Paragon Ablaze – Chapter 4: Hoofs upon Plate
Near the end of the descent, we came upon a wide cavern. Its ceiling was towering above us and it was lit with this dim red glow. The air was oppressive. Waves of sweltering heat emanated from canals of lava that littered the chasm. The buildings here were tremendous and adorned with statues. An abandoned hold or a Raegh’s tomb. Those had been my guesses before I saw that the colossal statues were not of dweghom at all.
Then we saw it, in the center of the chasm, a beast I had never seen before. Not even one that could visit me in my dreams. Its body so warped and its malicious aura so otherworldly.
I will try…try to recall what it is that I saw. The horror and evil I observed that day. It made me question reality. Was this the nightmare my mentor predicted or was it something much older, more ancient.
It had legs as razor sharp as blades, but it also stood on appendages hard to describe. It had a definite structure except some parts were bulbous and ever expanding. It had talons and claws and hoofs like a beast of burden. Its body was an eddy, swirl-like mass you could concentrate on and suddenly realize you might be looking at its arm instead. And its head…or heads were embedded with hundreds of eyes: reds with yellow, greens with orange, black pupils, white irises, each glowing, peering, watching.
My thane’s fervor got the best of her as she charged with weapon in hand. I have wondered in the years since what would have transpired that day if we did not assume it was a threat. What would it have done if we had approached it as a structure like any of those buildings around us or a god to be in awe of?
The past does not lie so I will not either. We attacked the beast together with full intent to kill it. For me, it was the only way I knew how to navigate my fear.
I fought the beast as well as I could, but I was weary from already traveling so much that day. And for every limb I sliced off, there seemed to be another there. And it never made a sound. Not a scream nor a roar. It only reacted. A thin appendage swelling into a massive block of hard flesh that would barrel into my shield at the speed of a crossbow quiver. A wide arm-like thing splitting into five tong-like things and boring holes in my platemail. Still, I fought on as wounds and fears were created fresh.
My mentor was something else to see. In many ways, she looked like a monster herself. She was possessed. She would take a blow from the beast and continue her flurry of strikes. Railing endlessly against the horror. I watched her even as I fought – in the moments that I could. I watched her fight with the fervor that I had never seen her wield before. I remembered the stories she told me nights ago of the endless stamina she purported to have. I watched her even as her head burst into flame and she suddenly wielded fire itself.
I had experienced this once before when she blocked what would have been a deadly blow from me. In the heat of sparring with her, she had awakened that ancestral spirit. I didn’t question much of it then. I knew all dweghom carried an affinity for elemental flame and even I was accustomed to seeing berserker’s covered in embers and smoldering on the battlefield.
But what was happening to my mentor now was something different entirely. Her body was beyond carrying some sparks, it was fully ablaze. I could scarce belief the transformation taking place. How could this brawny, tightly corded woman, regaling me of the tale of a growing sickness in her, be the burning deity on the other side of this beast?
The creature didn’t even seem to regard me after that. It seemed indifferent to my blows and didn’t even try to strike back. No, both it and I were transfixed on what was happening to this thane. She was engulfed in light. Pure combustion. Entire rage. The cone of flame enveloping her and growing into a torrential inferno. It spiraled and threatened to burn everything around it. I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t withstand that heat anymore!
From the distance I quickly gained, I could see my mentor carrying on her brutal assault. And she was winning. One couldn’t tell as the beast made no sound, but its form had joined the inferno, had been so collapsed by flame that it became a silhouette beyond the intense reds, oranges, and yellows. The inferno roared before me and in that moment, I could swear I heard the beast’s hoofs crash upon her plate. Eerily…just as my mentor had predicted. Then the roar of the flame returned. It was echoing all throughout the chamber. The battered shield that I had dropped in my haste was shrouded in the ever-widening inferno.
The fight ended just as quickly as it had begun. The flames consumed themselves and the swirling mass of fire dissipated in an instant. The roar of the flames was silenced, the light evaporated, and there was nothing left in its wake. My foe was defeated. My mentor was a charred remnant. And I was alone. Alone in the great hall. This great…nightmarish hall.
I can’t even begin to describe the relief I felt then. It was a strange pride mixed in with sadness for the sacrifice that my mentor had just made. That feeling of relief grew when I saw what was before me at the end of the chamber.
Before me was the destination all dweghom seek. An ornate gate that my ancestors had once broken through. I would have continued to stare in awe had I not been so distracted by the sounds growing all around me. Cacophonous. It was everywhere, that very distinctive sound: hoofs upon plate.