Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Hunter XV - Escape

The Hunter

Chapter Navigation
  I: Descent
  II: A Matter of Runes
  III: Tombs
  IV: Night's Bridge
  V: Skulls of the Fallen 
  VI: Vhoggli's Transgressions
  VII: In the Darkness 
  VIII: Reigning Them In
  IX: Places Lost to Memory 
  X: The Price of Discovery
  XI: An Elemental Vengeance of Air
  XII: An Elemental Vengeance of Earth
  XIII: An Elemental Vengeance of Water
  XIV: An Elemental Vengeance of Fire
  XV: Escape <<


  The tangy smell of blood and the primal scents of murder lingered on the air making its way down the river’s water. Scents and details beyond the ken of mortal senses relayed dark information as they wafted and congealed near the water’s cold surface. As they made their way along in the dark, they were greedily snatched up by the nostrils of Vhoggli as he wadded in the midst of icy, subterranean waters.

  The bloody information shot through his synapses lighting up his mind with fear and remorse. He could smell the destruction of the female oracle and the old man. He did not regret the passing of the old man as he had been quite mean and unnecessarily rude to poor Vhoggli. The passing of the young female, however, pained him as she had been more than accommodating to him in the past.

  There was another strange scent on the air, something that smelled like blood but was far sweeter. The smell of the thing sent Vhoggli’s senses into a dizzy swirl. There was power in this smell and the only way he could place it was the ichor of some unholy thing.

  Vhoggli began paddling harder at the water to put more distance between him and the carnage barking at his back. The new smell must be the stink of Merithault, the Mad. His master had warned him before this expedition started to avoid her at all costs. He was going to heed those warnings with every fiber of his strange existence.

  He padded over to a rock up ahead that tore through the surface of the water like a jagged tooth. He scrabbled with his soaked leather boots against the rock but found a ledge that he could push himself up on for a moment’s respite. He flopped his cold and soaked body on an outcropping and stared back the way he had come.

  His cold, tiny fingers dug beneath his leather armor and underneath layers of his clothing to find a small pouch sewn within. He grabbed an orb the size of a fist and lifted it up to his face. There was no light this far into the deeper caverns for the orb to catch, but with the preternatural sight that Vhoggli had the orb glowed a soft blue. Many of the oracles he lived with believed him to have abilities to see in the dark like a cat or wolf — they were mistaken — his sight was focused on the astral realms more than anything terrestrial.

  Vhoggli ran his stubby fingers over the smooth and perfect roundness of the orb. He could feel many little matrices of runes with the tips of his fingers, but he could see the energy dancing within it with his eyes. He took a moment to wax academic at this treasure he now held. An orb of power created almost four millennia before the current age. This was the first and the most powerful of the Nesharite Spheres. This was the most sought out artifact of the Authrakallin Order and one that many of the oracles would murder each other simply to gaze upon.

  His clawed fingers seized tightly around the orb as he opened his inner thoughts towards it. He had to know for certain that this wasn’t just a hoax. He could feel the immense energy flowing through it and could taste the ancient power tickling the back of his throat. If this was a forgery, it was one made with powers that were no longer left in this world.

  As Vhoggli’s soul reached out and touched the orb immense flashes tore through his disjointed consciousness. Visions of ancient cities deep beneath the world-plane where ancient artificers crafted the pieces of this orb. Visions of Merithault’s visions from Ullthos that drove her insane. Visions of Merithault’s daughter, the one who would inherit her mother’s sin and sacrifice herself to save the world. Visions of eons of carnage, madness and pain. Finally, he saw the serene visions of old Vhaltenesh as he took it upon himself to bring the oracles back from the ashes.

  It was painful and more than he could bear, but he pulled his consciousness back from the orb he clutched in a death-grip between his fingers. This was indeed the first of the spheres and the only one to have all of the truth of the world hidden within. This was the tool that his master needed back in Alsira Thaenat. This was the prize that was worth not only the lives of each member of the expedition to Oerstav Caelii, but the life of every human upon the face of the world.

  Vhoggli placed the orb back into his pocket and tightened a loop of twine over a small piece of bone to secure it. He patted the orb safely tucked beneath his leathers and reached into another pocket to retrieve yet another ancient treasure. When his hand emerged his fingers held a small metal clasp still holding a torn bit of ancient fabric. The metal glowed with a green flame of energy within it.

  Quickly and deftly, Vhoggli drove the sharp pins of the clasp into the palm of his hand. Small rivulets of blood came up from the wound as the clasp drank deeply from it. He lifted the clasp up and placed the pins through the fabric of his shirts beneath his leather jerkin. He tightened small gears with his thumb which mechanically drew the fabric taut and cinched down hard on the pins.

  Toulam had told him before he left to keep his eyes open for this particular artifact. Thankfully his master was gifted with scrying and divination enough to know exactly where Merithault had hid it. Given that it was the robe clasp given to Maenthrai to hid her from her mother, it was easily found beneath the poor oracle’s skull. Vhoggli now hoped that just as it hid the creator of the Nesharite Spheres away from her mother for many years, it would help shield himself from the Mad Oracle’s uncanny abilities. Thus far it had worked as intended.

  Vhoggli rolled back into the freezing waters and continued to wade away from the horror that was unfolding behind him. The cold waters were uncomfortable and did drain the energy within him, but they weren’t as dangerous as they would be to a mortal. As fond of the humans as he had become over his existence, it was moment’s like these that he found it worthwhile to be something entirely other. If he was human, he would have given in to hypothermia and drown a long time ago.

  A few moments further and he could reach out with his senses to notice he had come to a dead end upon the water. Ahead the roof of the cavern sloped sharply until it bent beneath the surface of the water. A moment of panic and rage tore through him at the thought that he had reached an unnecessary obstacle. He only had a matter of minutes before Merithault had finished with the expedition members and began to seek the thief of her treasures out.

  Vhoggli flopped in the water and gave a kick at the wall ahead of him. He stopped for a moment and remained silent. He re-attuned his senses to seek any other way out of this predicament. Maybe there was the slight sound of wind coming in from somewhere, or bubbling coming up from below the water that he might be able to explore.

  As soon as he reached out with his heightened senses, he was blinded and deafened by an explosion of raw elemental energies. An earthen thunder tore through the roof of the caverns around him sounding like the world-god Myrris herself had awoken in an ancient, primordial rage. Small rocks began to pelt down from above causing Vhoggli to drop beneath the surface of the water to shield himself.

  Stones and shards of the roof crashed down upon the surface of the water and sunk into the chilled depths below. Vhoggli let himself drop into the depths just as a weighty rock fell upon him. The impact was lessened by the rock but still hurt him and trapped him beneath its weight. He struggled and kicked against the weight to dislodge it from him. Several kicks and he got himself free. He watched below as the large rock descended into a dark tunnel.

  The water around him wavered and rippled with the impacts and the quakes that tore through the whole set of catacombs. He looked up between upraised arms to see massive fissures in the roof above the water. The impacts of stones and shards lessened after a few moments. Willing to risk his safety, Vhoggli dropped his arms and began to kick with his feet towards the surface of the water.

  The crest of his oblong head peeked above the frosty water until his eyes could peer into the dark air once again. He kept the rest of his body submerged just in case another quake sent the caverns into chaos once more. He cocked his head to the side to free one of his pointed ears and heard a strange silence in the caverns beyond.

  He did not know what caused the quake, if it was the wrath of Merithault at having found her treasures missing, the elemental powers of Tyverus who must still be fighting for his life, or some natural occurrence. Whatever had caused it was devastating and had no doubt sealed off most of the passageways that Vhoggli could have used to get back to the surface.

  He let those realizations sink in for a moment as he lowered his head and peered downward to at the darkness beneath him. The rocks had continued past him in to that darkness, which signaled either tunnels or caverns below. It seemed counter-intuitive to go further down in order to travel upwards, but he would have to explore this as it might be his only way now.

  Vhoggli reached up an arm beyond the water and grabbed a jagged rock that had revealed itself in the quake from the sloping wall beside him. He kicked hard against the water and launched himself into the air to hang by another rock slightly higher up. He swung there for a moment, peering around in the darkness around him, while reaching into a small, leather satchel hanging from his belt.

  It was a merciful thing that his peculiar existence didn’t necessitate for him to breathe like most mortals did. His existence was beyond such concerns as air, food, or most temperature extremes although fire and ice still caused discomfort. Being as he was, a creature born of astral power trapped in a half-dead shell, his only concern was that of essential energy. Specifically, that of the blood of his master. In a situation as dire as this, he needed to sup from that power to keep himself going.

  Vhoggli grabbed one of the small vials of blood elixir that his master had prepared for him on this expedition. Toulam had labored hard to prepare extra vials of his blood mixed with distilled magical herbs and enchantments to keep himself going. Usually, it was enough simply to be near his master and quaff some of his immense energy through proximity, but being thousands of miles away, he had to resort to more potent forms of sustenance.

  His tiny and clawed fingers seized upon a vial and lifted it up to his face. With a flick of his thumb he broke the tip of the glass and placed it against his ragged lips. The trickle of blood and power flowed over his tongue and sent his mind dizzy with fire. One gulp and the elixir was within him and he tossed the empty vial into the water with an almost silent splash. Within a moment the power of the blood soared throughout his body as it healed and reinvigorated him.

  Vhoggli let go of the rock and fell to the water once more. He bobbed on the water giving one more look back the way he had come. He felt remorse for Tyverus who was either dead or fighting for his life at this moment against insurmountable odds. He would not win, but at least he would go out fighting. Vhoggli had studied the notes that his master had gathered concerning the Mad Oracle and knew well that she was beyond the powers of any mortal to vanquish. Her powers were given to her by some tainted god, to be its avatar of destruction in this world. This was all the more reason for him to get out of this damned place as soon as possible, lest she find him despite the enchanted clasp he wore.

  With a kick and bend, Vhoggli was beneath the waves and making his way towards the darkness below. Slowly he made his way further and further into the depths, checking sporadically at his collar and padding at his leather jerkin to make sure he did not lose his prized treasures. The tunnel below seemed to stretch on forever.

  Despite the renewed power coursing through him, Vhoggli soon began to notice a drag upon his kicking downward. At first he wondered if his limbs weren’t responding correctly due to the cold, but within a few moments he felt the upswelling of water around him. It began as a push against his face, but then soon became an immense pull against his back. Each kick seemed to do nothing as he was being dragged back up the way he had come.

  A few moments more and the water around him seemed to lose density around him. He blinked his strange eyes as the pull from behind him loosened and a moment of vertigo overtook his senses. Something was pulling the water around him up and back into the caverns. Tendrils of dense water slapped against him now, and as the vertigo mounted he felt himself falling as if in the air.

  The water ahead of him seemed to tear itself free from itself and get swallowed behind him into the dark. Ahead he could see rushing darkness as gravity took hold of him and sent him falling through the air beyond. He kicked and swayed with his arms against the rushing air as he fell faster and faster into the darkness.

  The moments of panic seemed to stretch on longer than they should have but it wasn’t long until Vhoggli could reach out and see the black surface of water rushing up at him from far below. He kicked at the air and swung his arms around to get himself as if he were standing upright. He clenched every muscle he had in his body, pressing his legs together and lifted his arms to cover his head.

  The impact of the water was as hard as rock against his flesh. The feeling of ice tore up his back and chest. Pain tore at his feet and then against his arms as he rushed beneath the surface. Most mortal bodies would have been shattered by the impact, but once again Vhoggli was glad that he wasn’t mortal.

  It took a moment for him to shake the pain out of his mind as he began to sink further into the darkness below. He checked to make sure that his arms and legs were still functional. If any of this fingers or toes were broken he would deal with that later. For now, the blood elixir within him healed him sufficiently so that he could keep swimming downward.

  Whatever power had drawn the water from the caverns above must have drained the entirety of the catacombs dry. He was fortunate that whatever body of water remained below him remained otherwise his body would now be shattered upon rocks and that was an amount of wounds that he didn’t think the powers of his blood elixir could heal. He continued to kick and sway in the darkness.

  Vhoggli could feel a smile creep across his wide mouth as the realization dawned on him about the source of the water below. Whatever power above had summoned and drained the waters of the catacombs away was separate from these waters he was now within. That meant that that the water he was making his way through right now would open to another body beyond. Eventually, he would be able to get out of here, after all.

  Minutes of swimming into the depths were beginning to take their toll on his limbs, but Vhoggli continued forth with a desperate desire to be free. His hears popped several times as he could feel the pressure of the water mounting upon him. He had traveled through all kinds of directions as she followed the curvatures of the tunnel.

  The tunnel began to bend upwards once more and as Vhoggli reached the turn he could see a beautiful and dazzling light shining through the darkness towards him. He kicked harder and shoved his arms forward to press into the lit waters beyond. As soon as he emerged his senses were sent into a frenzy at what he beheld outside the tunnel.

  He had followed the waters straight into the depths of the Heartsblood Sea. He tore himself free of the tunnel mouth which stood as a hole in an immense cliff deep below the waves. Ahead of him he could see rifts of boiling magma heating up the further depths of the water.

  Soft moonlight filtered in from the depths far above creating a cascading set of blue and silver ripples that lit up the higher water above. The magma boiling below lit up the depths with a crimson and gold sheen amidst all the shadowy darkness. Lit up from the shifting colors and shades was a sprawl of gigantic silhouettes all around Vhoggli in the depths.

  These silhouettes, as his perceptions acclimated to the energy around him, were cast by immense spires and ruins that had sunk beneath the waves long ago. Ahead and around him were the ruins of the ancient city of Neshran, the first home of the oracles. Jagged cliffs of rock held half-destroyed spires and buildings over boiling rivers of magma.

  The sight that Vhoggli now beheld would be enough to make most scholars and oracles of the Authrakallin descend into crying fits or go mad at beholding. All around him were treasures beyond the ken of even his master. Spires of metal and glass that dated to the time when the ancient Morthavi built them at the dawn of time. Ruined streets and buildings flowed beneath him as he kicked his way through the chaotic waters toward the surface.

  Some spires still held light within them, glowing with the torches crafted by the extinct Azhemyra artificers of old. Powerful energies still coursed through the ruins below, some of them harnessed still by enchantments and others being the echoing shades of the dead. A place of such beauty and horror, untold hundreds of thousands of souls condemned to destruction by the madness of Merithault when she ascended to be what she now is. So many artifacts may still be within those depths, waiting to be reclaimed by those adventurous to seek them out.

  Such concerns were beyond Vhoggli at this moment, he had what he had come for and all that was left now was to get it back to his master before Merithault tore this land asunder once more in her unquenchable wrath. He kicked hard against the water and drove himself up through the hundreds of feet towards the surface. The spires below seemed to reach up towards him wanting to trap him beneath the waters, but he ignored them.

  Minutes more, flowed away to be snatched up by the darkness below as Vhoggli finally reached the highest waters above. He could see the light of Ishep lighting up the night’s sky as immense and dark storm-clouds rolled in to quench that light. Several flashes of lightning tore through the clouds to strike the surface of the sea water. As they struck a feeling of static energy rippled beneath the water’s surface.

  Vhoggli tore up through the surface of the water to be blinded and deafened by cascading energy once more. The sounds of thunder and whipping wind assaulted his hearing as the red flashes of lightning went off above him. He could feel himself being tossed on waves as they crashed over one another with elemental anger.

  Vhoggli blinked the sea water from his eyes and began to swim towards the shore just a few dozen feet away from him. Waves crashed upon him, but he continued his way towards the shore with resolute determination. The storms above were growing with power and savagery. He suspected that the storm wasn’t natural and was in fact a sympathetic response to Merithault’s rage in the catacombs below.

  Perhaps the Mad Oracle had finally dispatched Tyverus and was now realizing that two of her treasures had been snatched by a foe she could not sense. She had existed in this place for so long and the land itself had drunk from her foul essences to the point that both existed in sympathy with one another. As her mood changed, so did the weather in this land. As such, it was paramount that Vhoggli get away from this misbegotten place of madness as soon as possible.

  With a tumble in the waves Vhoggli was cast against the blackened and rocky sands of the shore. He pulled himself up, as further waves crashed against his legs and back. He patted at himself to make sure the clasp and orb were still in possession and got up to his feet. The light of Ishep was almost swallowed by the growing storm-clouds above.

  Vhoggli looked to the grass and trees ahead of him and recognized the area he was now in. He had made it back to the small island south of where Neshran had been located. He was on the same island as the camp his now dead friends had set up. Before him by a few hundred feet and around a jagged rock was the entrance to the catacombs below.

  Running on tired legs, Vhoggli made his way into a grove of trees to his right. He used the trees as cover and continued to a fallen tree covered in moss over a slight ridge. He dropped and skidded forth on his knees as he neared the fallen tree. He slid forward and reached his arm inside a hollow of the wood to grab a small pouch within.

  His fingers seized upon the pouch and brought it out greedily. He pulled on the draw strings and looked inside to see several vials of blood elixir held within. He closed his eyes and held his head aloft with relief. The extra amounts of blood elixir he had hidden there two days before was what he needed to keep himself alive on the journey back to Alsira Thaenat.

  Vhoggli snatched the vials with in the pouch and shoved them into the satchel around his belt. He tossed the pouch upon the ground and stood up. The canopy of the trees above were dancing as rain and hail tore through them from the clouds above. He climbed over the fallen tree and looked forward in the darkness, allowing his preternatural senses to reach out.

  A few hundred feet forward and to his left was the camp just outside the mouth to the catacombs. The members of the Ahlketh caste that the expedition had brought with them were located there. A few dozen feet from there, on the opposite shore was the moored ship they had taken from Morrthault City to this accursed place.

  Vhoggli winced as he realized that the innocent members of the Ahlketh laborers were probably already dead. They had no chance against the powers of Merithault if she emerged from her subterranean realm. The ship itself would be destroyed or stripped of all its crew as well.

  As his senses reached out, he could hear a strange silence upon the winds and a hint of blood upon the air. Everyone was dead upon this island, perhaps on all the islands that made up Oerstav Caelii, that is except for himself. He turned away and began to run back to the nearest shore.

  He jumped over rocks and crawled through foliage as he made his way to where he had hidden a small raft from the ship. He tore through the branches of trees as his feet padded upon the black sands of the island. Lightning tore through the skies above as he did so.

  Among the flashes and then the ear-splitting thunder, he could spy the raft still tied a jagged rock on the shore. The battered raft lifted and swayed on the crashing waves as if it were trying to free itself. Vhoggli ran towards it with abandon.

  With a jump and flourish of claws, Vhoggli made his way into the raft and severed the ropes holding it in place. Waves brought it hard against the rock once, but with a riptide drawing it below, it swiveled and was drawn back out into the waters. Within moments Vhoggli seized the oars within the raft and began paddling hard against the waves.

  It would be the rest of the night upon these waves until Vhoggli could get free of this place. If he could survive this last trial, all he would have to do is follow the northern currents of the Heartsblood Sea to a small port on the coast of the Morrthal Highlands. There, hidden away, he would be able to find his master’s Authroc and fly that back home to the deserts of Alsira Thaenat. That is, of course, if he could survive the elemental wrath of this horrible place at this moment.

  Vhoggli gave a jagged grin, letting his tiny fangs poke free over his lips. His master’s plan had gone well and he would soon be home. The price had been high, but his friend’s sacrifices would be worth it. With the first of the Nesharite Spheres, Toulam could finally find out how best to keep the poor girl alive and hidden from Merithault’s wrath. That poor red-haired Witchling he had seen so many times when his master went to visit her adopted father. She was the last of that misbegotten bloodline, after all. That poor, unaware girl named after the thorn-covered desert lotuses that only bloomed when coated in the blood of the fallen — Ghelta.

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 XIII: An Elemental Vengeance of FireEpisode I: MilestonesI: On the Cliffs of Alsira