The Marilinev Palace - Part One
"To think this lay undiscovered for so long, right beneath our noses."
"You mustn't think badly of yourselves, Stubbs. Nobody blames you for what happened."
The Ambyrmont sun illuminated much of the interior of the Marilinev Palace, which had lain empty and neglected for close to four decades. Yet as the sun pursued its day-long arc from east to west, there was a corner of the ruin which would remain shrouded in shadow. It was as if the remnants of the upper floors conspired to conceal what lay within that single corner. Once the most resplendent dwelling in all of Traladara, the Palace's glory had been consigned to the past when the Thyatian newcomer Stefan Karameikos III built palaces of his own design, allowing the old building to become derelict. Its tiles had been first to go, carefully removed and scrubbed before being placed atop the roofs of the new palaces. Next to be salvaged had been the polished oak flooring, which under Duchess Olivia's direction had been lifted plank by plank to be relaid in one of her new dining halls. Stripped of anything else of worth, the old building had been considered nothing more than an empty shell. Recent events however had given cause for the crumbling ruin to be viewed with fresh interest.
"Milady, I beg to disagree." The sergeant who was around forty years old removed his helmet and passed a hand over his shaved head. "Our role is to protect the grounds of this stronghold and the King's family. We have been remiss in our duties, as the attempt on His Majesty's life proved beyond doubt. We have much to do to regain our honour. From now on our vigilance will be doubled." He spoke this last part loudly, meaning for those standing beside him to take note. Several men nodded, seemingly sharing their sergeant's guilt.
"I still say you're judging yourselves harshly," Lana said quietly, though she could not deny that whatever route lay beyond the hidden trapdoor had facilitated the assassin's entry to the Royal Stronghold, around a fortnight before. "The attacker," she carefully selected her choice of phrasing for the individual who, unknown to all but a select few including her, had succeeded in ending the life of King Stefan, "would have found another way in, had this route been barred."
"Perhaps," Stubbs conceded. "Regardless, the task remains of exploring whatever lies down there. It is the least service the Guard can offer, in order that we might regain our standing."
Lana nodded her agreement. After weakening the magical aura which held the flagstone in place, she waved a hand and the five-foot section of stone rose along one side, silently turning on a concealed pivot. Her heart skipped a beat as stone steps appeared, leading into darkness.
"Men, light lanterns," the sergeant ordered. Three of the dozen or so armoured men and women present took out tinderboxes.
"This takes me back to my old adventuring days," Lana reminisced quietly.
The sergeant nodded, giving the impression that he shared similar memories though he was easily ten years Lana's senior. "You adventured around Threshold milady, did you not?"
"That’s right," Lana nodded. "My companions and I crawled through many dungeons in those parts, as many folk still do." She smiled to pay tribute to times gone by before whispering to the hilt of her dagger. Light as warm and bright as day began to radiate from the gemstone at its centre. "Shall we enter?"
One of the men who had lit a lantern was directed to descend the steps, and did so without incident. After calling to Sergeant Stubbs that the way appeared clear, other guards were ordered to join him. Around half of those present proceeded to descend; there were just over a dozen or so guards, men mostly but a few women also, all clad in polished metal armour covered by tabards bearing the motif of the King's Guard. They bore an assortment of weapons – mainly two-handed swords, crossbows for missile fire and daggers for fighting in confined quarters.
"Are you at all familiar with Threshold, sergeant?" Lana asked the question as she descended the steps. They were encrusted with lichen but were not wet or slippery underfoot.
"I have never visited milady but I have family there with whom I correspond from time to time. My cousins speak favourably of your companions, in particular Master Goldenhammer. I also met Master Canerzon on a past occasion. I have not seen him wield a blade but have heard he does so most capably."
"Indeed he does," Lana replied, "why Canerzon and Drewen were my earliest dungeoneering companions. Drewen would be fascinated by these tunnels, within the very capital where he and I ran our Inn. Do you hail from the city yourself, Sergeant?" Lana asked.
"No milady, from a village near Krakatos."
Lana nodded. "Then you will be no newcomer to exploring old dungeons."
"Correct milady, though it has been many years since I have had cause to do so."
The steps led down to a passage which looked to be naturally formed, though Lana wished Drewen could have been present to confirm her assumption. The corridor was tall enough to stand in, being slightly over six feet in height. The air was musty but seemed breathable. The men held their lanterns aloft and the party of a dozen or so progressed along the tunnel.
There were several witnesses to the patrol's descent into the dark. Seeking to entertain his fellow workers, a young stablehand ran close to the raised trapdoor and made a pretence of closing it once the last of the guards disappeared down the steps. The master of the stables observed this display and was less than amused; he beckoned the lad to approach and cuffed him squarely about the ears. This, if not the earlier display, had the effect of drawing howls of laughter from the assembled onlookers.
Slowly the bystanders' interest lessened, and one by one the staff went back to performing their routine duties in and around the stronghold. None of them noticed the single figure moving along the wall of the ruined Palace's shadowed interior. He bided his time to be sure he would attract no attention, then dropped softly and silently through the opening.
The tunnel led into a smallish cave whose floor was strewn with rubble. Across it scarpered many small, fleeting shapes. Rats. One drew near to the armoured foot of a guardswoman. She kicked the rodent, which squeaked and began a brave but futile attempt to savage the woman's ankle. The woman lifted her boot a second time and stomped the rodent flat. Two of its fellows then set upon her, only to meet similar fates. This trend continued, until the entire guard contingent between them had despatched around three dozen of the vermin.
"Let's hope we face no greater foes," the sergeant chuckled.
Pressing onward, the man's hopes went unanswered when a nest of sorts was uncovered in a subsequent chamber. As the guards drew near more squeaking could be heard, but much louder than that which had been heard in the previous cave. From out of the top of the nest emerged a half dozen or so giant rats. Acting on territorial instinct the foot-long creatures scurried forward to attack the intruders. A few rounds of combat ensued, and the rats were despatched without any of the guards (or Lana for that matter) suffering injury.
"So far so good," Lana commented. "Shall we continue on?"
Several small tunnels branched off from the main passage, which was uneven underfoot and unmistakably sloped downward.
"There's something ahead," called one of the lead guards, a female, after not long. The patrol drew to a halt. Within the dark ahead, movement could be seen. One of the guard's male counterparts joined her in peering into the dark. "What in the world is that?" he murmured aloud. Seconds later his question was answered when a man-sized skeleton shambled into the light, eerily making no sound. Moments later it became apparent that there were no less than four additional skeletons lurking within the dark, reluctant for whatever reason to come into the light.
"Fire crossbows!" barked Stubbs. Six guards aimed their crossbows and launched projectiles at the skeletons. After two such barrages the skeletons cracked apart and lay immobile on the cold stone ground.
The guardswoman who had alerted her companions to the advancing skeleton was giving Lana an odd look.
"Is something the matter?" Lana asked.
"Forgive my asking milady," the guard replied, speaking with a slight Traladaran accent, "but I was wondering why, when we came under attack from enemies which were clearly dangerous, would you not have thought to use your magic to despatch them?"
Lana repressed the urge to laugh. "As has been proved, it was possible to annihilate the creatures through mundane means. I prefer to reserve my magic for foes against which greater force is a necessity. It remains to be seen what creatures might dwell within these tunnels."
The woman did not seem convinced but did not question Lana's judgment any further. As she turned away, a number of the male guards exchanged mocking glances.
"Don’t pay Petya any heed, Lady Budanter." Sergeant Stubbs spoke quietly at Lana's side. "She has seen no action beyond the city walls. To one who has seen so little of the world, creatures such as walking skeletons are worryingly powerful."
"Understood," Lana murmured, "yet I must say the presence of undead causes me concern. I had thought we might only face rats and other vermin here. For the spirits of the dead to dwell beneath the King's home... this is not the proper way of things. We must continue our exploration."
"As you direct, Lady Lana." Though the sergeant did not voice all of his thoughts aloud, it was evident that he had not been expecting the undead to be present in the catacombs either.
The patrol continued on thirty or so feet, then more skeletons were encountered - a dozen or so were standing stock-still in the passage. Again, the men aimed their crossbows however several of their shots went wide. Within no time the skeletons closed to melee range and raked the guards with their claws. Lana hung back, still reticent to expend magical energy on creatures such as these. Sure enough, the plate-armoured guards were able to block the majority of the skeletons' claws on their shields and in exchange a single blow from the guards' swords was all that was required to overcome each skeleton.
As the last of the skeletons was smashed apart, the same number re-appeared on the fringes of the lantern light, but proved equally easy for the guards to overcome.
"...even so," Lana found herself commenting to the Sergeant, "our task would be easier were a cleric present. Against foes such as these, I have seen the power of faith work most efficiently." She recalled the cleric Alvion, follower of the Immortal Alphatia, barring entry to the wizardess Mylertendal's Tower and invoking his Patron's will to obliterate handfuls of lesser undead at a time.
"Agreed, milady," Stubbs said quietly. "I find myself wondering whether we oughtn't return to the surface and recruit assistance from the Church."
"We're here now," Lana said, "let's see what lies ahead."
The passageway continued on and kept branching off in sections, leading Lana to deduce that the entire hill upon which the King's Stronghold stood was honeycombed through with tunnels. The patrol kept following whichever of the available routes was the broadest and seemed most secure underfoot. After around fifty feet, and several twists and turns in the passage, the way opened into a cave where several figures in ragged clothing were clustered around what looked to be the corpses of giant rats.
"State your names in the name of King Stefan!" demanded the sergeant, but to little avail. The figures rose slowly and advanced toward the group, long grey tongues drooping from their jaws and inhuman claws extending from their ragged robes.
"Ghouls," Lana announced. "Beware their touch!"
Half the men present pressed forward with their two-handed swords and laid into the creatures. One man cried out when his opponent found an opening in his armour, causing his body to stiffen. This prompted a cry from the guardswoman Petya who had questioned Lana for not blasting the skeletons with her magic; she hefted her own weapon and charged to her companion's defence. After several rounds of combat all the ghouls had been annihilated.
The woman laid her sword upon the ground before proceeding to check her companion's condition. She seemed to be beside herself with worry. "He'll be fine," Lana called. "It's just temporary paralysis." The woman had removed pieces of the male guard's armour and was frantically massaging his limbs in an attempt to restore his mobility. "It'll wear off soon enough!"
"Best let her be," Stubbs muttered. "Besides the men could do with a rest. We'll take a while to steady our nerves."
A thought crossed Lana's mind, as her eyes remained fixed on the frozen guard and his female colleague who was so concerned for his wellbeing. "Are those two... together?"
"Aye." The sergeant was drinking from a waterflask. "It's the worst kept secret in the King's Guard. As you can see."
A section of the passage ahead appeared to broaden, creating a recess along one side while the passage continued on beyond. Within the recess were three large shapes. As the light of the men's lanterns drew near, a high-pitched squeal split the air. Two of the men dropped their swords in surprise.
"Stay focused!" Lana shouted, fighting to be heard over the noise. "These things are relatively harmless. Fire missiles!"
The guards who bore crossbows fought to ignore the din and loosed crossbow bolts. The mushrooms' whitish exterior was rubbery but gave way to the projectiles, and soon after the squeals subsided. Silence descended.
"Let's move on," Stubbs muttered, having cast his gaze among the guards.
"Wait," Lana instructed, holding up a hand. For a moment nobody spoke.
"Milady?" the sergeant asked. Lana was peering into the darkness beyond the light of her dagger and the men's lanterns.
"Just a second," she murmured. "Those creatures… the noise they emit has been known to –" She trailed off as the silence continued. Moments passed, then as the men's gazes remained focused on what lay ahead a ripple could be seen within the heart of the darkness. She pointed. "There!"
The female guard at Lana's side could be heard to swallow a lump in her throat. "I saw it too. What manner of –"
Before her question could be answered the monster made its appearance. A ten foot mass of black ichor emerged into the light and rolled along the floor of the passage, unmistakeably heading for the cluster of guards.
"Men take aim," Stubbs instructed. As one the six crossbowmen raised their weapons.
"No!" Lana cried. "Weapons won't do any good. We need fire to combat this thing effectively."
The sergeant regarded her strangely for a moment before barking a follow-up command. "Oil and torches! Break out the oil."
"Sir," a female guardwoman said apologetically, having opened her pack, "I believe we have only three torches and the same number of flasks of oil." She pressed the items into the hands of her colleagues as she spoke.
"Defensive stance!" was the sergeant's subsequent order. As the half dozen crossbowmen hung their crossbows upon their belts to draw swords instead, the same number of their comrades stepped forward with their shields outstretched. The shields were brought tightly together to form a barrier.
"Hurl the oil!"
Three vials of oil sailed through the air; one missed its target despite the blob being less than ten feet away. The other vials had been unstoppered and sprayed their contents over the creature.
Seconds later the men gave cries of alarm as the blob slammed against their shield wall; the shields began to smoke and smoulder. One quickthinking guard had managed to light his torch from the flame of one of the lanterns and thrust it through a gap in the shields. The oil ignited, causing the creature to writhe in obvious pain though it continued to press against the men's shields. The men gave cries of alarm as they fought to keep from being injured by the scorching flames.
"Milady, we need your aid!" the sergeant urged, seeing the situation before him going from bad to worse. "Surely you can summon fire through your Art, a flaming missile perhaps?"
Lana shook her head. "As it happens, no I can't. Nor acid, for that matter. However..." She turned over possibilities in her mind, before raising a hand. "I can force the creature to assume a form which renders it more vulnerable."
This struck Stubbs as worthwhile. "Do it!"
Lana had already begun her spell, and a heartbeat later a sparking beam hit the blob as it attempted to surge over the shield wall. The men were knocked backward amid the radiant flare which followed. Then, when they lowered their shields the blob was gone. Instead, standing before them was –
Lana felt a dozen nonplussed gazes upon her. "Yes," she said awkwardly, feeling the majesty of her spellcasting evaporate, leaving the questioning looks of those present. "It was the first animal that came to mind."
This didn't seem to register with the sergeant. He stared at the sandy-furred beast which was looking around itself, blinking in the light from the guards' lanterns. Its head was slightly lowered due to the ceiling height.
"Of all the creatures in our world, a camel…?"
"I was in Selenica recently you see, and…" Lana looked sheepish for a moment before rethinking the need to rationalise her choice. She drew herself to her full height. "The form of the beast matters not, more important is that the peril has passed. At least for now…" She regarded the camel with momentary sympathy before turning to the assembled guards. "Would you be so kind as to despatch the threat."
The men weren't sure what to make of this request. "You wish us to attack a camel?"
"Please." Lana nodded, not understanding why her request seemed strange.
"But it's a dumb beast…?"
Lana shook her head. "The camel's innocuous form belies the living essence of the creature that would have eaten your armour then your flesh and bone, had I not intervened. The enchantment which binds it…" she bit her lip, "could wane or give way, then the creature will return to its original form and we will have no means to defend ourselves." She inclined her head purposefully toward the camel.
The female guard named Petya continued to give Lana mistrustful looks, which Lana did her utmost to ignore. Finally she had witnessed Lana cast a spell. Evidently she had expected something more grandiose and had been disappointed by what had occurred.
"You heard the Lady," Stubbs barked. Upon his command the men closed with their two-handed swords drawn. Sensing what was to come, the camel's eyes widened with apprehension. Lana averted her gaze, covering her eyes with one hand for good measure as the camel reared on its hind legs and began to bray.
The guards’ swords descended in a flurry, again and again. The camel reared as high as the tunnel’s ceiling wound permit, braying and kicking with its hind legs in an attempt to defend itself. Then, as one of the men's swords impaled the camel's rear end, something in its side gave way and a torrent of ichor burst through the wound. Moments later the creature's body collapsed in on itself. The men were left wiping acidic slime from their weapons and armour. The camel was gone, the surrounding walls and floor were splattered in foul-smelling goo. One of the guards was left clutching his stomach; it seemed the camel had kicked him hard during the fight which had ended its life.
"Nicely done," Lana said cheerfully. "Those things don't go down easily." Some of the men looked as though they didn't know what to make of what had happened. "And –" she added "- none of us died so that's even better. Shall we press on?"
The group reformed, stepping gingerly around the puddles of acid before continuing on its way. As they did so, Prince Valen Karameikos emerged from his place of concealment to hunker at the side of the acidic pool. For a brief instant the departing light of the guards' lanterns lit the curiosity in his young eyes, before leaving him in darkness.
"What in heaven's name are those things?"
Ten minutes had passed since the encounter with the black pudding. The patrol found itself in another cave where a number of deathly looking figures were advancing toward the parties, their clothing tattered and ragged, and their eyes swirling pools of nothingness.
"Zombies?" came one suggestion.
"No, they're wights! Keep them at bay," Lana shouted urgently, "and whatever happens don't let them touch you. They will steal the very warmth from your heart." She spread her hands apart and summoned five glowing amber missiles, which she divided into two salvos to blast two of the creatures. One convulsed and dropped to the floor, the other continued advancing alongside its four fellows. Lana cast a second spell, summoning two dozen sparkling motes of amber energy which she sent to blast three of the remaining wights. This time two of the creatures dropped, before the remaining two closed the distance and engaged the guards.
Lana observed the ensuing melee, three guards were taking on each of the wights which remained. Both creatures had been wounded by Lana's magical assaults. As she procrastinated over whether she should erect magical protection and join the fight, one of the female guards gave a cry. A wight had seized her wrist, a look of dark rapture possessing its features as it tore part of the woman's very soul from her. Moments later the creature's head was severed and it slumped to the ground however the young woman was left reeling and sobbing uncontrollably. The remaining guards began muttering between themselves, clearly unsettled by what they had witnessed.
"Sergeant Stubbs," Lana said, "the undead presence worries me, especially as their power level is increasing the further we venture into these tunnels. It is unlikely that such a number of undead would come into being without a direct cause. I worry that we may have only scratched the surface of these tunnels, and we might locate even more powerful foes, or indeed a liege, within this place."
The sergeant nodded, sharing Lana's concern. "I spoke earlier of how the Guard must regain its honour. That is not to say, milady, that we are best suited to this particular task or that we will throw our lives away needlessly. You saw what happened to Mariel, if more powerful undead are emanating from some place nearby, we will not be able to resist them without suffering heavy injury. It may be that the auspices of the Church are needed to repel the darkness which surrounds us."
Hearing this Lana was reminded of the riddling speech of the spirit of Duke Stefan's killer though she was not able to voice such thoughts aloud.
"I share your concerns, sergeant. We shall see what lies immediately ahead of us and take that as a sign of whether we should continue."
"As you direct milady," Stubbs replied, though by his tone it sounded that he had seen enough of the place and would be content to depart without further ado.
Perhaps the sergeant offered up a silent prayer within the moments which followed. Perhaps an Immortal happened to be listening. Either way the tunnel led just twenty feet from the cave before a larger opening could be seen ahead.
"You know for the first time since we entered," Lana commented as the patrol neared the end of the passage, "these walls don't seem to have been formed naturally. See how the surface here appears less smooth? I can't say for definite but it seems somebody may have carved this passage from the rock, in a haphazard fashion granted but still..."
The passage opened into what might have passed for a cave, had its dimensions not been so square. The ceiling here was over ten feet tall. In the centre of the perfectly square chamber stood a single object - a polished stone whose uppermost surface appeared to be shaped like a basin. Some form of dark liquid appeared to have spilled from sides of the hollow, staining sections of the stone a deep brown and obscuring certain markings and carvings on the surface.
"What in the world is...?" breathed one of the guards, before realising the answer to her own question. "By the Immortals. No." A number of the guards reached for small holy symbols they wore on chains around their necks.
"It's an altar," the sergeant said darkly. "As if I needed further convincing about whether we should be here." He turned to Lana. "Lady Budanter this is the clearest sign that our patrol is out of its depth. I do not make this decision lightly but we must withdraw. We will find other ways to regain the King's faith, sacrificing ourselves to the undead of this place will not benefit us or His Majesty. The Church of Karameikos must come to this place and, if possible, sanctify it. We have done all we can."
Lana searched the man's eyes before nodding. In her own mind she fought the temptation to remain within the catacombs, but could see herself being drawn into the dark depths never to emerge again. She was but one person after all. She resigned herself to the sergeant's very sensible suggestion of clerical intervention. "Very well. Let us depart, for now."
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