In the morning, we await the fallout of last night’s raid.
I still feel queasy at the memory of throats slit in the dead of night, guards cowering against walls in their sleeping garb. There was nothing noble or honourable about such activities, even if they achieved our objective.
Not long after midday, we’re summoned by Orral, leader of the tunnel people. With her, shouting and spitting, are two of the quadrant leaders from the city above. They inform us the council of mages has retaliated by rounding up 20 of the populace for execution. And not just random city-dwellers: the family and friends and allies of prominent people.
The quadrant leaders are furious… furious and afraid and even more antagonistic than before. I feel awful. Most of us feel awful — except Nightshade who is denouncing them for cowards and fools and asking them whether they want to be free of oppression or not?
Much as I resent it, she has a point. A bloodless insurrection is impossible. If we are to rouse the people against oppression in order to secure the Eye of Varrien, there will be casualties. Many of them. I just wish it wasn’t so.
Nonetheless, we resolve to rescue the captives. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, Orral’s people bring in news: where the captives are being held, how many guards, the suspicious movements of mages. We’re sure there’s a trap involved. Doesn’t matter. We come up with a plan of sorts.
Late that night, we go out into the city once more. The tunnel people guide us through the maze of tiny streets to the Old Castle wall. All is quiet, still, as we launch our plan.
Blaze and I cast spells on the castle’s wall defences — magical boxes of wood and steel on rails that hurl missiles at attackers. We warp the wood in an attempt to deactivate them. Meanwhile, Alix uses her magic to build walls across the road, aimed at slowing the ‘automata’ — fiendish machines on wheels that patrol the streets at the mages’ bidding. And Fen… Fen lumbers forth under the cover of invisibility and makes a hole in the castle wall.
It all happens quickly, going more or less to plan, and we’re inside the Old Castle.
The stone corridors of the castle are also silent and still. We’re either being remarkably silent, or there’s no-one here. I fear the latter, but there’s no time to stop and ponder. Every moment we delay gives the automata more time to arrive…
The stairs lead down to the basement. I see the ambush and am ready when they attack. There are only two guards and we defeat them easily enough. Behind a locked door with a grille is a corridor with cells. The captives huddle behind bars, calling for us to help them.
Still no guards have come.
Leaving Nightshade and Blaze, I run up to the first level, past Alix at the top of the steps, to find Fen. He comes when I call softly, and I send him down to use his magic to unlock the door and rescue the prisoners.
Unease makes me stop beside Alix and guard against attack. Why has no-one come? Where is the trap?
Down below, there’s a massive explosion, so huge that a wave of heat slams up the stairs, followed by tongues of flame.
Oh blessed Emrys, no.
I hurtle down into the smoke and dust and heat and fire. My companions are picking themselves up off the floor, slapping at the flames on their clothes and swearing. A massive fireball. I’d recognise this aftermath anywhere.
Strewn about the cells are the charred corpses of the 20 people we were intending to rescue.
Fighting in the streets
For a moment, I’m too appalled to do anything other than stare, my gut churning. Appalled that we fell so easily into this trap. Appalled at what the mages have done. I don’t know how we’re going to face the quadrant leaders now. They’ll never support us.
But there’s nothing we can do about any of it. We need to get out of here.
Our hole in the wall is now guarded by four automata. Taking a chance these are the same automata previously guarding the two entrances, we run to the back exit. It’s clear and we dash out into the streets of Tel Marrenor.
Of course they’re waiting for us. Missile-hurling wall crawlers drive us into the waiting ambush of guards. Four of them, weapons drawn.
Well, this at least is an honest battle.
My focus narrows to the guards before me. Beside me is one of my companions. I’m dimly aware of fighting going on some way behind. But the guards keep coming. And coming. Alix’s impressive blade barrier carves through an entire unit at once.
The town nearby is on fire. I don’t know how this happened, but the people are pouring out into the streets, yelling and weeping. Children are screaming. Smoke is making the air hazy and hard to breathe.
Some of the wheeled automata glide out of the smoke, bouncing across the cobbles. They bear steel blades that sweep and slice. I switch to twin maces, all the better to hack at these contraptions of wood and steel.
By the time the immediate threat is dispatched, I’m breathing hard. Then Fen rushes over saying some of Orral’s people are nearby, bringing word of a large contingent of automata nearly upon us. It’s time to flee. Looking back towards the castle, I see the mangled wreckage of several automata. Doubtless Blaze’s work.
Bring on the revolution
Orral’s bouncing off the walls when we return. Crowing with excitement, she rattles off the numbers of guards and automata we’ve apparently defeated this night. It seems such a victory has not been seen in many a long year. We’ve made our statement. Convinced the quadrant leaders that we mean business.
The revolution has finally begun, she states triumphantly.
Although she and everyone are horrified about the murder of all those innocents, they seem to apportion no blame to us.
We know better.
I have seen cruelty. The animal being slowly sucked down by the bog, the crushing death in a constrictor’s coils, the frantic wait for the spider. Firbolg disembowelled in battle by rakshasa claws, burnt by their fireballs. But never have I seen such calculated cruelty as this. The trap, the explosion, the innocents burned to death in their cells. All for what? To send a message?
The message is one that says this reign of terror cannot be allowed to continue.
Unbelievably, the citizens of this place agree. Despite our sense of abject failure, clever politics has pulled a victory from the ashes.
But what cost!
The town alight (my own part in that kept hidden in a cloak of shame and silence), innocents dead. Their faces haunt me. My clumsy frame, my slow wit, unable to save anyone. It’s like I’m back in the swamp again, good for nothing against the forces we face. Not a true firbolg, not a true mage.
Nightshade is right when she says more people are going to die, caught up in this grand quest, a firestorm of destruction. Such is the price of saving the world.
The mages await with their colossus, and I’m consistently reminded that the mage whose place in this party I have taken would have been eminently better suited to the task. What to do? There is nothing else to do, but continue. To the death.
That was certainly an epic raid and battle. More to come from the streets of Tel Marrenor soon… (Thanks again to Jason Nahrung for Fen’s perspective.)