13 January 2009

Part the Fourteenth: Bloodwork

I made it to the stables without incident, as long as you consider nearly decapitating the guard and dragging his corpse behind the building as “without incident.” The horses inside whickered anxiously and pranced in their stalls; the smell of fresh blood was making them nervous. I was working on borrowed time now. Any second, one of the several corpses I’d left in my wake would be discovered, the alarm would go up and I’d be up to my eyeballs in Defias. If my luck held, I’d be out of here before then.

Every now and then, you have a moment where the only possible response is to stare blankly and say, “oh, shite.” I point this out because no sooner had I scaled the ladder into the hay loft than I was faced with just such a moment.

My head had just popped over the edge of the floor to see a ragged-looking dwarf, what little of him was visible behind the matted clumps of his grey beard. He looked almost as surprised to see me as I was to see that things were not exactly as I expected. I have to say, he recovered more quickly than I did.

“Ye’re no’ one o’ th’ Defias, lad, so if’n ye’d help meh git oot o’ here, Ah’d greatly ‘preciate it.”

I stared blankly for several seconds and then said, “Oh, shite.” There was a filthy pallet, a tin plate and not much else, save for the dwarf himself, in the hay loft. As for the dwarf, he wasn’t going anywhere due to the giant iron ball shackled to his ankle on a very short chain.

I got all the way up the ladder and moved for the lock on the shackle, already taking my lock picks from my belt, “Yeah, sure, just give me a minute to get this open.”

The dwarf moved around to block me from getting at the lock, “Ah wouldn’ advise ‘at, lad. If’n ‘twere ‘at simple Ah’d o’ freed mehself ‘afore noo. Th’ lock’s warded so it kin only be opened wit’ th’ key.”

I glared and put my picks away, “And where will I find this key?”

“Th’eadman ‘ere’s got it. Ye’ll wanna be careful, though. Tha’ bugger’s a demon-lover, sure.”

Great. A warlock. Here. In the middle of nowhere. It figured. I swear, if my inherent good-nature has gotten me nearly killed once, it’s gotten me nearly killed a hundred times. In this case, it didn’t matter if the dwarf was even Zoltan Brass or not, he was obviously a prisoner of the Defias, which meant he deserved to be set free. From a warlock. Note to self: never leave my gun behind again.

During the war, the SAS had gotten plenty of experience dealing with warlocks, both living and undead. We’d found that the easiest way to deal with a warlock was to have one guy hide with a gun and another bunch of guys to hide nearby. When the warlock was near the ambuscade, the gunman would fire, hopefully scoring a hit, which would usually throw the warlock off his game enough that the guys waiting in ambush would jump out and proceed to butcher the living, or unliving, crap out of the warlock until all that was left was a few twitching pieces.

Facing a warlock alone, your best plan was to run as fast as your legs could carry you until you joined up with a group of mates who had a gun.

“Anything else I should know?” I asked, more than a little peevishly. I was perfectly willing to rescue the guy, but facing down with a warlock wasn’t my idea of a good time, especially since I wasn’t getting paid.

“Watch oot fer ‘is wee imp. Tha’ li’l bastard’s twice as mean as ‘e is ugly.”

“And the good news just keeps on coming,” I grumbled, “All right, I’ll be back as soon as I can, just keep your head down.”

“Good luck,” I heard him say as I climbed back down the ladder. Honestly, I was amazed none of the bodies had been discovered yet. That spoke volumes about how long the Defias had been out here and how firmly entrenched they were. They had been here long enough that they were lax enough for occasional disappearances to not be investigated.

I drew one of my swords and moved to the door of the stables to examine my options. I needed to get to the main farmhouse, but to do so I would have to cover a good thirty yards of open ground. With the whole encampment slowly coming awake, that was low on my list of good ideas. The farmhouse itself was a two-story design commonly built by moderately successful farmers. All the common areas were on the ground floor and the bedrooms on the first floor. There was one entrance, which was guarded and walled off by barricades to further limit access and all the ground floor windows had been boarded up. The upper level windows had been boarded up only halfway, I imagine so they could be used to fire crossbows from. I might have been able to climb up and into one of the windows, but it would be slow and difficult. The boarding didn’t leave a whole lot of space to crawl in through, which really only left the front door as a viable entrance. Oh, boy.

Trying to look casual when you know that at any second crap is going to start flying at you from all directions is a practiced skill. I am proud to say that I have damn near refined it into an art form. Nothing draws attention faster than breaking into a dead run for no discernable reason. Even when you don’t belong somewhere and everyone knows you don’t belong there, sometimes, if you just stroll along looking for all the world like you couldn’t possibly belong anywhere else you confuse people for just long enough for you to get where you’re going and no one is the wiser. Sometimes, it actually works.

One of these days, I really hope it works for me.

I hadn’t taken two steps from the stable when three things happened at the same time. One, someone found one or more corpses and started shouting about it. Two, I was spotted by no less than four separate Defias footmen, who started shouting about it. Three, I started to run and started shouting about it. Everyone else was shouting, I saw no reason not to join in.

Breaking into a dead run, I crossed the distance from the stable to the house in a little more than a dozen strides. My long, half-crazy yell drew the attention of the guard at the door and he turned to see what was going on just in time to see me vault the barricade and launch myself feet-first at his chest. We both went down in a tangle of limbs, but, since I was ready, I was up first. I flicked my sword and opened his tunic from one hip to his opposite shoulder to convince him that following or putting up a fight wasn’t a good idea. The deep gash that opened up his chest probably also helped.

Two crossbow bolts whistled by me and a third thunked into the doorframe, just missing my shoulder. Time was wasting and I couldn’t count on the Defias being poor shots and me being lucky forever. It took three solid applications of boot to door to finally get the latch to give way. In those precious few seconds, another half dozen bolts had very firmly embedded themselves in the barricade and door.

As the door crashed in, I rolled forward, disappointing the Defias and his crossbow who’d been eagerly waiting for me to outline myself in the doorway for him. His bolt whizzed by over my head and out the door. I heard a yelp from outside and hoped someone else had been hit. I sprang forward from my crouch and buried my sword in his gut in the same movement. Kicking him away, I slammed the door shut and jammed a chair under the ruined latch. That should work to keep the bulk of the Defias off my back while I looked for this warlock.

I had just taken the third step on the stairs when another Defias decided to take a shot at me. He used the more traditional large axe, however, taking a chunk out of the wooden stair as I leapt forward to avoid his blow. Standing on the fourth step, I expected to have a significant advantage over the Defias on the floor. Instead, the near giant facing me was fairly staring me in the chest. I tried to plant the heel of my boot into his nose, but he managed to step back in time to avoid it. That at least gave me the room I needed to get off the stairs and square off on even footing. Normally, it’s good to have the high ground, but when that high ground is very narrow and limits your movement significantly, it’s better to have space to move around, even if it does put you almost a foot lower than your foe.

The saying about things being bigger falling harder is partially true; larger foes do tend to be heavier and thus fall harder. Of course, the reason they fall is usually because they came up against a smaller, sneakier and just plain meaner fighter. I hoped that would be the case here. The room we were fighting in didn’t leave the Defias much room to really make good use of his giant axe. His sheer size, coupled with the small size of the room meant he couldn’t really unleash the wide, powerful swings that would have probably split me cleanly in half, should one land. Still, the large chunks he was taking out of the floor, walls and furniture as I dodged around showed that even without his full strength behind it, one blow would be more than enough to take care of me.

I didn’t have too many options, but I knew what I wanted to do, provided an opening presented itself. Jumbo wasn’t looking too keen on giving me any opportunity to get close enough to put my deadly flashing blade to use, so I was going to have to make the opening myself. I leapt back just as the massive axe crashed down where I had so recently been standing. Back in the mud room, even smaller than the living room, it was time to make my move. Jumbo was winding up to take another swing when I did the last thing he expected.

I leapt at him.

Well, not exactly at him, but toward him. I kicked off the wall and used my free hand to use the Defias’ shoulder to swing around behind him. The precious seconds it took him to realize what I had just done were seconds he didn’t have. The tip of my sword easily cut through his trousers and the tendons at the back of his knees. He fell hard and screaming, though even that was cut short when I pulled his head back and opened his neck. He crashed to the floor and died quietly in the expanding pool of his own blood.

Grimacing, I turned back for the stairs. I still had more bloody work to do.

There was no doubt that the warlock upstairs knew something was going on. From the crashing of the door, to the fighting and screaming, there was no way he couldn’t know something was up. Further, I was all but certain I would be walking into a deathtrap at the top of the stairs. Unfortunately, if I wanted to know what the Twilight’s Hammer cult was up to and get more information on Atalanta, I needed to free the dwarf. To free the dwarf, I had to kill the warlock. So much easier said than done.

Everything I had learned about fighting warlocks during the Third War told me that the worst possible thing I could do would be to try to fight him on his home turf. If I had any other option, I would have been delighted to have taken it. Bad enough I didn’t have the necessary hardware, but to go waltzing in to where I was surely going to be expected was damn near as close to suicidal as I could think.

You can understand that suicide has never been very high on my list of things to do.

I crept as near to the top of the stairs as I had to in order to get a peek and what might be waiting for me. Surprisingly, no eldritch horror from the depths of the Twisting Nether waited to peel my face off and wear it as a mask. What was there was a sitting area of the sort that young couples could use to spend time together without being in private, yet not be bothered by the rest of the family. Sitting at the small table was a man who had to be the warlock, though he didn’t quite fit the image of warlocks that I carried in my head.

In the war, warlocks came in three flavours: orc, undead and cultist. The cultists tended to be human, but because of their chosen lifestyle also tended to be pale, malnourished things hiding in voluminous robes. Orc and undead warlocks tended to decorate themselves in the bones of their enemies, as well as being varying shades of green or grey, respectively. The man sitting at the table met none of these criteria.

He was probably my age, putting him somewhere around thirty or so, and wore his dark blonde hair in the shaggy style popular among the well-to-do of the young and wealthy of Stormwind. He had a well-trimmed mustache and beard, cut in the Booty Bay style that just outlined his jaw, probably in an attempt to look either more sinister or more mature. There was a roundness to his face that, without the beard, would make him look much younger than he was. He wore a stylish jacket, shirt, trousers and boots of varying shades of dark blue and white, though the style was of the sort that was popular in Stormwind high society a few years past. In all, he looked more the part of a down-on-his-luck noble than a half-crazed demon-lover. Maybe I could even convince him to be reasonable.

“You might as well show yourself,” he said loudly enough to be heard over the banging on the door down below while mopping up the last traces of yolk from his plate with the edge of his toast, “I know you’re lurking down there.” He didn’t sound at all asthmatic like most of the warlocks I’d encountered in the past. In fact, he sounded more like he could be shouting strident orders across the battlefield just as well as summoning up abominations from the deepest nether. He wore his Lordaeron accent like a badge of honour.

He was right in that there was no point in hiding. It’s not like I could have come from any other direction or make the noise downstairs suddenly cease. I stepped to the top of the stairs, my sword held loose and casually in my hand to appear to be less threatening to use it and more stating that yes, I do have a sword.

The warlock made a big show of wiping his mouth in his napkin and setting it aside before very obviously looking me up and down. With the copious helpings of attitude he was dishing out, he had either been a noble in Lordaeron or had desperately wanted to be one.

“So you’re the one responsible for all the shouting, then,” he sniffed dismissively and stood from the table, “You certainly don’t look like much, but you obviously have some measure to skill to have bested Sigurd.” He moved from behind the table and rested his hand on the latch to the door that lead further back into the living quarters, “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what this is all about before you die, hm?”

Finally able to get a word in edgewise, I said, “Actually, I was thinking that no one had to die, well, no one else, anyway,” I put on my most winning smile and spread my hand in a picture of innocence, though I suspect the sword in my right hand spoiled the effect somewhat, “I’m just here for the dwarf. Give me the key to his shackles and I’ll be on my way.”

“Ah, a rescue mission, then. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Brass is property of the Defias now and I’d have to do an awful lot of explaining I’d rather not do if I were to give him up,” the warlock sighed heavily, almost as if it really did pain him that he couldn’t give up the key, “However, since you had the decency to speak before charging to your inevitable demise, I’ll give you this chance to escape. Provided you can get by the guards downstairs, of course, but I won’t kill you.”

Either he was that sure of his abilities or very unsure, it was hard to tell which. Of course, it really could be that he just fancied himself as that much of a gentleman. Whatever the case, as much as I didn’t want to have to fight a warlock, I needed to know what Brass did and I wasn’t going to get that without freeing him. Damned if I do…

I smiled, calm and easy once more and made half a turn toward the stairs, “Your offer is very tempting,” a pair of throwing knives were already leaving my left hand, “but I’ll have to pass this time!”

I was lunging after the knives, my other sword in my hand before I’d even taken a full step. The warlock, to his credit, first spoke an ugly, guttural word and then started swearing. The way my knives bounced off the sudden sickly green sheen covering his body, I’d have to guess he cast some sort of shield on himself. My sword was barely two handbreadths from landing when my legs just weren’t underneath me any longer and I was being introduced to the wall in a very forceful way.

I heard another guttural grunt from the warlock, followed by a voice like a tomb’s breath saying, “I obey.”

I didn’t have time to drag myself to my feet, though the same ice-cold hand that had gripped my leg a moment before now clasped around the back of my neck. That same icy grip cleared up the stars I was seeing rather quickly as well. I didn’t even bother to fight against the grip. I had a good idea what I was up against already, which was immediately confirmed when the voidwalker held me before the baleful glow of its golden eyes. Brass had warned me about the warlock’s imp, he could have mentioned the voidwalker, too.

“It livesss,” the demon groaned, turning to face the warlock and proffering me forward.

The problem with voidwalkers is that they’re almost impossible to fight in the traditional way. They’re pretty much nothing more than shadows and mist bound into a vaguely humanoid form and have the ability to make themselves solid or incorporeal at will. Magic is the best way to deal with them, or, failing that, a serious magical weapon. Plain old steel, like I carried, was about as useful as a toothpick against a dragon. There was a way to fight them without magical assistance, it was just very difficult.

The warlock chuckled and took a few moments to gloat, though he was tragically smart enough to stay well outside the reach of my sword, “I’ll give you credit, noob, you were almost fast enough. Fortunately, Juk’Thang here is just a bit faster. The Defias could certainly use a man of your talents; you could go far with us. Unlike your current predicament.”

I made a show of thinking about the offer, if for no other reason than to buy time. The voidwalker still held me like an oversize ragdoll in one fist, one of its binding bracers directly behind my head. Interestingly, the voidwalker had done nothing to incapacitate me in any way, simply holding me up by the scruff of my neck. Painful though that was, it wasn’t quite enough to immobilize me.

“You make a very convincing argument,” I said, just before grabbing hold of the bracer behind my head and using it to get enough leverage to kick both heels at the bracer’s mate on the demon’s other arm, “But I’m afraid I’m not available at the moment!” The voidwalker reacted in what I figured was its instinctive way, becoming significantly less corporeal in response to the attack. The bracer went flying, I, quite literally, slipped through its fingers and the demon’s cohesion seemed to loosen significantly. I gave a hard yank on the other bracer, pulling it free of the voidwalker’s form. The demon roared in triumph and quickly dissipated, fading away back to wherever it is that voidwalkers come from.

Feeling proud of my cunning, I rose to face the warlock, giving him my best smug face. He gave me two ugly grunts and a smug smirk of his own while I howled in agony and fell to the floor, twitching and writhing. I’ve since learned that the modern warlock isn’t very much like his cousins from the war. For one thing, they have a lot more tricks up their sleeves. Tricks like curses they can cast with a single demonic word. As a note, just in case you were wondering, they hurt a lot.

Through the haze of pain wrapping around me, I could see the warlock moving toward me with glacial slowness. I’m not sure if that was because of the pain or if he was actually moving that slowly. I’m pretty sure it was the pain, though I could be wrong. The warlock had a wickedly curved dagger in his hand as he approached and I was certain I knew what he planned to do with it. I was equally certain that I wasn’t going to like it one bit.

4 comments:

Dradis said...

WOO HOOO!!!! Worth the wait! God I love these stories!

Morane said...

The return of Saturday morning serials?

Khol Drake said...

@Dradis

Glad you like it and you think it was worth the wait. I'll try to get the next chapter up in less than three months...

@Morane

Perhaps...if I could manage a post every week on Saturday...

Hmm...maybe I could make that a goal...

Jason Benefield said...

I'm so glad to see you've posted another chapter. Can't wait for the next one. Great stuff.

Misneach