Well, I died again. Yes, your dear uncle departed this life for a second time, although I was called back almost before I’d left my body. Still, it’s left me dazed just when I most need my wits about me. Dear girl, if I never see you again remember the lessons I’ve tried, in my inadequate way, to teach. And obey your Mother. In the end (with me gone) she is the only one who truly cares for you, no matter what others say. Just act like every man you meet is like Little Billee in his heart and there will be no misunderstandings.
We considered resting for a moment before entering the caves but if the barbarians’ really have acquired Armag’s sword there is no time for that.
Somehow, at that very moment, a message arrived by crow from Bert Askew. Startled, I recognized the bird as the very same raven that has been following us around since the beginning of our adventure. The one called Stack-o-lee.
Unrolling the paper affixed to the bird’s leg I read Bert’s words to the others—it was as if he were standing here with us. “You guys remember what this ritual is about, eh?” the note started.
“The chief of this barbarian tribe becoming an ancient deity,” Cane mocked.
“Oh, yeah, we probably don’t want that to happen,” Trask agreed, shrugging.
I continued reading. “This, this Tiger Lord is trying to complete some sort of test that will make him the reincarnation of this ancient hero who was favored of Gorum. . . .”
“Gorum doesn’t sound like a good god to me,” Trask grumbled.
As you’ve undoubtedly read in class, dear Pino, Gorum is “a god of battle above all other pursuits; it is said that if there is ever a time with no more conflicts to be fought, he would rust away into nothingness. Known as the Lord in Iron, his faithful believe he is present in every iron weapon of war that is forged.”*
“I think you transported the girls,” Askew’s message went on accusingly. I felt a pang of gratitude for little old Bert, who has assumed we haven’t gotten most of the hostages killed. I read on. “I hope you dumbasses haven’t just hidden them away nearby.”
“Oopsie,” I breathed.
“They’ll be raped and killed by the time you get back!”
“He’s right, you know,” Lev sighed. “OK, forget about resting.”
“Let’s go,” Cane laughed. “I’m always for charging in ill-prepared.”
“And I can always run away,” Lev muttered to no one in particular.
We peered into the dark cave for a moment and, after a quick prayer to Erastil, stepped inside. Cane cast dark vision, taking the point while I made my first mistake by not casting light and so I stumbled along in the wake of the others—as if hiding in the dark would give me advantage!
Three alabaster statues of well-proportioned men stood along the western wall of the large square chamber, each frozen in war-like pose. By their markings I saw they were Kellid barbarians. As you should have learned by now the Kellid’s are of the frigid north and so considered tougher than their southern cousins. I only wish Piea were here to dissuade them of this foolish notion, after all, the great Szechuan is of the south. Finding no traps, we eyed the statues mistrustfully and, sure enough, as we entered the large chamber we heard a deep rumbling sound from behind—our exit was blocked.
“Something is very wrong here,” Lev said as an unnatural hush blanketed the gloom and the rotten smell of desecration filled the air. A chill crawled up my spine as I recognized the throaty laugh behind us—Lily!
“I’m surprised,” Cane frowned, “but not surprised about being surprised.”
“It’s a celebration,” Trask agreed.
“Party time!” Cane raised his sword as Trask lifted his bow with a whoop, releasing a bevy of long shafts.
Like a boy in a schoolyard brawl I attacked the first one I could reach. “Justice!” I cried, slashing at the demon while a wave of fear—easily dismissed—swept over me. I imagined that I heard Bert Askew shrilly castigating me. “You’re not fighting any better than that damned housecat of Cane’s!” he seemed to taunt. What hurt is that he was right. I fought like a man in a dream.
And then there was Lily. Remember, dear Pino, love is a two-edged sword—it cuts both ways and in this case love fully intended to cut off my head. I glimpsed Lily through the dim light leering eagerly as she urged her demons on.
From behind a priestess of Gyronna grasped me with icy-cold hand, her touch nearly paralyzing me as I fell to one knee, striking back desperately, my blows doing little harm. I shrank away in horror as she leaned over with a kiss, cold as death, sickening me physically and emotionally. As you know, priestesses of Gyronna are women who have been wronged in the most brutal manner. Their ferocity is fueled by lust for revenge. They are damaged souls who have given their hearts to a dark mistress, one I've vowed to oppose. As a man I cannot judge them but as Inquisitor of Erastil I must.
I saw little of the battle after that although I heard Trask jeer, “Come back when you’re over 16,” as Lily escaped onto another plane. Meanwhile, Vlad was trying to keep me alive. For a moment I thought I was returning to Pharasma but then hen I heard the grating voice of Bert Askew from above me.
“You didn’t set Lily on this course, Nimrod!” it hectored.
“I know—I didn’t actually throw that fireball,” I began before he cut me off.
“She had already joined a cult of Gyronna!” he shouted, as I felt myself turning back. “That’s why you were investigating her!”
“Lily killed me?” I moaned as my spirit returned.
“Hey, you’re the one who jilted her!” Trask grumbled from across the room.
“That’s right!” Cane remembered. “We let off a fireball in the middle of them.”
“Let’s not say ‘we.’ Trask objected and in truth he’d not joined us yet.
Vlad used breath of life to bring me back but my testing was not yet done for the priestess of the Hag of Steel pursued me single-mindedly as I desperately crawled on my belly like a reptile.
“I live!” I croaked in defiance as she reached for me. Desperately I swung my sword from the ground. “Justice!” I spat as I severed her at the ankles and she fell squealing to the ground. I watched her eyes dull, feeling her spirit move past me, free at last and—I pray to Erastil—bound for a better place.
The room fell quiet. When I looked around I saw that we’d been victorious after all. But we’d suffered quite a drubbing for what may have had nothing to do with the Tiger Lords, but merely part of Lily’s design for me.
“What did his whore have on her?” Cane asked brutally, glaring at me.
“She’s not here. She disappeared.”
Cane snorted his disgust as he called his giant housecat to him, walking to the next set of doors, which opened without complaint. There we found four huge boulders, each larger than the previous. In the darkness beyond four steps rose toward another set of iron doors. In each step was a large round depression, growing progressively larger and deeper.
Cane flexed his muscles expansively, ripping the shoulder of his jerkin but Trask declined to help, sniffing, “I’ve got delicate hands.”
“I’ll help,” I offered stepping forward.
All I can remember of the next twenty minutes is the agony of being rolled over repeatedly by all sizes of boulders before we finally got the last one into its snuggie. Then Cane reached for the door, which thankfully opened.
In this room was a giant iron plate with a large iron wheel embedded in its middle. At each corner iron weapons had been forged into huge columns holding up the ceiling. Searching the room for traps we determined that the iron plate served as the pressure plate for some infernal trap.
Trask tried leaping directly onto the wheel. It made about a quarter turn before he was forced to jump away. He tried again, this time making it a full revolution. A foot thick layer of ice appeared on the walls, the air was so cold it hurt.
Lev’s teeth chattered as he cast a spell of cold resistance that only just cut the edge off the chill, while Trask continued turning the wheel. At the seventh revolution we heard a click and the doors opened. Unfortunately, they were still behind the wall of ice.
“One was a test of strength, the second of fortitude, the next will probably be dexterity,” Trask said as we waited for the spell to dissipate.
The tunnel beyond the ice was full of dark gray fog where we soon stumbled up stairs leading to a large domed room being held aloft by four massive pillars. At the center stood a towering suit of spiked armor—an iron golem.
"Let's go hug it," Cane smirked. He’s been much more in tune with his feelings since acquiring the giant kitty cat. In fact, it was about this time that he started referring to himself as “Sweet Sugar Cane.”
With a creaking moan the armor began ponderously moving. Cane hurled himself upon it but saw, with horror, the damage he’d done heal immediately. The creature hit him with a loud thunk.
Trask casually shot it while I moved in closer, scoring damage twice before fumbling in my haste like little Billy at recess. The golem hit me so hard that my ears bled and I lost my bearing. Lev helped me stand as Cane polished it off.
"Blargh!" the golem groaned, expiring.
There were three doors leading from far sides of the chamber but Cane found another one that was hidden. As he opened it we were once again confronted with fog that made it nearly impossible to see more than five feet ahead. But we could still hear plainly, and what we heard were the sound of claws scurrying toward us across cold stone flagging.
Vlad readied his crossbow as Lev filled the hallway with a wall of flame, yet the sounds continued approaching. Suddenly, a derghodaemon leaped out of the fog at Cane while a wave of fear swept over us.
Trask floated away from the action as he readied his bow while Cane and I threw ourselves into the melee. Then another derghodaemon arrived. In my mind I heard Bert Askew mocking me. "Some doors are best left unopened," he grated.
Not losing my focus I changed my judgments. A divine glow bathed my weapon as I struck and killed the first derghodaemon Turning, I slashed the second one as it grabbed me and I felt something inside me rip. As Cane and Trask joined in, I desperately struck again. Between the three of us we managed to finish it off.
Limping, I followed the others down the corridor where the scavengers had come. Unsurprisingly, it led to another door opening into a room where an alabaster statue of a barbarian stood against the north wall. It stared at us unwavering, but did not move.
We then chose one of the passages open to either side, coming to a spherical room with a ten foot ceiling arcing above us, the floor highly polished. Trask edged in carefully as the floor pivoted at its center, sinking under his weight. Soon, Lev had joined him from the other side, balancing Trask's weight with his own. When Lev had crossed Cane followed, but the usually adroit woodsman slipped and went tumbling toward the pit below.
"Hey, stop rocking the boat!" Trask cursed as Cane caught himself, scrabbling back onto the disc, which bucked and whirled. After waiting for it to settle Cane finished crossing and I tried my luck. Then Vlad followed. Cane was nonplussed as he described the spikes he nearly fallen onto.
Thinking there might be something valuable impaled down below Lev and Trask returned, carefully tilting the disk until they could see underneath. There they found many chalky white bones, a hand ax, and a case containing three magic scrolls.
Down the next corridor we came to a precipice overlooking a natural stone cavern, its earthen floor thirty feet below. Throughout the chamber pillars of rounded stone rose like uneven stepping stones between us and the tunnel opening on the far side.
Trask jumped (or floated, it's hard to tell which with him—you'd think a guy who could jump like that would just kick his opponents to death) over but as soon as he reached the far side a huge gust of wind ripped through the chamber—sure doom for anyone caught on the top of the rounded and polished buttes between. Lev tossed Trask a rope.
"I don't want to hold a rope!" Trask objected. "That's something suckers do."
"You're too good to hold a rope?" Cane asked incredulously.
"I am too good," Trask assured. "I'll just spike it over here."
We did the same on our side but once again Cane lost his footing.
"Waaaaahh!" His cry turned to shrieks of terror as bright red army ants erupted from the ground about him. The ones that didn't swarm him immediately started up the posts while the rest of us were hurriedly crossing between loud gusts of wind.
"I only laugh when you're dying," Trask called to him encouragingly.
Then Vlad slipped into the swarm.
"Whee!" Trask guffawed. "I love that we can beat the Iron Golem, we can beat Vordakai, but we lose to polished stones and fangberries!"
Lev transported Vlad out of harm’s way before blasting the ants with a bead from his necklace of fireballs. Cane tried blowing them away with a wall of wind but the ants swirled around his head, down his throat, up his nose, and into other places too delicate to mention, before Lev ended the farce with a wind-whipped conflagration that left Cane hairless and smoking like Little Billee behind the barn.
With all that we were staring again at the iron golem slumped in its room. Lev mused, "I guess we didn't have to go through all that after all."
"This, this makes it wonderful," Trask chortled with irony I hope you never understand.
"We passed every test," Cane objected, staring coldly until Trask admitted, grudgingly, "We proved ourselves worthy."
"Um-hmm," Lev agreed.
"We have no spells left and are barely alive but, goddamnit!” Cane yelled.
"We got here."
Passing through the one set of doors we’d yet to open, we followed the corridor into a large cavern held aloft by a huge pillar of stone. To the west rose a twenty foot high ridge capped by a forest of stalagmites. The ceiling rose to forty feet but we did not tarry there, exiting by the nearest door.
Unbidden, my mind returned to an unpleasant conversation we’d had with Bert Askew the night before leaving Fort Drelev.
The battle had tired this old man out, especially as we'd spent the remainder of the day with affairs of state. As we entered an inn I'd said, "I hope there is a bed on the other side of this door."
"A bed full of virgins," Bert cackled lasciviously, "who are into old Inquisitors with contusions!"
"That's gross," Trask replied, either about the insult or what the insult implied.
"I'm saving my virginity," I sniffed like Little Billee’s grandma.
"Not anymore. Lily is off my list."
"You may get to redeem her," Lev said, poking me in the ribs.
I patted the +1 whip—old Betsy—hanging at my side, "Yes, you're right, I may yet get to redeem her."
Inside the doors we found the largest cavern yet. On each side a bubbling brook cascaded into a basin beneath the elaborate carvings of the lamentation of women over their dead. The ceiling was held aloft by a dozen columns carved to resemble armed soldiers kneeling in honor of the massive golem statues at the head of the room—at least I hoped they were statues—framing a stairway going down. There, a large slim figure dressed as an eagle barred our way.
We tried several languages before he finally responded to Hallitt. "You have come far," he said haltingly, "but you will go no further."
"You shall not pass," Trask finished for him.
"You . . ." the guardian paused uncertainly. "What you said." Then he pulled himself up to his very impressive height. "Leave the way you came in!"
"Who are you?"
"I am Zorek and I'm the guardian of this temple."
"Has someone else come through recently?" Lev asked, questioning him like a schoolboy.
"I am not here for idle chitchat. You need to leave now!"
"Dude, we passed the tests," Trask pleaded.
"Stand aside and let us pass," Lev added.
"No!" He was very intimidating, even to me, who has died twice and obliterated a race.
But as Lev, Cane, and I surrounded him he quickly melted back into the shadows. “Not so tough now,” Cane snorted.
Taking a deep breath I followed the others into the next chamber where tall braziers cast flickering shadows across a chamber that looked like a butcher’s shop—a vary careless butcher. The walls were spattered with blood and the floor slick with pools of it. The Tiger Lords were hacked and strewn about like so much offal. They were the first victims of the one who now watched us with rabid glare, sword dripping his brothers’ gore—Armag the twice-born!
I pulled my sword only to have it slip from my hand and fly far from my grasp while Armag turned Cane into chopped liver. "Poor Sugar Cane," Trask lamented from behind. "We knew ye a little too well."
But Vlad stayed with him. "I have a scroll of breath of life," he announced as he learned over the bloody pile that had once been our friend.
"Bleargh!" Armag screamed, but as he turned toward us we suddenly heard a voice from the floor. "I am Cane the twice-dead!" he cried, catching Armag in the buttocks with a brutal thrust from his sword.
As Trask’s arrows struck deeply I pulled out my new keen dagger, stabbing the possessed barbarian twice as he twisted away, cleaving Vlad, Cane, and myself.
"I'm a meat puppet," Cane groaned but somehow renewed his attack. With an unexpected howl of frustration Armag’s soul departed. We looked at at each other, more surprised to be alive than exultant.
We dragged ourselves groaning into the next room where a five foot square alabaster pedestal was bathed in brilliant light from the ceiling. There we found the dried husk of the original Armag in his hide armor. On the far side was a secret door behind which we found great treasure.
"I just want his sword," Cane said.
"It's cursed," Trask replied. "If you hold it you'll start thinking you're Armag."
"Can’t we get that curse removed?"
"No, it's a minor artifact."
"Maybe I want to be him,” Cane then pouted. “Could you guys live with me if I was Armag the thrice-born?"
"Probably not," Lev admitted as Trask added sourly, "We can barely live with you now."
Now we have to dig ourselves out of this place. With luck we will be back in Tuskland as soon as we drop off the hostages. Please have your homework assignments ready for when I arrive.
Your loving uncle,