The Devil of Amaranth

By Deuce Traveler

Chapter Three

Deuce Traveler figured it was a few hours past noon when they reached the cavern entrance to Doom. Esk had met him on the Riversy Ferry going towards the Miramor Road. She had been silent the entire trip, except to bid Deuce a good night during their stay at the Grinning Pig Tavern in Miramor. Deuce made himself feel better about his companion’s lack of conversation, by wooing the barmaid, Lora, to a night in his room. Outsiders always fascinated the people of the hidden city Miramor. Esk had been waiting outside his door in the morning, her eyes lifeless. They continued on the long journey until they reached the caverns of Doom.

The caverns were built inside a volcano, the entrance looking like a blister against the green forest landscape of the nearby Miramor woods. Deuce quickly donned jet-black leather armor, and prepared two black gleaming daggers he put in scabbards near his hips. Esk took time to don some dyed dark chain mail armor, chain links wrapped with thin cloth in an attempt to make her quieter, an engraved sword in her right hand, a square shield with black cloth wrapped around the silver face in her left. Making sure the entrance was clear of guards, Deuce and Esk slipped towards the lip of the cave.

Finally, Esk spoke. "Deuce, I'm after a rare book in the library. Will you help me find it?"

"Sure, if you help me get the Axe," Deuce stated. "My help is never for free, after all."

"Even between friends? Deuce, that book is important to me. I can't talk about why, but I've been chasing leads towards it's location in campaigns for years," Esk told the rogue, her eyes filled with guilt and her voice desperate for some sign of forgiveness.

"Fine, let's get the book, and then get you on your way. I can handle the rest since it will be easier to sneak through this underground fortress without an armored warrioress behind me,"
Deuce snapped.

"I would not hesitate to do it for you, and without an attitude, if you told me your need was great."

"Yes, but I'm not you, Esk."

The comrades entered the cavern. Bones were strewn in the first large cave and from the large claw marks on fresh earth, it looked as if a large beast had recently left it, maybe to go out hunting for food. Deuce scouted ahead of Esk and down the cavern, for what felt to be almost a mile until reaching man-made corridors.

"I wonder how they get clean air this far down," Deuce whispered to Esk.

"It's a dwarven mystery, or maybe it's magic. Let's continue."

Deuce snuck into the corridor, looking for guards. He was surprised to find none near this rear entrance, but he realized that whatever creature usually lived in that first cave was probably dangerous enough to keep most intruders at bay. He found a number of side doors, when he peeked in he found that most of them leading to empty barracks in the middle of this day. On the other wall, he found a door leading to a library and motioned Esk to follow him in. The two of them quietly entered the empty room and Esk started searching the bookshelves.

"Esk, I saw a lot of empty cots in those barracks. It looks like their building an army in here," Deuce whispered.

"I need you to look for a large, black book with letters imprinted on the cover in red and gold," Esk ignored Deuce, not sure what the sell sword was getting at.

Deuce sighed and started looking. The build up of forces in this recently created fortress could only mean that an attack was being prepared against Miramor. He would definitely have to get the word out to the people of Miramor. It was usually not his business to care, but something nagged at him when he thought of the people of Miramor coming to harm. They were so helpful in his quest to find Caitlyn and the lost elven kingdom. Shaking such thoughts from his mind he continued to look for Esk's book.

Deuce estimated that a half hour must have gone by in this little used library when Esk removed a dust-covered book from its shelf. Her hands shook as she opened it and began to flip through its pages. She smiled and said, "It's here. Five years of searching and I finally find this."

"What is it, Esk?"

Esk looked at Deuce, not sure how to answer. "It tells where I can find lost knowledge. Not on how to farm or how to raise horses. Deuce, this book tells me what I have to do to understand it all."

"Esk, you're losing me. What is in that book?"

"A guide to the path I must walk to understand mortals through greater than mortal eyes. I can learn why we hurt the one's we love, why when everything seems to be working right in the world everything turns to crap." Esk began to talk passionately, "Why a little girl named Cmot had to grow up in the torn down Lucy's Brothel, and become a prostitute. I want to know why a man with a broken beer bottle scarred that girl. Do you know what happened to that girl? She became a diseased two bit whore in the slums, since no 'decent' man wanted some 'scarred slut'," Esk spit on that last part as if remembering a quote. "I want to know how come her prayers were answered and one morning she woke up reborn in a new body. Did one of the many gods she prayed to hear her prayers at night? Was it a passing mage who took pity on her suffering form? All I know is that with my new clean body I became Esk and learned the sword as opposed to the street corners. And when I was a bitter mercenary for hire, I met the most wonderful man who had a cause and believed in helping others just to help."

Esk continued, her voice no longer a whisper. "We joined a more noble mercenary guild called Khan's Troopers of the Night, and I had a new family. We would protect one another. I was happy. Then one day in a fierce battle in Nengtaroth, I got ambushed. We were surrounded and Rothor couldn't fight his way to me. You were there, Deuce. You said you found the jewels you were after, but then you came back. I might have died if it wasn't for you; the gods know I was close to death after the injuries I sustained. Since that moment Rothor called you a brother when we talked about our friends in private. I bet you didn't know that, did you? But Rothor always blamed himself for not knowing about the ambush and started following the green flow when we would campaign together. Just a little bit at first, then more and more. I watched him get addicted and I couldn't get him to stop. Then I left him and watched him kill himself some more, but from a distance this time. And now I don't know whether to help him or not, anymore. Everything I seem to touch goes to hell. I'm tired, Deuce! I want answers! Why do these things keep happening to me? I don't deserve this, I want something good to come from my life just once and not destroy itself!" Esk was yelling now, and Deuce prayed that the walls were thick.

"Esk," Deuce began quietly, "I don't know what the answer is. I would say that what happened isn't your fault, but you'd never believe me. Sometimes life is horrible, no matter what actions we take. I can't give you some magical piece of wisdom and make it all better, and I doubt that book can, either. I do know one thing, though. The dwarves of Rockby still believe in Rothor and if we get that artifact of theirs to him, he can destroy his life, but it will still be Rothor who returned it. They'll remember him for the man he was, not for the man he has become. I'm going for the Axe, and I think I'll need you with me."

Esk looked deep into Deuce's eyes, seeing a part of the rogue she never knew was there. Rothor told her once it existed in Deuce, but for the very first time she began to believe it. "For the man I loved, I'm with you."

Chapter Four

Deuce looked relieved and nodded. This was the Esk he knew. The one who would risk her life for that of her companions simply because she believed it was the right thing to do. He opened the door to the corridor to peek outside, and what he saw made his jaw drop. Their search of the library did not go unheard. A half dozen smiling Doom soldiers stood behind a scholarly, bald man who held a little lantern outstretched in his hands, whispering an incantation. Deuce had seen such a lantern before. Slamming the door closed he screamed, "Esk, get back!"

The fireball cast from the lantern ripped through the oak library door, the concussive blast tossing the rogue backwards. Esk stared at her friend who laid on the ground, motionless, his clothes torn, and skin gashed from small pieces of shattered wood. Yelling a battle cry, she cast herself into the corridor, sword flashing. A surprised soldier was beginning to walk into the library as she ran out, and he lost his head for his carelessness. The next nearest soldier lost a few teeth and was felled as Esk brought her shield up to his chin with her other arm. The bald man began another incantation with his lantern, stepping behind one of his soldiers in fear, and not concentrating on his aim. As Esk continued to parry and block the remaining four soldier’s attacks she kept an eye on the bald man, which cost her a few cuts on her arms and sides. Finally, she was rewarded as he finished his words, and the lantern glowed a bright red. Esk rolled underneath the fireball, tucking into a ball, and coming up with her sword in a slashing arc at the soldier who was guarding the man. The soldier fell, almost split in half by Esk’s engraved sword. Screams behind her told her that the fireball had hit some of the soldiers she was engaged in. Esk impaled the bald man through the ribs, his dying scream ringing her ears. Esk felt a blade find its way past a space in her armor and slash her shield arm. Screaming, she swung wildly as she turned, lopping off her attacker's sword arm. The soldier stared dumbly for a moment at his bleeding stump, then fell over into shock. The man whose teeth she knocked out with her shield began to recover, so Esk walked quickly toward him and buried her sword in his chest. Esk's entire fight took thirty seconds. Esk panted heavily and started to bandage her bleeding shield arm when she heard heavy boot steps behind her.

From down the corridor an aging, armored man walked confidently towards her. He wore an armsmaster’s badge on his right breast and carried a gray sword and shield. His piercing, black eyes studied her for a moment before he spoke, "I am Lord Cantos, the Royal Armsmaster. I would have you know, there’s no escape. When I was recently told of your presence I ordered some of my men to block the exits to Doom, the rest of the guard’s are retrieving their armor and weapons and will soon fill these halls. If you surrender, I promise that we will show such a beautiful woman as yourself mercy."

Esk smirked bitterly at that, remembering the tales she had heard about the men of Doom’s mercy. She said nothing, needing to save her already labored breath. She saluted the man with her sword, spit at his feet, and engaged him. She was immediately put onto the defensive, as the man fought like the master he bragged to be, making his sword dance again and again through her defenses. She knew she would be his equal if her shield arm hadn’t already been injured and hanging limply by her side. He took his time, enjoying cutting her arms and sides, smiling with each new strike.

The warrioress’ anger began to build. She would be damned if she was going to be defeated by this sadist. Roaring a battle cry, she surprised him by slamming him against the wall while his sword was upraised, and piercing his gut through his armor with her sword. She moved to shove her blade deeper into the armsmaster, but fell back a step when she slipped on the cobblestone floor that was slick with blood from fallen bodies.

Lord Cantos backhanded her with his mailed fist, and Esk crashed to the ground, dazed. The man dropped his shield and held the wound in his gut, his face purple with rage as he raised his sword. "Die whore."

An angry growl came from the darkness and a large, black shape flew from out of the shadows and tackled the man to the ground. Deuce’s dagger gleamed in the torchlight of the corridor as he brought it down on the armsmaster again and again until the man’s crumpled form shivered and stilled. Deuce stood up, his clothes spotted with blood, and looked at Esk in concern. "Are you alright?"

Esk was a bit stunned by her friend’s savagery, but still accepted his hand as he helped her up. "I’m fine, thanks for the help. I..." A crossbow bolt shot over their heads.

The mercenaries ducked in reflex and saw armed men beginning to come from rooms down the corridor. Without a word, they ran back towards the cavern entrance. At the place where the cavern met the corridor stood four soldiers guarding the entrance, fear appearing in their eyes as the bloodied and tattered rogue and warrioress came down upon them like devils from a nightmare. The battle lasted only a few seconds before all four of them retreated back into Doom, holding the light wounds already dealt upon their bodies.

Deuce watched them go out of earshot and told Esk, "I’m going back in. Rothor needs that artifact, and I can slip back inside if you distract them for me here."

"I’ve changed my mind about not helping you, the book is important to me, but I can wait another day. The place is alive with soldiers, and you’re not going to be able to fight them all alone."

"You forget, I don’t have to," Deuce answered and stepped into the shadows. Even though Esk knew where he was and could hear his voice, she had trouble keeping her eyes on his outline. "Esk, I’m the only one of us that can do this now. You got what you came for, now I only need you to make them believe you’ve retreated from Doom from their superior numbers. Do this for me and I swear to you I can get to that Axe."

She knew he was right. Deuce seemed to be able to slip into anywhere, and although she was the by far the better fighter, that was only going to help so much against an army. "Go," she said grimly. She thought she heard him shuffling back into the corridor. "He wants a distraction," thought Esk. She heard armored soldiers marching towards her as she readied her sword. "I’ll give him carnage the gods will see."


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