“Oh, that’ll take the piss out of them,” said Elbert from over Gax’s shoulder. The large orc would have turned around with a questioning glance, but relieving himself in his inebriated state felt far too good to pay the human much mind.
“Who?” asked Urgric, the dark-skinned orc standing next to Elbert at the mouth of the alley.
“Well, I said them, didn’t I?”
Gax, thoroughly confused at the laughter that followed and the curses coming from Darsil’eit, opened his mouth to ask what his companions were getting on about. A ratty and stiff burlap sack shifted suddenly, the urine coming from Gax splashing off it and onto his own boots. From beneath the edge of the sack poked a dirty mop of hair and two slanted eyes. Those eyes went from Gax’s and down to his member, still held in one hand and continuing its business.
“Uh…” Gax managed to utter as he shifted his aim. “Almost done. Sorry about that.”
“You whoreson!” cried the destitute elf whose only cover now smelled of piss, though that wasn’t much worse than its original odor, Gax was sure. “I’ll cut your damn pecker off!”
The homeless elf surged to his feet, flinging the cover to the side and misting Gax with his own urine. A rusted kitchen knife was in his dirt-crusted hand. Gax retreated while stuffing his manhood back into his trousers. It would be an easy thing to smash this weak creature’s head in. The guard likely wouldn’t care either, given the status of the man.
But Gax couldn’t stomach the idea of killing a man after pissing on him. Such a thing was so far from honorable that Axrom would likely meet him in death and rip him clean in two for eternity. Gax bolted from the alley, one hand holding his trousers up, the other fishing around his coin purse.
“Here!” the green orc called, tossing a handful of copper rounds onto the ground. “For the sack.”
“And a nice set of clothes,” added Elbert as two more rounds and a silver oval fell from the open purse to clatter on the floor.
The destitute elf’s eyes widened and he dropped his knife to grab the coins. Gax began to bend down and retrieve those that had fallen from his pouch but a swift kick in the ass from Dar stopped him. “Payment for being an idiot heathen!” she snapped. “Leave it to him!”
Gax glared at her for a moment, but the sound of the homeless man sprinting madly toward the coins at Gax’s feet stole his attention. The elf, seeing Gax near the coins, loosed a cacophony of rabid sounds, spittle flying from his cracked lips. Gax’s eyes popped wide and he leaned away from the psychotic display as though it was contagious, then turned and hustled off down the street, enduring another kick from Dar, though she laughed heartily with the others as well.
After stopping at a fountain for Gax to clean himself, they took their galivanting to the Splintered Bow. Gax happened across a friendly acquaintance named Elondruv and Dar met a fair-haired, human lass, the two of them very obviously interested in one another. Elbert and Urgric enjoyed tankards of ale and cards while Gax and Dar went off from the tavern with their partners. The four of them met the next morning before the sun had risen over the horizon, their packs fit to bursting for the trek they’d signed on with.
The tall, spired structure of the rogues’ guild rose before them. A team of men and women of all races were preparing a convoy outside. The four companions approached the man who had hired them for the mission, a human with loose, pocked cheeks and grey eyes fixed in a permanent scowl by the name of Vesik. Before any of them could say a word, he tossed them each a coin purse containing half of their silver rounds for their services. At its end, they’d receive as many silvers, and a handful of gold edges each.
“Hitch up that team,” he said, his voice a growl. Gax wondered if perhaps he’d smoked too much pipe weed in his time at the coarseness of his voice. As if to prove his point, the man pulled out a long-stemmed pipe and began to clean its bowl.
The convoy of five horse-drawn wagons, twenty rogues, and Gax’s group set out from Durthlem that morning. Once before had Gax traveled this way, though he hadn’t actually gone through the long-dead city of Erstov. Of course, he’d left that detail out when applying for the job. Gold edges for a two-day job were unheard of, let alone a handful for each person on top of a surplus of silver, and too good a deal to let a tiny detail ruin.
The thing was, Erstov was a dead city for a reason. That reason is why the last convoy he’d accompanied had added two days to their trip, resulting in the death of two horses from leg injuries on the treacherous ground around the mountain the city sat atop. Once home to beings of titanic power and alien ways, Erstov had been a bastion of mysterious magic. That volatile magic, if the histories that survived are to be believed, had become a churning mass of unpredictability that had eventually erupted.
Not a single bone remained of the people that had once inhabited Erstov, nor could a tendril of plant-life be found. The city of grey stone, amber clay, and brown brick was so very lifeless, that even setting foot onto its smooth streets sent a cold shock through even the heartiest of warriors. Life had been snuffed from that place, and many believed that the magic responsible still existed, ready to do its work again.
Gax had made sure not to advertise that he knew the path through the city when applying for the position, instead stating he had gone into Erstov only to search the place with a team of archeologists and scholars of all schools of magic for a few hours. This relieved him from having to be a guide, but still his word would be relied on for any odd happenings. Which is partly why he’d made sure to enlist Elbert, the wizard, who then enlisted Urgric, his warrior companion. Gax and Dar had journeyed with the duo before and enjoyed their company, though it still chagrined Gax that he was now splitting the coin four ways instead of three.
Several hours passed as they journeyed, travelers hailing them and wishing them this or that god’s blessing. It had become quite the event throughout the land, another reason why Gax wanted in on it. Already there were a handful of songs most tavern-goers around these parts knew that included Gax the Great, or Gax the Formidable, or Gax the Blundering. That last one wasn’t so charming, but at least it put his name on the lips of hundreds of folk.
The ground began to slant upward, slowing their progress. They endured switchbacks and hills for another two hours. Grey walls loomed in the distance as they crested a hill, the mountain terrain flattening out into a valley of rich soil and plant life. Gax marveled at the scene. It was rumored that the beings of Erstov had carved this valley into the top of the mountain for agricultural use. Being that there wasn’t another phenomenon like it, Gax was convinced it was truth.
Clouds skirted the sky just above their heads, feeling close enough that Gax could have leapt up and brushed their pillowy edges. As the caravan thinned out to traverse the hardpacked road that cut through the grove of trees and wound around small ponds and patches of fruit-bearing bushes, Gax moved in close to Elbert’s side.
“Remind me again of the things to watch out for,” he whispered.
“I told you last night,” Elbert snapped indignantly.
Gax shot him a wilting glare and pressed a finger to his pursed lips, blowing out a sharp breath. He cast about to ensure no one was paying them close attention, then glared at Elbert. “I was dr–”
“You were drunk,” Elbert echoed, exasperated. “Portals. Glyphs. Wards. Statues.”
Gax frowned, his mind whirling. “Portals… Portals?”
“Histories say there may well be portals into another place. A place the magic of Erstov created when it erupted. Or had always been there. The ancient people could have used them as a means of travel. Then, when it–” Elbert flailed his arms about in the direction of the grey city, at a loss for words at the moment.
“Went boom?” Gax put in.
“Aye, that. When it went boom, the portals remained, but shifted their entry points and got all mixed around.”
Gax nodded. “And what do portals look like?”
“Hells if I know. Best bet is to stay clear of doorways. The more we stay in the open, the better.”
In short order, the convoy stopped before the wall of smooth, grey stone. Though it was unadorned and simple, the workmanship that had gone into creating such a perfectly symmetrical and seamless structure gave Gax pause, his mouth falling agape. Rogues turned and looked at Gax expectantly. Dar nudged him in the ribs then nodded toward them.
“Me?” Gax asked sheepishly. Before Dar could dig a fingernail into his side, he nodded and marched up the convoy, his companions in tow.
Vesik stood before the lead horses, an arm’s length from crossing beneath the impressive archway carved into the wall. Beyond that threshold stood many buildings of earthly colors and smooth material just a short distance from the wall. The ground between the wall and the first structures should have been bursting with life as it did just on the other side of the wall, but it was instead a flat, hard expanse of hard dirt hued red from clay.
“Any special rituals to perform first?” Vesik asked in his grave tone.
“No,” Gax said, drawing a scowl from Vesik. “Er, not exactly that is. See here.” Gax put his pack down, planning on rifling through it to find something he could toss. The shadow of his battleaxe, poking over his shoulder, stopped him. He unslung the massive, double-bladed weapon from his back, then slowly extended it out until it passed under the archway.
A cold burst of dread arced through him as sudden as if a lightning bolt had leapt down from the heavens to land atop his head. Gax’s entire body froze.
“Well?” Vesik growled.
Gax swallowed and blinked quickly, regaining use of his body as the sensation faded. He turned a fearful gaze on Dar, his eyes pleading. He nearly rounded on Vesik and gave up that he’d never set foot in this dead city, but Dar’s hard gaze would brook no cowardice. She wanted the glory of this mission as much as he did. And she enjoyed gold better than anyone Gax knew.
“It’ll be a shock going through, but it’s nothing to worry overly much about,” Gax said as he wiped the fear from his face and nodded to Vesik. “The magic is there, but it’s tired.”
“Tired?” Vesik asked.
“Dormant,” Elbert put in. “Erstov’s magic is dormant. We just need to make sure not to wake it up. Right Gax?”
“Aye. We’ll stay out in the open til we reach the other side. No touching rock people or magic signs… And everyone holds their bladder throughout! Never does any good to piss on something you don’t want mad.”
Elbert stared at Gax with utter disappointment. “Statues and glyphs, he means.”
Vesik frowned further. “We can’t piss the whole time?”
“If you had that kind of power and someone pissed on you, don’t you think you’d do something about it?”
“The city is sentient?”
“In a way,” Elbert put in. “Erstov’s magic is alive, at least partially. It has an archaic way of thinking, if the histories are right.”
“In we go, then,” Vesik said. He turned around and gave instructions to one of the rogues standing nearest him. Soon, the entire company, including Gax and his companions had gone off and relieved themselves.
Gax went in first, his steps slow and deliberate, his eyes roaming the archway and the city for threats. The bolt of sensation that prickled every inch of his skin came on again, though not as strong. Once through, he turned stiffly around as the feeling subsided and beckoned the others through. Many hesitated, two of them stopping after only a step beneath the archway then backing away and shaking their heads feverishly.
Vesik gave them a single chance to enter the city. When they looked to one another uncertainly, he turned his back on them after declaring them no longer guild members. They wisely sprinted through to catch up, hoping their leader would forget their hesitation and not eject them from the guild.
A blanket of stillness covered the city. Not a whisper of a breeze could be felt. And, if there was one, there wouldn’t have been any indication from their surroundings. Not a pennant or a sign fixed to chains jutted out from a building. There were no trees whose limbs could sway in the breeze. Not a single living thing, other than the convoy, moved along the smooth, grey road or about the odd homes of earthen hues.
“Right on through,” Gax mumbled to Vesik, his eyes still fixed on Erstov. “Might even be able to take this here road to the other side.”
Every footfall and whinny rebounded off the walls of the buildings many times over, the only sounds to be heard. Somehow, they seemed diluted. As though Gax had to strain just to hear his own heavy boots marching on the hard road. He turned a questioning glance on Elbert.
“The City of Silent Woes,” the wizard said grimly.
“It’s one of the names for Erstov. Something about the architecture or the magic muffles sound. And, well, there haven’t been any reports of travelers entering who didn’t befall some grim fate…” Gax glared at Elbert, his eyes wide. “Other than your previous excursion, that is,” he added smoothly.
The structures they passed were blocky and simple, though their corners and edges were rounded, giving the whole city a melted look, like candle wax that had been molded after its wick had been blown out. Occasionally, a side road would appear that wasn’t comprised of the smooth, grey stone, but was instead hard-packed, red clay. Gax realized the road had been one continuous piece since they’d entered Erstov. It wasn’t made up of many stone slabs laid into the ground. How had the alien race that inhabited this place managed such a feat?
Thresholds into the tall homes were all a uniform size. Gax, with his seven feet of height, could have walked right on through with his arms raised and perhaps his fingers wouldn’t have even brushed the top of the doorway. His mind raced with imaginations of what the Erstov natives had looked like. Over the top of these homes, far off in the east, spires from a larger structure pierced the dead sky.
Unlike the spartan structures they’d passed thus far, this building boasted masterfully crafted spires of copper. Rather than blockish sides, each one was rounded with bands of silver and balconies at each level. Their tips twisted upward, large pennants hanging limply from them to drape over the side of the spires.
The middle spire was wide enough to encompass a dozen homes, rising three times the height of the smaller ones at its flanks. Its shape reminded Gax of a dessert he’d tried once before in foreign lands. It had been a delicately crafted thing that was light as a cloud with ridges twisting up its sides to a single point at its top.
“Wait,” came Vesik’s voice, drawing Gax’s attention. The orc followed his fixed stare to the road. Red footprints appeared from the side of the road then extended out across it. Gax followed them with his gaze but couldn’t see their end. Steel rung as Vesik pulled his sword from its scabbard and took a dagger in his other hand. A cacophony of familiar sounds echoed as the entire convoy readied blades and bows.
“Do we follow it?” Vesik asked, looking to Gax.
“There weren’t any footprints last time,” Gax said. “But it looks like that’s the way to go, footprints or no. Just stay on the road.”
The convoy continued, each man and woman avoiding the footprints as they went. The bearer of those prints hadn’t been wearing boots and Gax could easily make out six toes splayed wide on each large track. The strides the thing must have taken outdistanced Gax’s normal step by two feet.
“How long could prints like this stay on the road?” Gax asked, looking to Dar.
“Under normal circumstances, not more than a few days, I’d wager,” she said, looking up toward the cloudy sky. “But I doubt there are any normal circumstances here. Who knows if it even rains on Erstov?”
An arch ran the width of the road up ahead, connected to the tops of two structures. The footprints veered off the road and around a pylon that held up a slanted overhang that jutted out from above a doorway to a home before returning to the road and continuing. Gax strained his neck as he peered around the pylon and into the odd home.
“What are you doing?” Dar hissed as he followed the footprints.
“I’m not going in,” he said indignantly. “Just want to get a closer look inside, like our friend did.”
Elbert, at Gax’s side, seemed interested as well, veering off the road with the orc to gaze into the home.
Dar relented with a grudging nod, which Gax learned was because she too was curious. The trio stuck close together as they passed under the canopy, Dar’s hand on Gax’s elbow, the side of the house to their right and the pylon to their left, creating a sort of threshold.
They didn’t notice the shift at first, so focused on scouring the inside of the home. They found it bereft and uninteresting. A breeze blew past them. The pair shared a startled look, then whirled toward the road. The footprints were gone, and so too was their entire convoy. Elbert had also vanished, though he’d been shoulder to ribs with Gax as they ventured beneath the overhang.
“Axrom’s hairy balls!” Gax swore. His voice seemed plenty loud now, the force that had muffled it before gone. Other noises followed. Those of large mechanical engines clicking and grinding, of things screaming and dying, of buildings shattering and rocks colliding.
Without another word, the pair backed through the same threshold that had transported them to this other realm only to find themselves in the same place.
“Godsdamn you, Gax!” Dar seethed.
“You didn’t stop me!” he snapped back.
“Then we’re both dumb idiots this time. You more so, but still. Blight and damnation!”
Gax would have added his own curses to the tirade, but a flash of movement from the corner of a rooftop stole his attention. Whatever it was had fled too quickly for him to make it out. He was about to ask Dar if she’d seen the thing when there was another burst of movement off to his left. They both whirled toward that to find nothing yet again.
A groan sounded from down the road, a hollow and agonized moan that set the hair on Gax’s neck to standing. He and Dar shot each other a worried glance, then crept out toward the road. As they did so, they glimpsed forms darting here and there atop the roofs and along buildings off in the distance, but their attention remained on the road.
They came to the archway the convoy was soon to pass through before they had been transported to this place and poked their heads out. A large humanoid figure clad in a full set of black armor riddled with spikes and ridges lumbered along the road. The macabre knight drug a jagged sword on the ground behind it as it marched, its dark and ancient metal the same material as its armor. It ambled toward a building, its side presented to Gax and Dar.
Before either of them could gasp in fear, its horned head snapped in their direction, as though it felt their gaze keenly. The hollow moan became a roar of hatred and the thing came on. No longer did it lumber clumsily along. Its fury lent its body poise and agility that rivaled Dar’s.
Gax stumbled backward, pulled by Dar as she retreated. “Do we run?” he asked.
“Into another one of those or something worse?” she said as she pulled her twin sabers from their sheathes. “No! We kill this one here.”
Gax allowed himself to be shoved to the side so they were spread out on the road as the knight closed on them. “Godsdamn this place,” he mumbled as he pulled his battleaxe from his back. The knight readied its sword for a thrust. “Godsdamn me and all the coin in the world.” A familiar sensation flooded his body with heat. He latched onto the rage and directed it at their enemy as it pulled its arms in before delivering the strike. “And godsdamn you!”
To be continued…