Koriszegy Keep - Approaching the Keep
The journey from Radlebb Keep was made in the light of a moon approaching fullness. It was a beautiful, cloudless night and the forest below the carpet was still and quiet. The extreme heat of the previous day had left stickiness hanging in the air through the night. As the pale light of dawn came creeping over the horizon Lana felt a slight chill in her weary bones. The three companions were at the edge of Radlebb Woods, where the hills began the long rise towards the mountains in the north.
The terrain looked familiar to Lana - this was ground she had flown over with Sascia. There were a few copses of trees dotted about but they looked unhealthy and the ground was rocky and desolate. As the carpet flew north the trees became ever more diseased in appearance. It was the height of summer but the trees appeared in the depths of winter, with only a few brown leaves clinging to their dead black branches.
Half an hour after the first hint of sunrise, Drewen, who had been attempting to converse with Piotr about their journey to the Isle of Dawn to rescue Vorha Perdissium, fell silent as the crumbling towers of Koriszegy Keep came into view. The carpet was still more than a mile away but even from a distance there was a palpable aura of death about the place.
With grim resolve the passengers continued their approach. The dawn light seemed somehow subdued and failed to generate any warmth. There was no birdsong. Nothing. Just the wind - a stiff breeze that was growing stronger by the minute. The carpet was veering to the west when Piotr spotted a group of figures approaching from the east. He squinted but could not make out any details - the group was still far away and had the rising sun at its back. A sudden gust of wind whipped at Lana's hair and she heard a faint rumble like thunder.
Reaching for her crystal ball Lana stared into its depths, seeking a closer view of the lead figure. Beside her, Piotr closed his eyes and concentrated, extending his consciousness in the direction of the group.
An ogre, Lana saw clearly. At least it had been once. Now the skin was peeling from its face and its head lolled from side to side in a manner that suggested its neck might have been broken. Willing her vision to pull back, she counted five in total - all in a state of obvious decay, lurching awkwardly forward, casting long shadows ahead of them. Two were dragging limp forms behind them but the vision was not clear enough to determine anything other than the fact that the figures appeared slight (unsurprising next to ogres), humanoid and were dressed in forest colours.
"Ogres," Lana frowned as she informed her companions, "undead ones by the look of it. It appears they are fetching prisoners back to the Keep. Shall we intervene?" Despite the unusual nature of their opponents or perhaps because of it, she couldn't help but feel excited.
Drewen scratched his chin. "Undead ogres eh? Could be tough but maybe we could do with a warm up before hitting the Keep."
He squinted and shielded his eyes. "Maybe we could get in and out before they get here..." He sounded doubtful. "I suppose if they have prisoners we should do something. How many did you say there - WHOAH!"
A sudden gust of wind pulled at his cloak and nearly tore him off the carpet. He steadied himself.
Piotr's expression was grave. "This is an ill wind," he shouted over the increasing howl, "if ever I knew one. But if they have prisoners we have no choice but to intervene."
Lana nodded her agreement. "There could be more of them at the Keep - let's engage these ones while they remain isolated." She made a mental note to keep some of her useful spells in reserve for what awaited them.
Without further ado the carpet made to intercept the undead.
The ogres were farther away than they had looked to be and with the wind howling it took a few minutes to close with them. They were now about two hundred and fifty yards from the group. They were shambling along very slowly and did not appear to have responded in any way to the approaching carpet.
The wind dropped slightly; as the carpet moved away from the Keep Lana realised she could feel the warmth of the early morning sun. It would be another hot day.
Drewen and Piotr loaded their crossbows. As soon as they were in range, Drewen targeted the lead ogre and Piotr took aim at the second. Both shots missed. Lana guided the carpet closer while her companions reloaded. This time Drewen's target appeared to jerk as his bolt hit home. Piotr missed however.
With their third shots both hit home.
Lana maintained the carpet at as close a range as she was comfortable with. Two more shots. Two more hits. The two elves - as it now became clear they were - being dragged along by their feet looked a bloody mess. Their heads bounced along the rocky ground with each shambling step the ogres took.
The lead ogre raised its head and stared at Drewen with fiery hatred in its eyes but kept moving relentlessly forward.
"Oi!" growled Drewen, "don't ignore me!" He fired another shot. Unfortunately Lana was manoeuvring the carpet at that moment and the bolt only scraped the ogre's side. Piotr found himself thrown off balance and his shot went well wide.
Drewen reloaded but was too hasty and his next shot missed. Piotr however hit home.
While Lana kept the carpet moving steadily along with the shambling undead, Drewen and Piotr each fired two more bolts into their chosen targets.
"I'm out of bolts," muttered Drewen, swapping his crossbow for his rarely used shortbow. Unwilling to let up the attack, Lana hefted a dagger in her hand. It had been a while but she threw it expertly, hitting the nearest ogre - one dragging an elf. Piotr unfortunately missed his shot.
Slow moving though they were, the ogres' relentless march made it difficult for Lana to divert her attention from keeping the carpet at a steady distance from the targets. Judging that they were slightly too far away for her to throw another dagger she stayed her hand and focused on moving the carpet forward.
"Never really got to grips with this," said Drewen, taking aim with his bow, "I only bought it for the sake of those magic arrows we found. Wish I had them now." Despite his self-doubt, when the dwarf finally released the bowstring his arrow hit home. Piotr however missed again.
Lana threw another dagger but missed the mark. Drewen however pulled off another good shot and Piotr had found his aim again. Again Lana switched her attention to piloting the carpet while her companions fired two more true shots from their weapons.
Still the ogres kept going, seemingly uncaring of the relentless assault.
"Tar-far!" cursed Drewen. "What's it going to take to put them down?"
Bolts, arrows and a solitary dagger were lodged in various parts of the ogres' decaying bodies. Lana wondered whether the attacks had been in vain; it was clear the missiles caused the undead no pain but that did not mean they had not caused injury.
As if reading her thoughts, Drewen said, "I'll try silver," and pulled a silver-tipped arrow from his quiver.
Lana looked around for a decent-sized rock and spied one that looked like it weighed at least thirty pounds. She extended her hand and it rose slowly into the air.
Drewen released his silver arrow. It flew straight and true into the skull of his target. The ogre crashed to the ground and lay still.
Lana yelped with delight. "Keep pressing the attack!"
Piotr put another bolt into his target.
Under Lana's guidance the rock floated five feet over the head of an ogre - not one dragging an elf. She let it drop and it fell, knocking the undead monster to the ground but it slowly picked itself back up and kept going.
Drewen and Piotr's shots both missed.
Lana returned her attention to keeping the carpet on course. Drewen fired again though his aim seemed to have deserted him. Piotr hit his target, which now looked like an undead porcupine but kept moving.
Piotr frowned, realising he had five bolts remaining. Drewen still had plenty of arrows.
Lana concentrated on piloting. Drewen missed again. "Tar-far!" he cursed again. "Stupid, useless weapon. I'm selling this as soon as we get back to civilisation." All the same he reached for another arrow as Piotr put another quarrel into his target and wearily started to reload.
Meanwhile Lana had found her silver dagger and was thinking about throwing it.
Drewen finally registered another hit - on the ogre Lana had hit with the rock and which had begun lagging behind the three others. Then, three others became two others as Piotr's latest shot caused the ogre to slow a stop before collapsing.
"Yes!" exclaimed Drewen, thumping Piotr on the back. The paladin teetered and did his best to not fall off the carpet - into the arms of a decaying ogre.
"Drewen?" inquired Lana politely, "what does 'tar-far' mean?"
The dwarf nocked an arrow to his bowstring. "Something that makes you want to pull your beard out."
"Ah." Given dwarven pride in such matters, Lana reckoned this was a profanity of greater than middling severity.
Drewen and Piotr both targeted the same ogre. Drewen's arrow glanced against its arm. Piotr's quarrel went in its belly.
Having moved on eighty yards past where the previous rock lay, Lana spotted a replacement of similar size and floated it over the ogre's head. Piotr and Drewen both missed.
Lana let the rock drop. It hit and caused the ogre to lurch to one side. Unfortunately this meant both her companions' shots went whistling harmlessly past the target.
Piotr had exhausted his supply of bolts. During the mini-war of attrition, the undead had advanced four hundred yards towards Koriszegy Keep. A copse of trees lay directly in the ogres' path about fifty yards away.
"Put us down Lana," said Drewen, "I want to really hit these things."
Lana needed no more telling - while Drewen and Piotr engaged (and hopefully distracted) the foes on the ground, she thought she might try to get close to the elves for first aid purposes.
The carpet set down. The companions readied themselves and turned to face the oncoming menace - by which point the elf-dragging ogres were upon them. A third lagged ten yards or so behind.
Lana backed off allowing the fighters to interpose themselves. With no time to draw his sword, Piotr gave a great lunge forward and pushed his spear into the ogre's belly and out the back. Drewen looked a great deal more comfortable with his hammer in his hand. He gave what Lana recognised as a practice swing at his opponent's leg. The ogre lurched slightly when the hammer connected and in turn swung at Drewen - with the elf. Drewen easily avoided the blow however the elf's skull exploded like an over-ripe melon when it was driven into the ground. Witnessing the gruesome spectacle, Lana nearly brought up her breakfast.
The ogre with Piotr's spear through its belly stared vacantly ahead and kept moving up the shaft. It reached out its free hand and wrapped huge, filthy fingers around the paladin's throat, digging into his flesh.
The remaining ogre - the one Lana had twice dropped a rock upon - shambled up to join its fellows.
Taking careful aim Lana hurled her silver dagger into the upper arm of the ogre with a grip on Piotr. It released him and the paladin staggered back, yanking his spear out before plunging it back in. Drewen took another, almost casual swing at his opponent's other leg - again he connected and again he easily evaded the counter swing. Piotr raised his shield to block the clumsy lunge aimed at him, then ducked in time to avoid a blow from the third ogre, whose eyes the paladin saw burned with malignant light.
Lana thought about manoeuvring the surviving elf away from its captor however the ogre's grip looked to be firm. Seeing no useful opening, she made a pulling gesture and extracted her silver dagger from the ogre's arm. Piotr plunged his spear into the ogre for a third time and it dropped.
Drewen was sidling around his opponent but as his arm swung back for the attack he slipped on the gore from the elf's skull and flailed wildly as he fought to stay on his feet.
Sensing an opening, the ogre brought the limp, bloody elf carcass crashing down on the dwarf.
Lana had her silver dagger back in her hand and had a split second to decide whether to fling it at Piotr's opponent or Drewen's. She opted for the dwarf's and it found its mark. Seconds later Drewen felled the ogre with a mighty upswing of his hammer.
Piotr wrenched his spear free from his downed foe and thrust it in the direction of the last remaining ogre. It moved with unexpected speed and with a sound rather like laughter escaping from its distended jaw, knocked the paladin's spear aside and lunged for him. Piotr reacted quickly, took a few steps back and drove his spear forward again, impaling the thing.
Slowly, slowly, the malevolent light in its eyes dimmed and it slid to the ground.
Wiping gore from his armour and hammer, Drewen eyed the stinking ogre corpses. "Those things were tougher than they looked."
Massaging his neck, Piotr nodded and croaked something incoherent.
Lana chewed her lip. "They seemed sentient, possessed of a longing to inflict cruelty. Something gave them their unlife for a purpose... no doubt their liege knows that they are no more."
"That THING," Piotr's breathing was heavy and he instilled maximum disgust in the word, "did you see the light in its eyes? It wanted to hurt me."
"The one Drewen took down with his silver arrow had a glow in its eyes, too. I didn't get a clear look at the others."
"What are they?"
Drewen's nose crinkled. "Whatever they are they stink."
True, there was no mistaking the stench. With no time to succumb to distraction Lana turned her attention to the elf whose head had not been used for bludgeoning. She knelt at her side to assess the extent of her injuries. Still alive, the elfmaiden was unconscious but bore several broken bones, multiple lacerations, smashed teeth and one of her eyes had been gouged.
The other elf, Lana now saw, must have been dead long before he was used to clobber Drewen. He had wounds to the abdomen that had left his organs exposed and there were flies nesting within.
Anger rose within Lana as she realised she could only hope to make the female elf comfortable while she died.
"She is beyond my ability to bring back," she declared, frustrated by the pointless waste of a life.
"Shall I attempt to heal her?" Sounding less than hopeful, Piotr stooped by her side.
Lana was in no position to judge the merit of clerical healing however she suspected the elf was beyond any intervention besides a miracle of the truest kind. Even if Piotr were to rescue the maiden from the brink she would be hideously disfigured... what life would await her, she wondered, back among her kin? She recalled a similar dilemma, in another place, some time before.
"Well?" Drewen prompted.
"I believe," Lana pronounced severely, damning her own selfishness and hating herself for voicing so discompassionate a view, "Piotr's healing would be better kept for what awaits us inside the Keep."
The paladin nodded his accord. They watched the maiden's chest quiver as she drew breaths which were each more shallow than the last. "Diminished though it is," Piotr frowned, "Chardastes' cult holds that Death may be seen as a merciful release from suffering. In this it need not always be a cause for regret."
Lana scowled and said nothing.
Eventually the maiden's breathing gave out altogether. A pouch on her belt was found to contain a broken wooden flute, a wooden horse keepsake and some preserved meat. Lana toyed with the keepsake while Piotr intoned soft words of prayer. She heard him mention Ilsundel by name.
Drewen broke the silence that followed. "Well we've avenged them - it's all we could have done."
Casting her gaze across both corpses, Lana's resolve stiffened. "How long has this gone on, do you think?"
Again in her mind she saw the Keep swathed in flame, the gargantuan demonic figure stretching into the night sky. She shook her head to dispel the memory and looked to the nearby copse. "Let's lay the elves within those trees. If we survive this ordeal we can return them to their people."
Piotr lifted the male elf with ease; Lana and Drewen bore the maiden between them. As they approached the spinny there came the snapping of twigs and a boar emerged. It was not a large specimen but what was alarming, as it lowered its tusks, was the gleaming white of its skull which was clearly visible on one side of its face and its eyes which burned with a familiar, unholy light.
Lana's eyes widened as she ducked behind Piotr, wondering whether the area for a mile around them would be packed with reanimated monstrosities.
Piotr's hand closed around the shaft of his spear as he prepared to receive a charge. Drewen stepped up beside him, brandishing an old broken spear. Lana recognised it from one of their earliest adventures together - to the forgotten dwarven settlement of Syth-Hurgon.
The boar lumbered forward. It could hardly have been called a charge and Piotr had all the time he needed to pick his spot and drive the spear home. Drewen thrust his spear forward as well but the dwarf lacked the paladin's skill with the particular weapon and the point was turned aside by a rib.
The boar attempted to gore Piotr but its tusks could not penetrate his armour.
A second thrust of the paladin's spear was all it took to extinguish the evil light in the beast's eyes.
Lana looked around, expecting more to emerge. None did. Upon inspecting the copse it appeared there was nothing else lurking in the stand of trees so the corpses of the unfortunate elves were laid to temporary rest. The companions got back on the carpet and headed for the Keep.
"You're pretty good with that spear," Drewen was saying to Piotr conversationally.
The paladin stared at him as if failing to grasp the dwarf's meaning. "Thank you."
"Is it magic?" The paladin shook his head. "No? Pity."
Halfway to the Keep the wind began to pick up again. Within less than a minute it was blowing a gale.
"Brace yourselves," Lana instructed her passengers as she directed the carpet along the most direct route possible, "we're going through this."
Moments passed and the wind howled with malevolent severity, wresting the carpet skyward. The wind hauled the three companions into the air, threw them around then drove them sharply downward. Lana gave a loud cry as Piotr's armoured form collided with her in mid-air. Moments later the pair hit the ground together, Lana absorbing the brunt of the impact.
Piotr shifted on the ground to remove his weight from Lana's prone form. "Are you alright?" he asked, sounding more than a little awkward.
"I think my bones are bleeding," she winced, crawling limply apart from the paladin and struggling to sit up. Her vision swam and a stabbing pain suggested that she had bruised if not broken her ribs. Angry though she was, she decided it would achieve nothing to burden Piotr with guilt. "Where's Drewen? Oh -"
An air-filled, canvas sphere hit the ground nearby and bounced back into the air, carried on the wind.
"Oh." Memories surfaced of an expedition to Highforge. "It appears he has managed to activate his Portable Falling Softener."
"... Falling Softener. Come on. We'll need to help him out of it." The globe bounced another couple of times. "Mind you it could be a while before he comes to rest."
It took a full minute for Drewen's globe to settle. Only mildly embarrassed, he extricated himself from the gnomish contraption with help from his companions. The wind howled relentlessly all the while.
"We'd best proceed on foot," Lana groaned, nursing cuts, scrapes and bruises beyond counting. With a few waves of her hand the carpet rolled up where it lay and crawled into her bag.
Approaching from the southeast, every step into the seemingly solid wind required tremendous effort. Lana's robes and Drewen's cloak flapped wildly. The sky was ominous. Thunder rumbled though there was no sign of lightning.
Around three hundred yards from the keep, Lana thought she saw movement along its walls and on top of the south-eastern tower.
"Let's not forget," she shouted to be heard over the gale, "we have not one but two scrolls to protect us against the vampire's attendants. At least in close combat. As for whether we will be guarded against missile fire..."
She trailed off, hazarding a guess that they would not be.
"Let's just get to the keep!" Drewen roared, holding up his shield against the wind.
"Wait," said Lana brusquely. It was time. Planting her feet she commenced a series of enchantments. Increased vitality flooded the companions' limbs along with, in Drewen's case, magical flight and superhuman strength. Lana proceeded to layer protective charms upon herself while Piotr quaffed a potion and read aloud from the first of the group's protection scrolls.
Once he finished, Lana met her companions' gazes with renewed vigour and a hint of a smile despite the ache in every part of her body. "We're ready."
Drewen rose a few inches off the ground to test the Fly spell and grinned.
"Remember those pirates, Piotr," he said.
The paladin nodded, recalling their time together near the port of Crossbones. On that occasion Drewen had flown across to the pirates' ship and almost single-handedly wiped out the entire crew.
Lana's smile persisted as it occurred to her how Drewen had been trying to establish a friendly relationship with Piotr. Lana recognised what a big gesture it was coming from a dwarf - even one as relatively gregarious as Drewen. Piotr, awkward as ever and not the most emotionally insightful of individuals, seemed somewhat unaware.
"Let's get moving."
The three tore ahead on the double - literally - and had ventured a hundred yards when the arrows started coming down, issuing from the direction of the Keep's southeastern tower. They thudded into the ground around the trio but none came close to hitting.
About eighty yards ahead was another small stand of trees, which was the nearest source of cover available.
"Come on!" Drewen raised his shield above his head and began to fly towards it.
Piotr's expression was one of determination as he sprinted toward the copse, his shield aloft. Lana paused to conjure a replica of herself before following. She wondered whether she had hurried her casting. Seconds later an arrow nearly tore through the phantasm but just missed.
Drewen made it to the trees but rather than take cover he flew about, trying to make a target of himself.
Thanks to the Haste spell, Piotr made it halfway across the open ground by the time Lana completed her spell. He found himself exposed and under heavy fire but the arrows glanced off his armour and shield.
Three boars emerged from the trees - one was the same size as the last one the trio had encountered but the other two were considerably bigger.
Drewen gave a cry, hefted his hammer and rose into the air, seemingly with the intention of making for the boars.
"Don't attack them!" shouted Lana and her likeness, "Piotr's scroll will keep them at bay!"
Her words were lost in the gale.
Piotr hurried towards Drewen's position and Lana followed, gaining on the paladin with every step. Unfortunately, they were unable to stop the dwarf from diving down upon the largest boar, cloak billowing behind him and hammer outstretched before him. He landed on the undead beast with terrible force and drove it to its knees. Piotr was ten yards away and hurled his spear, finishing the job.
Lana was left out on her own in the open, arrows coming at her thick and fast. The combination of protective magic she had in place was every bit as good as her companions' armour when it came to defending from missiles and she came through the assault unscathed and with her illusory duplicate still by her side.
Unable to approach Piotr, the remaining boars both charged at Drewen with terrifying ferocity. The dwarf managed to interpose the handle of his hammer between himself and the larger boar's teeth but the smaller one drew blood. Spinning in a circle, Drewen hit the smaller boar with enough force to knock it through the air, taking out a dead sapling into the bargain. Coming around full circle, Drewen connected with the last surviving boar, which staggered but remained standing.
Lana caught up with Piotr whose sword was drawn however both hesitated. Piotr thought he might finish the boar with a stroke but knew that to do so would ruin the protective ward still clinging to him. The pair took cover. Drewen finished the last beast with one more blow then dropped his hammer, flew to the smaller boar, lifted it by its tusks and took to the air with it. The arrows that hit him merely broke against his armour. With a great bellow, Drewen hurled the carcass over a hundred yards to the Keep before flying back down to reclaim his hammer.
As Lana and Piotr watched the boar sail through the air, both swallowed the lumps which formed in their throats. Lana recalled her weeks of research and the perils she had faced gathering the components for her Strength spell. She wondered had she gone too far... what had she created?
"Well," said Drewen, hovering before them with his cape billowing, "that takes care of that. Want me to lead the charge to the Keep?"
"Yes Drewen," Piotr and Lana said dizzily. "We'll be right behind you."
Read the next instalment - Assaulting the Keep
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