Staring past Turpane he exclaimed loudly, “Dakur’s eyes!”
“What?” asked Turpane quickly turning.
A frequent phenomenon that happens to most people at some time or other in their life is that occurrence when one does not see an object that one is seeking, even though that object is right in front of them. The reason probably being because the item sought after is too close to the seeker or perhaps so enormous that the eye does not perceive it in its entirety. The latter was true in this instance. The keep was a construction of staggering proportions. It had been built entirely from roughly hewn black stone. It towered above the marshlands, consisting of five tiers. Five enormous cubic sections. Each section being slightly smaller and narrower than the previous one, creating a stepped formation on all four sides. Each tier had a battlement on its upper perimeter, and on the corner of each of these elevations, hewn from the same black rock, sat a gargoyle in perpetual vigilance.
All the sections had stairs running diagonally up, on all sides, from corner to corner.
The design, although plain, was still magnificently awe-inspiring. Looking at it, even from a great distance, Groad and Turpane could not help but feel a little more than puny and insignificant.
“Are you thinking what I am thinking?” asked Turpane.
“Maybe we should turn back?”
“We have come a long way just to turn back.”
“I knew that is what you would say,” said Turpane walking off in the direction of the keep. “I hope we have not come a long way just to get slaughtered?”
Groad gazed into the sky. With the mist gone, the moon shone brightly, yet its radiance still seemed to be slightly diminished. It seemed to Groad that he was not looking at the moon itself, but at its reflection from the surface of a large lake. It took him only an instant to identify the cause. The barrier they had just passed through was not merely an encircling wall, but an immense dome that enclosed the entire keep from the world without. Groad was looking at the moon through the shimmering, light-bending barrier.
“I think we may have underestimated the power that this wizard possesses!” shouted Groad following after Turpane. “We shall have to be even more cautious from now on.”
“You are right,” said Turpane over her shoulder, “I had a bad premonition back there.”
“This is not the time to start getting superstitious.”
“I know, but I could not help it. The image just sort of jumped into my mind.”
“It is difficult to explain, but I think I saw Maggoth.”
“You saw Maggoth?” said Groad skeptically. “And what was Maggoth doing? Was he busy frying us in a cauldron of boiling oil?”
“No, he was not doing anything. He was just lying there. He seemed to be inside a massive ruby.”
Groad stopped in his tracks. The hair on his arms and neck stood up like the barbs on a shora.
High in the keep an ancient being of vast power stirred within his translucent, crimson sarcophagus. He had dreamed that a Kithian warrior and a Valacian girl had trespassed into his domain. The dream was disturbing, and being disturbed, Maggoth began to awaken from his long rest.
Groad and Turpane crouched low behind some large boulders studying the entrance to the keep. It had an ominous look about it. Above the gateway, evenly spaced, were two large octagonal lookout portals. In between these, slightly lower, was a smaller triangular opening. The gateway was semi-circular in shape and had a lowered portcullis blocking the entrance.
“It looks like an enormous skull,” whispered Turpane.
“I think it was the architect’s idea to make it appear as foreboding as possible. It is very clever. The idea of entering the keep through the maw of death has presumably changed the minds of many uninvited guests.”
“I do not think that these two uninvited guests will be entering through that maw either. In case you did not notice, the entrance happens to be sealed off.”
“Remember I told you about the Ana Iram?”
“You spent a quarter cycle of the moon inside the Ana Weezi eating poor defenseless bumbas.”
“That is not the only trial of the Ana Iram. The second test I had to pass was to scale the sheer cliffside of the magnificent Chaxer-Ran and bring back two feathers of an ana-rod noc. I did not comprehend it at first, but the Ana Iram prepares all future Kithian warriors, not only mentally but physically also, for most of the difficulties and dangers that they may have to confront in life. Do you know that I once scaled the fortress tower of the self-proclaimed pirate king of the Tsaltian Islands? Whilst he and his mate slept, I removed the jewels that were encrusted in their fancy bed. To scale the sides of this keep will be a far simpler task.”
“I do not believe this Ana Iram of yours makes better warriors. Better thieves perhaps, but not better warriors.”
“Groad began to strip off his body armour.
“What now? Are you planning to bathe?”
“I have to rid myself of extra weight!” said Groad removing his boots. “I am going to need all fingers and toes to help me climb.”
“Just like a tibor,” smiled Turpane. “Is that why they gave you that name?”
“No!” growled Groad. “Because I enjoy ripping out the throats of small sarcastic loud-mouthed Valacian gruntlings! Now wait here until I signal you! And do not forget to bring my belongings!”
Groad slung his sword over his back and ran crouching towards the keep. Besides the sword, his only item of clothing was a small loincloth.
Turpane sniggered as Groad sprinted from boulder to boulder, his buttocks glistening in the moonlight. She fancied that the pirate king and his mate had been lucky not to awaken to the sight of a half-naked Groad ransacking their bed. They would most likely have died from the shock.
Groad reached the outer wall of the fortress. He peeked through the openings in the portcullis. Then with a swiftness and ease that would have impressed even the most agile tibor, he climbed to the top of the portcullis, swung an arm round into the triangular opening and pulled himself up.
Turpane watched as Groad disappeared into the nasal cavity of the enormous skull. She waited, scanning for any further signs of movement. Was Groad looking for a rope to pull her up through that same orifice? Was he busy fending off a horde of demon warriors conjured up by Maggoth’s sorcery? Perhaps he had decided to search alone for the Eldritch Blade?
A high pitched squeaking sound from the gateway made her crouch even lower. Was it the death knell of a demon or of Groad himself? She stared between a cleft in the rocks, afraid to blink in case she might fail to see something of importance; something like a flock of winged demons soaring from the battlements in search of other intruders who may try to breach their master’s abode. She could hear her heart thumping in her ears.
The sound came again; cutting into her already frayed nerves. This time she saw the cause of the sound. It was the portcullis. It was slowly being raised. The ancient chains and gears groaned and whined as the sharp fangs of the skull slowly retracted into the cold black masonry. What nameless abominations were going to exit from that dark portentous portal to hunt her down and slay her like some common vermin? She was almost about to flee when a single figure walked out of the blackness into the moonlight.
Even at a distance it was not difficult for her to recognize the half-naked figure. Groad was beckoning to her. She gathered up his belongings and sprinted towards the entrance.
Inside the courtyard, Groad again donned the armour and boots.
“Were there no guards?” whispered Turpane looking across the vast square.
“No one. Nothing.”
“I do not like it.”
neither. It always bothers me when things seem to be too easy.”
“Like the stillness before a storm.”
“Exactly, but let us not be ungrateful for this time of clear weather.”
“The place is enormous. Where should we start to look?”
“If you had a magical sword, where would you keep it?”
“Up there,” said Turpane pointing to the top of the keep.
“Then let us get going. It is not much longer before daybreak. We do not want to lose the cover of darkness.”
They ran cautiously across the open courtyard towards the large stone stairs that ran diagonally up the side of the base tier. There was no balustrade, so they climbed the stairs as close to the wall as possible. At the top of the base tier they paused for awhile to catch their breath and to study the huge carved figure of the gargoyle that was perched on the corner of the battlement. It stared down menacingly, its lips pulled back revealing two sets of razor-sharp teeth; bat-like wings arched over its head and it held out a gnarled claw towards them.
“Marshlands, impaled skulls, a mystical barrier, a skull shaped entrance; and now this,” sighed Turpane. “Are you still sure you want to continue?”
“Yes,” said Groad staring at the top of the keep. “Be brave. Not much further to go now.”
“It has nothing to do with bravery. An intelligent person would have turned back a long time ago. I am just wondering what other surprises this place has to offer?”
“That,” whispered Groad pulling Turpane down behind the battlement.
“There at the base of the second stairs,” said Groad pointing. “You are really not going to like this.”
Turpane slowly raised her head and peered through the opening in the battlement.
An enormous red gemstone stood at the foot of the next tier. Even at a distance and in moonlight, it was possible to see the figure within the giant ruby.
Turpane collapsed into a sitting position, her back against the battlement; her arms folded. Staring in front of her, she started to rapidly ramble, “Maggoth. Maggoth. Maggoth.”
“Be quiet, girl!” growled Groad staring at the ruby.
“Told you so. Told you so. Told you so,” she hissed gritting her teeth and glaring at Groad. “You did not want to believe me. You did not want to believe me. You did not want to…”
“Dakur’s eyes, girl!” interrupted Groad snarling. “I said, ‘be quiet!’”
“Be quiet he says? We are about to die and he wants me to be quiet!”
“Hush!” spat Groad. “There is nothing happening!”
“We are going to die. We are going to die. We are going to…What did you say?”
“I said, ‘There is nothing happening over there!’”
Turpane stood up and peered through the gap again. There was not anything happening.
“I do not think that he has seen us,” said Groad. “I want you to wait here. I am going to make a dash for the wall on the other side. He will not be able to see me approaching from there.”
“I am not going to stay here by myself!”
“You must. When I reach the other side I will not be able to see him either. You will be able to see both of us from here. I am going to work my way along the wall towards him. If you see any movement or anything strange happening, warn me.”
Groad sprinted across the open area towards the wall of the next tier section.
Turpane stared at the ruby, biting her thumbnail.
Groad reached the wall and drew his sword. His back to the wall, his eyes on Turpane, he began to move slowly towards the base of the steps. Turpane’s eyes danced continuously back and forth between the massive gemstone and Groad. He reached the place where the wall indented, becoming steps. He gave one final glance towards Turpane. She did not indicate that there was any form of danger, so he cautiously peered around the bottom section of the stairs. He quickly pulled his head back, allowing his mind to develop an image of what he had just witnessed. The image was similar to the one that had entered his mind earlier when he had passed through the mysterious barrier. A form entombed inside what appeared to be an enormous ruby. The image was similar yet different. This shape was not elderly in appearance or even darkly clad.
Groad took another look, this time with a little more confidence. The figure inside the crimson cocoon was a young Artanian warrior. Groad knew this from the discernible attire and unmistakable Artanian helmet. The youth held a sword above his head. Groad fancied that he seemed to have been instantaneously petrified. Immobilized at a point whilst doing battle. He walked once around the ruby before using the underside of his arm to rub away a thick layer of dust that had settled on the upper section. He now had a better view of the youth’s facial expression. The eyes were open, staring at some unseen foe.
“It is not the same!” blurted Turpane just behind Groad.
Groad’s heart missed a beat.
“Slark’s slime, girl! Do not go creeping up on me like that!”
“This is not the same image I witnessed in the premonition!” she said gazing up into the gemstone.
“Come we do not have much time. We must continue the search.”
“Do you not think that something like this could be worth a small fortune?”
“I have no desire to try and lug such a large and bizarre item back across the marshlands. Now come!”
They climbed the next set of stairs.
There were two things about the figure that had disturbed Groad. One was the fact that the attire worn by the youth was a crude outdated suit of armour used by the Artanians long before the Kithian border wars that had ended over ten cyclans ago. The second was the expression on the young warrior’s face; it was a facial cast of utter terror.
They continued making their way to the summit of the black stone keep. They passed more of these mysterious figures; all suspended in the same mysterious fashion within crimson gemstones.
The figures differed from each other. Although most were recognizably Artanian, some wore armour or garments that were more refined or improved. Some wore no more than coarse animal skins and wielded clubs or simple flint knives. Most were covered in a fine layer of dust. All had one thing in common, a facial expression of extreme fear. It was as if beings from Baltrath’s past had been frozen in time in order that they could be displayed upon the stairs and battlements of this keep for all eternity.
Groad and Turpane circumnavigated the base of the final tier before ascending to the roof. There had been no visible entrances to the keep below; there were no visible entrances above either.
Far in the distance, the horizon was starting to redden.
“Dakur’s eyes!” cursed Groad looking towards the impending promise of sunrise. “We must hurry if we hope to finish our work here before the cover of darkness slips away.
“It does not seem as though we can gain access to the keep from the roof,” said Turpane looking around. “Nothing up here except this altar!”
The altar had been placed in the centre of the roof. It was fashioned from the same black stone, but unlike the rest of the keep, it had been polished to a high gloss. There were strange illustrations and hieroglyphics hewn into all four sides. The pictures were of dragons and moons and beings that seemed to be emitting rays of light. The beings were holding onto circles or rings that were joined together at a central point.
“I am exhausted,” said Turpane sitting down with her back against the altar. “We should have checked each of the levels for any signs of an entrance. If we have got to go back down again then I intend to first take a rest.”
Groad walked to the edge of the roof.
“Not a single opening! No windows! Nothing!” he said peering down over the battlement. “We shall have to work our way back down again!” He walked over to Turpane and sat down next to her. “Let us first replenish our strength,” he said handing out the last of the meat and biscuits.
“Maybe we are being over cautious. Perhaps Maggoth is not even inside the keep. He could be out there somewhere!” said Turpane gesturing in no specific direction. “He could be saving some unfortunate village from a zin-za’s hungry rampage. And if that is the situation, then he would have taken the Eldritch Blade along with him.”
“Even so, it means that we can look this place over thoroughly and return whenever we are sure that the magic sword is here.”
“We cannot be sure that Maggoth is the only occupant of this cursed keep. There could be numerous dangerous entities conjured up by him in order to guard this place.”
“Just as long as they can all be stopped with the edge of a double-sided blade.”
“I am still hungry,” said Turpane not at all impressed with Groad’s bravado.
“Here,” he said handing her the biscuit pouch. “There may still be some crumbs for you to lick up.”
She emptied the crumbs out next to the base of the altar. She wet her finger and was about to dab the end into the frugal leftovers when an air current dispersed them across the rooftop.
“What is the correct Kithian expression again?” she asked looking highly annoyed. “‘Dakur’s eyes or slark’s slime?’”
“Strange,” said Groad staring at the place where the crumbs had been, “I never felt any breeze. He put his cheek against the base of the altar.
“This is not a good time to take a nap!”
“I believe that I may just have found the entrance!” said Groad smiling.
“Come feel this,” he said holding a flat hand against the foot of the altar.
Turpane felt it. There was a warm air current flowing from beneath the base of the altar. Groad stood up and walked to the other side of the large stone block.
“Look at this!” he said pointing to some semi-circular abrasions in the surface of the stone roof. “If I am right, this entire slab of stone should be able to swivel on some form of pivot.”
“Groad, you are a genius!” exclaimed Turpane, her eyes beaming.
Groad walked back around again to the other side of the altar.
“Stand back,” he said placing his shoulder against the upper end of the large block of polished stone. He heaved with all his might. There was a scraping sound as the altar started to move.
“You were right!” shouted Turpane from the other side. “Keep going! I can see the entrance!”
The altar swung round ninety degrees revealing an opening with stairs leading down into obscurity. Groad and Turpane stood staring into the black orifice.
“Well, I guess we had better go in,” said Turpane swallowing a lump in her throat.
“Stay close behind me,” whispered Groad unsheathing his sword. He descended into the darkness brandishing the weapon in front of him. They halted at the bottom of the steps allowing their eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.
A long corridor led off from the base of the stairs. There was a pinkish luminescence in the distance. They crept to the end of the passageway, which opened up, into a larger parlour; a room of indeterminate dimensions due to the fact that most of it lay in shadow. Shadow caused by an enormous radiating ruby that hovered horizontally a few feet above the floor on the far side of the chamber. They warily approached the floating vermilion gemstone.
“Now, that is exactly what I saw in my premonition!” exclaimed Turpane gazing down at the sleeping form.
The figure reclined in a prostrate position within the large translucent sarcophagus. If this was Maggoth, he appeared to be rather old and feeble. The eyes were closed and the long hair and beard were the colour of newly fallen snow. They contrasted against the long pitch black sweeping raiment that he wore. Around the neck was a chain to which was attached a large greenish-white amulet. The amulet rested on his upper chest, was ring-shaped and contained strange markings. The hands were folded across the lower chest, clasping the hilt of a sheathed sword. The far end of the scabbard rested upon the tips of two pointed boots.
“Three questions,” said Turpane unable to remove her gaze from the glowing encasement. “Is this Maggoth? Is he dead or just sleeping? Is that the Eldritch Blade?”
“Hmm! He doesn’t seem to be very powerful and the sword seems very ordinary. “Only one way to find out.”
“Smash open the ruby?”
“Smash open the ruby!”
Groad raised his sword and brought the back of the hilt down hard against the gemstone.
They both inspected the surface of the red translucent carapace.
“Not a mark!” exclaimed Turpane.
Groad struck the ruby several more times, all with the same result.
“Try one of those,” said Turpane pointing to the wall.
Two battle-axes hung crossed upon the wall beneath a large metal shield.
Groad replaced his sword in its sheath and lifted one of the battle-axes from its support.
“If this does not work, we shall have to try some way to haul the cursed thing up to the roof and drop it over the edge,” he said raising the axe above the giant gemstone.
With all his might, he brought the cutting edge of the axe-head crashing down. The sound of the two surfaces meeting reverberated around the chamber and through Groad’s eardrums as well. He threw the battle-axe to the floor and stepped forward. He rubbed the smooth surface, checking for any signs of damage.
“Nothing!” he exclaimed. “Not even a scratch!”
Although Groad’s eyes were focused on the surface, something beyond, something lower down, attracted his attention. It was the reclining figure’s eyes. They were no longer closed. They were glowing, a shimmering mass of crimson energy. The figure no longer appeared impotent. In fact, he looked quite menacing and seemed positively agitated and furious.
“Slark’s slime!” exclaimed Groad stepping backwards.
“What is wrong?” asked Turpane, a worried look on her face.
“One of your questions has just been answered!”
“The figure is definitely not dead!”
Turpane’s blood turned to ice.
The massive gemstone began to lift into an upright position. The figure glared down at them from within its hovering protective shell.
No coaxing was necessary. Both Groad and Turpane bolted towards the passageway. They ran down the corridor and clambered up the stairs.
Turpane was first to reach the blocked entrance. The altar had mysteriously moved back over the opening. Groad would not be able to get any form of leverage from below to shift the enormous mass.
“What do we do now?” pleaded Turpane almost hysterically.
“Girl, you may now do all the shouting you wish,” said Groad unsheathing his sword and walking back down the passage. “Me? Well, I do not intend to die without a fight!”
Groad boldly entered the parlour. The figure had not moved, but the crimson encasement had started to liquefy. Like thick syrup it oozed down, pooling on the floor below. Turpane peeked around the corner just as the last of the strange substance dripped from the dark figure’s boot.
“Ah!” exclaimed the figure staring down at Groad. The voice was eloquent and refined “The entertainment has arrived. It has been rather dull around here for some time now. Well, what is it you do? Dance? Sing? Juggle? No, I don’t believe so. Hmm, I would imagine what you do best is… die! Ah, but forgive me. First let me introduce myself!”
“We know who you are,” stuttered Turpane stepping forward. She attempted to sound as unassuming as possible. “You are none other than, Maggoth, lord of the Dark Wizards! Sorcerer Supreme! Master of the dark arts. The greatest…”
“Enough!” interrupted the figure raising a hand. “You know who I am, and yet you still have the gall to enter my keep?”
“Silence!” shouted Maggoth, once again interrupting Turpane. “You will both make splendid additions to my collection of uninvited guests. I already have a number of Kithian warriors, but I have yet to acquire a Valacian whelp. I presume that you saw my collection on your way up? It is actually most difficult to avoid. I placed them all over the keep in the hope of discouraging hopeful pilferers. Through time and the ages many like you have tried to violate this keep in search of precious stones and gold. The only riches they gained are the crimson tombs that entrap them now for all eternity!”
“We came not seeking precious stones or gold!” shouted Groad boldly. The adrenaline pumping through his system was now in charge of his vocal organs.
“No?” queried Maggoth bending his head slightly forward.
“No! We came for that!” Groad pointed at the sword in the Dark Wizard’s hand. “The Eldritch Blade!”
Maggoth appeared puzzled; even worried.
“You know of the Eldritch Blade?” he asked grasping the sword to his chest.
“Yes, it is a magical sword capable of slicing through any material with incredible ease.”
There was a short silence.
“Is that all?” inquired the Dark Wizard.
“What else should there be?”
Maggoth threw his head back and laughed. This did not make Groad or Turpane feel any less uneasy; instead, the sense of impending doom was dramatically increased.
“You really do not have any idea of this blade’s true power and significance, do you?” asked Maggoth smiling. “Was it Kronos who sent you?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about!” exclaimed Groad. “I am here of my own accord.”
“I seriously doubt that, Groad of Bryntha!” Groad was startled at the sound of his own name. “But where are my manners? Let me make this place more hospitable.” With a single gesture, Maggoth ignited some oil lampstands as well as a roaring fire in a gigantic hearth.
The chamber did not become more receptive at all. The illumination revealed only further disturbing sights. On the far side of the room, in front of the fireplace, stood a magnificent rectangular banquet table. Thirteen chairs surrounding the table. In all, but one, there was seated a ghastly occupant. Twelve skeletal warriors sat motionless. The light from the flames reflected off their battle-armour. They sat upright, their calciferous arms resting on the table; the thin white phalanges of their bony hands placed on either side of the hilt of a double-edged sword.
“Meet my generals!” announced Maggoth waving an arm towards the dozen stationary wraiths.
Groad warily approached the bizarre scene. It was a grotesque duplication of a Kithian War Council. He noticed that some of the swords did not have the customary encrusted rubies; they were plain or Artanian in appearance. Not all these members were or had been Kithian.
“Is that for me?” queried Groad pointing his sword towards the vacant seat at the head of the table.
“Please!” said Maggoth sarcastically. “Do not flatter yourself. That chair is already spoken for. It belongs to my Chief General.”
“And who would that be?”
“Oh, an old friend of yours. I believe he has a few points which he would like to discuss with you.”
“I doubt that I would find any friends of mine in a place like this!” snarled Groad.
“ No? It is amazing what interesting things one can find in a zin-za’s lair!” said Maggoth with a mischievous grin and then shouted, “Chief General!”
An enormous armour-clad warrior stepped out from the shadows in the far corner of the chamber.
“Yes, my lord!” said the figure bowing his head to Maggoth. “How may I be of service to you?”
Groad immediately recognized the distinguishable and unique suit of armour worn by the Chief General.
“There is someone here who I am sure you will be pleased to see. He is just dying to see you!”
The warrior lifted his head. The skull inside the helmet was void of any optic organs, yet Groad could feel the cold permeating stare that propagated from the two dark orifices. Above these empty cavities was a smaller opening, a neat round aperture approximately the size of a Kithian shaft-point.
“Groad!” snarled the grinning skull. “I have waited a long time for this day, Gu Tibor!”
“Not now, Gu Shora!” exclaimed Maggoth floating to the floor. There will be enough time for your cheerful reunion later!”
“Yes, my lord!” said Zarkas humbly bowing his head. He then walked over to the grotesque gathering and took his place at the head of the table.
“First things first!” said the Dark Wizard bending down. He caressed the surface of the vitreous vermilion pool. It reacted similar to a parlour pet being stroked. It undulated, pulsating as if it were alive and capable of coherent thought.
Groad found the sight disturbing and disgusting, similar to that of fondling a slark.
“The small one,” whispered Maggoth pointing across the room at Turpane.
Like a large slug the crimson blob started to slither with uncanny swiftness across the stone floor towards the small Valacian girl.
For the first time in her brief existence Turpane felt the grip of pure unrestrained terror. The blood drained from her face. Her violet eyes and purple lips contrasted horribly against the paleness of her skin. Unreasoning panic took over her logical thought processes. She rushed to the far corner, her back to the wall.
Groad could see that she had acted irrationally. She was trapped. She tried to make a dash past the advancing crimson mass, but with lightning speed it shot out a long tentacle blocking her path. She retreated to the corner again to await her fate.
Sheathing his sword, Groad hastily retrieved the fallen battle-axe. Perhaps the strange substance could be harmed or damaged in its present form. He rushed over to the corner slamming the axe-head into the unwieldy mass. There was a sickly sucking sound as the weapon entered the bulky body, but other than that, it had made no prolific influence. The mass continued to advance on the hysterical girl. It enveloped her sandaled feet creeping up the slender legs.
Turpane screamed, kicking at the predatory substance. The viscous material was too adhesive. It clung to her thighs like pitch.
Groad tried scraping the substance off with the axe-head, but to no avail. He eventually stumbled back, letting the axe fall at his feet in disgust. He could only watch helplessly as the mass next engulfed her torso.
Turpane reached out to Groad, her eyes pleading for his assistance, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Groad wheeled around. It made him nauseous to witness this scene knowing that he was absolutely impotent to aid her.
“By the elder gods, Maggoth,” pleaded Groad, his eyes turning blood-red, “If you have anything of a heart within that black frame of yours, stop that thing now! She is but a gruntling!”
“How touching!” said Maggoth sitting down. There was no chair to sit on, but he was seated. It seemed as though he sat upon a large invisible throne that was now drifting slowly upwards. “A Kithian with paternal instincts? What next? A dancing zin-za? Do not worry Kithian, I can assure you it is really quite a painless event. I should know, I have been through it many times myself.” The Dark Wizard threw his head back and laughed.
“I beg you!” shouted Groad rushing forward, hands cupped in the air “Let the girl go. Take me instead!”
“But Groad,” said Maggoth with an evil grin, “I already have you!”
Groad’s arms fell limply to his sides. He turned around. The small Valacian was totally imbibed within the massive amoebic entity.
Turpane was trying to scream, but the gelatinous substance was crawling down her windpipe, filling the entire cavities of her lungs to bursting. She moved one foot forward in a last attempt to flee; to burst free from the engulfing horror, but this was so much more difficult than it had been trudging through the mire of the Artanian marshlands. She remembered a similar sensation she had once felt whilst sleeping. She had dreamed of trying to run from some terrible danger, but her feet had become as two enormous heavy blocks of metal. She had first grasped at one leg, using both hands to slowly, methodically lift and move it forward; then the other. She had even grasped at the long grass and the trees in front of her, pulling herself forward, trying desperately to get away from the pursuing terror. It had not helped. At the last moment, just before the horror was upon her, she had awakened from the dream in a cold sweat.
This was no dream. It was cold hard reality, yet she kept thinking to herself, “Wake up! Wake up! It will all be alright if I can just wake up!”
Outside, the world had all turned into a blurry red haze. She knew the grotesque creature staring at her to be Groad; his image distorted by the refractive properties of the translucent heaving material.
The distorted features began to focus, become more defined, as the scarlet substance gelled, hardening into the shape of a beautifully trap-cut gemstone.
Turpane could not move a single part of her anatomy so much as a hairs-width in any direction. She could not blink or even roll her tongue.
She tried to breathe, but it was as if an unseen hand were clamping her mouth and nostrils closed. Hysterical frenzy prickled along each and every nerve ending of her small Valacian body. The only sound she could hear was the sound of her own heart pounding against her eardrums.
Oh, how she wished it possible to close her eyes. Why had she not closed her eyes just before the terrible mass had covered her head? She wanted to scream, writhe, thrash, twist, rip, claw, bite and kick about fervidly. Unable, she tried the next best thing.
Turpane stared at the darkest part of the room, forcing her eyes to focus beyond the blackness until her vision blurred. She was now able to create a visual image of herself. An image that screamed, writhed, thrashed, twisted, ripped, clawed, bit and kicked about fervidly. This seemed to help, for she heard the sound of her erratic heart starting to slow. Lub dub, lub dub. It was becoming more rhythmic again. Lub dub, lub dub. Slower and slower it went. Lub dub, lub dub. Slower still. Lub dub, lub bzzzz!
A buzzing sound filled her head, drowning out the thumping of her decelerating circulatory pump. It became louder and louder, enveloping her conscious mind, filling her with a sense of inner calm. She felt warm, comfortable and lethargic.
Her last thought before the blackness took her was, “At least I shall look better inside this thing; much more preferable to having my insect-riddled skull on the end of a pole in the middle of some vile misty Artanian marshland.”
Groad stared at the static form inside the massive ruby. He now understood only too well why all the other frozen figures displayed those disturbing expressions of utter terror. It was the exact same facial cast that Turpane bore upon her twisted face.
“So, Kithian,” said Maggoth placing his fingertips together beneath his bearded chin, “Tell me how you came to have knowledge of the Eldritch Blade?”
“You evil piece of scum!” hissed Groad spinning around. “What makes you think I shall tell you anything?”
“Oh, Groad of Bryntha, you will definitely tell me,” said Maggoth smiling. “You see, I have ways of extracting information from that small barbaric brain of yours. I can retrieve things from your mind that you have already forgotten. The procedure, unfortunately, is extremely painful, sometimes even fatal.”
“It is common knowledge that you used the sword to slay the zin-zas at Matmar and Gratoar!” said Groad walking over to the floating Maggoth. He hoped the Dark Wizard would drift within striking distance of his own sword. Instinctively he knew that it would pose no significant threat, but he would be able to die with the knowledge that at least he had tried.
“You think that I would use the Eldritch Blade for something as trivial as slaying a zin-za?” asked the sorcerer appearing highly insulted and irritated. “Who is spreading these rumours, these…base fabrications?”
“As I said, ‘It is common knowledge!’”
“The sword has not left this sanctuary in ages. Whenever the need has arisen for me to depart the keep, it has always remained here within one of my protective scarlet gemstones; watched over by my ever vigilant generals.”
“So, then, you never slew any zin-zas at Matmar or Gratoar?”
“Yes, but not with the Eldritch Blade,” said Maggoth clenching his teeth. He stretched out an arm towards the remaining battle-axe and shield upon the wall. “It was done like this!” There was a sizzling noise as a bolt of blue flowing energy sprang forth from the open palm. The battle-axe and shield were immediately turned to slag that dripped glowing hot to the floor. “I shall ask you one last time,” he said blowing the smoke emanating from his palm towards Groad. “Who told you of the Eldritch Blade?”
“Beetor of Yarsi!” said Groad without hesitation, hoping that Maggoth would later go out and do something equally harmful to the small whining bald man. It was, after all, that cursed Thonatian that had sent him on this hopeless quest in the first place. “I met him in an ale-house in Valacia. It was also there in Frybur that I first met the girl!”
“Describe this Beetor to me,” said Maggoth sitting forward.
“He said that he came from Yarsi in Thonathia. It is a country north of…”
“No, just tell me of the physical appearance!” interrupted Maggoth waving his arm. Groad ducked. He had seen the destruction that hand was capable of achieving. The Dark Wizard found Groad’s reaction to be amusing.
“He was small and bald,” said Groad feeling embarrassed.
“What else? Did he have any unusual physical traits?”
“Not that I can remember. Wait, I recall now, his fingertips were smooth and round, he had no fingernails.”
“Kronos!” exclaimed Maggoth sitting back again. “I knew it. The arrogant fiend could have worn gloves, but I expect he wants me to know.”
“Know what?” asked Groad frowning.
“That it was him that sent you, of course. It is his way of reminding me that he is out there. Informing me that there is still a great and terrible battle to be fought.”
Groad did not have a clue what the Dark Wizard was talking about. He was experiencing a sensation of extreme puniness. It seemed that Beetor, or Kronos as Maggoth knew him, had merely used him as some pathetic messenger boy.
“Frybur, hey? Hmm, you say you met him and the girl in Frybur?” queried Maggoth.
“How fare the Fryburians? I believe they too have an unfortunate zin-za problem? No doubt the reason for you seeking the Eldritch Blade?”
“Well, Groad of Bryntha, Son of Zemth, it seems as though your usefulness to Kronos has come to an end. But before you depart this world, let me be kind enough to give you a small demonstration of that which you so strongly coveted.” Maggoth flung the Eldritch Blade, hilt first, across the chamber. It crashed onto the large wooden table, sliding across till it came to a perfect rest in the iron grip of Zarkas’ spiny armoured glove. “Who knows, perhaps if you fight well enough before you die, I might just allow you a seat at my table after all. If not, I will feed your gutted remains to the bog hounds.”
“I have waited a long time for this moment, Gu Tibor,” said Zarkas standing up. “Now at last Gu Shora shall have his revenge!”
“Why, Zarkas? We used to be friends!”
“Is this what friends do to each other?” Zarkas pushed the tip of an armoured finger into the aperture in his forehead.
“I thought you would understand. You of all Kithians should have understood. I could not leave you to the mercy of a zin-za.”
“I shall have no mercy on your miserable hide!” snarled Zarkas unsheathing the Eldritch Blade.
The blade glowed with an eerie bluish luminescence. It reminded Groad of the way his body had glowed after passing through the mystical barrier.
Zarkas swayed the sword in a figure-of-eight. It hummed and sizzled as it cut the chilly air.
“Please!” begged Groad. “Do not force me to do this!”
“Stop your incessant whining!” shouted Zarkas stepping forward. “You remind me of a milk-sucking gruntling!”
“I will not fight you, Zarkas!” exclaimed Groad stepping backwards.
“Oh yes, you will! Now defend yourself or die like the cringing coward you are!”
Zarkas flung the sword’s scabbard at Groad head. The lightning fast reflexes that Groad was renowned for came into action; with a swiping motion of his arm he knocked the sheath aside; it ricocheted off his metallic armband and clattered harmlessly to the floor behind him.
“You are a fool, Gu Tibor,” said Zarkas shaking his head whilst raising the sword. “You will have to do better than that to beat the power of the Eldritch Blade.”
There was something warning in Zarkas’ tone of voice. It was not sarcastic like before. It had certain serious undertones. Was Zarkas secretly trying to tell Groad something of importance?
“Very well, old friend,” said Groad unsheathing his sword. “Show me what this mystical sword can do.”
“It will be my pleasure,” Zarkas moved forward. He swung the blade in a diagonal arc towards Groad’s chest. Groad jumped backwards, at the same time instinctively placing his own sword in the path of the oncoming weapon. He expected to hear the familiar metallic din of sword on sword. It never came. Instead there was a hissing sound like red-hot steel being tempered in cool oil. The arc of the Eldritch Blade proceeded unhindered past Groad’s left leg. An instant later Groad’s blade fell to the ground. He was left standing awkwardly with only the hilt in his right fist. He let the useless item fall next to the equally useless blade. There was a stinging pain on his upper chest. On inspection he noticed that his breastplate had a short diagonal breach across the upper half. Blood began oozing from the opening in the body-armour.
The Eldritch Blade was everything that Beetor had promised Groad it would be. It had sliced effortlessly through his sword and armour as though they were merely constructed of the same constitution as the air that surrounded them.
Groad was truly impressed. The only problem being the fact that he was not the one wielding the mystical blade. If he could find some means of relieving Zarkas of the sword, he might have a chance to survive this encounter.
Groad feigned a dash past Zarkas’ left hand side, but darted past his right. The ploy worked beautifully. For a moment Zarkas was off balance. Groad smashed an elbow into Zarkas’ right arm, placing the blow carefully between the lethal spikes of Gu Shora’s armour. The weapons-master went sprawling to the floor. Ironically it was a manoeuvre that Zarkas himself had helped Groad to master.
Running around to the far side of the large wooden table, Groad stripped off his bloodied breastplate. He was uncertain as to just how deep the Eldritch Blade had penetrated his chest. Pulling the edges of the gash apart with his fingers he breathed a sigh of relief. Despite the amount of blood, the wound was plainly superficial.
Zarkas was on his feet again. He moved around the table towards Groad.
Groad glanced at the generals’ swords arrayed on the table, but knew that they would be as much a defence against the Eldritch Blade as what his own sword had been.
As Zarkas advanced around the one side of the table, Groad would continually retreat in the opposite direction, keeping well out of reach of the deadly circumference of the magic sword’s tip.
“You can not keep this up forever,” snapped Zarkas. “I, on the other hand, can never tire.”
“Enough!” shouted Maggoth. “This parlor game is starting to bore me. Generals!” As one, the heads of the skeletal commanders turned to face Maggoth. “You will slay the insolent intruder at once!”
The generals arose, each lifting the sword that lay in front of him.
For an instant Groad regretted that he had not taken any of the swords but he knew that he needed a weapon that could be used effectively against the terrible sorcery of the Eldritch Blade as well as the bones of Maggoth’s small reanimated corps.
In each corner of the chamber stood a lampstand. Each was supported at the base by a sturdy tripod, and in turn had another tripod at the top to support a large bowl of burning oil.
Groad darted over to the far corner, grabbing the lower half of one of the lampstands, and swung it around into the face of the general closest to him. The oil splashed over the helmet and penetrated the gaps between the body-armour before igniting with a brilliant white flash. The half-empty oil bowl clattered noisily to the floor, spilling the remainder of its contents into the path of the other advancing generals. The flaming soldier dropped his sword and ran screeching around the room until falling to the floor in a heap of smoldering bone and metal.
Unfortunately for Groad, the oil on the floor had not ignited. He now knew what damage fire could cause these undead commanders. If he could reach some of the other lampstands he would stand a very good chance of leveling the odds against him.
“Form a line!” commanded Zarkas realizing Groad’s crafty intentions. “Do not allow him to reach the other lamps!”
Standing abreast of each other the generals began closing in on the solitary Kithian warrior.
Groad raised the lampstand and swung it about his head in an intimidating manner. The aggressors paused; looking for a gap in the lampstand’s threatening arc, waiting for the right moment to make their move. Groad, instead, made his move. He moved forward swinging the heavy lampstand down at knee-height. The momentum was enough to crush through four bony legs. Two of the generals collapsed to the floor.
Out of the corner of his eye Groad saw another of the undead swordsmen making a forward lunge. Placing the base of the lampstand against the floor, and using the upper half for leverage he swung his legs up. The oncoming soldier was caught totally off-guard. The sword’s thrust passed harmlessly beneath Groad’s body, but his boots smashed into the side of the general’s head. A bodiless skull in a helmet sailed across the room crashing against the far wall. The headless warrior collapsed at Groad’s feet.
The decrepitude of these skeletal soldiers’ thin dry neck-bones gave Groad an idea. He jumped onto the surface of the large table, taking the lampstand with him. From this advantageous height he removed two more heads with the help of the lampstand before Zarkas used the Eldritch Blade to sever its top half.
Throwing the bottom section at Zarkas, he leapt into the air, clutching at the enormous wrought-iron chandelier that hung by a long chain from the ceiling. He swung over the sword tips of the six remaining generals.
Groad landed on a patch of the spilt oil. He skidded clumsily on his feet, losing his balance. He stumbled backward, knocking his head against the wall. Dazed, he fell face down onto the floor clutching the back of his head. He twisted his body around just in time to see the downward thrust of a general’s sword. He rolled to one side, and the sword clanged harmlessly against flinty rock. He looked up again. Zarkas was moving forward. He could not evade that blade indefinitely. His end was surely near. He would not attain the Golden Sleep, but at least he felt satisfied that he was about to meet his demise in the throes of battle. He felt confident that he would be able to stand tall and proud in the presence of the great Dakur.
He felt something else. It was something hard. Something physical. The back of his right hand was resting on the end of the Eldritch Blade’s scabbard.
Straddled over Groad’s legs, Zarkas nodded his head. Once again Groad saw these subtle actions by Gu Shora, not as an indication of sarcastic triumph, but more as a sign of approval. Zarkas was definitely trying to make Groad aware of something.
He knew what it was. He swiftly gripped the end of the scabbard and raised it into the path of the descending Eldritch Blade. There was a blinding flash as the Eldritch Blade made contact with its own sheath. The flash was not the usual sparking caused by metal upon metal; this burst was bright blue in hue and resonated with a low humming sound. In an instant, Groad comprehended that the sword’s container was probably constructed by similar powers to those that had made the wondrous Eldritch Blade itself.
Of course, the means to do battle against the Eldritch Blade was there all the time. Why had he taken so long to deduce the fact that the mystical sword would not be able to slice through its very own sheath?
Groad rose to his feet. He could almost feel the adrenaline coursing through his system. He was going to enjoy this fray at last.
Using the scabbard as a club, he now became the aggressor; with a rain of blows he began to force Zarkas and the generals backward.
“That is more like it, Son of Zemth!” shouted Zarkas retreating under the constant barrage of blows. “This is the feisty young warrior I remember from Bryntha.”
Groad ducked and dodged, weaving between his aggressors, knocking swords out of three bony fingers, and bony fingers from two bony hands. Eventually the generals managed to pin Groad against the table using their combined weight. Except for the fact that he abhorred their groping dead fingers, Groad found the situation almost a welcome relief. At such close proximity to him, the undead warriors were unable to use their swords effectively, giving him the necessary time needed to catch his breath and rethink his situation.
Groad allowed the scabbard to fall and at the same time pushed his arms inside the rib cages of the two generals that lay directly on top of him. Clutching their breastplates he stood up. He lifted the two armoured figures and started spinning himself around. The legs of the two lifted into the air, forcing their comrades to retreat from their orbiting boots.
Groad saw Zarkas moving towards him and realized that Gu Shora probably had no loyal commitments towards these undead warriors that shielded him against a normal attack. In a frantic attempt to slay him, Zarkas might use the Eldritch Blade, disregarding the fact that these shields of bone and metal are his own comrades.
Groad thrust one of the generals towards Zarkas who nimbly stepped aside. Groad then lifted the light bony mass of the other skeletal soldier above his head. Tossing the undead warrior into the far corner, Groad made a dash for the lampstand in the nearest corner, but found himself blocked by Zarkas. The remaining generals quickly moved to similar defensive positions in front of the other lamps.
Groad scanned the chamber. The only remaining weapon at his disposal was the fallen battle-axe. He quickly retrieved it from where he had dropped it earlier in an act of disgust.
“That will have as much influence on the Eldritch Blade as what your precious jewel-encrusted sword had!” sneered Zarkas.
Using both hands Groad lifted the axe above his head.
Zarkas took a step forward just as Groad released the implement of war.
As the weapon spun across the room towards Zarkas, Groad prayed a quick silent prayer to the elder gods that his third undertaking at utilizing the item would prove more fruitful than the two previous attempts.
His prayers were answered.
Had the Eldritch Blade not possessed mystical properties, it might have been able to deflect the oncoming missile, but instead it merely sliced through the spinning object. It was like using a normal sword to deflect the path of an enormous rolling wave of water in the ocean. The two parts of the severed battle-axe caught Zarkas full in the chest, their momentum flinging his lighter form backwards, over the massive table, into the open blazing hearth. The Eldritch Blade sank into the floor up to its hilt at the place where Zarkas had been standing.
Groad hurried forward. Using every ounce of his strength he tipped the large wooden frame of the table onto its side and heaved it against the wall, blocking the entrance of the fireplace. Zarkas’ dry bones had ignited almost immediately when they had come into contact with the roaring flames of the fireplace. He screamed and wailed behind the table trying to push and claw his way out. Groad kept pushing against the base of the table until the awful cries had ceased.
As he spun around, five of the remaining undead were advancing on him in a semi-circular formation. He rushed forward, grabbing the hilt of the Eldritch Blade, and triumphantly pulled it free from the black stone of the chamber floor.
The generals seeing this hesitated for an instant in their progression. It was all the time Groad needed. He darted forward arcing the sword at waist-height. The upper torsos of the armoured warriors collapsed to the ground like wheat before a farmer’s scythe, their swords clattering loudly on the cold floor. A moment later their legs fell, almost comically, on top of the motionless trunks and heads.
There was no time to revel in his victory. Instinctively Groad dove to one side, retrieving the fallen scabbard. His instincts paid off. A blue bolt of lightning cut through the air where he had been standing.
On the far side of the room was another doorway. Groad hoped that it was the exit from this chamber of horrors. He dived, rolling through the doorway just as another blue bolt sliced passed his boots.
“There is no escape that way, Kithian!” growled the Dark Wizard, smoke billowing from the palms of his hands.
Maggoth was right. The entrance led into a small antechamber that contained no other doorways. The only way out of this smaller chamber was back through the way he had just entered. He glanced around the small room. It was void of any articles of furniture that he might use as a shield against the Dark Wizard’s lethal blue bolts.
“I am willing to make a bargain with you, Kithian!” shouted Maggoth towards the doorway. “If you return the Eldritch Blade
to me now, I shall allow you to leave my domain unharmed! You
have my word on that!”
“You expect me to trust the word of something as evil as you?”
“You do not have any other choice, Groad of Bryntha!”
“That is what I also believed, but it seems that we all underestimated the skills of Gu Tibor! I thought you said you already had me you pompous piece of slark slime? Have you suddenly changed that perception?”
There was a clanking sound in the corner as the general that Groad had indignantly flung there during the fray struggled to his feet. His right arm and sword remained lying on the floor.
“Pick that up and finish what you were supposed to have done!” shouted Maggoth at the one-armed warrior.
“But my lord,” croaked the general, “The intruder has the Eldritch Blade?”
“I am capable of doing far worse things to you than the Eldritch Blade!” howled Maggoth. “Now do as I say or suffer my wrath!”
“Very well, my lord,” said the general reluctantly recovering his fallen sword from his fallen arm. He gingerly approached the doorway to the antechamber.
Maggoth watched as the one-armed general suddenly dashed through the opening. A long time passed. The Dark Wizard listened for the sounds of conflict. None came. Finally the general emerged from the doorway.
“Well?” queried Maggoth.
“The intruder…my lord…is…,” stuttered the general.
“The intruder is what?”
“The intruder is gone.”
“ Gone? That is impossible!” shouted Maggoth floating down towards the doorway. “If you are lying to me, I shall blast you into many small pieces!” Maggoth entered the antechamber and looked around. There was absolutely no place where a Kithian, even a short one, could have concealed himself, yet Groad had mysteriously disappeared. “The Kithian lied to me! This is sorcery most foul! Has Kronos somehow managed to master Selestia’s powers? Has he transported the Kithian to a place of safety?
“Unfortunately, if the sword is not returned to the keep shortly, all of known creation could unravel into chaos.”
“What shall we do now, my lord?”
“Not we my dear general,” said Maggoth raising his hand. “It was I who underestimated not only the Kithian but my old enemy Kronos as well. I have much planning to do, and I fear very little time in which to do it. You on the other hand have served your usefulness.”
A blue bolt from Maggoth’s palm struck the general full in the chest, blasting him into many small pieces.