Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade. Part II

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As we readied our weapons I wracked my brains for what I knew of gorillas. Hairy hominids native to the King‘s Forest, not carnivorous by nature but incredibly strong and dangerous when cornered.

War-Forged led the way, shield in one hand and war-hammer in the other, as we followed a path that led deeper into this indoor jungle. My every sense was alert, expecting to see the beast charge out of the thick undergrowth at any second. Then I spotted it, clinging to the truck of a tree a little ahead of War-Forged and fifteen feet up in the air. The gorilla was huge, at least ten feet from the tips of his toes to the crown of his head with shoulders about eight feet across. A thick thatch of black fur covered a thick layer of muscle and sinew. Long arms that suggested superhuman strength ended in huge crushing hands. Viorr hadn’t been telling us the whole story, this wasn’t a mere gorilla but a rare, and deadly, dire gorilla.

My cry of warning was just in time. The beast’s hideous face was split by a bellowing roar that revealed rows of tusk-like yellow teeth as the gorilla dived down on War-Forged. War-Forged was able to bring up his shield at the last moment and the green-house was full of the deafening noise of the two smashing together.

Suddenly I felt a surge of confidence within me, Talaen Kara was eager to fight and was sharing it’s power of Bless with it’s master’s allies. Toryil ran forward to engage the beast but he forgot to factor in the massive sweep of it’s arms and was knocked of balance by one heavy blow.

War-Forged struck. Even to my untrained eye it was clear that he was pulling his blow hoping to disable rather then kill the beast. The gorilla had no such reservations and flailed away at both War-Forged and Toryil but the pair were skilled enough to keep just outside it’s reach.

I could hear Altera, who had been at the back of the group, crashing through the undergrowth  in an attempt to reach the fight.

Beside me I saw Nev grasping his Psi-Crystal and then release it to scuttle towards the battle on it’s ectoplasmic legs.

War-Forged, Altera and Toryil were now all hammering away at the brute in an attempt to bring it down. The Psi-Crystal dropped, spider-like, from a tree on to the beast, unleashed the Dissipating Touch that Nev had stored within it. Though it was suffering the gorilla clearly had stamina to mach it’s strength. It took the onslaught and retaliated. Both, vice-like hands crashed into War-Forged and then the dire-gorilla gave a bellow of triumph and pulled. The sound of tortured metal made me sick to my stomach. I clearly saw War-Forged adamantium exoskeleton buckling and stretching his soft, wood-like core.

Thinking him dead, and a lesser man would have been killed twice over by the gorilla’s fury, the beast dumped War-Forged to the floor. Now was the moment to act.

I had guessed that the fight would develop into a tightly packed melee. I only had one spell that might be potent enough to drop the gorilla but I didn’t want to risk hitting my companions or missing all together so I had cast a spell of True Strike. Under the effects of the spell a shot that had seemed next to impossible a few seconds earlier now seemed like child’s play and I unleashed a Scorching Ray. I purposefully avoided the truck and head in an attempt not to kill the beast, though to be honest I’m not sure that would have helped. Guided by the spell my aim was true and the bolt of heat, on top of the pounding the others had inflicted, was to much for the dire gorilla and hit fell, heavily, to the ground.

For a second there was silence. Had I killed the gorilla? No, I could see it’s chest slowly rising and falling.

Just then Fraiya appeared out of the foliage. it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him during the fight, I suspect he had attempted to get around behind the gorilla but had got turned around in the thick undergrowth.

“I need repairing” said War-Forged, as if that needed pointing out. I cast a Repair Light Damage, it was a start but he needed more work.

Viorr seemed satisfied by our performance and lead us back to the table. The healing potions were still there and I pointed them out to War-Forged, they wouldn’t be fully effective for a war-forged but there were enough there to see him right.

When asked why he hadn’t mentioned that the gorilla was a dire gorilla Viorr simply answered that he wanted to see how we dealt with the unexpected.

Nev seemed a little offended by the whole thing and challenged our potential employer about using a living creature in so cold hearted a fashion.

Our audition over Viorr got down to explaining the job he wanted us to do. As his letterhead suggested he was associated with The Dark Lanterns, in fact I suspected he held a position of authority. He wanted to employ us to apprehend an agent of the Dark Lanterns that had gone rogue and that agent was none other then Lucan Stellos! Apparently two days ago Lucan had stolen a  powerful magical sword that was in the care of the King. The sword had the rather melodramatic name of “The Soul Blade”, from Viorr’s description it was a long sword with a hilt shaped like a dragon’s claw grasping a large ruby that formed the pommel. My interest was piqued when we were told that the blade had runes engraved along it’s length but apparently no one had ever deciphered them. In fact, other then the name and that it was taken from a Karnath warlord, very little was known about the sword other then it radiated strongly of evil.

If the sword itself was an enigma there was also mystery as to how Lucan had stolen it. Eye-witnesses reported that he had demonstrated unusual powers during the theft, he was reported to have demonstrated superhuman strength and durability, he seemed to be able to compel the sword’s wardens to open the vault in which it was kept and was able to make his escape by walking down the side of a tower.

After the theft of the sword he had been spotted driving an ornate wagon out of the city along the East Road, Viorr showed us sketches of the wagon and Lucan (not that we needed the later). A search of his apartment had turned up some mostly destroyed documents that revealed that he was heading for Trolanport as well as the as yet unexplained word “Krell”.

Given that one agent of The Dark Lanterns had inexplicably gone rogue Viorr was reluctant to call in any other s and so had looked outside the organisation for a solution, which is where we came in.  So that was the job. Two thousand pieces of gold each to bring back Lucan, though we would be paid half if we could only manage to bring back proof of his death, and five hundred more for recovery of the sword. I can’t really say why I didn’t tell Viorr that we already knew Lucan, though none of my companions mentioned it either. My mind spun with the news of his actions; was there some connection between this and Lucan’s rescue of us? Was there some connection between the sword and The Creation Pattern?

To aid in our pursuit of Lucan Viorr  had made a few arrangements for us, he had travel documents made up and a promissory note bearing the griffon seal of House Kundarak using which we could draw money in the king’s name. Finally there were six Mage-Bred horses waiting in Tavick’s Landing.

Lucan clearly had a head start so time was of the essence. We delayed only long enough for War-Forged and I to collect our kit (and War-Forged to re-hid the Creation Pattern) before heading to Tavick’s Landing. There are probably worse places in Sharn then Tavick’s Landing  but they were very few in number. It is a district packed with warehouses, taverns to cater for new arrivals and poor quality housing for the refugees that had come to Sharn and discovered that they didn’t have the money or the will to go any further. There are some regions of Tavick’s Landing that are as lawless as The Cogs.

Before picking up our horses we found a metal workers and purchased a pair of good quality manacles and shackles.

I knew almost nothing about horses but even I could see that our mounts were something special. All Mage-Bred animals are reared to heighten certain attributes and is this case it was speed and stamina. The horses were as big as draught horses, War-Forged’s had no trouble handling his weight, but at the same time they seemed lean and sleek. I had never ridden a horse before but, after a few tips from my companions, was able to mount without any difficulty.

It was a short trot from the stables to the city gate and then the East Road was ahead of us and the pursuit was on.

As we departed Sharn the blue waters of The Hilt were to our right. Though we were seldom this close again during the journey along The East Road we were never entirely out of sight of water. To our left was the green expanse of The King’s Forest. The entire forest, or at least the parts within the Breland boarder, was a hunting reserve for the king. It was safe enough close to the city but I had heard stories of bandits in the eastern reaches.

The first few days of our journey would take us through the arid expanse of the Stilin Hills. Somewhere within, I remembered, was the deserted goblin city of Yarkuun Draal.

The horses proved to be excellent beasts and we soon discovered that they could cover a good fifty miles a day.

We had not purchased provisions for the journey but were confident that we would find a village or town at worst every couple of days of riding.

In some ways The Last War had barely touched reached Breland and certainly never reached as far as Sharn. We had not suffered the loss of towns and cities that other countries had. However in another respect the scars of the war were still visible. In most of the towns we passed through a good half of the heavy, manual-labour jobs that are usually associated with men were being performed by women. Nothing wrong with that you say but they were doing it because their men-folk; their husbands and fathers and sons, had gone off to war and never returned.

In most of the towns we stopped at we received a warm welcome, all that is except War-Forged who to some was a living reminder of The Last War. It was on the forth day that Nev and I heard news of Lucan’s coach. Some locals remembered it spinning by two days previously, the rider driving the horses mercilessly. In fact the horses had been pushed so hard that in the next town we discovered that he had been forced to purchase two more. We discussed whether we should start pushing our own horses to compensate but it was decided that we were better off as we were. If we rode our Mage-Bred horses into the ground before catching Lucan any replacements we purchased would be nowhere near as good and we would simply loose more ground. I had my own reason to be grateful that we keep to our current pace, unlike my companions I had absolutely no experience with horses and each days riding led to a night of discomfort for yours-truly.

It occurred to me that The East Road followed the curves of the coast. Could we, I suggested, employ the theory that the shortest route between two points was a straight line and cut across land, intercepting the road further up? Altera explained that the time we lost going over the rougher terrain would out weight the advantage of the shorter route.

We reached Zilspar on the sixth day. We heard rumours of the coach passing but most of the locals were, understandably, more concerned with the disappearance three nights ago of a farmer’s daughter. If our time was our own I’m sure we would have stayed to help but as it was we still need to catch Lucan.

On the tenth day of our chase we learnt some puzzling news. The people that we spoke to claimed that the coach was being driven by a red headed woman. Viorr had mentioned that Lucan was a master of disguise, was this mystery woman really him or did he have an accomplice? I had wondered why Lucan was using a wagon to transport a stolen sword perhaps this was the answer, to hide the thieves’ true numbers. As before we were still two days behind our target and they had broken another pair of horses to maintain their lead. Again the question of pushing our own horses was raised but again we played it safe. Our main hope was that at such reckless speed Lucan might break something other then his horse, an axle perhaps.

On the twelfth day of our chase we crossed the boarder from Breland to Zilargo. Settlements became smaller and further spaced. While before The East Road was patrolled by both solders in the livery of Breland and guards employed by House Orien now only the later could be seen.

Then we had a lucky break. In a small thorp we discovered that the wagon had been stranded for two days. The woman’s disregard for their horse’s well being had cost them another set but this time they could not find any replacements. It had taken them two days to have new horses brought and they had left the thorp only two hours ahead of us. We mounted up immediately and were away.

For the next hour we rode hard. As day turned into dusk we caught glimpses of the distinctive wagon on the winding road ahead, spurring us to greater effort. Our prey must have spotted us because the wagon accelerated but it was clear that we had the greater speed and slowly we began to whittle down the gap between us, one thousand feet, nine hundred feet, eight hundred feet.

When we had closed to a little over six hundred feet, despite the violent motion of the horse, I was able to cast Mage Armour on myself just in case the occupants of the wagon took offensive action. Despite this I was completely unprepared for the attack when it happened. The only warning was a glimpse of long red hair as someone on the wagon looked back and then we were engulfed in an inferno of fire, we had been Fireballed! I’m not sure who screamed the loudest, me or my horse as heat and flame tore at our flesh. Then the flame was gone, the Fireball must have only lasted a split-second but it felt like a life-time. Right in front of me, where there had been Nev and his horse a second before, an unrecognisable mass of charred meat crashed down the road with the sound of breaking bones. More by instinct then reason  I veered my horse to one side to prevent  us from colliding with the corpses. Gathering my wits together I fought with my horse to bring it to a stop. Ahead of me was the wagon with War-Forged still riding in pursuit. Looking back I saw Altera and Toryil, both badly burnt, jumping from their horses to attend to Nev and Fraiya who lay sprawled on the road. I tore my eyes away from this terrible sight and began to shout after War-Forged to come back when the words  froze in my throat at the sight of a lightning bolt flying from the wagon. It snapped  through the air like a liking thing, engulfing  War-Forged and then carrying on down the road. The air crackled as it whipped past me and struck Toryil squarely, I heard my friend scream and then collapse.

My mind numbed by this merciless onslaught I began to guide my horse back to Altera and the fallen. The stench of burnt flesh was sickening. As I reached then I realised that Altera had drawn her swords and was calling out a warning. Looking back I saw a pack of a dozen wolves speeding out of the forest towards us. With seconds to act I was able to cast a new spell of mine, Mirror Image, and suddenly I was surrounded by a ring of five illusionary decoys. I wasn’t the only one casting a spell. I was surprised when I heard Altera casting a divine spell of Calm Animals, though it failed to halt the wolves attack.

War-Forged had given up his pursuit and now turned back. He was on the far side of the wolves from the rest of us she charged his horse forward in an attempt to scatter them. How War-Forged horse was still going having taken both a Fireball and a Lightning

bolt I cannot say but it’s valiant charge proved the last straw. The wolves nimbly jumped out of the way to let the horse pass, snapping at it’s legs as it went. For a second it looked like the horse would make it through unscathed but the last wolf bit deep into a leg and the poor beast collapsed. Wart-Forged was pitched to the floor but scrambled to his feet to join us.

Since the object of the mission had been the “bring ‘em back alive” I had added Colour Spray to my arsenal of spells for the first time since our visit to the temple of the Queen with Burning Eyes. Just as the wolves pounced I cast it, catching three in a blazing cone of clashing colour that knocked-out two. Wolves were all around me but they were being decoyed away by my illusionary duplicates. I could see both Altera and War-Forged surrounded by grey furred bodies, fending them off and counter-attacking where they could. I called upon the magic of the Pearl of Power and, recalling the Colour Spray to mind, unleashed it again. Three more of the beasts collapsed but by now I was running low on decoys. One particular wolf kept snapping at me. Even if I wasn’t badly burnt I wouldn’t have wanted to have gone toe-to-toe with so I killed it with a Scorching Ray.

For the moment I was out of danger and could survey the scene. Five wolves lay twitching on the ground, incapacitated by the Colour Spray. A sixth was a smouldering carcass. Altera and War-Forged had dispatched three more wolves using blades and hammer but still the last three were pressing the attack as if they cared nothing for their lives. The wagon was long gone but at that moment I didn’t really care.

I snapped off a couple of Magic Missiles into one wolf fighting War-Forged, injuring but not killing it. Then I slipped off my horse, drew my trusty club and set to work braining the unconscious wolves before they recovered. It was grim task but luckily War-Forged and Altera dispatched the remaining three active wolves in the time it took me to kill two unconscious ones and they helped my finish the grizzly task.

Safe for the moment we were able to attend to our fallen comrades. Incredibly both Toryil and Fraiya were alive if only just. My heart turned cold as I gazed at what was left of my friend Nev. At some point during the fight with the wolves it looked like one of then had stopped to take a few bites of him. War-Forged searched Nev’s body and found his travel document and his psi-crystal. It was inert and lifeless, just a chunk of rock, lying there in War-Forged palm.

Altera was able to revive Toryil with a healing potion who in turn was able to do much for our injuries using his own magics and more healing potions.  Together he and I worked on War-Forged injuries.

Three of our horses had perished in the attack. Of the three that had lived one, mine, was still with us, a second had ran back down the road and a third had fled into the forest pursed by a wolf. Altera told us that she was going to look for this third horse and headed off into the forest alone.

Wearily we dragged the bodies of the wolves off of the road. While, thanks to Toryil, my body showed little sign of the attack my heart was heavy. We discussed what to do about Nev’s corpse. None of us, not even Toryil, knew anything about the funeral rites of his people so we decided to cremate him, if for no other reason then it would stop the local wildlife disturbing his remains.

By the time we had built a small pyre for our fallen friend and got it alight Altera was returning. She didn’t have a horse with her, it had been dead when she found it, but she did have a wolf. The memory of Nev’s partially eaten body sprang to mind and I would have attacked the wolf then and there I Altera hadn’t warned me off.

We made camp. To begin with we were subdued and silent but then we got talking about Nev; his eccentricities, his sense of humour, his ambitions that would never now come to pass.  I for one felt as if a weight had been lifted when I turned in for the night.

Before I had risen the next morning Altera had managed to find the second surviving horse.  We gathered up Nev’s ashes from the pyre with the attention of giving them to his kin folk in Sharn. Altera’s wolf was still with her, the pair had seemed to form quite a bond.

Grimly we packed our possessions and pressed on north. It was some hundred and fifty miles to Zilargo and with only two horses the chances of catching the coach before it got there seemed non existent. Even if we did could we really face another onslaught like the one we had faced last night? Strangely, however, the thought of turning back never occurred to me, we had lost too much to give up now.