Chapter Fifty-Two

Things get even worse, if you could believe

When the unexpected happened, there is almost always a pause. It is sometimes hard to process the unanticipated, you might stare, mouth slightly agape, and think to yourself or perhaps even say aloud, “What just happened?” This is not unusual or something to be ashamed of, it is perfectly normal.
It is during this pause, that if you wish to escape any fallout from the unexpected, in the case of our heroes, a horrific death at the hands of a legion of darkness who have all suddenly realized that if they kill you, they can become the new Master of Evil. You can’t, and there is no way to stress this enough, pause. Just get right out and keep walking and once out of sight, run.
Sadly, Garfan, Tarnah, Caliric and Hubert didn’t pounce on this opportunity. The moment passed and a hue and cry went up from the crowd. It was a jumble of phraseology in many different tongues and individual comments could not be heard but the intent was clear, “Get them!” This was reinforced by the fact that they were rushing towards them, weapons drawn, eldritch energies summoned, and big wicked grins on their faces.
Our heroes and Hubert stood their ground, even though Tarnah was the only one armed, unless you count the spiky codpiece Caliric still wore. Hubert was still bound by the chains; however, the band that had covered his mouth was gone but he didn’t run, which was, other than challenging his father, the bravest thing he had ever done. And he wouldn’t get too far all chained up.
“What are we to do?” asked Caliric, who hoped the answer wasn’t “die with dignity.”
“Wait for it,” said Garfan calmly, more calmly than anyone should be in this situation.
Tarnah took Garfan’s hand, he squeezed it and she squeezed back, perhaps a little too hard. Garfan didn’t wince but he considered it.
A battle took place and it was epic, limbs where hacked, eldritch energies were hurled, no quarter was given nor offered. This was all before our heroes struck a blow.
As discussed earlier, when a mob attacks you, there is an excellent chance they will do more damage to themselves before they reach you, which is exactly what happened.
Let us be perfectly clear, this was not an army. An army is a group of individuals trained to act as a single unit. This was a mob of self-involved egomaniacs all of whom wanted to be the one who killed the Chosen One to either curry favor or as the basis for a power grab. Imagine a mob of spoilt children rushing to open a single present on Yuletide morn. Now imagine they are wielding huge and dangerous weapons and can defy the laws of the universe by their very will.
As a result, a good third of the vassals of darkness were minced up in to irregularly sized chunks, what a chef would call, “rustic style.”
“How…” asked Tarnah who was no stranger to violence and mayhem but had up till this point not seen self-inflicted bloodshed on this scale.
“It’s what happens when you don’t work as a team,” observed the Chosen One.
“There are still a lot of them,” said Caliric, who was hoping not to have to use his spiky codpiece as a weapon and trying to think of a way to do it that wouldn’t make him blush.
The pile of dead vassals was very rapidly being climbed over by the live vassals. Not to say there were no casualties, but they would soon be within arm’s length.
Tarnah turned to Garfan and said, “If I am to die in battle, I would that my mutilated corpse fall next to yours.”
“Thanks, that’s…” Garfan paused, “Right from your heart, I expect.”
She crushed his hand a little more.
“There’s no cause to invite Death for dinner, it’s not over yet,” he said as he held out his other hand and on cue, Alacritas fell into it.
His ally’s eyes went wide, no mean feat, as they were already quite wide at the sight of an evil horde heading towards them. Garfan, disengaged his hand from Tarnah, murmured, “Excuse me,” drew his enchanted blade and struck off Hubert’s chains. Just then a bow and quiver of arrows fell in front of Caliric.
Caliric grabbed them and quickly drew an arrow.
“How!?” asked the rest of them.
Garfan cleared his throat and nodded to the approaching horde.
There was fighting, but the ratio of vassals that reached our heroes were about one in ten. Which is not to say that it was easy, these were fearsome foes, when they were dispatched, it was with great effort, a wiry Elf wielding twin curved swords gave Tarnah a real challenge, as he parried her blows with seeming little effort but made the mistake of spinning and taking a bow to crowd giving Tarnah the opportunity to bisect him, which she gleefully took.
Garfan of course had more than his fair share of opponents, he dispatched them, three blows to each, whether they needed it or not.
“Why always th-“ Hubert began to ask but then a Scorpion-Man struck out with his armored tail, which Caliric’s arrows pinned to the foe’s chest, poisoning him instead. Relieved, Hubert alternated between energy blasts and transmogrifying foes into cute animals, partially because it was humiliating, but mostly because he loved cute animals. A brutish warrior became a tiny piglet who was quickly consumed by Werewolf who himself burst into flames because the piglet still had his silver piercings. Where those piercing were is a question best left unasked.
Even though the odds were more in their favor than should be, given the shear numerical disparity twixt four and seemingly endless, it became oblivious that just killing whoever made it close enough was an untenable long term plan.
“They keep coming,” shouted Tarnah.
“I did notice that,” said Garfan as he dispatched a pale androgynous figure with proportionately sized lobster claws in place of hands. “Two, three”
“What is the plan?” asked Caliric.
“Hubert, can you clear us a path to the doors? Two, three,” said the Chosen One.
The previous Master of Evil, who had just turned a half devil woman into a whole chicken said, “Even if I blasted a clear path, they would just fill it in.”
“You know it!” added a bare-chested gladiator with a blood encrusted steel hammer who high-fived the other bare-chested gladiator to his right who responded, “Boo-yah!”
Their high spirits were subsequently dampened by the loss of their heads courtesy of Tarnah and Garfan, but decapitation does generally have that effect.
Garfan stood on their overworked bodies and looked to the edge of the hexagon and smiled. He pointed to something and said to Hubert, “Can you do it?”
Hubert smiled and nodded.
It was at this point that an obscenely obese figure moved up, carried in an enormous brass tub by muscular dwarves, its flesh sloshing over the edges as he or she pressed the attack with greasy, slick pseudopods. It was the grossest thing they had seen so far, and that included an inside out shaman.
The pseudopods were resistant to weapons, and each blow caused it to giggle like a child who liked to torture. Caliric quickly stepped to the side and started shooting the Dwarven bearers in the rear. Once they fell, the tub tipped backward and poured this thing onto those who had the misfortune to be close behind him. It spread out like batter, oily, fleshy batter. A Fell-Wizard who had avoided being covered with this, summoned a swarm of Arctic Bees at this spilled creature and it froze immediately, which is what happens when an Arctic Bee stings you, obviously. The crunch of frozen batter was heard as more foes moved up to take their shot.
It turned out to be an extremely long shot as the Gurmer’s Choice exploded on the scene and promptly crushed them. There were some vassals stuck to the spiked sides but it’s to be expected.
“Nice work, Hubert!” said Garfan with a grin.
Hubert smiled and felt happier than he had ever been previously. He chose to enjoy this praise and not think of it in context of all of the countless unhappy moments, which for him, was huge.
“Follow me!” he said with his own grin.
Garfan scooped up Lady Daphnae/Balor-Nar and threw her/him over his shoulder. A bit unceremonious, but he felt as though there had been enough ceremony already.
The Gurmer’s Choice spun and craved a swath towards the doors and they followed in its bloody path. Many vassals leapt out of the way but others were caught on the spikes. However, the speed at which it was traveling assured it was not for long. Which was of very little comfort to those being impaled and then subsequently flung. Very soon they reached the massive doors and as soon as they and the death wheel were all over the threshold, Hubert, with a dramatic clap of his hands, closed the door, which glowed briefly with glyphs.
“How long will that hold them?” asked Tarnah.
A mighty boom was heard as the doors were struck by something that caused the glyphs to glow.
“Let’s not find out,” said Kelph.
They all wheeled about as the thief looked out from the cleverly hidden servant’s passage.
“Who are you?” asked Hubert.
“Who am I? Who are you?” asked Kelph who was feeling a little unappreciated and as a byproduct, defensive.
“Kelph, this is Hubert, Hubert this is Kelph,” said Garfan.
“Hey,” said Kelph who then seem to listen to something that no one else could hear. “Wait! He’s the…” the thief said and then mouthed, “The Master of Evil!!!”
“That’s who he is?” asked Caliric who quickly pulled an arrow.
Tarnah held her battle-axe in a threatening demeanor, which was to say, the way she always held it.
“Former Master of Evil!” added Hubert as he threw up his hands.
“It’s fine,” insisted Garfan. “He’s with us now.”
“Really?” asked Kelph who had trust issues.
There was one of those moments when someone says something so outrageous that it just might be true. The sound of the doors creaking under the onslaught by angry vassals further incentivized the leap of faith they needed.
Kelph narrowed his eyes, paused again and muttered, “Whatever, can we go now? Lockford is waiting.”
And go they did, just in time as the door exploded with great force and loss of property value. None of the incensed vassals looked for or even suspected that the Citadel of Darkness was honeycombed with servant’s passages. If they had, there would’ve been a great deal more assassination attempts and there were quite enough as it was.
Our heroes held quite still the roar of the mob passed. Breaths were released there was moment of relief till they all remembered where they were. Kelph whispered, “Follow me,” which they did, through winding paths that passed many doors.
“By the way,” Garfan said softly. “Thanks for the weapons.”
“That was you!” asked Caliric, perhaps a bit too loudly.
“Of course it was me!” whispered the thief irritably. “Did you think it was the Yule-Father?”
“No…” replied the young squire.
“How did you avoid capture?” asked Tarnah.
“Trade secret,” Kelph said in a mysterious manner.
“But-“ began Tarnah, clearly unsatisfied with the cryptic response.
“All that matters is that he did, right?” asked Garfan rhetorically.
Everyone one agreed.
“Who’s that?” Kelph nodded to the unconscious girl over the Chosen One’s shoulder.
“That is my sister, the Lady Daphnae, whom we were on this quest to rescue,” stated Tarnah emphatically.
“Oh yeah. Wait! She’s the new Master of Evil,” he hissed.
“She is still my blood!” insisted Tarnah defensively.
“Relax, it’s handled,” said Garfan.
Kelph paused again, shrugged and said, “Okay, it’s all on you.”
They all climbed for a time, hard to tell how long with no sun or stars, let’s a say a small chunk of time and leave it at that, when Kelph looked over his shoulder at Garfan, “Lemme ask you something.”
“Didn’t you just ask him something?” interjected Caliric.
“Tis true,” added Tarnah.
“Are you all done?” Kelph asked.
“Is that what you wanted to ask,” asked Hubert, who was enjoying the repartee.
The thief shot them all a scowl indicating that was indeed not what he wanted to ask. He looked back at Garfan as they continued to climb through the passages.
“How did you know I was going to drop your sword into your hand when I did? Did you see me climb up the shear face of the ceiling?”
“Ahh, no,” answered Garfan.
“So you just assumed that it would all end up fine in the end?”
Garfan shrugged, “It did though, didn’t it?”
“That’s not the point,” said Kelph.
“What is the point?” asked Garfan affably.
Kelph pushed down his frustration and said, “The point is, you’re never…’
“I’m never what?” asked Garfan.
“Surprised, flummoxed, caught off guard!” retorted Kelph, perhaps a bit too loudly.
Everyone stopped and held still. There was no reaction from the denizens of the Citadel other than the faint, distant drumbeat that had been going on since the beginning of the ritual.
“Would you like it if the Chosen One was caught unawares?” hissed Tarnah who had finally managed to get her volume under control.
“I don’t know, maybe…” said the thief.
“Kelph, I’ve seen a lot of things, it’s pretty difficult to surprise me,” said Garfan.
“You weren’t even thrown by that question!” added Kelph. “It’s really irritating.”
“Sorry,” Garfan replied with a smile.
Kelph shot him a sour look and said, “Fine, be like that, I’d just love to see you thrown by something.”
As he said this, they turned a corner and came to a door with a winged horse on it. Kelph opened it up and gestured for them to exit.
They came out on an open, windswept shelf, between two ominous mountain peaks. It was designed to be a landing area for armored Battle Griffins, Strike Wyrvens and Sky-Whales who were used to bring in supplies, there was not much in the way of farmland in this part of the world so everything needed to be shipped in.
Below was the main body of the Citadel of Darkness; it looked like it would be pleased if all who saw this view would jump off and land on one of the pointy bits, of which there were many. This was not by accident, it was deliberately designed that way and the skeletons caught on the ironwork was proof of that.
“Hey,” said a voice, “you’re not supposed to be up here.”
They turned, and saw a one Goblin guard looking at them from the door of a tiny guard hut.
“How do you know that?” asked Caliric.
“I’m sorry?” replied the Goblin.
“How do you know,” repeated the young squire.
“Well… I never got notice of anyone coming up here!” the Goblin replied.
Caliric leaned in and asked, “Do they tell you everything?”
“No, and it really makes my job that much harder,” the Goblin said with no small amount of bitterness.
“That’s rough,” said Caliric.
“Thank you,” said the Goblin, who looked out at the others. “This guy gets it!”
The rest nodded and murmured agreements.
“Listen, I’ll let them know that you are doing a great job here,” said Caliric.
‘Again, thank you,” replied the Goblin, “And tell them I still need an assistant!”
“I will,” said Caliric who winked at him.
The Goblin winked back and went back into his tiny hut.
“Good job,” said Garfan.
“Thanks,” replied Caliric, “it seemed like the thing to do.”
“Indeed, deftly handled, young squire,” said Lockford.
As they turned, they saw that the Valet, who was fastening the last bit of tackle on the horses.
“And, if I may be so bold, there is a mountain pass that leads out of this part of the world into much more agreeable climes, it would be prudent to investigate,” Lockford said, in the calm manner one might suggest that those strawberry tarts are quite good and you should try them before they are all gone.
“How?” asked Kelph, who thought that if he could do what Lockford could do, he’d not be here at all.
Lockford smiled and said, “This is hardly the time or place.”
Kelph was about to explain, in great detail, and with some choice profanity, that this was as good a place as any when Caliric said, “Why are they still playing?”
“What?” asked Kelph.
They all stopped and listened. A slow, insistent drumbeat could be heard. And it was getting louder. And closer.
“Are these drummers mad?” asked Tarnah.
“I don’t think they’re drummers,” said Garfan as he looked out across the rocky fields that lay in front of them. A fog enshrouded the area, which is helpful if you want to discourage unwanted visitors. The Citadel of Darkness, by its very nature, did not cultivate an open portcullis policy.
But now, something was moving in the fog. Something large. It could be a Giant, but the Citadel of Darkness had a pact with the evil Giants of the Land and all the good Giants were more stay at home types as their appearance tended to panic people.
Then the sound stopped. Its absence was more terrifying than its presence.
Everyone looked out at the fog, hoping that it had just disappeared. It hadn’t. It strode out of the fog and into view.
It was a Giant. A pale blue Giant. A pale blue Giant Centaur. Not something you might expect to see, well… Anywhere. Then they took another look and the horse part was more like a tortoise. And the man part looked like a Troll. All of this would be enough to freak anyone out. But then it spoke and it’s voice sounds like crashing of crystal waves.
“Chosen One, I would have words with you,” said the Giant, pale blue Troll Tortoistaur.
Tarnah, Caliric, Kelph, Hubert and Lockford turned to Garfan, who in turn, looked at the Giant, pale blue Troll Tortoistaur.
This is exactly what he said.
“Ghuh?”

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