The Amulet of Kirath

I knows me a witch. Maybe she can help us find that amulet.”

“You know a witch? How do you know a witch?”

“My cousin, Ezzie? You know the one with the big—”

“Yes, I know the one, Rolan. What about her?”

“I was gonna say ‘house.’ Anyway, she used to be poor. Dirt poor. She was married to this farmer over in Derbyshire. He used to beat her, real bad like. One time, he—”

“Get on with it, Rolan. Where’s this witch?”

“I’m gettin’ to that, Sergeant. Anyways, so this guy was beatin’ Ezzie something fierce, and one day, she just kinda snaps, and decides she ain’t gonna take it no more. So she runs away, only she don’t get very far.”

“The witch, Rolan.”

“She ran into the woods, and wouldn’t you know it? She ran right into a kucheri scouting party.”

“Kucheri. In Derbyshire. I think I’ve heard enough of this…”

“No! Wait! So she got captured by them kucheri, and they didn’t know what to do with her, so they took her to their medicine woman. Now Ezzie, she might’ve been poor, but she was smart. She saw her chance, and she took it. She made a deal with that medicine woman and got rid of that farmer. Not only that, but that witch gave her some jewels, too, and that’s how Ezzie got rich.”

“So you believe this ‘witch’ just helped your cousin out of the goodness of her heart, and now she’s going to help us, too?”

“Hell no, it wasn’t out of the goodness of her heart! You ain’t listening! Or I ain’t telling it right. Anyhow, that witch sent Ezzie back to the farm, and sent some of them werewolfs with her. They took that farmer back to their village, and that was the witch’s payment. That was twenty years ago, and Ezzie swears she can still hear the man scream.”

“And I suppose your cousin told you how to find this witch?”

“No, sir. She didn’t have to tell me. I seen it with my own two eyes. I followed her to the witch’s hut, and then I followed her back home. I always been a sneaky little shit, sir, and that’s why I’m such a good scout. That’s why I joined up. I always been a sneaky little shit, and I figured the army was the only place where I could make an honest living. I ain’t no thief, sergeant. You know that I ain’t no thief.”

“No, Rolan. You might be a bit simple, but you’re not a thief. Very well. Can you take us to this witch?”

Before Rolan could answer, Kharstov spoke up.

“Sir, you’re not seriously going to the kucheri, are you? They’ll skin us alive! They’ll eat our hearts in front of us! They’re monsters! Demons! Why would they help us?”

“Because we’re doing them a favor, Kharstov. If we can find the Amulet of Kirath, then we will have removed a great evil from their lands. They’re not demons, no matter what your parents told you to get you to behave. They may not like us, but they fight the demons just like we do. If the Amulet is in their lands, it is calling demons to itself. The kucheri will be glad to be rid of it. If we die, that’s no skin off their back, so they’ve got nothing to lose either way.”

Rolan spoke up again. “Sir, there’s somethin’ else I should probably tell you.” “What is it, Rolan?”

“Well, sir, this witch. They call her the Reader of Bones. She might be just as likely to kill us as help us.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get there. Take us to this Reader of Bones, Rolan.”

They traveled for two days before getting to the witch’s hut. The forest was mostly silent, with only the odd birdsong or rustling of leaves breaking the silence. They did not speak, not wanting to attract any unwanted attention. Even the horses made only minimal sounds as they allowed themselves to be led through the dense forest.

As dusk was settling in on the second day, they came upon a small clearing with a tiny hut in the middle of it. Outside of the hut stood two tall, bronzed-skin warriors, with bone weapons hanging by their sides. Their hair was wild and dyed in startling colors. In contrast, they were clean shaven and their leather armor was neat and oiled. They looked dangerous, but they held relaxed, casual poses.

As the company of soldiers walked into the clearing, one warrior stepped forward and held up his hand. “What brings you to the Reader of the Bones, outsiders?”

The Seargent motioned for his men to stay back, then took a single step forward and addressed the warrior who had spoken. “We seek the lost Amulet of Kirath,” he said. “We seek her aid in finding it.”

“We do not have it,” said one of the warriors. “Now, begone from here, fools.”

An old woman’s voice called out from inside the hut. “Wait! I will speak with him,” she said.

The warrior shrugged his shoulders. He spoke to the Seargent.

“You will find the Reader of the Bones in there,” said the kucheri. “Only you may enter; her words will be for you alone. The rest of your men must wait outside with us.”

“Wait here, and don’t touch anything,” said the Sergeant. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

It was almost completely dark inside the hut. Despite the heat outside, a fire was burning in a pit against the far wall, and two lit braziers hung from the ceiling. Skulls of different animals were piled around the room and hung on the walls. A large pile of rags near the fire started moving and slowly transformed into an incredibly beautiful woman with raven hair and deep green eyes.

The Sergeant looked at the floor, then sat down across from the woman. “I seek your aid in finding the Amulet of Kirath. We believe it is somewhere in your lands. If it is here, it is likely calling demons to it, bringing great danger to your people. If you let us have it we will take it far away, bringing peace to your people.”

The woman looked at the Sergeant carefully. “We face many dangers and hardships. The demons are but one. And one that is easily handled by our warriors. Your people are a much bigger threat to us, and now you come seeking my aid to find an artifact that will undoubtedly increase your power. Why should I help you? Perhaps I should use this artifact for myself, to help my people!”

“The amulet is of no use to you,” said the Sergeant. “It can only be used by someone from Calymnia. It is magically attuned to our people, and so only we can use it. In your hands, it is nothing but a trinket, a bauble. But in the right hands – our hands – it could end this demonic plague once and for all! I give you my word. Once this threat has been removed, the relations between your people and mine will be greater than they’ve ever been before. We seek peace with your people, not war.”

The woman spit on the ground next to her. “Bah! Peace? You seek peace? Then why do your people hunt us in our own lands? Why do they capture us, and sell us into slavery? Humans know nothing of peace!”

“Those humans who hunt and enslave your people are not my people. Our kingdom is peaceful. We do not condone slavery, or murder. We fight against those who do. We stand for freedom, justice, and Peace. We are Calymnia, the Kingdom of Light, and we are not your enemy.”

“I am not ignorant of your politics, human. What you say was once true, but not any longer. For a generation, since the murder of your king, your country has turned away from the Light, and is now controlled by dark powers.”

The Sergeant let out a heavy, ragged sigh. “What you say is the truth,” he said. “When the rightful king was murdered, Calymnia fell into darkness. But please listen! I am a member of a secret, underground resistance movement. We are dedicated to overthrowing the current king, and returning Calymnia to the Light. We wish to lead the people back to freedom, and back to the Light! Please help me, so that our peoples can be allies again!”

The Reader of the Bones stared at him for several long moments, then started chanting softly. From the piles of bones around her, she selected a bear’s skull. She smashed it on the floor, then peered intently at the pieces.

The flames turned a deep crimson color and then faded to nearly black. All the light seemed to exit the room. Outside, the horses squealed in terror. They screamed and bucked, trying to escape the magic that was emanating from the hut. Inside the hut, an image formed in the black flames.

A temple, long forgotten, lies in ruins deep in the jungle. Concealed by dirt, foliage, and thick vines, it is crawling with insects, snakes, and spiders. A colony of bats has taken roost within its cavernous outer openings, and by night, they fly out to hunt by the thousands. Deep within the temple, an unholy black light pulses.

Outside the temple, a lion sniffs at the doorway. As it enters the temple, the ground opens, and the lion falls into the abyss.

 

The image faded, the flames returned to normal, and the horses outside settled down. The Reader of the Bones looked at the Seargent, and spoke softly.

“The lion is the symbol of your family, is it not? Beware the temple, lest you share the lion’s fate. You will find your answers in the Forgotten Temple of Exterminis, in the lost city of Bel-Tarnath. My warriors will guide you there.”

 

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. An arrow whistled by his head just as he jumped to the side. “Take cover!”

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. The others all dove to the side of the road too, taking no damage. However, 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, “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.

“What do you think that was?” asked Kharstov.

“Nothing good. It scared the hell out of those goblins,” said Jorvar. He pulled the arrow out of the Sergeant’s leg, and bandaged the wound. He gave the captain a healing potion to stop the pain and help the wound close faster. He turned to Finn, and handed  him the box and wrappings of the PainBlade. “I’m always cleaning up after you, cousin.”

“Just like when we were kids.” Finnbjorn grinned, and took the bundle. He started to put the sword away when the Sergeant stopped him.

“Best leave it out. Finn,” said the Seargent. I don’t know what’s happening, but everything in this city except us is deathly afraid of something. We’re probably going to find out what that something is.”

“I will go first,” said Finnbjorn. “Whatever it is, the PainBlade is the best tool to deal with it.”

“You’ll get no argument from me, at least not while you’re holding the damned thing,” said the Sergeant. Finnbjorn laughed, and the others grinned. He continued, “Finn goes first, then me, then Durge, Kharstov, and Jorvar brings up the rear.”

The interior of the temple was dark, and they took a few moments to let their eyes adjust. They found themselves in a large room, devoid of furniture except for a broken altar against the far wall. Several braziers had fallen from the ceiling and now lay littered on the floor, along with shards of broken stained glass from the windows, and piles of dirt and old leaves.

Kharstov started to speak. “Where’s the…”

A sudden commotion interrupted him from the far end of the room. The floor underneath the altar exploded upwards, sending debris flying everywhere. As the dust cloud settled, a large skeletal beast climbed out of the hole. It was about twenty feet tall, and humanoid. A pair of bony horns protruded from its skull, and its eyes blazed with red fire. It didn’t have wings, but a bony tail with a large barb on the end whipped back and forth behind it. Bits of rotting flesh hung off of its skeletal frame, and a putrid green discharge dripped from its bones. It was wearing rotting leather armor, and it carried a sword that was almost seven feet long with a serrated blade.

“Jorvar, Durge, fire arrows!” shouted the Sergeant. “Finn, front and center. Kharstov, flank it.” He tried to get up so that he could join the attack, but fell down when he tried to put weight on his leg. He resigned himself to sitting this one out.

Finnbjorn let out a savage, primal scream, and charged straight at the monster with the PainBlade held high. Kharstov moved to the side of the creature, trying to flank it, while Durge and Jorvar started firing arrows.

The skeletal demon grasped its sword in both hands, brought it over and behind its head, and then swung it straight down at Finn. He managed to block it with the PainBlade, but the wound he had suffered earlier against the boar betrayed him, and his leg buckled. The large warrior was driven to his knees.

Finnbjorn pushed the demon’s sword back and got back on his feet. He put his guard up immediately, expecting another blow, but the demon had already turned its attention to the Sergeant. The Sergeant scrambled backwards as It swung its sword in a tight arc. The sword connected, splitting the Sergeant’s armor apart and opening a deep gash in his chest. The Sergeant fell unconscious, seriously wounded, but alive. The creature lashed its bony tail and knocked Kharstov back nearly twenty feet.

Seizing an unexpected opening, Finn swung the PainBlade with both arms and connected with the demon’s knee. There was an explosion of bone, and the creature’s leg split in half. Howling in fury and pain, it toppled over to one side.

Kharstov recovered from the blow he had received earlier and rushed in to attack the fallen demon. Using both his longsword and dagger, he struck the beast several times in quick succession. However, his blows seemed to have no effect on the creature.

Seeing that his arrows weren’t causing any damage, Durge slung his bow across his back, and unsheathed his sword as he ran over to join the fight. Jorvar followed suit, but moved more slowly and cautiously. It paid off, because as the demon thrashed, its tail lashed upwards and caught Durge under the chin, taking his head off and killing him instantly.

Finnbjorn brought the PainBlade crashing down into the demon’s eye socket and shattered its skull. Magical energy crackled along the length of the blade, and the temperature dropped significantly. The demon turned to dust as the PainBlade absorbed its ghostly remains.

From below the temple, they heard the deep gong ring out again.

“Shit! Another one!” yelled Kharstov. “Grab the Sergeant, and let’s get down there and see if we can turn the damned thing off!” Jorvar and Finnbjorn carried the Sergeant between them, and the four of them moved to the hole in the floor caused by the explosive entrance of the skeletal demon.

Most of the rubble had fallen back into the hole. Quickly, but carefully, they used it as a makeshift staircase, and entered the chamber below the temple. A large metallic pentagram was engraved in the floor. It was pulsing with a purplish-black light, which intensified as the gong sounded for the second time.

A metal disk hung suspended from the ceiling, connected to a series of chains and a lever set into one wall. Sensing its purpose, Jorvar ran over and pulled the lever. The metal disk began to descend, but it wasn’t quite fast enough to seal the portal. The gong rang out a third time, and a huge demonic claw, easily ten feet across, rose through the portal and slapped down on the edge of the metal ring.

Finnbjorn leaped into the air and drove the point of the PainBlade deep into the demonic hand. There was a cry of pain and confusion from beyond the portal, and the hand retreated. Finn barely retrieved the PainBlade, and almost got pulled into the portal himself as it was closing. The cover locked into place, sealing the portal shut.

Jorvar started tending to the wounds of the Sergeant while Kharstov and Finn sat down to rest.

“We can’t stay here long,” said Kharstov. “It won’t take the goblins long to realize that the portal is closed, and the temple is safe for raiding.”

“We came here for the Amulet of Kirath. We can’t leave without it. I didn’t see it anywhere on the way in, but I was distracted,” said the Seargent.

“It wasn’t anywhere to be found,” said Finn. He had a reputation of remaining fully aware of his surroundings, even in the heat of battle. He continued, “It must be on a lower floor. We need to find the passage down.”

They found a small, black door hidden behind the rubble of the collapsed ceiling.

“Well, let’s get inside,” said Finnbjorn. “It feels like a storm is coming, and we need shelter. This entrance looks like it hasn’t been used in a thousand years. It should be safe for the night.”

He entered the door, and the others followed him.

After closing the door behind them, they found themselves in a small room, with a single staircase descending into darkness. They barricaded the door behind them and sat facing the staircase. They ate some cold rations, and sat in silence, each one lost in his own thoughts.

Finnbjorn wrapped the PainBlade in the black silk and placed it back in its wooden box. He locked the box and wrapped it up in furs again. Once he had assembled the whole package, he slung it over his back and hung the key back around his neck. He closed his eyes to rest silently.

Kharstov, being a long-time military man, used the time to inspect and make minor repairs to his equipment. Jorvar sewed the Sergeant’s chest back together, then used a magical healing ointment to seal the wound. He poured a healing potion down the man’s throat, and the Sergeant took a deep, ragged breath before sinking into a peaceful sleep.

The stairway descended into darkness, and dropped them into a narrow passage. They followed the passage for several hundred paces until they came to a small chamber. Murals depicting great battles covered the two opposing walls. The far wall was bare except for two doors, each flanked by a statue.

To the right, the mural depicted a heavily armored warrior leading a charge from horseback. The warrior was not wearing a helmet. Instead, he wore a cowl over his head, disguising his features. The horse was as black as midnight, its eyes glowed with a hellish light, and flames were shooting from its nostrils. Behind the man, a horde of demons and skeletal undead warriors massed for invasion. The statue beside the right door looked like the same man, striding forward triumphantly with a sword held high.

To the left, the mural depicted a great dragon bursting out from within the earth. A great fortress was crumbling to the ground, knocked over by the dragon’s emergence. There were other dragons flying near the great beast, but it dwarfed them. People on the ground, even warriors on horseback, looked like insignificant insects in the mural. The statue next to the left door resembled the large dragon from the mural.

“So apparently, we can choose the path of the warrior, or the path of the dragon,” said the Sergeant. “Which way to the amulet?”

Kharstov said, “Well, to the right, we have a mural of Kullervo, a former champion of Creation. Exterminis corrupted him and tricked him into unleashing hell on the mortal world. That’s him leading the hellish horde against the armies of man at the beginning of this age. I’m not sure what the dragon represents.”

Finnbjorn answered him. “Our people say that this world will end with the coming of Abbadon, the Devourer. Abbadon will be a great dragon capable of leveling mountains and boiling the seas with his fiery breath. I believe this mural represents the coming of Abbadon, and that statue is the Devourer as well.”

“So it seems,” said the Sergeant, “that we have a choice between the beginning of time, and the end. Which shall it be?”

“Or it’s the choice between fighting a man, or fighting a dragon,” said Jorvar.

“I’d much prefer a dragon,” said Finnbjorn. Everyone looked at him as if he had lost his mind. Seeing their questioning looks, he added, “A dragon is just a dragon, but a man could be anything.”

“I don’t think it matters, really,” said Kharstov. “They’re both incarnations of Exterminis, and symbols of destruction. I’m willing to bet they end up at the same place.”

“If that’s the case, then I say we follow Finn’s advice and go for the dragon,” said the Sergeant. “Any objections?”

No one objected, so they approached the door next to the dragon. They inspected it carefully, looking for traps, but couldn’t find anything. Bracing themselves, they watched as Finn opened the door. When nothing bad happened, they stepped through it. Behind them, the door disappeared.

They entered a large, mostly empty room. In the center of the room, a gold sarcophagus rested upon a raised dais. A single light from an unknown source shone down on the sarcophagus, bathing it in a golden light while leaving the rest of the room shrouded in darkness. The door they had entered from disappeared behind them, and there were no other visible exits. A heavy, unnatural silence filled the room, and the air was thick and stale, making it hard to breathe.

“This must be the place,” said Jorvar, breaking the silence.

“Indeed,” said the Sergeant. “Let’s go have a look. Weapons out, lads. I don’t like this.” They approached the dais cautiously. As they got closer, they spread out in a semi-circle to give themselves more room to fight, should the need arise. They relaxed a bit when they stepped onto the dais, and nothing happened. They stood around the sarcophagus, but none of them dared touch it.

“What’s that writing say?” asked the Sergeant. “Jorvar, Kharstov, can either of you read it?”

“I cannot,” said Jorvar.

“Nor can I,” said Kharstov. He continued: “It probably doesn’t matter. My best guess is that it’s a warning which we intend to ignore anyway.”

“Then let’s ignore it,” said the Sergeant. “Open it up. Kharstov, Finn, you get on the other side. Me and Jorvar will lift from here. With a little luck, maybe we can get out of here without a fight.”

They weren’t that lucky. As soon as they touched it, the sarcophagus exploded with a loud crack, sending them all flying backwards. They landed about twenty feet away, with their weapons scattered. The sarcophagus had cracked in half. A skeletal figure wearing ghostly priestly vestments climbed out of the rubble. From the surrounding darkness, they could hear chittering and scraping noises.

The skeletal priest laughed maniacally, and blue flames filled his eye sockets. He raised a staff high into the air and spoke a word of command. At his command, hundreds of skeletons came rushing out of the darkness and attacked.

The Sergeant, Kharstov, and Finnbjorn scrambled for their weapons. Jorvar touched a rune that had been tattooed on his shoulder and spoke a trigger word. A ball of flame shot out of the rune and exploded against the far wall, sending several skeletons flying. Many exploded on contact, spraying the room with bits of bone and rotted skin.

The skeletal priest pointed his staff at Jorvar, and a blue flame soared towards the man. He was too quick to be caught, though. He dove and rolled under the flame, and stood up, unhurt.

Finnbjorn scooped up his battleaxe, and charged into the skeletons, swinging wildly. With every swing, he cut into several nearby skeletons. However, these were not goblins, and his axe was not the PainBlade, and so his progress was much slower than it had been the day before.

Kharstov reached his longsword, and rushed to attack the skeletal priest. He swung the sword in a high arc, but the priest used his staff to knock it aside easily. The priest counter-attacked by jabbing Kharstov in the chest with the head of his staff, knocking the wind out of him.

The Sergeant had almost reached his sword when a skeletal foot kicked it away from him. Cursing, he scrambled after it, dodging blows by the skeletons.

The priest reached up to his chest and touched the Amulet of Kirath. The amulet glowed red and began pulsing like a heartbeat. The priest laughed and pointed his staff at Kharstov. Blue flame enveloped him, and he screamed in pain.

The Sergeant finally reached his sword and immediately started fighting the skeletons. He was surrounded, and avoiding blows required all his effort. He was parrying so furiously that he couldn’t launch any attacks of his own against the skeletons.

Kharstov took a swing at the skeletal priest, but again, the priest blocked his sword with the staff. He reversed his direction of attack and connected with the priest’s ribcage. A chunk of bone flew out, and the priest howled in pain.

Jorvar sent another fireball into the skeletal horde, and another dozen skeletons burst into flames. Without missing a beat, he fired off another one, and another dozen skeletons exploded.

Finnbjorn continued thinning the skeletal army with his battleaxe. He hacked and slashed his way through them, ignoring the many cuts and bruises they inflicted on him.

The Sergeant saw that Jorvar and Finnbjorn were handling the skeletal army easily, so he began withdrawing, backing towards the center of the room where Kharstov was engaging the priest.

A loud roar echoed across the room. From out of the darkness, a demon charged into the room. It was roughly twice the height of Finnbjorn, with bull’s horns sprouting from its head. Bony protrusions, sharpened into wicked spikes, grew from its red skin all over its body. It charged straight at Kharstov, knocking several skeletons out of its way to get to him.

Leaving Finn to deal with the remaining skeletons, Jorvar repositioned himself to attack the demon. He touched a rune on the side of his head, and a spear of ice streaked through the air. The ice spear struck the demon and impaled it through the shoulder. The beast howled in pain.

Finnbjorn realized that he had made a mistake by not choosing the PainBlade earlier. He tried to correct it now by taking it off his back while swinging his axe one-handed. The axe was too heavy for him to attack effectively with one hand, so he used it defensively instead, parrying blows while trying to free the PainBlade.

After an eternity, Finn finally got it free. He unwrapped the box, unlocked it, and took the black silk wrappings off of it. With a loud roar, he thrust it into the air.

Kharstov swung low and connected with the priest’s leg. It was a good hit, but he paid for it. The priest swung his staff down and connected with the base of Kharstov’s skull. Kharstov slumped to the floor, dead.

Fortunately, the Sergeant was there to take Kharstov’s place. He swung at the priest’s head, but the priest jerked his head backwards and avoided the blow. The priest spun his staff around and jabbed the back end into the Sergeant’s chest.

The demon reached the Sergeant and punched him in the side of the head with a bony fist, sending blood spraying into the air. The Sergeant fell back, visibly stunned by the blow.

Jorvar was out of runes, and so he reached for his bow. He fired three arrows in quick succession and scored three hits against the demon.

The priest took advantage of the Sergeant’s stunned state and drove the head of his staff straight down into Kharstov. The blue flame flared, and Kharstov’s chest split wide open, spilling his entrails onto the floor.

Jorvar fired another three arrows and hit the demon three more times. The beast howled in rage and turned to face his attacker. Snarling, it ran towards him.

The demon reached Jorvar and knocked him aside with a bony arm. Jorvar flew across the room and landed about ten feet away.

Seeing Kharstov murdered so cruelly enraged the Sergeant. He jumped at the priest with his sword held high, and swung the blade down in a furious stroke. He connected with the back of the priest’s neck. The blow would have killed an ordinary man, but the undead priest shrugged it off. Undeterred, the Sergeant hacked at the priest’s neck again and again.

Finn charged the priest. The Sergeant saw him coming and fell back. The priest barely had a moment to look up before Finn took his head off of his shoulders with one powerful swipe of the PainBlade.

When the priest fell, so did the skeletal army. Finn and Jorvar turned to face the demon as the Sergeant lifted the Amulet of Kirath off of the priest’s neck. With great care, he placed the amulet over his own head. His body convulsed, and he broke out in a sweat, but after a few seconds, he regained his composure. Looking at the demon, he spoke a single word: “Begone.”

The demon vanished in a cloud of black smoke. With all of their enemies defeated, and the Amulet of Kirath in their possession, the three survivors slumped to the floor, exhausted.