I remembered Bert Askew cackling as he told us about the abilities of the soul eater during one of his interminable lectures. “When they’ve deprived you of all your wisdom,” he leered, “that’s when they suck up your soul!”
And that’s what they were doing to me, I felt myself grow woozy, my thoughts unravel. But whatever my problems were, they were far worse for Sizzles who, with a low moan, fell unconscious to the floor. Knowing that the best way to protect her was to kill the creatures before they could drain her life force, Cane and I softened them up for Trask to kill.
Being unable to revive the unconscious Sizzles and unwilling to leave her behind, Cane carried her around his neck like a big fur collar. Perhaps I only imagined that I could hear her purring.
We had three doors to search, Cane checking for traps as we entered the first one. There was a shoulder-height stone bench against the far wall. Apparently, this chamber was used to prepare the dead for internment, littered with stone vases and bronze funerary tools. A man-sized statue of a swayback humanoid, hand clamped over his single eye, stood morosely against the north wall. Cane set Sizzles down gently.
“A brain-poker,” Trask said cheerfully, picking a device with a sharp round prod at one end. (“Worth about 350 gold,” I imagined Bert Askew saying, rubbing his hands with glee.)
Behind a secret door we found another empty room, walls patterned with large staring eyes, all honing onto one spot on the north wall where a carving of a giant stylized eye loomed, the pupil an intricately engraved relief about the size of the palm of my hand.
We studied it for some time, even dangling the bracelet in front of it. We could tell that strong conjuration magic was emanating from there but we eventually admitted defeat, reluctantly leaving it for a later time.
We returned to the larger room, searching its alcoves carefully in growing frustration. “Vordakai come out!” Lev shouted, voice echoing unanswered in the darkness
Behind yet another door we found a tunnel rank with the stench of sulfur and tar, leading to a fetid lake of burning black tar. In the gloom I could see milky water bubbling from the rock walls of the far side where a stony shelf emerged beneath a door swollen in its frame. The broken stumps of two support posts protruded where a wooden bridge once spanned the morass.
On the ledge an ancient zombie wizard stood—human, its flesh foul and blackened by the room’s vapors, standing motionless, wearing tatters of robes, jaw slack, holding in its fist a curved knife.
“I don’t suppose you could lower a cage for us, sir?” Cane called, setting Sizzles down. He and Trask unlimbered their longbows, raining a terrible storm of arrows upon the hapless creature. Shredded like Opparan beef, it toppled headlong into the tarpit.
Thanks to his ring of freedom of movement Cane was able to ignore the clinging effect of the boiling tar—if not its burning—to quickly retrieve the zombie’s corpse, returning with it to the ledge where it had stood for so long. It carried:
• +1 silver daggerWith a howl of glee Trask loped to the edge of the tar and flung himself across, landing atop the zombie and causing its intestines to squirt like snot out of Little Billee’s nose. Cane then carried the rest of us across, including his beloved wolf, still unconscious.
• +2 ring of protection
• book in tar-stained pouch
Behind them was a large chamber where shadows vied for attention with a scene of carnage so gruesome that, dear Pino, I pause here to remind myself that it is my duty to inform you of the horror that inhabits our world, so that you may be better prepared for life in this world when I'm no longer here to protect you.
A great stone table occupied the center of the room, seated around it were nearly three dozen men, women, and children slumped in their death throes, mouths agape in terror, heads broken open and their brains removed, all that’s left of the poor citizenry of Varnhold, their rigor jaws screaming one word:
At the head of the table was a regally dressed gentleman, heavy gouts of dried blood staining his jacket and pieces of his brain, one eye looking bemused, as if he was about to ask a question, the other hanging forlornly from his head. On his hand an ornate ring with an emblem that I recognized as the state seal of Varnhold. He was the honorable Maegar Varn. Who, or what, brought them here? Does Xamanthe know?
That’s when we noticed there were zombies in the house.
Vlad quickly blessed us as we moved to confront them. I shot one but by then he was at me, chopping away with his honking big great-axe. If it’d had lips it would have smacked them with anticipation. I could hear Lev telling us how wonderful we were from the alcove. “Believe in yourselves,” he called just as a second cyclops closed in on me, growling through rotted vocal cords. “I’ll be able to do more soon,” Lev added helpfully.
Trask filled one of them with arrows and Cane finished him. Vlad cast holy smite, blinding a couple of them.
“Poppa poppa oom mow mow poppa oom mow mow mow!” Trask yelled with excitement. "Bird bird bird, bird is the word!" he continued inexplicably. “I have heard that the bird is the word!”
I hit the one who had wounded me while moving under cover from the other at my colleagues’ urging. Three more of the creatures lurched toward Cane who was badly injured, reeling from his wounds.
I killed one, his flesh soft, putrid, in my grasp, immediately piercing another one with an arrow. Cane fought back furiously as Trask’s arrows severed one cyclops zombie's medulla oblongata neatly, horizontally and vertically. “That’s why they call me the black bisector,” he bragged while his eyes searched the room for other targets.
The tide of the battle quickly turned in our favor and soon the room was dead quiet again except for the sound of Vlad’s healing prayers. I reflected on the nature of a being that could direct such carnage. Oh Pino, I have fought many dangerous and powerful creatures, both human and otherwise, and I've walked in the land of the dead with the queen of Korvosa, but for once I can honestly say: I am afraid.
Cane must feel the same way because I saw him tense as his skin turned rough and bark-like, like a cat fluffs its tail. I've never seen him do that except when Sizzles needs a scratching post when molting.
We entered a crypt next, floor strewn with rubble and the offal of open graves. On the floor was a corpse of a middle-aged blond-haired ulfen man, dead nearly two weeks. But his spirit remained as an angry dark spectre that charged us in fury. We sent him to his ancestors.
|Thanks to Paizo|
“Bleeargh!” A water elemental erupted from its depths, flinging itself at us like the proverbial surfin’ bird. Fire and searing light quickly tamed its roiling waves and soon we were immersed in warm steam. There we paused.
Vordakai, I promise you one thing only—Justice!
Sleep peacefully sweet princess,
*The Cyclops Polyphemus—Annibale Carracci