Blake could have sworn that a pint of ale in the Basilisk’s Brewhouse was just a littler larger and a little colder than they poured back in Hrothgar. This tavern was clearly the centre of social life in Estangull, with pretty girls dancing to a flautist’s ditty and burly regulars swapping tall tales by the bar. The Defiant Dust gathered around a table in the corner, plotting their next move.
“That didn’t go quite to plan.” Theriosa’s green eyes shot a significant glare in Blake’s direction. “But nonetheless, we have avoided the bulk of the Lich King’s forces. This town seems to be stable, but we need to press on quickly, lest the defences fall at Galvania.”
“Our new king isn’t going anywhere fast, having sacrificed his horse to his boundless ego.” declared Marcello, the sarcasm dripping from his tongue. “He can’t climb the Rhygoth pass on foot. Send the fool back to fill his proper role. The Duke’s circus.”
“The Rhygoth ain’t gonna work anyway. Road’s impassable, or that’s what the barman says anyway.” Grover said, then slammed down another tankard and called out for another. “Oi, barkeep!”
A hooded man, slight of stature and clad in sparkling jewellery approached. “Are you finding the accoutrements to your liking, my fine fellows?” The barkeep said, as he poured another beer for Grover. “I am Jed, proprietor of this establishment. Perhaps I can interest you in some food to go with your drinks? Our chef does a most delectable steak.”
“No, no, what we need is information.” replied Theriosa with a sidelong glance at the increasingly merry Grover. “Why has the Lich King spared this town? Where in the Chill Mountains is his hideout?”
Blake added, “And who’s the toughest dude in town? These pansies keep trying to pull me out of the bloody fight!” as he brandished his oversized bicep. Marcello let out a quiet groan.
The barkeep licked his lips. “Luckily for you, the answers to both your questions are the same. We are kept safe by The Last Order. Father Eric MacKenzie has seen to it that we come to no harm. He stood against the Lich King’s legions himself, so he may have the information you seek.”
“Thank you, sir. We shall enquire with the Father after tomorrow morning’s sermon.” replied Theriosa. “These boys have had a big day.”
“And we’re gonna have a big night, too!” shouted Blake, as Theriosa and Marcello left for their rooms upstairs.
“Theriosa is a bloody great leader and all, but she doesn’t know a good time.” slurred Grover, wrapping an arm around Blake. “We nearly fucking died. We deserve a few drinks, don’t we lad?”
The headache was crushing. Blake could barely make out the string of arcane pronouncements emanating from the lectern. He squinted, eyes gradually bringing into focus an old man with black vestments hanging loose over an emaciated body with skin so pale as to be nearly translucent. Alongside him, Marcello and Theriosa were listening intently to Father MacKenzie’s moonday sermon.
“We cannot allow the dead to be pulled away into the void, but must squeeze our loved ones tight. Keep them close in your hearts as you pray. The Void Master will care for them and keep them safe. Give them over to the Void Master, for only he can save them from the seven circles of Hell!” Father MacKenzie continued. Blake wondered what the point of this nonsense was.
He whispered past Theriosa to Grover, “After you’re dead, who cares? Get all the glory you can during this life, and let Al’Phonz sort out the rest.”
Theriosa dug an elbow into his chest. “Try to be an adult. For once.” she cursed quietly.
The Father finished, “Save us, oh Void Master! Deliver us from evil and the eternal nothingness. We live to serve!”
The church echoed out with the cry, “We live to serve!” As the congregation filed out of the church, Theriosa approached the lectern.
“Ah, my child, welcome to the flock. The Last Order accepts all those who give themselves over to the Void Master.” said the priest, with a vigour in his voice which contrasted with his sallow and wrinkled face.
Blake chimed in from behind Theriosa, “I heard you’re the toughest dude here. But you look like a wrinkly old dude to me. How’d you fight off the Lich King, if you’re so scrawny?”
“My inebriated friend, things are not always what they seem. I owe what little strength I have to the Void Master. It is he who delivers us from evil. Let me prove it to you.” said the priest. He muttered an incantation, and fingered the gold chain wrapped around his neck.
Suddenly, Blake’s head cleared. The headache was totally gone, and with it all the elements of his hangover.
Theriosa butted in. “Let us return to more important matters. The Lich King has a necromancy amplifier hidden somewhere in the Chill Mountains. It is essential to the good people of Galvania that we shut it down. Can you tell us how to find it?” said Theriosa, stepping forward.
Father MacKenzie took a moment to consider the question. “I would behoove you, please do not pursue this matter. Stay at the Basilisk’s Brewhouse, have a steak, and wait for it to all blow over. Do not meddle with forces you don’t understand.” The priest quickly turned away, and was rapidly ensconced in conversation with another parishioner.
“The Rhygoth Pass it is. Lace up your walking shoes, king.” sniggered Marcello, as the Defiant Dust turned to leave the church.
However, just outside, Blake was accosted by a hooded figure. His flamboyant jewellery marked him out as Jed, the barkeep of the Basilisk’s Brewhouse. “I heard you talking about the Rhygoth pass with the Father. I’m afraid that way is blocked.” he remarked. “You cannot leave.”
Blake replied, “We’re on a special mission from the Duke. We need to destroy the Lich King’s amplifier or his army will overrun Galvania. And if that happened, I’d never be king.”
“The Lich King’s amplifier? Why didn’t you just ask? I’ve got that dusty old thing down the back of the pub.” said Jed.
Marcello leaned in, his voice faint in the wind, and whispered to Blake, “There is a disturbance in the void. Something is very wrong here. We must put Estangull behind us and never come back.”
“My friend, just come back to the pub and we’ll put this whole Lich King business to bed over a pint. What do you say?” asked Jed, beckoning to Blake with an open palm.
Blake met it with a stiff fist. Indeed, he struck out with a flurry of punches. But stunningly, the barkeep was much more agile than he appeared. He dodged and twisted, before seizing Blake’s fist with a parry.
“You cannot leave,” he growled. The barkeep threw back his hood to reveal a golden crown, inlaid with rubies and gems. He twisted Blake’s hand sharply, pulling him off balance. Blake let out a cry of pain.
Grover charged in with a warcry and slammed down his axe toward the barman’s arm. At once, Blake’s hand was freed as Jed threw him to the ground, jumping backward to dodge the axe blow. Blake reached into his scabbard for his greatsword and pulled it out, gleaming in the morning sun.
Jed dodged an arrow and advanced on Grover, who snarled in defiance. The barman feinted left, then right, before throwing a fierce punch directly into Grover’s solar plexus. The dwarf grunted and fell backwards, uttering a curse to the wind.
Marcello uttered an incantation, and threw a fireball at the barman. But as it reached him, it stopped in midair before being absorbed directly into his body. “Yes, give it all to me! Stay here, and I’ll grow fat off your power!” Jed yelled out as the fire flowed through his skin.
Blake got to his feet and charged, greatsword in hand. He swung hard at Jed’s unprotected neck from behind, as the fire flowed through into him. With a single blow, Blake’s greatsword sliced straight through, sending Jed’s head flying through the air until it landed on a gravestone in the church courtyard.
The head screamed, “Yes! Feel that emotion running through you!” and the ground started to shake. The earth parted, as the dead rose from the church’s graveyard. Jed’s body ran over to pick up his head, now flanked by a dozen zombies.
Theriosa called out, “Retreat! Make for the Rhygoth Pass!” Blake reached out a hand to Grover, lifting him from the ground as he ran.
Theriosa, Marcello, Blake and Grover sprinted together, away from the church towards the outskirts of town.
At the town’s edge, they found the road to the Rhygoth Pass blocked by a mob. A chant rang out dully from the mob, as they brandished their pitchforks, “You cannot leave.”
Theriosa called back, “We come on the Duke’s mission. Let us pass.”
At the front of the mob, a crowned man stepped forward. Though his crown was identical to Jed’s, his features were different. This man had a ruddy complexion and barrel chested figure, wearing simple peasant’s clothes. “You cannot leave.” he declared.
Blake stepped forward and cut him down with a single swing of his greatsword.
Another man stepped forward, newly crowned. “You cannot leave.” he also declared.
Blake swung again, slicing this man’s head off cleanly. “I can do this all day. We’re leaving.”
From behind, a voice called out, “You’ll never make it up the pass without these,” Blake turned and saw the barman, head newly reattached to his neck, leading the horses the Defiant Dust had ridden in on. “Three of you can leave on these three horses. But Blake stays. I want his fire.”
Blake glanced back at Theriosa, Marcello and Grover. Theriosa replied, “Never.” and fired an arrow at the thatched roof of the Basilisk’s Brewhouse. It smouldered, then lit into a fierce fire.
As the barman and mob turned as one towards the burning pub and let loose an inhuman scream, Grover and Blake charged the mob, who parted like butter. They carved a path through, axe and greatsword swinging wildly, as Theriosa and Marcello followed close behind.
The Defiant Dust ran, heedless of what lay ahead, for what lay behind was too inhuman to contemplate. The mob shifted and swam before being absorbed back into the earth.
Eventually, as they came to the first milestone, they stopped and looked back. There was no sign of what had taken place. No smoke, no fire, just a bucolic idyll. A fresh sign declared that the best mounts in the kingdom could be found nearby. At the Basilisk’s Barn in Estangull.
The Defiant Dust kept on walking.