Hulbard marched ahead of the others with his head bowed, all but oblivious to his surroundings. An air of sullen, brooding silence had settled over their group as they left the theatre behind and that suited him just fine. After the ordeal he’d just endured, the warrior was in no mood for conversation. Instead, his thoughts remained rooted in the charnel house they'd left behind. He was no stranger to melancholy following a battle, but this time, it clung to him like a shroud.
Adrenaline still thrummed through his veins, making it nearly impossible to focus. It took an effort of will to drag his disjointed thoughts back from all the questions he knew there would be no answers to, no matter how they repeated inside his head and his minds eye began to recall the battle in vivid detail of its own accord. This time though there was nothing Hulbard could do to stop it as his thoughts coalesced around the creature they'd slain.
He saw again how its bared flesh had glistened in the flickering firelight, watched it rear and caught a glimpse of claws the length of his forearm reaching for him. The muscles across the warriors heavy shoulders twitched reflexively as he recalled the force of those talons had raked across the face of his shield. He watched again as the beast was brought low, saw it trash and writhe on the floor as Semekt cut its legs to pieces from behind. The deep, bone shaking bellow that had emerged from its throat still reverberated through his mind, repeating over and over again, filling his senses to the brim until it felt like he could still hear it.
Hulbard forced himself to relive the scene from start to finish a thousand times over; examining everything that had been done right, everything that could have been done better and all the ways it could have so easily ended in disaster. He did the same after every battle, whether he wanted to or not, but this time, it left him feeling sour and his thoughts were dark as the warrior marched through down an empty roadway, as silent as their surroundings.
It was only slowly that Hulbard became aware of the fact that his memories were distracting him from his surroundings.Like a man waking from a dream, he recalled his thoughts to the present with a mental shrug and a shake of his head. Lifting his gaze, he began to take stock of his surroundings again, just as they entered a crossroads.
Looking around, Hulbard suddenly froze. Down the length of a sidestreet almost forty feet in length, a dark mansion loomed above a grim, outer wall. Directly facing the roadway and breaking up the uniformity of that ancient grey stone was a large iron gate and, even from where he stood, the warrior could see the intricate designs wrought into its construction. The roadway between them was paved with a mixture of sapphire blue and gleaming white slabs, all arranged to resemble a roiling sea. None of these details were what had brought him to halt, though.
It was the fact that those gates were flanked by two figures. They were clad in ornate suits of plate armour and stood perfectly still, save for their heavy crimson cloaks fluttering in the breeze. Hulbard would have missed them without those cloaks, or assumed the pair to be statues. One held a halberd in one gauntleted hand, its butt planted on the tiles to one side, while the other carried a bared longsword. Neither moved so much as a muscle, despite the fact that their unusual group had just wandered out into the open. Hulbard hummed thoughtfully as his companions gathered at his shoulder.
“Are they real?” Trastgor growled.
“Look real enough to me,” Knox commented.
“What are they doing?” Shankhill asked.
“Guarding that place, if I had to guess,” Hulbard surmised.
He gulped, his throat dry and heart already starting to race. His eyes darted between the two knights ahead, already narrowing as he considered the best ways to approach them, mapping out who would go where and in what order, plotting the engagement.
“Let’s go see what’s inside,” he said firmly.
“Aha!” Shankhill’s barked laugh was utterly incredulous, “Oh yeah, that sounds like a fantastic idea! Why shouldn’t we go poking around another old building after we found a damned demon in the last?”
“We killed that thing, didn’t we?” Hulbard growled at him, “If anything, this seems considerably easier.
Silence descended as they eyed up the knights and he could feel his companions hesitating. He turned towards Quintus.
“We’re here to find what we can, right?” he snapped, “And so far, we have nothing to show for our time here except some dwindling supplies and a lot of spent effort. We’ve spent days in this cursed place, without so much as the sniff of a Clove in return”.
He let those words sink in for a long second before continuing.
“That, though, that right there at the end of this road, looks like it could be worth something, right? The place is massive, so what do you reckon it was? A Lord’s house?”
“One of the noble houses,” Quintus told him archly, “One of those mentioned by Ailasin”.
“Ah, one of the places she strictly told us to avoid at all costs, you mean?” Shankhill chimed in with another chuckle of disbelief”.
The old Sorcerer’s eyes were already gleaming though and Hulbard pressed his advantage, speaking to him and him alone.
“Can you imagine what might be waiting for us in there?”
“I can,” he nodded.
“Worth a scrap?”
“Worth a scrap,” the Sorcerer repeated with a curt nod.
“Then let’s get to work,” Hulbard growled, striding forward without waiting for the others to agree, “Semekt, I want you on the left. Trastgor, to my right. Knox to the rear with your bow”.
He set his sights on the two armoured warriors ahead and felt his focus return to a razor sharp point in an instant. His breathing slowed even as his heartbeat quickened. Hulbard slipped his helmet free of its place at his hip and slid it into place over his head, locking it into place at his gorget with a metallic click. He blinked through the swirling colours merging to create an image of the outside world as a way of reducing its disorientating effects even as his left hand slid home into the handle of his heavy shield. It slid free of its place at his back while the sound of his own breathing hissed in his ears, steady and controlled.
His other hand drew the warhammer at his side and he hefted its comfortable weight to send a surge of revitalising confidence surging through his entire body. Hulbard’s focus narrowed as they marched along the roadway, ignoring all else except the two figures waiting ahead. There was no fear, only apprehension and he became more aware of every inch of his body as battle loomed close.
His muscles felt tight and fluid at the same time, filled to the brim with energy waiting to be unleashed. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck before getting lost in his braids, but that was easily ignored. After fighting a monster in the dark, what stood before him now seemed like easy work. At the very least, it looked like something he’d be able to understand.
His stride was slow and smooth as he marched down the length of the street and Hulbard loosened his perception to detect his companions at his back without needing to look; Semekt’s scratching and rustling scales a counterpoint to Trastgor’s heavy thread. Further back, he heard Knox’s boots and the soft creak of his bow being partially drawn, held at the ready.
Drawing closer, he began to scrutinise the two knights, noting the curved plates flaring at their joints and the elaborate scrollwork etched into their armour. At his approach, they slid free of their statuesque stances and into combat stances. The halberd lowered to present a glittering point, while the swordsman gripped the blade of his weapon with his offhand in a style Hulbard had rarely seen used on the battlefield.
No words were spoken, no last glances exchanged, and that was just how Hulbard preferred it. Their silent understanding almost brought a smirk to his lips. As soon as he came within range, the knight on his left slid into a sweeping thrust with his halberd. Hulbard caught that glittering tip on the face of his shield, already braced for the impact but he still grunted as it hit him with all the force of a runaway cart, driving him back a step. The blow rattled up the length of his arm and seemed to reverberate through his chest until Hulbard felt it sink into his bones.
Lips drawn into a fierce frown, Hulbard drove forward, only to be brought up short by a trio of stabbing thrusts that crashed against his shield before the broad bladed weapon turned dipped into a sweeping cut for his shins. Barely catching the movement, the warrior ducked low into the blow, bringing his shield to bear at the last second to catch the stroke with a resounding clang that almost ploughed him off his feet. Shoving against it, he bolted back upright and pushed forward, forcing the knight to backpedal towards the wall to keep him in range. An arrow soared over their heads to shatter against the grey stone behind with a crack.
He heard the crash of heavy steel to his right, coupled with a bestial grunt from Trastgor, but kept his gaze focused ahead as his own foe stepped back into range and the halberd spun through the air with a soft, metallic hum. Hulbard wove backwards from a heavy, overhead slash that would have split his helmet in half and, as it crashed to the slabs underfoot, he heard the distinctive snap of puncturing metal. The knight started and froze, his shoulders sagging in a heartbeat. His helmed head dipped to stare down at the arrow protruding from his gut. A scarcely audible, hoarse wheeze rasped through the grill of his helm.
Hulbard strode forward. The knight tried to jerk his halberd to bear, but he was too slow. Hulbard stepped close, hooked his leg through the man’s legs and threw his shoulder into his breastplate, sending his foe crashing to the ground with a clatter. With him prone on his back, grasping for the arrow in his gut, it was easy for him to bring his warhammer crashing down into that helmed face until the metal buckled and blood sprayed through the rents in its sides.
Dragging the warhammer’s head free of the mangled wreckage of metal, Hulbard turned to time to see the sword wielding knight catch a looping, overhead stroke from Trastgor and turn it aside. With the same motion, the pommel of his weapon came around into the side of the Kurgal’s face. The blade came back, low, still gripped partway along its length in one gauntleted hand, to screech across Trastgor’s spiked shield, shedding several of the narrow protrusions.
He staggered to one side, only just lifting his shield to catch a powerful stab from the sword. Growling, Trastgor surged against the knight, driving him back a step and straight into Semekt’s waiting blades. The Dramaskian reared behind the man, scimitars already brought to bear in a heartbeat. They screeched across his armour in a spray of bright sparks and when the knight turned to face the serpentine creature, Trastgor’s heavy kukri caved in the side of his helmet with a backhanded slash. The blow pitched the warrior to the ground and lay perfectly still, letting silence descend over the entire scene like a shroud.
Letting out a long, smooth breath, Hulbard looked up to see Quintus approaching the iron gate and the warrior turned to survey their surroundings for further threats, half hoping more men would rush to join their fallen comrades. His body still sang with the thrill of combat, but it had been all too easy and left him wanting more. It had been a brutal engagement, but too short. Though unusually strong, the knights had been far preferable to skinned beasts in the dark.
Trastgor paced to one side with his heavy, blood specked sword swinging by his side, snorting restlessly as adrenaline bled from his body, while Semekt calmly slid the four scimitars back home into their sheaths and resumed a passive pose near the felled knight. He was just relaxing when he heard Skye snap a single word.
“There!” she said, pointing skywards.
Following her finger, it still took Hulbard a long second to spot the tiny, dark speck circling high overhead, stark against the blue sky. Knox whirled in an instant, arrow set to string and string drawn to cheek. He loosed in one fluid motion, but the bird wheeled to nimbly dodge the projectile with ease.
“I hope you have plenty of those to spare,” Shankhill told him, sauntering closer to the gate now that the danger had passed, “Because I doubt we’re going to be finding too many of them lying around here for us to pick up”.
“Hmpf,” the hunter snorted distastefully.
“Nevermind that,” Quintus spoke up loudly, drawing their attention back to the iron gateway, “This entire place is absolutely dripping with Sorcerous energy. It is...oddly passive? It simply sits and seems to seethe. Even for Dalághast, this mansion feels strange. Wrong in some way”.
He stroked his beard as he turned back to his companions and his slate grey eyes fixed on his Apprentice.
“Skye,” he snapped, “Open the gates”.
“Ha!” she barked, “Not a chance. Why don’t you open them?”
“Because I am far less expendable than you,” Quintus told her.
“Not really a great incentive for me, to be honest,” Skye told him with a pained expression, liberally scratching behind one ear.
“Do as I say, girl,” Quintus told her with a note of impatient exasperation in his iron tone.
Hulbard lumbered between them before Skye could answer, lifted one leg and booted the gates wide with a resounding clash. They shrieked against their hinges before rebounding from the walls with a deep rattle. Beyond, he was faced with a pathway of dull grey stone slabs leading away towards the mansion through a thicket of overgrown hedges and plants. Ahead, he could just make out a small plaza through the overhanging branches laden with grey leaves, where glimpsed a tall fountain.
With hammer and shield still in hand, Hulbard strode through the low hanging branches with Knox at his heel. The vegetation formed a scraggly, scratchy barrier, but he forced his armoured bulk through it with ease, helmed head sweeping left and right as he sought any further signs of trouble.He heard the archer sniff behind him as they approached the fountain, prompting him to do the same, but he could smell little inside his helmet besides his own sweat stained body. Distantly, he picked up the vague, underlying scent of cloying rot. Casting a sharp glance over his shoulder, he paused.
“There’s a smell of rot,” Knox supplied, nodding ahead.
When Hulbard pushed through the last of the plantlife clinging to the outer fringes of the small plaza, his eyes were drawn first and foremost to the fountain at its heart. A pillar of grey stone with images of coiling roses etched into its sides rose above a broad basin filled to the brim with brackish, black water. Its surface was choked with vegetation, but he still picked out the source of Knox’s scent; several bloated fish carcasses dotted the water, bobbing between the sickly green leaves of lillies.
“Pleasant,” Hulbard commented before turning to look up at the mansion rising just ahead of them.
It climbed three floors into the air, each one marked by a line of windows stretching across its implacable face in either direction. Most of them were shattered and looked like they’d been boarded up from the inside. Scarcely ten paces distant, a pair of tall, mahogany doors stood with a dull metal chain looped around their dull handles. This was flanked by stone columns to either side, surmounted with a now indistinguishable crest high overhead, pitted and pock marked by the elements.
“How are these even remotely fresh?” Knox asked, idly running his tongue across his teeth as he poked one of the fish with an arrow, “They should be nothing but bones”.
“Maybe it could have something to do with all this strange Sorcery I keep mentioning,” Quintus snapped impatiently as he stepped into the plaza.
“Well, isn’t it a fine thing we brought you along,” Shankhill scoffed, joining them next. “You have proven yourself nothing short of a veritable font of wisdom since we arrived in this damnable city”.
The old man didn’t deign to answer him and instead leaned forward to examine a nearby plant with wide, triangular white leaves dotted with gold. Hulbard left him to his examination and instead mounted the steps leading up the doors, moving slow and purposeful, senses straining for anything out of the ordinary. A single blow from his hammer shattered the ancient, rusted chains holding the doors closed and he nudged one open with the head of his weapon. Its hinges screeched as it swung inwards to reveal a vast hall beyond the threshold. The sound seemed to rush ahead of them, echoing echoing eerily into the the far distance as he peered cautiously through the opening. Utter silence reasserted itself over the building as Hulbard examined his surroundings.
A staircase wound up the left wall to a wide balcony overhead, where part of its railing had crumbled away to the floor below. Beneath the overhanging stone balcony stood an archway but, as he edged through the opening, Hulbard saw two more to either side, leading deeper into the mansion. Here and there, the interior was lit by sunlight lancing through the mouldy boards nailed haphazardly across the windows. Those shafts of light lit up a haze of lazily dancing dust motes, adding a surreal sense of unreality to the scene.
Even through his helmet, Hulbard could detect the reek of age old dust and he snorted to clear his nostrils of the cloying scent. The walls were bare, eerily plain except for where they were splotched with dark patches of damp. Here and there, he spotted the remnants of wooden panelling still nailed to the walls and he recognised the same kind of wood that had been used to barricade the windows. The floors underfoot had been laid with fine, white marble, but even that looked dull and listless in the dreary entryway.
With weapons drawn and held at the ready, they filed through the open doorway and into the entrance hall beyond. Hulbard selected the archway to their left on a whim. It led into a long, tall but narrow corridor lit by sunlight slanting through the boards nailed over the windows along one wall. The dull grey slivers of light fell across a cold stone floor, where Hulbard imagined a plush carpet must once have been. Here and there, broken glass glittered in the airy gloom, while a chill breeze whistled through the remnants in their frames.
It ended in another heavy wooden doorway perhaps twenty paces distant, but Hulbard could make out the outline of another opening to his right as well, leading deeper into the mansion. His eyes flowed over every inch of the strangely unnerving space stretching before them, scoured the wooden doorway ahead and then settled on that dark opening again.
No one spoke as they shuffled into that hallway, but Hulbard could sense the tension hanging between them, could feel it seeping into his own bones with every step he took.
He was the first to reach the empty doorway and he ducked through with his shield at the ready, half expecting to be set upon by more knights at any second. Instead though, he found himself in a long room with white marble countertops along either wall and a narrow table set between them. These, combined with a stone oven in one corner and a large heart in another, confirmed his suspicion that it must once have been a kitchen. The entire scene was coated in a thick layer of dust, casting everything in a dull shade of grey. Little enough light filtered into the room from the hallway outside, but it was still enough for him to see by.
Hulbard marched along the length of the room, checking under every counter for anything that might have been left behind, but each of them stood bare without exception. The whistling of the wind through the shattered windows outside was now joined by the hollow hum of the passing through the chimney above, creating an eerie chorus as he approached the hearth. A rusted spit hung over a mound of ash, but as his eyes roamed over it, Hulbard saw that it hadn’t fallen in a natural, uniform way. Brows furrowing, he hunkered down and plunged a hand into the mound, sending up a thick cloud of choking ash as he dredged his fingers through it. Finding something solid, he pulled it free and held it up to the light.
In his hand, Hulbard held a femur. It was scorched black in places and coated in a fine layer of dust, but still easily recognisable all the same. Lifting it free of the debris, he silently held it up for the others to see and saw understanding dawn in their eyes.
"Human," Trastgor growled softly, and Knox hummed in acknowledgement.
Tossing it back into the fireplace, he slid smoothly back upright and they left the empty kitchen behind. Filing back out into the corridor, they approached the heavy oak door opposite the entryway.
It swung inwards with another ear piercing shriek of rusted hinges and just like before, the sound echoed away ahead of them, filling the expansive hall beyond the portal to the brim with the reverberating noise. The chamber itself was dominated by a vast wooden table of dark mahogany almost ten feet in length and surrounded by deep, artfully crafted chairs with sweeping arms and cushioned seats. Cutlery lay scattered across the tables scarred surface.
More bones had been gathered here, pooling around the legs of the furniture and ranging from skulls and fingerbones to largely intact ribcages. Windows, both high and wide, stretched across the opposite wall, though tgey were free from the boards nailed across those at the front of the building. Through their cracked and stained glass, Hulbard saw more vegetation beyond.
The tattered remnants of banners and empty wooden frames hung across three of the otherwise plain walls, while a balcony stood midway up the length of the fourth, to his left, set to overlook the banquet hall. An archway had been built into the stone below, through which he could make out the vague shapes of steps. Likely leading up to the balcony, he guessed.
When nothing erupted from thin air to tear them asunder, Hulbard felt his muscles instinctively start to relax. Letting his arms drop to his side, the warrior turned to survey the chamber.
"Bones and cutlery make for a poor treasure, Quin," he said.
"True enough, even if everything on this table is silver," Shankhill mused.
He strode across to the piece of furniture, plucked up a fork and held it up to the light. Shankhill examined it for a long second before tossing it back onto the table with a clatter.
"And it's not".
"Just as well," Hulbard said, "We didn't come all this way for a few silver forks".
"Then why are we here?" Knox asked, "This place is giving me the shivers".
"Why?" Shankhill asked with a shrug, "It's just an old building. Full of dust, bones and little else by the look of it".
"Aye," Hulbard nodded, "An old, empty building. Just like the last one we were in, right?"
"Nothing like the thing we killed back there in this one," Shankhill affected a grander shrug than the last.
"Then why was this place guarded?" Skye's voice was soft, brows furrowed as she looked around.
"An apt observation," Quintus told her, "Though a keener one still would be how those guards were still breathing when we met them. Or how anything in this cursed city still lives. Why the fish outside were only now half rotting, while those knights seemed whole. Or why skinless monsters walk at all".
"Bullshit," Skye snorted, "My observation was a good one. You just listed everything we've all been wondering"
"Maybe," her Master allowed with a sage nod, "But only one of us has a chance to come up with any answers to those questions".
"And so, the blind man muses about what colours might be," a gentle voice spoke from overhead.
Hulbard's head snapped around to see a woman leaning languidly against the balcony rail overhead, where no one had been a moment before. His eyes widened; she was utterly stunning. An emerald dress clung to her slender but voluptuous figure, while her face was framed by a mane of luscious, raven black hair artfully arranged atop her head and held in place with several ruby tipped pins. Her feminine features were just as striking, her natural alabaster skin only accented by charcoal darkened eyes and lips bright as the gemstones in her hair.
She was utterly human though, and the first they’d seen besides their shadowy guide since arriving in Dalághast. Despite her appearance though, Hulbard knew better than to drop his guard in that place.
“Alright,” the warrior’s voice emerged from his helm with a hollow sigh, “What now? Who are you and what do you want?”
“At least she still has skin,” he heard Knox mutter wryly behind him.
“I am the Last Lady of this Illustrious house, you simple creature,” she told him in a disdainful tone, “Lady Harmica Gale”.
“Not much illustrious about it anymore,” Shankhill commented before Hulbard could reply.
The rogue wiped a seat clean with the hem of his cloak and flopped lazily into it. Adding insult to injury, he flung his boots up on an adjacent chair and leaned back in the first with a heavy sigh of lordly disapproval.
"And where, precisely, is your manor?" she asked him with an artfully cocked eyebrow, "So that I might see the sum of your wealth with my own eyes".
Hulbard couldn't help chuckling at that. Shanks tended to take control of any situation where talking was needed and while it was always interesting to see how he tackled each encounter, it was even better when it didn't quite work out for him.
"She has you there," he said.
"No doubt," Skye agreed with a wicked smile, "The sum of Shankhill's wealth is his boots".
"I'm not sure I appreciate you two taking her side," Shankhull muttered sourly, flashing a glare towards them.
Out of the corner of his eye, though, Hulbard caught the almost imperceptible motion of Quintus rapping the back of his Apprentice's leg with the butt of his staff. The Sorcerer's lips were drawn into a thoughtful frown but before Hulbard could wander what he was trying to alert Skye to, Harmica Gale spoke again and her powerful, cultured voice rang through the hall.
"It has always been the nature of the small to bemoan the brilliance of the great," she lamented, "But you would never dare to do so had you seen the banquets that took place in this very hall, at that very table. The great and powerful of Dalághast came to this place to feast and dance until their hearts were content.”
“I’m sure they did, before you started poisoning them,” Quintus spoke up in that deep drawl of his, “But did you really have to eat them afterwards? Talk about adding insult to injury”.
“Pouring salt into the wound,” Skye snickered and Hulbard smirked along with her.
“Such things happen,” Harmica told him with an airy wave of one hand, “
“Pfft, no they don’t,” Hulbard snorted, “I can’t say I’ve ever killed someone and ate them before”.
“We Gales have always had a discerning taste for the finer things in life,” she told him with balefully narrowed eyes, “And we were far from the first in Dalághast to practice such eating habits. By the end, we were simply the most accomplished at it.”
“Maybe that’s the reason they turned against you,” Quintus said, gesturing towards the hallway and its barricaded windows with his staff, “At what point did they try to storm this place?”
“Not until the very end,” Harmica told him with a sly smile, “And by then, the rabble that sought to stop us only succeeded in adding to our feasts. We were subtle, you see. Subtle as any knife to ever grace a choice piece of meat. Several of our household fell to the raids, but they too fed the fires of our insatiable hunger”.
She practically purred the word, sending a shiver up Hulbard’s cold spine.
“And you started it all by using plants grown right here in your own gardens,” Quintus surmised, “The Olaphis plant, unless I’m mistaken. I saw several outside. Highly toxic, if cooked right”.
“You have a good eye,” Harmica told him with a devious smirk as one hand trailed lovingly across the smooth, cold stone of her balcony, “Once we’d decided on our course of action, we imported and cultivated several of them, at great personal expense, I might add.”
“Ugh, don’t even talk to me about the price of good poisons nowadays,” Shankhill bemoaned, his tone dripping with sarcastic exasperation, “If only I could afford them, I’d have been eating people years ago. Such a shame.”
“Jest like a child, if that is your preference,” she told him with a lazy shrug, “But the experience soon justified the expense. I stood right here..”
Harmica paused dramatically as she straightened up and raised both arms to either side.
“...And watched them quench their thirst on tainted wine. They took their fill of everything our pantry could provide. There, in that far corner, an arrangement of violins and harps played a soft melody in counterpoint to their loud merriment. A common evening within our halls, until they began to realise something was terribly, terribly wrong”.
Harmica flashed a dazzling smile as she let her arms drop, her expression a mix of remembered ecstasy and nostalgic longing.Her eyes seemed to glaze over as she gazed into the distant past, enraptured by the memory while she spoke in a low, sultry purr.
"I have not the words to express my delight at the display that followed. Only in their last moments can the true measure of a man be taken into account and it was a pleasure to see that truth brought to life. Realisation dawned, but all too slowly. You should have seen it".
Harmica let out a low, lilting chuckle and Hulbard shared a glance with Knox.
“Most surged to their feet like men possessed, already coughing and spluttering as the Olaphis rooted itself within them. They turned towards me, threw out their arms like estranged lovers begging for one last kiss. Some cursed my name, my house, my lineage. Others pleaded, but their words above all others were the sweetest. The chaos was as intoxicating as any wine I’ve ever tasted”.
“Any particular reason you decided to kill them all or were you just always crazy?” Shankhill asked as he idly spun a nearby plate on the tabletop.
“I will pretend no nobility,” Harmica told him with a forlorn sigh, “We killed because we sought the extravagant. Nothing more, nothing less. Some deserved to die. Some didn’t. In death, it didn’t matter who deserved what”.
“Ah death,” Shankhill paused the spinning, rattling plate with a hand, “Now there, we can agree. Not much gets past that one”.
“Except you,” Quintus said pointedly. “How?”
“Only once they were dead, did the real work begin,” Harmica continued, ignoring both of them, “We dined on the lordly until none were left within our reach. After that, we became less discerning and began to pick our prey from the streets. We lured the hungry, the dispossessed, the desperate, all with promises of shelter and succor. We gorged ourselves while Dalághast starved. Each and every night, we ate our fill. When they discovered our appetites, they came for us, but they were never a problem. No, the real problem was that those we preyed upon did not remain dead. They came for us...and their teeth were so very, very sharp”.
Her voice had dipped to a soft whisper by those last words, chilling Hulbard to the bone.
“They took their fill, but it did not end there. I did not end. Instead, I endured, only to watch this great mansion decay with the passing years within this dead husk of a city. Yet I did not remain as I was. Ever since that first night, when they came for me with those hungry eyes and glinting fangs, I can taste nothing. The finest food tastes like ash, while the most luxurious wine is no better than murky water. My stomach grew hollow and has remained so, ever since”.
“A tragic tale, if ever there was one,” Shankhill scoffed derisively.
“Now…” Harmica affected a shrug of her slender shoulders, “I am left here with nothing but the scratching of rats for company”.
Hulbard started as a sudden, heavy thud rang through the hall, resounding against the floorboards overhead. Everyone around him tensed, looking to the ceiling, but he kept his gaze fixed on the woman as a deep, cold dread settled into place across his shoulders. It sank deep into his bones, seemed to weigh him down as instinct made his breathing slow. There was a second thump, as if something large had just fallen to the floor above them, and then the teeth itching scratch of something being dragged across the wood. There came a third resonant impact overhead, then a fourth, a fifth and a sixth.
“Big rats,” Harmica told them with a predatory smile.
Stepping away from the balcony, she faded from view into the shadowy archway behind her, emerald eyes glinting in the gloom just as brightly as her wicked grin. Hulbard felt his companions shift, drawing closer together at his back while Shankhill slid upright but he was already running through a dozen ideas at once in his head; sizing up the known floorplan of the building for the most easily defensible positions, considering every exit, whether to fight or run, to push or to hold their ground. The sounds echoing down to them from overhead intensified tenfold. There was the rumble of multiple objects striking the floorboards, followed by the patter of a multitude of what sounded like bare feet, all echoing down to them from overhead and rumbling through the feast hall like growling thunder.
That was when a spine tingling shriek cut through the hallways above, reverberating from the walls to take on a life all its own. Hulbard’s heartbeat quickened as adrenaline flooded his system, his mind racing ahead. A great many things were racing through the upper floors of the building and it sounded like they were congregating on the entryway. Making a snap decision, he turned to his companions.
“Trastgor,” he barked, “The door. Get it shut!”
He whirled back towards the balcony, but his eyes were drawn to the doorway below it as a hand the size of his head swept into view. Sheathed in pink, raw skin, it gripped the edge of the doorway and the sight of it alone was enough to make Hulbard take a cautious step backwards. The sound of Trastgor’s pounding feet merged with his own racing heart as a gruesome figure emerged from the archway. Stooping to pass through the doorway, the monstrosity hauled itself into the open. It straightened up to stand eight feet tall at the shoulder.
Long arms, laden with thick ropes of fat, trailed almost to the floor while two stumpy legs supported its bulbous, grotesque gut. The skin across its distended stomach was splashed with an ugly, crimson rash shot through with ripe boils. As he took in the sight of it, Hulbard saw the thick, pink hide of its belly ripple, as if cradling something all too eager to escape. Its entire form was surmounted by the vast, thick head of a hog, complete with two beady, green eyes set above a broad snout. It was a hideous sight to behold but it was made worse by the fact that he could see it so clearly.
The beast in the theatre had been shrouded in darkness, appearing in memory as still images lit by flickering fire, but this thing stood before him in all its impossible glory, bathed in the naked light of day and he knew that the sight of it would be burned into his mind until his dying breath. Of all the creatures they’d hunted in the past, none had been like those that seemed to thrive in Dalághast.
“Awh fuck,” he heard Shankhill mutter distantly.
Hulbard heard the sudden pop and crackle of flames to his left and instinct made him duck right. Quintus took his place in one smooth step, grim features lit from below by the licking purple fire coalescing around his weaving hands. The iridescent fire flowed between them like water, flaring and undulating with a soft hum unlike any other flames Hulbard had ever seen before. He swept his hands forward and, just like that, the Sorcerer unleashed a torrent of roaring death. It ripped through the air, flooded around the monster and sent it reeling back a step, arms flailing. Its mouth yawned wide to release a guttural, lilting bellow of surprise and pain.
The amethyst flames set its skin alight and filled the air with a plume of white smoke, the rancid stench of burning flesh and the splattering pop of fat frying. The entire scene was gruesome, but all too familiar. Hulbard had seen men burned before on the battlefield.
The hog fell back and dropped to one knee as its bellow trailed away into a pitiable, plaintive wail. Hulbard only barely heard the sound of racing footsteps drawing closer, the sound mingling eerily with the huff of grated, panting breaths from a dozen ragged throats. He spared a glance towards the doorway and caught a glimpse of the claustrophobic hall beyond alive with movement. It was crawling with figures barrelling into it from the opposite doorway. Skeletal, spindly, hairless, ashen skinned and moving with terrifying speed. The door slammed shut as Trastgor heaved against it and Knox rushed to join him.
The sudden sensation of crackling flesh drawing closer made him just, just as a huge, pink hand smashed into his chest plate with enough force to fling him back a step and rattle him to his very bones. Still alight, snarling fire and billowing smoke, the hog lunged for him and Hulbard could only grunt as he was hauled off his feet with negligent ease. Hoisted into the air, he was brought crashing back down onto the table with earth shattering force. The impact knocked all rational thought from his mind as pain bloomed across his shoulders and neck. Gasping for breath, he reacted through instinct alone and rolled to one side, dropping to the floor as his senses reeled to keep up. Between the table and windows, he lurched back upright.
A glance over the beasts shoulder was all he could spare; Knox had his back against the chamber door with Trastgor by his side, the Kurgal’s muscles locked rigid as they kept it shut against the gibbering horde. Semekt had reared to one side, blades at the ready and tongue lashing, dark eyes fixed on the hulking hog. Quintus’ hands were in motion again, his lips moving. Skye was at his side, wide eyed and scrabbling for her pouches. Then there was Shankhill. Sprinting towards the other end of the hall as fast as he could. Towards a door half hidden in the shadows. Bastard.
The pig, Harmica, surged over the table and one hand hand crashed against Hulbard’s shield with enough strength to send him skidding backwards across the tiled floor. A window sill caught him under the hip and he tumbled backwards through it. He smashed through an intact pane of glass and crashed to the ground outside with a metallic snarl of pain. Breathing hard, he rolled back upright and hefted his warhammer. The gemstones in his armour bloomed into life with a sulfurous snap and orange lightning sparked into life around him.
“Come on then,” he roared with what breath he had left, “Come on, you bitch!”
The hog clambered through the broken window with a bone jarring roar of fury.
The purple fire ignited between his weaving hands but it burned through every inch of his body, setting his senses alight. Quintus guided them in short, looping circles with a series of smooth gestures, keeping the torrent of deadly flames held at bay, shaping it into something he could use. All the while, it swelled, moulded to his will by the very essence of what made him a Sorcerer. Heat began to spill from it in a roiling wave, washing over his bared flesh with enough strength to sting. His eyes were fixed on the doorway ahead, barricaded by Trastgor and Knox, utterly trusting Hulbard to deal with the larger creature behind them.
“Shankhill is running,” Skye hiss in his ear.
“Focus,” he snapped back, before drawing in a deep breath to bark his next order, “Move!”
They both looked up, say him and split to either side. The door erupted inwards, smashing against its hinges. A horde of squealing, rasping creatures poured into the hall but they didn’t make it far before a torrent of fire washed through their front ranks, decimating them with a billowing roar. The flames emerged from a molten orb floating between Quintus' hands, flooding forth as he fed it energy from his Core. Worked to a roaring temperature, it swallowed the charging horde, rushed on into the hallway beyond. Power surged through his very veins, setting his nerves alight with a rush of dangerous adrenaline.
Several plunged through the flames but, engulfed in amethyst fire, they were barely able to stagger a few steps before collapsing to the cold stone floor. The onslaught sent them reeling, writhing and screeching in maddened pain and fear. Charred corpses slapped against the floor beyond the doorway and Quintus felt a surge of satisfaction wash over him. Strength surged from his chest, raced down his arms, leapt from his fingers with a life of its own. It coursed through his body for a long second before the Sorcerer felt searing heat stab its way up his arms. The muscles across his forearms suddenly spasmed and his numb fingers cramped, killing the swirling ember between them. Quintus gasped as he felt his surging Core skip a momentary beat.
The flow of power stalled for an instant before rushing back to full strength, but the damage was already done. The spell backfired as the purple flames sputtered and died, sending a backlash of force through his body that sent the old man staggering back a step.
“Skye!” he panted, “Protect...me!”
The archway was blackened from the flames, the hallway beyond strewn with charred, smouldering corpses, but still more were piling over their dead. Many more. Knox was skipping backwards across the tiles towards them, loosing an arrow with every step he took, but the spindly humanoids continued to skitter forward regardless. They plunged through the smoke choked doorway and were met by Trastgor’s heavy blade. He cut three down, before one flung itself on his spiked shield, impaling itself on it. Before the Kurgal could shrug it clear, another two had leapt on him.
Knox swivelled to shoot one between its shoulder blades but he had to swing back to the doorway as more darted into the hall. Three arrows met the string of his bow at once and the hunter loosed all three into the oncoming figure, but they did little to stem the oncoming tide. Only the chokepoint of the door held them at bay, funnelling them into Knox’ arrows and Trastgor’s blade, but even that was quickly failing with Quintus’ skills held in check by his spasming muscles.
One beast broke from the pack, slipped between the two warriors ahead, ducked low and flung itself into the air. Quintus watched with wide eyes as it sailed towards him, arms drawn back and needle like fangs flashing. He winced as it smashed into an invisible shield, broke most of the bones in its body with an excruciating series of snaps and crumpled to the floor. His eyes flicked to Skye standing to one side, who looked just as shocked as he felt; she’d created a primitive, clumsy, inelegant shield, but it had certainly been effective.
Now, it was his turn. Snatching up his bladed staff, he levelled it towards the doorway. Coiling his Core, the Sorcerer directed it down through his tingling right arm. It met the wood of the weapon and spun invisibly along its length. The sapphire embedded into the staffs tip glowed suddenly fever bright as he set his sights. He gauged the rising, resonating power coursing into that gemstone and loosed a blinding, searing beam of blue light from it in an explosive burst of power. It sliced through the doorway, cleaving everything in its path in half with one neat blast that bathed the entire hall in a harsh, blue glare for a heartbeat.
Hissing at the cold numbness sinking deep into his cramped right hand, Quintus stared through the opening at the destruction he’d wrought. In any other foe, he would have expected them to turn tail and flee, but despite their eviscerated comrades, more of the grey skinned cretins were piling into the hallway beyond. Still, he’d bought himself a few valuable seconds to think, breathe and assess the situation.
Movement on his left made Quintus glance towards the far end of the hall, where he saw Shankhill skid back into view through the doorway he’d fled through only a moment before. Hair wild, he swung the door shut behind him but instead of throwing his shoulder against it, he sprinted towards them.
“Semekt!” he screamed.
Quintus swung an eye around the room; Hulbard was gone, Semekt was nowhere to be seen, Trastgor wouldn’t stop more than three or four of them before he would be dragged under and he assumed the same for Knox. Then his gaze came to settle on the open doorway beneath the balcony and he pointed.
“There,” he yelled, “Choke point!”
Quintus raced for the staircase with Skye hot on his heels, but Knox barked after them.
“Not up there!” his voice carried over the onrushing chaos, “Outside!”
“Not with the pig,” Quintus huffed over his shoulder and he saw the hunter hesitate, but only for a second before he started after them.
Shankhill fell into step alongside them before they even reached the first step, whimpering with every panted breath. He tore past Quintus and flung himself up the staircase, leaving the older man to pound along behind, breath hissing through grit teeth. The stone steps wound up to a junction, where one short hallway led to the balcony Harmica had made her grand appearance on. On the left, another ended in a thick, ironbound door standing slightly ajar. Shankhill smashed it open and flew into the room beyond, thankfully leaving the door open for Quintus to follow.
He slid into a decrepit, but huge bedchamber and quickly raked it with his keen gaze. An instant was all he needed to make sure it was free from even more threats and Quintus spun back to the doorway with his robes billowing around his legs. Trastgor backed into the junction ahead, shield lifted and sword lashing as he kept the horde from their heels, using the narrow staircase to his advantage. Grey ash scythed through the air in place of blood with every cut he made, but the Kurgal was too slow to deal with the numbers facing him.
One of the ghouls slipped past its comrades and flung itself against his shield, impaling itself on the long, slender spikes branching from it. Still snarling, it dug its heels deep and forced Trastgor back against the opposite wall, forcing him to turtle up as its long nails dug furrows through his hazel fur. Quintus was shoved aside as Knox darted forward, sliding to a stop at the doorway. His bow hummed as he loosed arrow after arrow down the short hallway with lethal precision, felling several of the creatures as they followed the first. He created just enough space and time for Trastgor to break away from the pack and turn to race down the hall towards them.
He barrelled into the bedchamber and Shankhill slammed the door shut in his wake, nearly crushing Knox in the process.
“Watch it!” the hunter snarled, but he was already turning towards a nearby dresser.
Together with Trastgor, he dragged it into place across the doorway before piling a nearby armchair on top of it to create a makeshift barricade. It rumbled into place just as the horde reached the door and crashed against it.
“Welcome back, Shankhill,” Skye spat at the man, who was doubled over to one side, gasping for breath.
“I don’t want to hear it,” he growled as harsh scratching started up at the heavy door.
Fingernails clawed into the wood, dug grooves from it as Quintus paced across the chamber and threw back the voluminous, tattered curtains covering one large window. Beyond the cracked and dust coated glass, he looked down over the large, rear garden.
“What now?” Knox snapped over his shoulder, braced against the barricade with Trastgor by his side.
His question was met by the crash of shattering glass as Quintus plunged his staff through the window. Motioning for Skye to turn around, he began rummaging through her pack until he found what he was looking for and dragged out a thick coil of rope.
“Tie that to something,” he said, tossing one end at Shankhill, “We’ll escape out the window and try to reach the back wall”.
Hulbard vaulted an old, icy choked wall, skidded as he landed and used the forward momentum to power his headlong sprint through the garden. Sweat rolled down his body; every muscle in his body burned and his breath hissed ragged within the helm he wore, hitching as he cast a glance over his shoulder. He was just in time to see the monster hot on his heels plunge through the ancient stone wall with enough force to send blocks of stone careening through the air. His heartbeat was hammering so loud in his ears that he scarcely heard the crash though, and the beast thundered after him without a moment’s pause.
Hulbard saw her suddenly stumble, stagger to one side and then come crashing down to the ground with a bestial yelp of surprise. His boots skidded on the soft earth as the warrior spun around to face the creature, pushing off from a nearby tree to help halt his forward motion. His foe was writhing on the ground, tearing great chunks of vegetation to shreds as it trashed and rolled before he caught a glimpse of Semekt amongst the chaos. The Dramaskian had snared her legs with her long tail, tripping the beast mid step. She clung on now as the hog kicked and grunted, scrabbling at the dirt for purchase.
Seeing his chance, Hulbard lumbered back towards the pair, gasping for breath with every step he took. It had been a short flight from the manor, but in a full suit of armour, it had been enough to leave him drained. Especially after fighting earlier that same morning and while carrying the laden pack across his shoulders.
The hog floundered onto her back and Semekt reared above her in an instant, blades bared. Four scimitars descended as one, plunging through Harmica’s chest. A bone jarring, mournful bellow of pain escaped her throat as the monster threw back her head. Hulbard slowed his run, eyes narrowed as he tried to gauge whether they had been enough to put an end to the nightmare, but he wasn’t left wondering long. One massive hand reached up, caught Semekt’s bandolier and pulled the Dramaskian aside. She slammed the reptilian warrior into the ground hard enough to send clods of earth flying and heaved its bulk upright. Freeing itself from Semekt’s trashing coils, the beast let loose a torrential bellow of fury.
Her emerald eyes lifted to meet Hulbard’s as he surged back into a charge, but she was too slow to do anything about it. The crackling, spitting head of his hammer caught the beast a glancing blow across one cheek and detonated, spraying bolts of amber lighting through the air with an ear splitting ‘CRACK!’ Harmica yelped and hobbled backwards, driven by raw instinct. She lifted Semekt and flung the Dramaskian aside, only just dodging a backhanded swing from Hulbard’s hammer that would have smashed her head to shards.
As he drew back for another swing, one large hand snapped out to close around the head of his warhammer with the snap and crackle of discharging lightning. The weapon was wrenched from his grip, but he didn’t miss a beat.
Drawing back his fist, Hulbard punched the pig with a bellow of his own. Lightning coursed down the length of his arm, surging from the gemstone set over his chest and leapt to the spiked prongs over his knuckles. From there, it was transferred into a devastating bolt of lighting. At point blank range, it exploded across Harmica’s pink flesh in a blast of dazzling light. Her muscles seized in a heartbeat and began to spasm, wracked by lightning Seizing his opportunity, Hulbard brought the edge of his shield scything down into her knee, and Harmica fell to it, powerless to resist. Her vast head dropped into range and he saw her eyes go wide a heartbeat before his fist smashed into her muzzle with an explosive detonation of lightning.
The blow smashed the beasts mighty bulk to the ground, poleaxed her in a heartbeat.
Before he could do more, Semekt reappeared with a sibilant hiss. Her blades swept down in a blur of glinting steel, carving into Harmica’s flesh with a series of sharp, soft ‘snicks’. The keen edges of her scimitars sliced into the monsters hide, cutting clean through to sunder her spine with a distinctive crunch. At last, Harmica fell still.
“Fuck,” Hulbard panted breathlessly, “Fuck, fuck, fuck”.
Lightning still sparked along the length of his arm and he shook it out, letting the residual energy bleed and spark away into the surrounding air. His nerves tingling unpleasantly up and down the limb, while his fingers had already started trembling.
“Fuck,” Semekt repeated, staring at him blankly.
“Back…,” he gasped, “To...manor...we need...the others”.
“Shankhill,” the Dramaskian rasped, half butchering the pronunciation with her forked tongue.
Turning, Semekt suddenly reared back upright with a warning hiss, blades sweeping into place in the blink of an eye. Hulbard froze, blinking through the stinging sweat dripping into his eyes as he scanned their surroundings, desperately trying to hear anything over his own thundering heart. Catching a glimpse of oncoming movement, he lumbered to one side and snatched up his warhammer from where it had fallen between the roots of a dead tree. He returned to Semekt just as Shankhill exploded into view, trashing through a nearby bush.
He skidded on the loose earth of their battleground, almost tripped and took in the scene with a panicked glance; Hulbard heaving for breath, Semekt at the ready looming over the corpses of Harmica between them. The others were close behind, struggling through the dense, overgrown vegetation.
“Run!” Shankhill gasped, before bolting back.
Hulbard didn’t need to ask why; he could already see the grey skinned creatures pouring through the undergrowth, darting between the plants with terrifying speed. His first instinct was to stand his ground and fight, despite the odds. He was already tired and sought nothing more than to sink into the tireless rhythm of a battle he could grasp, but with his companions dashing past, he was left with no choice but to follow in their footsteps.
Another fifty yards brought them to the outer wall and Hulbard flung his back against it. Bracing his legs, he cupped his hands between them and Knox stepped into them without a word. The warrior practically flung him over the eight foot high wall, before the others followed. Shankhill scrambled up next, then Quintus and Skye, while Semekt scaled the wall with staggering ease all on his own. Trastgor was a heavier burden and his considerable weight made Hulbard groan as he heaved the warrior higher. The Kurgal straddled the wall and leaned back down, reaching for his comrade in arms and together, they managed to haul Hulbard’s armoured bulk over the wall. They dropped to the cobbled roadway beyond, escaping the cursed gardens of the Gale estate.
With his senses swimming, Hulbard cast about, already prepared to rush headlong back into another fight. They’d dropped into a narrow alleyway set between two larger roadways, flanked by the garden wall on one side and another featureless expanse of stone just as high on the other. They gathered together, each of them gasping for breath after their death defying escape. Quintus, in particular, seemed to have suffered from the exercise; he leaned heavily on his staff, shoulders slumped, face drawn and eyes sunk.
“Alright,” Shankhill huffed out, “New rule. No more exploring ruined buildings. That’s it. I’m done with this shit”.
“A better rule would be that we stick together from now on,” Trastgor growled.
“Tried to do a disappearing act, did he?” Hulbard grated into his helm.
Though his tone was harsh, he wasn’t surprised. Not when Shankhill had often done the same in the past when their backs had been up against a wall. The talkative rogue had never been the pinnacle of dependable at the best of times, let alone when danger presented itself.
“He was chased back to us, sadly enough,” Skye scoffed derisively, “Little weasel”.
Shankhill rolled his eyes at her, but for once, he was too exhausted to argue.
“Maybe we should keep a tighter leash on our future explorations,” Quintus agreed softly, “We have nothing to show for that entire endeavour. Or our previous effort in the theatre this morning”.
“Agreed,” Skye nodded, staring up at the wall they’d just scaled with shifting, haunted eyes.
She stood by her Master’s eyes, nervously rubbing her arms while shifting restlessly from foot to foot. Hulbard felt a keen instinct to reassure her, but pushed it aside, instead turning his own gaze on the wall.
“Where’d the skinny grey folk go?” he asked.
“I’m not sure they can leave the grounds,” Quintus supplied, “But that’s a working theory at best”.
“Then it’s a good thing we can,” Shankhill said, brushing dirt off his pants, “I suggest we leave before today get’s any worse”.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.