Wednesday, November 23, 2016

For the Widow's Son!

The marshal of the barony emerged with his mounted knights and men-at-arms from the castle gate. The column extended itself to match the emperor's equal number of Imperial Knights. They straddled the road a bowshot away. When the marshal had trotted his horse until they were a hundred paces apart, he halted his men and waited.

The emperor's purple banner came out from the battle, surrounded by a hundred Imperial Knights at a walk. Their burnished plate armor on man and horse gave back sharp glints of sunlight. The erect lances, long and thick and tapering to needle points of steel, waved together in the air over the plumes of red and white, each lance shaft colored in the same hues that spiraled from vamplate to tip.

As the emperor and his guard approached the middle ground, the marshal of the baroness did likewise with an equal number of his men, each knight bearing his own colors and device on shield and caparison. They were outfitted the best that each man could, but the exigencies of the long siege had taken their toll on man and horse. This parley was necessary, or else starvation would begin in earnest.

Both squadrons met in the exact center of the middle ground between the two battles of cavalry. A long moment of silent scrutiny elapsed before the emperor spoke for himself in clipped tones. It was clear that his patience was at an end.

"Have you decided to accept my terms of surrender?"

"I speak for the widow of our lord and not for myself," the marshal replied. "She has instructed me to affirm her son's right to the throne. As long as you continue to usurp the heir of your elder brother the late emperor, her son comes before you. Younger brothers and their children cannot come before the heirs of an elder brother."

"You are mistaken. Time alters all things, even laws," said the emperor. And then he rehearsed his rights, his voice loud and demanding as he spoke the precisely formed words of a man no longer willing to suffer disagreement:

"The Imperial Councilors were unanimous that the laws of succession had been legally altered to allow direct succession, eldest to youngest sibling. Children of the first generation, eldest to youngest, all come before their own children. Should it ever please God to remove all of the emperor's children, their heirs inherit the crown, eldest of the eldest, down to eldest of the youngest, in order of age, and so on. That invalidates your mistress's claim."

"According to you," said the marshal.

"No. According to the laws as now established by the Imperial Council."

"There are those of us who disagree, that it was done according to law. Instead, we see you and your manipulators, your creatures, to put it bluntly if impolitely, as opportunists. We all know how you went up to obtain the High Priest's blessing and confirmation of your right to rule. Had he agreed with you, we would not be sitting here arguing the point. But he did not agree that right was on your side. And so what did you and your brothers do? You came back down, held counsel with your newly organized Imperial Council, after having removed your father's men who you knew would not follow your commands or hearken to your threats. And now the affairs of the land have changed. You tell us by your usurpation that the ages of high priests were superfluous."

"You dare impute that I am a godless man?"

"Take it how you will. You are sitting here as no emperor, because you have not received the second crowning."

"Still stubborn to the last, I see," the emperor grated through clenched teeth. "So be it. Prepare for battle."

Both parties turned about and trotted to their waiting men. As the marshal neared his knights and men-at-arms, he gave a prearranged signal with his pennoned lance by circling it over his helmet.

Abruptly, from the opened gate issued a double column of more cavalry, pouring out and moving off to the left and right to form a continuous long line many ranks deep. From hundreds of throats came their war cry, taken up by the marshal and his already deployed troops: "For the Widow's son!"

The emperor, seeing this prodigy of broken agreements (for the parley had been specifically laid down to include only those equal numbers that had participated, all others were to remain inside the castle until the parleying parties had withdrawn), turned his horse about and began to hasten his Knights back toward where his army waited a league away.

Behind the withdrawing Imperial Knights came the defiant garrison of his nephew's widow, the baroness. The "rebels" were taunting him with their war-cries and other forms of calumny. The choler of the emperor got the better of him. "About! About!" he cried. And following his lead, his troops whirled, each man and horse, into a column, and then again into a line now facing the oncoming marshal and his whole army: which now included a large body of yeomen in a second line, carrying their longbows and sharpened stakes for driving into the earth to repel cavalry. The opened castle gate now stood empty. The baroness's banner hung slack above the battlements. And the emperor fancied that he could see the young woman amidst her household, watching from the walls as the final cast of the dice decided her fate and that of her infant son.

As the emperor lowered his lance for the charge, the recent history of his life and that of his house swiftly replayed through his fevered mind. Everything had come down to this seemingly inevitable tragedy. Just as the high priest, his other nephew, the son of the late emperor, had foretold: "You are casting aside our laws, which clearly state my right to the throne. This will be your undoing and lead to wars, from which this realm will not recover. You are sealing the doom of our people."

"Well then!" He shouted above the tumult of pounding hooves and creaking harness. "Give the devil's mouthpiece the lie! For God and Country!" He spurred his warhorse into full career and picked out his opponent from the marshal's men directly opposite his lance tip and pennon. To his right his banner bearer held aloft the imperial standard of purple and gold.

"For Randahl!" shouted every Imperial Knight. And the two lines came together in a rending crash.

On both flanks, the greater numbers of the perfidious rebels (or defenders of law and order, depending on your point of view) swept by and pulled up, wheeled inward and prepared to surround the emperor's greatly outnumbered battle. Far to the rear of this vanguard, the rest of the imperial army, under the command of Randahl's younger twin brothers, Ghorkil and Rahkard, started forward to his aid. But they would be a long time arriving!

The battle was swiftly determined by the tactical situation. Most of Randahl's men on the flanks were quickly overcome and the marshal's men began to make attacks upon the rear ranks. Seeing the rapid demise of his hubris, Randahl signaled the withdrawal. Very few of his men could extricate themselves, and these were quickly caught up and surrounded.

Only the emperor's immediate squadron had won free. He kept going, casting vengeful glances over the armored rump of his purple caparisoned warhorse. His brothers were moving closer with their cavalry ahead of the infantry. But they seemed to be arriving later than Randahl expected.

He looked back at his doomed Knights. The enemy sergeants in mail on lighter horses had gone out and around the left flank of the melee and were bearing down on his vastly outnumbered squadron. It was going to be very close!

But he saw that, just barely, the right end of his brothers' battle would reach him before the enemy did.

Ghorkil and Rahkard and their mostly mercenary force wheeled to the right, lowered lances and charged.

Lances were lowered directly at the emperor himself! "What in hell's name?!" Randahl screamed. Before he could collect himself, twice their number slammed into his Knights and bore them backward, piercing shields with keen lances, throwing riders down and forcing horses onto their haunches. Randahl himself was unhorsed and struck the ground violently. His men did their best to surround him and he regained his feet. But the press was too great and he could not get into the saddle. He barely managed to draw his bastard sword and defend himself with stout two-handed sweeps of the blade. His men dropped rapidly around him, horses and men going down against mounting odds.

The rest of Ghorkil's and Rahkard's battle had continued forward into the stalled enemy cavalry, where they began to make an immense slaughter even as the last of their brother's Imperial Knights, completely surrounded, were done to death.

The marshal's sergeants saw the treachery enacted before their very eyes and marveled. This unlooked for event, plus the now nearness of masses of infantry mercenaries serving the emperor from the Masterless Quarter, altered their original intentions to catch the emperor up. Wheeling left now, the sergeants advanced in a line toward a dense body of thugs who were armed with javelins. The mutual hail of missiles entirely favored the cavalry. Hundreds of ill-clad scum went down transfixed. Few sergeants felt the piercing steel of javelins. Their shields bristled with spent enemy missiles and they rode over their fallen and writhing bodies. Behind the thugs came Warriors with armor and stout crossbows. As the sergeants spurred into a charge the crossbowmen and main mass of the thugs either met them or did their best to get out of the way. Several scores of sergeants plunged through the gap in the line of thugs and were met behind by a hasty and brutal volley of crossbow bolts. These unfortunate horsemen were annihilated. The crossbowmen turned toward the main battle.

Seeing that they would be engulfed by superior numbers, the bulk of sergeants withdrew and was soon met by the marshal and a squadron of his men who had managed to avoid the countercharge of the twin brothers.

With this combined force, the marshal turned back toward the main melee. It was a lost fight that he saw. His men there were in rout before the twins and their victorious battle. The marshal rallied such of his troops that he met in their rout as he could. And by the time he had arrived where the yeomen had driven in their stakes and advanced a few paces before them, the battle was over.

Ghorkil and Rahkard had pulled up the pursuit and withdrawn out of effective bowshot. The two brothers had gone even further to see how their men had fared in dispatching their hated brother. The source of their jealousy would enter with varying details into the chronicles. But suffice to say that it was murderous enough to create direct and irrefutable fratricide.

The emperor Randahl was down to his last handful of now dismounted men of his household. As Ghorkil arrived first with his squadron of knights, his older brother was getting to his feet again, having been wounded many times. His plate armor leaked blood. Ghorkil struck him with his lance. Randahl screamed in fury. "Miscreant spawn of the Turtuk!" "Betrayer of the empire!" shouted Ghorkil. His twin brother Rahkard arrived with another squadron. The tiny knot of Imperial Knights resisted for a brief while longer.

"Dogpile!" shouted Rahkard with unholy glee, recollecting a childhood battle cry of younger brothers as they ganged up on an older brother. This brother. Through his streaming blood, Randahl grinned and screamed something incoherent as Rahkard dealt him one last fatal blow. It is not written, even in the more honest and suppressed accounts, which brother stuck off his head.


The history does say this much. As the emperor charged into his foes, his brothers turned on him in righteous anger with their knights and he was slain. His severed head was taken to Lyn Seprhl, where it was put on a spike over the main gate, thus allaying any possible rumor that the emperor might have yet lived.

Ghorkil proclaimed that he and his brother Rahkard would now rule as co-regents. And Ghorkil married their nephew's widow, establishing the regency in her infant son's name.

But not many months after this legal arrangement, the baby died of "an illness". And soon after that his mother also perished by the same malady, combined with the effects of sustained grief. There was a plague sweeping through the City at the time. So the imperial physicians' stated cause of death was believable. But it was also believed by many that mother and child had been murdered.

And when, shortly thereafter, Ghorkil and Rahkard had it proclaimed that they would fill the vacancy as co-emperors, their two younger brothers, Ebrohs and Gerath, cried foul and demanded that their nephew, the high priest's claim should be honored. This was not allowed as valid, insisted the twins, since Randahl had "legally" altered the affairs of the realm vis-à-vis how successions would henceforth be conducted.

So "the brothers war" began. Ebrohs and Gerath mustered to the north. Ghorkil and Rahkard held the bulk of the land, supported by Antania the chaos lord of the Masterless Quarter, who continued to supply the twins with many mercenaries. From the outset, the war was one-sided. All of the supporters of the younger brothers south of the Esgroth mountains were targeted by the minions of the twins. Raiding columns swept over their lands laying open towns and villages in ruins. Throngs of refugees sought safety north of the passes, or in the Masterless Quarter, or the "holy city" of Kylburakh. In the weeks that followed the proclamation of the twins, all of their enemies were driven north of the Esgroth mountains or were put to the sword if they did not surrender. City after city capitulated. Finally, the only two bastions of doomed resistance were the cities of Etrykh and Klyph. A handful of feudal castles had been missed in the sweeping campaign of the twins.

(Kylburakh was, of course, also not reclaimed. Envoys sent  by the twins found Numah the High Priest as "intransigent" as ever. He said that he would not be supporting the cause of any of his uncles. He had already told them in the beginning when Randahl and all of his brothers had come up for the religious confirmation -- which he had refused to grant -- that Khayil-Baruk would stay out of all wars henceforth. He had prophesied doom upon all in the lands beneath the holy mountain. So until they had subdued their two younger brothers' "rebellion", Ghorkil and Rahkard had decided to simply ignore their nephew, Numah. Once the realm was theirs, his prophecies would be shown to be discredited. At that point, his followers would lose faith and his cause would fail.)

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.)