The beast fluttered the ramshackle wings on its back, far too small to support its weight. Many toothy sphincter-maws along its wormlike form screamed shrilly. Just as many eyes peered from wrinkled folds of its flesh, seemingly randomly scattered across its body.
"Lady of Valor!" Karatha shouted, drawing her silver-bladed longsword, Severance. Roubris struggled to keep his horse from throwing him onto the ground.
The creature descended toward them, obscene mouths opening to bite. Chew. Devour.
"Run!" Karatha yelled.
Roubris couldn't get control of his horse. It veered back and forth, as if it were caught in a bathing tub with the plug pulled from the drain. The thing loomed closer and closer. It stank of oily leather and burnt coffee.
Karatha slashed in the air above her, but the beast was not yet close enough to strike. "Roubris, run!"
"I know that creature," a voice said in Roubris's head. It was Serth, the spirit within the broken sword.
"What?" Roubris shouted out loud.
"Run!" Karatha screamed.
"I know that creature," Serth repeated. "You must find its one red eye. All of its eyes are green but one. The red eye is its weakness. That is where its dark soul resides. Strike it there."
This sudden information confused Roubris. He hadn't heard from Serth in some time, and he was unaccustomed to getting advice from the spirits that he spoke to. His panic, however, wouldn't allow him too much time to process it all. Instead, he yelled to Karatha, "Strike it in its red eye! Find the red eye!"
Karatha glanced his way. She heard him, although clearly was just as confused at this sudden revelation. Still, she didn't take the time to question him. Instead, she began looking around at the creature's bulbous, pulsating form and all its multitudinous eyes.
Roubris, meanwhile, still moved randomly in circles, carried by his panicked mount. Rather than focus on that issue—which had accomplished little anyway—he also began looking at the monstrosity and its eyes.
The thing was closer than ever, screaming mouths snapping hideous jaws at both of them. Roubris ducked and moved, while Karatha used her blade to defend herself. The stench was almost unbearable.
A mouth slashed Roubris's shoulder like a mass of razors. His leather jerkin tore open as if it were paper—as did his flesh. He cried out. The horse bolted. He lost his grip and crashed to the ground.
Karatha's sword bit into the creature's flesh again and again, but drew no blood. It was as if she slashed at empty burlap sacks.
Roubris looked up, certain of his own demise. Prone on the ground, his leg twisted beneath him, his shoulder bleeding profusely, he had little hope.
"The red eye," Serth whispered in his mind.
Roubris looked up and saw it, gleaming like a ruby among the black and gray flesh of the thing.
He pointed. "There!"
Karatha gave him an urgent look. He saw that now she, too, bore wounds from the thing's mouths. Barely keeping to her saddle, hugging her horse's neck to keep low, she rode toward where Roubris lay.
"There!" He shouted again. The monster's screams made him unsure if she heard him.
She must have, however, for she struck upward with her blade at the glaring red eye. She stabbed again and again. No blood. No effect at all.
Another of the beast's mouths bit her arm in a flash of red. With a scream of pain, she dropped her sword.
"Don't panic," Serth told Roubris, the sword throbbing at his side. "Get that sword. The eyes are difficult to hurt. A lot of flesh surrounds them. She needs to keep trying."
At some point—Roubris wasn't sure when—Karatha had managed to get her shield strapped to her left arm. She used it to batter away the beast's many maws attempting to bite her. She could no longer afford to pay Roubris any attention.
He started to pull the weapon Serth inhabited from where he had tucked it. "No," the spirit in the sword told him. "This sword is old. Broken and unwieldy. She needs to use her blade. It's sturdy. Get it!"
On the ground, Roubris swallowed and exhaled the breath from his lungs. He rolled toward where the sword lay. He grasped it and called to Karatha. "Keep trying!" Roubris struggled to his feet, but only managed his knees. So he knelt. Roubris held the weapon as high as he could reach.
Karatha heard his shout. Her arm soaked in blood, she stretched down and grasped her sword once again. She cried out incoherently, her pain and exhaustion clear. Using the shield to protect herself, she straightened in the saddle and lunged at the glaring red eye.
A burst of red light and black ichor exploded from the creature. The mouths of the hideous thing all screamed in a cacophonous unison. It rose fifty feet or more above them, shuddering. Wings twisting, it wormed its way through the air, as if to escape. The wound, however, was too grievous. The beast collapsed in upon itself and crashed to the ground well into the distance.
Karatha and Roubris watched in silence.
"Excellent," Serth whispered in Roubris's mind.
∗ ∗ ∗
Karatha's spells repaired most of the wounds the two of them suffered. A hot meal of quail eggs, cured ham, and fried bread cooked over a pleasant fire helped too.
"How did you know about the eye?" Karatha asked Roubris while they ate. "How did you know that attacking the red eye would slay it? I didn't even know what that thing was."
"Neither did I," Roubris replied. "The spirit in the sword told me."
"How did you know about that?" Roubris asked aloud, looking at the sword, which lay next to him near the fire.
He heard Serth's voice in his mind. "I'd encountered a creature like that before."
Roubris relayed that to Karatha and then asked, "What was it?"
"I don't know, exactly. I am not an expert on such things."
"You seem like one to me."
"Well, regardless. It's dead now, and you're safe."
"It was demonic in nature," Karatha said knowledgably. "A thing of fiendish blood. Such horrors dwell to the north, in the Worldwound."
Roubris nodded and munched on another piece of bread. He stared at the sword, but said nothing further.
∗ ∗ ∗
The road offered little for two more days. Serth's directions were not difficult to follow. The occasional traveler passed them by, but the folk of northern Ustalav were unfriendly and wary. Roubris could hardly blame them. The landscape turned decidedly darker and more lifeless as they proceeded.
"We near the Worldwound," Karatha said in hushed tones.
Roubris didn't know much about the place. Only what he'd heard when he was young—a terrible place where the mortal realm intersected an otherworldly realm of demonkind.
"This is where the temple lies?" Roubris asked Serth.
"Yes. It is still a day's travel north."
"That's going to take us close, I think. Close to the Worldwound."
Roubris's half of the conversation attracted Karatha's attention. It was the only half she could hear, but it was enough.
"Yes," Serth said.
"Who builds a temple there?"
"Worshipers of Deskari," the spirit replied.
"Who or what is Deskari?"
"What?" Karatha said. "Deskari the demon lord?"
This gave Roubris a start. Demon lord? He had forgotten he was speaking to the sword out loud.
"Roubris, where is the sword leading us?" Karatha seemed equal parts angry and terrified.
"All he told me originally was that he would lead me to an old, abandoned temple. And that it wasn't dedicated to a good god."
"And you never asked which temple? Or where it lay, exactly? Or which cult built it to which god? I asked you to get that information before we left. I don't know if I would have come had I known we were going to such a place."
"It never occurred to me. I thought..." His voice trailed off.
"You thought what?"
"I thought all temples were the same."
Karatha scowled. Then her expression changed to one of disappointment. Roubris disliked the latter even more than the former. She looked away.
Serth spoke again. "Don't worry about whose temple it is. It doesn't matter. The place should be deserted. You're very close now, Roubris. Just convince her to keep going. Or better yet, send her back home."
The spirit's words made Roubris more uncomfortable than ever. Karatha's friendship was important to him, and he wasn't going to let her go home without him. Besides, he was afraid, and Karatha's skill with her sword as well as her Iomedae-granted magic made her very useful. She was also quite wise. Serth worried him. What if the spirit was leading him into a trap? Not only could she help him in such a situation, but she might see it coming.
"Karatha, I'm sorry," Roubris said. "I shouldn't have said that. I'm an idiot. Please forgive me."
Karatha spun. "We should go back to Vigil. This land is dangerous, and we've no business in a temple to Deskari."
"But the spirit assures me that the temple is abandoned. There's just a treasure hoard left behind there."
Karatha scowled again. At least it was better than the look of quiet disappointment.
"We could destroy it," Roubris said suddenly. "We could destroy this evil temple after we've looted it. Wouldn't that be the will of Iomedae? Wouldn't that be justice? Wouldn't that bring honor to those wronged by the cult's evil?"
Karatha stared. Finally, she gave a soft smile. "You've been listening," she said.
Roubris returned her smile with the most charming one in his arsenal. "Of course."
She kept smiling, so he asked her, "Does that mean you'll go with me?"
"Treasure hoard, eh?"
"My church could use a hefty donation."
He smiled and nodded again.
∗ ∗ ∗
Serth led the pair up a rocky slope. A cold wind blew steadily through the region of bare gray stone. The landscape was twisted into odd spires and irregular gullies. A few plants struggled to live, but appeared the worse for their efforts.
When the slope became particularly steep, Roubris saw that crude stone steps had been carved into the rock, slick with moisture from a chilling rain that had fallen within the last hour. Although the sky remained dark, it would get much darker in an hour or so when twilight came. Roubris didn't relish the idea of spending a night here. He urged them forward. The two of them dismounted and left their horses at the base of the staircase. Serth assured him that the temple lay very close, despite the fact that it was still out of sight.
Roubris was cautious. But why would the spirit lead them into a trap? What could Serth have to gain? Only by helping them would he achieve his eternal rest. They were his only hope of being freed from his imprisonment within the sword.
Roubris knew that while Serth knew more than he did about what lay ahead, Roubris had leverage. He wouldn't be undertaking this if he didn't. That leverage was what had made his "business" so successful for so long.
The staircase was surprisingly long and steep, winding around ancient boulders of great size and the occasional withered tree with black, drooping branches.
"There it is," Serth said.
At the top of the stairs, rising out of the misty gloom, was the temple. A small ziggurat of large obsidian blocks, the temple perched atop a narrow pinnacle. Roubris had no idea how someone would go about building such a structure in such a precarious place. The entrance appeared to be an uninviting stone door surrounded by serpentine runes.
"I don't like the look of this," Karatha said quietly.
Roubris pulled the broken sword and held it in both hands. He whispered, "If this is a trap, Serth, you'll never get out of that sword. You know that, right?"
"Yes," Serth hissed. Roubris thought the spirit sounded indignant.
Roubris remained unsatisfied. He thought back to the demonic creature they fought a few days earlier. The one Serth knew so much about. He considered how Serth knew unusual amounts about Roubris himself, how much more aware of his situation Serth was than any other trapped spirit Roubris had encountered. Roubris looked up at the malevolent temple that lay ahead of him, and then back at the broken sword that held Serth within it. He chewed his lip.
"Serth," he said only in his mind, "you knew a lot about that creature earlier."
"And now you've led me here, to the edge of the Worldwound itself."
"You're not the spirit of a man, are you?"
"You're the spirit of a slain demon."
Coming Next Week: Difficult choices in the final chapter of Monte Cook's "The Ghosts of Broken Blades."
As one of the primary architects of the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, Dark Matter, the d20 Call of Cthulhu system, and Monte Cook's World of Darkness, as well as the author of such notable supplements as Arcana Unearthed, The Book of Eldritch Might, Dead Gods, and more, Monte Cook has left an indelible mark on the history of fantasy gaming. In addition, he has published two novels, Of Aged Angels and The Glass Prison, and his short fiction has been featured in such venues as Amazing Stories and Game Trade Magazine. For more information, visit montecook.com.
Art by Carlos Villa.