The Aspect regarded them all in unblinking silence, its enormous bird-like eyes glowing red with lust and madness. Everyone felt their hearts in their throats and an overpowering urge to turn and run. Then Haden cleared his throat.
“The lord comes before us in a great storm of dread
stinking of Hell and the hosts he has bled,
our hearts will shrink and our terrors quicken . . .
But look, he’s really an overgrown chicken!”
The Aspect gaped. “WRETCHED MAGGOT-SPAWN OF A LEPEROUS GOAT’S LEAVINGS!” it squawked, sounding, indeed, very much like an oversized chicken. Joris found himself laughing, the aura of dread broken. The Aspect hurled itself forward and clubbed the cleric to the ground with its oversized sword. Mal chanted rapidly and hurled a swirling mass of purple energy at the screaming, flapping monster, but the spell had no apparent effect on the demon.
Sheen charged, claws growing as she ran, and ripped a hole through one of its wings, sending hot blood and feathers flying. Talan and Ari darted sideways, angling to flank the Aspect. Talan’s weapons brushed it several times, but didn’t seem to have much effect. Ari grabbed its leg in her teeth and hung on as best she could while it hopped, trying to shake her loose.
“Does anyone have cold iron?!” Joris shouted, pushing himself across the floor while he struggled with the magic to close his terrible wound. Haden pulled a handful of darts out of his belt and waved them at the cleric while Mal dragged his fingers through the air, tearing ribbons of shadow from the firmament and hurling them at the fiend. It staggered, dazed, and Sheen jumped on its back, trying to reach its eyes with her claws. Talan took the opportunity to stab it under the ribs with a dagger.
Joris reached out and passed his hand over Haden’s darts, causing them to glow. Haden winced a little, his own fiendish nature disliking the holy aura, but he hurled one of the darts at the Aspect all the same. It impacted with a painful-sounding sizzle and the Aspect screeched.
“You have done much to earn Her ire, Demon lord of Fowl!” Mal yelled as he hurled a lance of purple eldritch energy.
Sheen gasped as the demon grabbed her neck and flung its head toward the floor, sending her catapulting spine-first into the wall. Talan was knocked to the ground with a single backhanded blow, and it kicked Ari contemptuously aside. It advanced on Mal, brushing past Haden and stepping over Joris.
“Return to the Abyss, reflection, and vex us no more!” Mal cried, holding up his hands. The purple glow formed again, striking the Aspect full in the face even as it buried its sword in his chest. Its scream turned into a gurgle as the energy ate through its eyes and into its brain, and it fell, slowly, and hit the floor with a ground-shaking thud. A cloud of vermin erupted from the beast, devoured the remains in a matter of seconds, and scattered, vanishing into the floor and walls.
The Abyssal Portal hummed.
Sheen rolled over, dizzy and aching. “Anyone know how to close that thing?” she asked.
“If it has a physical anchor, destroying that should close it,” Mal said, coughing blood and staggering to his knees. Joris scrambled over to help him.
“Or it may destroy this town and all its inhabitants,” Haden said. “This is a Gate Town, that portal is the reason for its existence. Now that the instigators are out of the picture, we should be able to get the rest of the populace calmed down. Let’s try that, shall we?”
After a few moments of checking to ascertain that everyone still had their extremities attached and a bit of general cleanup, they walked out into the street again. An immense crowd had gathered, watching the palace in silence, waiting.
“Is it over?” someone asked tentatively.
“Yes, I think so,” Haden said. A murmur of relief ran through the crowd, and an old woman stepped forward.
“We just wanted to thank yez for savin’ our burg.” Haden shrugged.
“Oh,” Sheen said. “Um, you’re welcome?”
“Yeah!” Someone added. “You kept us from fallin’ in the gate!”
“That’s what they are! The Gatekeepers!”
“Gatekeepers! Gatekeepers! Gatekeepers!”
The five of them exchanged nonplussed looks. Mal shook his head. “Oh, joy, a Title.”
“With titles come expectations,” Talan grumbled.
“There’s no need to get all excited!” Sheen bellowed over the noise. The chanting gradually began to peter out in the heat of her glare, and people stepped back uncertainly.
“But, mistress, what should we do?” “Yes, lead us! Tell us what to do!” “We are yours to command, Great Ones!”
Sheen crossed her arms over her chest formidably. “Go home.” Silence filled the square. Then the crowd began gradually edging away to the sound of embarrassed muttering.
“Wonderful,” Haden said. “Can we please get out of here, now? This has not exactly been the most pleasant trip of my life.”
“We have to pick up Margram first, but other than that, we’re done here.”
“Who’s Margram?” Haden asked as they limped their collective way through the streets.
“The fellow we dug up who told us where to find you, an Illuminated expatriate.” Joris explained. “This has been unbelievable. Don’t ever say we weren’t there for you.”
“What, are you feeling put-upon?” Haden snapped. “I’m so sorry I inconvenienced you, then.”
“What?!” Joris gasped.
“Haden, come on, you know he didn’t mean it that way,” Talan interjected. “We all missed you, and we were worried.”
“I didn’t,” Mal said. “Was he missing at some point?”
“Um, yes,” Talan said.
“Is that Greenheart?” Mal continued, pointing at the sword Talan had slung casually over his back. “I had heard it was lost.”
“Where did you hear that?” Talan asked.
“I have read an ancient text or two that made mention of it,” the elf explained.
“Well, when we have some time you’ll have to tell me more about it. It came to me, but I know little of its nature.”
“It is not often you see one of the . . .” Mal began, then his expression abruptly changed. “Oh, look, someone dropped a copper.” Talan gaped at him and turned to see Haden watching this performance.
“Something tells me our new friend is not entirely right in the head,” the bard suggested.
“Let’s hope he doesn’t do anything dangerous,” Talan said, nodding, as Mal rejoined them. “Otherwise there could be trouble.”
“I am perfectly capable of finding trouble or avoiding it,” Mal announced blithely, “it is She that finds the need to thrust me into its wake.”
“She?” Talan asked.
“Where?” Mal responded, looking around excitedly. Talan sighed and resumed walking.
Margram opened the door before Sheen had a chance to start pounding. “Did you find your friend, then?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sheen said. She sighed and leaned against the side of the building, looking very tired. “Are you ready to go?”
“You bet,” Margram said, emerging from his house with a suitcase. Sheen staggered to her feet and turned towards the butcher shop.
“Sheen, are you all right?” Joris asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just need a good meal and some sleep.” Entering the shop, she handed Rothwell a few coins as she dug their remaining rose, somewhat crumpled, out of her pouch. The portal flared inside the freezer and they all stepped through. The trip through the undercity was tedious, but uneventful, but by the time they emerged in the Twelve Factols building, Sheen was shivering and sweating. She crumpled while trying to climb the stairs and was forced to struggle out of her armor before she could continue.
Joris waved to Haden and Talan. “Hold her, please,” he said. They each grabbed one of Sheen’s arms, ignoring her weak insistence that she was ‘fine’, and Joris cast a spell over her. “There. She still needs to get better, but at least she won’t get any worse.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Talan asked.
“Ghoul fever, I think,” Joris said. “It comes on quickly like that.”
“Are you folks going back to Chirper’s?” Haden asked.
“We probably should,” Talan said. “I’m sure they’ll have room for Mal and the girl.”
Haden nodded. “I’m the least tired, I think, crazy as that may sound. I’ll take her back to her rooms. Besides, we need to talk.”
They bundled Sheen into a cab and Haden climbed in, closing the door. Yolette followed the rest of the group nervously as they returned to the inn. Talan stopped outside the door as someone stepped from the shadows.
“Hello again, Talan,” Hexla said. Talan instantly blushed, remembering how filthy and scruffy he was.
“Hi, Hexla. What can I do you . . . I mean, what can I do for you?”
“You haven’t introduced me to your friends,” the witch said politely.
“Uh, okay,” Talan said. “I think you’ve met Joris . . .”
“Well, sort of,” Hexla said, offering the cleric her hand and smiling.
“This is Mal, Margram, and Yolette. We’re just heading up to the rooms . . .” Talan explained.
“Are you sure?” Hexla asked. “I’ve got my kip at Vander’s all to myself tonight. Jazra’s out doing gods-know-what.
Joris coughed. “I’m, um, I’m just going to get my stuff and head back to the Circle. Come on, I’ll show you guys where the room is . . .” he said to the three newcomers. They scurried inside, leaving Talan alone with Hexla.
“Um, S-sheen’s not feeling well, I’m k-kind of worried about her . . .” Hexla raised an eyebrow at him impatiently. “Then again, Haden’s supposed to be taking care of her . . .”
“Talan!” Hexla said.
“Maybe I should go with you?”
“You’re asking me?” Hexla demanded, exasperated. “Oh, for crying out loud, come on,” she said, grabbing Talan’s hand and hauling him away down the street.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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- Cold Blood: Haden and Cerellis
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