Reins of Darkness

The Conclusion to Chapter 8 of "Ulfen: An Oral History"

The room in which we stood was radiating magic, but we were unable to find a source. Unsure of ourselves and the layout of the ship, we decided to return above decks and try another route into the bowels of the massive vessel. It didn’t take long to wind up back where we started. We were stumped. 

Smash and Ruel cast several spells to discern something – anything – that might give us a clue as to what we should do. As they were focused on their spells I noticed a distortion of some sort, like a ripple in air, through which a horrible beast stepped through, an astorax. We made short work of the creature, but knew that where there was one, there were bound to be others.

Suddenly, a tremendous column of ice rose from the floor. Within, we could just make out a large humanoid figure. The sound of laughter echoed around the chamber; clearly, someone was enjoying our frustration. I very nearly started a fire in order to gain access to our encased observer until Ruel brought my attention to the handful of large seige crabs standing frozen in the corners of the chamber. We decided instead to head further down and see if we could find where this icy antagonist came from.

Upon finding and descending the next set of stairs down, we noticed the temperature rise significantly. The ice in this lower section of the ship was almost completely melted and water ran through the corridors. While I could appreciate not having to endure the sting of the far North any longer, I was well-aware of the fact that if we stumbled upon any more of the ships inhabitants, they would not locked in ice.

And find them we did. In a long hallway lined with doors, we quietly peaked in several of the rooms to discover giants, completely under the sway of the Chi Julud, going about their insane business – one appeared to be carving a cube of stone from a much larger cube of stone while another giant gnawed on him; another appeared to be sleeping and, giving no conscious effort to maintaining his (it’s?) form, was little more than a massive blob of flesh on a slab. The unscrupulous (and, I must say, unsporting) Smash wanted to take the opportunity to slay this one, but I talked him out of possibly rousing every other giant in the hallway against us. It was a good thing he listened (for once), after what we found waiting for us at the end of the hall. Through a pair of enormous golden doors that swung open as easily and quietly as anything ever produced by Dwarven hands, sitting upon a throne of gold, was the Conqueror.

Though the brilliant light of the circular golden chamber blinded the spark-enhanced eyes of my companions, I was able to see this impressive figure of a she-giant, bedecked in golden armor and flanked by two more of her cursed, gibbering kin. Hesitant to step into the chamber uninvited – or invited, for that matter, as I do not fully trust the giants – I offered a polite bow and attempted to engage in what I hoped would be a non-aggresive parlay.

As the Conqueror looked down at us, her head rolled away from the rest of her body and landed with a sickening thump on the floor! To this day I can clearly see in my mind’s eye the bloodly stump of her neck and the wound, while certainly not fresh, which bore a striking resemblance to the one given the Devourer by Fa Kseen’s mighty lance. As shocked as I was to see her head fall off, I was even more shocked to see her hair snake itself into a set of spidery makeshift legs and turn to face us. Apparently, the grievous wound she’d been dealt had not been grievous enough … the mere possibility of having to face one for whom decaptiation was less fatal than annoying made my stomach turn – and that’s saying something, given my heritage.

Seeking to stay in her good graces – at least, while we stood there on a ship full of insane giants led by the Conqueror herself – we offered our services is dismissing her now unneeded servant, Nebarius. Nebarius, one of the mighty vestages. Nebarius, who had some sort of pact with the giants relating to the Chi Julud.

And I, in all my foolishness and desperation to stay on her good side replied with, “Shall we bring you his head?”

“Yes, all of them,” was her reply.

Needless to say, my companions were less than thrilled at the results of my diplomacy and the position in which we found ourselves. I reasoned that we might yet find some way of pitting them against each other, and dispatching the bound-to-be-wounded victor ourselves. Looking back, it’s a wonder I hadn’t perished a dozen times over during that period of my life, given my complete lack of anything resembling common sense. I guess it’s funny in a way: I was afraid to eat anything the Fa Kseen would cook, for fear of how it would affect me, but had no problems promising one demigod that I’d kill another.

Following the Conqueror’s instruction to head ‘down’ to find Nebarious, we found ourselves in the very bottom of the massive ship. A large iceberg had thrust up through the bottom of the vessel, flooding this lower level. Fortunately, Smash carried a shield that maintained a bubble of air and Ruel’s enchanted armor allowed him to breathe under water, not that I’d want to breathe the effluvium into which we descended.

It looked and smelled like water for the most part, but looking around confirmed that there was more to it than that. Large glass containers lined the walls of this lowermost chamber, jars filled with orcs in some sort of fluid which, as far as I could tell, either grew or preserved them (or both). Some of the jars, however, were broken, and we had to make our way through the contents floating around us. There was no sign of Nebarious, however.

As we approached the massive rend caused by the iceberg, we realized that we were not alone. Standing on the surface of the water above us, was a creature as tall as a giant, but that’s where the similarities ended: a recognizably female torso extended into the legs and talons of a bird of prey, while its arms twisted into tendrils bearing an impressive metal hammer. I shudder to recall the face properly, though the lamprey mouths which sat in place of eyes still haunt my dreams.

Fortunately, the creature was willing to talk. Turns out she was Ureneme (sounded like “your enemy,” which put me on edge at first), one of the Conqueror’s (now identified as Shax) two sisters who had been cursed by Nebarius to wear a monstrous form – not so monstrous to Smash, however, who decided quite liked what he saw. Despite the beast’s attention (Smash, not Ureneme) the creature (Ureneme, not Smash) was willing to help us defeat Nebarius, first by granting us rings that would protect us under water, then by binding herself to Smash.

The encounter had given me a fair clue as to who it was that had appeared to us in the column of ice
two floors up. Quickly retracing our steps, we returned to the large room to call forth the winged, bull-headed form of Hagente, the youngest of the three sisters. Her explosive exit from the column of ice caused a little bit of damage, but considering the ice crystals (similar to the one Fa Kseen had been carrying around since we moved into our new home) we each recieved, would turn out to be well worth it. 

Now we were faced with a choice – or rather, I was faced with a choice, as Ruel flat out refused to let the giantess bind with him. I’ll admit, a part of me was worried – I had no idea how much control, if any, this creature would have over me, or what the lasting effects of being bound might include. Had the task set before us been not been as daunting, I might have refused. As it turns out, Hagente and I had some things in common; we both favored the axe, and we both preferred to keep our faces hidden – her for the monstrous form she was cursed with and I … well, you know why I wear a mask. Suffice it to say, it felt like we made a good pair.

Our meagre ranks thus bolstered by Conquerer kin, we descended once again to the bottom of the giant’s giant vessel (Sorry, it sounded better in my head than out loud).

Hanging from his sheild while I sat above it, and Ruel close besides, we dropped through the hole. Almost immediately, we were set upon by a trio of astorax. Fortunately, our various gifts and bindings allowed us to make out their positions in the water. After a short skirmish, we found that we had sunk nearly a thousand feet to the bottom of the iceberg. Coincidentally (or not, in retrospect), located right next to it was a kind of shrine or temple built around a large circular opening.

The darkness below was imprenetrable; I lit a sunrod and pitched it down to light our way. We watched it slowly sink further and further down until it was barely more than a pinprick of light. Suddenly, even that was blotted out as something came rushing, bubbling up towards us. As swirling mass grew closer, we began to see pairs of sinister glowing eyes dancing about – many, many pairs of glowing eyes.

Thinking quickly – or possibly having had his bowels loosened by terror – Smash dangled his nether-region over the edge of the chasm and gave us a first-hand view of what Shard had done inside the giant. Foul black ink (I don’t care whatever else was in it, I’m callin’ it ink) filled the hole. I expended the charge in my frost crystal and sealed it with the horde of astoraxes – is it ‘astorax’ or ‘astoraxes?’ I can never remember. Nash would know. I remember the sheer pressure of the water at that depth being enough to hurt Smash’s backside when he crossed the safety of the bubble to -er, launch his attack.

At any rate, some time passed and we cut a small hole – well large enough to let a camerillaroo through – in the ice. Some dead astorax(es) floated up. After confirming that it was safe – ‘safe’ being a highly relative term in this context – we continued our descent into the unknown.

[Author’s note: Though Ulfen insists that this chapter continues yet a bit further before the next chapter begins, I felt that in the interest of pacing and balance, the remainder of this chapter would better fit in Chapter 9]

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