“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 his elf companion, Darsil’eit, opened his mouth to ask what they were getting on about. The ratty and stiff burlap sack Gax was urinating on shifted suddenly, urine now 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 rusty 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 town guard likely wouldn’t care to investigate the murder, 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 the orc god, 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-skinned 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 the silver that he had mistakenly dropped 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 while delivering it.
After stopping at a fountain for Gax to clean himself, they took their gallivanting 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 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 within its walls. 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 Blunderer. 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 rise, 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.
“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 the ground 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 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 and dropped her pack. “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 tossed his pack and 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!”
Barely a stride separated Gax from the dark knight, its sword thrusting out for the orc’s chest. Gax spun aside in a tight circle and the blade slipped by, scoring a gouge across his shoulder. He didn’t notice the pain, however, so intent was he on whirling around and bringing his axe about in a vicious swing. Fueled by his momentum and powerful arms, the battleaxe cut beneath the knight’s outstretched arm and slammed into its armored stomach.
Such a strike would have cleaved straight through a giant’s thigh and would have split steel in half. Gax expected this archaic black armor to crumble beneath the weight of the blow. Instead, the metal held strong. The knight was launched backward a few steps, but so too was Gax’s momentum stopped as surely as if he had struck a boulder.
“Gods!” he growled as painful vibrations wracked his body.
The knight quickly regained its composure, though as it straightened, brown ichor seeped from the bottom seam in its breastplate and down its armored thighs. Apparently Gax’s strike had damaged the thing.
“Try for a seam,” Dar said as she crept toward the knight.
The knight burst toward Gax again. Dar slipped toward its side and nearly lost her head to a crosscut as it came to a sudden stop and turned on her. She straightened just in time to leap over a cut for her ankles then landed with barely a breath before she was forced to move aside from a thrust.
Gax charged the knight with one hand gripping the haft of his axe near the blade and the other gripping the spike atop it. The knight swung toward him, its sword cutting the air with a whistle. Gax interposed his axe, the blow staggering him a few steps but not ruining his distance like it had done to Dar.
Fury and experience lent Gax tremendous speed as he let go of the top of his axe and reached out to grasp the underside of the knight’s helm. He shoved upward with all his formidable strength and stabbed his axe toward its throat. He expected the knight’s throat to be fully exposed. Rather, it resisted him with a neck as stiff as steel. The spike of his battleaxe found little purchase, the metal unable to get far as it was wedged between the helm and the breastplate.
A hollow groan escaped the creature as Dar appeared at its side and stabbed a saber into the underside of its arm. Brown ichor fell from that wound and from the small cut Gax had inflicted, dribbling down the axe. Before either of them could revel in the success of the strike, the knight’s sword sliced down for Gax’s thigh. He pressed himself close to the knight, but wasn’t quick enough and the blade scored a deep wound across the side of his leg.
Gax grunted from the pain, the sound becoming a bestial roar as he dipped low and wrapped his arms around the knight’s legs, letting his axe fall to the road. He lifted with all his strength, muscles straining and veins bulging, but found himself unable to lift the knight. It teetered back, nearly toppling, as it readied its sword for a downward thrust that would spear Gax through his spine.
A snarl of desperation and anger sounded. Dar leapt up and brought one saber in front of the knight’s throat, caught its blade with her free hand, then yanked back and let her feet fall to the road. The knight toppled, saving Gax as its arms flailed to keep balance.
Dar rolled free of the knight as it crashed down and Gax swiftly climbed up its body as if it were a ladder. He stapled its sword arm down with his leg, his knee and foot trapping it, and settled his weight down over its chest. “Kill it!” he bellowed to his companion.
Dar’s saber slid past Gax’s ear and into the side of the knight’s throat. A wet hiss sounded that became a bubbling gurgle. Rather than go slack from the mortal wound, the knight kicked its legs up and slammed Gax in the side of the head with its free arm. Gax’s impressive weight was no match for the knight’s power as it flung him away and summersaulted over its shoulders. Had Gax been inexperienced, he would have clung onto the knight and wound up trapped beneath it. Rather, he disengaged when he tipped over and scrambled to his feet.
The knight was soon to follow, but as Gax turned to snatch up his axe, his eyes lingered on a nearby building.
“The roof, Dar!” he snapped.
The elf followed his head nod then burst for the building without a second though. Gax quickly pursued, the dark knight only a few strides behind. They flew past nondescript furniture of earthen hues and found a set of stairs leading up to the roof. Dar bounded up them and Gax followed but knew the knight would catch him in the back as he went.
Gax cleared three steps in a single, spinning leap and landed facing the knight. Its sword would have stabbed him in his backside, but he parried the strike with a sweep of his axe then kicked the knight in its face. Both Gax and the knight were rocked backward, but the orc expected as much and used the momentum to backpedal up one step then turn and sprint the rest of the way up.
A swift turn in the stairs and he was at the roof. Dar waited at the top of the stairs, her sabers in hand. “I’ll draw its attention!”
Gax nodded then took up position to the side of the opening a half dozen strides from his companion. The sound of metal clanging together and striking the stone stairs echoed up from the house. The dark knight exploded out of the opening and charged for Dar. She evaded a thrust, her saber clanging off its breast. She ducked a side swipe, then flung herself to the side.
Gax dropped his axe and sprinted toward the knight then leapt into the air and became horizontal. He tucked his legs into his chest, then pumped them both out simultaneously. He caught the knight between its shoulder blades and it toppled over the side of the building and landed on the road below with a calamitous crash.
“That won’t be it!” Dar said grimly.
Gax surged to his feet, ignoring the urge to run his hand over the back of his head to check for blood from landing on the hard stone. “I know!” He nearly turned around to scoop up his axe but knew he wouldn’t have enough time to exploit the knight if he did so. “Your blade!” he snapped. Dar, ever quick to pick up on a plan, tossed him a saber before he could shut his mouth.
The orc caught the puny thing, then moved quickly to the edge of the roof. The knight was ten feet below, rising to unsteady feet. Its helm was askew and its shoulder drooped from Dar’s earlier stab. “Godsdamn me!” Gax growled as he leapt from the building.
Before the knight could whirl about, Gax fell upon it, the saber gripped in his meaty hand finding purchase in the space between its helm and breastplate and sinking to its hilt. Gax hit the road next and felt his right knee all but explode from the impact. He ignored the damage, instead focusing on the knight to ensure it was truly dead this time. It hit the road flat on its face and failed to move, its entire body slack and its sword free of its grasp.
Gax kicked out with his injured leg, striking the sword and sending it skidding away. He bellowed in pain from the movement.
“Is it dead?” called Dar from above.
Gax panted heavily, focused on the knight for a moment. “Aye,” he sighed.
“Gax, you alright?” she asked, her voice uncharacteristically filled with concern.
“Me knee. Turned to godsdamn jelly.” Gax straightened up and rolled off the knight to his backside.
“Don’t try to get up!” Dar snapped.
Gax lay on his back, staring up at the sky, his rage giving way to a throbbing ache. Dar appeared at his side a moment later, laying his axe down next to him. She bent down and inspected his knee tenderly. “Gods,” she breathed.
“That bad, is it?”
“Worse, I’d say.”
“Here, let me see it,” Gax grunted as he began to sit up. Dar quickly helped him and he reached out his hands to hold the ruined knee. Which was indeed ruined. “Shouldn’t there be a kneecap here?” he asked with a dark grin.
“Aye, there should be. Looks like you shattered it into pieces when it hit the road. Did you happen to pack a healing potion?”
“Don’t have the coin for a potion. You?”
“After this job, yeah. But I’m not sure how we’re going to manage it with your bum leg.”
“You go on, Dar. Get back to the others. Just make sure you take my share and spend the lot of it gambling.”
“Or I could help,” came a familiar voice. “Though I wouldn’t mind keeping your portion so long as I can spend it on debaucheries, too.”
Elbert stood beneath the stone awning where Gax and Dar had come into this other realm from. The wizard held his hands out and something miraculous happened. While Elbert was known to be able to conjure a gout of flame or a spear of sizzling lightning with the proper reagents, wizard talk, and a substantial stretch of time, there wasn’t a wizard alive who could create the destructive force with simple thought.
Crackling lightning arced between his hands and up his arms. Flames engulfed him next, but he stood unharmed in the conflagration. “The weave of magic here is different,” he said as the fire calmed to a slow flame that crawled across his forearms and shoulders. A wide and devious smile split his face. “I’m a god!”
“That’s good and all,” said Gax as he shifted on his seat, causing a bout of agony to wash over his leg. “But can’t a god easily magic a broken leg back together?”
Elbert’s smile never left his face as he nodded and snapped his fingers. Green tendrils of energy made up of a ghostly light extended from Elbert’s chest and swirled through the air to Gax’s knee. The magic engulfed Gax’s leg and a sensation of warmth and calm washed over him, akin to the feeling of lying down in a soft bed with fluffed pillows after an hour-long soak in a hot bath. Without a single pinprick of pain, Gax’s knee was knit back together, the many shards of bone reshaping into a proper kneecap, and so too were his other wounds healed.
Gax hopped to his feet, marveling at the strength running through his limbs. “Even better than before, huh?” asked Elbert.
“Godsdamned right.” Gax had felt the enhancing effects of a wizard’s spell before, but this was by far the greatest boon he’d ever received from a spell. He could lift a cart laden with steel armor with a single arm, he wagered.
“My question, though,” Elbert said, “is how in the hells did you shatter your knee so quickly? And what is that thing?” He pointed to the dark knight sprawled on the ground near the Gax and Dar. Dar was about to speak when Elbert raised a hand and said, “No matter. Let me try something.”
Elbert cocked his head to the side as though listening to the wind.
“A time paradox, then,” he said after a short time.
“A what now?” Gax asked. He had begun bouncing on his toes as vitality ran through him, and he found himself achieving a good height with those small hops. A mighty leap took him five feet off the ground. He shot an open-mouthed smile of surprise and joy at Dar, who shook her head with a grin at his childish behavior.
“How’d you figure that?” asked Dar, obviously educated about the subject enough not to need a lesson.
“I searched your minds and saw it. The fight with that thing too.” He nodded toward the corpse. “Formidable bastard, wasn’t he?”
“You read my mind?” asked Dar in a tone that portrayed her irritation. “Stop jumping, you oaf!” she snapped as Gax managed to leap high enough so that he could have sailed right over her head. He landed and kept both feet on the ground, for now.
“Just his,” Elbert said. Not even Gax believed him, but Dar didn’t press it. “Regardless, I was but an inch back from you two when you disappeared. In fact, you vanished a split second before I was transported here as well. I didn’t even have enough time to slow my gait after you blinked away. And yet, you’ve been here long enough to kill that thing.”
“So, time here is much slower than time back home,” Dar surmised.
“Precisely. Meaning if we’re quick enough, it might seem like we’ve only been gone for a few seconds before we return.”
“Which’ll be quick enough to stop anyone else from going through, hopefully.”
“Where do we start?”
“I saw a big fight happening at that palace,” Gax said, raising an eyebrow at Dar. “Thanks to my jumping, I did.”
“And?” asked Dar.
“And, wherever there’s a big fight, there’s someone there who knows things. We get in the palace, we find someone who can tell us how to get back home, we get Vesik’s convoy through Erstov and collect our gold. It’s like none of this happened.”
A hollow moan that quickly became a harrowing scream of rage sounded from behind Elbert. The tramp of swift footfalls came next, and the wizard whirled around. Gax, with the enhanced physical attributes provided him from Elbert’s spell of mending, was quickly at the wizard’s side, axe in hand. Down the thin, paved road that ran alongside the building he’d just minutes ago leapt off, sprinted another knight clad in the same dark, spiked armor. This one, however, held a double-bladed battleaxe that rivaled Gax’s in length and width.
Elbert thrust his hands toward the threat and frowned in concentration. Dust shot up from the road in a small circle, the odd shape causing Gax’s eyes to pop wide with confusion. The stone vibrated, sending up more gouts of dust. Small cracks appeared in a spiderweb lattice outward from a perfectly circular cut in the stone. The stone within the circle suddenly vanished as though the hand of a god had reached down and carved it with as much ease as if the material were warm clay, the stone becoming fine sand and flitting away.
The dark knight stepped over the spike buried in the road and Gax nearly let out a sigh, thinking it was meant to step on the spike and suffer some kind of damage. Rather, as soon as the knight’s body was directly over the spike, Elbert raised his hand and it shot upward from the ground like a bolt from a crossbow. Only, it was half a foot in diameter and several feet long. The spear went clean through the creature and out the top of its skull, shattering the helm like an eggshell.
The corpse dropped and Elbert relinquished control of the stone spear, letting it crash to the ground. “I might be tempted to stay here,” the wizard said, a wide smile splitting his face as he stared at the dead knight.
Gax ignored him as he held out his axe to Elbert. “Hold my battleaxe,” he said, his eyes fixed on the dark weapon near the dead knight. Elbert held the weapon steady, though his arms remained folded, his magic simply keeping the axe aloft.
Dar’s voice sounded, admonishing Elbert for thinking of staying in this dreadful place. Gax scooped up the massive axe and he gasped. It was larger than his own weapon by a substantial amount, yet the material was lighter. With its tarnished look, he wondered if it would shatter from a strike, explaining its lesser weight. He took a stance and slammed the axe down atop the corpse, brown ichor seeping from the top of its skull and from between its legs. The blade cleaved through the armor and cut the thing in two before carving through the stone ground, retaining its integrity completely.
“Gods above and devils below,” he whispered. The ground suddenly dropped out from beneath Gax’s feet. He cried out in alarm, waving his arms like some fledgling bird. “Blight and damnation!”
“Relax,” Dar said.
Gax attempted to spin toward her voice and found himself capable of doing so, despite not having pushed off anything.
Elbert was grinning at him, Gax’s battleaxe floating alongside him. “This will be much faster and more direct than walking.”
The trio shot through the air like a volley of arrows. Wind whipped past them, making it difficult to keep their eyes open for long. Still, Gax saw a titanic creature raging on the other side of the city. It was a tall, bipedal thing, with gangly limbs and a featureless face, void of a mouth even. Large veins stuck out across its pale, naked body, wiry muscles bulging as it smashed away at defenders clad in dark steel. Purple accents ran along its body and up its neck to its oblong yet perfectly shaped head in geometric patterns, giving it an unnatural look.
“Godsdamn this cursed place,” Gax cursed.
The palace loomed ever closer as they flew toward it. A mass of creatures had piled up at the base of the palace, writhing over one another as they tried to advance only for their progress to be halted by some invisible force. Elbert thrust his hand out as they neared the palace and the air shimmered before the trio in a wavering circle. They careened through that portal without being hindered like those below.
A behemoth of a man clad in rust-colored armor rushed out from the palace gate and crashed into the invaders, its gargantuan sword cleaving ten at a time. Flaming arrows arced down from the top of the wall, shot by skeletons with twisted horns of bone spiraling from their skulls. Gax looked up from the macabre melee to see a dozen undead archers arrayed on a balcony near them. They nocked as a unit and their wickedly pronged arrows suddenly burst into flame, their aim trained on Gax and his companions.
“Elbert!” Gax wailed as the skeletons loosed their arrows.
With a wave of his hand, the wizard turned the arrows around and propelled them with deadly force back into the faces of the archers. Skulls exploded in a glorious display of bone shards and sparks.
The trio swooped upward along the side of the palace’s main spire, reaching the top with miraculous speed. They landed on a sweeping balcony with a tall stone rail inlaid with decorative copper swirls. The bone-white marble floor displayed a pattern of grey wavering tendrils reaching out from a central circle of red. Dragon head statues jutted out of the smooth stone wall to either side of the wide opening that led into the palace, the threshold molded with copper.
“If not for all that down there,” said Elbert, hitching his thumb over his shoulder, “I might be tempted to stay here for good.”
“My guess is that most things here are dead,” said Dar. “While you may be able to harness the power of the magic here like a god, I’m sure you’d quickly follow suit.”
“Axrom’s balls,” Gax breathed, squinting at something inside the palace. “Do you two see that?”
Within the palace spire were two statues of immaculate detail. Candelabra and torches blazed around the statue at the far end of the chamber, raised up on a platform with a copper grate stretched in front of it, the thin metal woven into a floral pattern that partially obscured the construct. The other sat before the erect statue, a polearm twice as long as Gax was tall gripped in one hand, the butt of it against the floor. While both had been cast from solid, gleaming silver, this one also had a cape of crimson cloth draping from its shoulders.
“I’ve a feeling that’s the way we need to go,” Gax said, “though my gut tells me we’re going to regret it.”
“Your gut forgets things,” Elbert said arrogantly as he strode forward, walking on the air with his boots three inches from the floor in a show of power.
The pang of dread in Gax’s stomach failed to dissipate.
Vaulted ceilings and sweeping beams drew Gax’s gaze upward as they entered, demonic creatures of copper with draconic heads perched against the concave wall near its top. Archaic stonework and gold fixtures decorated the interior, masterfully crafted with exquisite detail.
A chill wind blew through the opening and ruffled the cape of the statue posed before the construct of silver behind the copper grate. The rest of the seated statue seemed to waver as well, silver armor plates trimmed in gold and copper shifting. The illusion quickly melted away as Gax realized the statue was not at all an inanimate thing. The creature rose to its full ten-foot height silently and fluidly with all the grace of a master dancer giving their best performance.
The trio halted as surely as if they had slammed into a wall, Elbert’s bravado dying as he sank back to the floor. The armored figure resembled one of the dark knights they had encountered before, though this one’s armor was pristine and shone like the sun from the many flames flickering within the palace. Its helm was a sleek thing with twisting horns of smooth metal that transitioned from silver to black so seamlessly that Gax couldn’t tell where one color ended and the other began.
It pivoted toward the trio, barely a rustle sounding. Gax noticed another figure behind the creature as it spun.
“You mind killing that thing?” Dar asked with gritted teeth.
“No need to be hasty,” Elbert said with a confidence he didn’t truly feel.
Pitch black eyeholes stared the trio down. Gax would have preferred to see glowing red snake eyes to the empty voids that pierced him. The creature standing behind the impeccable knight glided around it to peer at them as well.
It was humanoid as far as Gax could tell, though its flowing, white dress hid its lower half, making its oddly smooth movements all the more intriguing. It stood as tall as Gax and seemed female from its facial features, though its chest was flat. Black tendrils, reminding Gax of thin vines, sprouted from the thing’s skull then stretched backward and floated in the air, ending in a point. Emerald eyes flashed as it raised a rail-thin arm toward them and pointed with slender fingers tipped in black talons.
Words poured from its open mouth, but the language was alien. It was clear, though, that it pointed at Elbert.
“How about now?” asked Dar, her voice dripping with condescension.
“Aye,” agreed Gax.
“Well met,” Elbert began, the octave of his voice deeper but hollow with fear.
Before he could utter another word, the silver statue behind the copper grate crumbled as surely as if it was sand. The knight blocked much of his view of the spectacle, but Gax saw the silver give way to flesh that looked all too familiar. The human’s eyes seemed alive for a moment, stricken with terror as they darted around the chamber. Then the flesh melted away as well, muscle and bone and blood cascading down to splatter on the floor.
“Okay, now,” Elbert said, his voice returned to its normal tenor.
Lightning exploded from Elbert’s outstretched hands toward the knight. It swiftly took up its spear and held it aloft as though to stop the lightning, and it surely did. Though, the sparks and bolts transformed from electric energy to a swirling blue and white mass of smoke. Elbert allowed the magic to die, likely preparing another tactic.
The blue smoke failed to dissipate, however, and the knight thrust his spear toward Elbert. The swirling energy became a column that shot forward and engulfed Elbert. Gax and Dar dove in opposite directions to avoid the smoke. When they stood and looked at their companion, they watched in horror as the final whisps of the maelstrom forced its way into his open mouth and nostrils.
Elbert’s body expanded and his face stretched. Then, he blew apart into tatters and blue smoke. The entire display vanished, leaving Gax’s battleaxe on the floor. A flash of movement caught the orc’s attention from above the head of the implacable knight.
Elbert was now behind the copper grate, still as a statue, though his body had not yet turned to silver. The rail-thin creature next to the knight lifted off the floor to float silently toward the grate. Beneath the hem of its dress dangled wavering, black tentacles like those that took the place of hair, though much wider. It reached the grate and passed right through the copper as though it was an illusion.
Before Gax and Dar could stare in horror any longer, the knight swept its spear out to the side and crouched, then leapt toward the orc. Gax was stunned by the distance the creature covered. His warrior instincts prepared him to move, though. The knight brought its spear up so that it could pierce it down through Gax’s chest. The orc dove away and forward just a moment before the spear came down.
Marble shattered and bits of dust and debris peppered Gax. Despite the stinging shards and the calamitous sound that came from the knight’s impact, Gax quickly surged to his feet and was already in a half spin to bring his new axe around. The blade caught the knight in the side, but only scored a glancing blow as it danced away, recovering from its strike far quicker than Gax thought possible. Still, the axe blade cleaved through the immaculate armor and dark fluid oozed out from the cut.
Dar flanked the knight, keeping her distance from its far-reaching spear. Gax circled toward its side as it stood impassively in a crouch. If they could close the distance to it and ruin its effectiveness with the spear, they might be able to dismantle it. Dar nodded at Gax as though reading his mind, then dashed forward.
The knight turned toward Dar and lashed out with a low sweep that she leapt over. Gax charged at its back with the intent to sever its body in half at the hips. Those thoughts flew from him as the butt of the knight’s spear shot back and caught him in the chest, the force like that of a battering ram used to bust down a portcullis. The next few moments became a blur of reaction and desperation.
Gax, still unable to draw in breath and wanting nothing more than to crumble to the ground, was forced to dive aside and scramble on his back while Dar implored all manner of evasive movements to keep away from the splayed tip of that wicked spear. It became apparent to both combatants that they were sorely outmatched and would soon end up dead.
Dar parried a spear thrust then was flung several feet into the air as the knight swept the polearm toward her. She landed near Gax as he stood, the elf managing to stay upright on nimble feet. “Run!” Gax barked at her.
The pair sprinted toward the balcony, giving the knight a wide berth but expecting it to leap at them and crash down atop their heads. Rather, it watched them go solemnly. They reached the empty balcony and spun toward the knight to see its billowing cape as it marched toward the statue of Elbert then dropped to a seated position, its spear held out to the side with the butt of it on the floor.
“Hells below!” Dar growled.
“Blight!” Gax agreed. “Thinking we could trick it the same way as the last one.”
“Aye. Except that fall would have been enough to finish it.”
“We’ve got to get Elbert out of there.” The white-clad creature was rotating around him, a silver glow emanating from it while its hands weaved an intricate pattern before the still man. “You saw it go right through the grate?”
“Magic, I’m sure. Snowball’s chance in the hells it would work the same way for us. See those stairs to either side of the room?” Gax followed her pointed swords and nodded. “They might go around and down then meet before descending to a lower level. That new axe of yours can probably cleave through the stonework behind Elbert. Might be enough to disrupt that blighting thing from doing its work and break Elbert from his paralysis.”
Gax leapt into the air, managing to get his feet up to Dar’s chin. “It’s wearing off,” he said as she shot him a befuddled look.
“Hells. And could be that the stairs cut back before they reach the rear wall to the sanctum Elbert’s in. Or that they just weave straight away to another room lower down.”
“Ain’t no chance of me getting any work done on the wall with that blighter on my tail, too.”
“Alright, then. I’ll draw its attention down the stairs. Hopefully they lead in a circle and I can just come up the other side. You follow once we’ve gone down and bust open the wall.”
“If the stairs don’t lead in a circle?”
“We’ll have to figure it out as we go. Worst case scenario, we find ourselves in a different chamber with more of those metal bastards, and we most certainly wind-up dead.”
“So not much worse than what we’re used to.”
“Though if we die here, who’s to say we’ll end up in the realms of our gods? Could be they don’t exist on this plane.”
Gax fell silent.
“No, we should be fine,” Dar said with a vindictive smile. “Let’s just not die, huh?”
“I’m a dumb idiot for taking this job.”
“Glad you agree. Come on.”
With that, Dar surged into the palace and toward the set of stairs to the left. Dar was several steps into the chamber when the knight leapt to its feet and spun toward her. It was off like a bowshot and Gax realized it would beat her to the stairs. He began to give chase, but his elf companion was prepared for this.
The knight went into a long skid, its armored feet screeching as they slid across the marble, and thrust out its spear. Dar threw herself to the floor and went beneath the polearm then right down the stairs, orienting herself upright so she was on the move immediately. The knight pursued her with such speed and efficiency that Gax’s guts churned in fear that she would be easily caught and skewered.
Gax shoved aside the terror and burst into a sprint, his speed enhanced by the lingering effects of Elbert’s spell. It was a good thing the wizard felt the need to show off his newfound wizard abilities. The orc flew past the railing of thick stone and followed the curving stairway, taking several steps at a time. The stairs descended slowly, each step quite short. He rounded the bend of the wall and saw a landing that began another set of stairs down into the room directly below this one. On the other side of the landing was the other set of stairs that led back up to the room he’d come from.
The orc silently thanked Axrom for their luck, then looked up the curving stone wall to the point where he believed Elbert was. He leapt into the air a dozen steps away from the landing and swung his axe with all his might. The black blade pulverized stone and showered Gax in debris. He landed on the other set of stairs, slamming his shin into the edge of one and cutting a deep gash through his green skin.
He ignored the pain and looked up at the wall to see a deep crater in the stone, but nothing else. Either he’d struck too low, or the stone was thicker than he’d thought.
Dar’s voice cried out to him in alarm. He nearly shot up the stairs to go to her aid but a metallic clang with a steady rhythm stopped him. “Run!” he heard Dar shout over the din.
Gax turned just as he glimpsed the knight’s spear poking out from around the winding staircase. He’d never make it up the other side of the stairs before the knight reached him, and fighting such a skilled creature with a superior weapon at such a disadvantage would certainly mean his doom.
The orc hit the landing then turned and vaulted down the stairs to the lower chamber. He barely had time to take in the layout of the room before the knight leapt down the stairs after him. What he did see, however, sent a shockwave of terror through him. Numerous creatures like the one above working its magic on Elbert were assembled near the ceiling where a large, blue crystal jutted downward from.
“Dar!” Gax boomed as he parried a thrust. The knight shortened up his next attack, Gax again parrying it out to the side, but the following stab came in so much quicker that he didn’t have time to sweep his axe back the other way. He lunged to the side, the spear tip catching his chest then ripping a deep furrow through the muscle as he spun away.
A bestial roar exploded from the orc as he drove past the retreating spear to foil the advantage its reach afforded. Gax stabbed his own axe out to impale the knight on its tip, but the creature was too quick and leaped backward. The fury drained from Gax as he realized he would likely die before he scored another strike on this creature.
Dar burst into the chamber lit entirely by torches and candelabra, her eyes darting to the display on the ceiling. “Gax, break the crystal!” she shouted as she rushed toward the knight to buy the orc time.
“I just got this thing!” Gax griped, though he was already turning to locate the crystal. Nearly a dozen sets of tentacles wavered methodically around the large crystal, their heads a handspan from touching the ceiling. Fifteen feet separated Gax from the tip of the crystal, its surface shining brightly from the magic the creatures poured into it. Pounding footsteps sounded from behind Gax and he knew the knight was closing on him, privy to their plan and apparently able to understand it.
Gax hustled to get just beneath the crystal and touched one axe blade to the ground. With a shout he heaved the weapon upward and let go as his arms reached shoulder height, muscles and veins bulging from the strength he poured into the toss. He wanted to watch the weapon connect and shatter the crystal, but he knew the knight would run him through before that happened. The orc dove to the side and rolled twice before rising.
The knight stood where he had been a moment ago, retracting its spear then turning toward the oncoming elf. The axe had struck true and a brilliant shower of golden sparks cascaded down from the crystal, along with the broken axe, bathing the dimly lit room in the light of ten suns. The creatures floating above them screeched in unison and Gax’s heart soared at their dismay. The victory proved short-lived, however, as the knight caught the falling axe in his free hand and oriented it so the remaining blade could be put to use. The creatures at the ceiling continued their work on the cracked, but still very much so intact, crystal.
“Blight!” Gax cursed before charging the knight.
Dar tried to reverse her momentum before reaching the creature, but it stomped toward her with a thrust of its spear followed by a sweep of its axe. The elf slapped at the weapons with her twin sabers and twisted aside or ducked, the weapons coming dangerously close to killing her each time. Gax knew now how effective this creature was at fighting multiple combatants, so expected the spear thrust that came.
He twisted aside from it and raised his arm but continued to barrel in. “Dar, get its wound!” he shouted as he clamped his arm over the spear haft and gripped the knight’s wide wrist with his meaty hand. Sparks exploded and a loud crunch sounded as the knight shot its head forward to connect with Gax’s nose. To let go of the spear was to die. His barely conscious mind realized as much, so despite the pain and vertigo that overcame him, he maintained his hold on the knight.
It lurched to the side as Dar slid a saber between the break in its armor Gax had made earlier, sinking it to its hilt. The momentary reprieve was enough for Gax to regain his wits and continue his maneuver. With the last remnants of Elbert’s spell still coursing through his body, lending him enhanced strength, Gax pulled as hard as he could on the knight’s arm and leaned back as though he sought to plant himself on the back of his head. As he did so, he stomped his right foot out and caught the instep of the knight’s leg as it shot forward to keep its balance.
Gax landed on his back as the knight toppled forward, landing on its knees. It dropped the broken axe as it arrested its fall. Gax cursed, his hopes that the creature would release the spear instead dashed. Before Gax could begin to rise, the knight clambered over him as swift as a spider and brought its spear over its head in a two-handed grip.
“Gax!” Dar screamed as the spear came down. The orc twisted aside and the spear pulverized stone. But then it cut across and the blade was digging into the side of his neck. His hands shot up and grabbed the spear, speed and strength borne from his will to survive while on the precipice of death. The knight would surely win this contest if nothing stopped it and his head would be slowly shorn from his shoulders. Thank Axrom, Dar was there to stab it repeatedly in its side.
The knight hitched further sideways with each strike and Gax began to overpower it, pushing the blade out of his neck and away from his body. The knight let go of the spear with one hand and struck Dar with the back of its balled fist, sending the elf careening, head over heels, to slam down on the marble floor and slide a dozen feet into the wall.
Gax loosed a bestial roar as he lifted his hips and rolled over his shoulder while pushing the knight’s arm out. It flipped over onto its back. Gax slid his knee across its inner thigh to move to its side, stood, then slammed his boot down into its armpit as he twisted and yanked on the spear. The weapon came free from the knight’s grasp. Gax spun it into position as the knight surged to its feet, then drove it clean through the creature.
The knight stopped as surely as if it had struck a stone ceiling while trying to stand, its faceplate just inches from Gax’s nose. He saw through the eyeholes to a desiccated form with sunken, yellow eyes and skin the color of ash. With another shout, Gax kicked the creature in the chest and sent it onto its back.
He turned to rush to Dar, but she was already on her feet, holding her chest with a feeble grip, blood dribbling from her mouth. “Hells below!” the orc hissed.
Dar’s eyes were wide and shocked, like that of a deer that had been shot through the side and was approaching death as the hunter responsible brought a knife to its throat. Gax began to go to her but her gaze flicked to something behind the orc and he knew what she was looking at. He spun to see the knight stiffly rising.
“The crystal,” Dar wheezed, her voice bubbling.
Gax bounded to the axe and scooped it from the floor then repeated the throw, desperation lending his arms superb strength. The axe blade struck the crystal and it exploded into a sea of sparks that shamed the last explosion. The axe was engulfed by the eruption and vaporized. The crystal shattered into a thousand pieces that dissipated into smoke before they struck the ground. The creatures whirling about it darted away, half of their bodies burned, limbs missing, white bone showing, black blood and screams pouring from them.
The knight remained unaffected as it stood fully and grasped its spear. Gax charged toward it and leapt into the air to strike it with both feet. It toppled to the floor, but Gax knew it would be up soon. He surged to his feet and bounded toward his friend, scooped her into his arms and sprinted up the stairs to the above chamber.
Elbert was walking toward the balcony when Gax crested the stairs, his arm outstretched. A few feet before his clawed hand floated the creature that had been performing its spell on him, its body flailing in agony. Its hands grasped its head and, as Gax moved closer, he soon found out why. Elbert’s fingers worked in the air like those of a demented flute player. Each time a finger snapped inward, a hole opened in the creature’s skull from which blood oozed.
The wizard’s face was twisted with rage and hatred. He didn’t even notice Gax when the orc shouldered him, though the strike didn’t move Elbert in the least, his power keeping him as steady as a rooted tree. “Elbert!” Gax shouted. The wizard took no notice. Gax looked down to his companion to see her retching blood and convulsing, the whites of her eyes showing. “Elbert!” the orc roared. Still, the wizard ignored him. “You blighting whoreson!”
Gax gently laid Dar on the floor, telling her it would be alright though he knew she couldn’t hear him. He stood and darted to his axe, which lay on the floor a few strides away. Once in hand, he flew toward the floating creature that was being tortured to death and severed it clean in two at its waist. Dead, it slipped from Elbert’s grasp and the two halves flopped to the floor.
“I wasn’t finished!” Elbert bellowed.
Gax whirled on him with a furious snarl. Elbert raised his hand above his head and lightning began to crackle between his fingertips. “She’s dying!” Gax roared above the popping.
Elbert followed the orc’s pointed finger to see Dar lying on the floor, a small pool of blood forming around her mouth. The power and fury drained from the mad wizard at the sight.
“Fix her, godsdamnit,” Gax growled. “Fix her or I’ll cut your blighting head off!”
Elbert ignored Gax yet again, but this time, it was because he was deep into his spellcasting. Green tendrils of light flowed outward from the man and enveloped Dar. A blinding white light built in intensity until Gax had to turn away. Its warmth spread over him as well and the wound in his chest and neck healed. When the glow diminished enough for him to look back, Dar was rising to her feet, blood still coating her face and hair, but no longer pouring from her mouth.
Dar immediately looked at Gax and a wan smile broke across her face. The orc dropped his axe and thundered into his elf friend, crushing her in a tight hug that she returned, the two leaning into one another. It was rare for the duo to show their familial love to one another. But for the longest time, they’d only had each other to depend upon. Gax couldn’t fathom losing her, and he needed her to know that.
“Friends,” Elbert said after a moment in an alarmed tone.
The two companions let go of one another and looked toward the stairs to see the knight marching up them, spear in hand, brown ichor dribbling from the hole in its chest.
“Elbert, you can get us out of here?” Dar asked.
The wizard nodded. “No way I’m throwing lightning at that thing again.”
The trio hustled to the balcony while the knight returned to its station before the empty and broken sanctum which had nearly been Elbert’s eternal home. Elbert bewitched them with the gift of flight and they were off into the dusky sky.
“Gax,” the wizard hollered over the din of the whipping wind. “I’m sorry for back there.”
The orc glared at Elbert. “Blighting wizards. Magic always turns you all mad.”
Elbert nodded somberly, unable to argue the point.
“What happened?” asked Dar.
“Nothing,” Gax said. “You know a way out of here?” he asked Elbert.
“Aye,” said the wizard.
“How?” asked Dar.
“When I was… unconscious, it was like they were tuning me into the world.” Befuddled stares fell over the man. “Like, if the world was covered in a spider web and the spiders needed that web to get around and draw power from, I was the web and those creatures were the spiders. They’re the natives of Erstov and the things that created all the dead here.” Elbert paused for a moment, his eyes going glassy and his head shaking slowly. “There was so much more to learn and piece together. It was a maelstrom I had only just begun to unravel…
“But I’m thankful to you both for saving me.” Elbert’s gaze lingered on Gax longest, a sincere nod coming from the wizard. “Here we are,” he said after a time of flying above the buildings.
The trio alit on the ground near the corpse Gax had made of the first knight. “We already tried going back through that way,” Dar said, nodding toward the wide awning and its support beam.
“Not like this, you didn’t,” Elbert said as he crouched and placed his fingertips on the ground, his eyes shutting. A flare of soft, blue light from the place they had entered this other realm from bathed the trio. “Walk through the same way that got us in here,” Elbert added as he rose, maudlin.
“You’re going to miss this, huh?” Dar asked.
Elbert looked at his hands as if they were made of gold. “A bit, aye. There’s nothing here for me, though. Just, you know, the power of the gods at my disposal. But otherwise, this is just a destitute and dreary realm. Those creatures can keep it.”
“Blight and damnation!” came a deep and shocked voice. The trio whirled toward it to see Urgric standing beneath the awning, his wide eyes casting about the new realm.
“Nope!” Gax barked as he walked over and grabbed the dark-skinned orc by his biceps. “I’ll make it real simple for you. This place is cursed. Grorark!” he added, using the orcish term for a place of unholy and malevolent spirits that should be avoided at all costs.
“Grorark?” Urgric asked, one eyebrow raised skeptically. “But we just got here. How can you know that?”
“We’ve been her for the better part of an hour. Elbert can shoot lightning and fire out his arse with a snap of his fingers, my knee exploded, and Dar died, or nearly so. And there’s dead things everywhere. Like that…” Gax pointed off down the street where the second knight had come charging from only to be killed by Elbert’s magic. Far away, over the tops of buildings, was the titanic creature still smashing through the city. “Grorark. Grorark a thousand times over.”
Urgric looked back at Elbert with a frown.
“It’s true,” the wizard said, waving his hand toward a nearby building. The structure cracked and crumbled in a matter of moments, no more than a pile of rubble and dust all from a wave of Elbert’s hand. Across the rubble, stood two knights clad in dark armor and a dozen feral creatures that resembled hairless apes with wide maws of bristling fangs.
Urgric looked from his godly companion to the creatures staring at them from the other side of the building, then to Gax. “Grorark!” he agreed with a fervent nod of his head.
“Aye, now don’t tell the convoy. Not a word of this when we get back.”
“Let’s go now, before those things rip our heads off,” said Dar as she urged the orcs forward.
“We can wait a minute while I deal with them,” Elbert pleaded.
“No!” Dar snapped. “Now, you dumb idiot!”
Elbert huffed but marched after the trio as they entered the shimmering portal. Before Gax went through, he saw Elbert flick his hand toward the oncoming creatures and a massive fan of flames washed out toward them. Beastly screams filled the air, then he was back in Erstov with the convoy to his left. His friends materialized immediately afterward.
“Blight me!” one of the rogues shouted.
“What?” Vesik snapped, only a step further along the road then when Gax had gone through to the other realm.
“They just blinked away and popped back!” the man was pointing toward Gax and his companions. “You saw that, right?” he asked the woman next to him, tugging on her elbow.
She glared at her fellow and yanked her elbow away. “No. I wasn’t watching them.”
“I think I saw it,” chimed another.
“Gax?” Vesik barked, eyeing him suspiciously. “Anything you should tell me?”
The orc looked around at his companions sheepishly, then back to Vesik. “Not a thing. They’re just spooked, is all,” he said.
“Right, then. Move it,” Vesik said, glaring at his company.
Gax waited near the awning and fervently urged people to stay well clear of it, telling them there was an evil magic within the house.
Minutes later, as the company was moving through a large plaza, a worried voice called out. “Penaras? Anyone seen penaras?”
Gax and Dar shared a look then turned to Elbert and Urgric. “Blight!” Gax hissed.