Land In Revolt Interludes II
Aramil was excited.
Elated was more like it. It had been so long since he felt this way it took everything he had to keep from doing handstands on his saddle. A hunt! An honest to Gods excursion complete with a party of able-bodied warriors by his side. He looked around and surveyed his escort. A fine group indeed, if not a bit on the young side. But they were members of the Royal Guard; hand-picked for their prowess in battle. Only a select few were allowed to accompany the Great Thane on a mission such as this. As he admired the team, he couldn’t help seeing some of his old compatriots’ visages reflected in theirs. It brought about a momentary tinge of sadness.
“No more of that,” thought the Great Thane. This was a time for honor and battle and all those other rousing, manly feelings. Besides, he planned to secretly dedicate the kill to their memories so no room for depressing thoughts.
And what a kill it would be! Their quarry sounded like a real nasty piece of work. Intel from the Scouts led most of Aramil’s military advisers to believe it was a basilisk with which they were dealing. But Aramil knew better. The statues of unfortunate elves outside the lair would certainly indicate a basilisk. Yet the stories of missing children from the nearby village (which prompted Aramil to intervene in the first place) pointed to a much more devious foe: a medusa. The horrific gorgons were known to make thralls of children out of sheer maliciousness. Either way, the Scouts did their job well. Aramil was able to properly prepare the Guard for what lay ahead. As long as they relied on their keen senses and avoided the monster’s gaze, they would emerge victorious. The Great Thane would personally avenge the deaths of his subjects and free their young. The fact that he would enjoy the rush of engaging a dangerous foe once again was just for him to know.
While certainly an enemy any good adventurer should NOT take lightly, the medusa was far from a match for Aramil Nailo, Hero of Crossroad City, Great Thane of the Forest. He had faced far greater challenges during his time on the road. Even alone, Aramil was sure he could take her. The skills and arsenal he now possessed would make short work of this beast. On top of what amounted to almost supernatural acrobatic agility, Aramil wielded two legendary elven weapons. The first (and his favored of the two) was known as Tho’asha. This bow produces arrows made of pure force which always hit their mark. For centuries, the toughest of hides have been pierced by Tho’asha. Aramil felt exhilaration every time he fired the relic and today would be no different. The same could not be said for the longsword he carried. Vae’rorderol sent chills up Aramil’s spine every time he buckled it to his side. Every Great Thane for the past 1,000 years was issued the weapon. All were expected to carry it into battle once they held the title. Its name loosely translated to “Retribution” in the Common tongue and for good reason. Vae’rorderol’s ability was a grim one indeed. Every elf slain in its presence grants power to the sword. As the wielder swings it, it emits a moan that laments its fallen comrades and invokes fear in its target. On the battlefield, Thanes of old accomplished amazing feats of victory thanks to Vae’rorderol. Despite those acts of valor, Aramil hated the damnable thing. He hated even more that he was required to wear it. Anything that gains its power from the broken bodies of elves, thought Aramil, was nothing of which he wanted any part. And the moaning was just creepy.
“We approach the cave, mi’lord.” Minanthor’s gravelly voice snapped Aramil out of his daydreaming.
“Excellent news, Minotaur!” bellowed Aramil. The comment drew chuckles from the rest of the group. Minanthor was big and burly; out of the ordinary for the usually lithe and slender elves of Ti’r Ranor. Even as a child, he towered over his playmates. His build was exploited early on. There was never a question his role would be that of a solider. He devoted every waking moment to military training and perfecting his body. He was deadly with his throwing axes, allowing him to take down enemies at a distance with ease. Close quarters was no different. He knew how to leverage his strength in any encounter. This, coupled with his gruff disposition, had earned him the nickname “Minotaur” among his peers. The label was much to his chagrin which only prompted the others to rib him more. Aramil thought it equally amusing and exploited every opportunity to ruffle his feathers. The Thane thought it would eventually loosen him up a little. Gruffness aside, Aramil was always happy to have him close by. Minotaur was a good man. His prowess as a fighter was even better.
“Let’s dismount here and go the rest of the way on foot,” proclaimed Aramil. The group did as ordered, swiftly grabbed their gear and formed a tight phalanx behind their Thane. “Now remember what we discussed, lads and lasses. Medusas are as ugly as they are dangerous. You need to keep your eyes off of her at all times, understood? Just rely on your ears. If you have to look her way to fire do your best to get behind her. With the group we’ve got here, she’s far outmatched. We need to get in quickly, free any of the children in there and take her down. I don’t plan on losing any of you today so let’s keep it that way. Forward ho. Be like the wind.”
The wind Aramil referenced was far noisier than this lot. Excellent Scouts in their own right, the Royal Guard was rumored to be able to tread on a cloud if need be. Their footfall disturbed nothing on the forest floor. Silent as ghosts, the team made its way to the cave’s opening. Four statues twisting in various stages of agony served as grim warning for the task at hand. All were on the guard now. If this many victims lie outside the cave, there was no telling where the beast could be lurking. Seeing their faces grimace in reaction to the lost souls, Aramil offered words of encouragement. “Steady now,” he whispered. “We’ll avenge them soon enough. All of them.” The last part was more for himself than the others.
With only one point of entry, Aramil and company continued their noiseless march. The cave was a natural outcropping from a rock wall. Nothing was hewn or carved with tools as far as the group could tell. “Nowhere to go but in,” thought Aramil. He took the vanguard then signaled the rest to follow. He used two fingers to point to his eyes and then at the ground. A last reminder not to gaze at the creature or it would be their last. Aramil crouched low as he drew Tho’asha. He pulled back the bowstring. The familiar thrum form the force arrow which formed sent a wave of adrenaline through his extremities. This was it. Back into glorious battle with heroes at his side. He couldn’t wait to make that gorgon squeal…
* * *
“Speak, traitor.” Archbishop Ruger looked down at the Mage with disgust.
“What would you have me say, your lordship?” replied Osric, deep with sarcasm. He turned his head to the side and spit blood along with part of a tooth on to the marble floor. “How can I be of service to the Church?”
“Mind your words,” hissed Ruger. “You are hardly in a position to spew venom.”
“I’m hardly in a position to do anything as you know,” sighed Osric. “I live to serve, so how may I serve thee?”
“Tell me what you know!” shouted Ruger in a rage. With that, he clasped his hand tightly around his holy symbol. He cupped his free hand around the Mage’s mouth and whispered a payer to the Light. In an instant the Mage’s eyes widened as he let loose a muffled scream of agony. Divine power flowed through Ruger’s hand sending searing pain into Osric. When Ruger pulled his hand away, a bright, red imprint remained on his captive’s face. Osric shuddered and wept softly. “Now,” said Ruger with a stern tone. “Let us try once more.”
Before Osric could speak, the doors of the meeting hall flew open with a loud slam. Eleak Dragonsbane, followed by a retinue of other wizardly nobles, stormed into the chamber. As Lord Senator, Dragonsbane was the highest ranking arcanist in Wyldshire. His tenure in the role had been problematic from the onset. For one thing, he was the youngest wizard ever to hold the title; a fact looked down upon by the eldest members of the Order. More troubling to his detractors was the fact that he wasn’t a Wyldshire. A member of House Wyldshire had held the title of Lord Senator since the birth of the City of Wonder. When heir-apparent Brandon Wyldshire allegedly went mad and wandered into the wilderness, Eleak stepped in. Besting wizards far beyond his relatively young age, he has held a loose grip on the title since. The palpable tension between the arcanists and clerics of late hasn’t helped either. This day, Eleak Dragonsbane was furious.
“Ruger!” shouted the Lord Senator. “Cease this immediately!”
“This does not concern you, Lord Senator,” Ruger replied, dismissing the wizard. “It would be best if you leave us.”
“Doesn’t concern me??!!” barked Dragonsbane. “Everything that takes place in this city concerns me. Especially matters dealing with this man. On who’s authority are you carrying out this insanity?”
“My own,” stated Ruger. “This is official Church business. I act on the Light’s dictate alone.”
“By my wizardly arse you do!” The Archbishop’s condescension was visibly shaking the Lord Senator. Eleak turned to one of the others with him. “Find out who let the High Cleric in here and granted him access to Osric. Then discipline them accordingly.”
“Those who assisted me were devout followers of the Light. They did nothing more than the bidding of the Gods. I insist you seek no punishment for them,” stated Ruger.
“Do you now? That’s fantastic, Ruger. Truly fantastic. Explain your actions – immediately,” ordered Eleak.
“I am here doing what your brood will not,” sneered Ruger. “I am finding out once and for all what is causing the Essence to behave so strangely. The answer, of course, is quite obvious. This traitor is exacting his retribution upon those who imprisoned him.”
“Lies!” shouted Osric through gritted teeth. “I do not control the Essence, only shape it.”
“Says the would-be god,” countered Ruger. “Healing performed by Lightbearers acts uncontrollably in areas where Essence is concentrated, often causing more harm than good. Our spells are subject to corruption. More than once, the foul stuff has erupted through the floor of the Temple during our most sacred rituals. I have done battle with these usurpers many times over,” he pointed at Osric. “I am familiar with their abilities. All of these occurrences reek of their foul stench.”
“You act recklessly, cleric,” chided the Lord Senator. “Our greatest scholars are researching these anomalies. The changes in the Essence do not affect you alone.”
“Your scholars are worthless,” said the Archbishop. “The Light guides my hand in this endeavor. I will find answers where you cannot.”
“Watch your tongue, zealot” growled Eleak. “You have overstepped boundaries for the last time.” As he spoke, he stepped menacingly towards the holy man. His clenched fists burst into flames, the beginnings of potent magical energies about to be unleashed. Members of Eleak’s group restrained him. Ruger stepped back in response, defensively grasping his holy symbol. Pure light began to emit from his eyes, divine powers building in preparation for an attack of his own.
“You are an anachronism, wizard. As is your magocracy. This is the Age of Faith and the people follow suit. I will reign the wrath of the Gods down upon you, boy.”
The release of their respective abilities would surely cause great destruction. The other wizards increased their attempts to restrain their leader, pleading all the while. Both men continued shouting insults at one other as chaos enveloped the room. All seemed hopeless when suddenly the duelers halted their aggressions. Simultaneously, they turned their attentions to a new sound in the meeting hall. Their eyes fixated on Osric. The captive Mage was no longer crying. He was laughing. A subtle, maniacal laughter that chilled all who heard it to their bones. The Mage slowly lifted his head and looked directly at Dragonsbane and Ruger. Tears streamed from his bloodshot eyes. He spoke to them in whispered tones.
“We are all doomed.”
* * *
Terror comes in many forms. There is subtle terror, the type that not only turns but liquidates the stomach as it slowly builds to a head. It comes from the realization some terrible turn of fate is about to change everything forever. Hopeless terror is a perfect blend of two crippling emotions. One experiences this tragic marriage when they are forced to share the fear of those around them with little to do about it. Then there is is abject terror, the kind that comes from laying one’s eyes on something so horrible it can turn the hair white. At the moment, Aramil was experiencing all three.
The feeling set upon him shortly after leading his Royal Guard into the cave. Expecting a medusa instead of a basilisk, the lair contained neither. The clues were all there. The problem was Aramil didn’t add them up quickly enough. During the creep into the cave he noticed differences among the victims. For one, not all were statues – very few, actually. Scattered among them were large piles of dust. Those seemed out of place. Then the bodies came into view. These corpses were untouched. Not an ounce of flesh turned to stone. The faces were what really troubled the Thane. Every visage was wracked with pain. Their tortured look unnaturally frozen there. It turned Aramil’s stomach.
“Intruders approach, Master.” The shaky voice was undoubtedly a young elf. Aramil, violating his own instructions to the Guard, looked up to confirm the nightmare already brewing in his mind. The boy was one of two Aramil could make out. Both were positioned near the apparent back of the cave. The young elves were busy when the one child had turned his gaze towards the skulking group of would-be rescuers. It appeared as if they were slathering something with paint.
“Gods save us,” Aramil whispered aloud.
The beholder slowly opened his huge central eye. He hissed something unintelligible as he rose and floated towards them. One of the writhing eyestalks on top of the monster’s head turned towards the boy who spoke. A pale beam suddenly shot forth from the disgusting appendage. It struck the young elf. He shrieked then exploded in a pile of dust. The surviving child mindlessly shambled towards the group. Her blank stare sent shivers down Aramil’s spine. It was then the former adventurer’s combat instincts sprung back to life.
“Everyone scatter!” Aramil shouted. Those who hadn’t been overtaken by the child’s gruesome death followed their Thane’s order. The rest were murdered in seconds.
Aerestiel, the only female of the party, locked eyes with the remaining child and began to mumble something to her. Before the words left Aerestiel’s mouth, a yellow beam from a different wriggling eye turned her flesh to stone. Thanien was the next victim. In an act of nobility, he dove towards the enthralled girl in hopes to move her from harm’s way. Thanien was dead before he hit the ground. A sickly green ray from another eyestalk made sure of that. Twin brothers Dûrion and Rûrion at least drew blood before they met their end. Standing their ground, they let loose arrows with deadly precision. They lodged themselves in the floating aberration’s spongy flesh causing it to growl in pain. It retaliated with a red ray that lifted the statue that used to be Aerestiel. Launching it into the brothers with great force, their bones shattered like eggs.
By now, Vae’rorderol was awake. The weapon wailed from inside its scabbard. Aramil cursed the air. He didn’t need another distraction. The din of the moans was unsettling to Aramil. He had never heard it this loud. So many had died so quickly.
He had to take action. Counting him, there were five left to deal with the threat. He could make out Castien, Gilranil, Sadron and Minotaur. The fact they were still alive was a sign they may have a chance of getting through this. “Don’t give it a clear shot if you can!” shouted Aramil. “Besides what you’ve seen it can slow, frighten and force you to sleep! We need to-”
Aramil was cut off by Sadron. The charmed child had made her way to the warrior. “No, girl, let it go!” Sadron shouted. The child grappled with the Scout’s bow. The two tussled into the beholder’s view. The pale beam shot forth once more, ripping through both of the elves. Sadron’s finely crafted bow fell next to the piles of dust with a clunk.
“Damn you, beast!” roared Aramil. With great deft, he leapt from his prone position and fired three of Tho’asha’s arrows at the beholder. The orb turned towards the projectiles. From it’s large, central eye a sparkling cone emitted. As it engulfed the arrows, they harmlessly dissipated. “Forgot about that trick, you bastard,” Aramil grumbled to himself. “Boys, the main eye suppresses magic. But that goes for its own as well. We need to close the gap!”
Castien and Gilranil nodded their understanding then darted about the room. The beholder fired at will doing everything it could to tag the two. In the resulting confusion, Minotaur struck a critical blow. Two of his axes met their mark and managed to sever four of the eyestalks. Pink ooze foamed from the stumps spewing the cave like hoses. A blue ray hit Minotaur. The normally stalwart fighter dropped to his knees and cowered.
Without the ranged threat, the beast could now turn its attention back to the rest. Aramil knew this and decided to make his move. “Rush it! Now!” he yelled. Aramil, Castien and Gilranil moved in perfect unison. Graceful and deadly, the trio hurdled towards their target. Fearing the beholder’s anti-magic ability, Aramil unsheathed Vae’rorderol. The moans echoed off the walls of the cave. The sword was angry. It thirsted for blood.
The beholder countered the advance. The disintegration ray tore through Gilranil. Castien’s flesh hardened as he drew his last breath. A chunk of Aerestiel’s stone body flew through the air and slammed into Aramil’s temple. The blow sent the Thane to the ground. Aramil’s vision doubled as he frantically searched for his dropped weapon. Vae’rorderol had gone silent; no doubt due to the beholder’s central eye. The horror floated towards the beleaguered Thane.
“Your world isssssssss no longer your own, elf.” said the beholder. “My lord will devour this land. You are misguided and worship false Gods. Your Gods are weak and impotent. They know nothing of REAL darkness. This world will fall beneath my master’s crushing fists. Your rivers will run with the blood of your children. Your flesh will serve as vessels for those greater than you. Your Gods will die by my master’s-”
“My lord!” Minotaur shouted. The large elf let fly one of his axes towards the beholder. Through willpower, he overcame the spell upon which he was under. It would be his last act of bravery. The monster instinctively attacked. Minotaur, true to form, let loose not even a whisper as he was disintegrated.
The axe sailed wildly over the beholder but it served its purpose well. In order to eliminate Minotaur, the beholder was forced to extinguish his anti-magic. Vae’rorderol roared. Its moans were more like a dirge at this point. Aramil wanted nothing more than to silence them. He plunged the sword deep into the central eye. Vae’rorderol unleashed powerful magic into the monster. Aramil twisted the sword deeper into the melting sclera. Anger coursed through him. He took great delight in feeling the creature’s death through Vae’rorderol.
The beholder deflated and collapsed to the floor. Vae’rorderol ceased moaning. The only sound now was Aramil’s heavy breathing. He looked at the mess at his feet. Wanting to hurt it more somehow he inspected it closely. In doing so, he discovered what the enthralled children were doing when Aramil first came upon them. The monster had been covered in purple paint. Upon numerous parts of its spherical body were also small pentagrams.
* * *
The ride back to T’ir Ranor was long and silent. Aramil had to lead the horses slowly in order to return with the bodies. That is to say those that were recoverable.
So many things ran through his head. What was that gibberish the monster spoke? What was the significance of the paint and symbols? What was it even doing there in the first place? The questions prompted him to look around the area searching for unseen answers. As he did so, his eyes met with one of Minotaur’s throwing axes tied to a horse.
Aramil lowered his head and wept deeply.