Runequest Thursday #102 - Gloranthan Fiction: To Tweak the Nose of the Red Goddess, Part Five!

Clint Staples

Here is chapter five in the ongoing saga of the Brightwaters' adventures in  the Clanking Ruin. You can find parts one, two and three, and four if you want to catch up, or refresh your memory. You can also check out last week's article for the datafiles on the Reavers and Raiders.

In brief, the heroes of Brightwater (Zoe Brightblade, the Orlanthi aspirant; Wyrmhere Blackhand, the demon-ridden sorcerer, Sayyid, Grazelander servant of the White Moon - whatever that is; and Ughari Ghost Eyes, Praxian nomad shaman and outlaw, have traveled to the Clanking Ruin, the remnant of the Machine City that grew up around a cult devoted to incarnating their Machine God - Zistor. The Clanking Ruin is famed as a deadly region filled with enough elder age marvels to tempt the brave or reckless.

Since their arrival, the Brightwaters have manage to annoy the local Lunar administration, make friends with a small cult of Humakti death cultists, and encounter some of the local wild-life up close. Wyrmhere is here hoping to replace his demon arm with a mechanbical appendage. And Ughari has come to keep his promise to a dwarf spirit ally that has unfinished business in the depths of the Ruin. Sayyid is here to score one or more artifacts or weapons to aid in her goddesses struggle against the dominance of the Red Moon. And Zoe, always happy to help sow disorder in the Lunar camp, has a plan to do just that.To aid them in their explorations, the Brightwaters have engaged the forge-knight Manfred as guide, guard and oarsman.

When we left our heroes, having exhausted the possibilities of the Ankeshel Archive and the Braner Manuforge. Disheartened and short some gold after paying off the archives extortionist "safety patrol", they venture further into the remains of the Machine City, only to encounter more of the Clanking Ruin's unique dangers - this time in the form of a portion of the city translocating itself - and them.

Of course, a big chunk of ruined city moving form one place to another is likely to attract attention . . .

 

Part Five

Zoe scrambled to her feet, the light of Brightblade illuminating the swirls of dust yet revealing nothing beyond what she had guessed – that they were no longer atop the pile of rubble as they had been a moment ago. Another heartbeat, and the sorcerer’s cry rang out, “Beware.” The ex-mercenary brought the greatsword low, tip near the broken slab on which she stood, ready to sweep upward in a thrust, cut or parry.

Her eyes watered, stung by grit from the cloud. Did something move? A shadow, low and swift. Another behind it. The roar from multiple throats preceded their attack, as three sure-footed shapes clambered over the debris, unerringly seeking their prey.

She had little time to marvel at the strange creatures of gleaming iron: a  barrel-like body, long neck and head with jagged, moving mouth parts, a long bladed tail for balance, propelled by a pair of powerful legs and talons. She brought Brightblade up to intercept the lead machine’s advance, catching the toothy sword-snout as it thrust. The creature twisted on contact, its head wrenched to one side as the moving teeth on its snout caught the glowing sword, almost pulling it from Zoe’s grip. But the swordswoman stepped in and to the side, moving her bottom hand from the hilt to a position half way up the blade, and twisting, hurling the metal beast through the air, its hold on Brightblade broken by its own momentum.

She had little time to mark where it fell as another shape appeared from the dust.

Ughari hated the spiritual blindness of these creatures of artifice. His spirit-gaze showed him only the familiar flares of soul-light that were his companions. He sent power through his hand’s grip to Sayyid, granting her what magical protection he could, let go and shifted to his knees, peering about for his spear as he shrugged the aurochs-hide buckler from his back. His other hand was empty, but he was no great fighter, and focussed on the spirit world, gripping the fetish-bundle at his throat, calling his fetch. Aka rushed from the talisman, heeding the silent urge to find their foes, safeguard his friends.

Sayyid heard the grind of something on iron, saw the golden flash of Brightblade below, and let go her handhold to wrest free her axe from its place through her belt. Sliding past Ughari she felt the edge of the slab of stone scrape the shield on her back, yanking its guige strap against her neck. Then she was falling, bending her knees in expectation of the impact. She could just make out a darker patch rising toward her.

She struck, one foot solid, the other buckling until her knee smacked painfully against something like stone. A grunt and a grimace and she was on her feet again, in time to double-step backward, twisting to take the impact of a low swift-moving shape on her shield. Knocked from her feet, she slid over the rough ground to fetch up against rubble and part of a wall. Again her shield had taken the brunt of the abuse from her passage over stone and brick. The staccato growl of their foes was all around her, but the nearest was almost upon her again. She rolled to her knees, the short haft of her axe in both hands, over her head. As the machine ducked its sword-head to attack, she struck with all her power, cleaving the skull and driving the metal beast to the ground.

Wyrmhere was on his feet, though he could not recall rising. The roaring of the machines was all around them, but his sorcery showed him friend and foe. Lightning  arced from his good hand, over the iron body of a creature bedeviling Zoe – some new machine, their bodies reminiscent of the deadly flightless Axe-Beaks that hunted the fens of the Great Marsh – but sleeker, swifter, and made of metal. He saw Zoe’s glowing brand cleave the thing’s body, smashing it to the stones in a shuddering heap of bronze. With his demon arm, he summoned his fire elemental, but not into the blade. This time, he called it to his side, his mental command sending it to hunt, and burn, any construct nearby, excepting their forge-knight ally.

Ughari’s fetch, Aka, not troubled by the bonds of flesh, perceived tiny sparks of intellect where Ughari could see nothing. Through the link between shaman and fetch, Aka shared its unfettered “sight”. Ughari’s sense of the corporeal fell away as he entered more fully the world of spirit. He could see the other Brightwaters, distinct motes of bright white in the grey of the soul plain, could even note the black spiderweb of the sorcerer’s demon. He saw the dying sparks of two of their strange foes, saw another rising and moving to the attack.

But Aka showed his master much more that was hidden by dust and rubble, and the stealth of the machines. Ughari wailed a warning, struggling for words, as he saw sparks approaching in bounds across the soul-scape, some larger, greater, than the ones they fought.  The Brightwaters had found the vanguard of a horde of machine-things. His wail turned into a word as he remembered the speech of the breathing world.

“RUN!”

Ughari led the retreat, using Aka’s sight from on high, moving directly away from the tide of sparks. Sayyid retrieved her hewing spear and followed his voice, eyes cast over her shoulder, awaiting the appearance of Zoe, Wyrmhere and Manfred, from the dust and gloom below.

The forge-knight was the first to appear, his greatsword hanging from its place on his back, one arm bent at an unnatural angle. She waved him on, but Manfred turned as another shape climbed the rubble, Wyrmhere, new sword in his demon hand, black robe grey with dust, torn, hood thrown back. He seemed unhurt, but did not meet her eye. The forge-knights body shook for a moment as his dart-projectors hurled spikes of death past the sorcerer. Over the roar of charging sword-mouths, Sayyid heard the sound of metal on metal. An instant later she saw Zoe’s sword, followed by the mercenary, running full out, fear on her normally dauntless features.

They retreated, trusting to the shaman and his fetch for guidance. Wyrmhere exhausted his energies sending salamander after salamander to slow the pursuit – to what effect he know not, only that his sending were almost instantly destroyed. Ughari led them first one way, then another, his sense of the ruin uncanny. But his guidance was taking its toll. The little man’s tan skin was unnaturally pale, his back bowed with an exhaustion that was the result of more than their trotting progress.

Finally, he turned to the others, defeat clear in the lines of his face, “We may be done,” he panted, “And I without even the energy to twit you about it.” His slack grin held no humor.

“Aka can roam no longer. Even now I have held him beyond what the bond allows. He says there is a barrier, like the one we saw at Ankeshel. It stretches before us and to either side. And he says it is death to touch it.”

Zoe ignored the bad news, “The pursuit?” They no longer herd the buzz of the sword-saw mouths of their pusuers, but she did not believe that the intelligence  that created these things would make it such that they could never move in silence.

Ughari nodded, opening mouthed a gasping,  “A broad band of sparks on our tail.”

“The we keep moving,” she stated, “Manfred, we need a way out, or at least forward.”

The forge-knight had been fidgeting with his damaged arm, mangled in the fall. He looked up, twin circular eyes shining like red lamps. His normal monotone clearly held considerable chagrin, “We moved, along with the terrain beneath us. It is something that happens in the deeper ruin, less so nearer the edge. I had not thought us in danger of it.”

Manfred went on, “But the number of Reavers and Raiders suggest to me that we must be near the Tower of the Devourer. They rarely venture far from it in force. If that is so, we have been moved deeper still. We must find a vantage point. If I can locate the Tower, I may be able to find a way around the mage-wall – which I do not remember being there. Perhaps it too was moved.”

Zoe cursed, remembering Skryek. The falcon had been winging along beside them, from perch to perch, when they had “moved”. She scanned the sky. But there was no winged shape aloft, not even as a dot far, far above. She dared not call out, not even in the piecing speech of birds. She returned her gaze to the others, to find herself the center of their attention. She pointed to one side of directly ahead, where there was a taller chunk of basalt. Her practiced soldier’s eye suggested that, if it did not prove suitable to the forge-knight, it should at least be defensible.

“There,” she said as her long legs carried her toward their objective.

 

******

 

The view from the top of the basalt block provided Manfred with what he needed, and more. The Tower of the Devourer, so named, apparently, because of the very things that they had fled – and their demented and savage master – rose like a more slender version of the Rotunda, a few hundred yards to the right of the glowing blue wall that stretched before them in either direction, unbroken until it disappeared into the ruins.

From their vantage point, keen-eyed Zoe could see dozens of the reavers and raiders mentioned by their guide, lounging like metallic daggerfangs, or moving about as if on patrol. Though she could not make out detail, she had no interest in seeing a reaver up close. It was more than double the size of the raider, quadrupedal, and moved with pantherish grace. Manfred also discouraged closer investigation by explaining that the tail of the reaver could hurl lances of something he called “plazzmuh” over significant distances, to deadly effect.

Turning away from the scene below, her gaze fell on Skryek, perched now on an outcropping of broken wall a dozen feet away, preening dust from her flight feathers. The gyrfalcon had come in like a silent thunderbolt as they climbed the outer portion of the block, to strike Zoe’s shoulder harder than many a blow she had taken in the practice yard. Talons and beak still bloodstained, she had been content to settle with only a token scrap of meat. Zoe had not the heart to hood her at present. Too, up here, she made a very good lookout.

An exclamation from the normally unflappable Manfred had them all scrambling for their weapons. He turned from their overlook of the mage-wall, his hand pointing past the Tower. He and Wyrmhere had been deep in conversation since the last attack by the machines had been turned back. Zoe glanced at her quiver, as empty of bolts, as the forge-knight’s chest was of darts. No doubt replacements for both could be had at Ankeshel or Braner’s place, if your purse was heavy enough.

“There,” Manfred said, “is the place that might be of use to you, Master Ughari.” To Zoe’s knowledge, this was the first time the forge-knight had spoken to the shaman, and the only time she had heard it use the term Master to address anyone.

The little Praxian had been glum since his “failure” in the ruin below. Having been crucial to getting them clear of a massacre, Zoe could not comprehend exactly “how” he had failed, but the shaman’s dejection was clear in every line of face and posture. He had been especially cold when she had tried to jolly him out of his mood.

He turned at the forge-knight’s mention of his name, his regard vague at best. But Manfred took no offense, saying only, “The Legion of Purification.” The arm, no longer mangled, and made whole via something he referred to as a “routine”, indicated a very large enclosure, hundreds of paces on a side, girded by the remains of formidable walls of black iron and basalt. From above, they could see much of the interior of the Legion as well, a maze of twisted structures that might once have been buildings, but seemed now to be nothing more than lumps and arches of slag.

Wyrmhere turned to the half-wall, rummaging in his satchel one-handed as he too looked at the distant fortress. His good hand found his diptych, flipping it open expertly. Using the yard-thick edge of the wall as an impromptu table, he took up the stylus and began to scribe a map of the Legion onto one of the panels. The wax was soft in the heat, but the marks remained, if a little dulled. He must scribe carefully to avoid ruining features he had already marked with the heel of his hand. A crooked gouge in the wax represented the great crack in the compound, that ran from one side to the other. Before it, there seemed to be a number of ways to attempt, two of which led to dead ends. The central path led to a massive structure that did not match the melted lumps comprising the rest of the interior. He studied it, noting the regularity of form, the symmetry suggested by the portions he could see.

“Hah,” Wyrmhere cried, the sound echoed by the started falcon, “It is something like a manchine!” he emphasized his conclusion with the stylus, pointing at the distant shape.

“That rounded piece off the main bulk is the head! See the triangular teeth below? And there is one claw, distinct from the rest.” For this last he indicated a point a stone’s throw distant, where the severed talon projected from the ground, bent at the wrist, and met the ground again, its ragged end resting in a gouged trench in what once might have been a fine courtyard. Some of the others crowded near to see what the sorcerer had discovered.

“It’s huge,” Sayyid estimated the single talon must be three or more times her height. The “head” of the thing could shelter a dozen men. The back end of the behemoth disappeared behind the twisted remains of a taller structure. It was not visible on the other side, but she was sure the body must stretch fifty or more paces if it were to match what could be seen.

Her next words were a whisper as she contemplated the full import of what they were seeing, “Did that thing walk?”

“And fight.” Manfred’s statement was devoid of sarcasm as he provided what information he could, “Many such instruments were constructed during the Siege. The Legion crafted a number, as I recall. Few now survive.”

These last words sent a shiver of fear through the Grazelander, awakened a thrill in the sorcerer.

“Some remain . . . active,” he queried?

Ughari’s head turned at the eagerness in the sorcerer’s voice. Fear warred with despair in the shaman’s wearied mind. The metal-man’s answer encouraged both to grow greater.

“I have heard it said,” Manfred replied, pausing before continuing, “The dwarves were required for such things to be built.”

For an instant, the shaman’s black eyes burned with his hatred of this metal abomination. It went unnoticed by the others as he turned his gaze to the spirit world, calling upon Aneel for the corroboration he was sure would be forthcoming. The Mostali spirit’s continual confusion seemed to ebb the deeper they went into the Clanking Ruin. In words only the shaman could hear, Aneel spoke, Nearby, many of my kin were removed from the World Engine.

Ughari’s soul sight fell on the spiritual wasteland below. He refused to allow his focus to settle on the wisps of energy remaining in the earth, the shredded remnants of souls, in their hundreds, drifting like cloth in an eldritch wind that poured constantly from the deepest part of the ruin, to eddy around the Legion of Purification, and come away stronger.

Death and worse awaited them there. The dwarven souls he had aided beneath the Rotunda had hinted at it. He knew it now, gazing with both his sights on the bleak, black edifice, the double set of portcullises, heavy iron bars melted through, he perceived the hungry voids in the spirit world that swirled around the massive metal corpse, another place near the yawning gate, and something far beneath the jumbled courtyard – something cold and deadly, patient and immensely potent.

There were places in the world from which one could never return. Or the act of returning claimed some ported of the returned, changing them forever. In this way, the dead returned to plague the living, or chaos crept in to corrupt.

This was such a place. The voids pulled at him, as they did the others. But only his shaman’s sight showed them for what they were. Annihilation more complete than death by far.

It pained him deepest of all that they were here because of his oath to Aneel.

 

End of Part Five

Go to Part Six.