As we rode hard along the Little Sellen River Road, I was amazed at how many farms, villages, and churches we encountered along the way. I saw, with satisfaction, that we've managed to civilize this wild land. Now we need to secure it for future generations.
|Thanks to R. Perry|
Passing through Ironstone Gully, we climbed the steep road into the Tors of Levenies, soon standing in a familiar spot across the river from Vordakai's Island. There we were met by a small contingent of centaurs, led by our old friend, Xamanthe Silverfire. With her was Aria Stormmane, who merely frowned when she saw me.
“We set out as soon as we heard the news,” Xamanthe said. “There's been no activity except when some barbarians showed up claiming to be friends of yours. A couple of them went over to the island but never came back.”
We pitched our camp nearby. When I had the opportunity, I asked her about Alexandoss. She eyed me speculatively, pawing the ground nervously. “She sends her greetings and asks that you visit sometime to meet her mate and their foal, Little Bub.”
Prepared as I was for that answer, still it tugged my heart. “I'm sure my duties will bring me to your part of the P.U.R.K.,” I replied. “Let her know that I wish them well,” I sighed.
“She knows,” Xamanthe finally smiled.
She joined us as we rode over the the barbarian encampment. As we approached, their guards watched with obvious mirth.
“Are you lost?” one said sarcastically as he slid lazily off his horse.
“We're here to speak with your leader,” said Lev evenly.
“Leader?” he spat, hitting Lev's horse on the hoof. It whinnied nervously.
“I don't have time for this,” Lev growled, sliding off the horse. The barbarian stood sneering before him, looking as wide as Lev was tall. The pungent scent of excited barbarian musk rolled over us like a thick fog.
“Lev,” I tried to reason, “he's only a boy.”
At that I saw the barbarian gape with astonishment. “You're the Comrade Lev?”
Suddenly the boy was on his knees crawling to Lev's horse, using his tunic to wipe off the begrimed hoof. The others also leaped off their animals, running towards us with excitement, throwing their weapons to the ground.
“Man, I'm your biggest fan!” a blond one yelled.
“Will you make a baby with my sister?” another asked plaintively.
“Hey! Let him make a baby with me!” a third offered.
Eventually, they led us—rather, carried us triumphantly—to a group of hard looking warriors sitting around a campfire, eating something that seemed to be eating them in return. Their leader, a powerful young woman, stepped forth. It took a moment for me to see past the hair, scars, tattoos, and piercings to recognize our Piea standing there.
“Marquand, you old son-of-a-bitch,” she said with a halfway grin, “still breakin' hearts?”
“By the Horned Hunter!” I replied, “I never thought we'd see you again.”
“We heard about your rumble and wanted a piece of it,” she said, squeezing me hard enough to rouse a judgment of protection.
“Hoo, baby, you're hot!” I heard a voice from behind me as Skot Skevins strode up. “Hey, Marquand, you old dog. I knew you were upright, I just didn't know you went all the way up!”
“That's forthright, Skevins, I'm forthright.”
“Who are your friends?” he joked, pointing at the bandoleer of shrunken heads that girdled Piea's body like a voluptuous raptor.
“Boyfriends,” she corrected. “But a couple got away.”
Skevins laughed, “Hey, I like this girl!”
“If you'll excuse us, Skot,” Lev quickly interrupted. “We have business with the lady.”
“Leave some for me,” he hollered after us.
Piea lead us to a tree near the water's edge, well past where the falls cascaded noisily. VordaKelm's Island sat placidly in the middle of the tumult. We stared out at the accursed place as several youngsters served us fermented mares' milk.
“Guys, seriously, you let Vordakai come back to life?”
“It wasn't exactly us,” Lev countered grumpily, picking hair from his teeth after his first sip. “Kelm had his own agenda all along, with himself as Emperor. It's no wonder he allied with a reactionary like Vordakai.”
“I used to think he was cute,” Piea said, “but no more.”
“Piea,” Xamanthe interrupted. “We heard that a couple of your colleagues visited the island.”
“Yeah, we found pieces of one of them downriver,” she replied. “They were hoping to find some loot before you arrived, but I guess they got caught.”
“We have troops following,” Lev said after a moment's reflection, “but I don't think we can wait that long. VordaKelm is already too powerful.”
“Yeah, and maybe he's got allies heading this way, too,” Piea grimaced.
“You've heard something?”
“Ah, you know, mercenaries are always looking for trouble. It was nothing definite.”
Dusk shrouded the land. “We should go while we still have light,” said Lev.
“Our boys went in on the east side.”
“That's the way we went in the first time,” said Vlad, “but there's another beach on the south that hides an easier way.” We all looked at him skeptically. “Mostly easier," he sputtered, "or, at least, shorter. Be sure to bring as many animal skins as you can bear.”
We quickly hiked down to the water's edge where I unfolded our boat. “Be alert,” said Lev. “We cleared out Vordakai's lair last time we were here, but Kelm has had years to restock the place.”
But the rapidly flowing stream remained untroubled by ancient reptiles, water trolls, and dread zombie cyclopes. Soon we were standing beneath a tall limestone cliff. “The entrance is around here somewhere,” said Vlad, pulling up a veil of dark green vines. Humming while he searched, disappearing from sight. “Over here!” we heard a muffled voice behind the vegetation. We followed into darkness.
“We'll need it.”
“Here,” said Xamanthe. “Tie it on my back.”
In a cleft about halfway up the escarpment we found a stone door that we quickly pushed aside. Inside, a black tunnel stretched into the hill. It stank of tar and brimstone. Casting a spell of light we followed Vlad inside.
I looked back at Xamanthe. “Are you all right?”
“No,” she exhaled, undoubtedly remembering the last time she was here and the cell where she was tortured. “But I'll make it. I'll never rest as long as a hint of that evil is alive in this world.”
We came to steps climbing deeper into the limestone. At the top was a platform. Vlad crawled along the base of the wall, sweating and muttering under his breath until we heard a sharp clamor and a heavy door rolling to its side. Noxious gas filled the room. “You may not want to breathe for awhile,” Vlad helpfully warned.
“Not this place again,” I groaned.
Piea helped Vlad untie the unfold the boat, covering the bottom with the animal skins. “Get in,” he said. “We'll pole our way across the lake of tar.”
“Won't we get stuck?”
“Not if you cast f-r-e-e-d-o-m o-f m-o-v-e-m-e-n-t.”
Soon we reached the far shore, scrambling into the foyer leading to more steps and another long hallway. “These guys live like rats,” Piea spat.
“That's because they are rats,” hissed Xamanthe.
Avoiding the crypts, we stepped immediately into Feasthall. This time there were no rotting corpses sitting around the great stone table to greet us, no undead creatures of Vordakai to harass. Only silence as we hurried past the pillars to the stairs on the far side of the room.
“I don't get it,” said Piea, “Why aren't there monsters around to soften us up?”
“Oh, Kelm knows we can't win,” I replied. “He's seen the future. He's got no reason to soften us up.”
She stopped. “If we can't win, why are we here?”
“That's a good question,” I continued on. “But you'll have to ask Kelm.”
“That makes me feel a whole lot better,” she huffed.
“Come on!” Lev hissed. “We're almost there.”
Passing through a door, we were once again standing by a fountain emptying into a sulfurous pool, but this time no water elemental rose to greet us. Going deeper into the complex we searched the library but even the great Throne of Bones sat empty.
“He's got us where he wants us,” Lev complained. “Where is he?”
“Maybe we should vamoose,” Piea said nervously. “While we can.”
“What have we missed?” Lev asked. We looked at each another, revelation dawning, “The Oculus Chamber!”
Backtracking, we reached the stairs going down into the place where all the evil in the world is focused. “This is it,” said Lev, “Prepare yourselves, and good luck!”
Beyond the doors was a large octagonal chamber filled with a glow like moonlight, its dome made of opaque white crystal, like an inverted eye, gazing into the room below. Arcane symbols covered the walls and a twenty-foot-diameter circle was incised into the stone of the floor. Where the focus of the great eye fell was a crystal throne and on that throne sat our great nemeses, VordaKelm!
“Dude!” Piea exclaimed, seeing the two heads.
“Welcome, welcome,” Kelm greeted. “We thought you'd never get here!”
Lev's eyes narrowed contemptuously as he stepped up front, gazing up at the two-headed abomination on its throne. “This is the thanks I get?”
“Thanks?” Kelm sneered. “For what? Getting underfoot?”
“For convincing Lord Kazelov to let you tag along to begin with. He thought you addled.”
“Well, look at us now!” Kelm boasted, dropping off the throne and breaking into a little dance—all he lacked was a cane and straw boater—well, two straw boaters.
“I thought we shared a vision,” Lev scolded. “A world of citizens, free and equal, allowed to prosper instead of merely serving the aristocracy.”
“A vision?” Kelm scoffed. “You call what you have a vision? I call it blindly grappling with whatever falls into your grasp.”
“Every citizen free to follow their Destiny!”
Again Kelm laughed, this time joined by Vordakai's bass rumble. “Destiny is given, not followed. My Destiny—our Destiny—is to rule!”
“We'll see about that,” Lev growled.
“Little man!” For the first time Vordakai spoke, his voice burned and raw. “I will enjoy making you grovel.”
“Whoa there, big fella,” Kelm said. “None of that. These are our friends . . . at least for the moment.
"He's excitable,” Kelm whispered to us behind his hand. “Pretend you're afraid.”
“Never again!” Xamanthe roared, raising her spear defiantly.
Kelm rolled his eyes. “Really, gang, don't make it so hard on yourselves. Just go on ruling your little kingdom, you'll barely notice we're here.”
“You impregnated my wife!” Lev growled, infuriated by his audacity.
“She thought it was you. It's all good!”
“Let me kill this Lev,” Vordakai rasped. “Better yet, let me torment him for all eternity!”
“Now that's just rude,” Kelm replied. “You see my problem,” he said to the rest of us. “You piss off Vordakai and he gives me no end of grief. It's easier just to give him his way.”
“It may be easier to remove him entirely,” I replied, pulling out my holy sword, wishing I still carried Briar.
“Damn,” Kelm shook his head. “I wish you hadn't done that.”
“Enough talk!” Vordakai roared.
With that we launched our assault. Vlad and Lev taking the wings; Piea, Xamanthe, and myself going right up the middle. Kelm merely laughed, but Vordakai seemed to be taking it seriously. I felt myself lifted and flung like a rag doll.
I woke to the sound of wailing, finally realizing that it was Vlad I heard. “No, no, no, no, no!” he cried, bending over Lev.
“He bought it,” I heard Piea moan. “That's the only reason we're alive.” She was lying on the floor, her leg twisted at a very strange angle. I saw Xamanthe struggle to her hooves.
Nearby, Kelm and Vordakai ignored us as they argued with one another.
“Man, I don't know why you have to be such a dick,” Kelm was saying.
“Vordakai answers to no one!”
“Yes, well about that. I've been feeling you growing stronger for quite some time now.”
There was an evil chuckle. “You can't stop me.”
“No, but that doesn't make me powerless.”
“Little man,” Vordakai laughed. “I'll eat you and then I'll forget you ever existed.”
Kelm smiled nearsightedly as he leaned forward, tapping Vordakai on his jeweled eye—the oculus of Abaddon—and I heard a sharp crack as it shattered.
“Ughkkle!” Vodakai gasped.
“Now, Marquand!” Kelm called, eyes staring dreamily more-or-less in my direction. “For the love of your Erastil, hurry!”
I leaped forward, my flaming holy sword chopping through Vordakai's neck. As his head rolled away, blood spurted thickly from the stump. “Justice!” I cried as Kelm slumped to the floor.
“Ha,” he crowed weakly. “I knew you'd say that.” Holding his head in my lap, I heard his last words. “Suck on that, Vordakai. I . . .”
“Won,” I finished for him. “You won.”
Looking up, I saw that Piea was busy smashing Vordakai's head to pulp. Vlad was still sobbing inconsolably as Xamanthe looked on.
I walked over, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”
“When you and Piea went down, Lev used himself as a shield for us all. I did what I could but VordaKelm overwhelmed us.”
“What did he say at the end?”
Vlad smiled through the tears. “He gave a speech, of course! I think that's why VordaKelm killed him.”
We burned what was left of Vordakai's head and buried our old comrade, although I would be a liar if I didn't admit that we added a ration of quicklime to his grave. We'll burn them later.
Vlad twisted Piea's leg back into shape, but she declined our offer to carry her out. “It feels good,” she lied, limping after us.
Several days later we prepared to break camp. With my support, Vlad had assumed the mantle of First Citizen of the P.U.R.K., at least until we can have a proper election. In an envelope in his backpack, we found a final mesage.
Do not mourn me, if you're reading this I've had a hero's death. Now I must ask a favor. Finish our job! Make P.U.R.K. the cooperative democracy we've dreamed of and worked for all these years.
You will find my final speech in my sock drawer at home. I call it The Declaration of the Rights of the Citizen. Study it, make changes, but please, I beg you, stay true to its spirit.
Give my love to Ilse. Please don't kill the bastard.
Yours, Lev Davidowich
In a simple army wagon, Vlad prepared to take Lev's body back to Tuskland. “I want this place razed!” he said, putting on his gloves and preparing to mount his horse, Bessie. “Everything burned, every stone turned over, and then buried, forever and for all time.”
“Don't worry,” I said. “Nyrissa's sending over some 'First World Wizards' and we're going over this place thoroughly. Then I think I'll divert the river through it. Cleanse it.”
He sighed. “See you back in Tuskland.”
As they left, Piea came to say her goodbye.
“Your leg seems a lot better,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” she replied, “I've been doing a lot of laying around—staying off it.”
“So, where are your bandits off to next?”
“Don't worry,” she pouted. “We ain't hanging around the P.U.R.K. I hear there are opportunities knockin' down in Galt. I think we'll go there.”
She hugged me goodbye. “Ya know, Marquand, now that I've been around the block a few times, I'm thinking I could go for someone a little more seasoned.”
I laughed, clasping her by her thickly-muscled shoulders. “And end up like one of them?” I indicated her bandoleer of shrunken heads.
“Oh, you're not like them,” she purred, leaning close.
That's when I noticed a new trophy swinging freely on her belt—the still-drying head of Skot Skevins! “I've someone waiting at home,” I told her and that, at least, was no lie.
“Lucky girl,” she grinned, giving me a squeeze that crushed the air from my lungs.
Relieved, I watched them ride away.
I'll be home soon,