In this episode of the Walker Kings…
The situation seemed dire. Bjorn Mindhammer stood ready, answering the challenge of the fallen Kemalok kings. He stood in Raked’s chambers, ready to face the fallen king in the eye… which proved to be difficult, seeing as Raked was beheaded.
What Raked lacked in headgear, however, he made up for in ferocity. Hands of bone gripped Raked’s maul tight, and he was not alone; Raked’s honor guard rose, oaths to protect echoing in the dank chambers. Winged serpents flew and hissed, sleek scales crackling with electricity. Though Bjorn and his companions had faced the guardians of Kemalok before, they had never encountered a challenge such as this.
But when two kings clash, only one shall kneel. And after a grueling fight, this proved to be Raked.
Bjorn nodded satisfaction at the victory. He could not celebrate just yet, as there were conquests yet to be had in this castle. The artifacts of the Kemalok kings, his by right, had not yet been returned, and there would be no leaving without them.
The group realized the castle was actually one of several smaller castles put together, and so they set out to explore the complex systematically. After their initial foray was rebuffed by a hidden Maze trap, the group backtracked and tried elsewhere, with better success. They eventually reached Rohuv’s library, where their old “friend” the sphinx awaited with another riddle. Alderun managed to put his scholarly skills to use, however, and his knowledge of proper library maintenance actually helped everybody else for a change.
Image taken from Jonathan Ewert. For personal, nonprofit use.
As the bookcase slid aside to reveal a hidden room, Bjorn once again had to face another Kemalok king. A huge gash across the cadaver’s chest marked this king as Rohuv, who also had his honor guard by his side. Not that he seemed to need it, as he looked imposing enough with just his armor and morningstar.
Or imposing enough for a normal adventurer, at least. But clearly, Bjorn Mindhammer is not a normal adventurer. With the rest of the party keeping Rohuv’s honor guard at bay, Bjorn dealt a mighty blow to Rohuv’s already gashed chest, splattering bits of viscera and sinew across the stone floor. The souls of the dead could only gasp their response, though no one can say if this was in fear or in awe (or both, at that). Bjorn Mindhammer was undoubtedly there to fight. Could he be the champion they were seeking? Could he truly become the Dwarven king, the one who will unite the dwarves of Athas and seek vengeance for the fallen?
It was too soon to think of such, Bjorn knew. Another challenge overcome, but still more lay ahead. The party pressed on through the abandoned hallways of Rohuv’s castle and made their way towards Borys’ castle. As they reached the sphinx once again, they looked around to see shelves lined with books and two braziers. The riddle seemed fairly straightforward, really: ash was required. And though it pained the intellectuals of the group to see it happen, books were fed to the flames, who greedily lapped them up and spit out ash in large quantities. This lured a floating skull with gemstones in its eye sockets to the party, and Alderun recognized it as the skull he had encountered earlier.
“Who are you? What do you know about this place?” asked the Urikite scholar, curious as to the skulls presence.
“I am the Lord Herald of Borys,” replied the skull, “and I know much and more about this place. But there are only two things you need to know, at the moment: that it is my duty to protect it in the name of my master, and that dead men need no further information.”
Pillars rose up suddenly around the room as the Lord Herald’s gemstone eyes spat out fires. Initial attempts to harm the old lich were inefficient, and everyone quickly realized that the pillars were tied into its essence somehow. So the party split into two groups: one to take out the pillars, and the other to keep the demilich contained. The former group did its work quickly, and it immediately merged with the latter group, but that one group would have its hands full. The Lord Herald clearly had the skills to back up his strong words, and his mastery of destructive and necromantic spells was plain to see. But the mages of the group would not be outdone, while the warriors of the group would not be outdone by the mages, either. A concerted effort saw the group prevail eventually, but that victory was costly, as their resources were depleted and their bodies were battered and bruised.
The killing blow led the skull to be engulfed in flames, but the arcanists realized that he was not truly dead. The mages then conducted a search for the phylactery, but it was nowhere to be found. Might they encounter the Lord Herald again? Visarion knew it was possible, but nothing could be done for now. “Let’s just stay vigilant for that one,” he told the group, his tone sounding uncharacteristically grave. He could see that the others had their objections, but he could also tell that they realized he was right. After a concert of silent nods, the party pressed forward.
They got to Rkard’s throne room this time, and who else would be waiting for them but the Sphinx? He greeted the group with another riddle, and it took some time for them to figure out what the right answer could be. They managed to piece it together, however, by calling upon their skills of linguistics (“…and general cleverness,” quipped Cypher). The sphinx then nodded satisfaction, and vanished, never to be seen again.
At that point the items of the Kemalok kings floated above the throne, and the shambling undead bodies of the fallen assembled on the sides of the dais. Each plucked an item and handed it to Bjorn, their body language seeming rather submissive. This became blatant, however, as they knelt before Bjorn, who would be the last to rule, the sole Kemalok king of this era. They beckoned him towards the throne, and Bjorn obliged them. “We have gone far,” said Visarion, as much to himself as anyone else. “Farther than any who have ventured here, at any rate. But now, you are truly king! Well, king Bjorn? What say you?”
Bjorn seemed to contemplate for a moment, then guffawed his response. “It is said the crown is heavy, and it may be at that. But I am Bjorn Mindhammer! And Bjorn Mindhammer is strong!”
A hidden door slid open then, and sunlight shined into the throne room. Bjorn stepped out, his eyes adjusting to the light… and he saw the people of Kled standing, mouths agape, looking upon Bjorn Mindhammer in all His regal glory. “Your king has returned!” proclaimed Bjorn, and the party echoed the sentiment. “Long live the king!” replied the people of Kled, kneeling now before Rkard reborn.
All was not well, however. A rider approached from the distance, and a hooded figure stepped off. The crowd parted to let the new arrival through, who pulled back her hood. Nanda Shatri stood there, clearly uneasy. “Visarion,” she spoke, her voice a little shaky. “Everyone. Come quickly. She has returned… it is time.”
Visarion knew. The encounter with Abalach-Re had been close, and they had narrowly escaped through Kensidan’s sacrifice (who provoked the sorcerer-queen as she fled, true, but V could think no ill of the dead). Nanda Shatri carried dark tidings indeed—Abalach-Re brought the major houses of Raam to heel by taking hostages, and she quickly mobilized the largest army in Athas to seek out the Walker Kings.
“It will not work,” Visarion murmured. Cypher had pressing business in Nibenay, and Bjorn would want to secure the people of Kled (and the riches of Kemalok) and try to keep the forces of Raam from overwhelming them. Alderun expressed a desire to contact Hammanu, and to perhaps convince him to help repel the Raamites. “We are spread to thin, so we cannot respond in kind.”
Visarion knew. All of this had occurred to him already, ever since he let Abalach-Re fly away wounded. He did not have a choice, really, but he regretted all the same.
But all was not lost. The sorcerer-queen’s grasp on Raam was tenuous, as she commanded the loyalty of the major houses only through the hostages she held. If they could be freed and sent to safety, somehow, and if word could be sent to the heads of the houses, then the tide would be turned on its head in a matter of moments. Abalach-Re would not—could not—strike at so large a force, because that very force served as her military, and that would leave her exposed to Urik’s counter-attack. She would have no choice, then, but to vacate Raam and regroup.
Visarion knew. He knew what had to be done.
“Very well, Nanda Shatri. I will go to Raam.”
“Very good,” she replied. “And your friends?”
“Their tasks are their own, Nanda Shatri. And they cannot help me in this.”
“I will go to Raam. But I must go alone.”
Raked’s head rolled along the stone floor, the severed neck leaving a trail of blood. The blonde champion laughed as he watched his handiwork, his eyes twinkling in the torchlight.
“My, my, Borys. If I continue at this pace, I will have to share in your wages!”
Borys sniffed. “I am grateful for this… display, Albeorn. But there is much work to be done yet.”
“Oh, and you would have me do this as well? I demand your wages in full, then!” The other humans chuckled at that.
Borys shifted in the throne, then stood. “Let me show you how I settle my debts first, o blonde one,” he remarked as his sword slid from its scabbard. “Then let us see if you wish to do business with me in the future.”
The attendant entered the waiting room, his bearded face looking grim. “Your Grace,” he said as he bowed. “We have inspected the corpse, as you requested.”
“And?” demanded King Rkard.
“There is no doubt, Your Grace. Only a Vorpal sword could cut through armor like that.”
King Rkard’s face hardened, and he nodded. “I see. Very well. Fetch my armor and craghammer, Regdar. I shall have need for both before the day is done.”
“At once, Your Grace…”
“Just tell me why!” Rkard bellowed. He breathed heavily now, but his grip on the craghammer remained steady. “We ruled as brothers, Borys! I do not understand!”
Borys was laughing now, a manic gleam in his eyes. “I am to be human now, Rkard! Don’t you see? The humans are the future of Athas! And I shall be part of that future, as a human—and as something so much more…” He stared Rkard right in the eyes, then, his grin widening. “How I wish you could be part of that future, brother,” he proclaimed as he reached for his sword. “But I am afraid that simply cannot be.”
Rkard shouted a furious war cry as his anger boiled, and the earth rose up as if to swallow him. It did not quite do that, however, as large rocks stuck onto his plate and shield. His skin seemed to harden then, as if he were being engulfed by dark pebbles. His beard caught fire, and soon flowed like molten lava. He was Rkard no longer, at this moment, but something more.
“Come then, Borys,” bellowed the thing-that-had-been Rkard. Its voice was similar, but deeper, as if the earth itself spoke in concert with the king. “Let us end this.”
Borys merely smiled. “With pleasure.”
Caelum’s eyes shot open, and he found he was in a cold sweat, his hands feeling clammy. He stepped out of bed—shakily—and made for the kitchen. He grabbed a small cup and started to pour himself some ale, which was a traditional Dwarven nightcap (it served the purpose of any other specialty drink, for that matter, at least insofar as the dwarves were concerned).
The visions—and there had been several, but he really only saw the last three—were disturbing. The memory crystals were granted by the sphinx on each correct answer, and this was entirely new to Caelum. Nobody had even encountered the sphinx to that point, and Bjorn’s group really went all the way. Part of him had been glad that Renegade’s telepathic link allowed them to share the visions; they were clearly of great historical value. But another part of him wished he could take it all back; some things were just to horrible to see.
Caelum was disconcerted, and he felt entirely alone in that. He looked out and had to wonder if the others felt the same way he did. But the streets were silent, and the king’s building was dark. Nobody else had lost sleep to the visions. Nobody else shivered in their sleep.
He gulped the last of his ale down, still at fully half a cup. He blew the light out of his lamps, and started to turn in. Sun grant that the visions would not haunt him any further.
“Dwarves with beards,” he murmured, just as sleep came to him.