It was still only our first day in the miserable, goblin-infested town of Kiris Dahn, but I, Layleth Autumngale, had already had enough of it. We had just spent the morning fending off garbage-throwing kobalds, grey ooze, and a huge ankheg, and most of us had had at least one close brush with death. This town definitely was not topping my list of favorite places to revisit in the future.
We were unable to find the Slaying Stone in the library, but we did find three of the five books Lord Kiris was seeking, so it wasn’t a total loss. Once we had completed our search, and finished binding our wounds from the morning’s battles, we set off for our next destination – the temple ruins. I fervently hoped we would find the Slaying Stone there. The sooner we could find it and leave this vile place, the better.
We slipped out of the library and into the streets, trying to be as stealthy as possible. Let me tell you something about traveling with The Last Option. They’re about as stealthy as a herd of cattle. As a hunter in the forest, I had long ago mastered the art of traveling silently, but when you’re traveling with a goliath, a shardmind, and a lumbering dwarf, odds are someone is going to hear you coming. By some miracle, however, we managed to make it through the streets of Kiris Dahn without being overheard, with Quinn, Kuri, and myself making our way down the narrow alleyways, and Mangre and Gino choosing to take the journey by rooftop.
Our party had nearly reached the ruins, when some movement in a nearby alley caught my attention.
“Wait!” I whispered, holding up a hand to indicate that everyone should remain still. We ducked behind a shed, and I peeked around the corner, watching as a large humanoid stabbed a goblin in the eye, dropped the creature’s lifeless body to the ground, and then disappeared inside a building.
“What is it?” Mangre hissed impatiently, trying to peer around the corner.
“I’m not sure. An orc, maybe.”
“Well, what’re yeh waitin’ for?” he growled, as he hefted his hammer in both hands. “Let’s kill it.”
“First I want to find out what it’s doing here.”
Mangre shook his head.
“You elves – always doin’ everything backwards. Everyone knows you kill first an’ ask questions later.”
I ignored him and slowly approached the body of the goblin that the orc had discarded. There was a strange brand over one of its eyes. Kuri studied the brand for a moment, and then relayed an explanation to all of us.
“Cult of the Severed Eye?” Mangre muttered. “Never heard of ’em.”
Quinn looked nervously from the dead goblin to the building the orc had disappeared into.
“Maybe we should leave,” he whispered, but Gino shook his head.
“No, it’s better to face your enemies on your own terms, rather than allowing them to catch you off-guard later on.”
I stared at him in surprise. For a dumb brute, he sometimes said things that made a lot of sense.
“Right,” I said. “Me first.”
Quietly, carefully, I approached the doorway of the building and peered inside. It was dim, but there was enough light for me to see a large room with a wooden staircase leading up to a second level. One part of the room had sunken in to form a deep pit, and there was a strange, runic circle on the floor just inside the doorway. But what really caught my attention was the huge, female orc standing on the staircase, surveying the room. She didn’t seem to notice my presence.
I ducked back around the corner to tell my companions what I’d seen.
“Female, eh?” Mangre whispered, his attention suddenly piqued. “What’d she look like?”
I relayed an image of the orc to Kuri, who then passed it on to the others.
“Hmm, she’s not bad lookin’,” Mangre said with a grin.
“You can’t be serious,” I muttered, rolling my eyes. Then I returned my focus to the task at hand and loaded my bow with a fresh arrow. “I’ll take care of this.”
I whirled around the corner and pointed my arrow in the direction of the orc. However, before I could say anything to her, Mangre suddenly came blustering through the doorway, his chest puffed out and his craghammer at the ready.
“Surrender now, orc!” he bellowed. “Or there’ll be hell to pay!”
The orc didn’t seem very impressed. I couldn’t really blame her.
“Do you have the Stone?” she snarled. “Give it to me now!”
“We don’t have the stone,” I argued.
“Then you’re standing in the way of me finding it!” she declared. She withdrew two very lethal looking great axes and charged in our direction. I let an arrow loose in her shoulder, but she barely flinched. It was then I realized that Mangre’s new girlfriend was going to be quite a handful.
However, before the orc could make her way down the stairs, a blast of radiant light hit her square in the chest, knocking her off the staircase and down into the pit below. I turned to see Kuri standing behind us in the doorway, his arm outstretched.
“Nice work,” I said with a smile, and Kuri glowed pink in response. Suddenly, Quinn darted between the shardmind’s legs and rushed over to look down into the pit the orc had just plummeted into.
“She’s still alive,” Quinn announced. “And she looks angry!”
Grabbing the boy by the back of his shirt to ensure he didn’t fall in, I leaned over to see the orc beginning to scramble up the wall of the pit.
“Watch out, she’s trying to escape!” I yelled.
At that moment, the ghostly form of Sir Brandt appeared in the pit, brandishing his sword.
“What ho, foul orc!” the spirit said. “Methinks you will not get away that easily!”
While Sir Brandt engaged the orc in battle, I turned to see Mangre smacking the stone tiles with his hammer. He seemed to be trying to destroy the glowing circle that was etched into the floor.
“Mangre, will you quit fooling around and go after that orc!” I yelled in annoyance, as I launched another arrow into the pit.
With a frustrated growl, Mangre dropped his hammer and pulled on his spiked gauntlet. Then, to my astonishment, he lumbered halfway up the staircase and prepared to jump.
“Wait!” I shouted. “When I said to go after her, I didn’t mean – “
But it was too late. With a loud battle cry, Mangre plunged twenty feet into the pit below. I heard a sickening thud as his gauntlet made contact with the orc’s head. It should have shattered her skull, killing her instantly, but the large creature managed to remain on her feet.
“Come on!” Gino shouted, waving me in the direction of the staircase. I followed him to the second-story landing above, so we could both get a good look at the action. Twenty feet below us, Mangre finally seemed to have gotten the orc’s attention.
While Gino and I looked on, the orc spun in a circle, slicing into Mangre’s flesh with one great axe, and then another. For a few seconds, Mangre stood dazedly, until the orc lashed out with her foot, kicking him hard in the stomach. Mangre went sailing through the air and landed on the floor of the pit, unconscious.
“Mangre!” Quinn cried out in horror.
The she-orc lifted one of her axes over Mangre’s head, but I shot her in the arm with an arrow before she could deliver the final blow.
“Hey!” I shouted down to her. “Nobody messes with the dwarf but me, bitch!”
Gino followed up my arrow by hurling a hand axe at the orc, and she looked up at him, suddenly seeming to realize the vulnerability of her position.
“Surrender now!” Gino ordered, but she shook her head.
“I will never surrender!” she screamed. “I must find the stone for Dreus!”
Despite Sir Brandt’s valiant attempts to hold her at bay, she managed to climb out of the pit and make a mad dash for the door. But I wasn’t about to let her get away now. I hurled myself down the stairs, unsheathing my falchion as I did so, and met the creature head-on at the bottom of the staircase.
“Going somewhere?” I taunted, swinging at her with my blade. She howled in pain as my falchion sliced into her skin, but before she could retaliate, Kuri sent a burst of radiant energy exploding in the air around her. The orc collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
As I contemplated what to do with her now that she was subdued, Sir Brandt revived Mangre, and with Gino’s assistance, the dwarf hauled himself up out of the pit. He came over and stood beside me, looking down at the fallen orc.
“We should tie ‘er up, so she can’t give us any more trouble,” he muttered. I raised my eyebrows.
“You mean you don’t want to kill her? Even after she tried to kill you?”
Mangre scowled, and then heaved a resigned sigh.
“S’pose I owe you one, elf,” he mumbled. Then he pulled a length of rope out of his pack and together, we began binding the unconscious orc to the base of the staircase. To be honest, I didn’t hate the dwarf as much as I let on. The thing is, aside from his lack of intelligence, personal hygiene, and sense of common decency, we really weren’t that different from each other after all.
“We should take her weapons,” Gino suggested, once we had finished tying up the orc. “And search her bag for loot.”
So, while Gino confiscated her hand axes, I checked the orc’s travel pack and discovered a couple of documents inside. One was a map, and the other was a tattered letter. I unfolded it and read it aloud to my companions:
I do not trust Vohx, he is a fool. I need you to break away the first chance you get and find the stone yourself. I will gladly pay you double if you can bring it to me as soon as you find—- I may also put in a good word for you within the Severed Eye clan.
“Well,” I said grimly, “it looks like we have some competition.”
Having secured the orc, we next made our way towards the temple, with myself scouting ahead to make sure we didn’t have anymore unexpected creature encounters. When we arrived, we found several small, desecrated shrines surrounding the large temple, which appeared to be unoccupied. However, I wasn’t taking any chances. I unsheathed my falchion and the rest of the group followed suit, holding their weapons at the ready.
When we entered the temple, it was indeed occupied, but it wasn’t an orc or a goblin that we found there. Instead, standing next to the fountain in the center of the temple, was an elderly gentleman, dressed in tattered clothes that looked as if they had once been the attire of a noble.
“Identify yourself, old man,” Gino ordered, waving his axe menacingly.
“He ‘ardly looks like much of a threat,” Mangre muttered, as he assessed the stranger. “I wager a stout wind could knock ‘im right over.”
“Never pays to be too careful,” Gino replied.
“Please!” the old man said, raising his hands in self-defense. “Don’t hurt me!”
“Who are you?” I pressed.
“My name is Hoyt Kiris,” the man answered meekly.
“Kiris?” I repeated. “As in the Kiris family that once ruled here.”
“The very same,” Hoyt said with a sad nod. “My family abandoned me here and left me to fend for myself. I’ve been hiding in this temple, scavenging for food when I can find it and trying to remain undetected by the goblins.”
“That’d be six years ago,” Mangre whispered. “Somethin’s not right ‘ere…”
At that moment, I glanced to my side and noticed Quinn standing there with his head cocked to one side, which was a sure sign that the voices in his head were conversing with him.
“What is it Quinn?” I asked.
Quinn looked at Hoyt, his eyes widened in terror.
“The old man,” he whispered. “Sir Brandt thinks he’s a—“
But before Quinn could finish voicing his suspicions, he was interrupted by the sound of footsteps coming from either side of the temple.
“Goblins!” Hoyt squeaked. He dashed around the fountain and went to hide behind a statue.
“Has the heart of a lion, don’t he?” Mangre said gruffly. Then he dashed over to the temple door as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him and barricaded it to buy us some time. There was nothing he could do to slow the other group of goblins however, who were about to emerge from behind an iron portcullis on the other side of the room.
“Great,” I muttered, “it’s an ambush.”
Sheathing my falchion, I leapt up and balanced on the edge of the fountain, giving me a better vantage point. Then I cocked my bow and prepare to let loose an arrow at the first goblin to round the corner.
“Kill the rat man!” I heard one of the goblins shout, though I had no time to process what that could mean, because the goblins finally came out from the shadows.
“Attack!” I shouted, as I let an arrow fly. It missed, but came close enough to startle the head goblin into ducking out of sight, leaving his minions to face us on their own.
Kuri hurled a lightning blast which proved to be more successful than my arrow, managing to reduce their numbers by two or three. Gino, meanwhile, tried to lift the portcullis so he could engage the goblins in hand-to-hand combat, but was unsuccessful.
The door on the other side of the room rattled with the sound of the second group of goblins trying to barge in, but Mangre held his ground.
“Is that the best ya can do, yeh bunch of slimy-skinned curs?” he growled in response. That’s the thing about dwarves – they make excellent doorstoppers.
As I pulled another arrow out of my quiver, I was too late to notice the movement off to my side.
“Layleth!” I heard Quinn shout, and then there was a flash of teeth, claws and fur, and before I knew it I was falling to the ground in agony. Everything went dark, and when I came to, Mangre was standing over me, fiercely battling a rabid wererat. Apparently, Hoyt Kiris was not what he appeared to be.
“Great,” I groaned. Mangre had saved my life and there was no way he was ever going to let me live it down.
I glanced over and saw that Sir Brandt had also made his appearance, and was probably to thank for the fact that I had regained consciousness. He was standing at Mangre’s side, hacking into the wererat with his ghostly sword, but it seemed that each time one of them landed a blow, the creature’s wounds would mysteriously heal. With Mangre no longer blocking the door, the second troop of goblins had finally managed to storm the room, but Kuri was making short work of them with his usual lightning. Gino, meanwhile, was battling the lead goblin, who had finally reemerged from his hiding place in the shadows.
Ready to join in the fight once more, I jumped to my feet and pulled out my falchion, prepared to attack a couple of goblins who had cornered poor Quinn against the fountain. He ended up not needing my assistance, however, as he raised his rusty, broken sword and held it out in front of him, killing the goblins with a blast of frigid air. Then he raised his head and stared at the last remaining goblin that Gino was battling.
“Layleth!” Quinn cried out. “Look at the goblin’s dagger! It’s silver!”
I glanced over and saw that Quinn, after years spent raiding tombs, had correctly identified the goblin’s weapon. I suddenly remembered the times that werewolves would wander into Idlewilde Forest, and my tribe’s warriors would hunt them down with silver-tipped arrows…
“Gino!” I shouted, as I ran to his aid. “Bring him down! We need his dagger!”
Gino nodded and redoubled his efforts, swinging his axe with a mighty roar and bringing it crashing down on the goblin’s skull in a lethal blow. The creature fell to the ground and lie still, the silver dagger still clutched in his hand. I wrested the weapon out of the dead goblin’s fingers and darted over to where Mangre, Sir Brandt, and now Gino were still trying to take down the wererat. However, each time they wounded him, the vile creature was somehow able to regenerate the flesh they had broken.
I had a feeling my newly-acquired dagger would be a different story.
“Try some of this you nasty, over-grown rodent!” I shouted as I plunged the dagger into his gut. He screamed in mortal agony and slashed out at me with his claws, cutting fresh wounds into my arm. But the damage was already done. Something about the rat-formerly-known-as-Hoyt had changed. He seemed weaker.
Sure enough, as Mangre struck him with his hammer, I could hear several ribs cracking from the blow, and this time they did not heal. Gino followed up with a powerful swing of his axe, and with one final squeak, the wererat fell to the ground, dead.
“’Not much of a threat’, you said?” Gino snapped, glaring at Mangre. The dwarf merely shrugged.
“Made things interestin’ though, dinnit?”
“Yes, very interesting,” I said sarcastically, as I wiped the rat’s blood from the dagger. Then I smiled and gave Quinn a pat on the back. “Nice work noticing the silver dagger, Quinn.”
Suddenly, I grimaced as a pain shot up my arm. I glanced down and noticed that the wererat’s bite marks were still bright red, despite a fair amount of healing from Sir Brandt. Mangre, too, looked a bit worse for the wear as he assessed a bite mark on his own arm.
“Wererat venom,” he grunted. “Nasty stuff, that.” Then he pulled a flask from his hip, downed a few gulps of rum, and let out a loud belch. Immediately his complexion improved. “Ah, thas better,” he said.
I didn’t seem to be having as much luck, however. Sir Brandt looked me over with concern.
“You could do with a good night’s rest, fair elf,” he said, and then he disappeared with a pop. Mangre nodded in agreement.
“We should camp ‘ere for the night. We can try to heal Layleth in the mornin’.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. Then I glanced hopefully at Quinn. “You think your spirit friends will be able to help you heal me?”
“Sure,” he said. “I mean…I think so.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then yeh turn into a giant rat,” Mangre said cheerfully, giving me a smack on the shoulder. “Personally, I think the whiskers would improve yer appearance.”
Then he chuckled and went to help Gino barricade the doors, while the others unpacked their sleeping pads and started spreading them out on the floor.
“Very funny,” I muttered, as I unrolled my own sleeping pad. As we all settled down to sleep, I stashed the silver dagger in my boot, and secretly wondered if one of my friends would soon have to use it against me.