Part II: Diegesis
Chapter VI: Catacombs
13th Month, 20th Day, 4,632nd Year
Copyright © 1999 C.E. by Dustin Jon Scott
[Last Update: 2003-ish]
“Lodin, are you alright?” said Gail.
Lodin sat up, brushing the dirt out of his long, black hair.
“Yeah, I think so,” he replied. “Where’s my golem?”
“I’m right behind thee, Master Lodin,” said Baelzathoth.
Lodin stood to his feet slowly and shakily as his eyes regained focus.
“Where are we?” he queried.
“We fell through the floor. We’re in some kind of cavern under the Mortiferean Temple,” answered Gail. “You hit your head when we fell. You’ve been knocked out for a good couple of hours.”
“Yeah… okay, I remember now. I must’ve hit my head pretty hard,” said Lodin.
“Well, you’re not bleeding, and you’re awake now, so you should be fine,” Gail said.
“I don’t feel fine. I fell flat on my back. It’s a good thing I had a bedroll in my pack along with all that metal, or I probably would’ve broken it when I fell,” Lodin replied.
“Your back or the metal?” Gail asked.
“Both,” said Lodin with a slight smirk, “Are you and Baelzathoth alright?”
“Yeah. We thieves always land on our feet. Your new golem has some dents in his armor now, though. He made a pretty good sized dent in the cavern floor, too,” said Gail.
“Where’s the lantern?” asked Lodin.
“I’m not sure. I think I must’ve dropped it when that creature with the chains attacked us,” Gail answered. “Just wait for your eyes to focus more. With the little bit of light coming in from above now that it’s daytime, and the red glowing eyes of your new golem, it’s enough that we should be able to find our way around down here.”
“I suppose,” replied Lodin, blinking rapidly as he waited for his eyes to finish adjusting. “Is that a tunnel?” Lodin asked, pointing straight ahead.
“Yeah, and as near as I can tell, it’s our only chance at getting out of here. I just hope it doesn’t lead to a dead end,” said Gail.
“Alright, let’s go then,” said Lodin, ambling toward the aperture in the cavern wall. Gail and Baelzathoth followed.
As they walked toward the entrance of the warren, their shadows grew longer, extending into the seemingly infinite recesses of the abyss they were about to pervade. Further they crossed into the subterranean conduit, with nothing more than the rubescent glow of Baelzathoth’s eyes with which to see.
“I have to say, for someone who’s never encountered vampyres or zombies or ghouls before, you handled last night very well,” Lodin commented.
“I’ve seen my fair share of ghouls,” replied Gail.
“I’ve encountered a few ghouls in my time,” said Gail.
“Then why were you so afraid of the one we ran into last night?” Lodin inquired, “You screamed, you were nearly paralyzed with fear.”
“I don’t care for spiders much either,” said Gail, “and ghouls are much larger and more frightening than spiders. What’s your point, Lodin?”
“I suppose I don’t have one,” Lodin replied. “Still, you handled yourself well.”
“Thank you. I almost feel silly for being so afraid of those vampyres and zombies. Neither one of those creatures would last more than a moment or two in a bar fight with an ogre or an Orc,” said Gail, “or even a sober dwarf, for that matter.”
“Well you have to cut off their heads to kill them. So unless you have a sword, you’re out of luck. Besides, who ever heard of a sober dwarf?” Lodin joked.
“Well I’m betting Orcs, ogres, and dwarves are all strong enough to pull the head off of a vampyre or zombie,” Gail replied.
“An ogre or a dwarf could probably pull the head off of a zombie, if the thing was rotted away enough. I don’t know about vampyres though. Maybe an Orc could do it,” said Lodin.
“I think any of them could. Your sword is battle-worn, and I still cut through a vampyre’s neck with it as though it were a linen cloth. If that’d been a human, I’d have had to hack at the neck several times just to get through the neck bones,” said Gail.
“Actually, Gail, the swordsmiths of Hathor have a reputation for forging swords that can slice through meat and bone with great ease. They forge them out of adamant, a type of Celtiberian steel. Even after being a bit battle-worn, a sword from Hathor only needs a little muscle behind it to take off a limb or a head,” the paladin explained.
“You’ll have to remind me to take a trip to Hathor the next time I decide to steal a sword,” Gail teased. “Have you ever gotten into a fight with an Orc?”
“Two of them,” said Lodin.
“What was the first time like?” Gail asked.
“No, I didn’t get into a fight with an Orc twice, I got into a fight with two Orcs at once,” Lodin explained.
“Oh, who won the fight?” she inquired.
“I did, but only because the Orcs were too pissed to fight at their best,” said Lodin. “You’d probably fair well against a pair of Orcs though, even sober ones.”
“What makes you say that?” Gail asked.
“I saw the way you dodged that chain demon’s tendrils. You’re remarkably agile and light on your feet,” said Lodin, “I know you’re a thief, but those moves of yours put every thief I’ve ever seen to shame -- except for your sister, of course.” Lodin thought for a moment. “You have the speed and reflexes to easily take down an Orc or two, which is quite impressive considering how ... um ... large ... how you’re so...”
“You mean how busty I am?” Gail interrupted.
“Well, I was going to say something more along the lines of ‘top-heavy’ or ‘front-heavy’, but yes,” replied Lodin, “that’s where I was going with that. Most men would think that a woman of your proportions wouldn’t be able to keep her balance whilst standing still, let alone engaging in aerial maneuvers such as those you and Jadia seem so adept at demonstrating.”
“My sister and I may be a bit ‘over-developed’ when it comes to our chests, but we’re extraordinarily nimble,” said Gail. “We must’ve inherited our limberness from Larissa.”
“You’re certainly modest...” Lodin commented, his facetious sarcasm apparent by the slight chuckle in his voice.
“Awareness of your virtues is a virtue in itself,” said Gail.
“Well then, you and Jadia are the two most virtuous women I’ve ever met,” Lodin teased.
“Thank you,” answered Gail, her flippant leer barely visible to Lodin in the darkness as she walked ahead of him. “Besides, you’d be surprised how effective a counterbalance a backpack full of jewelry can be.”
The thief and the paladin continued negotiating the circuitous tunnel, the constant pounding of Baelzathoth’s feet and the subsequent trembling which always followed now only background noise.
“You know,” said Gail, “Baelzathoth’s footsteps are shaking the tunnel terribly. I hadn’t even noticed until now, but he may cause a cave-in.”
Lodin and Gail stopped, and turned around to look at Baelzathoth, who in turn stopped and stared down at them with his burning red eyes.
“Baelzathoth!” Lodin shouted, his voice echoing through the tunnel.
“Yes, Master Lodin?”
“Could you possibly tread more softly?” asked Lodin.
“No, Master Lodin,” said Baelzathoth, has he began to walk once again.
“Damned defiant golem...” Lodin muttered under his breath as he and Gail too resumed their course.
Finally, the trio spotted what looked to be a light at the end of the passageway.
Once they reached the end of the tunnel, they found themselves in a small cavern that contained within it a pool of water. Lodin, Gail, and Baelzathoth were standing at the edge of the pool, on a ridge that followed the cave wall.
“It looks as though the light’s coming from down there,” said Gail, pointing into the pool. Lodin nodded in agreement. The light from the bottom of the pool refracted through the water, it’s radiance bouncing across the walls of the cave.
“Well, shall we go for a swim then?” said Lodin.
“What about your golem? He’ll sink like a stone,” said Gail.
“He can walk along the bottom then,” Lodin responded.
Gail shrugged her shoulders, then dove gracefully into the water, making hardly a splash to speak of, and began swimming toward the light near the bottom of the pool. Lodin followed, albeit not as gracefully. Baelzathoth stepped off of the edge of the ridge with a tremendous splash and, as predicted, sank quickly to the bottom of the pool.
Lodin and Gail swam toward the light source, and noticed that it seemed to be emanating from a rather large aperture. Large enough, in fact, that Baelzathoth would have no problem traveling through it. As their eyes adjusted to the new light, it seemed it was not quite so brilliant as it had appeared from inside the cavern above them.
Once Lodin and Gail had entered the aperture, they found themselves within yet another tunnel, yet this one was even more cavernous than the last.
Within moments, they found themselves surrounded by what must’ve been thousands of tiny white fish with reddish eyes, swarming in every direction. Most of them were darting back and forth, gulping down tiny crayfish with transparent shells.
Lodin and Gail could also see tiny fish with long, slender bodies and tiny newt-like legs scuttling about the cave floor and walls. These too were albinos.
Then, there were larger fish. They very much resembled quippers, though like the smaller fish, they were completely white and possessed pink eyes. There were dozens of them, perhaps even hundreds. Truthfully, Lodin and Gail felt quite uneasy in the presence of so many albino piranhas.
In the distance, they were able to make out a shape. Something moving. Something alive. It drew nearer and nearer. It was definitely a fish of some kind. Most of the smaller fish scattered, as did many of the quippers, and as it came ever closer to their position it became more obvious just how large it was. Soon, Lodin and Gail could see that it was a huge albino catfish -- easily the size of a bullshark.
The catfish’s feelers lashed out in a manner not unlike the steely tendrils of the chain demon they’d fought less than a few hours prior. The feelers wrapped around Lodin’s arms and legs. The paladin grappled with the beast for a few moments, but the creature pulled Lodin in and clamped its jaws down on his body.
Gail swam over to the enormous fish and slammed her buckler into its face, the spike at the small shield’s center impaling it through the eye. The catfish released Lodin and turned its jaws to Gail. Lodin, in response, unsheathed his sword and stabbed at the catfish, plunging his blade into its side. The catfish turned around once more, to attack Lodin yet again, as Gail unsheathed her sword and stabbed the monster in the gills.
With a trail of blood, the catfish began to swim away, but it was quickly overcome by the cave quippers. The piranhas enveloped the beast completely, then scattered a few moments later. The monster’s skeleton sank harmlessly to the floor of the tunnel as the paladin and the thief kept swimming.
After a few moments, Lodin and Gail realized that the light was now coming from above them. Such a sight came just in time, as Lodin and Gail were both struggling to hold their breath for just a few moments longer as they swam to the surface.
They gasped for air as they breached the water, and then took a few moments to look around at their new surroundings.
They were in a large chamber, which on the inside was decked with treasure. Coins of yellow gold, of platinum, of silver, of white gold, of bronze, of electrum, and of copper filled the cavern, as did jewelry of yellow and white gold, and of silver, and of platinum, bejeweled with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, blue and purple sapphires, and many more. Heaps of treasure were piled upon tables, and upon the ground. Goblets, statues, platters, and weaponry of immeasurable value were scattered throughout the room. So immense was the trove that it put even the tomb of Rha Kai Tan to shame. Hundreds of candles burned, lighting the cavern and reflecting off of the mountains of jewels and precious metals throughout the room. It was no wonder the light managed to shine through to the cavern on the other side of the watery tunnel.
“Oh my Gods,” Gail breathed, “it’s incredible. It’s a shame my pack is already full. I really should’ve thought to bring another with me.”
“This must be the lost treasure of Rha Kai Tan,” said Lodin. “The catacombs shouldn’t be far from here.”
Lodin began swimming toward the edge of the pool, his feet able to touch the bottom of the water a few moments later. Gail eagerly followed after an instant of hesitation, and the two walked up out of the water together.
Once out of the water, Lodin turned around to look for some sign of his new golem, but his attention was instead drawn to Gail’s white, linen bodice; it had become taut and diaphanous with moisture, allowing every color and contour of her implausibly hefty yet seemingly weightless bosoms to show through. Lodin stared for a moment at the awe-inspiring sight, his jaw hanging slightly ajar as he beheld Gail’s effectively naked breasts.
“It’s going to take an eternity for this stuff to dry out,” said Gail, sheathing her longsword with one hand as she pulled one of the straps of her rucksack down from her bare shoulder with the other. She apparently hadn’t noticed Lodin staring at her chest, nor did she seem aware of how her movements were causing her immense frontal endowments to wobble back and forth, for all intents and purposes hypnotizing her paladin companion.
Lodin looked on for another few moments, unable to take his eyes away from Gail’s chest as she unconsciously flaunted her excessively oversized titivations at him, until he saw something emerge from the water several yards behind her. It was Baelzathoth, walking out of the water and into the cavern, shaking the ground with each heavy step he took.
Gail set her backpack on the cavern floor as Lodin began unfastening his so that he could do the same. She then loosed the belt of her satchel and lifted the strap over her head, removing it and setting it on the ground. Lodin and Gail both began ringing their hair out as Baelzathoth caught up to them, splashing them both with buckets of water as he took his last remaining steps out of the pool. The smoke pouring out of his eyes rose to the cavern’s ceiling, causing dozens of bats hanging from the stalactites above them to scatter, their chirps and squawks echoing throughout the chamber.
“That’s peculiar,” said Lodin. “With all the bats in here, we should be knee-deep in guano.”
“Who’s there?” an unfamiliar voice shouted from off in the distance.
Lodin and Gail began hearing footsteps coming toward them. Light, shuffling footsteps.
After a few moments, a tiny, withered old Drow stepped out from behind one of the mountains of treasure. His skin was wrinkled, and his physique was emaciated, nearly skeletal. His hair and goatee descended to his lower back and naval respectively, and were a dark, charcoal gray in color. His gate was shaky as he steadied himself with his large walking stick, and his tattered brown mantle dragged behind him along the cave floor.
“My name’s Abigail Renee Rowan, daughter of Larissa Rowan and Aramyn Haran,” said Gail, holding her chin high as the bony old Drow stepped closer.
“Haran? Llet an’tu el Ilythad noumil, in thoeren,” the leathery Dark Elf replied.
“Nath,” said Gail, nodding her head, “It’s most certainly a Drow name.” Gail reached up and pinched one of her pointed ears, wiggling it slightly to draw attention to it.
“Thou certainly don’t look Ilythad,” said the Drow, “Thy flesh is a bit too rich in color, thine eyes are blue, not red, and thine hair is far too light.” The Drow walked in circles around Gail, continuing to examine her. “Thou havest the svelte frame of a Drow woman...” he said, then around and began to mumble, “...un llit drau-mborad mbumili tu nina’n, ea llet tuin’mbumad rumil nila iss’u, enon’tua llisen llet tu Lla’Ilythil.” The Dark Elf then began trailing off even more inaudibly, “Non nethad Lla’Mannil iss’tua mbumili eti mborad, thu e rumil oli mbumad asi nina’n an’u....”
“I heard that,” said Gail.
The elderly Drow stopped and turned his gaze sharply to Gail.
“Thou looketh more like a Nymph than one of we Ilythil!” the Drow sneered.
“Well my birth-mother was human, a very exceptional human. I never met her, but my father told me she was once mistaken for a dryad and captured by poachers,” replied Gail.
The Drow shook his head, “Fine, then if thou art truly a half-Drow, tell me what house thy father was from.”
“The house of Dalael,” said Gail, narrowing her eyes at the wrinkled little Drow with a smug smirk upon her face.
Lodin raised an eyebrow at Gail, then looked to the ancient Drow to see his eyes widen.
“Bah! What proof have thee?” the elderly Drow demanded.
“I have no proof,” said Gail, “my father was a defector from the Unseelie Court.”
“Then thou art no Drow at all, child,” said the Drow. “And what art thou doing with a human of all creatures?”
“He’s my pet,” said Gail.
“Mayhaps I misjudged thee,” said the dark elf. “Thou certainly lieth like a Drow.” The withered little dark elf then shuffled over to Baelzathoth, staring up at the massive iron golem. “It was the human who released the demon, Baelzathoth, from the amulet, and awakened the golem of Rha Kai Tan.”
Lodin and Gail’s jaws dropped. Lodin then leaned over to Gail and whispered:
“How did you know his name?”
“I don’t know,” replied Gail, whispering back to Lodin, “it just came to me.”
“The golem knew not the name of its demon spirit, but any Drow can sense a demon’s true name. Thou couldest not have thought of another,” said the Drow, walking away from the golem. “And thou, human, must have a heart of pitch to command the creature. Thou must truly be the incarnation of Rha Kai Tan, greatest of the blackguards.”
Lodin unsheathed his longsword. “Bite your tongue, Drow, I’m a Paladin, a servant of Aradia, the Blessed Messiah.”
The Drow simply chortled, “Thou thinkest so, but inside thee burns a fire of blackest flame, else Baelzathoth would have destroyed thee when thou awakened him.”
“Whatever...” said Lodin, rolling his eyes. Lodin then felt something crawling up his leg. He looked down, only to see a scarab with a metallic-yellow shell ascending his thigh.
Lodin jumped back with a girlish scream, brushing the scarab off of his leg.
“That was a hoard scarab!” the paladin shouted.
“Aye,” said the Drow, grinning brightly, “there be many a hoard scarab among these treasures. Swarms, in fact. Ye shouldn’t worry, though; they won’t harm you.”
“And why’s that?” Gail queried.
“The hoard scarabs are kept fed by the bats,” the Drow explained. “Ye’ll notice there isn’t a drop of guano in here.”
As Lodin and Gail looked around the room, they found that there were hoard scarabs crawling all over the piles of gold coins, blending in almost perfectly due to their round shape and gold color.
“How long have you been down here?” Lodin asked.
“Since the death of Rha Kai Tan,” said the Drow.
“So what’ve you been eating all this time?” said Lodin.
“The hoard scarabs,” the Drow replied.
“But why?” said Lodin. “Why stay down here all these years just to eat hoard scarabs?”
“Because I hath been charged with guarding the first of the seven secret troves of Rha Kai Tan,” said the Drow.
“Is there any way out of here, other than the way we came?” asked Gail.
“Aye,” the Drow replied, pointing to a massive set of doors at the other end of the cavern, “through those doors ye’ll find passage out of these caves. Through the catacombs of the Centaurs that once dwelt in this valley.”
“Let’s go,” said Lodin, as he picked up his backpack and began walking away, toward the doorway at the opposite end of the cavern. Gail followed. Baelzathoth was not far behind as his footfalls jostled the piles of gold coins.
Once Lodin, Gail, and Baelzathoth made it to the other side of the cavern, the towering doors opened as if by magickal force, revealing the passageway out of Necropolis.
“Remember, ye have been warned...” said the Drow.
Lodin and Gail turned around sharply to see that the Drow was now standing right behind them.
“Warned about what?” asked Lodin.
The Drow gripped his staff, remaining perfectly still. He simply stared at Lodin blankly, blinking his eyes yet remaining otherwise motionless.
“Warned about what?” Lodin repeated.
The Drow didn’t move, nor did he say a word.
“Warned about what?” asked Gail.
Still the Drow simply stared at them, without moving or saying a thing.
Lodin rolled his eyes and shook his head, then walked into the darkness of the catacombs. Gail did the same.
“Baelzathoth, come!” Lodin ordered.
Baelzathoth complied, following Lodin and Gail through the entrance into the Centaurian catacombs.
* * *
As the trio descended deeper into the caves, the rubescent light from Baelzathoth’s eyes illuminated the tunnel with an intense red glow. The floor of the tunnel was tiled stones, and the walls and ceiling seemed to be comprised entirely of bones, arranged to form beams and buttresses to stabilize the passageway. Human-looking skulls, many of them with large, curving ram horns, adorned the walls, as did other Centaurian remains. It was truly an eerie sight to behold, to be surrounded on all sides by the remains of long-dead Centaurs, traveling down a warren that seemed to descend into eternity without end.
“What’s that sound?” said Gail.
“Baelzathoth, stop…” said Lodin, as he calmly raised his hand.
The trio stopped dead in their tracks.
“It’s coming from up ahead, I think,” said Gail.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
“I hear it too…” said Lodin.
The sounds grew louder, echoing throughout the ancient passageway.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
Lodin and Gail could see far enough ahead to make out a bend in the tunnel, twenty, perhaps twenty-five feet ahead of them.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
Whatever it was that was making such a sound was just around the bend.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
From around the corner, what looked to be the skeleton of a large, male centaur ambled toward them. It must’ve been at least nine feet in height. Its body was as the skeleton of a cloven-hoofed horse, its torso and skull the skeleton of a man, yet with massive spiraling horns similar in shape to that of a satyr or a ram. Its long, cat-like tail whipped back and forth behind it as it hobbled shakily toward the trio, its bones rattling and jarring together as its hooves clicked and clacked upon the catacomb floor.
Lodin tightened his grip on the hilt of his longsword, brandishing it menacingly before him as the Centaurian lyke approached. Gail unsheathed her blade, shielding herself with her spiked buckler as she did so, readying herself for the attack.
Just then, moaning of twisting metal echoed throughout the tunnel, broken by banging and popping. So deafening was the sound that Lodin’s attention was drawn away from the Centaurian lyke, and he was forced to look behind him.
Lodin’s newly acquired golem, Baelzathoth, though his glowing red eyes emitted as intense a radiance as ever, was becoming shrouded in darkness. The thick crimson smoke pouring forth from the iron golem’s eye sockets was traveling downward over its body, enveloping the massive creature. Within moments, the fifteen foot tall, eight-foot wide metal monstrosity had become a huge, roughly human-shaped cloud of smoke with burning red eyes.
Gail had turned around to see this as well, and even the Centaurian lyke was taken aback by the sight as the cloud of smoke began to change shape. Fluidly, smoothly, the shadowy mass altered its dimensions until it appeared almost...
In an eruption of flames, the smoke dissipated, leaving in its wake a gigantic metal nightmare. Seven feet tall at the shoulder, with a mane of fire and a tale of red-hot flame, stood an immense, mechanical-looking horse with Baelzathoth’s same burning red eyes, a creature with literal skin of iron.
It appeared that this golem was not only imbued with life by a demonic spirit, but was also a shapeshifter. The level of dark magick involved in creating such a beast must’ve been an astronomical undertaking, one that must’ve required the cooperative effort of every black mage and warlock living at the time of Rha Kai Tan’s evil reign. And while such a thought was enough to send chills of horror down Gail’s spine, the prospect of being in command of such a powerful creature was exciting the young paladin, Kha Lo Din, to an extent that he himself could never have anticipated.
Lodin smirked, and his eyes narrowed smugly.
“Baelzathoth!” Lodin cried. “Burn the lyke!”
The flames that comprised Baelzathoth’s mane grew higher, and his eyes burned brighter. With a deep, raspy, demonic nay the iron nightmare reared its head back, opened its mouth, and spit forth an erupting wall of fire, streaming from its throat not in any manner unlike the breath of a red dragon as it sped past Lodin and Gail.
The Centaurian lyke turned and attempted to gallop away, but was overtaken by the fire. The lyke was incinerated almost instantly. The iron nightmare’s fiery breath ceased. Baelzathoth snorted, causing tiny flames to burst from his nostrils.
Gail’s sense of horror subsided, as she, like Lodin, was overcome by a sense of invincibility.
“Lodin, he’s a shapeshifter!” Gail exclaimed with the brightest, most joyous of grins, not even concerning herself with the fact that she’d just stated something that was already bludgeoningly obvious.
“I wonder,” Lodin said calmly, still with an air of smug contentment swathing his face, as he began to examine the creature, being careful not to touch his mane nor move to close to his tail, “if the golem itself was designed to be a shapeshifter, or if the demon inside it, Baelzathoth, has the power to take other forms?”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Gail, “but we should get moving. The smoke’s building up in here and if we stay still too long I’m afraid we might find ourselves without any air to breathe.”
“Let’s go then,” replied Lodin.
Lodin, Gail, and Baelzathoth began walking once more, deeper still into the catacombs.
“So, you’re from the House of Daelal?” Lodin inquired.
“Yes,” said Gail.
“The House of Daelal?” said Lodin. “As in Lilithena Daelal, High Empress of the Unseelie Court?”
“The same,” Gail responded.
“The same House of Daelal that’s the head of all the Drow Houses, all the Leprechaun Families, all the Cluricaun Sects, all the Batling Sidhes, all the Siren Covens, and all the Redcap Tribes?” asked Lodin.
“Yes, my father once held a seat on the Unseelie Court,” said Gail, “but he defected. I’m surprised Jadia never told you, seeing that Aramyn was Kyra’s father as well.”
“Are you sure Jadia knew who Aramyn was before she met you?” said Lodin. “Her mother might never have told her.”
“Actually,” said Gail, “now that I think of it, Jadia didn’t have any idea who Aramyn was. All she knew was that Kyra’s father was just some drow, and that he was a defector of the Unseelie Court. She didn’t know what his name was until I told her.”
“Alright, so how did you get the last name ‘Rowan’?” asked Lodin. “I understand that Kyra was conceived by this Aramyn fellow, but she was born after your mother had been handfasted to Isaac Rowan. And I assume Larissa went back to Aramyn for a time, probably at least a year, and had you without Isaac’s knowledge, which means she would’ve probably left you behind to be raised by Aramyn.”
“Right,” said Gail.
“Do you know why Larissa went back to Aramyn?” said Lodin.
“Well,” replied Gail, “my father told me it was because when the Unseelie Court tried to take control of the Kingdom of Faelore and the Faelore-Béowyn War started, she was exiled from Béowyn because she looked so similar to dryad. She had nowhere to go, and found my father up in Arlianor. But when the Unseelie Court finally took control of Faelore, the Kingdom of Béowyn started allowing refugees to cross the boarder out of mercy. A few months later, she decided to return home to Béowyn to be with her other two daughters. For some reason, she never told my father about Isaac or Kyra or Jadia. Instead, she told him that she’d miscarried the child she conceived by him and was taken in by a family in Graelark, which is why she stayed in Béowyn. I ran into my father about six weeks ago up in Leighton, and I was going to tell him about Kyra, and tell him about Isaac and Jadia as well, but it turns out Jadia’s father had already found him and filled him in.”
“That’s a fairly complicated story,” said Lodin.
“We live in fairly complicated times, Lodin,” Gail returned.
“You still haven’t explained how you came by the last name ‘Rowan’ rather than ‘Haran’,” Lodin reminded the thief.
“It’s simple,” said Gail. “Larissa told my father that she’d been taken in by a family and adopted the surname ‘Rowan’, and insisted that I carry the same surname.”
“I never knew any of this about Larissa,” said Lodin. “It seems she spent a great deal of her life caught between two webs of lies.”
Gail nodded. “I’m glad I never knew her. I had an Elven mother who loved me very much, who I wouldn’t have traded for anything in Gaia, especially not some adulterous human. I mean she didn’t even have the courage to tell my father that she’d found a new love in Béowyn, and that he was raising my father’s blood daughter, or that she’d had another child. When she was exiled to Faelore, she just conjured up some horse-shit story about being taken in after she was captured by those poachers, she told him she’d lost the child that should’ve been his, and she just resumed her life as though it were all true. Then when the war ended two years later and she’d already given birth to me, she just abandoned me and went back to Graelark to be with Isaac.”
“Larissa was a good woman, I don’t know why she would do all of that,” said Lodin. “I would imagine she was just confused and frightened. I was only three years old when the Faelore-Béowyn War started, and I was only five when it ended, so I don’t really remember what it was like back in those days. She could’ve very well thought that she would never be able to return to Béowyn, and was afraid to tell your father about the life she’d been living there because she thought if he felt betrayed she’d have nowhere to turn. And as far as abandoning you when the war ended; she already had two other daughters to think about.”
“So that’s it then?” Gail snapped. “It was just a matter of weighing the two daughters she’d been raising with Isaac and the daughter she was raising with my father? Just a matter of choosing the two over the one?”
“Well, what would you have done?” said Lodin. “I know it sounds awfully calculative and not very, well, ‘loving’, but if you have three children that you love equally, and you have the choice between abandoning either one of them or two of them, what other option is there? I’d think it would be a simple choice, but that doesn’t mean it would be an easy thing to do. I’d imagine it probably broke Larissa’s heart to leave you behind, and when Kyra disappeared, she probably felt as though Jadia was all she had left.”
“Then why is it,” replied Gail, “that she and Isaac and Jadia never gave up searching for Kyra, and yet she never sought me out after she left my father?”
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
Another Centaurian lyke walked into the light being cast by the iron nightmare’s mane of fire, this one brandishing a badly tarnished and rusted bronze long-shield, and an equally time-ravaged bronze kopesh that was at least five feet in length.
“Baelzathoth, burn it...” Lodin instructed the shapeshifting golem. “She probably knew you were safe,” said Lodin, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of flames being spewed forth by Baelzathoth. “She probably trusted Aramyn to raise you well and protect you, and probably knew that he’d find another love who’d bring you up as though you were her own. Larissa was the sort of woman to have faith in people.”
“Well what I don’t understand,” said Gail, as she and Lodin stepped over the pieces of burnt sword and shield left by the Centaurian lyke that Baelzathoth had just disposed of, “is why she stayed with Isaac at all.”
“Probably because she had just been captured by poachers who mistook her for a Dryad,” said Lodin, “which would be traumatic enough of an experience for any Human, although it’s understandable considering how much she looked like a Dryad and how little she looked like other humans, regardless of her round ears, but Isaac bought her freedom on the black market. He saved her from being sold as a sex slave. And she was with child at the time, albeit probably only a month or so along in the pregnancy, and clung to the man who’d saved her, to a man who promised to take care of her and Kyra, and who promised to raise Kyra like his own flesh and blood daughter once she was born. I’m sure she still loved your father, but Isaac was her savior.”
“You sound just like Jadia,” said Gail.
“Well I think your sister is right,” replied Lodin. “Jadia and I both actually knew Larissa, you didn’t. As much as it shocks me to think of her living a double life in her younger years, I know in my heart that she’d never have done those things out of malice or even apathy, but only out of desperation and fear.”
“Desperation and fear are just excuses people use for malicious actions and apathetic behavior,” said Gail. “I would know, being a thief.”
“You’re also a Drow,” said Lodin, “and you sound just like one at the moment. Jadia stole to survive, to provide a life for herself and to help feed her mother and father. Now I haven’t seen Jadia in over a year, and I feel sort of bad for not immediately recognizing you as being her sister, considering how much the two of you look alike, but the two of you don’t seem to have much in common when it comes to your hearts.”
“How dare you, Paladin,” Gail charged, “presume to know anything of my heart.”
“I’m sorry, that was unfair of me. But I do know something of Jadia’s heart,” replied Lodin, “I know that she only stole from the rich, from those who flaunted their wealth in front of people who could scarcely afford to eat everyday. True she took more than what she needed, but never more than what those she stole from could afford to lose, and she used what she took to take care of her family and her friends. She may have been a thief, but she had morals and integrity. It was wrong of me to assume any less of you, but your statement just now caught me off guard, and I truly am sorry.”
“Wow, a Paladin defending a thief...” said Gail, “You surprise me.”
“I’m a defender of the faith,” said Lodin, “and my faith teaches that Aradia took pity on the thieves, because she knew that the majority of them were victims of a cruel society in which the wealthy oppressed the poor. She recognized the fact that the clean, nicely dressed, successful folks with their pearly white teeth who appear to work so hard are often the most despicable people of all behind closed doors, and that some of the most generous, loyal, caring people you’ll ever meet are those who have had to struggle to survive, who’ve at one point or another resorted to living outside of the law; people who might wear tattered clothing, who smell, who are missing teeth, or who steal in order to survive. Whereas most people assume the clean-cut folks are the decent and honorable ones, Aradia knew the truth; she knew that there was more honor amongst the thieves, the vandals, and the assassins, than amongst all of the beautiful people, business men, soldiers, and officers of the court, combined. Aradia not only knew this, but she taught it, and lived by it, and it disgusts me that so many Witches and Paladins have forgotten this today.”
“You’re certainly passionate,” said Gail. “So why be a part of it? The Aradian priests and priestesses of today don’t behave like the Witches of Aradia’s time. They’re nobles now. Why be a minion for a system that oppresses the poor?”
“When the kingdom of Béowyn was founded over eight thousand years ago,” Lodin began, “King Béowyn himself recognized the need for balance within a society. He established a theocratic branch of the government, of Witches and paladins to defend the poor and keep the monarchy in check, because he feared his descendants would do as many other monarchs have and use their power to oppress the poor. My father, who’s now an elder paladin, taught me that it’s a greater crime to let a family starve than it is to steal from those with excess wealth, and like my father I’d sooner cut a rich man’s throat for depriving his fellow citizens of that which he can afford to give than imprison a poor man who’s stealing for his own survival. That’s where the paladins of the Aradian faith differ from the knights and soldiers of the sovereignty, or the officers of the court. We defend the poor and the oppressed, whilst they defend the rich oppressors.”
“Then it’s no wonder my mother, or rather my stepmother, always taught me to trust paladins and Witches,” said Gail. “Tell me, though, why is it you seem to defend the kingdom of Béowyn for having both defenders of the rich and defenders of the poor?”
“Because,” said Lodin, “not all thieves have honor. It seems that somewhere along the line, some people began to see thievery itself as a virtue, rather than as the last resort of those who may otherwise be virtuous. Children run away from home and join thieves’ guilds, and grow up caring not who they steal from or for what cause, caring only for the thrill of the acquisition. There are also those in society who steal only because it’s easier than working and earning a legitimate living, not because they need to in order to survive, or because they’ve made an honest effort to find work and have been unsuccessful. Thieves of that sort have no honor, and are no better than the rich who would oppress the poor. Aside from which, while those who amass their wealth through hard work and yet decline to use what they’ve acquired to help those who have not been as fortunate as they, are certainly scoundrels, they are lesser scoundrels, in my belief, than those who behave in the same manner yet have amassed their wealth by taking from others.”
“It sounds as though you have everything figured out,” said Gail.
“No,” replied Lodin, “but I do have my beliefs. Those beliefs may certainly be wrong, but in the end, beliefs are all anyone really has.”
“I suppose so,” Gail reluctantly agreed.
Lodin halted. Baelzathoth stopped behind him. Gail then stopped as well and turned around to look at Lodin.
“Have you gotten us lost?” said Gail, accusingly.
“Excuse me?” Lodin shot back. “Do you have a map of the catacombs? Do either of us have even the slightest idea where we’re going?”
“Well no, but perhaps if you hadn’t been talking so much we’d be out of here by now,” said Gail. “We must’ve passed a dozen side tunnels by now and gone down three or four different forks without even thinking about which turn we should take.”
“What else should we have been doing?” replied Lodin.
“You seemed to know we were nearing the catacombs while we were in that treasury,” said Gail, “which you identified as the secret store of Rha Kai Tan. I thought perhaps you had a vague idea of where to go.”
“No, like I said, neither of us have any idea where we need to go,” Lodin reiterated. “We don’t have maps. That old drow never even gave us any directions other than ‘ye have been warned’. We just have to keep going until we find a way out.”
“That could take days,” said Gail. “Besides, if you’ve no idea where you’re going, why’d you suddenly stop like that?”
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
“I had a feeling,” said Lodin.
“Your golem will take care of that just as easily as the last two,” said Gail.
“No, listen,” said Lodin.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
“It sounds like there’s more than one of them,” Gail responded.
Click, clack, click, clack, click, clack...
“A lot more,” replied Lodin.
A Centaurian lyke appeared, armed with the same sort of bronze long-shield and kopesh as the last. Another Centaurian lyke appeared, similarly armed, though this one wore a bronze phylax on its chest and bronze greaves on its forelegs. Then another Centaurian lyke appeared, armored with a bronze phylax and carrying a kopesh, yet without the long-shield or greaves. Yet another Centaurian lyke came into the light being cast by Baelzathoth’s mane, this one armored with a phylax and grieves, but carrying a bronze trident rather than a shield or sword. Still another Centaurian lyke came into view, this one shielded with a long-shield, greaves, and phylax, but cracking a long leather whip as it marched in step with the others. More Centaurian lykees appeared, and kept appearing, each with some combination of the armaments carried by the first five.
“Baelzathoth!” Lodin cried. “Do something!”
Lodin and Gail looked behind them to see that Baelzathoth was once again transforming. His iron skin moaned and popped as the vaporous, almost nigrescent glow of crimson smoke overtook his body once again, and again all that could be seen of Baelzathoth was a black cloud with glowing red eyes. The tunnel grew dimmer as Baelzathoth’s form changed; at first it looked as though he were changing back to his original form, but then something else was happening. The golem was growing larger, so large that it could scarcely fit under the capacious tunnel’s twenty-five foot high ceiling.
The smoke dissipated, and an intense glow of red, orange, and yellow began to emanate from the joints within the golem’s armor. It looked much like its original form, although its sabatons had become a massive pair of cloven-hoofed greaves that extended down below the shynbalds, its still skull-like head had grown a massive pair of iron horns not unlike those possessed by the Centaurian lykees, only much larger in proportion to its head; its jaw had grown larger, and its teeth had become like daggers. A gigantic pair of iron, bat-like wings had also appeared on Baelzathoth’s back, and a long, thin, but otherwise reptilian tail had appeared. The golem was so massive now that it had to remain hunched over in the tunnel, its wings nearly pressing against the bony catacomb walls.
The glow coming from the joints in Baelzathoth’s armor then erupted into flame. A fiery inferno overtook the iron golem, turning the intense red glow of his eyes as black as pitch by comparison. Baelzathoth let out a demonic roar as smoke began to fill the tunnel, and the brigade of Centaurian lykees turned to run away.
Within the palm of his hand Baelzathoth conjured a ball of fire, drew back, and threw the flaming orb at the Centaurian lykees as they ran. It exploded as it hit one of the galloping skeletons, completely incinerating it, while charring and dismembering the lykees around it. Baelzathoth kept hurling fireball after fireball until the entirety of the Centaurian lyke brigade had been reduced to ash.
Lodin and Gail began to cough, finding it difficult to breathe as the tunnel filled with thick, black smoke. It was then that the smoke began drawing back to Baelzathoth and the flames emanating from the joints in his armor died down. Baelzathoth was once again consumed by the shadowy vapor, and mutated from an iron-skinned fire demon back to his original form.
“C’mon, let’s keep moving,” said Gail, still coughing slightly as she stumbled forward through the tunnel. Lodin followed, as did Baelzathoth.