“This is, by and far, the strangest task I’ve ever had to do since I took up me hammer to travel alongside the wee lass, ya hear?”
I rolled my eyes about to glance at the stocky man, Radd, quirking an eyebrow as I did so.
“Trust me when I say this- The longer you wander this world, the fewer things you’ll find strange. Give it some time. Though, I must ask- Surely you’ve handled corpses before?”
Radd snorted, shifting his warhammer on his shoulder as he did so.
“Aye, that I have. Whole piles of the rotting things, as a matter ‘o fact. But this is the first time I’ve had to drag one up three flights of stairs- While having a bleeding conversation with the thing!”
It was my turn to snort, but before I could respond Radd jerked my heels up another few steps, causing my head to slam into the sharp stone that had been custom ordered by the former, former Duke of Vord, Micheal’s grandfather, for use in the grand staircase that split the Ducal mansion in two. I only know that because Micheal’s grandfather had dragged me out of my prison, literally, to show off his new acquisition- And then promptly threw me off every single step in an effort to determine the optimal point from which to dramatically fling a disgraced retainer or bearer of bad news. From what I recall, it was somewhere around the twentieth step. More to the point, I can’t physically recall what happened after being thrown off the twenty-first step, so I assume the twentieth is where one would need to either make their point, or invest in a very absorbent rug.
“You alright down there? I heard that last thud- Sounded pretty crunchy.”
Rolling my eyes to look back down the stairs, I noted the fresh bloodstains marking our path.
“It was. However, it is of no matter. I have endured far worse, and I almost certainly will do so again. More importantly, how much longer until we reach the third floor?”
Radd paused for a moment, and I thought I heard some muttered counting, then he responded.
“At this pace, not too much longer. We just passed the second floor- I think- so we should be well on our way. You said the bastard’s study was on the…?”
I limply flung my arm out to the side.
“The right. Unless the layout of the Vord manor has changed significantly in the last half a century or so, in which case, I have not a clue.”
Radd snorted again, then resumed dragging me upwards.
“That was incredibly reassuring. Remind me why I hafta drag your sorry bits all the way up this bloody staircase again?”
I opened my mouth to answer, then promptly slammed it shut as my head smacked into yet another step. Frowning slightly, I waited for Radd to take another short break before attempting to answer again.
“Because, unless you want to spend the better part of our time together dragging me about like you are now, I need to find a way to restore my body to some semblance of functionality. The best odds of doing that quickly can be found in what remains of Micheal’s collection, and so we must therefore find his collection, and the best odds of doing that fall upon searching his personal study.”
Radd paused halfway through taking another step up the stairs.
“So what yer telling me is, I’m draggin you up this staircase on a hunch to find a clue to find something that may not even have what we need?”
Radd snorted, then jerked me up one last step, cracking my head once more into the unforgiving stone before dropping my legs to let them fall limply to the ground.
“Fantastic. Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, cause we’re ‘ere.”
I slowly rolled myself over, taking in the staircase falling away below me and the halls stretching out on both sides of me.
“Indeed we are. Thank you for the exceedingly gentle care you showed me.”
I moved to begin crawling down the right-hand hall, but before I made it more than a few drags Radd’s warhammer thudded heavily into the ground in front of my face.
“Now wait just one bleeding moment, Sir Corpse. You and I ‘ave words to share.”
I rolled an eye up to glance at the short man’s stern face.
“Do we now?”
Radd’s face darkened further.
“Aye. We do.”
I sighed, then rolled over fully so that I was lying on my back.
“So be it, then. What words do we need to have?”
Radd glared down at me, leaning his weight on his hammer as he spoke.
“I may not have seen ya come back from the squishy death the lass inflicted on that room, but I did hear from the others about it. I admit- I didn’t believe it, not at first. How could I? But this-”
He gestured back down the stairs, now marked in places by my blood.
“-this proves it, I suppose. But ya see, I also heard about your ‘ittle magic book, and the tricks you can pull with it.”
He thrust one stubby finger forward at that, pointing directly at my chest.
“And I also heard about what you did to Etheel.”
I sighed again.
“Technically, I didn’t do anything to the boy.”
The warhammer slammed into the floor beside my head, cracking the stone and causing my hair to stir.
“That’s the bleeding problem, innit!?”
I stared up impassively at a heavily breathing Radd, whose face was now an impressive shade of crimson.
“I freely admit that understanding mortal emotions is beyond me, but even so, it would seem to me that your reaction is utterly overblown for the death of a single individual who you were merely contracted to deliver-”
My head was rocked with pain from two different directions almost simultaneously as Radd whipped down to drive his fist into my nose, bouncing the back of my head off the unforgiving stone floor.
“That hasn’t got one thing to do with this, you damn corpse! He was a child- An innocent!”
As I waited for the ringing in my head to subside, I was struck with both a sense of deja-vu and the realization that I had agreed to travel with some surprising violent individuals.
“The naivety of youth. Does being innocent guarantee one anything? Any protections? Any advantages? No, of course not. Not even those lesser spirits your kind worship as gods reward innocents for being innocent. So why should I? And more importantly, I’ve already had this same debate with your leader, so why exactly are you attempting to rehash it now?”
The stocky man scowled down at me, taking a moment to respond.
“First of all, I wasn’t there when you talked with the lass now was I? An’ second of all, this ain’t no debate- This is me, tellin’ you, that if anything happens to Eve, to that little lass, I will personally ensure that you suffer for every bleedin’ moment of the rest of your life. Do ya hear me?”
Up until this moment, I had only been sparing Radd the briefest of glances, instead choosing to use my eyes to absorb as much information about the world around me as I could. My many decades within that prison, with little more than a few moments combined of time spent outside its claustrophobic confines, had starved me of entertainment and stimulation for so long that even the most mundane of items now served to provide me with a wealth of details to absorb and enjoy. But the short man’s words finally gave me cause to focus my attention fully upon him. I slowly rolled my eyes about to focus solely on his own, boring into him with the weight of untold centuries behind my eyes. He held my gaze for but a few moments before jerking his head away with a discomforted snort.
“Let us be clear on something, dwarf. I tolerate much, including pain, but I will not tolerate continuous disrespect. You and your friends would do well to remember that. Furthermore, you are in no position to ‘tell me’ anything- I travel with you and yours by request, not by necessity. If I so choose, I may leave at any point, and understand me when I tell you that there is no force in existence that could prevent me from doing so. Now, if you are done attempting to proclaim your pitiful mortal warnings, I do believe we have already wasted more than enough time on this farce.”
So saying, I slowly rolled back over onto my stomach and resumed my crawl down the corridor in search of Micheal’s study. While there were numerous doors lining the hall, I had already pegged one door in particular as being the most likely candidate for hiding my prize behind. It helped that I knew Micheal had a flair for the dramatic, so I assumed that it would only make sense for his private sanctuary to be behind the only door guarded by two full sets of black plate mail set upon fiercely wrought statues. Behind me I heard Radd snort, spit, then begin to follow with trudging footsteps. A younger me, millennia gone now, might have taken pleasure in asserting himself over the mortal man and his righteous fury. But now I felt nothing beyond a vague sense of melancholy, and I suspected that, given a few more centuries, I would likely feel nothing at all. The endless passage of time had succeeded where no other force had, wearing me down until I was but a shadow of myself, a low flicker of what had once been a vibrant and furious flame.
Silently, I considered what I would do if this newest desperate attempt to end my suffering turned out to be nothing more than the latest in an endless line of disappointments. Perhaps I would simply find a cool, deep cave somewhere and sleep away eternity, forgetting the world just as it had forgotten me. Or perhaps I would slip back into my old ways one last time, launching a final crusade of flame and fury to purge this world of any that could disturb me. It would be an afterlife of sorts, I suppose, though it would be a lonely one. Of course, seeing as I had been alone for the vast majority of my endless existence, such an existence would be nothing new…
“Oy! Do ya think this is it?”
I was drawn from the depths of my brooding mind by Radd’s irritable shout. Slowly glancing around, I realized that I had somehow managed to crawl almost entirely past the door with the armored statues without even being aware of it. Sighing, I rolled over onto my back and then slowly pushed myself up the wall until I was in a sitting position.
“I would assume so. Is it open?”
Radd reached out to grasp the gaudy door-handle, then promptly jerked his hand away hissing.
“It’s spelled, damn it all. That hurt.”
I reached into my jacket, smirking slightly as I did so.
“While your pain is… unfortunate, the fact that the door is secured bodes well for our chances of finding something useful. Stand back.”
The short man blinked at me, still shaking his hand, then backed away slowly as I pulled the book out of my jacket.
Immediately there was the usual popping noise that accompanied the book’s action, followed closely by a creaking noise and a sharp crack. As I watched, the previously sealed door bowed inwards starting at the middle, slowly cracking and breaking apart as the center of the door pushed into the room as though a battering ram was being driven into it.
Nearly whispering, Radd watched as the ruined remains of the door collapsed out of the frame, leaving nothing but a pile of scrap lumber between us and the darkened study. I ignored him, instead turning my attention to one of the armored statues still keeping its silent watch beside the now-empty door-frame.
Another pop echoed through the hall, accompanied by the painful squeal of tortured metal. As I watched, the statue which had been the target of my attention straightened, then stepped forward off of the low plinth that had been its resting place to stand before me. Stowing the book back securely against my chest, I reached out both of my arms like a child begging for a piggy-back ride.
The golem knelt down heavily and carefully slipped an arm under my withered legs, with the other going around my back to cradle me like a sleeping child. As it began to rise back to its feet, my body now held against its uncomfortably armored chest, Radd stepped forward cautiously.
“What… what exactly are ya? I get the whole immortality thing, as bloody ridiculous as that is by itself, but to just go around creating golems like that? I’ve known decorated mages with all the power of a god and all the resources of a country fail to properly make one, and ‘ere you are, just pulling them off the bloody walls!”
I looked down at him silently for a moment, then turned my attention back to the study door.
“I am under no obligation to answer that, and so I will not be doing so. I would advise you, however, to not fall into the trap of assuming I am just some mage that achieved eternal life through a fluke. Now then, enter.”
That last part was directed at my golem, which began to take heavy, methodical steps towards the doorway. I heard Radd snort again, mutter something unintelligible, and then begin to follow. I couldn’t resist a small smirk- Mortals had always been good for a momentary distraction from my eternal lethargy, even if I could no longer take any sense of accomplishment from teasing them. My smirk soon faded, however, as I entered what was clearly Micheal’s study. Behind me, I heard a thud, followed by a soft curse from Radd and then the sound of retching filled my ears as my eyes roamed the charnel pit Micheal had created. Preserved corpses of all varieties hung on the walls, gruesome trophies adorned the shelves and racks placed around the room, and spread out across the grand desk set against the far wall I could make out a pale, curiously flat human shape, the head adorned with a mane of silver hair. Beside it sat a jar with two glints of purple sitting within. I sighed.
“Oh Micheal, you always were just a little too precocious, weren’t you?”
It seemed we had managed to stumble upon the remains of poor, young Etheel after all.