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Uncaged (fragment de roman)

Uncaged (fragment de roman)

PART I: WASTE OF BREATH

 

She comes, she comes, the Blood Queen comes,

Your sight she’ll break; your heart she’ll take,

She comes, she comes, the Blood Queen comes,

Your mind she’ll snare; your soul she’ll scare,

She comes! She comes! Here, the Blood Queen comes!

 

Children’s nursery rhyme originating in isolated high altitude villages

 

CHAPTER 1: Caged

Ratmen crowded around the cooking fire in the cavern’s heart. Two of them raised aloft a spear with the half-eaten body of a woman impaled on it, and they all cheered as if for a grand celebration. The body still bled and twitched when they set it over the fire, meaning it was a fresh kill. For some unfathomable reason, one of them scalped it. Again, they all cheered as their intrepid comrade held up the bloody trophy and waved it for all to see.

She counted two scores of the creatures waiting with drooling jaws for the corpse to cook. Even more arrived from the side tunnels, drawn to the feast.

Above the fire, a gibbet cage swayed as the man inside it shifted his weight minutely. His feet were just above the lick of the fire. A low, death rattling laugh came from the cage, resounding above the ratmen’s hungry hissing.

The smell was revolting, but she waited until more of them gathered around the fire. The closer together they were, the better.

They did not notice that their guards hadn’t appeared. Why would they? The meat sizzled above the fire as fat liquefied and dripped over the crackling logs, and that occupied their entire world.

From the dark of the tunnel, the sorceress pointed forward. Sparks of light floated away like burning ash from her towards the fire.

They did not notice, drifting just underneath the meat aroma, the tinge of ozone in the air. Nor did they feel the tips of their fur rising and crackling with small, white sparks.

They did not hear the soft sound of leather booted footsteps coming from the deeper darkness. Though somewhat sentient, they were still mostly just animals. Just disgusting animals.

She snapped her fingers. The wood crackled, and burning embers scattered against the fur of those closest to the fire. They barely felt it, less even than the bite of a flea. One scratched its stomach.

Those touched by the embers erupted into clouds of blood and viscera with an echoing thunderclap. The rats jumped back and screeched, animal instinct kicking in. A moment later, more of them exploded near the fire, knocking the roasting corpse aside. The light dimmed. A different burning smell, of scorched fur and rat meat, rose into the air.

She stepped into their midst. Tens of beady, dark eyes turned to her in stunned, dumb silence. In the fragile stillness, her finger snaps seemed firecrackers. Tiny motes of light appeared around her, fluttering like fireflies. She snapped her fingers again. The fireflies zoomed away in straight lines, hitting the closest creatures, piercing through fur and armour as if through wet paper. The victims burst just as before, a fine red mist choking the air.

The horde finally shook off the shock.

They charged at her, spears and clubs raised to kill. Way too slow. She disappeared before the first of them even got within an arm’s length.

“Form up! Phalanx!” a rag clad shaman called out in broken Imperial, but it was already too late.

She stepped out from the shadows, lithe and quiet behind the pack, arm outstretched. Three incandescent orbs lit up in her palm and shot away into the crowd. Explosions tore more rats apart. Fur burned, eyes melted, and lungs exploded from the overheated air. Rats cooked inside their makeshift armours, the metal soldered to their skins.

The shaman let out a snarl of anger and raised his staff, chanting. Dark mist formed on its tip, but he got no further. She translated the distance to him in a heartbeat, without so much as breaking stride. It wouldn’t have mattered even if he had finished conjuring up that pathetically weak effect.

Her gloved hand pressed his chest almost casually, and rustled the grey-white fur. The milky whites of his eyes widened. She smiled. The reflection of terror in her silver mask was the last thing the old rat would ever see. With a push, as if to turn the shaman aside, she engulfed him in a white-hot flame. It streamed forward and melted flesh off bones in a second His half-charred skeleton dropped clattering to the ground.

Headless, scared and hurt, the pack turned on her, swarming in mindless fury, completely oblivious of their impotence.

She closed her fist tightly, and a ball of electric power enveloped her. Erratic bolts, blinding white, speared and charred any rat that got within three steps. Clad in lightning, the air shimmering with energy, she raised her foot and slammed it down against the cavern floor, sending snakes of energy racing outward, seeking targets. Ratmen died screaming, melting from the inside, burning and disintegrating in the torrent of magic energies. A wall of flame spanning from floor to ceiling met the last few that broke and tried to run, spilling down and washing over them like a cleansing flood.

The massacre only lasted for a handful of heartbeats. Nothing moved in the cavern. Nothing remained of the horde but coal-black bones cooling in the shimmering, smoke choked air.

They had been a small army, for ratman standards. Nothing more than fodder. As the sorceress let go of her illum and started to cool off, she felt almost ashamed for having taken her time to enjoy the kills. She could have simply blown them all away from the first moment, rather than…

“Bit of an overkill there, Tallah,” Sil called out, slightly muffled, as she walked out of the tunnel, hand to her mouth to guard against the odours. “Who am I going to mind read for information now that you’ve boiled away every brain in this cave?”

Tallah raised three gloved fingers, just beneath the cage still swaying in the currents of hot air.

“Three survivors,” she said in a hollow, cold voice, too busy brushing the ashes off her long black coat. “The ash gets in everywhere, I swear,” she groaned in displeasure as she opened up her coat and shook rat dust out. Her silver mask was matted with the remains of the shaman, which she started wiping clumsily with her gloves.

A soft whine came from above, confirming there was a survivor up there.   The skeletal man inside still clung to life, somehow. He whimpered pathetically as Sil joined Tallah.

“So there are,” Sil said, still trying to stave off the stink. “Let’s see what we have to work with.”

As she scrutinized the man in the cage, he peered down at her as well, his grey eyes too bright for his dire circumstances. Tallah studied him from below, wondering how the wretch was still alive, given his condition.

A moment later, the man erupted into howls of laughter. She had heard it earlier, the one thing that had prevented her hand from simply boiling the den. The gibbet cage shook and swayed and rotated while the man laughed as if he were on the brink of choking. He only stopped to scream in agony for a few moments before starting his braying again.

“This one’s cracked, but he’ll keep for now.” Her companion walked away, looking amid the destruction. “I can’t see the other two.”

Both turned away from the madman and walked among the cooling corpses.

“Why must you always be so messy?” Sil asked, scampering after Tallah’s confident strides towards an area of the cavern that had survived the scorching. The sorceress ignored the question and showed her to two small cages, each the size of a child.

“Are these worth sparing, Sil? I saw them when translating earlier.”

Tallah flicked her fingers, and a bag nearby burst into flames, illuminating the two huddled bodies groaning against the back bars of the cages. Sil leaned over and peered inside, wrinkling her nose again.

“Damn.” She grimaced in disgust as she aimed her staff towards the two figures. “I require knowledge of what I see!

She closed her eyes for a moment, as if reading off the inside of her eyelids, before speaking.

“The bastards did a pretty good number on them. No, they’re not worth sparing.” She opened her eyes and looked at Tallah, who was raising her hand towards the cages. “Give me a moment to write this down first before you do your whole fire and smoke thing.”

She rested her staff against a crate and produced a scroll and writing quill from the satchel slung against her hip.

“We have one female aelir, deceased. It was an aelir, right?”

Tallah shrugged. She hadn’t paid attention to the thing roasting over the fire.

“I could check,” she said.

“No, no, I really don’t want to look at that any closer than I have to. I’ll put it down as unknown species, rather.”

She pointed to the things in the cage. “These two are warped, probably human in origin. Can’t cure them and can’t reverse the transformation. You can eradicate them. And that leaves the male up in the cage, still alive but in shock. We’ll investigate if he can be taken back to Valen.”

One of the creatures inside the cages scrounged up enough courage and moved forward, looking at Sil as she wrote. It vaguely resembled a human, in as much as it had two arms, two legs and one head. The body was emaciated, the head long and tilted back, covered with thin wisps of hair, the mouth crooked and filled with razor-thin teeth. Its eyes were obscenely round and large. If there ever had been humanity there, now there was only deep animal sadness. The creature cooed softly, curiously, towards the woman in white as she retreated from the cage.

“I’m done. Burn them,” Sil said, without looking back. Behind her, the two cages disintegrated in an explosive burst of fire. Tallah had swiftly put them out of their misery.

“Now then, what are we going to do about you?”

Sil stopped underneath the cage and looked up at the madman, hands on her hips. His laugh had devolved into violent coughing, only to reignite when she got closer again. Tallah walked over as well. One of her fireflies flew towards the chain and pulley that kept the cage suspended. It detonated with a firecracker sound and the cage crashed to the ground, two steps away from Sil. She yelped and stepped back, glaring at her partner, outraged.

The sorceress shrugged.

“He’s down now,” she said impassively. “Be quick. We’ve got work to finish.” She crossed her arms and surveyed the rest of the cavern, toeing disinterested at a couple of corpses.

The man groaned on the floor. The cage had dropped over his legs, snapping both like twigs. One of his arms protruded from between the bars at an impossible angle, bone pressing from within against the skin.

Sil leaned over and put her hand on his forehead through the iron bars.

“This will only take a moment. I require to touch this mind!

A flash of red lightning and a crack like thunder burst out. Sil flew across the space and hit the opposite wall, two meters off the ground, with a wet thud and a sickening crack of ribs. Before she slid down, free of whatever force had launched her, Tallah had already translated the distance in to catch her.

Sil’s eyes were wide open, shocked and confused. She twitched and gibbered in an unfamiliar language, oblivious to the terrible impact with the wall.

Tallah floated down to the ground, holding the healer in her arms. The moment their feet touched the ground, her arm shot out towards the contorted cage, launching a white-hot lance of fire at the splayed man.

“No!” Sil pushed her arm away just as the spell detonated. The thin stream of fire cut a deep gash in the wall and ceiling, missing the cage by a palm’s width. “He didn’t attack me, Tallah. He’s an innocent.” She had her eyes held tightly shut while her knees threatened to buckle underneath her.

Tallah set her down against a sack of foodstuffs and fetched her discarded staff from where it had fallen. She pressed it into Sil’s hands, concern giving urgency to her movements.

I require I be mended!” Sil chanted automatically. She shivered violently as a blue light enveloped her and the spell re-knit whatever bones had cracked or snapped. Her grip on the staff became stronger.

I require a pollution purge!” she chanted again, trying a toxin removal. The spell ignited, more white light shone, but nothing happened. A few minutes passed in silence, with Tallah watching over her protectively, before she spoke again.

“I… think it’s going away.”

“Feedback?” Tallah asked, watching the man like a hawk, her body poised to strike if he so much as twitched wrong towards Sil.

“Think so. Never felt anything like it. Help me up.” Sil took Tallah’s arm and hauled herself to her feet, dusting off her skirt and boots. “Damn that smarted.” She winced as she cracked her neck back and forth, taking a couple of tentative steps.

“Saw anything relevant for us?” Tallah followed up as if she hadn’t heard the rest of the complaint.

“Nothing about your cute friend, no,” Sil replied, walking back. “Saw some profoundly weird shit, let me tell you, but not relevant to us. Need some time to unpack it all. Whoever this is, I’m pretty sure he’s not from Vas. His name is Vergil.”

“He’s from Nen?” Tallah asked, her interest piqued.

“No, not from Nen. He’s from somewhere very different. He must be an Other.” Sil prodded Vergil with the butt of her staff. “Hey, you!” she called, poking him in the nose, drawing his unfocused, glazed gaze. “Where’d you come from?”

A fresh howl of laughter erupted, on the very edge of a death gasp. Sil looked up at Tallah, shrugging and twirling a finger at her temple.

“I think you can burn him too. If we bring him back with us, he’s likely to go at someone with an axe from what I can still see.” Sil took out her scrolls and quill to complete the record.

 

Vergil had spent, by some measure of the sane part of his mind, half an eternity in the cage. It may have been years. Or days. He had lost the track of time in the perennial fire light of the cave. The gibbet, vaguely human-shaped, had been fashioned from metal bands that dug deep and painfully into his armpits and groin. But that did not matter. It had been half an eternity since he could feel anything in his arms and legs.

He wasn’t sure he still had arms and legs.

Maybe the rats had cut them off like they had cut off Sidora’s.

Maybe they had eaten his, just like they had eaten Sidora’s.

While suspended, his stomach growled incessantly. That had been his world. He couldn’t feel his arms and legs, he couldn’t move, and he hadn’t the energy to feel anything for and about anything. He had been trying, with no success, to starve to death.

The only feelings he had left were the brief moments of sharp suffering whenever Anatol’s damned blessing healed him and his nerves fired.

He knew when the pain would follow. It was slow torture to wait for it.

  • SEVERE STARVATION afflicts your body. Death is imminent. Please consult Medical urgently.
  • Blessing of Anatol has activated. Death is no longer imminent. Please consult Medical at the earliest convenience.

He shuddered in excruciating pain as, all at once, his nerve endings came to life for a moment. It passed just as suddenly as it began, but left him gasping for breath, gritting his teeth.

The commotion from underneath his cage drew his attention. He was trying to blink away the messages stubbornly floating in the air in front of him, a wall of text that kept repeating maddeningly the same status updates.

Before everything changed in his little corner of damnation, he had seen the ratmen dragging Sidora out of her cage. Vergil couldn’t understand why they were even bothering with the cage anymore.

There was nowhere to run away to.

She no longer had legs to run on. It had been days since they had finished hacking them off, bone by bone. Did they expect her to crawl away? Roll away, maybe? Lead them on a desperate, crawling chase through the tunnels?

He discovered that he still had it in him to let out a dry, rasping chuckle. It did not sound well, and he didn’t know where it had come from, but it made him feel better. So he allowed himself a laugh as the rats hoisted Sidora, or what was left of her, back up onto the bloodstained rock that served as a table for them.

There wasn’t much left of the young, bubbly aelir healer. Arms, legs, nose, tongue, a breast, all gone.

All eaten.

His stomach growled again at the memory of meat cooking over the fire and the delicious smell that climbed up to him, and he felt slightly ashamed. He hoped, at least, that her wits had gone before they had finished with her fingers.

He particularly treasured the memory of them cutting off her tongue. It had meant an end to her incessant crying and begging. It had meant he could finally sleep without her voice haunting his dreams.

Vermen, commonly known as ratmen, were meat eaters. The Guild had called them carrion eaters in one of their orientations. They advised rookie adventures to keep well away from bands of vermen, especially when exploring city sewage tunnels, Old World ruins or garbage dumps during errands and quests. The creatures liked to make their nests in dark, dirty, and isolated places, just far enough from human habitation to be inconspicuous, but close enough to be within striking distance for raiding parties.

They hadn’t mentioned, however, vermen using goblin holes as lures for inexperienced adventurers.

They hadn’t mentioned the creatures being intelligent and cunning, and horribly sadistic to the human-like.

They hadn’t mentioned how they could keep their victims alive for weeks while carving them up like cattle. Their shamans knew how to brew filthy root potions that closed wounds in seconds but let the victim howling in pain for hours. They liked to make the victim suffer and beg, while they tore pieces off them to season their actual food with.

Now that Vergil had so much time to pour over those days in minute detail, he realized the Guild had mentioned almost nothing of anything.

From his alcove, the verman shaman woke and clambered slowly to his feet. Vergil recognised him by the rattle of bone charm fetishes on the black robe he wore, each a piece of a different animal. The grey-furred head swung its milky gaze around the cavern, counting all the members of his clan. He sniffed the air and his whiskers twitched as he made his way towards the cooking fire, looking up at Vergil in his cage.

“I wonder if this one can starve,” he had said, back when they had ambushed the party. “It reeks of Anatol’s incense.” The shaman had Vergil’s party caged separately, while choosing Sidora for what he had called the spice rack. Vergil had become a curious experiment for the old monster.

Now he was chastising one of the other rats.

“You do not mate with the food, dumb child. It could carry disease. That is why we cook it.”

Well, that was a bit too late. They had been taking turns at her whenever the old monster slept.

As it turned out, Vergil couldn’t starve, at least not to death.

He was considering this very point of his cursed existence when the cavern crashed around him in world-ending noise. His mind, addled from weeks of starvation, took a long time to understand what had happened.

Had the ratmen really been killed? Had it happened? The fresh pain barely registered with him.

  • SEVERE STARVATION afflicts your body. Death is imminent. Please consult Medical urgently.
  • Blessing of Anatol has activated. Death is no longer imminent. Please consult Medical at the earliest convenience.
  • Pain response has exceeded the safe threshold. Pain receptors have been muted to prevent shock. Please consult Medical at the earliest convenience.

The message popped up, helpful, within his field of vision. He stared at it, and it was the funniest thing in the entire world. He wanted that pain.

It was too much. It was just too damn much.

One moment, Sidora was sizzling deliciously over the cooking fire. The next, there were no more rats around. The stranger in black and gold had wiped them all out. He had seen her approaching. The rest was smoke and heat and unbearable pain in his chest. By the time the smoke syphoned up through the pores of the cavern, there was nothing left. Days upon days of suffering wiped out in the blink of an eye!

It was unfair.

Sidora, the meat, was laying discarded, half cooked, among the charred remains of his jailers. It was a waste of perfectly wonderful food. Why did the stranger waste the meat when he couldn’t even starve to death? The injustice of it all made him laugh, then scream in agony as Anatol’s damned blessing kept him alive again.

Then his cage had crashed down to the floor, and the pain was gone.

Tallah stared at the giggling man, deep in thought.

“Are you sure he’s an Other?” she asked the healer.

“That, or he’s got some vividly weird imagination. There are two parts to his life. In one of them, he was somewhere incredibly strange.” She thought for a moment, as if trying to get into words what she had seen in the man’s head. “It was called a spaceship, whatever that is. In the other, he was in Valen. The in-between is protected by something that didn’t like me poking at it.”

Tallah could see, now that she was looking for it, how illum swirled around the man. Her silver mask showed her the intricate weave of streams all around him, one she had never seen before. It was subtle but incredibly dense and tight.

“I want him,” she finally decided.

We really want him. A second voice intermingled with her own.

“You realise you almost incinerated him just now, yes?”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

It was Sil’s turn to shrug.

“Suit yourself. Get him out and I’ll portal us all back to Valen.”

“No,” Tallah answered, resolute. She leaned over the cage, prying apart the bars with very controlled bursts of magical fire. “She comes first.”

Sil scratched her head, confused. “Tallah, he’s damaged in the head. I can’t fix him here. I don’t think I can even have him walking. We can’t drag him around with us. It’ll be a miracle if he doesn’t just expire on his own. I don’t want to babysit an adventurer flunky while you deal with business.”

Her voice had taken a petulant tone as she stamped her foot down in what she believed to be a very defiant manner. Tallah dragged out Vergil’s limp form by a skeletal arm and tossed him next to the mangled cage, eliciting more groans and chuckles from him.

“We haven’t sold the helmet yet,” she said.

Sil winced mid-whine.

“No,” she replied, pursing her lips. “We’re not using The Helmet on him.”

“We’re using the helmet on him,” Tallah countered calmly, stretching out her hand. A dark tear in reality emerged as she drew a circle in the air. “You don’t need to capitalise it whenever we talk about it.”

“But –” Sil tried to argue, her mouth opening and closing a few times as she tried to find the words. “But it’s so stupid, Tallah!” she finally managed, exasperated.

“It’s only stupid because you were dumb enough to put it on without proper appraisal first,” Tallah pointed out.

Sil sighed and rolled her eyes as her friend plunged her hand, all the way to her shoulder, into the dark tear in reality. It suddenly got freezing cold in the cave while the sorceress rummaged around her storage pocket. A couple of moments later she finally produced The Helmet.

It was as unassuming as any piece of armour could be. A squarish, almost cylindrical, dark blue dome with no clasps, designed to cover the entire head, with only two horns on each side marking it as out of the ordinary. The T-shaped visor allowed the user to breathe and see. They regarded it as just a bucket with a visor cut into it. Sil had tried it on mockingly in a past dungeon crawl, as it was the only reward that had come out of a harrowing and messy adventure.

Tallah studied the vulgar anatomical parts painted in bright red pigment on one side and raised a quizzical eyebrow at her friend.

Sil avoided her gaze.

“It will not be enough to have him walking about,” the healer said. “Healing won’t do any good for his sort of condition. The Sisters will probably charge an arm or two to fix such extensive damage.”

Tallah leaned over Vergil and forced the helmet onto his head. She had to pack his ears in, lest she clip them off.

“Use healing for the bones and leash him to me. Create a siphon link between the helmet and myself. I’ll take it from there.”

“Illum syphoning aside, are you sure that’ll work? He’s got no muscle mass left to support his body. I may as well be trying to animate a skeleton.”

“Skeletons aren’t illum conductive. As long as he’s still alive, he should be able to manifest the entity. If it doesn’t work, we’ll leave him and go on our way, pity as that may be.”

Sil moved behind Tallah and pressed a hand to her back.

“It’ll be a crazy drain. Do you think you’ll manage?”

“I’ll manage.” Tallah shrugged, impatient. “Do it while I can still feel her.”

“Fine, fine. But you’re staying between us when I activate it. I don’t want to get thrown again. If you’re so set on this foolishness, you can go flying this time.”

 

 

‘I’m finally going to die,’ Vergil thought. He felt such elation at the thought that it sent him into a giggling frenzy. ‘Death is coming. Please come, please, please, please…’

A blond goddess, an angel of death, dressed in pure white, leaned over him. She smiled while caressing his forehead. Yes, the time had finally come. He should have died on the Gloria when the serrated tail had pierced his brain. Instead, he had been thrust into the purgatory that was Edana. If he had enough moisture to muster them, he would have cried tears of joy.

A flash of red light, and she vanished. She had touched him, offered mercy, and then she was just… gone. He wanted desperately to scream at the injustice of it all, but only the laughter came.

An eternity later, the stranger came for him. Maybe she would be the deliverance he needed. She wore a silver oval mask smudged with rat blood. His reflection in it was mutilated beyond recognition. Maybe he was just imagining the contorted thing as himself.

Maybe he was just imagining everything. Maybe his wits were trying to join Sidora’s, wherever those had gone to.

The mere presence of the tall woman in black and gold caused him suffering. She manhandled him and threw him around as if he were a rag doll. Every time she moved him was a reminder that he was still alive. He found new depths of hatred. He couldn’t live and couldn’t die, and he hated her for not letting the rats finish him off.

Pained and desperate, Vergil looked up through the thin slit of the helmet as the two women discussed whatever was to happen to him.

Why a helmet? Why give him a damned helmet? Couldn’t they show mercy and just end his suffering?

Now he could only hear them as muted echoes that barely penetrated the thick metal. The goddess of death had hidden behind the dark stranger and aimed her staff at him over the other’s shoulder. Blue light blinded his vision. Fire coursed through him as bones knit painfully back together and his breathing felt somewhat easier. His arms and legs spasmed and jerked like the limbs of a marionette, and then he was still again. Though out of the cage, he was too weak to even crawl.

  • Physical ailments have been healed. Pain muting has been deactivated.
  • SEVERE STARVATION afflicts your body. Death is imminent. Please consult Medical urgently.

The light dissipated and he saw the blond woman peering at him over the shoulder of the scary one, looking ready to duck back at any moment. She raised her staff again, and a moment later he felt strange. His laughter stopped, but it went on inside his head, in a voice very much not his own, overwhelming all semblances of thought. He tried to, and found that he actually could, move his head around. A thin, golden line connected his chest to that of the scary woman. The line pulsed faintly, its glow dimming and intensifying along with his thundering heartbeats.

Something felt horribly off. Words crowded his field of vision, but they meant nothing to him. The pain had embraced and left him, but that also meant nothing.

His right arm jerked up of its own accord and pushed him onto his side, the effort igniting a new fire in his bones. The left arm rebelled as well and, helping the right, pushed him up onto his hands and knees as if he were learning to move again. His entire body moved, ignoring his wishes of lying still to die. Finally, in jerky movements, impossibly, he rose to his feet.

Everything hurt. His feet and legs hurt just from supporting him. Bones ground on bones, sending daggers into his delirious brain. His hands and arms hurt just from pushing him upright. Every breath hurt. He tasted blood from something rupturing somewhere.

Despite it, he drew in a sharp breath and bellowed out a war cry that made his blood run cold.

Where did that come from?

Something flowed out of the helmet and into his head, pushing his consciousness aside as if he were nothing. It laughed and laughed and screamed its way to the surface of his thoughts, blanketing him in cold oblivion.

His voice cracked halfway through the war cry and he gasped for air, choking and coughing viciously. He inhaled sharply and, with an alien strength, he bellowed again and banged his worthless fists against his naked chest.

Except that he wasn’t naked anymore. Translucent plates of armour covered him from neck to feet, and his fist strikes rang out like the tolling of a bell.

  • The spirit of Horvath, The Hammer, has taken over your body. No actions are available at this time.

 

“Are you happy now, Tallah?” Sil asked, looking at the skeletal man bellowing dwarven war cries and insults as it ran around the cave, kicking corpses. “You’ve let that thing run loose again.”

The thing was a mad dwarven spirit that took over the body of whoever wore his helmet for as long as there was magical power to animate it. It was a decently powerful warrior, probably some long-dead dwarf berserker, and the wearer became a physical embodiment of the residing ghost. The helmet also generated a decently high grade armour to cover the user, though its resilience also depended on how much illum it could siphon off the wearer.

Sil and the ghost were intimately acquainted.

“At least this time he’s not fondling himself,” Tallah said as the Vergil-shaped entity busied itself with stomping a ratman corpse into a bloody paste.

Sil felt her cheeks burn at the remark, and attempted an incensed answer, but Tallah had already started off.

“Come now,” she called back, tugging sharply on the lifeline connecting her to Vergil. After one moment of consideration, he followed obediently, twitching with each step, barely contained. He had picked up a nicked and dented sword, which he tried out enthusiastically against thin air.

Over two weeks of exploring the maze of tunnels and grottoes beneath the Valen-Drack mountain range were taking their toll on their patience. The rat encampment had been the latest in a long series of false leads and dead ends.

“Which tunnel do we follow next?” Sil asked, eager to be away from the carnage. The odour was turning foul as the smoke filtered up and out through the rock pores.

“None,” Tallah said. “The weave dies off right here.” By the look of her, Sil knew she was examining the flows of power in the air. And she didn’t like what she saw.

The old transit network from Valen to Drack could house any number of potential hideaways for any number of rogues. Finding someone who did not want to be found was a rather futile attempt.

“Lovely. We’re in more uncharted areas,” Sil said while studying an old map. “This cave isn’t here. Of course, neither were the previous five.” She annotated the general area of their location for later reference. The information would heft a decent price back in Valen.

Tallah growled in frustration. The heat was wafting off her in waves, making the last wisps of smoke twist in the hot air around her.

“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, don’t,” Sil said. “Let me check for some enchantments or illusions.”

“I wasn’t thinking of blowing the top off this damned mountain,” the sorceress lied.

I require I see true. Sil chanted, and her eyes flared bright green moments later. She surveyed the cavern, like Tallah had done earlier, spinning slowly in place.

“Illusion enchantment on your left,” she called out, pointing towards the far wall.

Only two shallow creases scarred the wall, but her enchanted sight saw right through the illusion and dispelled it when she focused on it. Two large stone slabs, unmarked save for the two concealed handles, opened the way forward, away from the cooking fire and the gathering area of the cavern. The ratmen probably hadn’t known they were there, as they had used that nook for storing food crates and bags.

Tallah headed straight for them with quick, determined steps. She had a fireball prepared in her palm, ready to turn the doors to dust. Vergil ran past her, hollering through the stone doors with a deafening crack. He shattered them barely breaking his stride and barrelled through, howling in glee in the darkness beyond the torchlight, the helmet’s possession now complete.

“If she’s there, do you think she knows we’re coming?” Sil asked from behind, walking lazily with her staff in the crook of her elbows at her back.

Tallah sniffed, annoyed, and threw aside the pulsing orb of fire. “Do you really need to be like that?” she asked.

“Like what?”

“Yourself.”

“Well, I could be the incarnation of a perverted ghost that enjoys fondling itself raw, but you already gave the helmet to some nobody we found in a cave. I can’t wait to waste good potions and magic on keeping him alive, as if you weren’t already a pain in my arse.”

Tallah chuckled as she walked through the man-shaped hole in the door.

“So that’s a no?”

“Definitely. Shouldn’t you reel him in?” Sil asked as she surveyed sceptically the dark tunnel stretching before them. “He was almost dead a few minutes ago.”

“Now he sounds like he’s enjoying himself. I think he deserves some fun.”

“Did I ever tell you you’re a cruel bitch?”

“Today, you mean?”

Something howled ahead, and an ancient ghost cursed loudly in ancient dwarven.

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