The first piece in the above mention series is now available as an audio book on YouTube!
The first piece in the above mention series is now available as an audio book on YouTube!
Just get on with it, Pudding Bowl!’ the bristling dwarf knelt, shouldered his blunderbuss and took aim at the rotting, claw-scarred door.
‘It’s just, I don’t think this is quite the way; we might be releasing something we can’t control.’ Whimpered Burr, hunkering down by the aforementioned access point.
‘It’s just a bloody vampire or something, Wobbly. Just get that door open or I’ll shoot you through it.’
Burr muttered a quick prayer to any god that might have been listening, localized, inter-dimiension-ary or otherwise, and reached for the rust pitted door handle.
There was a mighty bellow of ‘Raaagh!’ from the room beyond and the door exploded inwards. Burr took the full force of the splintering oak in the face and chest and was jettisoned across the flagstones.
Heldmann the Barbarian combat rolled into the room with his broadsword at the ready, growling and huffing fiercely, spittle varnishing his dark beard and the ground below him. A psychotic spittle tsunami if you will.
Through the door way peeped the shrunken, bent over form of the wizard, Greybeard, wide eyed and his staff at the ready with a slight nimbus of light at the end protruding into the room.
The Elf ranger, Gretchen, sighed and shouldered her bow. She leaned against the remainder of door frame and lit her pipe. ‘I told you. I could smell the pair of them before we even entered the castle.’
‘Hmmm, perhaps.’ Muttered the old man. ‘Well at least that’s one problem solved.’
‘Balls!’ Bellowed the barbarian relaxing his stance and raising to his full height. ‘I thought you chaps were this blasted vampire.’
‘Bugger it all!’ huffed the dwarf engineer relaxing his aiming squint. ‘We knew it was only yous! Just wanted to give ya a surprise is all.’
‘Do I smell a feint trace of wee, Herr Dwarf?’ Purred the Elf with a lopsided grin.
‘Bah, out of it fancy britches. You know perfect well that’ll be Burr. Nice of you to drop by mind, any later and we’d be on ours way home just as you were arriving. We’ve almost tracked the damn parasite down and we’re about to kill it. Now form an orderly queue.’
‘Clearly you have everything well in hand…’drawled the elf.
‘Ah, yes’ began the wizard hobbling at speed into the room. ‘That’s what we came to tell you…wait a tick, where is Burr?’
‘Dead in the corner there.’ Rumbled the dwarf flapping a hand in the general direction of the blubber pile.
‘Oh dear lord’ exclaimed the elder tottering over to the prone form of Burr. ‘I told you to take absolute care of him.’ The wizard cast a few spread hands over him, intoned an incantation along the lines of ‘Umbly-Bumbly-Boo’, and then snapped his fingers in front of the pudgy man’s face. Burr’s eyes snapped opened and he tried to scan his surroundings with dull, glazed eyes.
‘Easy, Chosen One, you’re safe. For the moment. Just let your senses fully return before getting up.’ The wizard turned to address the group as a whole. ‘I’m afraid we are all in the most grave danger. No pun intended.’
‘Aren’t we always? Roared the barbarian proudly, smacking a fist on his pecs. ‘We’re heroes, we’re supposed to be…’
‘Please, let me finish. This vampire we seek is not the usual run of the mill undying foe.’
‘Oh really?’ said Burr sitting up and rubbing his neck. ‘You mean it’s not the usual fluffy, welcoming aristocrat who’s all charm and curtesy until he fancies a bit of a snack?’
‘Erm, no. Not really. Quite the opposite actually. All my research and my enquires in the village seem to point to one thing. One rather large thing…It’s a Strigi Vampire. A Ghoul King.’
‘Oh for f….’ the ranger trailed off and kicked a pebble hard against the wall.
‘Ah’. The barbarian simply said and lowered his considerably huge sword.
The dwarf un-cocked his blunderbuss and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
‘Yes,’ continued the wizard at pace. ‘I thought that would give you pause for thought. So perhaps we might want to sit this one out and take a slightly less heroic stance? But never the less, take an altogether even more important role in this matter: by traveling to find the nearest witch hunter, a detachment of the Emperors finest, a Priest of Sunna and an out of the way cave somewhere for us all to then hide in until this all blows over. Questions?’
‘But why didn’t you tell us this on the way here, wizard?’ rumble the barbarian dangerously.
‘Because I needed an escort. And obviously you wouldn’t have come otherwise. Besides, we all have to look after, Burr. If the stars, portents, prophesies and the author are to be believed then we must safe guard him at all costs. The world depends on it!…Apparently.’
‘Well I’m not staying here,’ said the elf sulkily. She knocked out her pipe bowl then disappeared into the shadows of the next room.
‘Er, well’ mumbled the gigantic barbarian staring at his feet. ‘Well if there was anything we could do. Y’know to kill it, then I’m all in. But…y’know…’
The dwarf inspected his boots and beard for an easy excuse. He finally came up with: ‘Bugger that, I’m not wasting good ammo on a shit sucker! I’m off.’ He hefted his armament onto his shoulder and stomped across the room after the elf.
‘Wait, wait, wait! That’s not the attitude!’
The party turned, or slid back out of the shadows, to stare blankly at Burr.
‘Hello’ he said pleasantly. ‘What?’
‘You were saying’, coerced the wizard.
‘Oh,’ said Burr genuinely surprised, ‘was that me?’
‘Yes, Burr: Wait, wait, wait, what?’
‘Erm, I don’t know I hadn’t really thought it entirely through. Well look, Heldmann, I’ve seen you slaughter whole war bands of Wildhorns and Orcs single handed…’
The barbarian gave him a half smile and a quarter shrug.
‘Gretchen, I’ve seen you shoot a whole flock of bats out of the sky in the time it takes me to say, ‘Eugh, bat poo! Run for you lives.’
The elf merely raised an eye brow and continued her deep disapproving glare.
‘Bottkrak Ye Engineer, you…’
‘Oh look, we get the picture, Burr.’ Snapped Grey Beard butting in with a windmill of flapping robes. ‘There’s no need to go on, dear boy.’ The mad geriatric took a snort of what was presumably snuff out of a small tin. After a huge sneeze he continued in a reedy, nasally type way-‘But you don’t seem to understand. It’s a full moon out there, it’s around midnight and we’re on its turf. We don’t stand a chance. More immediately important-we-can’t-kill-the-thing!’
The aging wizard took a chug from a small purple vial, a deep breath and continued on apparently more relaxed. ‘See here, I’ve brought some vials of thrice-blessed holy water and a stake or two, but they were more of a token gesture.’ He unslung a back pack and began rummaging around within.
‘We could always stake Burr to the ground and give him a bed bath? Chimed the elf helpfully. ‘And I always carry a bunch of garlic with me to ward off his smell.’
‘So we’re set then, we’ve got all we need!’ cried Burr jubilantly. ‘Why don’t we suffuse the garlic in the water, cover the stakes in it then somehow fashion a firing mechanism to shoot it at the vampire.
‘Ok Burr, here’s a stake,’ huffed the red faced wizard suddenly stuffing the whole bundle into the fat man’s arms. ‘Here’s some holy water. In fact, here’s all the holy water. Now off you go and kill that nasty, immensely huge, terrifyingly strong, horrendously swift and agile, undead monster. Ta-ta! Don’t be long now.’ He patted him on the shoulder with unconvincing companionship.
‘Erm, what I was trying to do was…’ stammered Burr shouldering the sack. ‘Rally round the whole group with a can do attitude. Y’know, lead by example? Heard of that?’
The rest of the group merely stared at him dumbfounded. A tumble wheel traversed between them. A skeletal rat ran half way up the wizards robes, sniffed then ran away again.
‘I see,’ started the wizard. ‘What you are suggesting, Burr, is suicide…’
‘No: Heroism! Against all the odds, come what may, against impossible forces and odds and what not. The nemesis at the climax of the story in his castle of power. The final show down. None of this mean anything to you?’
‘Ok, chimed the elf re-lighting her pipe. And what are you going to be doing whilst we’re fighting this thing? That is of course if it hasn’t already picked us off one by one silently in the darkness?’
‘Er…well…I hadn’t thought of that. I just assumed he’d play the game and be waiting for us in the throne room in the tallest tower with his hordes of treasure and a bunch of easily overcome-able guards.’
‘No.’ Gretchen said flatly. ‘No, it won’t be like that, Burr. We’ll be lambs to the slaughter. We probably won’t even see it until its already feasting on our innards in front of our still staring eyes. It’s not the cutsey-wutsey, effeminate, prepossessing, romantic, dashing, type vampire; it’s a huge hulking monstrosity, hell bent on tearing us all limb from limb then feasting on our remnants, type vampire.
‘Oh, I haven’t heard of those guys before.’
‘‘Well, now you have. And how exactly do you propose to insert one of those rather small and flimsy wooden cocktail stick through its abnormally huge, muscular and tough ribcage? Hm?’
A familiar tumble weed rolled back the other way between the group. The skeletal rat returned, shook its head vigorously at Burr then scampered out of sight.
The full gravity of the situation seemed to come upon fat man rather suddenly. ‘Oh well, we tried’ he shrugged. ‘Off we go then’ beaming, he picking up his shield and making to move off.
‘Quite right, Burr. Knew you’d get there eventually.’
The rest of the congregation got their stuff together and made to depart.
‘Well on the plus-side,’ began the wizard conversationally, ‘we haven’t been detected yet. We’ll just slip out quietly and come back with the mob…’
Burr opened another door and stared down in revulsion at a grubby, grey, deformed and hunched over and unnecessarily ugly man-thing. Its obsidian, pupil-less eyes widened like dishes as it hissed and thrust its taloned fingers towards his face.
The enormous bulk of the barbarian’s silhouette hooved into view behind Burr. The creature was immediately taken aback then loped off at pace on all fours down the corridor. A blast from the Engineer’s blunderbuss threw it forward hard against the opposite door before being pinned by five elvish arrows in unison.
‘Balls,’ said the barbarian simply.
‘Bugger’ said the dwarf dejectedly.
‘For fu… sake’, Winced the elf.
‘Oh my…’ twitched the wizard, taking another strange liquor out of his sleeve.
‘What?’ Said Burr, turning happily to the band. ‘It’s dead, job done. And we all survived. Now we can return to the village as heroes. Not what I was expecting at all I must say. Easy!’
In unison the group turned to stare at him once more. The barbarian even went so far as to lift a mighty fist ready to bust him one.
‘Oh well, I guess it knows were here now. Prepare yourselves everyone.’ Sighed the wizard.
‘What? What, that wasn’t it? You’re kidding?’
‘No, Burr,’ wheezed the wizard, wearily sitting on a crate. ‘No, that was just a random ghoulish minion that just happened along. One of quite possibly hundreds. And all linked to one being.’
‘The actual for reals vampire?’
‘Yes, Burr. Perhaps we did have a chance, but now…They’ll come. All of them.’
Perfectly cued a chorus of echoing hisses and screeches erupted from all around the castle. The barbarian slumped against the wall with a cold, hard slap. The elf crouched with her face in her palms. The dwarf sat on the floor with his feet outstretched and stared vacantly at his antiquated firearm in his lap.
The malevolent screeches were already coming closer, and there could be heard the distinct sound of naked feet running on stone.
Burrs baleful glare snapped between the dejected group members. ‘Not a chance in hell!’ he spat viciously. We’re not giving up like that. Balls to this sodding vampire. He’s the end game to worry about later. Right now we can do ourselves proud and do what we do and take down as many of those sickening, dirty, little bastards as we can before we snuff it.’
Nobody shifted. Nobody spoke. ‘Right,’ huffed Burr hiking up britches and armour and readjusting his belt. He set about grabbing the nearest furniture and detritus and began building a haphazard barricade against the broken door.
‘There’s only two ways into this room,’ he wheezed as he worked. ‘From down that rather long corridor which the dwarf and elf will guard and this rather knackered doorway here which myself and the barbarian will guard. The elf huffed. The dwarf looked up to shrug. The twitching wizard simply entertained himself with whatever it was that only he could see in the mid distance.
‘The corridor will act as a shooting gallery, it’ll take them ages to get to you, and you can’t miss. We just need to make the other door way solid enough so only a couple of those little feckers can get to us at once. The barbarian will take care of them and I’ll protect his flank with my supposedly magical shield.
Meanwhile the wizard will be our eyes and ears for both groups and help out and heal as needed. He glanced at the distracted mage worriedly. ‘And occasionally, when the desire takes him, he can lob a fire ball or two into the room beyond, because all of the little bastards will be trapped in there, packed solid. Questions?’
‘Just two,’ said the elf, a warning note in her tone. She rose slowly and nocked an arrow. ‘Who are you and what have you done with our Burr?’
‘No time for that now Lanky Bird, the beasts are upon us. Don’t waste your ammo, or energy, just take the bastards down one at a time. No show, all pro, got it?’
By now the rest of the congregation were on their feet looking around rather foolishly and unhelpfully.
‘Now who put you in charge?’ bellowed the barbarian, suddenly sounding more himself.
‘You lot did, Bigman; as soon as you thought it was all over and the day was lost before the fight had even begun. We may not be able to kill this vampire but we’re going to go down swinging. If I die and the world ends by whatever means, at least you guys will be remembered as having fought for my life to the last, side by side.’
‘But this strategy stuff…’ rumbled the dwarf quietly. ‘How would you know all this stuff?’
‘Computer…er. Games, just games…never mind; I’ll try and explain later. Just help me make barricades.’
Heart beats later the door at the far end of the corridor burst open and a horde of foul, wretched, nearly naked bodies erupted out of the shadows. Filthy clawed feet stampeded over the remains of their fallen, squashed, broken, pin cushioned comrade as they screamed and hissed their way to the hero’s last stand.
The elf shot the fat man an angry look, then shook her head. She cart wheeled to her spot and with bow and fletch immediately in hand started making measured, timed shots into the oncoming horde. The door to the room on the other side shattered and another horde swarmed over to the barricade where the barbarian was already standing, his fingers flexing on his sword handle, his teeth gritted and brow furrowed, saliva already flecking his lips and beard.
Burr stumbled over to the giant and slapped his shield beside the barricade and door. Now the only way into the room this side was past the swings and jabs of the warrior’s broadsword.
In the centre of the room the wizard stared bemused at Burr’s back. He grinned a lopsided grin then shook his head. He drew an outline on the floor and a circular Sigel appeared covering the whole area and engulfing each hero in blue light. With a flick of his fingers a glowing orb appeared in the centre of the ceiling and began radiating warming, encouraging rays.
The heroes morale soared, their grips on their weapons tightened and the weapons themselves became light as air…inhuman vitality coursed through their veins.
The engineer and ranger worked surprisingly well together, like a well-oiled machine of death: The blunderbuss taking out the majority of the front line of foes; then the dwarf would dip back behind the barricade to reload while the elf took pot shots at those behind who were still dazed and confused. Together they were like a morbid threshing machine.
Likewise, each time the blood mad barbarian swung through the bodies pressed up against the barricade, Burr’s shield would then appear blocking hands and claws reaching through. When the huge man was ready for a focused return swing Burr would remove the blockage and duck…like a grizzly version of whack a mole. Whack a ghoul, if you will.
The wizard was far more relaxed now and even seemed to be enjoying himself; easily coping with healing the minor nicks and bruises his band suffered in a timely and orderly fashion. He even had time to repeatedly charge their weapons with temporary enchantments of fire and ice and got into quite a rhythm.
Suddenly the waves of revolting grey bodies and pointy teeth ceased. Either their moral had gone and they had slunk back off into the shadows to lick their wounds; or perhaps the whole tribe of them were prone, splatted and sticky on the flagstone floor.
Peace settled in the little room. Weapons were checked and fire arms reloaded. Arrows were retrieved from twitching corpses, brows were moped, pipes were puffed and barricades rebuilt.
A melodic note lifted in the room. The elf was laughing in her pleasing, harmonious cadence. Burr found himself trying to recall the last time he had heard it.
The dwarf gave his earthy chuckle and stroked his beard. The barbarian began to gaffore with his blood covered fists on his gore splashed hips. The Wizard tittered and lit an obscenely long cigarette. But Burr’s brow furrowed.
‘Hmmm, makes me wonder…’
‘No point wondering now, Piggyman’ bellowed the warrior. ‘Battles over…’
‘But not the war’, muttered the Wizard and gave Burr a grave look.
The rest of the company turned a worried countenance towards the fat man and the Wizard.
‘This bastard Vampire could have easily over run the barricade at any point.’ Pondered Burr aloud. ‘And crucially, when the fighting was thickest…So where…’ he said slowly and meaningfully ‘Oh where, has the Vampire been all this time?…’
‘…And why…’ began Grey Beard, just as slowly ‘Hasn’t he shown himself yet.’
‘Because…’ hesitated the elf. ‘It’s been here…
As one the company raised their head towards the considerably high vaulted ceiling.
There was enough moonlight coming through the lofty arched windows to enable them to make out a vast, hunkered shape atop a wooden beam spanning from wall to wall. Somewhere in that monstrous shadow were a pair of large, evil, red glowing eyes. They stared down hatefully at the heroes.
‘Erm…’ Ventured, Burr. ‘Run?’
‘Too late’ breathed the Elf, half drawing her bow. ‘Far, too late.’
The shape above them unfurled wings like a monstrous bat and pushed off from its perch. Plummeting like a lightning bolt to the ground below its considerable silhouette grew immense as it fell.
Burr had just enough time to scream some horrified gibberish before the red eyes closed with him. Then blackness. And cold, damp, stony oblivion.
Thanks for reading
The whole never-ending maze felt like they were crawling section by section, compartment to compartment through one massive rusting machine. Or perhaps through the internal systems of some great, slumbering, ancient and infirm monster. Complete with associate smells and leaky bits.
The uniform, block stone walls were slick and sticky from insect poo and mould. The wreak of ancient air, harsh metal and good oil was practically edible.
There was a permanent sound track to their progress, a detached underlying bass hum. Always one persistent, dramatic, foreboding note constantly just on the edge of auditory periphery. This was accented every so often by a burp of escaping gas or wheeze of steam; either that or the occasional muffled rumble as chunks of either stone or metal moved about unseen.
To Burrs heightened and already frayed senses he half expected a massive foamy tongue or tsunami of fizzy stomach acids to come slurping round the next corner or out of the next door.
Normally his usually amiable Dwarfish associate would be very happy and very much at home here. But due to Burrs anxious presence he was very much not. Burr turned his attention back to said squat engineer who had finally calmed down enough to allow actual words and sentences to form. To Burr, it sounded like a distant thunderstorm gathering up all its pent up wrath…
‘…Burr, I have the patience of one of those Sunna Saints of yours.’ The dwarf’s eyes were tightly closed and his whole body was so rigid he vibrated. The storm grew more fractious and rumbled ever nearer. He continued, ‘I’ll have you know that I can hold my focus and nerve even when bombs are dropping and enemies are at large at my back and Mother Nature is doing her best to lay us low…’
‘Yes, I’m sorry, Bottkrak. It’s just…’
The storm was very much overhead and all enveloping…
‘…But what does send me kilter out of kelter is when I’m doing fine locksmith work like this and folk are whining and whinging and pacing up and down and asking me ‘HOW LONG NOW?’
The dwarf finally opened his fierce eyes and pointed a wide, hairy, grubby, stubby finger into the fat man’s face and bellowed ‘One break in my concentration and we’ll both be horrifically killed in milliseconds! But anymore crap, Pork Glugger and I’m going to take great pleasure in breaking this door down with your head. Understand?’
All of a once the storm broke, either that or Burr was luckily in the eye of it. The light spatter of the commencing precipitation cooled his forehead. Or maybe that was just his ‘I’m soon to be dead’ sweat pouring down his forehead.
‘Yes, of course. I’m so sorry, it’s just I’m a little nervous. He stammered. ‘And hungry. And thirsty…And cold.’
The oppresive gathering of dark clouds blew out of the many stony cracks and crevices then made a hasty retreat presumably toward the horizon; That just left the pair of them in that tiny, dark, dank, dirty room.
‘As am I, Lardicus. As am I.’ rumbled the dwarf turning back to his work his anger apparently spent. ‘Hell of a thust on me. Haven’t had a beer in nigh-on a day and a night. But soon as I’m through this door everything will be well. Now concentrate, Plumper; pass me the three-quater inch Cocksprocket.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know what a Cocksprocket looks like’ whined Burr, gingerly poking around in the Dwarfs’ expansive armour-plated tool box. ‘Is this it?’ he said hopefully, holding up something drippy with some sort of nozzle flapping about on top.
‘By Bumgrims Red Hot Poker, buck up man!’ there again, that distant rumble of thunder. ‘How have you gone through life this clueless? Do you want to get out of here this year? Alive? With all your limbs on the right way?’
‘Sorry, I’ve had no real experience in tinkering or machinery. These tools are all so strange to me.’
The short man gawked at the fat man. ‘You mean to tell me that you haven’t so much as changed a wheel on a horse cart before? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t changed the wheel on a cart before. Won’t get very far in life not knowing how to change the wheel on a horse cart.’
‘Well no, see, where I’m from horse and carts aren’t really used anymore.’
‘What? Why? How are you supposed to get your beer from the brewery to the tavern then?’
‘Erm. Well, by a wheeled mechanical device; a combustion engine I believe it’s called.’
The crouching dwarf turned again and raised a shaggy eye brow. He waved a pointy ended tool in Burrs general direction. ‘I know what’cha mean, one of them new steam powered buggers, eh. Trains and barges and such?’
‘Sort of, it’s called a car!’
‘Oh, well that’s more like it. Thank Bonki’s Hammer Head, you had me worried then. Hold up…’ The brazen beardy bastard paused his work once more. ‘So you can change a wheel on one o’ them contraptions but not on a horse cart?’
‘Well, no actually. Neither really.’
The dwarf’s eyes rolled around the places on his head where hair was slightly less prolific. ‘Useless. Utterly useless.’ He grumbled as he returned to technical in hand. ‘My kin have yet to develop a word to chastise folk like you, Burr. Simply because we’ve never met anyone like you before. Remind me why the Companionship took you into the fold again?’
Burr took a deep breath of the thin, fetid air: ‘Because if you don’t see that I’m safely home soon your world and all you’ve ever know will cease to exist and the very fabric of space, time and reality will rip itself apart in a cataclysm of fire, light and blood…Apparently.’
‘Hm. Well. I suppose you’re right there, Bloatling. Well, hold up then and let me concentrate. Otherwise this cataclysm of yours is going to arrive before we’ve even got out of here.’
After a solid half hour of abject silence and absent minded thumb twiddling Burr finally worked up the courage to attempt to break the monotony.
‘So tell me, er, Noble Dwarf, why haven’t your people developed a machine that can do all the lock picking for you? You just jam it on the door and the machine opens it for you. Or perhaps a magical teleporting machine that puts you directly into the treasure room without having to go through all this palaver?’
The dwarf turned and shot Burr a look that suggested the fat man had just asked if he could defecate in his toolbox. ‘I want no truck with that new-fangled arcane muck!’ spat the dwarf. ‘Stick to what works, says I.’
Burr gingerly lit a cigarette from his lantern. ‘But surely your people are on the cutting edge of science and technology? You should be world leaders in this sort of thing.’
‘We likes our old, tried and tested ways.’ Grumbled the beard, now with a pair of telescopic eye wear on. ‘Every one of my people is a craftsperson in his or her own right. From the highest to the lowest. Everyone is treated as an equal. No matter their wares.’
‘Well, in that case-why don’t you simply get the biggest, oldest battering ram you’ve got, and knock the whole building down around the treasure room? The rich stuff is bound to survive somehow.’
‘By Gimley’s Stupid Name, that’d never do. That wouldn’t be right at all. Some bugger’s put all their time and effort into this stronghold and all the ingenious traps. Simply busting through the whole lot would be unthinkable. Downright uncivilised. Sacrilegious even. Furthermore, where would be the challenge?’
Burr elbowed himself off the wall to stare directly at the dwarfs busy, rippling back. ‘You mean you and your brotherhood would rather risk life and limb to obtain historic treasure in the most drawn-out obstinate way imaginable. Just to prove you could do it?’
‘Aye, Chunkster. And what, exactly, is wrong with that? Any fool can become a pick pocket or a bank robber. But it takes decades of study and practice in the art of Locksmithery to protect or expose treasures like this.
It’s an understanding we have between the guild of locksmiths and the guild of thieves. ‘They make ‘em, we break ‘em’. No funny business or half measures. S’like an unwritten law. And a dwarf’s word is his bond.’
Burr slumped wetly back against the wall as the lecture continued.
‘S’what heroin’ is all about when you get down to it: risk everything. High reward. If you fail, you weren’t good enough and you probably end up dead.’
Burr sighed rolling his eyes, ‘Wow, your people and their culture. Mind boggling. You really hate embracing the future don’t you? Surely your lot won’t get anywhere by being so close minded and unimaginative. Think outside the box once in a while!’
‘Is racist is that, Podgling. All dwarf folk are pig headed, unimaginative and uninteresting. Not just me. It’s our natural state’. The gruff beard and eyebrows returned to their diligent finger work. ‘Can’t stand folk who are racist.’
‘Apologies, Sir Dwarf. I didn’t mean it that way. Look, can’t you just cut around the lock with that sharp, shiny thingymajig?’
‘Listen here, Fatling, if I tamper anywhere else on this door it’s likely to bring the whole place down around our heads. But worse than that, this bloody thing could reset all of our previous work and I’ll get trapped in this rather confined, airless cupboard with a fat, foul smelling incompetent. Either way, we’ll never find Riskitts Gold, the King of The Southern Gate won’t get his tribute and you’ll never get home. Ah, finally!’
The mighty door swung gently open to reveal another empty, dimly lit, stone chamber. Guttering sconces on the wall exposed a haze of dust dancing around the freshly exposed room.
The dwarf knelt down, eyeing up the flag stone floor and stroking his beard. ‘Ah, cunning old devil…’
‘What, placing a room on the other side of a door? Seems a straight forward practical approach to me.’
‘Holy Oldburns’ Tobacco Pouch! I’ve got no time or patience to berate you Burr, so kindly slap yourself hard in the face and concentrate. Now listen careful, Wobbler: only tred where I tred. An inch out either side and you’ll be impaled, garrotted or cast tumbling down into oblivion.’
‘Surely not all three at once?’
‘Nay, course not. Probably just the one. As I’ve been trying t’ learn ya: This is Artyfeks Attributum, one of the best security systems of The Age. The whole place is wired. It’s not meant to be cruel. Just more of a deterrent. A highly efficient and highly lethal deterrent. Prevention is better than cure, Blobman. Stick an Artyfeks logo on the front door of anywhere and only the most skilled or stupid thieves will even go near it. She needs to be treated with the greatest of respect. Hence the time and patience needed to cajole her into opening.’
They made their way steadily across the room on tippy toes. The burly dwarf was surprisingly cat footed for such a bulky block of foul tempered hair. Meanwhile Burr had lost all sensation in his legs and every shaky step was a miraculous feat in itself.
They came at last to a short corridor that led to the final door behind which the treasure would surely be situated. Even Burr could tell it was the final door because it had a certain defiant air to it. That and the gold ornamental Pegasus and Cockatrices seemed to be taunting them from their resplendent facets. They gave the impression that they were daring the thieves to try their luck. Mounted high on the stone door frame was what appeared to be a finely wrought filigree hamster cage complete with water butt, food dispenser and chrome running wheel.
In front of the door was a pedestal, ornately wrought in gold of course, that sported a strange rectangular box with a symbolically large leaver set atop.
The dwarf unceremoniously rummaged around in his underwear and brought forth a shiny disk of gold and silver; rather like a large poker chip but with glyphs, insignia and rune in abundance. As the light from the object refracted around the room an ethereal hamster appeared in the cage, jumped on its wheel and immediately started frantically pumping its legs. Sconces about the room leapt to life blazing with an uncanny, electric blue light. Mystical runes engrave into each stone around the room erupted into life in a vein similar to that of the disk.
‘Behold, Riskitts key.’ Breathed the dwarf holding the disk aloft. ‘The one and only four dimensional key for the one and only four dimensional lock. The key cannot be copied, the lock cannot be picked. This was the pinnacle of Artyfeks craftsmanship and pride of the Locksmith’s Guild. Bloater, our quest is at an end…’
Vehemently, reverently and other such words that end in ‘ently’ the dwarf used both hands to carefully slip the disk into a slot in the box below the abnormally sized gold leaver. He gave Burr the biggest saintly smile ever, the eerie blue light reflecting in his eyes, then dutifully he pulled back the lever. There was a formidable chunk, ker-chunk, a woosh of escaping air…and all the lights went out.
There was the sound of someone struggling against the lever trying to return it to its original position. Then there was a scrabbling, scratching sound as if someone were trying unsuccessfully to poke his fingers into the box underneath the lever to retrieve the disk. Then all was quite again.
‘Bugger.’ Said the dwarf in the darkness. ‘I’m sorry, Burr. It can’t done. We’re doomed. If Riskitt’s Key doesn’t work, then all this has been for naught and we’re trapped here forever. Or until the oxygen runs out…’
‘What! Just like that?’
‘Fraid so. System overload or something. Power drain after so long out of use. Some…something like that…’
For the first time ever Burr heard the sound of a dwarf being unsure. It was so unfamiliar that he almost didn’t recognise the voice in the thick blackness. He sighed, struck a match and relit his lantern.
‘Well, luckily there is something I have learned about technology and such from back in my world.’ Chimed Burr happily.
‘It’s useless, Swill Belly, nothing can penetrate such a thing.’
‘None the less,’ said Burr confidently. He withdrew another match from its box and stepped up to the unfathomable device. He poked the match into a tiny hole beside the slit and the key popped out with a click.
The dwarfs bushy eye brows raised in astonishment.
Burr wiped both sides of the disk on his leather jerkin then blew in the slot a few times before reinserting the disk. Finally he gave the contraption a bloody good slap with his hand.
The dwarf hissed and ducked with his hands on his cap as gears and gizmos whirled overhead. The little phantom hamster reappeared and leapt back up on its wheel and sprinted for all it was worth. The weird blue flames erupted from their sconces once again and air flew back into the room. Burr watched smiling as bolts drew back, paddles flapped away and the door opened to the serenade of well-oiled mechanics.
‘See?’ Beamed Burr. ‘Tried and tested. But thinking outside of the box.’
The dwarf solemnly removed his leather cap and wiped his brow, all the while exhaling a relieved sigh. ‘Need to change me britches…’ he mumbled to no one in particular.
Ahead of them a golden glow…a plinth carved in ancient dwarfen runic hand. A fabulous golden tankard inlaid with rubies and next to it a vast gold hooped barrel already tapped with a gold, emerald encrusted spigot.
‘Thar she blows, Fatstuff.’ Respired the dwarf wide eyed and ringing his headware through his hands. ‘Riskitt’s Gold! Hitherto untasted by mortal in over two centuries. Ha! By Grum it’ll put hairs on ye chest.’ Smacking his lips he replaced his titfer and approached the plinth. Rubbing his hand together in glee he then helped himself to the gaudy drinking vessel.
Burrs jaw suddenly dropped and his eyes narrowed as he took stock of what the dwarf had just said.
‘You mean to tell me that we just spent over twenty four hours in this filthy, airless, trap ridden, er…death trap for some sodding beer?’
The dwarf shot him a glance back of almost dumbfounded hurt. ‘Not just any old beer, Chubster. Rustikks Gold!’ he exclaimed hefting his brimming tankard as if that made it all alright. ‘The finest beer ever to come out of the Mid-Land Dwarven holds. The original brew he developed and mastered. The one all his other brews were cast from. The secrets of which are only ever passed on by word of mouth. Nothing compares! Gaah that hits the spot! Fancy one?’
‘Love to.’ Said Burr closing his eyes and gritting his teeth. ‘Provided of course that’s it’s served in your upturned fleshless skull.’
‘Burr, if you don’t stop wheezing on me I’m going to castrate you and leave you here to die.’
‘It’s-not-my-fault! The air’s freezing my lungs. The snow is knee high and just in case you hadn’t already noticed I’m just a tad out of shape at present.’
‘Well, you still look perfectly spherical to me.
Now then, the extraction point is just up ahead. If I know, The Shiv, he’ll already be there and have secured the place. But still, be on your guard.’
‘That’ll be a little tricky. My hands are so numb I can’t even draw my sword.’
‘Not that it would do you any good anyhow; What I meant is, try and keep out of sight. Hopefully the snow storm should mask your considerable silhouette.’
Burr finally eclipsed a virgin white mound. He wheezed heavily for a few moments then toppled face forward tumbling the rest of the way down the slope.
His momentum delivered him up next to the crouched form of Gretchen. She had her bow drawn and was scanning what at first glance appeared to be a mountain range ahead of them.
Once his brain caught on to what he was seeing Burr realised that it was in fact a castle dominating the horizon; complete with battlements, banners, gargoyles and other generally expected aesthetics such a stone bastion would sport. The structure gave the impression that it had risen up out of the blanket of deep snow and stood resolute against the bleak white and grey twilight landscape.
‘Good work on the camouflage, Burr. You’re learning.’
‘Accident’ mumbled Burr through a face full of snow.
‘Yes, you are, Burr. You’re just a helpless little piglet trapped in the quicksands of fate, aren’t you?’ The elf pinched Burrs rosy cheek playfully. Not used to the sour, monotone elf being companionable he warily muttered, ‘Yes, Sir…Ma-am…M’lady…’
The elf got comfy, shouldered her bow, lit her pipe and resumed her reconnaissance while she waited for Burr to right himself.
‘Right, there I am’ he huffed eventually. ‘So, what’s the plan?’
‘Simple,’ purred the Ranger. ‘Sneak through a convenient break in one of those tumble-down walls, stealthily stalk and ruthlessly murder in cold blood anyone we come across; we then loot and pilfer anything of value we can realistically carry, find The Shiv, get a fire going then get the kettle on. How’s that?’
‘Marvellous’ groaned the fat man. ‘It’ll be child’s play I’m sure.’
‘Ok, off we go…’ and with that she was away like a wraith through the swirl, running atop almost three feet of powdery snow and barely creating a stir.
The lithe fey vaulted a downed tree, hop scotched stones over a fast-flowing ford then somersaulted up the ruins of the nearest fortified wall.
Burr stared open mouthed after her like a dumfounded cow. He rearranged his tussled tunic and tightened his belt with grim determination then started off after her. Huffing like a great steam train he galloped forth like only a morbidly obese man in knee deep snow can.
Presently, Burr picked himself up once more and spat out a mouthful of snow. He narrowed his eyes and set his sights on vaulting the downed trunk. After adjusting his back straps and brushing some snow off his breasts he launched in to action like a stoned sloth.
Burr collided with the tree with such colossal force that a family of snow foxes were ejected from their safe haven like a bunch of furry bullets out of a cracked and rusty cannon.
The dazed vixen gingerly sniffed the unconscious Burr, turned her nose up at him then piddled on his leg. She gathered her albino pups and led them away into the blizzard to find another place to wait out the storm.
From her vantage point on the battlements Gretchen winced at Burrs rigorous display of ineptitude, unsheathed a dagger then stalked off silently into the keep.
Burr awoke sometime later, freezing cold in the ruins of the tree and smelling somewhat like wee.
He clambered to his feet and stomped about to get the feeling back in his body. Lucky for Burr he is very well covered and never truly feels deathly cold. Although he often says he does it’s only because he doesn’t move about all that often, so what do you expect?
After slipping and sliding through the icy water of the ford the bulky man attempted to ascend the stony outcrop Gretchen had so easily scaled earlier. The tumbled down stone work was treacherous, jagged and icy. Therefore, our reluctant hero decided to risk trying to gain entry elsewhere.
Not having much experience or imagination in breaking and entering military institutions, Burr decided he’d just try the front door. Along his route to where he assumed the front door or portcullis or what-have-you would be, he stumbled across several corpses of castle guards lying face down in the deep snow on the outside of the fortification. They’d obviously fallen from height, say, from as high as the battlements Burr was now stood before.
Now Burr was no freelance murder detective with a predilection for being in the right place at the right time, but he hazarded a guess that it wasn’t the fall that had killed any of these poor individuals. Using the power of thought and all his skills of deduction he deduced that, on account of the patch of what appeared to be raspberry slushy around the deceased’s necks, the victims had in fact had their throats cut before being jettisoned off the wall.
The bodies were ridged and far too heavy to turn over so he couldn’t really prove his theory, but in retrospect Burr was quite happy not to have to come face to face with an orifice in a human that wouldn’t naturally be there. So he just assumed that this was indeed the handy work of The Shiv and moved on.
With a bit of exertion and a lot of huffing Burr heaved the great double doors open. Quite cleverly the Shiv had been good enough to leave a set of keys hanging from the frost encrusted mouth of a dead sentry propped up against the doors.
The supposed master infiltrator, espionage specialist and cut throat extraordinaire was certainly starting to live up to his reputation. Up until recently, reading between the lines, Burr had regarded him as nothing more than a common, albeit lavish, cat burglar.
Burr found further evidence of this mysterious felon’s passing as he ventured into the courtyard. Chiefly in the form of very cold, very dead soldiers. Each one had a look of such shock upon their features. One or two others, more worryingly, sported the relaxed expression of undisturbed peaceful slumber.
A smithy was face down in his cooling trough, some sort of fire poker or half-finished skewering implement poking out the top of his skull. Some butcher or trapper was flopped over his latest kill, his own cleaver deep in the middle of his back. An archer was pinned to a practice target through the chest with one of his own arrows. Another deadly shaft had penetrated through one ear and out the other. The man’s frozen expression was caught somewhere between smirking amusement and even ridicule then abject horror and agony.
Curiosity led the fat man across the well-trodden courtyard to some crude stables where a healthy-looking brilliant-white horse seemed in distress. Now, normally Burr is very much not a person who is confident around horses. Horses are, for all intent and purpose, the size and weight of a car but with no real discernible brains at the helm. If a car is going a bit doolally all one might have to do is simply switch it off, or perhaps even unplug it. As far as he was assured, you couldn’t really unplug a horse and Burr wasn’t about to conduct a search in order to find a likely input socket.
Anyway, the horse was all saddled and bagged up ready for a journey it seemed, however due to the swift and unforeseen influence of The Shiv, the passenger was no longer fit to travel. The rider had been garrotted with his own riding crop and, unfortunately for the horse, the frozen body which now slumped over the gate had become entangle within its reins. Despite all its strength the poor thing just couldn’t shift the overhanging dead weight.
Quick as an orangutan sausage back up through the digestive tract of an unsuspecting vegan Burr had realised the animal’s predicament and set about putting paid to its plight. Now, Burr couldn’t open the gate or shift the cadaver because it was lashed to the horse and he couldn’t get over the body to untie him. Nor could he climb between the stone and timbers of the stable wall because the horse filled the entire things interior. However, a thought struck him. Whipping his extendable handigrabber-reaching-aid out of his backpack he patiently and meticulously unwound the beasts tack from about the dead rider.
In another ludicrous and unlikely display of forethought Burr shifted the cadaver out of harm’s way and opened the gate to allow the animal to roam free.
The errant equestrian entity pranced and gambolled freely about the courtyard tossing its forelock gaily. Once calm Burr re-approached to stroke the things nose and have a damn good rifle through the bulging saddle bags for tasty loots.
After foraging through some seemingly pointless and underwhelming cargo Burr eventually unwrapped a peculiar package of plush purple velvet and gazed in wonderment at its contents. His features lit up as a dazzling curio refracted the moons silvery light…
These things always culminate at the highest peak. Or the tallest tower. Or the top floor. The climatic pinnacle if you will. It’s just the way of things. Sub consciously knowing this, and from having spent his whole life immersed in playing fantasy table top and video games and watching every fantasy film ever produced, Burrs legs led him towards the keep.
Again, another helpful sentry sat on the snow outside the main gate with a ring of keys dangling from his icicley mouth.
An hour later, after side stepping around, climbing over and through the remains of some more very unfortunate castle guards Burr eventually beached on the landing of the tallest tower. Winded, wet and exhausted.
The gold-leaf adorned door at the end of the short corridor swung gently open to reveal Gretchen, leaning on the door frame with her arms folded, a delicate goblet in one hand.
‘Punctual as ever, Burr.’
‘Sorry,’ he wheezed, struggling for breath. ‘Animal welfare concern.’
‘Come, meet The Shiv and get warmed.’
Despite Burrs previous disposition towards, The Shiv, the professional killer turned out to be a most charming little chap, sitting there on a throne at the end of the dining table wearing the castle commander’s adornments and accessories. All of which were far too big for him, mind. But that just added to his quite comical and surprisingly comradely composure.
Burrs first impression of the little serial killer, or Malakai Shaggyflanks as he is actually named, was of a psychotic jockey turned psychotic jester. A very lippy, rather intoxicated jester with a death wish and a penchant for stealthy, albeit rather tasteless, murder. He had a very direct and colourful vocabulary and a quite endearing, if sometimes entirely incomprehensible, regional dialect.
The poor previous incumbent of that most comfortable room was also sat at table, just not in his appropriate spot. He had been stripped of all garments and was wearing just his long johns, with a long cigar poking out of his mouth and a full goblet in one hand on the table. Trickles of scarlet dripped out the corners of his mouth and nostrils.
‘Y alright there, Y’ ‘Ronour?’ bellowed the impish cutthroat. The Shiv winked at Burr, ‘Excuse him Mr. Burr, I don’t think he’s feeling quite himself today. Allow me to introduce him. ’Dis ‘ere is the right honourable Viddick Peppersnort.’
The Shiv leered at the castle patron with quite possibly the most malignant smile Burr had ever seen on a human. The kind a hungry shark gives an oblivious diver the moment he turns around.
‘Right nasty bastard.’ The Shiv confided, ‘When folk don’t do what he tells ‘em, he burns villages to the ground. And that kind of bastards always attracts a lot more bastards to ‘em.’ The short man indicated a dispatched tower guard slumped in a corner who, for some obscure reason, had a cauldron over his head and bruised and smashed fruits and vegetables all around him.
‘So, introductions complete, back to business if you please’ announced Gretchen helping herself to another goblet of fiery wine from a large silver decanter. ‘Shiv, what about the damn Seal?’ a note of urgency apparent in her tone made Burr attentive.
‘Seal?’ muttered Burr. ‘What…?
‘Gone.’ Shrugged the little man. ‘Must have shipped it out already on a fast horse.’ The gnomish man casually hefted a potato and jettisoned it at the cauldron-come-headwear. It made a wonderfully satisfying ‘toooong!’ sound on impact. ‘Six. Hell of a risk if you ask me. But then, I’m not the kind of man who likes taking risks you understand.’
‘What’s a seal?’
‘In that case we’re done for. A good courier could be half way to the Drakk by now.’ Dejectedly Gretchen hurled a large carrot, end over end like a throwing dagger, at the cauldron hitting it squarely. ‘Seven. I don’t like to fail Shiv, as you know. Something must be done. Any ideas?’
‘Ahem? Excuse I, but: What Damn Seal?’ Enquired Burr trying to keep his temper.
‘Shush, Porker!’ snapped the elf slamming a hand on the table and making everyone jump. ‘We’re busy! Real people talking!’
Apparently, the Shiv didn’t like to be interrupted either. And of course certainly not whilst actually about his business. Having learnt this Burr was very happy to take a back seat on the proceedings and keep extremely quiet and unobtrusive.
But that was okay, the cosiness of the room with its golden glow of candelabras, the warmth of the roaring fire, the bold wine and the full stomach of some meaty animal off the spit made Burr feel quite dozy. As the ranger and the murderer plotted easily, as only old comrades can, Burrs eyelids became very, very heavy.
Talk remained on the same tack of this mysterious artefact for some time and a new plan was being finalized in order to retrieve it. Apparently it was all very important and it was imperative if Burr was to get home.
Naturally, the scheme involved many a death defying leap, several bouts of courageous impetuousness, an idiocy of suicidal charges a lunacy of cold, sleepless nights and almost certainly a drastic loss of important body parts.
During the proceedings pacing about had occurred, as did thoughtful chin rubbing; anxious hand ringing could also be observed. Apparently, this was to be no easy feat.
‘So what do you think Burr, do we have an accord?’ demanded Gretchen as the pair concluded their plan.
‘Hmmm, wha-? Oh, sorry must have nodded off there. What was the question?’
The elf growled with frustration through tight closed peepers and tight clenched fists.
‘The plan, man!’ Squeaked the astonished killer. ‘We need the Seal back so we can get rid of you!’
‘Oh, that! Well I’m bored of that story now…’
‘Beg pardon?’ stated the elf, doing a very good impression of an astounded human.
‘Apologies,’ continued Burr. ‘I didn’t want to interrupt your fascinating discussion, to which I was not be a part. But is this what you were talking about?’
Burr took the velvety package out of his backpack and unravelled it. The room became a lot shinier, almost blinding in fact. He used his handy aid to place it far across the table between the Shiv and Gretchen.
The grinning cut throat sat back in his throne, genuinely impressed. ‘The Seal? Well I’ll be buggered by a zombie on pancake day.’
‘Seriously?’ Spat Gretchen. ‘You didn’t think to tell us this earlier-’
‘-You never asked!’ Burr cut in. He helped himself to a large, overly ripe tomato. ‘And besides, I did try to tell you.’ Without gauging the shot he lobbed the fruit haphazardly over his left shoulder. He was rewarded a delightful, sploooonnngggnnnn! ‘Ah, one to me I think.’ Burr smirked and lifted the decanter. ‘Drink?’
The mini sneak nodded his head and grinned approvingly. The sultry Elf simply scowled daggers at the fat man for a moment. ‘You stink of fox pee!’
‘Raaaaagh! Come and die, bastards!’
‘No from your gut, man! Feel it welling up inside you, then let it burst forth in a torrent of rage and spittle. Raaagh! Again.’
‘Grrrr, come and…get it?…I’ve forgotten the words.’
‘This is hopeless’ exasperated, Heldman the Barbarian relented and sat down on a tree stump to finish his beer. ‘How are you going to strike fear into the hearts of your foes if you can’t even make them soil their britches with your ferocious war cry?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m just not that kind of bloke, I…’ started Burr, lowering himself slowly onto the grass.
Heldman continued unheeding, ‘It is as if you’ve never even been in a fist fight before, never stretched your manliness more than reaching for the next tankard. Or lamb shank. What did you do previously, I mean in your own world?’
‘Well, er, I was a gamer…’
‘What like a poacher? But Gretchen said you didn’t know the dangerous end of an arrow let alone which part of the bow shoots it.’
‘True’ said Gretchen materializing out of the woods otherwise entirely silently. She took up a fallen log and helped herself to a wine skin. ‘Closest he ever got to mastering the hunt was when he threw his bow away in frustration and accidentally concussed a hedgehog.’
‘Well, at least you got to eat that night right?’ beamed the Barbarian hopefully.
‘No, the concussed hedgehog managed to out-stagger him before he could summon up enough energy to deliver the death blow.’
The massive, ripped, semi-naked form of the barbarian slumped and generally looked rather glum, as if he had lost empathy with the world. ‘So, what were you, a pie maker or something?’
‘No er, no I just sat about all-day playing games.’
‘You mean like a gambler? A card shark, you can count cards and dice and such?’
‘No, not exactly, I play on, er, I guess a machine. It’s called a, ‘computer’; this ‘computer’ makes all the sounds and the FX and all your little men run around slaying each other…you press buttons…’
The barbarian’s mighty brow furrowed and fixed the fat man with a genuinely concerned and bemused face. The kind of expression a giant might use when being ambushed by a lone goblin armed with a limp lettuce leaf.
‘I don’t understand you or your world at all, Burr. I’m not sure I can help you.’
‘Please help him, Heldman’ breathed the sulky elf, ‘if not for his sake, then for mine – he needs to learn to fight in order to get back to his own world and I’m just plain sick of the sight of him.’ Not used to emulating human expressions Gretchen tried a doe eyed pout to sway the warrior, but gave up and just sneered at the fat man instead.
‘But no-one can be that useless!’ He can’t even hold a sword up for a minute without sweating!’
‘Can we not just fill him up with potions and get him to jog round and round the forest until he loses weight?’
‘Hm, brilliant idea, Elf. But I’m wary that the thunderous plod of his hooves and his thighs slapping together would rouse every orc, Wildhorn and brigand in the area to us. And I don’t think even us two could fend off all that lot all at once. I know I’m the mightiest warrior this land has seen in an age, but I don’t want my last lament on this earth to be remembered as being hacked to death by a hoard of irate forest gnomes whilst babysitting a fat idiot.’
The warrior stroked his square, bristly jaw. ‘Hmmm, we could always fit him out in the thickest plate armour and the biggest shield and just hope he can take the punishment.’
‘Great idea and one to keep for later. But if you hadn’t noticed we’re not exactly flush with coin at present; and besides you’d never meet a smith with enough metal to cover his tits alone. What about if we nab a gutplate from an ogre?’
‘Hmmm, worth a try if we can manage to stand the smell of ‘em.’
‘We have to put up with a similar stink now!’
Burr shrugged his shoulders sullenly as the pair glared at him.
‘Good point.’ Conceded Heldman. ‘Oh look, it’s no use let’s just kill him and bury him in a shallow grave and be done with it. There’s simply no way to help him.’
‘Hey, I am still here you know!’ whined Burr, rocking back and forth on his bottom in order to reach his backpack without having to get up again.
‘Only in body…’ said the Elf coldly and turned back to the barbarian. ‘Look, the wizard said our fate and that of the land is entwined with the Podgling. Either we help him or we’ve doomed ourselves.’
The handsome warrior sighed then straightened his back and set his jaw. ‘Right, fair point. On your feet Burr. And pick up that sword. Gretchen, you’re going to spar with him.’
‘Oh, God…’ huffed the petulant Elf.
Burr eventually made it on to his knees and got up off the grass. Only then did he realise his sword was still laying on the ground. So he therefore had to lower himself back down on to one knee, then use the sword to lever himself back up again. Panting and wheezing he took up position opposite the elf who was gingerly nibbling a pheasant leg.
‘Ok Burr, here we go.’ Said the warrior in his most level and patient tone. ‘Feet wide apart, shoulder to your enemy. Now don’t take your eyes off her…’
‘But she’s not even playing properly, she hasn’t got her sword out yet…’
‘Never mind that Burr, just focus, eyes on her hands; now take the biggest lung full of air you can into the pit of your stomach. Then, run at her screaming and waving your sword about. Go!’
‘Aiiiiee!’ Burr squealed and stumbled towards his unconcerned prey. Unaccustomed to moving all his limbs at the same time he half paused every few steps to swing the blade around.
Eventually he got within striking distance of his target. The elf didn’t even take her eyes of her meal as she side stepped, flicking her sword from its sheath and disarmed Burr as he ambled by. The sword flew off, end over end, in to the undergrowth and landed with a wet thuck!
Burr’s legs couldn’t keep up with the memento his belly had produced and he went down in a big, huffing, blubbery pile amidst an explosion of detritus from the forest floor.
The barbarian’s forehead slapped into his palms and he groaned the low, prolonged groan of someone not used to being defeated.
Gretchen tossed away the remnants of her lunch and beamed, ‘that was fun. Shall we do it again?’
‘Mo!’ Groaned Burr through a mouthful of leaf litter.
A violent thrashing from the forest brought everyone’s head up; even Burr’s as he struggled to turn over onto his back. The barbarian was already in a fighting stance with his broadsword ready and Gretchen had dived for her bow. By the time she’d rolled into cover she had an arrow notched and ready.
A large, sweating, bovine-headed man staggered out of the dense foliage clutching at his chest. At an awkward angle, protruding from his body, was Burr’s sword. The thing looked at the three heroes in astonishment, blood pouring from its gaping mouth and fell face first into the clearing. The sword erupted out of its back as it hit the ground fountaining more blood.
Heldman and Gretchen exchanged a glance, then the Elf roared, ‘Ambush!’ The woods exploded with motion as monstrous ram-horned men burst into the clearing waving crude clubs and other primitive death dealing apparatus. An ugly, malformed, reeking dog-thing attached itself to Burr’s forearm and started trying to wrench it off.
The barbarian took huge strides to meet the charge of three of the grotesque things, swinging his mighty weapon in death dealing patterns.
The elf rolled under the swing of a Wildhorn’s stone axe then shot another in the chest at point blank range. Shouldering her bow and unsheathing her sword in a heartbeat, she rushed through the defence of another slicing its guts open before leaping at a tree and back flipping off into another. Safe on a high limb her bow was again in her hand and fletches started appearing in furry chests.
Luckily for Burr, the evil hound’s fearsome teeth couldn’t penetrate his steel armbraces but doggedly held on. Adrenaline even lent him the initiative to wrestle his dagger from his belt and plunge it into the beast’s eyes and throat.
Around the barbarian bloody limbs and decapitated heads hit the ground and he howled with the glory of battle. His last victim raised its club to block his overhead blow, but the crude thing offered no resistance and the sword thunked down into the creature’s thick skull splitting it to the jaw, horns and all.
Panting, the heroes looked around them warily; it was all mess and blood and foul secretions. Burrs bottom lip was trembling as he pushed the spasming dog corpse off and tried to right himself.
‘Ah!’ said the barbarian brightly, lowering his weapon. ‘Lovely. Oh quick, Burr! On your feet, this is important!’
The barbarian grappled the fat man to his unsteady feet and snatched up a beast-man’s head off the ground. ‘Now then, hold this above your head, beat your chest and shout, RAAAGH!’
Swooning, Burr did as best as he was told. He lifted the dripping horned head as high as he could, about shoulder height, slapped his chest weakly with his palm, murmured raagh and then feinted dead away.