Crucible: The Five Trials of Creed
Flames from burning structures curled into the overcast sky like the antlers of some great demonic stag. The inferno did little to warm the chill air blowing into Gentry from the Nairn Blair and the darkening sky harbingered the approach of an even more frigid night.
Chaplain Creed stood before a squad of militia at the edge of the city. Beyond them, the hulking silhouettes of trolls could be seen approaching in the diminishing twilight. Most of the soldiers looked as though they had yet to see their twentieth winter. The grim thought that most of them would never see it crept through Creed’s mind and made him momentarily nauseous.
He pulled the straps on his gauntlets tight as he walked down the line of men looking each of them in the eye. When he reached the last man, he turned and moved to stand before them and said, “Step back from yourselves for a moment. Breathe it in and remember every detail, for this moment will never come again. Tonight we send a message to these monsters that dare raise a hand against us. That we stand between them and our wives, our sons, and our daughters. Tonight we show them that there is nothing fiercer than a man defending what he loves! Tonight our steel will be baptized in the blood of the troll! Let’s show these vermin the stuff we’re made of!” Hefting a battered warhammer skyward the war priest charged forward bellowing, “Take the berm!”
In unison the squad raised their swords and cried, “For Gentry!” and followed the chaplain to the top of the berm, just as the trolls came within arrow range.
Leafless trees grew so thickly that the branches alone were enough to block out most of the night sky. Creed barreled through the thick tangle as fast as his legs would carry him. His muscles burned as if he had been running all night. In his chest, his heart pounded not only with the exertion of his frantic running but with terror. The toe of his boot suddenly became lodged under a gnarled root sending him sprawling to the forest floor. He wearily pulled himself up to sit leaning against a wide tree trunk and tried to shake the confusion from his clouded mind. The density of the wildwood did nothing to slow the cold wind that passed seemingly unhindered through his body. The faint smell of wood smoke was on the air but there was no sign of firelight. Creed fumbled at his belt in the darkness. The Skull of Eli would provide light and maybe some explanation for how he ended up in this place. To his horror, Creed found the leather strap broken and Eli absent.
“Eli!” his voice came out as more of a screech than a yell. Bounding forward with strength fueled by his terror, he stumbled chaotically through the darkness. Where am I? The question repeated in his mind as he ran but no answer came to him. “Eeeeeliiiiii!” he yelled again but the sound that he produced was little more than a distant whisper. It was as if the air was too thick or that his breath was somehow restricted, like screaming into a pillow.
Again he fell to the ground, this time pulled down by a tangle of thorns. Now, in the distance, he could see a faint blue light. “Eli?” he whispered breathlessly. He started to rise again and pain racked his body as the thorns dug into his flesh. In the dim light he could see that they had torn his armor to shreds and left his body ripped and bleeding. Suddenly, a deep moan from the shadows struck him with paralyzing fear. He slowly dropped his hand to where his warhammer usually hung but found it absent as well. His heart raced as a dizzying fear overcame him and he bolted through the thorns toward the distant blue light. He kept his eyes on the light and was too afraid to look behind him. He could feel something behind him, something that would surely capture him if he slowed even a little bit.
Creed finally found his way out of the flesh-hungry thorns and came across a shallow creek. He turned upstream and splashed forward with all that he had. Then, up ahead, he saw what looked like torchlight. He stopped and listened, there was no sign of whatever evil had been pursuing him. The muffled sound of voices ahead filled him with hope. He moved cautiously forward, following the stream into a rocky cavern. As he got closer to the torchlight the natural cavern slowly changed into a man-made chamber fashioned from rough hewn stone.
He found himself standing in stagnant water that came up to his mid-chest. It wasn’t often that he envied the taller races of the realm but it seemed that whenever water was involved they had a bit of an advantage. In front of him, Tudor held a torch up to a silver door and read aloud an inscription, “Here Lies Orik the Just.”
“Can ya see a way to open the damn thing?” he said to his young companion.
“I think there is a catch under the water here,” replied Tudor.
The dwarf looked back to Rykson and Viktor and said, “Be ready, lads. There could be anything behind that door.”
“Got it!” said Tudor as an audible click rang through the chamber and the silver doors suddenly swung open. The water rushed through the doorway with startling force. It swept them off of their feet and into a large chamber.
The dwarf was unaccustomed to loosing his footing and clumsily tried to rise to his feet. He was able to get one armored foot under himself before the pain began. Without warning he was doused in some liquid from above. A split second later the liquid began to consume his armor, clothing and flesh. He could hear the screams of his companions. Through burning eyes he witnessed Tudor’s horrific visage as the young mage died. His head melted into his body, as if it had been made of wax, leaving only a glistening skull as he fell to the floor with a lifeless thud. A canine yelp drew the dwarf’s attention next and he watched as a ten-foot-tall black dragon threw Kongo into a wall, killing the brave animal instantly. Rykson had no chance lying on his back before the snarling creature. It unleashed another spray of acid upon the diminutive ranger reducing him to no more than pink slurry floating on the water’s surface.
“We gotta get outta here!” He felt himself being pulled back towards the silver doors and was able to make out the blurred face of Viktor, twisted in fear. Then the dragon was upon them. He reached for his waraxe but found he was unable to grasp it. Beyond his elbow was nothing more than a melted stump.
“I can’t believe I’m going to die trying to save your stinky ass,” Viktor said with his last breath. A spray of blood rained down upon the dwarf as the dragon snapped off Viktor’s head with its toothy maw.
Then it was just him and the dragon. The creature came nose to nose with the dwarf and glared at his disfigured face with an evil that he had never seen before. The knight tried to speak through a mouth with no lips. He tried to plead for his life but was able to make little more than a pathetic moan. In response the dragon put his jaws around the dwarf’s neck and began to squeeze, slowly this time. Teeth like daggers gently punctured his neck, cutting off his airway and draining the lifeblood from him. Painfully, the world began to fade.
Creed awoke to find he was underwater. He flailed his limbs to find the air and soon realized that he was still in the shallow water of the creek. He lifted his head and sucked in a desperate breath. Quickly checking his body in the dim light, he found that he was more or less intact. His arm was not melted away, his face was still how it should be, and there were no holes in his neck. A very slight relief came over him but it was fleeting. What is happening to me? Where was I? Where am I?
The cavern he had entered was gone now. He stood in the shallow creek and listened again for the voices but he heard nothing but the cold wind. He peered into the darkness and strained to again see the torchlight he was following but it was not there. Of course not; they all died.
The distant blue light was still there and it appeared to be slightly closer or perhaps a bit brighter. Again Creed felt an evil presence in the darkness around him. A slow, monstrous breathing was barely audible.
“Show yourself!” Creed’s voice was weak and cracked in his attempt to intimidate whatever lurked beyond his vision. His hands clenched in trembling fists as he turned this way and that, swinging out at the darkness but finding nothing.
Finally Creed stopped swinging and let his arms fall to his side. He tried to slow his breathing and listen… “Creeeeeeed,” a raspy whisper found his ears barely detectable above the sound of the wind. Creed leaned into the darkness and held his breath to better hear the voice, “DIE!” the voice struck him with the volume of a thunder clap and set him once again charging through the thicket in terror. Ahead was the faint blue light. He was drawn to it. Somehow he knew that the blue light was an escape from this place and that he must reach it before “it” caught up with him.
Creed ran until his legs cramped beyond any ability to take another step. He fell to his knees, struggling to catch breath in burning lungs. He tried to listen again to the darkness but could only hear blood pounding through his ears and felt as if his heart were ready to explode from his chest. Eventually his heart and breathing slowed enough for him to take in his surroundings. The blue light was still there and appeared to be just beyond the pond in front of him. He reached into the water and brought handfuls to his face, drinking some and using the rest to cool his brow.
When the water calmed, Creed could see something moving beneath the surface. A face? A person struggling? Creed leaned in closer, “Tudor?”
Oh gods. I’m in the water. The numbing cold of the brine was not enough to cut the painful stinging from the hundreds of jellyfish that engulfed the young wizard. As the poison entered through his skin, his limbs became more and more sluggish. The words from a tome he read years ago ran through his head,
“It is believed that the jellyfish delivers poison through a barb-containing structure known as a nematocyst. Upon proper stimulation a coiled, hollow, barbed thread turns quickly outward representing, perhaps, the fastest process in nature.”
He was almost able to chuckle at himself; that his last thoughts would be of the science behind the thing of his demise. With his head still above the water he was able to see Moradin attempting to grapple the crude raft that he had built. I’m a wizard, not a shipwright. I’ll remember that if I live through this.
With no other Seeker nearby he began clawing through the water towards the shore. He could see Viktor there, shouting unintelligibly to him. Then, without warning, a gigantic spider bore down on the scoundrel. The wizard tried to yell out a warning but it was too late. Before he could make any noise the spider sunk two massive fangs into Viktor’s shoulder.
Distantly, he could hear a splash and turned just in time to see Moradin topple into the water. He hasn’t a chance with that heavy armor. The lifelong scholar’s mind again treated him to a bit of knowledge:
“The brain cannot survive long without oxygen and the continued lack of oxygen in the blood combined with the cardiac arrest will lead to brain death from which recovery is generally considered impossible by non-magical means.”
A wave pushed him under the frigid waters, blocking the view of his companion’s fate. He was barely able to move now. The cold of the water and the effects of the poison were too much. Amidst the translucent-gray cloud of jellyfish a strange feeling of peace came over him. Do I accept my fate or is this just an effect of the poison? Fascinating. As the currents pushed the passively deadly creatures aside he caught a glimpse of Rykson and Kongo suspended just beneath the surface. Their eyes were open but there was no life within them.
As his vision began to fade a great wave suddenly carried him forward. He found himself prostrate upon the sandy beach, his lungs again filling with air. His head happened to fall so that he had a view of Viktor. The massive spider had spun a cocoon of web around the hapless man and was dragging him away. This arachnid has found quite the fortunate situation. The jellies provide prey for the spider. Already paralyzed and served up on the beach.
Before long he found himself being dragged through the sand as well. He tried to struggle but his muscles would not respond. The horror of his imminent demise began to fill his mind.
“Digestion starts before any of the prey is swallowed. Spiders inject digestive enzymes into the prey before they start breaking it up. The partially digested food is sucked into the spider’s alimentary canal.”
Suddenly, Creed was able to move his limbs again and flailed out to break free from the restraining webs. But there were none holding him. He sat up and held his arms up in front of him looking for signs of the web and found nothing. He was soaking wet and now on the other side of the pond. The memory of this place came to the front of his mind and the place he was faded from his thoughts like the memory of a dream.
The sound of splashing on the far side of the pond froze the Chaplain. A dark, hulking silhouette was barely visible. He thought to himself that perhaps if he remained silent the creature would overlook him. Perhaps it had lost his trail at the shore of the pond. Then, as if the creature heard his thoughts, two saucer-size luminescent red eyes flared as they gazed directly at him.
So again he ran. He scrambled up a steep embankment and charged recklessly through the nightmarish wood. Catching sight of his only beacon, the distant blue light, he changed course to run directly toward it. If I can just make it…
Creed glanced behind him to check on his pursuer and was caught by a low branch. He hit the forest floor hard, knocking the breath from his lungs. Rolling over to his stomach, he closed his eyes. Iynmar, wake me from this nightmare.
For comfort, he moved closer to the unmoving body of his lifelong companion. There was still warmth there but it was fading quickly. Masterhunter has died. My pack has all died. The giantones struck them down. All but me. I am sad. The animal pushed itself up on its forelegs and let out a long, sorrowful howl. It echoed across the valley and off of the nearby mountains. Then there was silence again.
I must stay with the deadone of the Masterhunter. Masterhunter is not food. None of my pack is food. He lay down again next to Rykson’s corpse and waited. Hours passed before the first scavengers arrived, a pack of coyotes. As they approached he stood to meet them. My haunches are up and my teeth are bared. I will bark and snarl. I will rip out their throats if they come close. I know they will not. They are a weak pack. They do not kill their own prey.
He stayed with his fallen pack for two weeks when the weather turned. He cuddled up to Rykson’s frozen body and watched the darkness of the clouds as they approached. A sharp cold began to set in as the wind picked up. His coat offered little protection. He was hungry and weak and shivered uncontrollably. Before long the shivering stopped and he closed his eyes. I am tired and will sleep now.
Creed opened his eyes. Tears made streaks though the mud on his face as he wept. He pulled himself up to all fours and squeezed the moss tightly in his fists as he muttered, “Why did they all have to die? Why wasn’t I there to help them?”
“You kiiiiilled them Creeeeeed,” whispered the darkness.
Creed’s head snapped up and he screamed, “Who are you!” He buried his head in the ground and through his sobs he managed to say, “Just take me. I cannot go on.” The sound of foot steps accompanied by raspy breath drew closer to the defeated chaplain.
Then Creed noticed he was casting a shadow upon the ground from the yellow light of a fire. He lifted his head slowly and just ahead of him stood a small cabin. Smoke poured from the chimney and light shown through the edges of curtain covered windows. Where did that come from? A flicker of hope lit in Creed’s heart and he leapt to his feet. Behind him his pursuer let out a demonic roar and charged forward. Creed sprinted for the door of the cabin. He closed his eyes tightly and slammed into it with all of his strength.
When he opened his eyes his view was blocked by a burlap sack covering his head. He tried to remove it but discovered that his wrists were shackled to the wall behind him. He heard breathing next to him and asked, “That you, Sledge?”
“The one ‘n only,” came a hoarse reply followed by coughing.
“It’s been three days, I’m surprised an old piss-artist like you could last this long,” the battered thief shifted in his bonds in an attempt to relieve some of the ache in his shoulders. “You should have retired years ago, after your first dust-fart.”
“And you shoulda went with yer sneaker friends,” Sledge replied with a chuckle.
“Seekers,” he replied with irritation. “We’re called the Seekers. The Seekers of the Shattered Isle.”
“The Shattered Isle?” Sledge asked.
“Yeah, Egermont. I told you all about it sinking into the sea, remember?”
“Oh sure. I remember. Egermont.” The two scoundrels stood in silence. Dripping water echoed off of stone walls as they waited for their captors to return. “Don’t ya think you boys are lookin’ in the wrong place?
“What in the Nine Hells are you talking about?”
If it’s Egermont yer seekn’ I’m thinkn’ yer way off.” Both of them laughed and for a moment they were almost able to forget about their situation. Before long, footfalls approached. “Shut yer bunghole. I hear ‘em comin’,” Sledge’s voice ended in a whisper. A slight hint of fear was perceptible through his defiant demeanor.
The door creaked open and he could hear their captors step inside and walk over to Sledge. The sound of Sledge’s burlap sack being ripped from his head came next. “Are you ready to beg me for your worthless life?” he recognized this as the harsh voice of the nhir’gan, Grilzt.
Sledge’s voice had been growing weaker and weaker as the days past, “The only thing I’ll be beggn’ fer is fer you ta keep yer foul breath offa me. It be so bad I find meself lookn’ forward to when ya breakn’ wind.”
“I’ve grown tired of you old man,” chained to the wall he could only stand there and listen as a blade was drawn from its sheath followed by the wet sound of his old friend’s bowls splattering to the stone floor. Sledge let out a final, quivering breath and then fell silent. “And now you,” Grilzt walked over to him and pulled the sack from his head.
The gray slate chamber was dimly lit by a few dung fires placed around the room. Grilzt and two massive trolls stood before him. He looked up at the nhir’gan and managed to muster a smile revealing a bloody mouth with many teeth knocked out, “Hey handsome, I’d ask you for a kiss if your lips didn’t look like a couple of overcooked sausages.”
Grilzt responded with a cruel backhand across his jaw sending a fresh blood splatter across the wall next to him.
“Did I offend you, sweetheart?” he said when he regained his senses.
“You will beg me for your life you pathetic creature,” Grilzt said in a voice thick with hate. He stepped aside to reveal four small sacks lined up on the floor against the opposite wall.
“Uh oh. Mysterious bags,” he said sarcastically. “Looks like the bags I used to put over your sister’s head.”
Grilzt walked over to the first bag and picked it up then walked back with it slowly swinging back and forth. He could see now that the bottom was stained a dark red.
“While I banged her,” he added.
The nhir’gan swung the bag in two slow circles then smacked it hard into the thief’s groin. The blow caused him to double over, as much as his chains would let him, and wretch vomiting up the blood that he had swallowed since the last torture session. Grilzt then emptied the bag onto the floor. The contents rolled to the thief’s feet.
He looked down at a battered human head. It’s Tudor.
“We’re going to play a game, Viktor. Let’s see if you can guess who is in the bag I’m beating you with,” the nhir’gan retrieved another sack from the back of the room. As he approached the thief he said, “Unless of course you are ready to start begging for your life? Then, perhaps, we can put a quick end to your misery.”
“Misery? Ha! I want more! Come on! You give better head than your sister and your mother combined!” he was laughing maniacally. “Even when they’re working together!”
Crack! The next strike slammed into the side of his head. Dizzying pain throbbed through his skull and down his neck. It was becoming more and more difficult to maintain consciousness. “You have no hope of escape, Viktor,” as he spoke he deposited the head of Rykson on the floor next to Tudor’s head. “There are simply no more of your friends left. Your only hope is for a quick death. Now beg me.”
He slowly regained his senses and spit copious blood from his mouth. In a raspy, weak voice he said, “You forgot to let me guess.”
The next sack hit him a dozen times in the stomach and groin. With each strike the thief laughed weakly, only enraging the nhir’gan and causing him to swing harder and harder until again the thief vomited blood. The head of Kongo made a soft thud on the floor next to the others. The sadistic torturer lifted the last sack, “Only one left. Hmm… heavy.” He opened the sack and looked inside, “This one’s wearing a sturdy looking helm. If you ask real nice I’m certain I could cave in your skull with one swift strike. Quick and painless.”
“Please…” his voice came out barely a whisper.
Grilzt moved closer to the scoundrel, “What’s that? You have something to say?”
Grilzt came disfigured-nose-to-nose with the barely conscious man, “Speak up now; what do you want to say?” A look of arrogant satisfaction crossed his grotesque features.
“Take a bath.”
The look of satisfaction changed to sheer rage. With a scream Grilzt brought the heavy sack down upon the thief’s head with a bone crushing force. He saw the sack coming down upon him as if in slow motion. There was a great flash of white light as it struck him and he felt himself being thrown backwards.
Thrown too far backwards, through the wall behind him. He was toppling head over heals down a steep, muddy slop. Creed made futile attempts to grab hold of the gnarled branches and roots around him but they were too slick with wet mud to get a grip. The further he slid the steeper the slope became. Somehow he managed to stop himself from rolling and was sliding on his back. He glanced up at the top of the slope and thought he saw two points of red light. A pang of terror shot through his heart and he stopped trying to slow his descent. He gained more and more speed and the darkness seemed to close in around him. Suddenly he flew off of a cliff edge and found himself in a freefall. He screamed with a voice that was not his own.
The impact at the bottom wasn’t as bad as he was expecting. The pit floor was covered with a thick layer of sewage that broke the fall. The rope that was tied around his waist was slack and falling into a heap behind him. He looked up just in time to avoid Tudor and Viktor as they fell into the pit with him. His companions appeared to be unharmed from the fall thanks to the foul smelling cushioning. “What happened?” he asked.
“Well, Stinky didn’t properly anchor the rope around his waist and this noodle-armed-choir-boy here wasn’t strong enough to keep his feet planted,” complained Viktor.
“Moradin!” he yelled up to his companion. He had sunk up to his ribs by then and was beginning to get nervous. He didn’t have a lot of height to spare after all.
“Aye! I’ll throw down another rope and hoist ya up!” came the reply.
“Alright. Spread out and search for the artifacts. They’ve got to be here somewhere,” he said to Viktor and Tudor. The three of them began their hasty search. Before long his hand found a solid mass within the semi-solid muck. “I’ve got it!” he exclaimed as he held the black package aloft.
“What’s that all over your arm?” asked Tudor.
He looked up at his arm and to his horror it was covered in dozens of writhing maggot like creatures. He tried frantically to wipe them away but most of them were stuck fast and burrowing into his arm. The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced. They’re eating me! He looked over at Tudor and Viktor and they too were covered in the disgusting vermin. The rope sent down by Moradin finally arrived and each of them scrambled up in turn. By the time they reached the top the grubs had disappeared into their flesh. “What’s wrong?” asked Moradin.
Tudor began to respond and then fell to his knees clutching at his chest with a look of agony on his face. Then Viktor followed, he too clutched at his chest and fell to his knees. Both of them were dead within seconds of reaching the top.
Now he could feel the creatures chewing thorough his lungs, causing them to fill with blood. Dizzy with pain, he reached out to Moradin who could only look on in stunned silence. He fell to the ground and as the world faded away he could distantly hear the vicious barking of Kongo and the battle cry of another troll.
The pain slowly subsided and he opened his eyes. Ahead was the blue light, closer than ever. But now, the creature, the darkness, the evil that pursued him was no longer chasing him. It was ahead of him; running toward the blue light. Creed took a couple of hesitant steps forward and pushed some branches aside. He saw the hulking creature standing in a familiar clearing, Corpse Rest. It appeared to be a giant humanoid but its features where nothing but shadow. It was almost as if the creature was made of some impossibly black silk. Standing before the creature were the Seekers. Moradin Thunderbane, Viktor Delmark, Tudor Samson, Rykson Finn, and Kongo. The creature raised a massive black arm and struck down Moradin with a single swipe.
“Nooooo!” screamed Creed as he rushed into the clearing. His voice had no volume behind it despite his great effort. He felt as if he were running through waist-deep snow as he tried to reach his friends. Next Viktor fell. The Seekers did nothing to stop the creature as it attacked each of them. Why are they just standing there! Creed tried to yell to them to run or to fight back but it was no use. Tudor. Rykson. Tears streamed down the chaplain’s face. “Please no! Take me. Take me.” Kongo looked at Creed with his head cocked and smiled a dog smile at him. Creed looked away before the creature struck the animal down. He crumpled to the ground weeping, “I was too late. I was supposed to protect them but I wasn’t there. I have killed them all just as I killed my flock.” He had no fight left within him. Everything he had ever loved was gone. Now, he just wanted the suffering to end.
When nothing happened, Creed again opened his eyes and stood. The creature was gone as was any trace of the Seeker’s remains. He was no longer in Corpse Rest. Now he stood at the edge of a tree line overlooking a rocky, snow covered valley. Before him stood Eli wreathed in a bright blue nimbus. Next to Eli were two Cairns. One had been built for Eli by the chaplain not long ago. Creed approached and saw his warhammer atop the second cairn. “My grave,” he said to Eli more as a statement then as a question.
“It’s time to go, Chaplain. Your flock awaits you,” replied Eli in a distant voice. With the wave of an arm a shimmering white portal opened above Creed’s grave. “Come,” Eli said as he extended his hand to Creed.
Creed reached out to take Eli’s hand.
With a painful jolt Creed’s eyes snapped open. He attempted to take in breath but was unable to. Just as panic started to set in, he managed to suck in a wheezing breath. He was on his back and looking up at Rykson kneeling over him. The Cup of Life was in the ranger’s trembling hands and his face was streaked with tears.
Viktor shouldered the halfling aside and grabbed Creed by his breastplate, “Gods damn you!” he screamed in the chaplain’s face. “Don’t ever do something stupid like that again!” He helped Creed to a sitting position. “Don’t you know that we need you?”
“I know, Viktor,” Creed replied. “Now I know.