I could sense him coming well before the latch turned... His footsteps are unmistakable, as is his scent.
I am probably one of the few to have called him by that name, and still retain the ability to draw air into my lungs. For eighteen years had I served him, and for eighteen years had I wondered if one day he would strike me down for my insolence.
"I have a final task for you."
A final task? I had to choke back the sigh of relief that was trying to push itself out of my heart. There was definitely a catch. Ok, Lucan... what's the catch?
He handed me a sealed envelope.
"Deliver this to Nagafen." And as if he were reading my mind: "Yes... that's the catch. Deliver this message to Nagafen, and do as he instructs. That is all. Accomplish this, and your service is fulfilled."
So complete this task, and my twenty years of service will be over. My father would be pleased.
"Very well." I pushed myself away from the table that appears to have served as my pillow for the night, and took a look about as Lucan strutted out the door. On his way to give some other poor soul a mission, no doubt. He never rests.
I drank down some stale laager still in my mug from the night before. Was it even morning? Evening? What was I doing last night?
I shook it off. No matter... I need to be prepared. Mentally prepared. Business with Lord Nagafen is always a tricky matter. Our last dealings with that overgrown lizard did not fare so well. I hoped that this time would prove differently.
It felt good to be get out of the citadel. Moving towards the docks in East Freeport, I noticed many in costumes celebrating the holiday. It was the Week of the Dead. Some children passed wearing masks resembling Lucan D'Lere. Briefly, I wondered how it would feel to sever one of their little heads from their bodies... and watch the old man's head roll away.
Satisfying. Very satisfying.
I highly doubt the Freeport Militia would find much humor in it, however.
Chasing the pleasant thoughts of severing miniature Lucan heads out of my mind, I moved onto the docks in East Freeport and awaited my transport.
The journey to Solesk's Eye was mostly uneventful. It was a welcome break, really, and gave me some time to reflect upon my current situation.. and on.. the past.
Eighteen years before had our ratonga tribe sought refuge in Freeport. Lucan and my father, who was our leader at the time, negotiated the conditions of our migration. We would be permitted to reside in the Temple Street district. We would have free reign in the city, be allowed to conduct business, and gain the full benefits of any citizen of Freeport. In return, we had to swear an oath to serve the Overlord and recognize his authority above all others. Also, there were some additional conditions to this arrangement.
"You shall provide me with the most loyal and dedicated Ratonga among you, for 20 years of servitude. This person shall serve me and no other. Should such individual fail to please me, the Ratonga of Freeport as a whole shall be made to suffer. What say you?"
We were desperate. Broken. So many had died...
"My son shall serve you, Lord, and he shall not falter." And so it was. I was now Lucan's dog.
"Finally, you must understand that seven days hence: these Ratonga will have no leader but me. Do we have an agreement?"
I did not understand this, but my father was quick to respond.
Lucan appeared pleased. "Well, then: Welcome to the great City of Freeport, my children!"
My father and I were taken to the citadel, where we were treated very well. Father was treated especially well... all of the luxuries you would expect of such a place, and much more, were ours. I spent my days running errands for Lucan, and my nights enjoying the fine wines of Freeport with my father. For a brief time, we were in heaven.
Exactly one week from whence our arrangement was solidified, however, everything changed. We were called to Lucan's court. There was a large block of wood set in the center of the room. Lucan addressed my father:
"And now for the final part of our arrangement. Are you ready?"
My father did not speak. He did not even glance towards me as he approached the center of the room, and laid his head down upon the wooden block.
Lucan approached the center of the room also, and called me over to him.
"Do not keep your father waiting, boy. Come and give him the honor of a swift and painless death." He held a sword out for me.
The answer was clear. Lucan was testing my loyalty, and ridding the Ratonga of their former leader.. in one swing of a broadsword. If I failed to comply, the others.. all of them.. would perish by his hand.
So my first real task is as my last. I did what needed to be done... as I do now.
TO BE CONTINUED....
I had little trouble navigating Solesk's Eye. Underground... I feel right at home. The smell of sulfur, the swealtering heat, and pools of lava are not quite to my taste... but I made do. I had no problem slipping by the many inhabitants there. But then...
Which way was it? A map might have helped... but even in having one, it is difficult to find your way down to the lowest levels. This heat... I grew impatient. One of these giants will need to guide me. I spotted a couple of the big uglies crossing a nearby bridge. I came out of the shadows and approached them from behind. They didn't seem to notice me... it seems they were having some kind of conversation...
"Me hungry too... want fish"
"Fish no good.. like gnome"
"Gnome no good... like fish"
"No gnome fish!!"
While amusing, eavesdropping on two giants having a gnome vs. fish debate doesn't usually get the job done. I called out to them.
It seemed I started them. The "fish" giant turned around sharply and attempted to swat me off the bridge. I dodged past his arm and between his legs, drawing my sword to sever the tendons behind his knees. Bellowing out a fishy fish giant roar, he fell to the ground. The "gnome" giant took no action... he seemed to still be concerned about lunch.
Behind the "fish" giant now, I shoved my sword in just below the skull and aimed at an upward angle to finish the job. As the breath left his body, I retrieved my sword from his skull. This took some work.. it seemed to be stuck. I had to work it back and forth and up and down a bit... and heard the thhhwp of his skull separating from the neckbone. It's amazing what little force it takes to remove the head from the neck with the right leverage. Even a fish-loving giants' head.
The "gnome" giant then spoke to me...
"You not gnome."
Heh yeah.. he was still thinking with his stomach.
"No... I not gnome. Take me to Lord Nagafen, and I get you gnome."
"Dragon have gnome?"
"Yes... take me to dragon, and I get gnome for you."
"Me take you!!"
He was thrilled... and so was I. I could finally get on with this. My giant guide rushed off towards Nagafen's lair. I had to sprint most of the way to keep up with his massive strides.
Ah there it was: Nagafen's gong. A gong. Some dragons are such drama queens.
The hungry giant ran up to Nagafen's entrance... and then straight past it. He just kept going... A little befuddled, I stood there and watched for the whole ten seconds it took for him to get out of sight. Maybe he forgot what he was doing... or where he was going. Either way, I decided to let him go. It was either that or kill him later. He'd be rather displeased when he found out there was no gnome here, and I don't have the time or patience for such nonsense.
Into Lord Nagafen's lair, I went. I must have been quite a sight. My brown and white fur was dripping with sweat. It looked as if I had just been licked by a giant doggie.
I needed no introduction. We've done business before, this dragon and I.
"Lucan's dog," he spat, "What business do you have with me this day? Speak quickly, or I shall feed you to my Giant friend here." He motioned to his lackey. I couldn't quite remember his name... but he was no ordinary Giant. This one had half a brain.
"Has Lucan sent you with an offering? Could it be he is ready to attone for his insolence? Or shall I go now and crush the City of Freeport?"
This dragon... I have never met a god, but this dragon was as close as I'd ever want to get. He was a Lord among Lords. Even Lucan has cowered before him.
I bowed to one knee, fixed my eyes upon the ground, and held out the envelope that Lucan gave me. "Lord Nagafen, I bring you this message from Lucan D'Lere. I know not what it reads, but I can only hope it is of some value to you, Lord."
I could feel his gaze upon me. One small sign of fallacy... so much as solitary flaw in my now very deliberate body language... and I would be ashes before I knew what had happened.
The giant came forward to take the note, but Nagafen stopped him:
"No need for that," the dragon grinned, "The wisdom of the ages has granted me such vision that this note need not be read. You may rise, rodent." And I did rise.
"Thank you, Lord Nagafen" I wondered where all of this was heading...
"It is fortunate that you have arrived at this time. Lucan wishes something of me, and I shall reward you with your prize to bring back to him after you perform a task for me."
Great. "How may I serve you, Lord Nagafen? I will be honored to be in your service.. " I almost said ".. once more." but thought better of it. We weren't quite in his service before. It was more of a... well an arrangement that did not end with a happy dragon... which is usually a very dangerous arrangement to have made.
"A furry brown rodent, Lucan sends me. And a furry brown rodent is exactly what is needed here. Your timing is impecable. We are in the Nights of the Dead, as you well know. During this time, there are some portals which open up... Remnants of ages past... from the numerous planes of this multiverse."
The Planes? But... how? The gods...
"Yes," again.. I let my thoughts become transparent. "Yes there is no entry through them any longer. No mortals may pass. The gods have sealed them, and it is only during the Nights of the Dead that they open for entry into this plane of existance. However..."
He paused, and then turned his attention to a chest at his side. Rummaging through the chest, he withdrew two crystal shards.
"However," he continued, " activating the red shard.. this Shard of Tunare, 'should' allow you to pass. The blue shard is a special translocation shard that will bring you back to Norath once your mission is complete. You shall use the Shard of Tunare to pass through the portal that lies directly below my lair. It is several feet below the lava's surface. That would pose a problem for most. I'm sure a clever young pet such as yourself can find a way."
Several feet below the lava's surface? This was starting to sound bad.
"The portal will take you to a location in the Plane of Hate. You will be in a chamber below Innoruk's throne."
Ok... so it stepped up a notch from bad to freaking insane.
"There you will find a servant of his... Uzexial. You will bring me the skull of Uzexial. There are runes carved upon his skull which would be valuable to me. That is all you need to know. Bring Uzexial's skull to me, and you shall have your treasure for Lucan."
So basically, I had three choices. Tell him no, and die. Tell him sure, run, and then have both his and Lucan's minions after me, and eventually die. Or tell him sure, attempt to complete the mission, and most likely die. Again, the choice was obvious.
"Yes, Lord Nagafen. May I ask, Lord, how to activate the shards?"
"Of course you would not know," he sighed a big dragony sigh, "they will activate with your blood. They will each work only one time. Take care not to activate them accidentally."
So I was off. Ok I got it... enter the portal that is buried in lava... remove the skull of an immortal that dwells below Innoruk's throne room, and come back alive to Lord Nagafen so he can give me some trinket for Lucan.
I sat on the ledge just outside Nagafen's lair, peering down at the swirling lava pool below. How the hell was I even going to get through that? A lake full of water would not be enough to cool that pit. Maybe there was some way to push the lava aside? Some twirling vessel? A giant spatula? Giant...
Just then the answer came to me... literally. My old aquaintance, the "gnome" giant was pathing by...
Quickly, I tied one end of my rope to a nearby post, and formed a slipknot with the other end. I called out to the big dummy:
"You there!! Giant! Your gnome is here!!"
He came running over... I think he actually remembered me!
"Where?? Where gnome??!"
I pointed down below to the lava.
"I think he fell in... down there!"
He looked over the edge, frantically searching for his lunch. During this time, I carefully wrapped the slipknot around one of his legs, and then...
I severed the tendons behind his knees. I know... boring. (But really there are only so many ways to make a giant like that drop quickly.)
He dropped, and as I thought, there was no way he could catch himself on that ledge. The sheer weight of his upper body pulled him over the edge. Luckily the rope AND the post both held him. He dangled there above the lava, screaming.
I scurried down the rope quickly and drove my blade into his eyesocket. He quieted down after that.
Now for the fun part.
I gutted the giant... clear to his spine. The flesh of this big meatpiles is very resistant to the flame. The lava pools of this place are their playgrounds. This should help me to make it to the portal. Or so I hoped.
I climbed inside... plenty of room for me in a giants belly. I guess he would have rather had a gnome... but hey be's dead now... so should be happy with a ratonga in his gut.
The giant's blood actually felt cool and refreshing. I must have been out of sweat...
I sliced my hand open a ways... and grasped the red shard that Nagafen gave to me. I could feel it come alive... it was ready for departure.
Peeking out of the dead giant's belly, I started to sever some of the braids of rope that were holding us up... until I felt the rope start to give. I then ducked back inside my little gut-haven and started to rock the giant towards the area under Nagafen's lair. How big was this portal, anyway?
Large enough for a dragon to go through, I'm sure. Although he didn't say, I'm sure Nagafen had used it in the past. Why he was sending me, though...? He would have no trouble with the lava... I started to ponder this, and just then...
Snap. I fell with my very large, formerly gnome obsessed friend into the pool of lava below. It was burning. I could feel the heat of it straight through the massive layers of fat... sizzling.. like 1000 pounds of bacon. It felt like forever... and I swore I was going to die... but eventually...
The portal was there, and it did pull me through. I'm not sure what was worse, though: sinking in the belly of a giant into a massive pool of lava, or being pulled through that portal. It felt as if it was tearing at my flesh. It burned... and not like the lava. It wasn't a "heat" burn... it was something else. Something deeper. It burned through my entire body... I could feel my blood pulsing through my veins carrying the burn through to every part of me.
And after what felt like a second eternity I landed on some bright orange flatrock. The burn was still there.
Looking at myself now, it seemed that all or most of my fur was gone. A pink sack of flesh in the Plane of Hate... Yeah I was going to last long. My armor was still in one piece, though, as was my blade. Even my leather satchel seemed in good repair.
I was still burning. It was this place. Something about it was burning me... and weakening me. I felt faint... but if I passed out here I'd not ever open my eyes again. Of that, I was certain.
And just as that thought passed... I saw him. A large skeleton looking figure about twice my height, with runes.. glowing runes on his head. This was my target. This was Uzexial.
I'm not sure what he was, originally, or if he was ever anything other than this form. There is no telling. He appeared almost as a human skeleton.. but much larger.. and with thicker bones. They were an eggshell color, with an almost clay-like appearance. Some might have called him a bone golem... but it wasn't quite that.
He approached me, and shrieked some words in a language I had no understanding of. He had a blade that appeared to be made of the same substance as his bones. His blade drawn, he came for me.
Damn he was fast... I tried to dodge aside but he nicked my hip. This guy was really fast, and in my weakened state I could not keep up a fight with him for very long. I had to end this as quickly as possible.
On his next attack I dodged behind him and gave him two solid blows. I pummelled his shoulder with the hilt of my blade, and then came down for a slashing attack on his leg.
Nothing. It didn't shake or scratch him. There was no give at all.
I tried some more of the same. Dodging and attacking as I could. This thing seemed completely impervious to my attacks. There was little I could do but put off the inevitable.
I grew weaker still. The burn of this place was penetrating my wounds. I could almost feel it peeling back my flesh. It felt like the sheer concentration of evil here had some affect on the mortal flesh.
I was now bleeding from several places. Five.. or ten... and I was slowing down. I started to accept my fate. A failed mission to remove the skull of some lunatic golem (?). This is a sad day... To remove the skull...
Then I thought of my encounter with the "fish" giant... and there it was... with the right leverage...
Re-energized by this sliver of hope, I dodged his blade cleanly this time, and drove my sword up beneath his skull... pushing with all I had left in me.
The blade broke, but along with it, popped the skull of Uzexial.
He flailed about wildly, with me on his back holding his skull. Shrieking and spinning about, he tossed me across the room. As I fell to the floor, I retrieved the blue shard from my satched and drove it into one of my wounds.
And then it was gone. Like a dream, and I awoke on ... a rooftop .. somewhere. This was not portal travel like I experienced earlier... this was a most welcome event. Or perhaps it's just much easier being thrust out of one of the planes than trying to get in.
The sun was out. It was daylight... and a second later, clutching at my large skull buddy like a favorite stuffed animal, it all went black.
I'm not sure how long I slept... a day? 2 days? A week? I was out for a while. It took me a few minutes to collect myself when I awoke. It was night-time. I had to replay the most recent string of events to myself... all that had happened. Now where was I? I could hear birds.. pigeons.. and a bell dinging off in the distance. I peeked over the edge of the roof... and I recognized the area I was in.
I guess nothing can ever be easy. Or...
It was night-time. I had that... It was the Nights of the Dead, still, though. I could see the young ones in costume parading up and down the alleys of the happiest little city in Norrath. Pfft.
A lot of folks to sneak by...
Well I needed food and to tend to my wounds.. and grow my damn fur back... and that wasn't going to happen sitting on some roof in Qeynos Harbor.
I snuck my way to the docks. I was just about to sneak aboard a vessel heading out to Nektulos docks when:
"You there!!! Hold!!!"
A Qeynos Guard Captain approached with some underlings. I reached for my blade but... dammit... it broke on Uzexial. Now what?
"Great costume!", he said... and gave me a chocolate goblin.
So off to Nektulos I went, to recover.
A few weeks later I travelled back down to Nagafen to bring him his skull and retrieve Lucan's... whatever it was.
"Lord Nagafen, I have returned with Uzexial's skull, as you have instructed."
Again, I bowed, and held the skull out for him. His giant friend came and retrieved it, and brought it to Nagafen.
"Excellent. It had been so long since your departure, I was beginning to wonder if you'd return. A year, certainly, but two?"
I was confused... "Two..? Years?"
"Ah yes I should have mentioned. It could have been a year, or two, or a hundred... so you should consider yourself lucky. The translocation device does often move you through time as well." Two years lost... could have been a hundred? No wonder he didn't want to go himself... I was suckered yet again by this dragon. No matter...
"And might I add the taint of Hate has done wonders for your coat. You wear it well." A compliment from Nagafen. He's just blowing smoke. He knows that I know I've been suckered... and he really doesn't care.
My coat... was almost a solid black now, where it was brown and white.
"Always an honor to be in your service, Lord Nagafen. And if I may be so bold, might I have Lucan's reward for my service?" For my service. Well how else was I to say it?
"You may. Give the boy the map."
The giant brought me a map... or I guess it was a map. It didn't look like any map I'd seen. It clearly wasn't of Norrath... and the language was not something I recognized.
"You may go, now. Of course you know Lucan will kill you when you return. It's only natural for Lucan to end his underling's service in such a manner, as you well know."
And that I did. Sometimes... I ended their service.
"Of course... you are not the rodent you were when you left there, are you? It would be difficult to recognize you, in your current state. I owe Lucan nothing, but if you should choose that path... be sure you know that you are in my debt."
Maybe my luck does have a good day now and again.
"Thank you again, Lord Nagafen, for your great wisdom. I am truly in your debt."
I left quickly before Nagafen decided now was a good time for me to 'repay' him. So I have my freedom, the hilt of a broken blade, a map that I don't understand, and a crumpled up letter from Lucan to Lord Nagafen... Well no harm in reading it now...
In dragon runes, was written, "Dinner is served."
I laughed. And then I cried... Nagafen had no idea what that letter said. Suckered again. And what was Lucan's motive? To tick off Nagafen? Or did that bastard really think my eighteen years of service made me a candidate for dragon chow? No matter. I'm free... and I will hang right under Lucan's nose... right on Temple Street... and one day... I will avenge my father... and I will see that bastard Lucan dead... and smile as I watch his head roll away...