Guided by the kucheri warriors, they trekked through the dense forest of Ashyr for three days until they came to an ancient road. The dirt path they had been walking along widened until it was about twenty feet across. Broken paving stones littered a small clearing, becoming more and more frequent until the road appeared out of the thick grass.
“This is the road to Bel-Tarnath,” said one of the kucheri. “Follow it into the city. The temple is a large pyramid you will see on the left. May fate favor you, humans.” With that, the kucheri guides turned back to the wilderness, and left the company behind.
“We’ll camp here tonight,” said the Sergeant. “Durge, Paun, you guys have first watch. Jorvar and Samm have second watch. No fires, and no chatter tonight, boys.”
They set up camp, and had cold rations for dinner. The night passed uneventfully. They could hear moans and other supernatural sounds on the winds, but nothing came close enough to disturb them. When dawn came, Jorvar made the rounds to wake everyone up. They ate a cold breakfast, and broke camp just as the sun was starting to warm the day. When they were ready to leave, the Sergeant gave them marching orders.
“Finn and Kharstov take point. You two got a full night’s sleep, so you should be able to stay sharp. I’ll go next, and Jorvar is with me. Samm and Paun behind me, and Durge behind them. Rolan, you’re on rear guard. Questions?”
There weren’t any, and so they began to walk down the road. They moved cautiously, not wanting to attract any attention to themselves, and as quietly as seven armored men (and one unarmored thief) could move.
Barely an hour had passed before Finnbjorn raised his fist, signaling them to halt. He was a warrior from the frozen wilderness far to the north, and he stood a foot taller than any of the others. It made him the perfect lookout, and the perfect person to give signals to the rest of them. Unfortunately, it also made him a perfect target. He was hard to miss.
Before he could say anything, a large boar broke out of the treeline, and charged straight at him. Snarling and squealing, it lowered its head and moved to gore him with a tusk. Finnbjorn tried to dive out of the way, but the boar was quicker and tore through the flesh of his leg. Without slowing down, the beast charged towards the Sergeant and Jorvar.
Having more time to react, they could leap to either side, and the boar passed harmlessly between them. Samm, Paun, and Kharstov met the beast’s charge head on. They hacked with their swords while deflecting blows from the tusks, but the boar was incredibly fast for such a large and powerful beast. It spun in a ferocious circle, trying to gore them with its tusks and kick them with its hooves. Rolan fired an arrow, but it bounced harmlessly off the boar’s flank.
They surrounded the boar, and took turns striking its flanks as it spun around furiously, trying to gore them. It scored a few minor hits, but wasn’t able to wound any of them seriously. Paun landed the first really damaging blow, and then Jorvar finished the beast off by plunging his sword into the base of its skull.
Jorvar bandaged Finn’s leg, and took his place at point. In a matter of minutes, they were underway again. After another hour, they came to the broken gates of Bel-Tarnath.
The wilderness had reclaimed most of Bel-Tarnath, leaving only narrow trails between the crumbling buildings. Tangling vines climbed over the few walls that still stood, and dense undergrowth filled the spaces between those walls. It was unnaturally quiet, but danger hung thick in the air.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Samm.
“You’ve always got a bad feeling about everything, Samm. Maybe you should let Jorvar see if he can find your spine,” said Paun. Everyone laughed.
Samm wheeled as if he were going to throw a punch, but Finnbjorn held him back by placing a hand on his shoulder.
“That’s enough,” said the Sergeant. “I don’t see this temple that’s supposed to be impossible to miss. Rolan, climb that tree over there, and see if you can find it from up there.”
Rolan did as he was asked, then came back down. “It’s ‘bout a quarter mile from here. We just stay on this road, we’ll be there in a jiffy,” he said.
“Any dangers between here and there?” asked the Sergeant.
“No, sir. Empty as a piss-pot in Summer.”
“Very well,” said the Sergeant. “Rolan, scout ahead. We’ll stay about twenty feet behind you. Samm, you’re with me. Paun and Durge, you’re next, then Jorvar and Finnbjorn. Kharstov has the rear guard. Slow and steady, boys, and keep the chatter down. We don’t want to wake anything up. Move out.”
Rolan started out, and the others followed him. He moved quickly and quietly through the tangles of briars and thorns that had grown over the road, and he winced at the noise the rest of the company made as they hacked a trail through the undergrowth behind him. He was about to yell at them to be quiet when an arrow struck him in the throat. Clutching the arrow, he fell over, dead.
“Arrows!” shouted the Sergeant. “Take cover!”
An arrow whistled by his head just as he jumped to the side. Samm dove in the other direction, and another arrow sailed through the air where he had just been standing. It broke against Paun’s breastplate. They all dove to the side of the road taking no damage, but they were momentarily pinned down as arrows flooded the surrounding air.
“Does anybody see them?” asked the Sergeant. “Who’s shooting at us?” Kharstov unslung his bow from his back, stood up, and fired a quick shot. As soon as he dropped back down, he yelled “Goblins! Hundreds of them!”
“Shit. Follow me!” yelled the Sergeant. Crouching low, he ran behind one of the buildings, and then to another. Those on his side of the road followed immediately, but the others had to crawl across the road on their bellies until they reached the other side. Samm was the last one to cross, but he never made it. An arrow pierced his skull, and he died in the middle of the road.
They moved quickly, dodging arrows between the buildings. Kharstov, Finnbjorn, and Jorvar were the only ones who carried bows, and they provided some cover for the others, but not much. The goblins’ arrows filled the air with death.
“There’s more coming!” yelled Paun as he pointed ahead of them. Soon, arrows were flying from two different directions. The Sergeant dove inside the building he was hiding behind, and motioned for the others to join him. They made it without injury and found themselves in an ancient house. Mold was growing on everything, and the odor was nearly too much to stand.
“We can’t stay here. They’re closing fast,” said Kharstov.
“I know,” said the Sergeant. “I’m open to suggestions. How do we get out of this mess?”
“Charge them,” said Finnbjorn.
“Charge them?” asked Durge incredulously, then added “We’re not all as suicidal as you are.”
“No, he’s right,” said Kharstov. “The bows give them the advantage. If we can get close enough, we can take them in melee. They’re cowards, they won’t fight for long when we start slaughtering them.”
“How do we close the distance without getting skewered?” asked Jorvar.
Kharstov replied, “We’ll worry about that.” Turning to the Sergeant, he said, “Sarge, Finn and I can hold ‘em off while you lead the men to the temple. Once you’re inside, we can do a fighting withdrawal to the temple while you pepper them with arrows.”
“That’s a good plan,” said the Sergeant. “But it will be me and Finn out there, while you lead the men.”
“Sir, with all due respect, we can’t risk losing you out there. You’ve got to get the men to the temple,” said Kharstov.
“Very well. Go give us a diversion,” said the Sergeant.
Kharstov and Finn handed over their bows to Durge and Paun, and drew their swords. Kharstov drew his longsword and dagger without fanfare, but when Finnbjorn pulled the bundle of furs off of his back, a hush fell over the company.
They had heard rumors, but none of them had ever actually seen the PainBlade before. Finn kept it wrapped in furs, slung across his back, and never took it off, even while he slept. He usually fought with his war hammer, which was just an ordinary weapon as far as any of them knew.
Finnbjorn laid the bundle on the floor of the hut, and carefully loosed the leather binds around the furs. With great care, he unwrapped the furs, revealing a wooden box carved with ornate runes and symbols. He removed a key from around his neck, and unlocked the box. Inside, the sword was wrapped in black silk.
He paused, said a silent prayer, and then addressed the men. “Do not stare into the blade,” he said. “It will call to you, and entice you to touch it. The blade was forged from the primeval void that existed before time, and those who touch it experience the pain of the void for the rest of their lives. The pain is…intense. There is no cure, and no way to relieve the pain caused by the blade. Hence the name I am sure you have all heard.” Turning to Kharstov, he said, “Kharstov, I will not need your help. Go to the temple with the others, and I will join you there.” With that, he unwrapped the sword.
The hilt was about nine inches long, and wrapped in ivory bandages. The crossguard angled upwards, ending in sharp points. It was simple and utilitarian, and almost completely unremarkable. The blade itself, however, was made of a metal that was blacker than the blackest night. It appeared to be carved from black ice, for it was covered in a patina of frost. Wisps of cold air rose from the blade like white smoke. The temperature in the hut dropped twenty degrees, and everyone except Finn shuddered.
“Go now,” said Finnbjorn. “I will meet you at the temple.” With that, he picked up the sword, and walked out the door. The others watched him walk calmly towards the main goblin force, seemingly unaware of the arrows flying around him. Remarkably, no arrow seemed to even get close to him. A cold wind swirled around Finnbjorn, blowing the arrows away from him. It was almost as if the blade was warping reality around itself, shielding Finn from the attacks.
Jorvar gathered up the silk wrapping and furs and put them in the box Finn had left behind. He slung the box over his shoulder.
“Ok, let’s go,” said the Sergeant. “Groups of twos. I’ll go first, and Paun is with me. Durge and Jorvar go next. Kharstov, you’re bringing up the rear. Stay low, and move fast, boys.”
They moved out. The Sergeant made it to the second building, and then to the third, and then to the fourth, with the others following him, one building at a time. Arrows whistled past them, and a few thudded into their shields or bounced off their armor, but none caused any damage. When the Sergeant reached the sixth building, he stopped, and motioned for the others to join him.
Meanwhile, Finnbjorn was a whirlwind of death. He waded through the goblin horde, swinging the great black sword with both hands. With each swing, he cut several of the beasts completely in half and sent many others screaming away from him in pain and terror. He suffered a few scrapes and minor cuts from some of the luckier goblins who managed to score hits against him, but none of them came close to doing any real damage. Within minutes, the battlefield was littered with dozens of corpses. He continued moving slowly through the teeming masses of goblins, carving a path of destruction.
When the others had joined the Sergeant, he looked at them and said, “Look, lads. There’s the temple, just over there. The only problem is there’s a graveyard between this hut and that temple. It’s a long stretch of open space. We’re going to have to make a run for it. Jorvar, you go first. I’ll cover you using Finn’s bow. When you get to the temple, lay down some crossfire with your own bow. Kharstov, you go next, and do the same thing. Then Durge, then Paun. I’ll go last.” Kharstov took his bow back from Durge, and everyone signaled they were ready.
Jorvar sprinted across the graveyard, ducking and weaving between the graves. Most of the goblins were dealing with the much more imminent threat of Finn and the PainBlade, but there were plenty of arrows to go around. They whizzed past him, but none of them touched him. Once he made it to the temple, he took cover behind a crumbling pillar and unslung his bow. He was a deadly accurate shot, and each arrow he fired thinned out the goblins’ ranks by one.
Kharstov also made it to the temple without getting hit, and he took cover behind a different pillar. He looked over to where Finn was slaughtering the goblins, and briefly thought about helping him out. However, he could see that the big man was quite capable of taking care of himself, and so he turned his attention back to the secondary goblin force. He wasn’t as accurate as Jorvar, but he scored more hits than misses.
Durge also made it to the temple easily. Not having a bow to wield, he simply took cover behind a pillar and sat tight.
Paun tripped over a gravestone, and paid for it with his life. A goblin arrow found him the moment his defenses were down, and he was dead before he hit the ground.
The Sergeant was almost to the temple when an arrow caught him in the leg. He stumbled and fell to the ground. Fortunately, he landed behind one of the larger tombstones, and so had cover.
Kharstov handed his bow to Durge, and ran to retrieve the Sergeant. Durge and Jorvar covered them as best as they could, but the goblins were relentless. When they saw they had wounded the Sergeant, they doubled their efforts. Jorvar, seeing that they were pinned down, signaled Finnbjorn with a shrill whistle that pierced the air. Finnbjorn heard it and began a fighting withdrawal from the goblins.
At that moment, a loud gong rang out from the temple. Upon hearing it, the goblins stopped their attacks and ran from the battlefield. Finn ran over to Kharstov, and together they helped the Sergeant get to the temple. As they were running, the gong sounded a second time. When they were finally all together on the temple steps, it rang out a third time. After the third gong, the city of Bel-Tarnath fell into an unnatural silence once again.