Originally posted on 20th Feb, 2017 for The UCC Express.
Up, down, left, right, jab. Up, down, feint, feint, jab. Block, down, left, right, jab. Like a battlefield ballerina, Grom danced circles around our enemies. Fending off a strike here, parrying a blow there. All while returning a flurry of strikes himself. It was such a beautiful sight to see, I could watch it all day. His left foot braced itself against the ground while his right knee impacted with an audible ‘clap’ against the unarmoured goblin or with a ‘clang’ against the chainmail warriors. Oh how the fighter’s guild must have been sad to see him go.
“A! Little! Help! Maybe?!” Oh right, yeah, goblins. “Sorry!” I flustered. Sharply drawing my fingers towards my chest, I reflexively forced them outwards again as I felt the force of the flames building in my palms. A ball of fire erupted from my hands towards a horde of green foes but I only had tya moment to admire my handiwork before I was beset upon by another set of ravenous clubs and makeshift weapons. I muttered something and placed either palm against a different goblin’s head. Their faces began to dissolve beneath my touch until they couldn’t bear the pain any longer and pulled away to die in agony.
I could hear the whistling of arrows as they flew beside me. Palor always found his target but his proximity to allies was a little alarming. One of the arrows grazed my ear, catching me off guard. I only hesitated for a moment but it was enough for a disfigured foe to grab my arm and yank me toward it. I tripped forward, panicked. My muscle memory took over and I whispered furiously as my hands shot ahead, palms out – splayed as if to break my fall against the creature. My will for survival pushed down through my arms, forcing them into the stomach of my attacker and out the other side, the fiery force of my hands burning a me-sized hole right through. The last vestiges of life flashed through it and what was left came flying out of its mouth onto my back. For fuck’s sake. Goblin blood was a nightmare to clean and the stench could only be removed by means of magic.
Pulling myself from it, the body slumped back onto the ground and I was greeted by a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Fucking hell, did you have to burn his torso off?” Palor chuckled. “Well that’s what happens to people who hurt me.” I retorted, glaring. “What did we say about friendly fire?” “Not to do it” “And what did you do?!” “It was an acc-“ “What did you do?” I glowered and he cowered away a little. “I promise, next time…” he trailed off. “It’s grand” I said sympathetically, “it’s just that now I’m all out of juice and Grom over there is-“ Oh yeah, Grom was a thing that was happening right now.
Up, down, up, down, jab. Up, down, left, left, parry. Left, down, up, decapitate. The final goblin slithered to the floor, shortly followed by its head. Around Grom was a solid ring of dead bodies missing various limbs with many pieces of them charred or twitching with their last brief moments of life. Grom was not a happy camper. “Friendly fire? Oh, friendly fire?! I wish my friends would fire near me.” Lowering my head in shame, my lips instinctively pushed to the side guiltily. “Seriously, where the hell was my backup?” He sounded pissed. “I got distracted is all” I managed to mumble. “Yeah, and I had to save her while she was distracted” chimed in Palor. “Just- Fucking- Stop.” He sighed audibly. “Let’s keep going.”
The walls flickered with our shadows, strange shapes and sizes cast by the twirling light of our torches. “Y’know, I could easily illuminate this entire room with magic” I grumbled. My arms were stiff from holding the torch at a height high enough for the other two to see. Grom glared at me, angrily. This was a punishment for what happened in the last room.
Slowly, the walls began to fade away and our shadows sprawled out against the precisely carved stone slabs on the floor. The sounds of our footsteps echoed louder than they did before. “Light?” Grom commanded, in a very serious tone. “Sure thing, boss” I said playfully, trying to ease the tension a little. Speaking quickly, I drew the symbol for “bright” on the handle of the torch. The torch’s light quickly escalated to a brilliant white shine that radiated out in all directions, bouncing off the intricately carved walls of this chamber.
The ceiling above slowly slanted inwards like a pyramid until its peak curved around, forming a dome in the very centre. Six pillars scaled from the ground to roof, forming a neat circle around the centre of the room. They were made of a flat stone with slanted steps protruding from both the base and the tip. The walls of this room were carved in a dwarven style with intricate hammers and trails weaving their way through the chiseled stone. All of it made me think that despite their brutish nature, a dwarf’s masonry was something beautiful to behold. Their work always felt impossibly alive. How can someone only use a hammer, a chisel and varying shades of grey to make the heart-warming beauty of such marvels?
“Careful…” Grom’s warning snapped me from my daze. We stood, prepared, just before the gap of two pillars. They towered on either side of our vision, cloaking that back wall in an oddly confused shadow. Hearing a faint rustle from our right, we all snapped around.
A loud battle cry erupted from beside me and a small, pale green figure leapt from behind the nearest pillar. Dropping the torch in fear, I instinctively unleashed a ray of frost, which impacted with its chest and spun out in tiny fractals until the assailant fell to the floor with a mundane thud. I hadn’t noticed the commotion until I turned around but at least three of those creatures were swiping at Grom with their makeshift sickles. It seemed Palor was knocked prone by the thing sitting stubbornly on his back. A flourish of its hands and two sickles were drawn, twirled and brought down towards Palor’s neck.
I rushed forward to help him, muttering the preparation for burning hands. As I got within arm’s reach, I was surprised by the swift swipe that met me. My body managed to crouch in time to dodge it but I wasn’t so lucky with the second swing. Reflexively guarding my face, I felt the hot sting of the blades carving through the skin of my hands before the spell took effect and shattered the homemade blade. Howling in pain, I kicked defensively at the green shitbag, trying to force him off Palor. It deftly evaded my kick and clamped down on my leg with its teeth. My vision blurred as I felt the teeth pierce skin.
My eyesight cleared in time for me to see its arm swing back and grasp its weapon with both hands but that’s as far as it got. I channeled the energy through my palms, alternating from arm to arm, as I pummeled its torso with missile after missile.
A sharp shock of pain ran through me and I lost concentration, accidentally unleashing a lot more power in a magic missile than I had intended. The magical force formed a visible purple comet as it hurtled into the creature, tearing it from my leg and propelling it back-first into the nearest pillar. I looked down at my leg to inspect the damage only to be greeted by a set of gnarled, rotting teeth attached to a jaw still firmly clamped to my leg but since separated from their owner.
Take a deep breath. Relax.
After taking a moment to steady myself, I turn my attention to watching Grom again. A corpse lay at his feet but the other two were putting up a much better fight than their comrade. Their movements mirrored and parried Grom’s, their smaller limbs weaving around his swings and chipping away at his armour bit by bit. One last deep breath. I pull my concentration into their legs, focusing intensely on their shins. I made the sign of the hand, reaching out towards my targets, and recount the words I need before spitting them out in one flurry and abruptly yanking my hand towards myself. Their legs pull back from under them, giving Grom the perfect opportunity to slice through both of their necks in one movement. I would have admired the finesse of it all had I not been rudely interrupted by the pain of my leg moving as an unconscious Palor slowly came back to his senses.
“Mage Hand saves the day again” laughed Grom, sauntering over. “It’s just so damn useful” I responded, wiggling my leg off Palor’s back and onto the cold stone. Palor muttered something incomprehensible in his groggy state as he slowly moved to a sitting position, holding his head drunkenly. “I… What…?” He began. “I’ll explain everything later.”
Looking at my leg, it was going to take an apothecary of potions to fix this shit. At least I would have the pretty walls to keep me company.
The crackling fire sparked, sending tendrils of smoke wafting up to the high ceiling above. Thankfully, this room was large enough that we wouldn’t suffocate with the makeshift campfire warming my wounds. We could enjoy the luxuries of properly roasted meat. Magical flames always left the meat smelling a little like sulfur.
Palor took a rough bite from his haunch of turkey. Small scraps of the dry meat flaked off, escaping his mouth. He sat cross-legged in his leather tunic clinging just a little too tightly to his body. He was, by no means, a handsome fellow but his sly grin had a certain allure to it that one just couldn’t evade. Charming with a hint of cunning, his lips were definitely the most attractive feature of his face.
Grom, on the other hand, was everything conventionally attractive about a half-elf. The high arch of his ears leading to a fine point; the definition of his cheekbones with just enough roundness to avoid a chiseled look; the bright radiance of his eyes with their irises littered with tiny gold flecks amidst a dark midnight colour. He sat quietly with his knees tucked neatly beneath him. Carefully slicing a piece of meat off with a boot knife, he was much more delicate in his approach to dinner.
I took small bites from my meal, relishing the taste. It was a little salty because we had to preserve it but it’s honestly entirely okay with me right now. My leg is throbbing, my head wants to cave in on itself and I can slowly feel my consciousness ebb in and out. That last encounter took quite the toll and, even dosed up on all the healing potions and creams I could muster from our supplies, I was still experiencing intense waves of pain. The swipe to my leg must have cut a nerve – those are always the worst to repair. I wouldn’t know why, I had elected to never study anything beyond basic healing in my first year. Healing was for chumps who couldn’t take the training.
We sat in a nice, comfortable silence for a while before Palor spoke up: “So, how did you guys meet? I’ve never known Grom to take on a sidekick.”
“Sidekick my ass, I’m a perfectly qualif-“
“We met two years ago, at her university.” Grom interrupted. I sighed and listened. I’ll give out later.
It was my final semester in university. I was standing in a line-up of the entirety of my year group. This was it, the final hurdle – spending 3 months in actual action. I was pumped. Finally, I had the chance to show off my skills in a real fight. No longer would I be chained back by rules and etiquette in combat. What kind of shit-faced goblin was going to bow to me at the start of an ambush? Were they just going to politely swaddle up to me, tap me on the shoulder and say “sorry m’am, would you kindly assume a battle-ready stance, we wish to engage in combat with you.” No, they would get to “GUARGLELELELE” before pouncing on my bent-over, easy-target ass.
Oh yeah baby, I’d finally be out in the field; doing actual good. I danced a little, fists clenched, my body moving restlessly from one foot to the other. Watching as everyone else was chosen from the lineup, I waited patiently for my turn. We got down to the final twenty. They’re just saving the best ‘til last, it’s no big deal. The last ten. Okay, now I’m a little worried.
I twitched nervously, the only back remaining against the vast marble wall of the courtyard. My gaze drifted to the ground as all the groups began filtering out. No one wanted me, I was the Halfling reject no matter how hard I tried.
“C’mon, kid, it’s you and me.” My eyes shot up, tears forming at the edges. A smiling Grom, one hand resting loosely on the hilt of his sword, greeted me and the other extended outwards to me. He moved his hand a little, motioning for me to shake it. I closed the gap between us, wrapping my arms around his cold plate armour. “Thank you.” I whispered. He stood awkwardly, patting me on the back.
Those were the best three months of my life. Grom treated me like an ally, like I truly made a difference to his team. Although we often took on two or three others to help out with certain missions, we were the two constants in every story. Over three months we cleared ogre encampments, tackled a goblin invasion, thwarted three assassination attempts and spent countless nights guarding quaint villages from barbarian warlords. We were a force no one could overcome and have been ever since.
Hearing Grom speak so fondly of me, it brought back so many happy nights laughing and sharing stories with bellies full of food and eyes full of wonder. That was something we always had in common – a love for mystery. I remember the time we spent days looking for a jewel thief that had been pilfering possessions from some of the city’s elite. We scoured the crime scenes, searching for some kind of clue; some kind of mistake. Grom spent so long in one that the poor owner had offered us lunch, dinner and asked if we wanted a night cap by the time we left. On the fifth day, I was down on all fours after having finally mastered a spell that would heighten my sense of smell. I tracked that scent for an hour and a half until eventually we were at the top of a clocktower, glowering menacingly at a magpie’s nest. How stupid we felt spending all that time and effort on this, thinking it was some highly intelligent ring of silent thieves skulking through the night. At least the owners were happy to see their belongings again.
And here we are again, waist-deep in tales of treasure and mystery. Grom finished his story, casting a worried glance at my leg. “You going to be okay by tomorrow?” “Yeah, don’t worry, you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.” Palor let out an amused sigh. “Well, time to sleep.” He said, bundling his pack in his hands to make a pillow against the nearest pillar. “Sweet dreams, sleep well, don’t let the Derro bite.” He chided jokingly. I’m totally going to bite him in his sleep.
This was it, this was what we came here for. In the centre of the room lay a single podium, seemingly carved from a solid block of gold with such intricacy and care, it sprouted from the ground, winding its way up to a waist-high plateau. Along its journey, tiny rogue spirals and twirls desert from their original goal, trailing off into thin, wispy thorns. The entire object felt like it had been grown and cultivated from a single gold bar planted in the concrete slabs.
Floating above the flat surface, a small purple sphere pulsed slowly with a kind of magic long forgotten to even the most tenured professor in the University of Aslath. Its beauty was breath-taking; even from a distance. A tiny universe bubbled and swirled within clouded glass; miniature constellations and phenomena burst through each other and slowly receded back with such force and elegance. The three of us stood, mesmerised by the orb. In that moment, the struggle to get here was all worth it.
A violent snarl filled with spit and slime whirled its way through my hair, threatening to topple me. Oh shit. I slowly opened my eyes, bracing myself. Oh shit. I cast illuminate on our, now unlit, torch. Oh motherfucking shit-balls on a sober dwarf.
“OGR-“ I began to shout but it was cut short by the large club swooping down from the right, catching us all by the midriff and flinging us like toys against the far wall.
My entire body protested as I tried to bring myself to my feet. My knees wobbled, my arms shook violently, my vision wavered and my heart filled with the kind of dread that only came once in a lifetime – when a Halfling meets an ogre.
Grom was already on his feet, shouting instructions but I couldn’t hear anything over the thud of each footstep getting closer and closer. Thud. Thud. “-and be careful to-“. Thud. Thud. “-don’t forget about-“. THUD. THUD. “ALIA!” I clambered to my feet, pushing myself off to the right. I needed distance. Yeah, distance would be good.
After quite a lot of terrified running, I careened around to assess the situation. Palor had done something similar and run off in the opposite direction. He was already aiming his crossbow, leveling it at the disheveled monstrosity. Grom stood defiantly below the goliath, weaving up, down, forwards and back, gracefully avoiding the club and a large, meaty fist. My body still shook from the terror as I raised my hands. I made the motions and spoke the words, willing the energy through my arms, molding the force with the palms of my hands before unleashing it.
The fireball erupted from my hands and immediately exploded against my palms. I was briefly thrown back to my days as an apprentice before being forcibly tugged back to present day by the searing heat against my flesh. I tried to calm myself, willing the energy back into my palms again. I clenched everything, trying to withstand the intense pain coursing through my nerves. The fire receded slowly, marching towards the ball floating above my hands. Finally, I pushed the heels of my palms together, snuffing out the flame and releasing myself from the torture.
A cry of pain echoed against the walls and my head shot up. Oh no. Grom was pinned beneath the foot of the ogre. He didn’t look so good. Several pieces of his armour lay strewn across the floor like the innards of a piñata. A thick arm reached down to its trapped prey. I was running. I was running as fast I could. I cast a haste spell with sparse breaths. I had to get there. I had to-
The sound of Grom’s leg snapping was grotesque.
Palor yelled in frustration, ducking under the arm of the ogre and sliding across the floor. His hand scooped up Grom’s sword in one go as his other palm pivoted his body back into a standing position. Grom had left his mark on the demon, littering its body with small open wounds oozing with foul green blood. Palor took a swing and another, tears streaming from his face. “You.” The sword glanced off its arm. “Fucking.” A meaty hand closed around the blade of the sword. Palor finished his sentence with a word in a language I’d never heard him speak. Vitriol and anger dripped from each syllable.
I sunk to my knees, watching helpless as Palor was hoisted from the ground like a captured hog. He kicked and screamed the entire journey. His head reared back and snapped forward, releasing a flurry of spit in the eyes of the fleshy monolith. I began to sob uncontrollably, defeated. Both of Palor’s arms were separated from his body with blood-curdling screams and a terrifying force.
After tossing Palor’s limp body aside, the ogre also dismissed Grom’s body with a kick and turned to me. If I didn’t know ogre’s didn’t feel pleasure like we do, I could’ve sworn that heartless bastard was smiling at me in contempt. My friends lay dead in a corner and I was next. Thud. Thud.
I was useless. I was the reason they were dead. I should have given up before I got everyone killed.
Grom always said it wasn’t about how hard you could hit, it was about how hard you could get hit and keep moving forward. He always knew how to keep people motivated. He always knew when you needed to keep you grounded and when to push you to do more. He spent so many nights doing the same maneuvers over and over again and then he’d spend the night after doing the same thing slightly different. His dedication was what gave him his finesse and determination. I had never heard him so much as wince in pain until today.
I clenched my fists against the rough stone slabs beneath me. “I can stay here and get the shit kicked out of me.” I muttered to myself, slowly pushing myself back to my feet, my body vibrating with the stacked haste spells. “Or…” My voice trailed off as I raised my head to see the shadow looming over me. “OR” my voice bellowed, empowered by magic. “I can fuck you up!”
Propelling myself forward, I hurtled over an indignant fist and slid down between its legs, unleashing a barrage of missiles upwards. Several of them connected with its chin, each hit leaving patches of bloodied skin. Its arms instinctively moved up to protect its face and its feet stumbled back a little. I weaved around the travelling leg, emerging out behind the ogre. I swivel round, my arms recoiling as they volley fireballs into the thick, armoured flesh.
Pieces of ogre fling themselves from its body, charred and bloody. Slowly the body of the ogre begins to open, revealing the prize I’m looking for.
I torpedo from the ground, using mage hand for propulsion. As my body soars through the air, my hands brace themselves. I let the intensity shoot through me. My entire body crackled with the force of a burning hands spell. The power physically popped and snapped from me in small orange fireworks as I plunged my hands into the open wound. Burning my own footholds, I then grasp the beating heart of the ogre with both hands. Large meaty fingers paw at the air around me, not quite able to reach.
My breath quickens. Images of conversations with Grom and Palor in taverns and tents flash through my mind’s eye, reminding me of the pain and the grief. I still remember the night that Palor sat with me and said he was proud of the progress I’d made; that he thought I could do anything. And this motherfucker took all that away from me.
Seething anger overwhelmed me and my hands erupted into flames, burning the hulking behemoth from the inside out. I clung to its back, listening to the terrified screams, feeling the pleasure of malice as its entire body burned to ash around me until, finally, I smothered its heart in fire.