“Are you alright?” the woman asked. The goblin lay at her feet, unmoving.
Viridiane released the breath she was still holding but found that she couldn’t answer the question. She nodded, unsure, while the cold feeling in her fingers slowly receded.
“Oh, no,” Bobbi squealed from his tied-up position in the middle of the room, twisting his neck to see what was going on behind his back. His voice was sad, but not as much as it might have been expected from someone who had just watched two of his friends getting murdered. “This is bad, this is very bad!”
“I agree,” Axk’hran replied. He was still clutching his quarterstaff, his arms and legs tensed into a fighting stance, prepared to strike if any more goblins were to rush out of the hallway. His opponent sprawled out on the stone ground behind him, daggers scattered about, a large bloodstain steadily expanding under the body. “We should move on, and quickly.”
“Right.” The woman gave a sigh. “I will scout ahead.”
She turned towards the hallway in front of them, then just like before, she seemed to disappear from their sight, slipping into the unlit corridor.
“We better keep up.” The tiefling walked ahead and glanced back at Viridiane before following the woman. “That was a neat trick, by the way.”
A trick it was. Viridiane stepped into the hallway as well. But neat? She couldn’t get the goblin mage’s pain-racked, sickly face out of her mind. What had she done? And why was it coming so naturally to her? She had to act, sure; they were under attack, but was this really what she wanted? To kill people?
She needed to get out of this, and fast. There was more, much more at that place where this revolting spell had come from. Curse this whole experiment to figure out her newly gained power!
But…could she just walk away, not knowing what she was really capable of?
Beyond the corridor, another bright room emerged, its hexagonal structure similar to the previous one except for the central pillar which was missing in here. The woman beckoned them to move forward, then slipped through the torch-lit space towards the next doorway. Viridiane glanced around nervously, but there was no one else in there.
“Voices,” whispered the woman, peering into the next passageway, dark like the ones before. “At least three of them.”
“Look—” Axk’hran started, then paused, confounded. “Wait, what was your name again?”
“Uh…” The woman grimaced, then looked up at him. “Susan?”
It sounded almost like a question and Viridiane had the sudden urge to laugh. It was just her nerves, probably, because at the same time, the woman’s shiftiness scared her too. What in all hells was going on here?
“Susan,” the tiefling repeated slowly, less than convinced.
“Yes, that is definitely my name,” the woman retorted, now with a little too much confidence in her voice.
“Okay, Susan, can we stop for a second and come up with a plan this time, for a change?”
“Yeah, no, I have a plan,” Susan shot back. “I’ll go in stealthily, stab some goblins, then we win!”
Then, without waiting for a reaction, she turned her back to them and disappeared into the shadows.
Axk’hran mumbled something in another language that sounded like a curse, then rushed forward as well. Viridiane swiftly followed. It would have been a really bad idea to stay behind in this place all alone.
By the time they got to the next room, Susan—or whatever her name really was—had already engaged with one of the goblins, a lean, unusually tall creature with a spear in his hands that clattered on the ground loudly when the woman twisted his arm around, crouching behind him. The goblin wailed, temporarily immobilized, and his two companions—a female with a crossbow, and a male mage, judging from the staff he was carrying—hissed at the scene from across the room, unable to bring a hit in without possibly wounding their comrade.
Susan yelled at the creatures, strange, croaking words that Viridiane didn’t understand. It sounded like she wanted to explain something or convince them, but at that moment it didn’t seem like the goblins were particularly susceptible to whatever she was attempting to do. And when Susan glanced at the doorway and saw Axk’hran and Viridiane stepping in, she flinched, and with a swift motion, sliced through her opponent’s neck.
The body tumbled down to the ground, but Susan was already far ahead, going for the archer.
The tiefling released a deep sigh and his quarterstaff lit up with a warm yellow light. He dashed forward, ready to attack, when two more goblins appeared from a tunnel at the far side of the room, carrying surprisingly large swords.
Viridiane watched Susan engage with the archer and the mage, her daggers gleaming in the torchlight as she struck down again and again. She moved with inhuman speed like a deadly strike of lightning, then suddenly jumped back, crouching down again. A bright orange flame appeared in her palm, and she hurled it towards the mage. The goblin cried out as the ball of fire smashed into his chest. His companion paused, reconsidering her actions, but Susan was already on her.
In the meantime, Axk’hran managed to trap one of the newcomers in a tangle of vines and twigs that he’d conjured up in the middle of the room. He cracked down with his quarterstaff over and over again, but his opponents were too fast. The archer changed his weapon to a spear, slicing towards the tiefling twice and shielding his trapped friend who looked like he was preparing some magic spell to push back with.
Viridiane gritted her teeth. She was still standing in the doorway, half-hidden in the shadows. Her legs did not seem to be able to move forward.
“A little help would be nice!” Susan heaved. She already took out the archer, and now was in a desperate one-on-one with one of the fighters, the two circling each other cautiously. She was limping, and heavily bleeding from her arm. Axk’hran also risked a glance towards Viridiane. A large bloodstain decorated his torso, and his face contorted in pain and focus as he kept defending against the mage and the other fighter.
Viridiane stepped out of her cover, taking a deep breath. She could help. She knew she could. She could save them all.
Closing her eyes, she tried to recall the sickening feeling in her stomach, the one she felt when casting that ghost hand on the wolf in the forest. If she could do the same, it would turn the fight around. She hated the thought of killing more of these creatures, no matter how bloodthirsty they’d proven to be, but maybe she could direct her magic to only knock them unconscious?
The feeling was there, the power just a sigh away. The crystal in her neck glowed with grey-green energy, and she reached forward with both arms, her fingers tensing as if she wanted to strangle the very air.
A freezing ball of energy in the middle of her stomach extended its tendrils towards her throat and weaved its way down her arms. Tiny globules of energy floated through her veins, her muscles and skin straining under the pressure. She felt like she was going to explode, but she focused on the crystal and tried to gather all this cold energy into a single, powerful, pulsing strand in her palm. Her ears clogged up, and she felt queasy but there was still more coming. Just a little more, and she could release it.
The image of the wolf flashed through her mind again, the animal whining in pain as an apparition of a skeletal hand, tendons and bits of flesh hanging from the bare bones, clung to its fur.
Her eyes snapped open. She gasped, panicking at the ghastly memory, and the energy fizzled out, withering to nothing.
She collapsed onto her knees. Through the fog of numbness, she saw Axk’hran cutting off another goblin. Susan appeared too, carrying another globule of fire and releasing it on the mage. Viridiane swallowed, her throat painfully dry.
She let them down.
She climbed back onto her feet, thrusting her arms forward. It had to work, why wasn’t it working? Something imploded in the middle of her chest, and she coughed up. She felt like she was breathing in dust. The cold energy was there, but something was holding it back.
Axk’hran struck down another fighter, and Susan’s daggers finally landed in the middle of the mage’s chest. As the last goblin’s body slumped onto the ground, Viridiane’s two companions straightened, panting heavily.
“I’m so sorry,” Viridiane started, babbling. “I tried to help, but I’m…kind of new at this and it just wasn’t working… I’m so—”
“It’s alright,” Axk’hran cut her off, but he wasn’t looking at her; he was still scanning the room, cautious of another attack. And Susan’s sharp glance did not exactly tell her that “it was alright”. The tiefling went on, still heaving. “Let’s just try to keep it together and maybe rest a little before we approach the next room.”
He addressed his words to the woman, but Susan shrugged and sat down on the ground, taking deep breaths. Axk’hran leaned onto his quarterstaff, sifted through his bag, then pulled out a piece of dried fruit and started to chew on it. Neither of them talked for long minutes.
So far, their presence and the purge they’d just executed among the goblins seemed to stay unnoticed by the rest of the creatures that still resided in the depths of the church, and for that, they could thank their incredible luck. Whether the human hostage or hostages were still alive at that point, they couldn’t know. They had to hope it would not be these few minutes of delay that doomed them in the end.
Viridiane thought about the healer’s kit in her bag, and she wanted to offer her assistance to the others, but in all honesty, she wasn’t sure whether it would have been welcome. Her performance hadn’t proved to be the most reliable during this adventure.
So, she just watched as Axk’hran, having finished his meal, went over to Susan and after silently asking her permission, put his hand on her arm. After a moment, a warm orange glow radiated from his fingers. The cuts on the woman’s skin seemed to seal up, and relief washed over Susan’s face. Then the tiefling stepped up to Viridiane too, with the same question on his alien face.
“I didn’t get hurt,” she said, swallowing hard in guilt.
“Right.” Axk’hran placed his glowing hand on his own torso, healing his wounds up as well. “I think you should maybe…stay behind us when we face this Master or Boss or whoever they are. We will deal with it, okay? Perhaps you can look for the hostages, set them free.”
Viridiane thought about protesting, but on what grounds, really? Her powers were, to say the least, capricious. The magic had already abandoned her in a life-threatening situation, and she couldn’t guarantee that the same thing wouldn’t happen again.
She nodded meekly, and Axk’hran replied with a reserved smile of his own that looked peculiar on his fundamentally fierce-looking face. Then he spoke again, his voice low. “You might not be strong, but at least you try. I don’t trust this Susan, though. Keep your eyes on her, will you?”
Then he drew back and plopped down on the floor a few steps away, chewing on a piece of dry bread. They sat around quietly for a while, catching their breaths, and preparing themselves for what waited for them in the next chamber.