Runequest Thursday #109 - To Tweak the Nose of the Red Goddess, Part 7!

Clint Staples

It has been almost a month since part 6, but here is the latest in the ongoing saga of the Brightwaters' adventures in  the Clanking Ruin. You can find parts one, two and three, four, five,  and six if you want to catch up, or refresh your memory.

 

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 mechanical 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 had 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 - in this case a horde of mechanimagical monsters that Manfred called Devourers. After a running fight that turned into a headlong retreat, our heroes find themselves trapped in the their place of refuge.

After fighting off wave after wave of attacks from below, Wyrmhere comes up with a desperate plan to get them free of theie present trap, by bringing down the stone spire atop a nearby tower to form a makeshift bridge. The problem - the bridge is an impossible climb below them and the machines are readying for another assault.

Zoe ties off a rope and is first over the edge, down to the spire bridge. But before she can be joined by her friends, she receives another visitor . . .

Part 7

 

Instinct urged Zoe back, but training drove her forward, whipping the sword up and flicking the tip forward threw the scabbard clear of Brightblade and directly toward the reaver’s head. Perhaps something like instinct operated within the machine’s mind, because in mid-leap it batted at the missile with a forepaw, dipped its head out of the way of an attack that couldn’t possibly harm it. In the instant of its distraction, Zoe smashed Brightblade into its snout.

The bronze blade bounced from the steely surface, leaving a long crease in its wake. The mercenary skipped back as the machine landed, agile for all its bulk. Initial attack spoiled, it snarled and closed, swiping with one forepaw then the other. Brightblade turned the first, almost torn from its wielder’s grip by the power of the blow. Zoe faltered, her heel sliding out beyond the edge of the spire. Only the second talon saved her from falling to the machine-infested rubble below. Claws caught the mercenary’s pauldron, tore it free, ripped the padded aketon beneath, pulling its prey away from the edge, spinning her into a stumbling step downslope, the reaver in pursuit.

Zoe felt the burst of pain from her arm as she was hurled away from the edge. Her foe was behind her, closing. She could feel it, knew she would be too slow to turn and fight, even if she could raise her sword with an arm that refused to answer. Another step gained her a precious instant. Twisting her upper body, she spun on her forward foot, letting momentum aid her in bringing Brightblade around to threaten her enemy once more.

The reaver had not attacked during her moment of vulnerability.  It crouched, tail tip sinuously weaving in the air above the metal monster’s flank – like the flashing eye of some eldritch serpent.

The machine waited, as if inviting her to strike it again.

Stifling a sob, Zoe remained still as she slowly int6erposed Brightblade between them. She would not be destroyed where she stood, incinerated by “plazmuh”, as Manfred had named the deadly attack a reaver’s tail could produce. But she knew that if she moved to attack, the machine would respond in kind.

Wyrmhere ground his teeth as he tried in vain to summon even a glint of the power that had filled him moments before. The energy he had stolen from his demon had gone in the single massive burst of sorcerous lightning that had brought down the spire below. Now he looked helplessly on as his comrade was pitted against a metallic monster the size of a horse, but of far, far more deadly design. 

The others were little better. None had bolts or darts to hurl. All had been spent turning back the reaver’s lesser kin as they charged up the interior of the redoubt in which the Brightwaters were trapped.

With a curse, Sayyid tossed away her shield, tucked her hewing spear in the crook of her arm, and tore the swaying rope from the sorcerer’s hands. Eschewing the foot loop, she clambered atop the uneven wall overlooking the strife below, and leapt with a cry like the shriek of a bird of prey.

Sayyid could see that Zoe was badly hurt, the bloody shoulder, her uneven stance, the quavering of her swordblade in her grip, suggested the severity of her wound. But the metal beast was marked as well, though it appeared to have come out better than the mercenary. Zoe was retreating, with the thing stalking her, savouring the kill like a grass panther closing on a wounded foal. Sayyid’s leap and cry seemed to have gone unheard. Still in the air, she saw it shift its bulk in preparation of another attack.

The makeshift bridge and its occupants filled her sight. Sayyid had watched Zoe’s descent, so she swung forward with her feet, arcing her path to place her overtop the span, if only she dropped fast enough. A moment and she realized that she would miss if she held on. She let go the rope and dropped toward the tilted spire, risking the saw-mouths of a dozen or more of the bipedal raiders below if she missed.

Gripping tight on the spear-shaft, she struck the stone of the spire. Her boots skidded on the surface as stabbing pain shot from her soles up her legs. Her injured leg gave way, but she surged up with another cry of mingled pain and rage. Sayyid was four long strides to the whipping tail of the machine.

But the machine was only two strides from stricken Zoe, whose bared shoulder was crimson with bright blood and tatters of aketon. Sayyid sprang to attack the machine, knowing she would be too late to halt it as the reaver’s shoulders bunched, head dipping as it crouched. Before Sayyid had taken her second step, those terrible forepaws left the surface of the spire as the reaver surged up to attack Zoe, talons foremost.

A boulder, descending like one of Orlanth’s slingstones, smashed the steel flank of the steely beast as its hind claws tore the stone to thrust its bulk into its leap. Sayyid heard the rending of metal at the impact, saw the monster’s hindquarters falter, tail flailing, its hind claws scrape and scrabble for purchase on the canted spire. Hewing spear high in mid-charge, she brought the sword-like blade down in a lethal arc as the segmented tail swiped low over the surface of the spire.

The pounce of the reaver was incredibly swift for so large a thing. Zoe would not have been quick enough to slash with Brightblade. But the sword was already point first and ideal for a thrust. With an anguished cry, She thrust as she hurled herself forward, following the blade tip toward the neck of her foe, where metal-sheathed cables suggested a weakness that had the single featureless plate of its head did not.  With luck it would strike before she was in reach of its talons, which she could not hope to stop with a parry.

 A moment before contact, something changed. Its forequarters off the ground, the reaver flinched as if struck, its hind parts shifted as talons scraping the surface of the spire to keep its place, its anticipated attack forgotten as it tried to halt its sideward slide on the canted surface of the stone. Perhaps for the first time in is centuries of existence, the great bulk of the machine worked against it. Crimson talons scored long lines across the length of the spire as it slid nearer the edge.

Zoe saw her chance. Sword tip wavering in an all but one-handed grip, her charge made of her a missile, its tip the leaf-bladed sword she bore. The enchanted bronze slipped past the smooth armor of its head to find the neck, sliding between the metallic cables there – and piercing the monsters deeply.

Rage soared in Zoe as she remembered Orlanth, saving her life after the Zorak Zoran ambush, remembered following his sylph for days in which she felt neither hunger nor thirst nor the pain of her death wound, to that forgotten Storm shrine, where she had been made whole, transformed, and sworn to Orlanth’s service.  She roared like the wild wind, sure that her god would save or claim her. In that moment, as Brightblade drove deeper into the torso of the machine beast, she cared not which.

A glow, not unlike that of the things tail, appeared between the cables of its neck, surrounding the sword blade. Zoe felt heat from the wound, like standing too close to a forge, pain-bright but not deadly, merely a hint of the fire within. The metal monster shuddered as it began to slide toward the edge again, its claws scrabbling futilely to arrest its descent. The tail loosed a lance of light, its beam wild as it left a smoking gouge in the wall of the  ruin behind Zoe, swung away to scour rubble beyond.

Zoe pushed with all her considerable might. The pain of her shoulder was distant now, as was her roar – equal parts war-cry and howl of agony. Brightblade pushed a hand-span deeper as it shoved the monster nearer the edge. Sayyid’s strike clove the armored tail, cutting off the azure beam.

Perceiving Zoe’s intent, she reversed her spear, pushing the haft beneath the fetlock of a hind leg until she felt it contact – whether the ground, or some other part of the enemy, and heaved upward with all her strength. The machine was further unbalanced, as one talon lost its purchase on the spire. The speed of its downward slide increased as it was distracted by a flurry of stones from above. Ughari and Wyrmhere had joined Manfred in the only way they could.

The actions of the reaver were desperate now, swift but also erratic, as if it could not comprehend its situation, or arrive at a way to arrest its rapid worsening. Zoe withstood the fires that must be melting Brightblade, heaved sword and machine once more until she felt resistance give, tried to drag the blade free as one hind leg slid free of the spire, followed by the other.

Brightblade was trapped, a foot or more of blade still in the neck of the reaver, which would be tumble over the spire to the stones below at any moment. Zoe could let go the hilt, almost did, lose the sword. But she held on as she stepped nearer the edge, pursuing the sliding monster as she levered her sword up and down, widening the wound. At the last moment, the steely jaws of the reaver gnashing as it’s talons sought to arrest its fall, she leaped back, gripping the hilt with all her strength, a cry of “Orlanth” on her lips.

Whether the storm god heard or not, the reaver’s claws gouged their way free of the stone of the spire and it fell to the rubble below with a resounding crash. Zoe paid no heed to the doom of that relic of the Machine City, because she held Brightblade in her one good hand!

 

*****

 

So low on magical energy were the Brighwaters that Zoe’s shoulder could only be wrapped by Sayyid and bound to mercenary’s Breastplate. Wyrmhere, Ughari and Manfred hurried to join the pair on the toppled spire, aware that the fall of the reaver would only cow its fellows for so long.

But the lesser machines, perhaps discouraged by the fall of their larger compatriot to the stones sixty feet below the spire, did not attack. For the reaver’s part, it survived the fall as it had Zoe and Sayyid’s attack. It was stricken, but still mobile, it hobbled on three legs, with agonizing slowness toward the round Tower of the Devourers – which stood no great distance away across the courtyard that was the home of the metal beasts. Zoe shook her head at the thing’s durability, had little doubt that there was some eldritch mechanism within the tower that would rejuvenate the monster. It was her present hope that the Brightwaters could conclude the business of getting out of this tower and beyond the Mage-Wall before that occurred. She had no interest in a rematch.

The forge-knight, Manfred was last and heaviest by far, and delayed because he doubled the rope for more security. But he slid down the length of the rope easily, to stand among his employers once more. Once down, he shook the rope and the length came loose of its anchor point to fall in his waiting arms.

“I hooked the rope around the projection Wyrmhere used, so that it might be retrieved,” said Manfred.

Sayyid laughed, sure that she had heard something like smugness in the forge-knight’s monotone.

Manfred pointed to the surface of the roof. The intact base of the spire was a jagged mass, with gears and heavy cable of twisted iron, exposed in the fall of the spire.

“Those are parts of the machinery of the elevator we seek,” stated the forge-knight.

But the empty vertical shaft that the Brightwaters had been led to expect was nowhere to be seen. On closer inspection, some distance away from the center of the tower, Sayyid discovered a trapdoor set flush with the surface of the roof.

“Here,” she cried.

Preparing to be rushed from below, the heroes ringed the trapdoor, weapons readied, as Manfred gripped the simple bar handle. Zoe, unable to sheathe Brightblade or use it now that her arm was immobilized, stood back, the greatsword at her feet alongside, her heavy Lunar crossbow, useless until they could find bolts.

She hefted the unfamiliar weight of Sayyid’s hand-axe.

Listening through the heavy metal door produced no information as to what lay beyond, so on a signal from Wyrmhere, Mnafred flung the door wide.

No surge of metal bodies and saw-mouths greeted them; only a puff of disturbed dust draw skyward by the breeze. The way below was dark beyond the oblong of light from the opening. To Wyrmhere, peering down the hole, all that as visible were the first four steps of a stairway. But Manfred, after assuring everyone that there were no enemies in the immediate area below, offered to spearhead their descent, stating that his sight could pierce the shadows. The red glow of his circular oculars lent credence to the claim.

Following the forge-knight, they took the stairs in single file, wounded Zoe in their midst, clutching Brightblade in one hand with her crossbow hanging from its strap from her good shoulder.

The stair was not long. At it base, a rubble-strewn landing, with two open hallways. Manfred directed them unerringly toward the center of the tower, where they could expect to find the shaft beneath the spire and its exposed workings. They heard nothing but their own footsteps and a single emphatic Praxian curse from Ughari when his moccasin slipped on a loose stone.

Their guide’s promise was made good when he pointed an iron finger at a boxlike room surrounded by fallen stones from nearby walls and ceiling, with a single opening, sealed by a framework of heavy wrought iron. On closer inspection, the wrought iron proved to be the remains of a gate, now bent inward and stuck. Through ornamental holes in the wrought iron was a darkness so complete that the Brightwaters could easily believe that it was part of a shaft that descended uninterrupted to, and possibly beneath, the surface fifty feet or more below.

Wyrmhere raised the notion that they might camp next to the sealed elevator, until they could regain sufficient energy to heal Zoe, then continue.

Ughari contested the plan, “We are capable of moving. We should continue to do so. The monsters are surely massing. They may know a way here that we have not found, or a place to catch us further along.”

In rare agreement with the shaman, Zoe urged them on, though her fair face showed the strain of her wound. Sayyid, hovering nearby, unwrapped her scarf, wadded it, and gently stuffed it under the soaking crimson of Zoe’s torn aketon.

Turning to the others, she spoke in a tone that would not be denied, “We stop. If she goes down the rope in this shape, she will tear her wound wide open.”

Ughari acquiesced with a shrug, and flopped to the floor cross-legged. Discorporating his fetch with instructions to scout around them for signs of danger, then explore the elevator shaft. Wyrmhere, moved to help Zoe, but she sat without aid upon a projecting block, leaning back gently against the wall of the stone box with a sigh. Sayyid and Manfred stood watch, weapons bared, while the sorcerer slumped to the littered floor, immediately adopting his rejuvenatory trance.

In this way, they Brightwaters passed the rest of the day, though they could not see Yelm’s reluctant surrender of the heavens from their place inside the ruin. After the decision to rest had been made, Manfred and Sayyid had returned to the trapdoor and closed it, cutting off ready access to the interior should any of the Devourer’s minions traverse the bridge that the spire had made.

The heroes went untroubled by any foe. Ughari informed them that they were quite alone, and that Aka had followed the elevator shaft to a low ceilinged complex of halls and rooms, many completely filled with fallen debris, but free of devourers. In addition, Aka detected the presence of the mage-wall, and had followed a set of passages to a point beyond it, where there was access to the surface once more.

Zoe and Sayyid shared the task of healing her shoulder, and Sayyid spent more power tending to the annoying wound to her calf. Reinvigorated and once more capable of spellcasting, the heroes made ready. Zoe knotted all their lengths of rope together, for Aka could give Ughari only a vague notion of the distance to the bottom of the shaft. Together, she and Manfred wrenched free the mangled gate and peered into blackness.

As Zoe reached up to test a projecting metal buttress inside the roof-beams of the stone box, Manfred looked over the edge and pronounced, “Nothing.” The sailor of Brightwater fastened the rope to the buttress, took up sword and crossbow, gripped the rope in both hands and for the second time that day, stepped off a ledge into danger.

End of Part 7!