"Evard! Where are the clean pots? These are all dirty!" A gruff voice penetrated the failing grip I had on sleep.
"Sir! Those had been set to soaking." A small, boyish voice said with some amount of indignation. "The clean ones are there."
"Put them up on the shelf like I asked, then!"
"I can't even reach there," The small voice raised to a piercing pitch with annoyance then there was a brief pause, "Sir."
There had likely been a glare prompting the trailing sir.
My eyes opened, grittily rolling around in my head, taking in the barely lit sky outside. I tried to ignore the tussle and fuss going off in the distant kitchen of The Sea Witch. I pinched my eyelids tight, grinding in the sand. The headache wasn't exactly there but everywhere echoing inside and out.
"Poisoned." I muttered, croakily, remembering what Silah said last night.
"So you said." Silah chimed in inside my head, sparing me the pain of actually hearing anything beyond the distant reverberations from the kitchen.
I rolled my eyes toward where her head lay; it was bent at a very awkward angle, looking up at me.
"That looks like it hurts." I said aloud, looking at her painfully craned neck.
She shrugged, flopping her shoulders while her head remained unmoving looking up at me. Then returned her head to my chest, then after a moment, moved to sit on her knees. She glanced beyond me; I followed her gaze, looking over the inert bodies tousled behind us.
"We should get moving." Silah said sensibly, thinking it was a good idea.
I propped myself up and looked around at the slowly stirring mass.
No, it was not a good idea.
She saw my expression which prompted a grimace. She sat, wringing her hands, then stood, looking on, standing unnaturally still.
Footsteps moved in from that back. The gruff older man who was the cook for The Sea Witch, walked into the room. He shook his head as he looked between familiar faces.
"Oi!" He targeted Bromm, kicking his boot, "The dining room is opening! Git movin'!"
The grumbling echoes from the others started to emerge as the man stirred up a racket. He might as well have been shouting with his low grumbling voice. Bromm—who had apparently been awake, but vying for more time with his eyes closed—slowly opened his eyes and looked at the man.
"Bill." He said mildly. I could see many different mouthed words, likely curses, but a few of them found a voice, "Breakfast around, we've got a big day ahead of us."
Bill's brow furrowed with Bromm's smoothness and an annoyed smirk spread across his face.
"Fine, boy. Then get this cleaned up and move the tables in." Bill gestured to the tables around the walls and turned to walk away.
Bromm shot a glare at his back; a glare to a someone who should know better than to push him. After Bill moved on a few steps, the affront rolled off of Bromm and he glanced around at the others.
"You heard ‘em." He said groggily while he got to his feet, taking a deep breath and stretched in the pale glow just coming through the window. It was very early.
The rest of us stirred to standing. Silah was a fixture, watching impatiently, as the room flowed around her. As I moved tables, I watched her and the haunted look she wore. She must have been like this all night.
"Soon, my dear." I said, giving her a pained expression.
She nodded curtly.
Food came shortly after and the sun started to warm the Eastern walls of The Sea Witch. Bill, as grumbly as the man was, was a still fantastic cook. He did a miraculous blend of both salted pork and a boiled grain mash seasoned with sage and mixed with lightly cooked eggs. A warm, salted butter sauce was haphazardly splashed on it, but it brought the meal together in a marvelous way.
The conversation eased around us. Silah didn't eat, she had a hand on my arm, glancing absently around at the different faces with a blank expression.
Surprisingly, it was Floki who acted first. He stood and craned his neck to and fro stretching for mobility.
"Shall we go see what's happening at the Priory?" He said it slowly, wiping his face with his hand.
Silah was on her feet before he completed the sentence. I was startled, but I slowly pushed back in the chair to join her. Everyone took turns, eyeing the intense Silah.
A groggy Macaulay moved from the back of the tavern, surprised by the bristling group. Incredulity fluttered over his face. He made as if to say something, but the settled into an amused look.
"Let me get that for you." He moved through the group clearing tables as the group readied themselves.
Rana and Danin gathered their things, they were standing close and speaking quietly. That same lingering question of where Danin's heart was arose in my head.
Time will tell.
It wasn't long before we moved out into the crisp air. The skies were clear with milky white clouds lingering off in the distance to the North. Silah entwined around my arm, looking up at me, urging me forward with her intensity, her eyes harried.
"Just… be prepared." She said aloud, gripping tightly, almost uncomfortably, around my arm.
Sig, Floki, and Bromm seemed to be debating something. I overheard it as a discussion on how to split up the profits of their business venture. Floki was especially heated, pushing back on Sig's words. The suppressed grin on Sig's face told a different story than his own lips, though. How often this push-pull of wills happened as the close friends had grown up was pretty clear. Bromm seemed to be the one to disarm things as they got closer and closer to the boiling point. I smirked at the thought, finding it only slightly ironic that Bromm took the role as a voice of reason.
The group was nonchalant on the walk back to the temple. I looked on, quietly. I was feeling increasingly wary at Silah's intensity. The foot traffic was light, mainly bakers delivering fresh loaves. Few vendors would expect any activity this early. The extra heads wandering the streets were starting to diminish as they either settled into Hlofreden taking on other work or, perhaps, had returned to Dowry.
The walled entrance was quiet. The temple itself stood alone as a place of solace for the worshippers of Kols, which had been waning. Times, apparently, had become less honorable and had moved away from the values that Kols upheld. I shrugged absently at the thought.
The wall was joined with the steepled roof of a chapel area. A grand stained glass window depicting Kols and his monstrous boar overlooked the street on one side. Opposite of that was a bell tower attached to the main building, but remained separate from the wall. The massive, precisely laid stones were a penchant of the Dwarves who had built it. It was meticulously cared for, too. Spotless except for subtle disturbances. The front gate was open, swinging loose, as we had noted from last night.
Rana and Floki walked along either side of the wall before entering. Sig and Danin looked to me and I looked at the door.
"If you wouldn't mind, Hakaar?" Sig said, glancing anxiously at the door in anticipation for way lay beyond.
Rana was jumping repeatedly to look into the courtyard and Floki eyed the tower.
"It's silent in there. I don't see any movement." Floki looked bemused.
I pushed through the courtyard door, Silah close behind. The others filed in, spreading out. Again, the interior was pristine, but now signs of struggle were apparent. Blood splattered on the stones leading to the chapel and a battered door. Rana approached cautiously, holding her bow and arrow in one hand while putting the other to the cracked door attempting to push it open.
"It's been barricaded." She announced as she pulled back.
"Whatever it was, it didn't keep them out." Bromm said, his voice thin.
I moved toward the door, peering inside, then pressing against it gently. It began to open, letting loose a howling grind. I grimaced back to Floki who rolled his eyes at me. I turned and kicked the door open, pushing away the remains of a pew and a shattered bookshelf.
They moved in from behind me; alert, weapons drawn. Silah remained at my side, her eyes were wide, taking the room in. She bristled with each step, rubbing her arms to calm the goosebumps—I hadn't seen her with goosebumps. I reached toward her absently, making sure she was within arm's length.
"This room is clear." Floki announced, nodding at Rana, after a quick review. He had even spent time considering the ceilings in the process. Strangely, his attention to that detail worried me much more than I expected. He pointed out more blood slicks soaked into the floorboards, drag marks leading toward the interior door to the tower.
Rana nodded and we looked toward that door. I put my hand to it and it swung open easily, without resistance. The base of the tower was lined with books of the order. A large shrine with Kols and his Boar consumed a hollow made by a turning staircase that started on the left of the shrine. The shrine itself was standing above a pool of nearly dried blood, the courtyard where we had entered with directly behind me, the light penetrating the windows showed the dried specks of blood, sprayed from some unfortunate soul. The smeared trail of blood ascended the stairs, Danin filed in behind both Silah and myself as I took my first tentative steps up.
The floor far above our heads creaked, a sound of quick movement. There was a scampering sound toward the courtyard behind us followed by a heavy thud.
"Outside. It's outside." Silah hissed fervently.
She gripped my hand and put her taught arm in my grip, clasping it closed with her other hand.She gave me a determined look, a look that wondered what I was waiting for. I envisioned Silah in sword form and she melted immediately.
"Outside in the courtyard!" I shouted, hoping there was time for them to prepare.
There was movement up the stairway. A twisted, humanoid creature, its skin frayed beyond recognition, showing the chitin of an insect tearing through what remained of the poor being that had been consumed by it. The hollowed skin gaped and flexed as it twitched down the stairs. It's skull had split into a spiny upward facing mouth which was covered in a viscous pale pink ooze that spiderwebbed as this new mouth worked in anticipation of prey.
"Danin, fall back. We need to get whatever that is out there." I said, as I turned on the stairs, "And, see if you can hold that door. We won't survive if we get flanked."
I bolted as I saw the shadow of something massive moved past the windows. The creature behind me thrust forward and snapped, clamping on my thinly protected shoulder, it's spiny teeth worming their way into my skin. I pulled back against the bite, almost pulling it with me. It released in anticipation of falling. I furrowed my brow at the bloodied wound dealt by the horror. Things already looked very grim. I saw Danin's eyes widened as he fully saw the creature that had descended the stairs. He muttered something that sounded like "unholy beast".
Bromm raised his new Pepperbox and it dramatically misfired, falling from his hand and spinning on the floor. He cursed loudly as he blinked at the misfortune. Floki backed up, drawing his bow. The arrows skittered over the shell. My eyes went around with each failed attempt, fearing for the worst. I moved close, and it anticipated my movements, flailing out at me with my approach, the clawed arms failing to connect as I moved close.
"Strike. Now." Silah said, resolute.
I brought the blade down hard on the shell, cracking it wide open. As it penetrated the flesh underneath, a gout of foul smelling liquid sprayed out, coating my arms, breastplate and face. I gasped in pain as a hiss erupted from all over my body, holes were being etched in my skin as I gritted my teeth. My armor, which was already in bad shape, had burrowing holes in it now. The leather straps began to slack, but still held.
I heard Danin push through the door behind me, holding whatever creature had descended the stairs at bay.
The beast in front of me, turned to focus on me. It lashed out with two of its clawed hands catching me. The rest of the arms brought the circular maw in line and it pulled me toward it’s pink slime-covered maw. It bit deep, pressing it’s spiny teeth into my exposed right side. I felt sick from the amount of trauma. It promptly dropped me, and I landed on my feet, but only barely. The acid still sizzled, etching away at my remaining strength.
Arrows ineffectually rattled around me and Bromm was focused on retrieving his weapon and readying it to fire. I gripped the sword tightly, swearing at the pain.
"One more. I can feel it." Silah said, evenly. "This is yours."
There was no other choice. If I fell, the rest may fall as well.
I … feel weak, I need your help to strike true.
I swung, my own effort was not enough with the attempt, but her will pushed the blade true, striking deeper this time. The creature's many waving arms convulsed with the impact, the maw went slack, as fluids from its disemboweled body spread over the floor. The sizzling on my skin stopped, even as I braced for it. I was at the edge of consciousness, pushing back the waves of pain rippling over me.
Silah's impassioned echo was more of a war cry at the killing blow. Her ferocity was more tangible, and her purpose, absolutely clear. This felt like a worthy cause, even if it may take me to my grave.
Danin appeared at my back, putting his hands to me, pushing healing into me regardless of my currently aggravated state. I turned toward the door, Floki's wolf stood at the foot of one of these human husked insectoids. I glared into the room.
"Get this thing out of my way!" I bellowed,
"He'll bite you if you try to move him." Floki said, cautiously, but with a snide overtone. It was more attitude than I was willing to accept considering the amount of pain I was currently in.
"Why do you think I'm asking?" I growled, I waited for him to call his wolf back.
I heard Floki whistle and the wolf moved out of sight. I descended on the creature in the doorway, slicing it easily, breaking through the chitin, ragged flesh, and reforming bone.
Danin continued to push healing energy into me, sending bursts through everyone close by. I felt a shock and a reversal of the damage done with each pulse. I caught sight of Sig and Rana exiting the building. Sig was floating eerily and he swooped through the doorway. Rana called after him. Floki remained back, complaining of my size filling the doorway and blocking his shot. Bromm took a position on the chapel wall, watching for movement outside.
"We should move in, there might be more upstairs."
I looked at the stairs, and yes, there were more descending. I moved quickly, letting others fill in behind me as needed. I blocked the stairs. Another twitching monstrosity descended, a torn face pierced with spines and faceted eyes looked eerily on. The newly formed glistening maw worked, grappling at me. One claw landed, piercing my flesh, but the other failed. I brought the blade down easily, making short work of it. Floki and Bromm moved in behind, followed by Danin. I looked down the stairs, realizing there was no easy way for them to close and engage in such close quarters. I continued moving the mayhem upstairs.
I rounded the corner at the top, this floor had many of the shredded shapes, haplessly wandering humanoid shapes lingering in the bell tower. Some dripping, freshly emerged from the gristly cocoons that hung from the ceiling above. Some of those were still occupied, twitching with rapid movement. Agitated by the noise I had made from storming up the stairs.
I heard Rana cry out downstairs, shouting obscenities.
"Another one!" Floki shouted, followed by a yelp and a growl.
I grit my teeth and made to turn back toward Bromm. As I turned, I saw Sig hovering, weightlessly, outside the window. He called out to me, waving me back. Then he weaved his hands in front of him. My skin itched with his motion. As he called out, a near viscous cloud of yellow white erupted from the center of the room. I covered my face and moved backwards.
"Can you hold here?" I said to Bromm, coughing as the stench laden cloud rolled around me.
Bromm shrugged and nodded to Danin who was moving rapidly up the stairs behind him.
"Make way!" I shouted, pressing past Bromm and Danin. At the bottom of the stairs, the wolf faced off with another of the giant creatures. It was bearing down on the blood-soaked animal. Hissing steam was rising from the wolf. The spray had come from a few arrows that penetrated the glossy shell of the many-armed, beetle-like beast. It was readying it's claws to grapple with the wolf.
With just enough time to level my blade, I lanced forward, driving the blade just below the thick neck of the gyrating maw. I braced, waiting for the spout of acid to come pouring through, but the liquid that sprayed out was inert, as the beast slumped to the floor. I glanced back, seeing a bloodied Floki standing just outside the tower door, bow raised. The shadow of his sister stood next to him. She said something and I heard concern in her voice, Floki whistled and his wolf returned, also no longer affected by the acid. That was the second time this happened.
Please, remind me, if I ever forget, that the acid goes inert on the creature’s death. I thought to Silah.
Silah acknowledged in her way, giving my a feeling of a short nod. She was still gaining her composure after taking yet another creatures life. There was a completeness to her, a feeling of fulfillment beyond the thrill of taking a life.
"These, creatures. I haven't fought them in a very very long time. The smaller ones, they, become these drones. These aren't smart, though, built for battle and operating from a commander that would operate somewhere safe." She echoed in my head, then paused, "If we had waited any longer. There wouldn't have just been two. This city would have been under siege before long."
Her voice quavered with the words.
And we would have been dead. I thought to myself.
I nodded, but I was unwilling to reflect on the possibilities at the moment.
"This door. Is this where it came up?" I said aloud to anyone in earshot, pointing at the door opposite the stairway, I had completely overlooked it before.
"That goes to the undercroft," Rana spoke through the doorway, "I'll come with you."
The smell of burnt bread rose from the basement, as I moved into the cramped hallway. There was a smoke-filled kitchen to the left and a door to desks and a study area straight ahead. Rana moved in behind me.
"Want to check in there?" I rocked my head toward the kitchen.
"Got it." Rana said with a curt nod, moving low and slow, keeping below the smoke with her bow partially drawn.
"Some doors in here, but they're locked. They were attacked while they were making bread!" Her voice was dismayed at how mundane their final tasks were.
I moved among the desks and bookshelves that lined the walls. There was a chalkboard with a drawing of the interior of the temple. Were they planning defensive strategies? Near the back was another shrine. Blood stains covered the floor. There were eight respective chambers, each had heavy doors bashed through. Blood and flesh lined the walls of each one.
"Kols. Where are you when your people need you." I growled to myself, looking at the statue that was bespeckled with dried blood spray from another life taken.
Floki moved in behind me, his wolf sniffing ahead. He looked through the scene quickly.
"They were trapped down here, each one tried to pry through the bars in these rooms. Some almost got out, but," He grimaced, "Almost."
"What a way to go." I shook myself. "I'm going back upstairs."
I darted through the study and, glanced at a locked door on the way up.
"We should get into that locked room, see if someone survived?" I didn't pause for a response and continued my way up the stairs, taking them three and four at a time.
Past the first level, I nearly ran into Danin, who was wearing one of the masks we had retrieved from the Poulterhaud Mine, it was—leaking. He looked to be in bad shape and was process of prying the vomit filled mask off of his face.
Ah, that gas Sig put in the room.
I moved up next to Bromm who was looking into the room. Another of the fleshy, insect body lay at his feet with smoking holes in it.
"Are you hurt?"
He looked at me and shrugged, he had a slight smile on his face in spite of the dire circumstance.
I looked into the clouded room, whatever Sig had done was starting to dissipate. I could hear shuffling and retching, but also Sig's mumbling followed by a thud. I looked back at Bromm, a question on my face about what I was hearing. He shrugged again.
I waited a moment then held my breath, pushing into the room. The six I had seen earlier had been reduced to three. Sig was dutifully sending them to the floor with his words and using his dagger to finish the job. The first one stumbled toward me, barely able to move. I slashed at it and it fell in a heap.
Bromm moved in behind me and unloaded a barrel into another to my right, the creature rocked back and forth with the blow. I looked at Bromm with a question, holding my blade ready.
"By all means." He motioned toward the creature.
Another swipe, and the head rolled away. Another lay at Sig's feet, I nodded toward him, waiting for him to finish it.
"For you, or, really, her." He nodded at the Greatsword.
"This feels like cheating," she whispered.
We could always let him do the honors.
"No no no. This... Go ahead." She braced again. Sig held it up by the scruff of whatever remaining hair it had, and I swept the head from Sig's hand the blade catching it and sending it crumpling into the wall with a spurt.
"Thank you, Sig." I nodded.
I looked up at the dangling cocoons. Slashing through each one in turn, sending the bodies tumbling to the floor. There was a large pile of refuse just below the cocoons: remnants of clothes, trinkets, dotted with gold and silver coinage. I spent time wiping the slimy remains from the sword, before having Silah join us.
She looked herself over, seeing that she remained pristine in her milky white dress. She looked toward me, waiting to catch my eye.
"Look at you. A perfect gentleman." She said, admiration in her voice.
She smiled warmly and did a slight curtsy with the compliment. I immediately felt my face flush with her attention.
(Get to know Akeron.)