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Chapter I: Strength of Brackva
Hamish woke slowly from his slumber, stretching and yawning loudly.
Thanks to Jezran’s potion, he had slept comfortably in a dreamless sleep. His mind was at peace. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, Hamish noticed he alone rested beside the cinders of the campfire.
The rest of the party was missing.
“Friends?” Hamish called out, looking around in confusion.
He leapt into action, quickly scanning the area. There was no sign of anyone, even their belongings were missing.
It was as if everyone had packed up and left without him.
A knot formed in the pit of his stomach as his jaw was set into a grimace. Closing his eyes, he focused on the spiritual energy around him, searching for a sign. The camp still held traces of their presence, and showed they all went down the corridor ahead. Eyes opened, Hamish swiftly raced after them.
Nothing but bad signs. I do not know where they went or why they left me.
I just hope I am not too late.
The path continued onwards for only a few minutes, but appeared to end with a stone wall blocking the way. As he approached and touched it, he noted the texture was not quite stone. Or rather, it had no texture at all, as his hand simply passed through it.
Sensory Illusion. Hamish had not seen one himself before, but he knew enough to know that certain magic users could cast such false images to confuse travelers or guide them into a trap.
Hamish’s brow furrowed, “Is worse than I thought.”
He barreled through the false wall into a black void. Hamish’s orc blood gave him superior vision in the dark, but his eyes could not pierce this veil of shadow. It was a darkness created for all light to fail and to blind even the keenest eyes.
Brackva, however, are not hindered by such meagre tricks.
Through a mixture of training the mind and body, one could temporarily feel the world around them by expanding the senses beyond the material. He closed his eyes, piquing his ears for distinguishing sounds and focusing his mind on the spiritual energies around him. Water drops hitting the floor, breathing, the slightest permutations in rock, Hamish heard it all. By their reverberation, he could tell that this was a chamber similar to the one they found at the bottom of all those stairs.
The more pressing matter, however, were the auras around him. His mind’s eye studied the aura of the massive beast near the center of the chamber. Its aura was sickly, as if it were weakened by some prolonged illness. In its grasp, he could sense two familiar presences: Argent and Ari.
Alive, but neither were struggling.
Jezran and Selene were nowhere to be found, but he could detect the faint remnant of their presence in the room. Hamish cursed in his native tongue. It appeared he had let his guard down, and enemies that lurked beneath this accursed city had taken advantage. Remorse welled up inside him.
Have I failed to protect you, my friends? Hamish thought, fist clenched.
A voice echoed in Hamish’s mind. Its presence in his mind was vile and filled him with a strong sense of disgust. It left a twisted taint in his mind that marked it for what it was.
Hamish did not hesitate. He leapt into action; with a speed unhindered by material boundary, he practically flew across the room.
While the pain of loss still stung his being, he stayed his hand from lethal blows. It did not deserve an ounce of mercy, but his friends, trapped in its grip, might be harmed should he act impulsively.
Furthermore, by the creed he followed: from his hand, no blow would strike with killing intent.
This devil, thankfully, was flesh and blood, so it had weaknesses to be exploited. Both palms, strengthened by the power of his spirit, struck key points on its vitals, stunning it briefly. With two more strikes to each tentacle, the creature lost strength in its limbs, releasing the two elves as it collapsed in the murky pool. Hamish grabbed both before they could crash into the ground. Holding them in both hands, he could feel their hearts beating at a steady rate.
They were okay.
Unfortunately, there was no time to celebrate. He knew his attacks would not keep the beast stunned for long. Putting both his unconscious comrades over his shoulders, Hamish looked for the nearest exit.
Focusing on his senses, he knew there were several exits by the flows of air touching his skin. Focusing further, he could feel the almost imperceptible movements of air against skin. There was a faint flow that seemed to be coming from three distinct directions. He moved toward one, but was suddenly stopped as he felt an airflow’s descent. The ground shook as a towering aura crash landed before him.
Focusing his spirit, he could feel the shape, it was one of those brutish monsters that chased them in the city above. A humanoid torso attached to massive tentacles like an octopus, Jezran had called them a thrall.
It, alongside several others, appeared to drop from an alcove above them. With a bestial roar, the first to land rushed toward Hamish. An unconscious elf on each shoulder, Hamish was not in any position to block or strike back against the beast.
If I want to save these two, I cannot fight them.
Not wanting to harm his friends, he stood firm as the beast approached. Only when it was about to make contact did he make his move. With a grace unbefitting so large a man, he sidestepped the charge. The beast, unable to divert or slow the momentum, slammed into the wall behind them.
Quickly, Hamish tried to find a safe passage out of this, but unfortunately, it seemed none was available. The other beasts quickly shut off any alternative exits around him.
Except for one.
Above them, he could feel the opening where the beasts had descended. An alcove cut from the stone towards the ceiling.
A plan began to form in Hamish’s mind. A risky, dangerous plan, but one that could work in saving his friends. That was enough for him.
Careful not to harm either of his friends, he made sure both were placed properly over his shoulders. Enough that, if forced to move his hands, they would not fall.
Hold on, friends. I do not know if this will work.
While the large beast lay stunned, Hamish climbed atop its back. He adjusted himself and his feet so that he could get the best angle and grip on the beast’s back.
Then he crouched, and braced his legs.
His legs tensed, and he shot from the beast’s back as if launched from a trebuchet, leaving the beast beneath crushed against the floor.
Vision returned as he rose above the enchanted darkness, he could now see them hurtling through the air towards the ceiling. Friction from wind resistance kept the two bodies pinned to his shoulders, allowing him to free his hands. Hamish hoped that he could grab the ledge, if he got near enough.
Unfortunately, he had underestimated just how far the walls stretched above them. Their ascent began to slow. Cursing, he felt the momentum stall a few feet below the ledge.
While he still had the wherewithal, he looked to see where it was likely they would crash. He readjusted and braced himself, knowing what was to come.
They reached the apex of their ascent. Then they began to drop.
It was only another moment before they slammed into the wall opposite his jump.
From his throat, a great kiai burst forth as his hands and feet slammed into the finely cut stone. He did everything in his power to grip the wall and slow their descent as they slid downwards.
A lesser man, in this instance, would fail.
Not even considering a normal body’s capacity to leap so great a distance, momentum alone would be enough to crush anyone into a bloody pulp. As fortune would have it, Hamish was no ordinary half-orc.
Hamish was Brackva.
Fingers strengthened from a lifetime of training, his hands bored into the wall and his feet dug in beneath it. A moment passed. Their descent slowed as his feet and hands dug deeper and deeper into the wall until they came to a complete stop.
Taking a moment to get his bearings, Hamish looked around.
They had dropped several feet below the balcony. From here, it would only take a minor leap up. Looking down, he could see his feet were buried up a few inches deep. He checked the give in the rock by shifting his weight. It seemed they would be enough foothold for his second attempt.
Down below, Hamish could see the thrall he leapt from was now rising to its feet. Bloodied and dazed, the beast roared as it looked around for them. It had yet to realize he was no longer on the floor but the others were already eyeing the walls as if to consider their own attempts climbing it. Meanwhile, the massive devil Hamish left stunned in the pool was also overcoming the minor damage Hamish had done.
Its eyes rose up and glared up at him.
Energy cackled from the creature as it rose into the air.
No time left, Hamish braced himself and leapt as best he could towards the balcony.
This time, he managed to catch the railing and pull himself over in a fluid motion. Not a moment to lose, he gently laid both his companions down into the hallway beyond.
He then turned to face the devil, its gaze meeting him.
The eyes, burning like coals, bore into his skull. Hamish felt a strain as the devil attacked his mind. The strain had little effect, nothing more than a passing migraine.
For once, it was the devil’s turn to be surprised.
Before it could recover, he fell into a power stance. His foot, a flicker of motion, slammed against the railing. Breaking free, it slammed into the face of the devil, sending it back an inch.
Giving Hamish the opportunity he needed.
Without sacrificing momentum, his foot slammed into the floor beneath. He did not add any extra strength to the blow, allowing the momentum and weight alone to damage the balcony. He felt the floor buckle. It did not, however, break. He needed it for just one more strike. Hands balled into fists, he slammed the walls on either side with all the weight and power he could muster in that moment.
The walls cracked like thunder.
They began to give way alongside the balcony. Not checking to see if he accomplished his goal, he grabbed up his unconscious friends and bolted down the hall.
He flew through the hall as it began to collapse behind him. Hamish barreled through the hall, mere steps ahead of the collapsing walls behind him. Despite his best efforts, it seemed to be gaining on him.
Hamish was beginning to worry if he had perhaps struck too hard when he saw the end of the hall ahead. With a final push, they made it through just as a puff of smoke followed them into the hall.
He had collapsed the whole tunnel. More than he had anticipated, but it should be enough. Hamish guessed that would be enough to crush them, but he also knew that either way it would take time before their pursuers could dig themselves out even if they had survived.
As he scanned the area, he noted it did not, as he first hoped, lead to another chamber. Instead, it led to an ancient ruin of a hallway, similar in architecture to the temple they had seen before they fled the surface.
Finding there was no sign of enemies nearby, he breathed a sigh of relief, “We are safe now, my friends.”
The two elves, however, were not conscious. He considered slapping them awake, but preferred a subtler approach. Pulling out one of the bags of the compound, he lit one of his sticks of incense and took small pieces of the powder to burn under their noses.
That seemed to do the trick, as soon both were roused from sleep to a mix of sputtering and curses.
Mostly from Ari.
“Friends, is okay. You are safe here,” Hamish whispered softly, hoping to assure them despite the dire circumstances.
“What happened?” Ari asked, bleary eyed.
“I do not know,” Hamish said, his brow furrowed, “I was hoping you could tell me. I found you both in devil’s grasp with Jezran and Selene nowhere to be found.”
“Devil?” Argent asked, confused.
“Evil thing from Abyss,” Hamish explained, “Eats people and controls minds. Very dangerous.”
“I see,” Argent said, collecting his thoughts, “I remember everyone waking up from the potion while I kept watch. I sensed something was different, but paid it no mind…for some reason.”
Argent’s brow furrowed, his words became more difficult, as if there was some resistance in his mind. “Then…we travelled in the tunnel. We came upon…a chamber. We were attacked and…”
His last sentence faded as any remaining memory slipped away from him, “…then nothing.”
Ari nodded, “Yeah, I remember the same thing. We all got up and left together, though. I’m not sure how we missed you.”
“Ah, see,” Hamish explained, “We have separate memory. You woke with party and thought I joined you. I woke and party was gone. Devil likely used its power to draw you in.”
“Then why didn’t it take you too?” Ari asked, confusion evident, “You took the same potion we all did, right?”
Hamish nodded, “Yes, but I am Brackva. We are trained against devil’s tricks. It tried to trick me when you were both still sleeping on each arm, did not work for same reason.”
“Describe the devil again, please,” Argent said, “I want to make sure it is what I saw when it ‘tricked’ me.”
Hamish shrugged, “Is big fish with tentacles, live in dark waters. Never seen devil like it, but heard stories in Adovask about such thing. Once tried to eat whole village long time ago.”
“This confirms the Children are active again in Syndramire. Guess that confirms Kal’s suspicions,” Ari frowned.
Argent nodded, “But how did it get past our defenses, Ari? I thought we were prepared for something like this.”
Ari pondered for a moment, “Hmmm, perhaps our defenses are too specific, and leave us open in a way we did not expect?”
“If that is so,” Argent muttered, “Then I blindly lead everyone into a trap.”
“What?” Ari asked.
“We thought our preparations would be enough and we never thought to check,” Argent said bitterly.
Ari shifted from guilt to comfort in an instant. So soft Hamish could barely hear it, Ari whispered, “Illy…no.”
Argent did not respond.
“We never dealt with anything like this before,” Ari continued, scooting closer to Argent, “And we didn’t have time to check before we got thrust into this mess. It’s not-”
“My fault? Ari, we were completely unprepared,” Argent snapped, fist clenched tightly around his longsword, “I underestimated their power. I thought we had all the tools necessary to protect us.”
Ari reached out to touch his shoulder. He flinched, but allowed her hand to rest there. A moment later, he placed a hand atop hers.
“I failed,” Argent said, remorse filling his voice, “And Jezran and Selene paid the price.”
Hamish listened as they spoke. It was clear these two had a far greater grasp on the situation than previously surmised. While some might find this deception upsetting, Hamish had learned long ago to take such things in stride. Near infinite reasons might arise to explain why they held back any information.
One should reserve judgment until all context is known, as laid out by our Order’s Maxim on Wise Discernment.
However, it was clear this was not helping matters.
He cleared his throat to get the elves’ attention.
“My friends, we should not dwell on pointing fault. After all I…” Hamish swallowed, remembering his promise to Selene, “…failed, also. I was not there to protect. Nearly did not save you and Ari,” Hamish said. At this moment, with his jaw set and brow creased, Hamish was almost a different person. An old warrior prepared for war, he added with an unshaken resolve, “But we can regret once confirmed friends are dead.”
“How do you know they’re not?” Argent asked.
“Devil was vicious,” Hamish said quietly, “If friends killed, there would be signs. Blood, torn clothes…” He sighed, then added, “…and an unbearable agony.”
Argent nodded. He did not understand, but he trusted the monk’s judgment, “Then we should probably get moving. We’ll need to find a way to pick up their trail while avoiding enemy patrols.”
“Pity so many monsters were in room I found you two,” Hamish said, a little disheartened, “Would be easier to find two friends if we could follow where they left.”
“If they’re alive, we’ll find them, Hamish,” Ari said, eyes fierce, “I promise.”
Hamish smiled softly, “Then what are we waiting for? Let us go find friends!”
The two elves rose to their feet, determined. Before they made it far, Argent spoke.
“And while we do, I believe there’s something you should know,” Argent said, eyes downcast, “Something I should have told you all a long time ago.”