Monday, October 17, 2016

Ghrusoq Denied

(Prologue: Ahkrysyohs entered the lair of the necromancer alone. It was a tumbled heap of stones and fallen hillside. The cataclysmic destruction that had overtaken that fabled and infamous place was total. Yet within lay chambers still partially viable, and hallways and passages far beneath the outer fallen ramparts and walls. Using his sorcery to move rubble aside, and physical might and main where possible, the neophyte necromancer penetrated further into the ruin with each passing day. Finally he found himself deeply within the mountain beneath the destroyed castle above. A half ruined circular staircase took him up to a former inner sanctum. The very chamber that he sought. His plan had all along been to find the fabled final battle site that story and ballad described: and using his power, to raise the former Lord of Chaos, Ghrusoq, and bind him to his bidding. His plan was lofty and he was guilty of hubris. But of course, he did not know much less admit this.

The chamber was narrow and filled with destruction. Bones and pieces of armor and weaponry littered the floor everywhere. Which among all of this could be the lich's remains? Only sorcery could identify them. Meticulously, Ahkrysyohs gathered out pieces from the mass of remains of a frantic and final confrontation. Like some arcane archaeologist, the necromancer patiently assembled a corpse in an orderly fashion off to one side. The days passed and his task was finally complete. Before him, on a dais, upon a notched and violated throne of ancient bronze, sat the assembled corpse, eye sockets gaping back at his fervid gaze, yellowed teeth (almost fangs) grinning within scraps of parchment-like skin and withered flesh.

The neophyte necromancer bent his will upon his "creation", or rather, reassembled artwork. And in a far shorter time than he anticipated, it lived! Deep within the eye sockets he could begin to discern flickerings of ruddy light, like distant watch fires playing in tiny vales of blackness. Long hours passed and neither form moved. Any chance observer would have been hard pressed to tell by scanning the chamber that anything living occupied it, so alike were the filthy necromancer's robes and toil stained hands and face, to the remains surrounding him, or to the form slumped upon the throne before his now prostrated body. Ahkrysyohs's full willpower was bent upon contact. He felt the former Lord of Chaos's spirit draw near. He did not summon it. It came of it's own volition.

A voice either entered his mind or spoke with the faintest sibilance. "What do you want of me?"

"To share your power and your glory, dreaded Lord."

And so it began. Wraith and necromancer became familiar with each other as the days passed. And Ahkrysyohs did indeed prove a willing pupil, all the while awaiting his chance to turn his new knowledge to his purpose of making the legendary Ghrusoq's power his own.

But what at first seemed like an offered relationship, or contract, between student and master, slowly turned into something else: for by degrees Ghrusoq disabused his pupil of notions of necromancer to apprentice and taught Ahkrysyohs another way instead: "Ghrusoq", the name, he said, was a subtle blind to the unworthy world. He was in fact "Qurosh'g", the god of flies, of plagues, of calamities. And his demise was not as legend and myth would have it. Rather, this place was his prison, forced upon him by his rivals in the realms of glory. It was a war of the gods that had consigned him here through treachery. But his powers had grown in the meantime. And with his liberation, he was grateful to Ahkrysyohs, his "Apostle". In this realm, which encompassed the whole world, they two would begin the work of finding and selecting "the faithful", worthy souls of immortal glory. When that task was complete (anticipated to require thousands of years of mortal time, but what is that to immortals?), Qurosh'g, Ahkrysyohs and all "the faithful", and now immortal ones, would confront his rivals and subjugate them, as was inevitable. It was a fabulous vision of eternally increasing power, glory and veneration that the former lich offered to the mind of Ahkrysyohs. And so great was the neophyte's ambition that he readily believed all of it. He congratulated himself on his great fortune. Not a master, but far more!, a god, had he discovered in his quest. The world would be forever changed. And it began here.

Of course, evil does not ever disclose its true purpose. Ghrusoq had found a willing dupe. He easily cloaked his simple plan in the illusion of a greater vision. Simply put, Ghrusoq saw a way to escape his prison, or rather, dual prisons: for the High One of Melinarth had immured his last viable body up in a wall, deep within his underground city. And to escape that fate, Ghrusoq's spirit had fled back to his lair, at the far end of Tarn Chasm, where he had entered the now decomposed body that his sorcery had prepared and preserved for "insurance" against death.

Later, this lich body had been hacked to bits in his final battle, mainly by the sword of Lorinkh. And for generations Ghrusoq's spirit had haunted this place without physical power. Now all of that was changed. Ahkrysyohs, with his newfound attributes of illusion and persuasion, soon had a formidable band of acolytes and minions gathered to the lair of the necromancer. And upon his command, which he said was the will and command of "the god", they bore the reassembled lich over to Melinarth and made that place their home.

But when Ghrusoq led the "Apostle" to where the wraith's last living body had been walled up, lo! it was not there! He hid his consternation at this unforeseen setback. Putting a fine face on it, as a test of faith, "the god" led his minions about in the lower reaches of the under city, seeking the whereabouts of the corpse, so that they could be united into a powerful body of utility, within which Ghrusoq could escape these narrow confines and set his foot once again upon the earth and travel as a free agent. It was all he wanted. It was enough. His plans did not extend beyond that accomplishment, other than the usual visions of eventual world conquest.

As the weeks of searching turned into months, even Ghrusoq's patience wore thin. His constantly maintained illusion of godhood did not, however. This he augmented as the numbers of the Apostle's minions grew, and the upper city was partially rebuilt, and Uhrbum Mhortuorum was constructed and populated, and his bands of reavers penetrated into the western provinces of the empire.

Putting all of his concentration into finding his other corpse, using only foegim and Balogim now, as his means of locomotion, Ghrusoq kept his Apostle and minions occupied and distracted with revelry, couched as religious ceremony, and with repeated visitations and "revelations".

The day came when, in his interminable questing about below, the wraith saw an army approach his realm. Giving orders to Ahkrysyohs on how to direct the battle, and how to entrap their foes' depleted numbers, Ghrusoq meanwhile increased the pace of his hunt for the body that the High One had hidden from him. He knew why the body was not in its original prison: the High One had not trusted that prison and had disinterred the corpse, disposing of it somewhere else. Even if it were now scattered ashes, you would think that the wraith might have some connection still to his former body, thus allowing him to sense when he was drawing closer to it. But if so, the range of that affinity was very limited. No passageway, no chamber, no chasm that Ghrusoq had explored had produced the faintest glimmer of that prior symbiosis. All that he required were a few ashes with which to animate and reinhabit this reassembled lich that Ahkrysyohs had so willingly provided for his use. But so far, nothing. Nothing!!

Frustrated, angered almost beyond endurance now, Ghrusoq threw himself and his bearers and bodyguards of the netherworld along passageways, up and down stairs, over bridges and along causeways, around chambers already passed through numerous times. Fecklessly he and his cortege of the undead tramped, even as the battles raged overhead.

The Apostle was driven to ground. "The god" reassured him with lies that he still insisted on believing. And the wraith continued to search. Even as he felt his enemies drawing nearer. Ghrusoq had the Apostle engage overwhelming strength of foegim in their rear to shut off escape, and advanced now to meet them in the closing jaws of a vice. Once they were vanquished, he would resume his quest for the body that the High One had stolen.

He kept the lich with him, not trusting it out of his sight, knowing that a chance finding of the remains of the other corpse would instantly allow him to complete the necromancy that he held ready. Meanwhile, the visible presence of this body, the lich on the throne of bone, might also effect a terror and a distraction to his enemies' valor that would aid in their defeat and death ...)

The narrative of the battle resumes:

Seeing the increasingly desperate situation, Nouvzé, followed by Horgand, moved to clear the right hand doorway of Balogim. Both father and son burst into the chamber where the main battle was going on.

The fight at the opposite doorway with the Urtukim swung suddenly in their favor. As the nearest pair of axmen bent forward eagerly to dispatch Glushslug, the Urtuk chieftain, where he had fallen, they stumbled on the bodies of his victims and got in each other's way (in other words, in gaming terms, they rolled "snake eyes" for their attack). Glushslug lashed out with his powerful legs and knocked them back. Leaping to his feet, the massive hooked sword swept off first one head and then another. His men filled the doorway as he pushed into the remaining cluster of axmen, and then the Urtukim were into the chamber, spreading out left and right, engaging the nearest Drulathim Legionaries. A command was given by a sergeant and the band of Legionaries withdrew toward the doorway leading into the other room, where Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and Company struggled against the Balogim and the invisible force that summoned and directed them. Less than half of the Drulathim made it through the opening before the rest were caught by foegim and Urtukim and pressed to the wall.

The main battle was confused and constantly changing, as Ghrusoq kept summoning more Balogim to replace his losses as swiftly as possible. Xoniuqé entered the room and cast about with his will, seeking the location of their invisible foe. Once he knew where to focus his will and engage the girdle of Xetyalhpa, he uttered the word and struck into the wraith's incorporeal connection to the physical world.

Even in the same instant as Xoniuqé's attack, Ghrusoq drew a pair of Balogim from the nether realm to surround the fire wizard. As the spears thrust at him, Mehlkohr did a frantic dance and weaved aside just long enough to surround himself in a cloak of flame! His elemental extension of himself, which had been nearing the born litter and its lichlike occupant, abruptly curled up on itself and went out. Wreathed in flame, Mehlkohr grappled with one Balogim and turned it to ashes and smoldering pieces of bronze armor. The second struck at the fire wizard, narrowly missing him. Mehlkohr in his cloak of fire turned about and advanced on the undead warrior, backing it a short distance down the passageway before it too was incinerated.
Mehlkohr turned swiftly back into the room. He saw his swordsmen down in their gore, and Khrohm reeling back from a spear thrust that had penetrated his defenses. Even as the fire wizard began to maneuver himself to bring aid, the youthful Ahnxst cut down the captain's antagonist. The pair of them advanced toward the litter bearers and their lichlike charge. All the while, Sehlinah had her hands full dealing with a one on one fight against a foe who kept falling down before her hewing spear, yet regaining its feet and lashing out at her with a notched sword.

Horgand and Nouvzé turned and leaped upon the Balogim guarding the litter. Myrdagyn and Auhxalys joined them. Khrohm and Ahnxst came up on their left and added their swords. Balogim were knocked off their boney feet by the combined rush!

More Balogim appeared, this time around Xoniuqé! He was dangerously exposed for a terrifying moment. His nearest companions were only Bruno and the war hounds! They threw themselves at the new undead spearmen, but they could not face and hold off them all! The old man narrowly avoided a spear thrust before Lorinkh suddenly arrived and hewed down another Balogim that was about to stick the wizard in the back! Myrdagyn saw the danger and fell to the rear to protect Xoniuqé. Some Legionaries responded to Lorinkh's shout for help. And soon the danger was passed.

For a moment, the wraith held the upper hand, and began to fill the room with his summoned minions. Two he threw at the back of Auhxalys, and another pair attacked the father and son duo from behind, as they sought to dispatch foes to their front that had already been knocked to the floor. The woman was wounded, and Horgand too, but they turned and attacked their new foes successfully. Khrohm took Lorinkh's place beside the wizard. Lorinkh reached Auhxalys's side and they vanquished every Balogim that was in range around the litter.

By this point every member of the party, save the wizards, was engaged in combat. The fire wizard carefully made his way around the melee, keeping his distance to avoid scorching his friends. He drew near the litter in the corner, his every intention bent upon arriving within reach of it with his flame cloak.

In the outer chamber, the battle continued to swiftly go against the Drulathim and the last few axmen. One by one they fell, the axmen first as they were individually surrounded and overwhelmed. The last two Drulathim were pressed into opposite corners where they defended themselves desperately and without hope.

The Apostle entered the room, surrounded by his more formidably armed minions.

Xoniuqé and Ghrusoq engaged in invisible battle! The wizard was using the talisman at his waist to successfully pare away the wraith's connection to the mortal world. Layer and strand by layer and strand, the wizard peeled that infernal force aside, seeking with his will to find the metaphysical "heart" of the wraith and strike it.

Sehlinah finally dispatched her foe at the far end of the room. Turning toward the others she saw Xoniuqé only thinly protected. Khrohm had joined his kinsmen; the Drulathim were all heavily occupied by appearing Balogim. She moved to take station behind the wizard, while Myrdagyn and Bruno with the dogs protected him from the other quarters.

Ghrusoq felt his grasp on the action slipping and momentarily turned his focus on the danger of Xoniuqé: the wraith was flabbergasted at the assault upon him, how moment by unrelenting moment the old man in the center of the room called upon some unseen power greater than the wraith's. Ghrusoq mended one layer of his hold on the world, and in that moment his enemies all but annihilated his troops. He could not afford to defend himself by main sorcery. His only hope of victory now was to drown his foes in spears and shields. Putting all of his efforts into summoning Balogim at strategic points, Ghrusoq let Xoniuqé do his worst. Time was running out for the wraith! And worst yet, the fire wizard was now within striking distance, burning up one last Balogim between himself and the litter.

Auhxalys turned toward the litter and its enthroned lichlike occupant. A powerful blow from her mace (the gift of the high priest of Kylburakh) did physical damage to the unmoving lich propped upright on the throne of bone. But destruction of it by that method would take a lot of effort and time. Before she could land another blow, Xoniuqé called to her: "That does nothing to our foe! He is not in that body. I understand now what is being attempted here. He wants to use this corpse in some necromancy that will provide him with a new form. He means to escape this place and resume his career as a potent Lord of Chaos!"

Mehlkohr had slipped around the flank of the fight and burned his way in. He threw himself bodily upon the throne of bone. In an instant it was engulfed in consuming fire. The lichlike form seemed almost to explode into flame. Auhxalys and the others nearby flinched back from the sudden heat. A ghastly stench erupted into the closed confines of the room, spreading out with the flames that roiled along the ceiling. It was overpowering!

Almost unnoticed, came a wail of anguished disappointment from some unseen place. Xoniuqé and Mehlkohr knew the cry to be that of the wraith: Ghrusoq's plan, to unite his two corpses into a super lich, with which he would have resumed full freedom of movement, was crushed.

Lorinkh gained the doorway to the outer chamber and cut down the first foeg that came for him. But behind him the sizzling ichor fouling the air from the burning lich almost affected the demise of the heroes. Horgand, Nouvzé, Ahnxst and Xoniuqé fell to the floor, overcome by the stench. Others reeled on their feet, almost helpless to defend themselves. The last of the Legionaries went down! Wounds were received by several of the others. Before a Balogim spear could pierce Nouvzé, Mehlkohr moved into contact and torched the wielder. Another foe wounded Horgand where he lay, and then it too went up in flames.

As the outraged screaming of the wraith continued, he summoned more Balogim and threw them at his foes. The outer chamber contained masses of foegim, led by the Apostle. Blocking the way was Lorinkh. But although he faced several foes at once he was up to the effort. In his career he had had to struggle with far worse than this! Nonetheless, as the horrible stench began to thin, the heroes recovered and set to work again, sundering Balogim left and right and relieving the Drulath hero of any further risk of a spear in the back.

Xoniuqé was helped to his feet by Myrdagyn and Sehlinah and regained his senses enough to continue his assault on the wraith.

Mehlkohr saw no further foes near to hand and dropped his fire cloak. Adding his own counter spell to that of the older wizard, they together completed the final ripping way of that metaphysical sheath surrounding the wraith.

With his last desperate willful act, Ghrusoq parried away that fatal destruction of his connection to the physical world, and fled. Ahkrysyohs heard "Qurosh'g" in his mind: "Stand firm and hold them! I will return presently." Then the god of plagues, of flies and of calamities, was gone. Consternation descended upon the Apostle's mind. He was alone!

He noticed that the foul stench of the burned lich corpse had driven the Urtukim to the farthest reaches of the room. They were beginning a retreat down the stairs. The Apostle had no power to call them back. All his attention was now directed straight ahead where his enemies were even then cutting down the last of the Balogim and were turning toward him!

Lorinkh saw in the room, behind a couple of foegim, the upraised hands of the necromancer, Ahkrysyohs, the Apostle of Qurosh'g. In the next instant Lorinkh felt his mind go blank. His body was pummeled while he stood there helpless. But exerting his every ounce of willpower, the Drulath hero threw off the mind cloying influence of the Apostle's sorcery. Roaring in fury, Lorinkh bodily dashed aside the two foegim between himself and his enemy, and with a powerful sweep of his sword he forced Ahkrysyohs to the floor, bleeding. Stunned, the necromancer lost control of his troops. Foegim floundered about in confusion, caroming off each other, attacking each other fecklessly, and falling down in a welter like tenpins. Ahnxst and Khrohm pressed into the room behind Lorinkh, striking left and right into the hapless mass of undirected foegim.

The Urtuk chieftain, Glushslug, watched all of this disastrous development from the safe distance of the doorway to the staircase. His troops behind him awaited orders. Lorinkh he recognized as the Drulath who had nearly killed him at the top of the pyramid a few days before. Hesitation froze his mind for a few more fatal seconds.

He watched as Ahkrysyohs regained his senses and his feet. Desperately the Apostle sought to retake control of his army. But Lorinkh gave him no opportunity, pressing him back and back. The Apostle's courage failed: the failures had come too many and too close together. With the flight of his god and mentor, his mind too was broken and he turned to flee. No more than one step did he take before Lorinkh's sword caved in his skull. Glushslug moved then: without further dithering, he thrust his men back into the stairwell and heaved the door shut, dropping the bar. The Urtukim swiftly retraced their steps down and away from the lost battle above and behind them.

Reaching down, Lorinkh took hold of the chain of the dead Apostle's talisman and removed it over the shattered head. This he passed with a knowing glance to Xoniuqé.

"Swiftly!" exhorted Xoniuqé. "Before these things can begin to respond to the default defensive sorcery, like we encountered in Tarn Chasm!" He did not need to explain further. Everyone knew that if the thousands of foegim turned on them with intent, as they had in that dreadful pass on the banks of the tarn, none of them would ever again see the open sky.

While foegim reeled and staggered about, the party, with Lorinkh at the point, forced their way as they passed through the outer chamber and across the causeway, pushing the witless automatons over the edges on either side to crash into the depths. The passage beyond the causeway was likewise cleared as they went. Fortune was with them: they gained the chamber ahead and dragged open the stone portal and fled single file up the slanted floor between rough walls of stone and the protruding ends of roots.

It was nighttime as they reached the end of it and pushed bracken and loose stones out of their way and staggered into the undergrowth of wild and gnarled trees. They had come out near the central plaza of Melinarth. Once everyone was free of the depths, Xoniuqé cast a glamor over their tiny company, so that any eyes that they passed would see a band of Urtukim on their way from the city to do a night patrol. But as far as any of them could tell, they went out unseen at any rate.

They did not stop until they had gained the foothills, found a brackish stream in the undergrowth and secreted themselves to recoup. After a brief rest, they continued on. Most of the heroes bore wounds of varying kinds, though not debilitating enough to slow them down very much in their resumed retreat in the growing daylight. And by stiff marching, they gained their first sight of the walls of Klyph on the second day.

(Thus is completed the quest to confront the wraith Ghrusoq, aka as the god Qurosh'g to his erstwhile and late minions. Now that Ghrusoq has plunged himself into the depths of Melinarth Beneath, with thousands of foegim between himself and the outer world, he can resume healing from his wounds, inflicted by Xoniuqé and Mehlkohr. This process will require only a fraction of the time that the wraith took to gain his power in the first place, because his connection to the physical world is only weakened, not severed utterly.

Xoniuqé explained all of this to his companions as they returned to Klyph. "I will have to go back to Melinarth," he said in their stunned and dismayed hearing. "This talisman that I wear, this 'girdle of Xetyalhpa', can be placed to imprison the wraith closely. But first I must find him, again. Instead of seeking to disconnect him from the mortal realm, I will next time bind up his evil soul within the girdle, as a seal on the prison, from which he cannot escape forever, so long as the girdle is not disturbed. We wizards have our defensive wards that can be placed to protect the girdle from tampering. It is the best that we can do. But first we must find where the wraith has gone. I will use this talisman that the Apostle wore. It will know its creator. What would be truly useful is if we possessed more than one of these trinkets. Then we could use them to triangulate on Ghrusoq's position. We can run him to ground. He cannot flee forever. Melinarth at large is his prison. We will confine him to a single chamber, or even a crypt."

Long silence followed his dreadful words. Then Lorinkh asked bleakly: "What will we do about the thousands of foegim that now throng the depths, between him and us?"

"I will think of something," the old wizard said. And now that he had the commitment of one at least, nothing more would he say on the subject as they finished their journey to Klyph Town.)


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pursuers and Pursued

Xoniuqé did not sleep at all. In his mind were the old memories of this place, or rather, the underground "city" that still lay far below where they were camped. Coupled with those images of empirical experience, were the metaphysical ones given to him in the "misty menagerie". Incomplete though they were, two features stood out in his mind until everything else became insignificant. The "pit of the god", in the back of the alcove, behind the large dais in the gigantic hall, below the gallery. And the other twisting staircase that none of them had seen yet. The one at the extreme opposite end from the "pit" and "forest of pillars", at the far end of the crypt directly under them. He cast about in his mind, hoping for another staircase to take shape there, that would take them down from here to the under "city". But nothing else was there in the fragmentary mental images of the layout of this place.

Speaking of "pits", there was, of course, the well shaft, which undoubtedly serviced all the levels where living quarters were. But a long, exhausting, treacherous descent to some lower level seemed even more folly than a rapid rush through the crypt to gain the twisting staircase. Where there was a well there was likely to be occupation, alerted by the noise of their descent, long before they arrived. Stupid idea! The "pit of the god", by its very name in Ahkrysyohs's mind, did not invite violation. The name bore some significance to Ghrusoq's guise as a deity. But it was a mystery rite secret that even the Apostle did not know. There was a "sacred ground" aspect to the "pit". Occasional sacrificial offerings were cast into it, including the living and the dead. It would be less terrifying to face the thousands of dead in the crypt, than to hazard the "pit of the god".

He didn't know for certain that the interred thousands between them and the circular staircase in his mind would arise to defend the passageways of the crypt. But Tarn Chasm held such a ward. And so why not the very home of the necromancer? Why, then, had the dead not stirred when they had stood on the very threshold of the crypt? How could they be sure? And if they were somehow to determine that such a ward existed in the crypt, what then? Could they gain the stairs and hold them with a rearguard? Or would the dead emerge from their graves in such numbers and with such speed that the living would be buried in foes, long before they could reach the stairs?

And with such thoughts burning in his head, the wizard spent both watches with his eyes closed, his breathing deep and slow and calm, but not a wink of sleep did he enjoy.

Everyone got ready to move out. Xoniuqé wasn't sure enough in his own mind about the circular stairs until the party started to explore in the next chamber. He stopped in the middle of the floor and everyone looked at him, wondering. "I see this as pointless," he explained. "We will just waste time checking out many rooms on either hand, and nothing in them leads down. We must go down. So, we must brave the crypt."

And they did. The broad corridor of the crypt was almost swept clean by the passage of many feet. So clearly it was not a dangerous place to living beings. And sure enough, they reached the end of the long corridor and turned left and continued half that distance down the darkened tunnel until they came to the doorway leading to the twisting staircase on their right.

This went around and down until they lost count of the revolutions. Then they came to a closed but unlocked door and passed from the staircase to an unoccupied room of generous size. After opening the single door ahead they saw a passageway leading off into blackness, which midway along its length was intersected by another on their right, while ahead the one they were following dropped by steep stairs. Not far along the side passageway were stairs leading up. Xoniuqé probed with his will and felt a faint superiority in choosing the way to the right, and up. This way reached a landing and then the hallway continued on. They arrived at a corner and went left and proceeded a modest distance to where the passageway turned left with a door on their right at the angle. Opening this door showed a narrow ridge, like a causeway, spanning deep chasms on either hand. Their flickering torchlight barely picked out a closed door set in the rock wall at the opposite end.

Here, Xoniuqé began to talk almost animatedly. "We've been here before," he said, addressing Lorinkh. He nodded toward the passage opposite the doorway. Hurrying his step, the wizard led them down it and into another largish, bare room. And at the sight of a stone door in the flanking wall, he nodded with satisfaction and went over to it. "See, along the edge you can tell that a hole above the floor has been repaired. We made that hole! While being pursued and while some of us defended the entrance" (he waved a hand toward the passageway that led here), "I helped weaken the stone while Lorinkh here bashed away at it with his war hammer. When it was big enough to shuffle through on our backs, that's what we did, with alacrity, I can assure you! Beyond this door, which I see is closed to the outside but not from this side, this time ..." (and suiting actions to words, they tried it and swung the ponderous stone portal ajar). Wordlessly, they looked up an angled, narrow way that faded out to blackness beyond their torches and the wizard light on his staff. "That's our way out, then," he said.

And he led them back to the angle where the ridge stood out above the chasms. He stepped aside to allow Lorinkh, Myrdagyn, Ahnxst and Khrohm to lead out across the narrow way. That path had no rails or side walls, so everyone tended to cluster into a single file in the middle as they went. The door at the opposite end was unlocked. Entering it, the leaders found themselves in a large empty chamber with two more closed doors, one at the right end and another opposite. The floor was covered in dust. The passage of many feet marked the direct way in the dust to either door.

Xoniuqé suddenly stiffened and turned back to the ridge. "They are coming," he said. "The Apostle has raised the dead in the crypt. They will be attacking us very soon." His voice echoed in the air over the chasms.

As everyone fell silent and listened, a clear sound of mixed shuffling steps and clink of weapons and armor could be heard emanating from the doorway that they had come through to reach the causeway. Lorinkh had Khrohm choose several Legionaries to hold the far end of the causeway. Everyone else finished moving into the room with the three doors.

They tried the right hand door first and found it locked from the other side. "Don't waste your time and energies," the illusionist said to Mehlkohr, the worker of fire. "I sense nothing in that direction as yet. But through yonder door I am beginning to feel the presence of our adversary. He is not far away!"

So, their party was now between.

The left hand door opened to their efforts, revealing a room roughly twice the size as that in which they stood. Across the dusty floor the foot prints led to a black opening in the far left corner which could but dimly be seen. The vanguard went swiftly across the dusty floor and entered the passageway. Moving ahead of the others, Myrdagyn and Lorinkh came very soon to a corner where it turned right. On their left at the angle was a door that did not yield to their attempts to open it. And dead ahead, an equal distance away as the room behind, the passageway ended at another closed door. This they tried but found it also locked. They withdrew to the angle.

On his own initiative, Mehlkohr unlocked the door at the far end with a prepared spell. No sooner had he done this "service", when Xoniuqé exclaimed. "Big Juju is coming!" He pointed his staff at the door they had just retreated from. As if his words were an announcement, the door suddenly swung back, and advancing through it came rank on rank of bronze-armored Balogim from the Seven Hells!

"Back! Everyone back to the room!" said Myrdagyn.

But Mehlkohr did not seem to agree. Pushing in front of the "greatest swordsman who ever lived", the rescued wizard and his two bodyguards faced the oncoming enemy. Now, just visible over their horned helmets, and just the other side of the doorframe, could be seen a litter born upon the shoulders of undead soldiers, and on that litter was a throne, and seated there was a lichlike form. Little more could be discerned from this first glimpse. And besides, there wasn't time for scrutiny: the Balogim, with leveled spears and presented round swirl shields, were closing the gap swiftly enough, their eye sockets glittering with red dots of fire.

Mehlkohr gestured and belched forth a gout of flame, which instantly took a clearly humanoid form and advanced greedily up the passageway to confront their enemies. The first two Balogim that the flaming elemental reached were enveloped and almost instantly consumed. The elemental, which looked disturbingly like a slightly enlarged image of Mehlkohr himself, continued on into the next pair of Balogim, and the next beyond that. Mehlkohr's eyes bugged in his swarthy head, his full beard fairly bristling with the static electricity of his sorcery. His gestures and shouted words followed up his creation. Everyone behind the wizard, including Xoniuqé, were impressed. Wasting no time, the fire wielding magician pressed the elemental to the doorway itself. Behind it the floor was littered with blackened shields and weapons, and pieces of scorched bronze armor and smoking helmets, now emptied of bones, which had been reduced to ashes and glowing embers scattered from wall to wall.

Before the elemental could pass beyond the door, it swung shut with a resounding boom! The blazing fingers surged up against the stone frame and walls and the humanoid shape morphed against the rocks and licked at the ancient wood surface of the door. But before the fire could do more than compromise the strength of the joined timbers, Mehlkohr's sorcery was spent and the fire went out. He sagged for a moment, breathing heavily.

Lorinkh hefted his borrowed ax and stepped past the wizards to the door. In a few minutes he had the fire eaten wood sundered. Beyond, the passageway was deserted.

Meanwhile, in their rear, the holding force of Legionaries at the causeway had thrown two rounds of heavy javelins into the oncoming mass of foegim, then met the flood with hand strokes. They backed across the ridge, fighting as they went. Two Legionaries perished over the chasms before the last two made it through the doorway and into the room.

The Drulathim formed a "box" around the open doorway and met Ahkrysyohs's minions there, dispatching pair after pair of them. Ancient foegim flew in brittle, dusty pieces in every direction and yet kept coming and coming and coming. The ridge was choked full with them. Many fell silently over the edges on either hand and yet more replaced the fallen. The doorway beyond was packed with their ranks. In the midst of them, a massive Urtuk foeg in full armor came up and engaged the Legionaries for a time, slaying one of their numbers before finally being cut to pieces and pushed off the ridge into the black abyss. Fighting at the doorway continued and another Legionary was cut down. Others were wounded. This could not go on for very long!

Behind this increasingly desperate holding action, the sturdy imperial axmen stood before the locked door, just in case. Horgand and Nouvzé formed a sort of rearguard or reserve in the center of the room.

The remnant from Uhrbum Mhortuorum had passed into the next room and stood there hearing the sounds of combat emanating from the first room, and Mehlkohr's shouting and the roar of his fire elemental coming from the passageway beyond. This second sound ceased as the elemental burned out. The sounds of Lorinkh's ax on the door boomed and thudded echoing down the passageway and into the chamber.

Lorinkh explored beyond the burned and sundered door. The way was bisected a short distance off by a cross passage, and on the far side of that intersection the present passageway ended at yet another door. At the intersection, the Drulath could see that the way on the right seemed to terminate in a cul-de-sac. To the left it went a short distance and then emerged into a cavern where the path crossed by bridge over the deeps to a closed door. Evidently, the litter-born enemy and his troops had retreated in one or more of those directions. Nonplused, Lorinkh withdrew to the others and they began to quickly discuss what course to pursue, whether or not to try and follow, and if so, which way, or stand their ground and await Ghrusoq's pleasure.

Suddenly, before their eyes, the men of Uhrbum Mhortuorum saw, to their horror, a narrow section in the bare stone wall drop out of sight into the floor! Before they could hardly draw breath to shout an alarm, rank on rank of Balogim shield and spear rushed them! Tittering hungrily, the flaming-eyed minions of Balog of the Seven Hells thrust and hacked at the outnumbered "crusaders" from the city of the dead. Fighting stubbornly to the last, these worthies were pressed to the walls and corners behind and slain to a man.
Hearing the combat to their right, the Legionaries divided half their numbers to "box" the right hand doorway. Just in time! Balogim had all but attacked them in flank. But instead, their leaders halted and formed a defensive cordon on their own side of the doorway. There both sides glared through the open portal at each other for the nonce.

Behind them, in the chamber they had recently passed through, Lorinkh and the other heroes counseling in the passageway suddenly heard the sounds of screams and weapons clanging and thudding. By the time Ahnxst and Khrohm had rounded the corner and gone down the passageway to the room, Balogim packed the entry in serried ranks, spears leveled and shields overlapped. Khrohm paused. But Ahnxst in his youthful bravado before his peers charged straight into the waiting spears and shields. Cursing under his breath, Khrohm leaped forward to keep at the exposed left flank of the vainglorious, reckless nephew of the legendary Lorinkh.

Like ten pins, the leading rank of Balogim were knocked off their feet. Some stood up readily enough, others struggled in the press of combat to rise. Then Ahnxst was knocked down and fought desperately against odds. As he gained his feet again, he received a wound and was shocked back to his senses. "Had enough of this?" Khrohm practically screamed at him. Nodding, the bleeding Drulath youth backed with the captain of five hundred into the narrow confines of the passage, where they could fight on even terms. Over the sounds of their own combat, the pair of Drulath warriors could hear the shrill cries of their allies from Uhrbum Mhortuorum being done to death.

More Balogim flowed into the room.

At the angle in the passageway, Xoniuqé opened the door with his sorcery. It banged against the stone wall behind. A short length of passageway ahead was intersected by another at right angles. It was by that one that the Balogim were entering the room where the men of Uhrbum Mhortuorum lay in their gore. The party was split in two! And even as the door swung wide, the wizard, Myrdagyn and the others could see the litter-born lich pass through this intersection and out of sight toward the room. His guard of foegim remained to block the way.

Shouting war cries, Myrdagyn and the two women warriors charged up the passage and into their waiting enemies. Cutting and hewing and bashing their way to the intersection, they overlaid the floor in pulverized corpses, body parts and pieces of armor and weaponry.

Behind them, Lorinkh turned left to join his kinsmen in the mouth of the passageway. So too did Mehlkohr and his pair of swordsmen. He saw the stiff fight between the Drulathim and the minions of the necromancer, who seemed to keep entering the room from some unseen source. And so, of course, it was: for Ghrusoq was there now, inside the room, his litter facing both combats in both passageways, summoning Balogim seemingly almost at will to replace his losses. While the fighting occupied such narrow frontages, the Balogim losses were occasional. So were the wounds of the heroes. The fight could go on long enough at this rate to exhaust them. For the undead know nothing of physical stamina or its limitations!

Mehlkohr made another tactical decision. Drawing on what physical energies he possessed, he summoned his will and engaged in the creation of another flame elemental. This one appeared as the first, but with less initial vigor. Mehlkohr seemed tasked somewhat as he "pumped it up", literally blowing life into it and enlarging it, before sending it into the room, moving it behind and around the rear of the Drulathim, who had made a concerted effort to expand their front into the room and out of the way! The elemental met the first pair of Balogim and they were engulfed and consumed in short order. Mehlkohr stepped into the opening to the room and guided his creation skillfully around the melee, which his two swordsmen also joined. Another Balog warrior turned to flaming bone dust, its bronze armor falling to the stone floor, the various pieces rocking briefly there with glowing edges smoldering.

More Balogim magically appeared in the center of the room, before the litter-born lich on the throne. As the heroes snatched concerned glances at this evil looking prodigy, no one could detect the slightest evidence of movement in the corpse on the throne. Like statuary, the litter, the throne with its lich and the foegim bearers, stood in immovable silence like some kind of life-size ornament. Yet moment by moment, sometimes one or several at a time, more Balogim spearmen appeared and entered the uneven fight. It would be steadily in favor of the forces of evil, if not for the flame wizard and his all-consuming alter ego! Wreathing flames incinerated Balogim, and more advanced to interdict the approaching fire. But now the numbers of those appearing were merely replacing the ones being destroyed. There seemed to be in fact some limitation to Ghrusoq's necromancy after all!

When Myrdagyn and Auhxalys and Sehlinah finally arrived through the concealed portal and entered the room to engage the Balogim and foegim clustered before that portal, Xoniuqé, following immediately behind, got his first clear view of their enemies and began to banish them one by one.

This aid actually seemed to form a tipping point. No longer were Balogim appearing at the same rate as they were being burned up, banished or dispatched in the melee. The numbers of Balogim diminished! The heroes took heart!

"Get to him!" shouted Lorinkh. "Ghrusoq, you rotting rectum! I'm going to kill you, AGAIN!"

And his battle cry infused the others and they hewed and smashed down with might and main. Bones shattered and ancient bronze armor fell apart and shields clanged tottering to the floor to be kicked aside. The entire room was a chaos of flashing weapons and screaming throats, tittering voices from beyond the grave and the roar of flames!

In the other room, the desperate holding action got suddenly more so. The locked door before the axmen suddenly ripped open and the staircase beneath it was jammed with rank upon rank of Urtukim, led by no less a foe than Glushslug himself. He had received his marching orders hours ago. And at the opportune moment, so deemed by Ahkrysyohs, had flung himself at the head of his men into the fight. Now it raged on three fronts. First one and then another axman went down swiftly before the hooked two-handed sword of the Urtuk chieftain. But they resisted stubbornly despite their casualties. Glushslug was over-eager to push beyond the doorway and into the room, and suddenly he was knocked off his feet by the dying movements of one of his victims. A pair of axmen pressed into the doorway, seeking to end his miserable Ekbashim life before he could get back up!

But the foegim pushing ever forward from the ridge had caused many casualties amongst the Legionaries. Their ranks were thinned. Foegim began to push them back and jostled forward into the doorway. Ahkrysyohs could be seen in the midst of the span of bridge, commanding his minions on past him. The best of his troops were packed around him. And suddenly another massive foeg Urtuk in full armor burst into the doorway. The Drulathim holding force was starting to give way under overwhelming numbers!

(to be continued ...)