Waking the Lich

Chapter Four - Of Death Knights and Tyrants

"The irritating Half-a-Paladin has become Half-a-Death Knight," Edwin said, while looking at Mazzy with a leer. "I approve, the doxy has never looked better."

"Watch it wizard, I rarely let those who mock me leave my sight in one piece," Mazzy hissed.

"Apologize, Eddie," Aerie said. "Mazzy has not been the same knightly warrior we travelled with since she went on a rampage of destruction through the town of Headhurt."

"Pft, my ankles are shaking in terror," Edwin said while trying to subtly search through his scroll case. "Protection from undead, hmm, let's see, I know I've got it somewhere," he mumbled.

"What happened to make you fall from the righteous path?" Thordis timidly asked Mazzy.

"Arvoreen had no cause to strike me down," she said with a sniff. "I was well within my rights to chastise that horrible town. I spent all my life proving my mettle in battle against the most fearsome of foes, and still everywhere I went people made snide little remarks about how tall I was. After I went to a great deal of trouble saving those ungrateful townspeople from the incursion of Marta's Shadow Army, they had the audacity to give me the title of 'Half-Hero of Headhurt'. Enough was enough; I knew it was my duty to show those fools that height means nothing. I brought all those mockers to their knees inside of an hour."

"She means that literally," Aerie interrupted. "Chop, chop, choppity chop, and the town carpenter had months of exhausting work ahead of him; making artificial legs for all of Mazzy's victims."

Gunter applauded. "Well done, I approve. What a story of treachery and betrayal that was. The tale of the noble hero unfairly punished by a spiteful god."

"You can't mean that," Thordis whispered in horror to Gunter.

"Shh, play along, no need to upset the guardian of the Heart," he whispered back.

"I heard that," Mazzy said. "So you think to trick me with false words of praise, and then loot my treasure horde, do you?"

"No tricks, my Lady Knight," Bret said. "We're on a quest you see ..."

"So if you'll kindly hand over that tyrant's Heart, we'll just be on our way," Bret said hopefully after he finished telling Mazzy his tale.

"Hand it over?" Mazzy said, starting to growl as she laid a hand on her sword hilt.

" ... Please?"

"I vowed to keep that heart safe, and Mazzy Fentan always keeps her word. You shall not have it while there is unlife left in my sword arm!"

Bret stepped back and waved a hand towards Mazzy's former companions. "Would you mind helping us out here?"

"It's your quest, dears. It just wouldn't be right for us to interfere. Not right at all," Nalia said.

"That's not the way it works, I'm afraid," Aerie agreed. "This is your destiny, and your test. If you fail to defeat the Heart's guardian, then your cause will be lost."

"Next time some old diviner wants to talk to you - just throw a few coppers at him and run away," Karka said to Bret with a scowl. "Liches, Archmages, Death Knights, Evil Overlords. And us without even one 'Bullet of Instant and Unavoidable Destruction' to even the odds a bit."

Bret straightened his shoulders and looked Mazzy in the eyes. "I will not fail my duty to my people! This is your last chance, foul undead abomination, hand over the Heart of Ehlastra or we will send you to your final rest!"

Edwin smirked, looked over at Bret and his companions, and then turned to Aerie and bet that Mazzy would slay them all before they had time to draw a single breath.

"Oh, I'm sure they'll last much longer than that," Nalia said cheerfully. "Although we should move away from the battlefield. I do detest cleaning blood stains off my gown. It's such a wearying spell to cast."

Gunter whimpered softly as he watched his best hope of surviving the fight walk away. Bret looked down at the gnome, slugged his shoulder, grinned, and then lifted his warhammer high and pointed it at Mazzy. "Alright, lads. 'Tis naught but a skeleton who stands in our path. Let's take 'er down!"

"Idiot," Karka muttered as he shot Mazzy in the chest. She stumbled slightly, and Karka started reloading as Bret ran towards her.

While Karka and Bret fought the red-eyed abomination, as effectively as a gnat would fight a giant, Gunter and Thordis looked at each other, and then both started chanting incantations.

Less than a minute later, both the fighters were lying unconscious on the ground and Gunter and Thordis had disappeared.

Trying not to breathe loudly, Gunter crawled behind a woefully small bush and cursed silently when he felt his spell of invisibility lift. "I can see you," Mazzy sang. "Or I should be able to see you, wherever are you hiding, you dishonourable deserters? Be brave and I may only kill you a little bit."

Gunter jumped when he felt a light touch on his shoulder. "Quiet," Thordis said as she dropped down beside him while keeping an eye on the Death Knight. "I don't have anymore sanctuary spells. Or much else. All I have left to fight with is a single doom spell. How about you?"

"Come out and fight, cowards," Mazzy shouted as she stood over Karka and Bret. "Run away and I will slay your companions and stake their heads out with my other trophies."

"We can't fight her!" Gunter said. "Run?"

"She is still Mazzy Fentan, even if she's not quite as noble as in her legend," Thordis said. "There must be some way we can reason with her."

"The Fentans," Gunter said, and smacked himself in the head. "I'm an idiot." He stood up and walked towards Mazzy. "Hey, Mazzy Fentan, my time spent studying the roots of this bush reminded me of a story. A story with, uh, many roots that dig into the, um, darkness beneath the surface. The story of how the brave and noble clan Fentan was brought to a most horrific end by the tyrant called Ehlastra."

"What was that about my family, gnome?" Mazzy thundered. "Speak now, and no tricks."

"Ah, don't tell me your latest employer neglected to mention her greatest triumph to you," Gunter asked as he hooked his thumbs in his belt and stopped talking.

Mazzy growled when the silence stretched on too long. Thordis groaned and poked Gunter in the side. "Teasing the undead is unwise. Get on with it," she said.

"Right then," Gunter said, and drew in a breath. "It was a dark and dreary night, many nights, and many dreary days too, come to think of it, when the evil tyrant named Ehlastra did come to our lands and with great malice, and, well, mostly with a lot of money and a really good real estate agent, took control of all the trade roads, and started charging a most outrageous toll to all who travelled them. As the merchants wailed and raised their shop prices, and the common folk did suffer as the costs of turnips and all other needed things rose beyond their reach, one clan, and one clan alone, in all the lands, did prove to be a most irritating thorn in the tyrant's side.

While others chose to challenge Ehlastra's control in the courtrooms and boardrooms of the land, the clan Fentan did seek to challenge her in ways both faster and much more effective. Ways that even Ehlastra's lawyers could not stop. Clan Fentan had the audacity to lead merchant caravans through the wilderness from town to town so that they did bypass the roads and thus did the clan Fentan deprive the tyrant of her much beloved road tolls.

Ehlastra's people did counsel patience, but the tyrant dismissed them all, and instead invited the clan Fentan to a feast where they could 'discuss their differences and come to a mutual agreement'. Sadly, the discussion was halted when the Fentans found out, too late, that the tyrant's lawyers were also skilled mages. Mages who did have a love of polymorph spells; along with an almost unanimous love of the taste of seafood. Oh, the horror, the horror."

"THEY ATE MY CLAN!" Mazzy exclaimed.

Gunter rocked back a step. "Well, not exactly, it seems that five and twenty very angry giant crayfish are more formidable fighters than you'd think. Even when they've got the brains of, well, seafood. They got away, most of them, but that made the fishermen very unhappy. No one will eat crayfish anymore, a shame really, they're quite delicious, but no one wants to take the chance that they'll end up eating a Fentan, and it's harder than you think to find a magic caster to go through a whole crate of crustaceans casting dispels on all of them, more trouble than it's worth really.

Anyway, getting back to the point of the story, no one's dared to challenge Ehlastra directly since the Fentans met with their unhappy fate. Soon the tyrannical one moved from charging not-quite-illegal tolls to outright villainy when she proclaimed herself the absolute ruler of all the lands surrounding Trademeet. A harsh and unjust ruler, who has done many mean things to our people, too many to list at the moment, but trust me, they're really, really nasty. A few would-be heroes have had a go at assassinating her, but they soon found out that she was untouchable by any normal weapon, or magic weapon, or poison, she even survived slipping on a bar of soap in the bathing house. She's proven to be quite unkillable."

"I see," Mazzy said, and nudged a still unconscious Bret with her boot. "And I suppose I should now forgo my task of guardianship and simply give you the Heart so that Ehlastra will be vulnerable and you can avenge my clan."

"Well, yes," Gunter said.

"So be it," Mazzy hissed. "Wake these two inept fools and I will see that the Heart is snuffed out."

Once awake, Bret sulked for hours because Gunter had defeated the Death Knight. Although he was quick to turn down Mazzy's offer to fight him again.

"I'm sure he'll be glad to fight you the next time we come this way," Karka said blandly, leading his brother away from Mazzy. "Right now we need to be moving on. With the Heart of Ehlastra snuffed out we really should get home and show that unkillable tyrant that she's not so unkillable after all."

"Oh, the grand quest to defeat evil," Aerie said, turning to Mazzy with tears in her eyes. "Don't these children remind you of better days? Back when you and I stood side by side as we battled for justice and the good of all people. Give me leave, and I will end this horrid, twisted existence you are forced to live, old friend."

"Not that again. I've told you before, Aerie, this isn't a horrible existence at all. It's marvelous, actually. I spent decades always being good and honourable and nice. It's a relief to indulge in the other side. Being wicked can be fun. You really should give it a try."

"Oh, I ... I couldn't. It would just be wrong," Aerie said, as she hugged Mazzy and then turned to step into the litter. "I'm quite happy being nice. Good deeds are their own reward and all that."

"I prefer rewards that are more material in nature," Edwin said as he settled into the cushions for a nap. "Wine, wenches, and wealth."

The trip homewards proved to be almost as uneventful as the trip out. The youngsters spent their days marching and half their nights listening to long rambling lectures given to them by the old adventurers. They had just left Riataven behind, Thordis having declined the boys' offer to leave the quest and go home, when a most unsettling change in their routine occurred.

"Stop looking at me!" Edwin said that evening as he turned to see Aerie watching him with a thoughtful expression. "I realize my countenance is without peer, but your relentless staring is beyond annoying. What is the matter with you?"

Aerie leaned forwards and licked her lips. "I've been thinking about what Mazzy said. You know about being a little wicked."

"And what does that have to do with me? Go and beat up a butterfly if you want to be nasty, and leave me be."

"Oh, well, I didn't mean that kind of wicked. Perhaps I should have said I feel like being a little bit naughty."

"Get you hands off me you insipid female," Edwin squawked as Aerie's hand landed on his thigh. "(Dear gods, is she actually trying to flutter her eyelashes at me?) What's wrong you with? Why in Kossuth's name would I even think about gracing you with my formidable prowess?"

Aerie whispered something in Edwin's ear. "Oh, well, you may have a point there," he said slowly. "What say we continue this discussion in private? Away from the greedy eyes of the minions," he added, glaring at Bret's little group.

Thordis groaned and fell backwards to lie on the ground. "Dumathoin preserve us from evil."

"Why, oh why am I cursed with such wonderful hearing?" Gunter asked.

Karka stuck his fingers in his ears. "I just wish this whole thing was over."

The party marched a little faster after that night, more determined than ever to finish their quest. The journey was still far longer than they wished it to be, and Bret wasn't the only one who heaved a sigh of relief when they finally approached the gates of Trademeet.

"This is where you old guys bugger off and leave us to fight the battle, I suppose," Karka said.

"Karka, be nice" Thordis said in a chiding voice. She turned and bowed towards Aerie, Nalia, and Edwin. "We're quite grateful for all that you have taught us."

"Yes, yes, of course you are, I expect everlasting fawning and my choice of this Ehlastra's treasure, of course," Edwin said, ignoring Aerie's look of disapproval. He couldn't quite ignore Nalia when she smacked him in the head with a piece of her rib cage.

"Have fun storming the town, my dears," Nalia said. "And don't worry, if you get in too much trouble we'll patch you up. If we can't heal you, then I'm sure I can find a use for a few zombies."

Gunter turned a little green, but Bret smiled and bowed to Nalia. "Thank you for your help, my lady."

"Let's just get on with this," Karka said.

"Right you are!" Bret said brightly. He led his small group towards the stone gates, and bellowed once he arrived. "Ahoy! I, Bret Steelaxe, have come to bring an end to the depravations of the tyrant Ehlastra! Guardsmen, let us in and stand aside, our quarrel is not with you, but only with your master!"

"Are you sure they won't just shoot us?" Thordis whispered to Gunter.

"Of course they won't shoot; everyone in Trademeet knows the Steelaxes and me. They'll be more than happy to let Ehlastra destroy us." Gunter frowned. "I mean, they won't be happy if she does destroy us. But they'll be glad to let her try. No wait, I mean, mmrfl."

Thordis took her hand away from Gunter's mouth. "I get it. Now be quiet, the gates are opening."

One lone guard stepped outside; instead of a weapon, he was holding a bottle of wine in his hands. He took a drink, and then blinked at the group assembled in front of the gates. "Bret! Karka! Come in, you're late for the party."

"Party?" Bret asked, furrowing his brow in confusion.

The guard slung an arm around Bret's shoulders and grinned. "Yep, the best party ever. The darndest thing happened a few hours ago. Something musta spooked that old she-troll Ehlastra. She went and threw herself on the mercy of the courts."

"Is that right."

"Word on the street is that they're planning to let her off with a couple years probation if she tells the courts where she stashed all her loot."

"She just ... surrendered," Bret said.

"Isn't it great?" The guard said with another grin. He danced back towards the town and started singing a song about the wonders of free trade.

Bret sat down and looked sadly at his warhammer. Gunter took one look at Bret's face and fell down laughing. Karka and Thordis soon joined in. They didn't stop laughing until a shrill voice interrupted them.

"What kind of battle was that? Where is this tyrant Ehlastra?" Nalia asked. "And get up off the ground; it's full of nasty, icky bugs."

Gunter chortled and waved a hand in the air. "Ehlastra just gave up. Must have realized she was vulnerable again. She turned herself in to the law before we got here."

"Unbelievable," Edwin said, hiding his face in his hands.

"They really don't make Evil Overlords the way they used to," Aerie said. "I was looking forward to watching a big, glorious battle."

Edwin peeked though his fingers at a pouting Aerie. "Perhaps we should remind these fools how it's supposed to work. I think I'll take a little trip to Thay and build myself an empire with treachery and debauchery. What say you, my little bird, do you want to be wicked?"

Aerie smiled sweetly, and then shook her finger at Edwin. "We can only be a little bit evil, no slaughtering all the peasants just because we can."

"Of course not. (Although a little torture might be fun,)" Edwin said. He held Aerie's hand briefly, and then reached for his spellbook.

"Wait, my lady," Thordis shouted as Edwin finished casting his spell. She was too late, the wizard and the witch had already stepped through a dimension door. "Oh dear. Do you think there's any chance she's just playing along and planning to slaughter the evil wizard in his sleep?"

"Sure there is," Gunter said as he patted her on the shoulder.

"Did we win?" Bret asked, looking around in a daze.

"Yep," Karka said.

Bret blinked, and then turned to their only remaining mentor, "Seeing as the danger's over and all, I believe the only thing left to do is to escort you home, Lady Nalia."

Nalia preened. "Why thank you dear, you are a gentleman. I am quite eager to meet your family. Now, which way do we go to reach your home?"

Karka pointed to a road that ran parallel to the town walls, and Nalia trotted off down it.

"Wait! I meant escort you to your home," Bret called as he ran after her.

"I think Great-Gran will like the Lady Nalia," Karka said with a smirk as he turned to his other companions. "Let's join the party, shall we?" Gunter and Thordis looked after the departing Lich and Bret, and then followed Karka as he led them towards the celebration.