- A tale from the old adventurer's past. It all began with a drink...
A Tale of Two Swords is the 14th(13th on mobile) questing area released (listed as the Crossed Swords in the lower left of the map) in the game and becomes available after completing the zone Bludheim on at least normal difficulty.
|Into the Dungeon|
|Title||Level 1||Level 2||Level 3||Level 4||Level 5||Level 6||Level 7|
|Chasing a Dream |
(Complete A Tale of Two Swords on Nightmare difficulty.)
|Baroness Essence||Used to summon The Baroness (Raid)||The Baroness quest boss|
|Barracks Scroll 7||This scroll allows you to construct additional items from the Barracks in your Citadel.||Quest: NM The Baroness (not 100% drop)|
|Nemler's Guard Helmet||80||100||105||The Baroness|
|Nemler's Guard Cuirass||80||100||105||The Baroness|
|Nemler's Guard Gauntlets||80||100||105||The Baroness|
|Nemler's Guard Legplates||80||100||105||The Baroness|
|Nemler's Guard Sabatons||80||100||105||The Baroness|
|Brown Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|Grey Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|Green Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|Blue Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|Purple Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|Orange Sword Journal Page||Craft x2 Stat Points||A Tale of Two Swords quests|
|"Bugger off!" Griff yelled. Then he leaned back in his chair, grunted, and closed his eyes once more.
But again the knock came, bold, insistent, thudding against the thick door. The last lingering traces of sleep slipped away from Griff like leprechauns eluding treasure hunter's grasp.
The jailor snarled and got to his feet. He snatched the spiked club from the table, cursing as he knocked his tankard to the floor in the process, sending a stream of ale across the stones. If he couldn't sleep, at least he could do his next favourite thing -- adding to the layer of dried blood and brain matter which stained the weapon.
Griff lunged towards the door and groped for the first bolt. Then he paused, as common sense managed to slither through a crack in his anger. It was well past midnight, long after any decent person had gone to bed, and most indecent people had passed out in pools of their own vomit. And it wouldn't be the first time former guests had returned to the jail to express their opinion of it's service through the medium of sharp steel... So the jailor pulled open the small latch at eye-level instead, revealing a sturdy metal lattice with bars to closely spaced to permit blade or arrow. Better safe than slaughtered.
Through the gaps in the bars, Griff blinked at four men wearing neatly polished helms and pristine leather armor. Not criminals then... Guardsmen. In their midst stood a shorter figure, its body and face hidden beneath a dark hooded cloak. Griff snorted. He wouldn't be able to smash anyone's head after all.
"It's the middle of the bloody night!" he said. "If you got a prisoner, just take 'im off and 'ang 'im somewhere. I'll lend you a bleedin' rope."
"Your sense of duty is as laudable as your elocution came the reply, from the hooded figure. "Now open this door."
It was a voice from which sophistication seemed to drop like bitter honey, its tones bespeaking education and arrogance. It could only belong to a noblewoman. A respectful expression appeared on Griff's face like a mask, concealing his anger. he knew better than to offend nobles.
"It's too late for visitors," Griff said, managing to restrain the profanities which usually framed his words. "Can't be lettin' people into the jail at all 'ours, milady. Against the rules."
Two slim, gloved hands darted out from beneath the cloak. The hood fell way at their touch. Griff's first thought was that the woman's face was the perfect accompaniment for her voice, as if one had been shaped to fit the other. It bore the cold beauty so sought after by aristocrats, elegant features casting in an aloof sneer. Griff's second thought was, "Oh, bugger...", as recognition came.
"Listen to me, you wretched little man," she said. "My family owns the land this filthy prison stands on. If you have a home, instead of sleeping in the gutter where you belong, we own the ground beneath that as well. So don't presume that whatever rules you conjure up to feed your pathetic sense of self-importance apply to me."
Griff began to open his mouth, but couldn't even begin to form a response. Instead he pulled back the bolts, removed the bar, and opened the door. Then he stepped aside, as the woman strode through, the guards falling into line behind her as if dragged along by the very force of her presence.
The woman glanced down at the spiked club in Griff's hand. He followed her gaze, then tossed the weapon aside as if it were red hot. It struck the jug on the table, smashing it to pieces. Cheap ale cascaded down to join that spilled from his tankard. Griff gave it one long, expressive stare, then looked back up at the noblewoman.
"If we 'ave someone 'ere what belongs to you, milady, a servant per'aps-"
"Why must you peasants persist in dropped your aspirates?" she said.
Griff looked down at the ground, glancing around to see what he might have dropped. An irritated sigh from the woman showed him that he had made some kind og blunder, though it's nature escaped him
"But you do have a man here I wish to see. Ulric the Manslayer."
"Ulric!" gasped Griff.
"Yes. He was brought here last evening, was he not?"
"But... But he's a killer! A murderer!"
"Of course he's a killer, you simpleton. He's called Ulric the Manslayer. He slays men. That's the source of his infamy, and of my interest in him"
"That Ulric bit a cook's through out, because 'e didn't like the stew! Then 'e killed one of the town watch with a spoon! A spoon! They only managed to arrest 'im 'cos the stew did 'is gut in, and 'e collapsed in the street. Manfred always did make a bloody rotten strew. Still, didn't deserve to get 'is throat bit out 'cos of it."
"I asked to see the man. If I wished to be regaled by tales of his charming exploits, I would have summoned a bard."
"The mayor wouldn't like it, milady."
"My cousin's opinion is of no consequence. We may have allowed his ill-born branch of the family to oversee this worthless town, but it belongs to us."
"Should we hurt him, baroness?" asked one of the guards.
"A beating might sort him out," said another.
"That depends," the baroness said, "on whether he's about to lead us to Ulric's cell."
"This way," Griff said.
The grumbling jailor led them down a corridor, flaming torches illuminating the sturdy stone walls. He stomped past a series of equally sturdy doors, their hardened wood reinforced with iron, before finally stopping at the far end of the corridor. He fumbled with the bunch of keys at his belt, then jabbed one into a keyhole. Griff glanced at the noblewoman, as if hoping she would change her mind at the last moment. But she simply gave an impatient gesture. He sighed, unlocked the door, and pulled it open.
Two mattresses lay on the grimy floor of the windowless cell, in the far corners. A man reposed on each of them. One glanced towards the doorway as it opened, blinking through long strands of hair and raising his hand to shield his eyes from the sudden influx of light. The other lay still as if in slumber.
"About time," the man said. He sat up, the chain which fastened one of this arms to the cell wall clattering as he did so. "Take this thing off me, so I can get going. That dungeon isn't going to plunder itself."
"It's still night," Griff said. "You'll get out in the morning."
The man give a deep sight, his broad chest rising and falling. Then he lay back down on his mattress.
One of the guards shouldered Griff aside and stepped into the cell. The others followed, fanning out. The prisoner who had spoken watched them with interest. The other remained motionless, lying with his face towards the wall. The noblewoman walked in behind her guards. She looked at the curious prisoner.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Roland, warrior and adventurer -- at your service."
"You're not the man I want."
"If I had a copper piece for every time a woman's said that to me..."
"E's just a drunk," Griff said. "The watch brought 'im 'ere after 'e threw up in the town fountain."
"I'm not a drunk," Roland said. "I was drunk. There's a different. And if you don't want people vomiting in your fountain, you shouldn't serve such foul-tasting beer in your pub."
"You threw a drunk in with a murderer?" asked one of the guards.
"I'm a jailor," Griff grunted, "not a bloody matchmaker."
The woman took a step further into the cell, the guards moving to keep themselves between her and the prisoners. She approached the man on the other mattress. He was even larger than his burly cell-mate, his bare chest covered with thick slabes of scarred muscle, inscribed with a network of sinister tattoos.
"So this is the Manslayer," she mused. Then she signaled to one of the guards. "Wake him."
The guard drew his sword, ignoring a yelp of protest from Griff, and approached Ulric with slow footsteps, his body tense as if anticipating an attack. He reached out towards the murdered, and tentatively nudged him with a gauntleted hand. If the man felt the nudge, he gave no sign. The guard grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him. Ulric flopped over, and the guard leaped back in surprise. The murderer's limp arm fell off the mattress, striking the floor. His head lolled at an unnatural angle.
"He's dead!" the guard gasped.
The woman whirled round to face Griff, her pretty aristocratic face now resembling that of a harpy. She seized him by the throat with a grip far stronger than he would have imagined her capable of, and pushed him against the wall. He was too stunned to even resist.
"You fool! I needed him alive!"
"E was alive when we put 'im 'ere!" Griff spluttered, managing to twist his neck free from her grasp. "Think we put dead folk in cells?"
The woman gave Griff one final glare, then turned to Roland.
"What happened here?"
"He decided to make himself unpleasant," the adventurer replied, "so I had to break his neck."
There was a moment of frozen silence. Then the woman's face became a mask of fury, and a litany of curses flew from her lips. For minute upon minute profanities and blasphemies filled the air. The guards stared forward, their expressions blank -- though there were faint twitches at the corners of their mouths. Griff gazed at the woman in something like admiration. Roland simply smiled, and allowed the invectives to por over him.
At last the woman fell silent, almost gasping for breath.
"I'll wager your tutors never taught you to speak like that," Roland said.
The woman glared. She appeared on the verge of another tirade. Then she purses her lips, and the anger faded from her face like a receding tide. She seemed to be scrutinizing the adventurer.
"You killed him?" she asked. "With your bare hands?"
"Well, the guards confiscated my sword." He turned to Griff. "I'll be expecting that back in the morning."
"Already sold it."
"Bastard." Roland sighed.
"What? It weren't magic or nothin'. And it 'ad one of them pointy-eared crests on the 'andle. You stole that sword from a bleedin' elf."
"He was a half-elf. But that's not the point."
"I have no interest in either of your thieveries," the woman said, silencing Griff with a majestic wave of her hand. She continued to focus an intense stare on the adventurer. "I came her for Ulric, because I needed him."
"What would a lady like you want with a murderer?" asked Roland.
"I require a dangerous man. An exceptional killer. Ulric's reputation brought me here. But if you killed him, you must be even better..."
"Heh. It's not like conkers."
"Conkers?" The woman's aloof countenance slipped into confusion.
"Never played as a child? No I suppose you wouldn't have -- being a noble. You take a horse-chestnut, put a hole in it, then tie it to a string..."
The woman stared at him as if he'd lost his mind.
"... then you challenge other people, and try to smash their conkers with your conker. If you break another fresh conker, your conker becomes a one-er. If you break another new conker after that, it becomes a two-er..."
The woman continued to stare, as if at some strange and mysterious form of beast.
"But here's the thing... If you break a conker which has broken other conkers, you ad their score to yours. Like if you had a two-er, and broke a ten-er, yours would become a thirteen-er. You inherit their reputation when you beat them."
"What in the name of all the hells are you babbling about?"
"What I'm saying..." Roland's voice bore a calmness and tranquility which only seemed to infuriate her further. "...is that killing isn't like conkers. Just because you kill a man doesn't mean you're a better killer than he was. You don't get the dead man's kills. Though if you did, I'd be up to about-"
"Quiet! You're wasting time!"
"I'm in jail. What else am I going to do with time?"
"Listen, I came here to make Ulric an offer. I would have freed him from prison, if he agreed to carry out a task for me. I make you the same offer. I can arrange a full pardon for your crimes."
Griff scowled, no doubt at the thought of his authority being usurped. Roland laugher, and the woman's eyes flashed like a snake's.
"Ulric was here for murder," the adventurer said. "He would've been hanged tomorrow. I'm here for emptying my stomach in a fountain. Why should I care about a pardon?"
A cold smile flickered across the woman's face.
"Because otherwise you'll be executed."
The adventurer simply laughed once more.
"I know you probably have influence in this town, but even a noblewoman can't have a man hanged for drunkenness."
"No..." A slim, gloved hand reached under the folds of her cloak. "You'd be hanged for murdering your wretched jailor."
Confusion crept over Griff's face, closely followed by alarm. He backed away towards the door. The woman whirled round to face him.
"Now 'old on-"
There was a clinking noise, and a blade flashed out from beneath her cloak. For a split second it glimmered in the light pouring from the hallway. Then it was sheathed once more, this time in the jailor's chest. Griff's eyes grew wide. His mouth twitched in a soundless murmur as he fell.
The woman's elegant boot pressed down on the dead man's jerkin, and she pulled her blade free -- skipping aside just in time to avoid the blood which spat from the wound. She held the sword out to one of her guards, extending it at arm's length as if to avoid sullying herself. The guard took the blade, crouched by Griff's body, and began to wipe it clean against the jailor's clothes.
"He was a twerp," Roland said, sitting up on his mattress. "But that was unnecessary."
The woman gestured to another guard. He too crouched beside the murdered jailor. Then he snatched the bunch of keys from Griff's belt and moved towards Roland. The adventurer rose to his feet, stretched his limbs, and held a manacled hand towards the guard. The key clicked in the lock. The chain fell away, clanking and clattering against the wall.
The guard who had taken the woman's sword stood up, and offered the weapon to his mistress. She eyes it for a moment, before accepting it and returning it into the scabbard beneath the folds of her cloak. It slid into place with a slink. Roland winced. A metal scabbard -- a good way to dull a blade.
"You may remain here if you choose to," the woman said, glancing at Roland. "But I don't anticipate any explanations saving you when you're accused of this vermin's death. Not when I exert my influence to ensure that they condemn you for it. Perhaps you could flee into the night instead. Does life as a wanted man sound appealing to you?"
"Nobles..." Roland said. He grunted. "Nothing but savages draped in silk."
"The comments of the ill-bred on their social superiors are of little interest to me. But if you come with me, and do as I demand, I'll arrange for your name to be cleared."
The woman turned, and swept through the doorway. Her boot heels clicked against the stone floor as she strode down the corridor. The guards gave Roland one final glance, then fell into line behind her.
"Bloody nobles!" The adventurer spat the words, before he too followed.
He walked down the passage, through the small lobby with its puddle of spilled ale, and into the night -- where six horses stood in the little courtyard outside the prisoner. The woman sat atop one of the mounts, a magnificent creature at least a span taller than the others, its black coat shining in the moonlight. Her guards were climbing into the saddles of their own steeds.
"I trust you can ride?" she said, gesturing towards the remaining animal.
The adventurer leapt onto its back and took the reins. Then they rode off, Roland following the woman and her guards towards whatever adventure lay before him.
A great black mass loomed up in the distance. Faints spots of illumination dooted its surface, like the murky eyes of some lurking monstrosity. It emerged from the darkness as a large building when they drew close. Clouds had long since swallowed the moon, so its details were lost in shadow. The travelers came to a halt in front of it.
Lights appeared from a nearby outbuilding. Men in the garb of stablehands ran towards the riders, each surrounded by a lantern's glow. The woman dismounted without a word to the medials, and strode towards the stairs leading up to the mansion's door. The guards did the same. Roland dismounted in turn, passing the reins of his horse to one of the stablehands.
The door opened, throwing a cascade of brightness down the steps. Framed in the light was a prim grey-haired man in well-tailored clothing. He bowed to the woman as she ascended the stairs, and moved aside when she entered the mansion.
"I trust milady found what she desired?" the butler said.
"Yes," the woman replied, as another servant removed her cloak and whisked it away into some inner recess. "We shall venture out tomorrow, as intended."
"Very good, milady."
Roland passed through the doorway. The butler stiffened, and eyed him from head to toe as if inspecting a stain upon the carpet.
"Good evening, sir," the butler said at last, giving the final word an intonation which made it sound akin to 'scum'.
"Not for me it isn't," the adventurer replied.
"How unfortunate. Though judging by sir's appearance and odor, any evening in which sir is not lying face down in a gutter is perhaps not entirely to sir's satisfaction."
By the time Roland realixed that the eloquent and seemingly respectful tones had enveloped insults, the butler had glided away.
"Follow me," the woman instructed over her shoulder. As before, the guards fell into place behind her like slivers of metal yanked after a moving lodestone.
"You never did tell me your name," Roland said as he strolled after them.
"That's because I desire no familiarity with peasants. You may refer to me as 'baroness'."
The woman passsed through an arched doorway, into a large darkened room. The guards fanned out just inside the chamber, two of them standing on either side of the entrance.
She clicked her fingers, and magical torches burst into life. Roland glanced around in the sudden flood of light.
Glass display cases lined the room's walls. Mounted within these were swords of every imaginable variety. Broadswords, scimitars, rapiers, cutlasses... Swords from all the regions of West Kruna, and others which had surely crossed oceans to reach the chamber. Roland's gaze drifted over them. His eyes had long been accustomed to appraising the value of artifacts, discerning which items might be the most worth liberating from the ruins and dungeons he plundered. All the weapons he saw in that room were works of exceptional skill and artistry. Each one would have been the jewel of almost any other collection.
"They're beautiful, aren't they?" the baroness asked. Her voice seemed strangely changed now. Almost warm, like that of a loving mother speaking of her children.
The adventurer's gaze continued to sweep across the room. To his right was a gap in the cases. The space was occupied by two wooden stands, each draped with a padded jacket and adorned with a training helm. One set was large, designed to fit a man. The other was slenderer, tailored for a woman. Roland's keen eyes noted that the jackets were worn in places, the man's one more so. They bore the traces of repeated cuts and thrusts, which had nibbles away at the tough material over time. Between the two stands was a rack containing a number of sparring blades, their tips ending in soft buttons or folded over so as to present blunt metal rather than a lethal point. Here too there were signs of wear. Some of the handles bore indentations in the leather, from heavy use. The floor was marked as well, the hard wood marred by faint scuff marks which had surely come from countless hours of stepping and lunging.
"Tell me," the woman said, in a soft voice, "what's your favorite weapon?"
Roland glanced into her eyes. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Weapons are tools," he said. "If I find a good weapon, I use it. I buy one if when I have to. When it breaks, I get another."
"You said you were an adventurer." Her voice was hard again, her eyes glowering. "In the prison you spoke of plundering a dungeon. You must have come across fine weapons."
"Some nice pieces. They fetched me good prices."
"Barbarian." She spat the word as if it were an arrow flying from a bow.
"It's how I make my living. I don't have a mansion to decorate with pretty treasures."
"It's of no consequence." She gave a sniff of disgust. "Your lack of taste is lamentable, but no obstacle to what I have in mind."
The woman reached for the sword at her belt. It came clinking into the light as she drew it. It had a large, broad blade. But it was apparently well balanced, for the slim woman had wielded it with ease when she dispatched the jailor.
"Do you know what this is?" she asked, holding the weapon in front of her, turned so that Roland could see the flat of the blade.
The adventurer stepped closer. The guards by the door began to move towards him, but the baroness waved them back. His eyes scanned the steel. It was a fine sword, evidently produced by a capable blacksmith. But there were no marks or designs to indicate its origin.
"It was made by Rogar," the woman said.
Roland's eyes grew wide.
"I've never seen a Rogar before."
"One of his later blades. Bearing the magic of its forging, like all his weapons."
Roland looked up, lifting his eyes from the gleaming steel.
"Magic of its forging?"
"There are many fine blacksmiths in the world. They forge exquisite weapons. Sometimes they use magic ingredients, or else have the finished blade enchanted by a mage. But Rogar needed no such aids. A true blacksmith, a true master of his craft carries a magic of his own. Each blow of his hammer fills an emerging weapon with eldritch might."
Again her voice was soft, passionate. The aloof sneer was gone. Her eyes bore the glazed, far-seeing stare of a dreamer. Then she glanced up and met Roland's gaze. The sneer returned, eclipsing her beauty beneath reptilian coldness once more. There was annoyance in her expression, and perhaps a trace of embarrassment at the thought that she had shared an unguarded moment with a man for whom she felt nothing but disdain.
She sheathed the sword.
"With such smiths, two of their works are most often sought after by those who understand the true magic of weapons," she said. Her voice was now neutral, the almost childlike wonder entirely gone. "One is the last weapon they ever forged."
"Rogar's Lament." Roland nodded.
"Yes. The sword which was so magnificent, he knew he could never surpass it. So he took his own life, rather than live to create only lesser weapons. Within that blade lies a lifetime's skill, and all the bitter sweetness of a great life drawing to a close."
"What's the other?" He affected nonchalance, but his professional curiosity was piqued.
"Their first weapon."
"That doesn't make any sense. Smiths become better with practice, like any other profession."
"They do. Their skill improves, as they learn more of their craft. But there's the magic. A true blacksmith's first weapon bears the mark of their potential. In its metal lies the essence of what they will become, of all the wondrous weapons they'll fashion over the coming decades. The sword at my belt is a splendid weapon. But Rogar's first sword... That will be the prize of my collection. That's why I wanted Ulric. That's why I brought you here. You're going to get it for me."
Roland pondered what the baroness had told him, as the butler led him up winding stairways and along dark passages. The blackmail used to bring him there rankled. At the time he had wondered why she hadn't simply offered him money instead, if she had such need of him. Now he knew. She had to ensure he would deliver the valuable artifact if he managed to get his hands on it. No amount of money she was willing to pay could equal its worth.
But though he was angry at being manipulated, and it was galling to be named a murderer due to her machinations, the thought of what was to come thrilled him in spite of himself. It would be the kind of challenge that adventurers lived for.
"Your room, sir," the butler said, stopping in front of a door. It swung open at his touch. "Warm water has been provided should sir desire to wash. Though from sir's current state, I assume it would be rather superfluous. But sir need not be concerned, as I shall have sir's mattress and sheets incinerated as soon as sir takes his leave of this house."
The butler glided away down the passage, and Roland entered the room. The chamber was stuffy, evidently not used for many years. But the bed was large and comfortable, and far better than a festering prison cell mattress. So the adventurer slept, dreaming of blades and blacksmiths.
Roland blinked as a knock sounded against the door, and sat up in bed as it opened. The butler glided into the room with his dignified, noiseless steps.
"Ah, so sir was able to make use of the bed. I trust this didn't prove too taxing to sir's intellect."
"For a servant," Roland said, "you think a lot of yourself."
"Perhaps so, sir." His face and tone were perfectly deferential. "Whereas I'm quite sure that sir cannot be said to think a lot about any subject whatsoever. But be that as it may, I have been instructed to furnish sir with his breakfast. If sir would care to dress and follow me..."
No ready retort came to the adventurer's tongue, so he satisfied himself with grumbling under his breath whilst he dressed. Then he followed, as the butler led him down staircases and along corridors which seemed different from those of the previous night. At last the two of them arrived in a small, sunny morning room, its windows overlooking a riot of colors in the garden beyond.
The butler directed Roland to a chair at the table in the middle of the room. Then he raised a small bell and gave it a gentle shake. A moment later another servant emerged through the doorway, bearing a covered platter. He set it down before the adventurer, and whisked the lid away to reveal a plate laden with kidneys and rashers of bacon. Roland stared at it in satisfaction as the tantalizing scent tickled his nose. Good food for adventuring on.
"If cutlery and crockery are not to sir's tastes," the butler said, "we could perhaps provide sir with a trough."
The adventurer's gaze met that of the other servant, whose back was to the butler. The servant rolled his eyes, and mouthed a silent profanity. Roland's lips twitched into a faint smile.
The butler hovered for a moment, making cheerful comments about Roland's ill- breeding and poor table manners. But when the adventurer showed no desire to use his mouth for anything other than chewing, he glided away- perhaps to inflict his sarcastic tongue on someone else instead.
***** After Roland had cleared his plate, the servant who had brought him his breakfast returned. He glanced around, as if to make sure the two of them were alone.
“Uppity bastard, isn’t he?” asked the servant.
“Got that right,” said Roland.
“The baroness and the others are preparing to leave,” the servant said. “I’m to take you to them when you’re finished. But there’s plenty more in the kitchen if you’re still hungry.”
“Better not,” said Roland, after a moment’s pause. “If I end up getting disemboweled, I don’t want to make too much of a mess.”
“Um… yes, quite…” replied the servant, his face seeming frozen between a smile and a grimace as he tried to discern whether the adventurer was joking or not.
Roland was led to the hallway, where he had entered the mansion the night before. The baroness stood there, a servant placing a blood red cloak upon her shoulders. Her sword, that forged by Rogar, was at her waist once more, the crimson folds falling over it as the adventurer approached. Four guards were there as well, arrayed in an orderly line. They resembled those of the previous night in build and dress, though each one now wore a closed helm, hiding their faces. The butler stood to attention nearby, looking the very picture of deportment.
“Come,” said the baroness, glancing at Roland. “My carriage is waiting for us.”
She turned towards the door, which a bowing servant drew open.
“One moment,” said Roland, as he stopped next to the butler. “There’s something I have to do first.”
Roland whirled round, and the crown of his head crashed into the butler’s face with such suddenness that the man’s hands didn’t even begin to rise in defense before his nose gave way with a satisfying crunch. The butler collapsed, blood streaming from his ruined nasal organ.
The adventurer turned, and walked through the door.
“Thorpe,” said the baroness, as she too strode away.
“Yesh, miwady?” groaned the butler.
“Don’t bleed on my carpet.”
The carriage ride passed in silence. The baroness sat opposite Roland, but her gaze never so much as met his. She had told him all he needed to know on the previous night, and apparently had no desire to engage in conversation with him. A guard sat on either side of each of them, and they too said nothing. Three people sitting abreast taxed the breadth of the carriage, and the two next to the baroness were each pressed up against its walls to yield her as much room as possible.
After a time, movement from the woman caught Roland’s eye as he gazed out of the window at the passing fields. He turned, and saw that she was wrapping a length of red silk around her face – the exact same shade as her cloak. When she was done, it hid all but her eyes. Then she raised the hood of her cloak, pulling it low over her brow, casting a layer of shadow over her new mask.
“Planning to rob someone?” asked Roland.
“A noblewoman of my stature cannot be seen in the company of miscreants, murderers, and lowly adventurers,” she replied.
“So that’s why this carriage doesn’t have your crest on the side,” Roland said.
The baroness said nothing, and another expanse of silence followed. It lasted until the carriage began to slow, and then came to a stop.
Roland glanced out of the window. Beside the road was a grassy plain, dotted with trees. Horses had been tethered to some of them, and stood gazing around, or else chewing at the grass. A few hundred yards from the road, across the stretch of green, was a long, crumbling stone wall. A mass of similarly colored stone rose behind it, the remains of a castle. Even from this distance, it was clear that it had once been a mighty edifice.
People were milling around the wall, either singly or in small, huddled groups. Others were approaching the place from the direction of the tethered horses or else from further along the road. As Roland watched, some of them passed through an archway in the wall.
The carriage door opened, and the guards bustled out, Roland in their midst. They fell into line on either side of the door as the baroness emerged.
Together the six of them walked across the plain, towards the ruin. As they drew closer to it, Roland took stock of those standing around or leaning against the wall. Here and there he saw a man dressed in elegant clothing. Some had their faces concealed, like the baroness, hidden behind masks or helms. Small bands of retainers surrounded these individuals, either guards or servants. Within each of those groups, Roland’s gaze picked out a person he took to be a fellow hireling, either an adventurer or a killer of some other description. He was curious as to how they had all been enlisted, and what measures their employers had taken to ensure that they would deliver the valuable prize they sought. But it was no concern of his.
The men and women who stood alone bore the same appearance as the probable hirelings. Each seemed like a person for whom the infliction of violence was second nature – adventurers and the like seeking the prize for themselves, rather than at the behest of an employer. This too made Roland curious. He wondered how they had come to learn of this contest.
As he approached the wall, several of those nearby looked towards him. Most seemed merely curious. Others glared at him in suspicion or hostility. A diminutive figure, a ber wearing a black cloak, regarded him with a stare that was positively ferocious – though it merely seemed amusing, coming from someone the size of a child.
Roland passed through the archway, alongside the baroness and her guards, and found himself in a ruined courtyard surrounding a wrecked keep. Plants had grown between many of the cracked flagstones, and tendrils of greenery crawled over the chunks of tumbled masonry.
More sword-seekers were there, standing or sitting around – either in groups or individually, as with those outside. Nearby Roland saw a band of dwarves, each dressed in similar attire and bearing a similarly plaited bright red beard. Kinsmen perhaps, all entering into the contest in the hope of winning the weapon for their clan. If so, they’d have the advantage of numbers. He’d have to be wary. On the opposite side of the courtyard, leaning against a block of stone, was a hulking creature with bright orange skin. Shards of crystal, these a deeper orange hue, protruded from his shoulders, elbows, and knuckles. An oroc. Roland grimaced. He would be a dangerous enemy.
Standing near the ruined keep was a larger band, dressed in blue and white. Some wore armor, and carried swords or halberds. Others wore robes, and had the look of mages about them. Not competitors then. Guards. In their midst was an aged man, wearing fine clothes in the same colors.
“That’s him,” said the baroness. “Nemler Bloodwyn.”
Roland nodded. So this was the eccentric noble, who in his youth had disgraced his family by becoming an adventurer. The man who was offering Rogar’s sword as a prize for those bold and skilled enough to take it.
The baroness drifted into an unoccupied corner of the courtyard, gesturing for Roland to follow. There they waited, casting searching gazes at the other competitors who entered through the archway.
At last, when the sun was directly overhead, chasing away all the shadows amongst the masonry, a dull, reverberating crash rang out over the courtyard.
Roland glanced to where Nemler Bloodwyn stood, and saw that his guards had parted to reveal a gong. One of their number was beside it, the ringer in his hand. As Roland watched, the man struck the gong again, sending another echoing crash through the air. In response, the competitors began to converge on the broken keep, those who were outside the walls now emerging through the stone arch.
“Don’t fail,” said the baroness, as Roland began to move. “If I don’t get that sword, sooner or later you’ll find your neck in a noose.”
Roland fell in with the others, without bothering to reply.
The motley assortment of men and women assembled before Nemler Bloodwyn and his guards. Challenging looks were shared between some of the competitors, and there were small outbreaks of shoving as they jostled for position. But no blows were struck. No one wanted to be disqualified, and lose their chance at the prize.
The hoary noble stood partway up a damaged staircase, which now only stretched some of the distance to the keep’s high entrance. His guards had fanned out to either side at the bottom of the steps. He waited for a few moments, while the competitors took their places. Then there was a small cough, and Nemler began.
“Midday was the appointed time,” he said. His voice was vibrant and cheerful, strong in spite of his years. “If anyone hasn’t arrived yet, that’s unfortunate – but the rules are the rules.
“Now then, to the matter at hand. You’re all here for a chance to obtain a very special item, the first sword forged by one of the greatest blacksmiths who ever lived. I was fortunate enough to obtain this splendid weapon in my misspent youth. And now, in my worthless and unproductive old age, I wish to amuse myself by offering it as a prize in my little game.
“If you’re here, I trust you’ve been apprised of the rules. A magical gateway will soon be conjured up, which will transport each of you into the dungeons below. Upon walking through it, you will all arrive at random destination portals there. Within those dungeons is Rogar’s sword, alongside a victory portal which will return those who step through it to this courtyard.
“Should any of you wish to leave the dungeon before discovering that particular portal, you may simply walk through one of those which brought you all into the dungeon instead. Doing so will transport you to a safe place far from here, where healing will be available to those who require it. But this will be a one-way journey. You won’t be able to go back into the dungeon from there. The prize will be lost to you.
“You will enter the contest without any weapons or armor, relying only on your skill, wits, and whatever armaments you’re fortunate enough to come across in the dungeon itself.”
Several of the competitors eyed the orange-skinned oroc with disfavor. The oroc simply grinned, revealing a row of crystalline teeth. His mineralized flesh and vicious bone protrusions were part of his body, natural armor and weapons that gave him a decided advantage.
“Magic is expressly forbidden,” Nemler continued. “And rest assured, infractions of this rule will not be tolerated.”
One of the blue and white-garbed guards stepped forward, and held out a silver helm to his master. Two purple gemstones were set in its face, where the wearer’s eyes would be. Nemler accepted the helm with a gracious nod.
“I shall be able to follow events in the dungeon using this scrying device,” he said. “Thus I will receive all the thrill of seeing what unfolds in the dungeon, without the unpleasantness of having to risk life and limb.
“Now, let’s see whom luck chooses to smile upon.”
One of the guards emerged from behind the others. His hand was around the neck of a bulging velvet bag.
“Each of you will reach into the bag and pick a numbered token,” said Nemler. “When the portal is opened, you will each step through it in order, according to those numbers. Anyone who attempts to take more than one token, or look into the bag, will be disqualified. And beaten with sticks. I dislike cheating.”
The guard opened the bag, and held it out to the nearest competitor. He reached in, then drew his fist back out. When he opened it, he cursed. Evidently fate hadn’t favored him.
The bag-bearer moved through the crowd, several of the other guards flanking him and casting wary glances at both the competitors drawing from the bag and at those around them.
“One! Ha! Number one!”
The yell came from a slender man with a wolfish face. He brandished his token aloft, and laughed. Envious and murderous looks fell on him from all sides.
After a minute or so, the guards came to where Roland stood, and he plunged his hand inside the bag. He rooted around for a moment, feeling the tokens clattering under his fingers. Then his grasp closed on one. He pulled it out, and read the number. Seven. It could be worse, he mused.
Once all the competitors had selected their numbers, Nemler made a sign. The guards moved to form a line in front of the crowd – with the exception of two of the blue and white robed mages. That pair remained at the bottom of the steps, and began to chant. Then they drove the butts of their staves into the ground. As they did so, a bright purple dot appeared in the air between them, crackling with arcane energy. It expanded like a blossoming flower, forming a tall, broad archway filled with eldritch light.
The guards moved once more, as fluidly as soldiers on parade. They now formed two lines, creating a pathway between them which led from the crowd to the portal. Nemler stood at the near end, close to the competitors.
“Whoever drew the token marked with the number ‘one’, please step forward,” said Nemler.
All eyes, again envious and murderous in equal measure, turned to regard the wolfish man. He sauntered through the crowd, which reluctantly parted before him, and made his way towards the portal.
“Ah, one moment please…” said Nemler, as the man passed him.
The guards at the far end of the line closed ranks, blocking the man from the portal. The man turned looked around in surprise. He turned to Nemler.
“I got the first number,” he said, “fair and square.”
“No doubt,” said Nemler. “No doubt. But I couldn’t help noticing your belt.”
“M… my belt?” the man stammered. His head tilted forward as he gazed down at the article in question.
The garment was broad, made of dark cloth tied around his waist. It seemed innocuous enough from where Roland was standing.
Nemler made a sign to his guards, and two of them grasped them man’s arms.
“Now look here,” he said. “I-”
Nemler reached out, and yanked at the belt’s fastening. It fell away. Beneath it was what appeared to be a second belt, this one of steel. The color drained from the man’s face. Nemler reached out once more. This time his hand came back clutching a handle, a long length of metal flopping from it, curling on the ground.
“An urumi, if I’m not mistaken,” Nemler said.
“I…” began the competitor. His eyes darted around, as if seeking somewhere to flee. But the guards had a firm grip on him.
“Take him outside,” said the noble, “and beat him to within an inch of his life. I think that should meet the case.”
The crowd parted once more, and there was much smirking as the cheat was dragged across the courtyard and through the arch, his pleas and whines filling the air.
“Now,” said Nemler, “who has the token marked with the number ‘two’?”
Into the Dungeon
|"Number seven!" Nemler called out.
|He waited a moment longer, to see if fate would send a second competitor through the same portal. But the blue surface was flat and calm, its hunger apparently sated.
Roland turned, and made for the door. He pulled it open, revealing a second chamber of similar size. It was brightly lit, like that in which he stood. And it occurred to him that there were no torches, candles, or lanterns in either room. The adventurer glanced down. He cast no shadow onto the old stone floor. Some kind of sorcery... He sniffed the air. It was as pure as that of a verdant meadow, containing none of the stuffiness or rancid stenches he had encountered in other dungeons. Nemler must have taken great pains to prepare the place for his contestants.
He strode into the room, and glanced towards the two other doorways it contained. One was straight ahead, the other in the wall to his left. Each door stood open. Through the doorway in front of him was a larger chamber, a closed door at the end of its great length. As he crept forward, his wary gaze fell into the room on his left. Another blue portal throbbed within.
The adventurer stepped towards it and looked around its chamber, his senses alert -- ready for an ambush. But it was empty. Good. No one there to attack him from behind, or at least not until the portals disgorged another competitor.
He approached the other door, and looked through the narrow gap between the hinged wood and the stone wall. There was nothing but empty space. A swift movement and a look to the left revealed a similar emptiness on the other side of the doorway. The last person to pass through there must have moved on already. That was the thought in Roland's mind as he stepped into the long chamber. Then something fell on him from above.
The adventurer staggered. Something bit and squeezed at his neck, something else was slamming against one of his kidneys. The weight on his back shifted, along with the pressure on his neck -- causing him to totter further into the room. His fingers groped at his throat, clawing at metal and... hair?
There was a cackle from over his shoulder, and the image of the ber he had seen earlier that day flashed across his mind. A garrote disguised as a plait of hair, adorned with metal ornaments... The cunning bitch...
Roland clutched over his shoulder with one hand. But his grasping fingers found nothing. The agile ber was shifting on his back, eluding him with the effortless quickness of her race. His other hand, still clawing at the garrote, trying to pull it away from his neck, felt something wet. Blood was trickling from where the metal gnawed at his flesh. His mouth opened in a silent splutter, gawping for air that struggled to find a way down his constricted throat. His senses swam, as blood strove to reach his brain.
"Die! Die! Die!" Giggles punctuated the words, the merry satisfaction of a murderous ber.
Roland tried to plant his feet, to stand his ground. If he could charge at one of the walls, and slam her against it... But a sharp jerk on his neck and another shifting of her weight continued him on his staggering path into the middle of the room.
Something clicked under his boot. Through the burning at his neck, and his body's desperate struggle for air and consciousness, it almost passed unnoticed. But it was followed by a great thud that couldn't be ignored, as the floor parted in front of him -- great slabs falling away as though the stone had been split in half. The ber cried out. Roland's tottering steps had brought him to the edge of a pit, and both their gazes were pierced by the barbed spikes below.
The ber froze for a moment, no longer yanking at the adventurer's neck or kicking at his kidney, but too startled to either leap clear or else shift her weight in an effort to pull Roland away from the spikes that threatened to skewer them both.
One moment was enough for Roland. His clutching hand found her at last, now that she was no longer thrashing and dodging. Strong fingers plunged into her hair and secured their grip. The ber screamed as the adventurer yanked her forward, over his shoulder. Her limbs flailed, her legs scrambled for purchase. But she was like a child in his powerful grasp, now that her advantage was gone. The garrote fell away. Roland's skin stung as the metal gave his neck its parting kiss.
The ber twisted in his arms, one of her hands clawing at his eyes. But his knuckles crashed against her face, smashing her jaw, and she crumpled. One of the adventurer's hands closed around her throat, crushing her neck. He gazed into her eyes in grim satisfaction, as he saw the pain and panic there. Then he thrust his arm forward, releasing her at the same moment.
She had time to scream once more before the spikes pierced her diminutive body, ripping through her abdomen, her shoulder, her thigh. After that there was only a soft, spluttering moan.
Roland gazed down at the dying ber for a moment, her stature so like that of a child. Her eyes met his, filled with agony and desperation. But he had no pity to waste on her. He walked around the pit, and made his way to the closed door at the far end of the chamber.
The Woman in War Paint
|There the adventurer paused. His grasp was on the door's handle, ready to push it open. But caution stayed his hand, as he heard a sound from beyond the wood. It was a soft pounding noise, drawing ever closer -- agile boots running across a stone floor.
He braced himself, waiting until the noise was almost in front of him. Then he barged the door open, driving the entire weight of his body behind the thick wood. The door shook, the impact sending a slight tremor through his sturdy frame.
Roland pushed the door closed and looked down at his handiwork. A lithe body garbed in green felt sprawled insensible at his feet. A bulging lump was already emerging in the top right corner of the elf's forehead, as though a stubby demonic horn were trying to push its way free from beneath his flesh.
Down the corridor, in the direction from whence the elf had come, a portal glowed beyond an open doorway.
He grabbed the elf by soft handfuls of jerkin, pulled him into the air, and slung him over a broad shoulder. Then he strode down the passage, entered the room with the portal, and launched him into the blue surface with a heave of his arm. Roland gave a grunt of satisfaction as it swallowed him. So far, so good.
He went back along the corridor, to the closed door at its opposite end. It opened to reveal a large, square room with three other exits. There was another closed door in the wall to his left, open doorways ahead and to his right. Beyond the one in front of him was a long corridor, its destination hidden by a right-angled turning a short distance ahead. But Roland only noted these details mechanically. For stretching across the middle of the chamber, one end close to the door he'd entered from, was a rectangular table. Swords, axes, and maces were laid out along its length in a neat row, each one as pristine as if it were fresh from the forge. There were two empty spaces in the arrangement.
At the same moment that his gleaming eyes were scanning this welcome armory, the door in the left wall opened. For a second his gaze met that of a dark-skinned woman, her face covered with swirling patterns of white war paint. Then they each leapt towards the end of the table nearer them, their hands reaching out for weapons.
Roland's right hand grasped a longsword. His left groped for a scimitar. But the latter sword was stuck fast, not yielding an inch to his touch -- as though it were part of the table itself.
His eyes met the woman's again. She faced the same predicament. A war axe was raised in her left hand. Her right was tugging at the hilt of a short sword.
"Damn sorcery!" she snarled, though a faint smile crossed her purple lips.
"So, do we do the war god's dance?" he asked.
She seemed to size him up, and he in turn took her measure. Her body was slim but well-muscled. The flesh displayed between her clothing was scarred with the signatures of different blades.
Axe against sword, the former wielded by a woman who couldn't match his brute strength... Roland felt confident. But in matters of mortal combat, nothing could be taken for granted.
"There are two ways to go," she said after a moment's contemplation, indicating the chamber's other doors. "One seems as good as another. Why don't we each take one, and trust to fate?"
"Fine by me." He nodded his head.
The woman sidestepped towards the doorway nearer her, a wary stare fixed on the adventurer as though she feared an attack the moment she took her eyes off him. She backed past the open door and pulled it closed behind her.
The moment he was hidden from sight, Roland laid his sword on the floor and reached for the scimitar once more. It was still stuck fast. As was the axe he tried next. The spell, whatever it was, couldn't be thwarted so easily. So he retrieved his sword and made for the door in the right-hand wall.
|Roland looked up at the ceiling, and noted the neat holes cut into the stone. Their interiors were concealed by darkness, but he had never known anything good to emerge from such things. In a dungeon, the balance between merry surprises and lethal traps designed to slaughter the unwary was, at least in his experience, rather lopsided.
He glanced at the floor, his gaze roaming across the flagstones. One of them had a rather suspicious absence of cement around its borders. He stepped over it, and continued down the corridor.
He had gone no more than a dozen paces when he heard pounding footsteps behind him. He turned, and was greeted by the sight of a dwarf charging towards him -- bloodlust in the eyes above his red beard, a mace drawn back in his hands. The dwarf roared a wordless battle cry as he hurtled towards the adventurer.
Roland moved into a fighting stance, his sword at the ready. He didn't expect to have to bring the weapon to bear, but he was unwilling to let his nonchalance put the dwarf on his guard.
Sure enough, one of the dwarf's boots clicked against the suspicious flagstone. Before his other boot had touched the floor in front of him, he was dead -- skewered by a forest of metal spikes. His beard hid the end of the spike that had passed through his brain, behind eyes that hadn't even had time to widen in shock before death rendered them sightless.
The adventurer turned, and continued down the corridor -- skipping over two similar flagstones as he went. A perpendicular passage met him at its end. A glance to his right revealed an open door and a blue portal. Several paces to his left was another doorway. The bloody remains of a corpse were smeared across the floor of the chamber beyond it.
Roland approached that uninviting sight. Unless he wished to backtrack, there was but one way to go.
At the entrance to the room he looked around, taking in his surroundings. The body, its identity unrecognizable, had clearly been crushed. And an upward glance revealed more crimson. The lines between them were faint, well hidden. But careful inspection showed that the ceiling was made of a series of stone blocks, and the evidence at hand made it fairly obvious that they were capable of descending with lethal force.
The floor consisted of two rows of irregularly sized blue stone panels. Each was engraved with a golden letter. The oblong chamber had but one exit, further to the left along the opposite wall. Its angle was such that Roland couldn't simply leap from one doorway to the other. He had to navigate the panels.
The walls were bare stone. No clue there. So the adventurer turned his attention to the golden letters. And when he did so, the solution was obvious. For they were arranged thus:
T E R R A C L E S
F I R S T L A B O R
The 'A' right in front of him was decorated with the debris of death, but he could just about make it out.
Roland took a small jump, and landed on the 'B'. The panel was firm and unyielding beneath his boot. A stride took him onto the 'E' in front of him, which felt similarly solid underfoot.
Then he paused for a moment. Two panels bore the letter 'A'. One had been the death of his unfortunate predecessor. However, that could have been because he stepped onto it first -- paying no heed to the letters and the sequence of panels they revealed. But as Roland scanned the floor, it seemed clear that the other 'A' was his goal.
He breathed a sigh of relief when no telltale click of incoming doom rewarded him. He'd been right. The sizes of the stones rendered the 'A' on which the other competitor had perished quite far from the final panel. It would have been a difficult jump, and this was a test of brains -- not agility.
Four panels were marked with an 'R'. But one of them, between an 'E' and another 'R', was next to the doorway. And the opening was clearly angled to be accessed from that panel. So Roland leapt once more, and again solid stone greeted him.
He moved through the exit, which led to a corridor with two open doorways -- one at the far end, one in the right-hand wall. As he traversed the passage, the sounds of combat came from beyond the former. But the door on the right offered no better route. It contained another of the portals, a dead-end for anyone who wished to remain in the dungeon. So he crept towards the end of the corridor. There he leaned through the doorway, careful to keep himself as hidden as possible.
The Orange Oroc
|The chamber beyond was broad and long. Several doorways opened onto it in all four walls. A likely place for rival competitors to encounter one another. And from the raging melee at the far end, it had served that purpose well.
The orange oroc Roland had seen in the courtyard stood facing two humans, an elf, and another of the red-bearded dwarves. Several more contestants were strewn across the floor nearby -- some groaning and writhing, others motionless.
"Who is next?" the oroc asked, in a voice that blended sounds of amusement and the grinding of rocks.
His four opponents hesitated, and all of them backed away when the oroc took a step forward. It was like watching a pantomime.
A figure appeared in a doorway behind the oroc -- another human, clutching a sword. He walked into the room with soft steps, and seemed to be assessing the situation.
The dwarf moved, as though about to lunge at the oroc. The crystal-studded warrior turned to meet his attack, but it proved to be a feint. The dwarf darted back at the last moment. Roland nodded to himself. A distraction, in the hope that the armed newcomer would make the same decision the others had made. That hope was likely to be realized. The oroc was by far the greatest threat to them all.
One of the humans in front of the oroc moved next. Whether he intended to feign an attack as the dwarf had, or else wished to engage the oroc in combat, was a moot point. What mattered was that he strayed into the oroc's range. A bright orange knee struck him in the groin, doubling him up. Then a crystal-clad elbow smashed downwards into his neck. There was a crack as the human fell, and Roland knew he would never rise again.
Like a voracious beast that had tasted blood and was filled with a frantic desire for more, the oroc leapt at the elf before the dead human hit the floor. An oroc head drove into an elven one, and nature took its course. The elf crumpled beneath the headbutt, his legs giving way as though they had turned to water.
If the human brandishing the sword had harbored any doubts about his course of action before, the fates of the other competitors must have dispelled them. For he approached the oroc from behind, his steps comically slow as he tried to render them soundless, his weapon raised.
The dwarf turned to run as the oroc came for him next, but he was too slow. A thunderous rabbit punch from crystal-studded knuckles caught him. He fell forward as suddenly as if he had been decapitated.
It was then that the sword slashed through the air, aiming for the oroc's neck. Roland's body tensed as he looked on in anticipation.
The oroc spun round. And instead of finding his neck, the weapon struck against the large crystal mass on his right shoulder. There was a sharp metallic snap as the blade broke in two, half of it flying off to clatter against the stone floor.
An orange hand grasped the startled swordsman by the throat. The other human, apparently deciding that this was his last chance, leapt onto the oroc's back -- wrapping an arm round his neck.
The oroc's back was now to Roland's vantage point, and the adventurer decided to seize the opportunity. He had no desire to face the brute without a much better weapon in his hand. There was a doorway directly opposite him, a long passage stretching from it. So he darted across the broad chamber, trying to muffle his footfalls as best he could.
He had just slipped into the passage when he heard the shout from behind, its suddenness freezing him in place for a split-second.
There was the sound of rapid, heavy footsteps. Roland broke into a run.
At the distant end of the long corridor was a closed door. A short way ahead was a passage to the right. He had little time to make a decision. The adventurer turned into it, and found himself confronted with a door a few yards in front of him -- where the short side passage ended.
The footsteps were pounding along the corridor he had left behind. It was too late to change his mind. He flung the door open, revealing a large room. It was empty but for the blue portal which stood in its far left corner. The adventurer groaned.
"Come back and fight!" came a roaring, grinding voice from behind him. It resembled the sound of boulders crashing against each other.
A frenzied swarm of ideas rushed through Roland's mind, all vying for attention. But one rose to the surface of his jumbled thoughts -- a notion so ridden with lunacy that it filled his head with its absurdity, pushing all others from his brain. Did the oroc get a good look at him before he made it across the chamber? If he didn't...
There was nothing to lose. If it didn't work, he'd be no worse off...
As the pursuing footsteps neared the turning he had taken, Roland darted towards the corner to the right of the portal. There he dropped into a crouch, and cried out a wordless exclamation of joy.
He rose as he heard the oroc approaching the door, and turned with the sword in both hands. But not held in a fighter's grip. Instead the blade rested across the open palm of his left hand, and he gazed at it as though in wonder.
The oroc halted in the doorway.
"I found it." Roland spoke as though entranced. Then he laughed. "I found it!"
He looked up, and met the oroc's surprised gaze.
"I win, oroc!"
Roland moved towards the portal. The oroc rushed over, placing his powerful orange body in front of the adventurer.
"That sword..." he said, in a grinding voice.
"Stand aside, oroc." Roland forced a nervous tremor into his voice. "Nemler said the sword belonged to whoever found it. It's mine!"
The oroc's eyes blazed.
"Give it to me."
Roland took a step backwards.
"Nemler said he's watching! If you break his rules..."
"You have a choice, human..." The oroc advanced. Roland retreated before him. "Hand over the sword, or I will take it from your corpse."
Roland raised the weapon in a shaking hand, and adopted a terrible imitation of a fighting stance.
"Stay back!" He stumbled away as the oroc took another step towards him. "I killed a man once!"
The oroc grinned, exposing glittering teeth. He drew back his fist.
"Okay! Okay!" Roland almost screamed. "Take it! Take it!"
He held the sword out. Reflected blue and orange danced on its trembling metal as he turned it to offer the oroc its handle. The oroc's grin widened. He snatched it from the adventurer, and stared at his prize. Roland held his breath.
"Rogar's first blade..." The oroc seemed to be muttering to himself. "Yes... Not as elaborate as his later works. A simple weapon, deceptive. Its powers hidden."
The oroc looked up at Roland at last.
"This weapon shall serve me well when I stand alongside my clan in battle. Consider yourself fortunate, human. You shall escape this place with your life, at least."
Then he turned, and strode through the blue portal.
Too Clever By Half
|Roland glanced to his left as the short passage joined the main corridor, towards the large chamber where the oroc had wrought such devastation. There were no sounds from that direction, no sign of any other enemies. He turned to his right, and followed the corridor to the door at its end.
It opened into a small room. Two closed doors faced him, set in the far wall. Above each of them was a stone pediment bearing a relief sculpture. One depicted a magnificent sword, a fabulous weapon carved into the stone with incredible artistry. Runic engravings covered the blade, a complex network of elegant patterns. Gems were depicted in the hilt and pommel, and the sculptor seemed to have adorned each with a hundred facets. On the pediment above the other door was the image of a rough, crude hammer.
"Nice try," Roland muttered.
He stepped towards the door beneath the hammer. It was a blacksmith's hammer -- a far worthier symbol to represent Rogar in the minds of those who truly knew of him, and hadn't merely heard of the quality of his weapons.
A winding corridor, twisting away from wherever the other door led, brought the adventurer to another broad passage. Several paths branched from it. Most seemed to lead in the direction he had come from. One, the lone opening along the wall facing him, went the opposite way. He made for it.
As he drew near, the opening seemed to greet his decision by unleashing the sound of steel ringing on steel.
He looked round the corner. A few strides further ahead, the passage ended with an open doorway. Two warriors clashed in the chamber beyond. One was the dark-skinned woman he had encountered earlier. The other was yet another of the dwarves with the plaited red beards. He had a broad-bladed short sword in his meaty fist. Both of them were wounded. The crimson on their flesh, clothes, and weapons told of a hard battle of which Roland was seeing the conclusion.
Their blows were slow, their strength sapped by fatigue and injury. The adventurer judged that he could defeat the victor, even without a weapon. But there was no sense in revealing himself too soon, and risk having both of them turn on him. So he waited and watched, to see what would transpire.
The dwarf stumbled in mid-lunge, falling onto one knee. The woman sprang into a downward cleave of her axe, eager to seize the advantage. The dwarf's sword rose as her axe descended. His blade bit her inner thigh, as hers sunk deep into the side of his neck.
She cried out in pain. The dwarf said nothing. His eyes simply widened, as the blood sprayed from his wound in quantities which screamed its lethality. He fell with a thud. The woman staggered against the wall, leaving a crimson trail behind her, and slumped into a sitting position. The axe dropped from her grasp. She pressed both hands to her damaged leg.
She groaned when Roland strode into the room. Then an expression of desperate hope crossed her painted face as she looked up and recognized him.
"Help me! To hell with the sword! The gods damn Rogar! Just help me get out of this cursed place!"
Roland looked down at her red hands, and the blood that sputtered between them. The wound there was deep. Without aid, she would die.
"Throw the axe aside," he said, after a moment's pause.
The woman grabbed the weapon with one hand, blood spurting from her wound the moment it moved from her leg. She tossed the axe away. It clanged against the stone floor. Then her hand darted back to her thigh, in an effort to keep blood and life from rushing out together.
Roland crouched beside the dead dwarf, and tore at his clothing. When he had suitable lengths of cloth, he moved to the woman. She grimaced as she lifted the injured limb, the movement sending red rivulets past the dam of her palms and fingers.
The adventurer applied a tourniquet and bandages with the skill of one who had learned from painful experience, administering to the wound as best he could. When he was done he surveyed his work with a critical eye. She had a good chance, if he could get her to a portal.
"Don't leave me," she half-hissed, half-begged, as Roland went to retrieve the dwarf's sword.
Her face lit up with an almost agonizing gratitude when he walked back to her, crouched down, and took her onto his shoulder.
"If it comes down to me or you..." he said.
Roland strode to the chamber's closed door and kicked it open. Another room lay beyond. There was a doorway on either side, and a closed metal door at the far end. A grotesque stone face was on the wall beside the latter exit, and Roland grinned in satisfaction as he saw it.
"They wouldn't put that there for nothing," he said.
"What?" the woman asked, trying to look round from her position over his shoulder.
The adventurer looked through the doorways on either side as he strode across the room. The one on the left gave way to a passage that disappeared from sight around a bend. The one on the right led to another chamber. A goblin's corpse lay a few paces into it, with a large arrow protruding from her back -- its wicked point red. Two similarly mutilated bodies were strewn further in. A door on the opposite side of that room showed what they had been making for when the traps had taken each of them.
A deep green light appeared in the gargoyle's eyes as Roland approached, and the stone mouth began to move with such effortless fluidity that it might have been made from flesh instead of fashioned from stone.
"Hear me," the gargoyle said in a somber voice. "The way before you-"
"Spare me the explanation," Roland said. "I've dealt with your kind before. You ask riddles, and when I get them right that door opens."
"Aren't we sure of ourselves?" The gargoyle's tone was mocking, but the solemnity returned to his voice as he continued. "The first riddle is this: What walks on four legs-"
"You didn't let me finish!"
"Didn't need to."
"The second riddle is this: The poor have it-"
"How did you know what it was going to say?" the woman asked.
"They all ask the same riddles. The classics. Every adventurer worth his salt knows the answers."
The gargoyle scowled -- though the change in his hideous visage was somewhat minor.
"The ones who came before you didn't know them! They went to try their luck in the arrow room instead, and I know how that turned out. I heard the screams!"
"Just ask the last riddle," Roland said. "And be quick about it."
The creature's eyes seemed to burn brighter, like blazing emeralds, and his lips shifted into a sinister smile.
"The third riddle is this: Eran saba trachala, ulex dareth neth. Paelar jem hathar?"
The stone visage cackled as he beheld the confusion on Roland's face.
"That's not a riddle!" he said. "That's gibberish."
"Actually, it's Middle Balaric," the gargoyle replied, his tone once more mocking.
"No one said I have to ask my riddles in your language. Not so clever now, are you?"
"Great..." The woman sighed. "I'm going to die because you had to insult a statue."
Roland stared into the gargoyle's burning green orbs, and his own eyes narrowed.
"I'm going to have to put you down for a moment," he said.
He crouched down, lowering the woman from his shoulder. She sat against the wall, looking up at him.
"What are you going to do?" she asked as he rose.
"Riddler gargoyles were made hundreds of years ago. Every so often someone uses magic to teach them new languages. But no one creates them anymore."
"The art of our construction has indeed long since vanished in the sands of-"
"You can see how old the stone it was made from is," Roland continued, and again the gargoyle scowled at having his eloquence interrupted. "But the stone behind it is much more recent."
A nervous look appeared on the gargoyle's face, as Roland hefted his sword.
"In ancient dungeons they're usually carved from the big block of stone they're attached to. But this one isn't. Nemler must have had him taken from somewhere else and mounted here."
"Wait! What are you-" the gargoyle began.
Then his voice became an incoherent babble of rage, as Roland probed the cement around the gargoyle with the tip of his blade. The torrent of indecipherable abuse continued when the adventurer worked the weapon behind the demonic stone visage.
"Stop! I'll open the door!" the gargoyle screamed at last, as Roland began to wrench.
"Too late," the adventurer replied.
His muscles strained. The gargoyle cried out as he fell away from the wall, and hit the floor with a thud. A frenzied cacophony of pleas, threats, and invectives rushed from his lips as he lay there. Roland put his sword down, grabbed the gargoyle by his sides, stood, and swung him at the wall.
Again and again the stone face smashed against the sturdy slabs of stone, screaming in both pain and rage. Cracks appeared on his surface, the ancient material giving way under the abuse inflicted upon it. Green light glowed within them, the same shade as the gargoyle's eyes. The glow expanded as the cracks widened, and pain entirely replaced rage in his cries. Then there came one final, mighty swing -- and the stone shattered in the adventurer's hands. Chunks of rock lay at his feet, and no trace of the green glow remained.
The metal door swung open.
"Clever," the woman said, as the adventurer took her back onto his shoulder.
He didn't reply. His attention was focused on what he saw beyond the open door. The woman craned her neck around as he strode through it in silence.
"The sword!" she breathed.
Across the room stood a mass of shimmering energy, its shape and surface an exact replica of the dungeon's other portals. But this one was a bright, glorious gold.
On a table before it, bathed in its golden glow, lay a sword. The adventurer's gaze roamed across its steel. It was almost identical to the weapon wielded by the baroness. There could be no doubt that it had been forged by the same smith.
Roland reached out towards it, and his hand closed around its grip.
A surge of sensation rushed through him. It felt as though his body would explode, unable to contain its raw power. Deep within his soul he felt the thrill of a life filled with promise, of an art and skill so magnificent that existence itself was but a hollow vessel in which to contain them. He heard the sound of a hammer pounding upon metal, shaping it with the care of a parent for a child, the passion of one lover for another. He experienced a yearning, a desire so powerful that it would one day drive a man to his death.
Roland strode round the table, his prize in his hand, moisture in the corners of his eyes. Then he stepped through the portal.
His senses swam, as they had done when he entered the dungeon. Golden lights formed swirling patterns before his eyes.
"Congratulations!" said a man's voice.
Roland blinked away his disorientation. Nemler's face came into focus in front of him.
"Splendid! Absolutely splendid!" the noble said. "After you killed that ber, I knew you were the one to watch. And I wasn't disappointed!"
"I..." Roland began. He tried to gather his thoughts.
"Thank you for getting me out of that dungeon. But I don't want to die on your shoulder."
The admonition helped bring him to his senses.
"This woman needs healing," the adventurer said.
"Of course! Of course!" Nemler said.
The aged noble made a gesture, and some of his retainers dashed over to Roland. They took the woman from his shoulder, laid her on the ground a short distance away, and began to examine her wounds.
Boss: The Baroness
Burden's Rest |
Faedark Valley |
The Last Titan |