Chapter 23: Duke Zolto
Roon appeared in the blink of an eye and shot an arrow at one of the hellhounds as it pounced at Flint. The poisoned arrow tip dug into its roiling flesh and made it snarl angrily. The poison would take only seconds to seep through any normal creature’s bloodstream, but this creature was anything but normal. The hound’s skin was raw and cracked, and from the cracks streamed bits of molten lava. As it barked, its mouth spewed ash and fire.
Roon disappeared back into the ethereal plane and made his slow run through the fog toward Evelyn, who was unconscious on the edge of Kilian’s fog cloud. When he appeared to heal her, she groaned as he said, “would you quit that? I can’t follow you around all day healing you, you know.”
The girl got abruptly to her feet, black rage in her eyes. The rage, luckily, was only for the hounds. Kilian’s fog cloud dropped, and the air cleared.
A large wire ball rolled through the doorway as it was chased by another hellhound. It leaped almost playfully at the large, burnt ball before seemingly noticing them. Opal hit it with a roaring wall of thunder before it could attack. Kilian shot electric black and green bolts of energy into one, nearly slicing its chest in half. Hiccup was looking to Kilian and trying to emulate the sorcerer’s spells, but whatever he did didn’t seem to be working. Thia’s lightning bolt mixed with Flint’s strange bardic magic and took out the third.
Just as they were about to celebrate, two fire giants roared as they entered, one much larger and ducking slightly through the opposite doorway. It seemed their kitchen battles had caught the attention of the entire network beneath the mountain.
This larger giant wore thick, gleaming armour.
“Duke Zolto!” Thia shouted, and the larger of the two turned on her and gave a crooked grin.
They turned their spells and blades on the giants, giving way to some ground and finding perches on tables for added height against their much larger foes. Roon continued to blink in and out of planes, never missing with his poison-tipped arrows. He felt exhilarated at his ability, a strange thrill of another mind with his, guiding his shots. Whether it was the divine hand of Baravar Cloakshadow, or something else, he couldn’t tell.
Zolto went for Thia, but she moved quickly, wielding the giantslayer sword and leaving deep gashes in the giant’s gray-black skin. The other giant turned on Flint, who’d taken a stand on the largest of the tables and had out his axe and a wide grin. He swung, but the giant slammed a fist into the dwarf and knocked him across the room where he slumped and didn’t move.
Roon blinked over to Flint and healed him to consciousness, blinking away before the dwarf could thank him.
Evelyn, he could see, had crawled under one of the tables holding her arm, which he suspected was broken. The smaller giant grabbed the table with two hands and flipped it, revealing the small white-haired girl. She pushed herself to her feet and barely leapt out of the following pounding fist.
Two more hounds had come at the sound of the shouting giants, and both pounced on Opal. The genasi screamed as she fell under a mass of tooth and claws. Roon appeared and shot one with an arrow. It turned at him and snarled, and he got off another shot before disappearing again. Through the shadow of the ethereal plane, he saw Opal rise as a giant eagle and fly out of the hounds’ grasps.
“Evelyn, RUN!” Kilian shouted at her from a few tables away.
Evelyn used her good arm to hoist herself over the overturned table and land lightly on the other side, grunting in pain. The giant kicked the table into her, nearly squishing her if not for her reactionary lunge to the side. The giant took another swipe at her with large knuckles.
Blinding lightning struck Zolto in the chest from Thia’s hands and the Duke roared at her.
Roon shot at the hounds, felling one. Hiccup’s form was shimmering with strange, magical armour as he prepared to cast another spell. Flint was barely standing, looking exhausted as he leaned against a far wall.
“HALT! OR THE GIRL DIES!” The smaller giant, still at least seventeen feet tall, shouted.
They all spun, including the Duke and the last hound, and saw the giant holding Evelyn’s limp form in his grasp with a large swordpoint digging into the bottom of her chin.
Flint straightened and shouted back. “Don’t hurt the wee lass!”
“Surrender.” The giant snarled.
“Zerebor, to me!” Zolto commanded, and the hound yelped and ran to his side as the Duke backed nearer to the other giant.
“What are your demands?” Flint asked. The rest of the party was staring blankly, unsure of what to do. Blood leaked copiously from Evelyn’s throat, and her one arm hung at an awkward angle.
“Drop all of your weapons and surrender,” Zolto said triumphantly.
“I’ve been here before,” Flint said loudly, looking around at the rest of them and puffing out his wide dwarven chest, “and there’s only one solution.” With hands quicker than any of them would have believed, Flint pulled up his crossbow and shot the giant’s hand where it grasped Evelyn.
The giant yelped and nearly dropped the girl, and Flint used the opportunity to shoot a yellow healing light at her. They all saw her arm snap back into place as her eyes flew open and a dagger appeared in her hand. She stabbed the giant’s hand three times successively until it dropped her roughly to the ground.
Kilian formed a weird ball of electric energy in his hand and shot it at Zolto. The bolts twinned in two directions, hitting him in the chest and stomach.
Roon nearly forgot about Opal, who was perched as a giant eagle on the large empty pot. She now screeched and dove at a new figure entering the doorway: another fire giant. This one was female, and had long, stringy black hair.
Opal chased her back out of the room and left their sight, but they could hear the angry cries from the giant as she fled.
The other giant bent and grabbed Evelyn again and threw her against the wall, and Zolto’s hellhound pounced on her and tore into her leg. Zolto shouted at the smaller giant, “GO TAKE CARE OF BRIMSCARDA!”
Flint hit the hound atop Evelyn with crossbow bolts as he ran to help her. The hound dropped and he healed her before Roon could blink back. Instead, he went to Thia’s side and gave her healing as she jumped back from Zolto and cast missiles at him.
“Thanks,” the elf breathed quickly as the healing instantly stitched her wounds.
Roon nodded and disappeared into liquid air and summoned his spiritual weapon to fly at the Duke and distract him from his friends.
The smaller giant picked up the burnt wire ball one of the hellhounds had chased into the room and hurled it at Thia. It hit the elf by surprise, and she flew off the table with a grunt. It was then, through the shadows, that Roon noticed the blackened corpse of a gnome inside the ball.
Thia got to her feet and spat an incantation at Zolto, and the giant fell to his knees suddenly and screamed in agony. He blinked and curled up in pain.
The smaller giant saw his leader falling. He turned and ran out the door where Opal and the female giant had disappeared, and fled screaming for his life. Roon returned to the material plane.
Then, they all hit Zolto with everything they had. Hiccup, Kilian, Roon, Flint, Thia and Evelyn hit him with various explosions and the Duke fell back and screamed as he cowered. “I YIELD. I YIELD!”
“Ha!” Flint shouted in triumph, fist in the air.
Opal ran back through the doorway at that moment, back to her genasi form. She was panting, her colourful hair sticking to her sweaty face. “The other two got away! Oh, well done!” She praised then, seeing Zolto cowering in the fetal position.
“Push your sword away,” Kilian commanded, and Zolto obeyed with shaking fingertips as he pushed it out of reach.
Kilian and Flint used their combined efforts to drag it even further away while the rest of them kept their weapons drawn and their spellcasting at high alert.
“Where is the conch?” Thia demanded.
“C-conch?” Duke Zolto stuttered, moving to a sitting position on the ground.
“The magical one that’ll bring us to King Hecaton’s court,” Flint offered impatiently.
“Ah—oh—yes, that conch. It’s in my chambers,” the fire giant said.
“How many conches can one person have?” Hiccup asked quietly, not getting it.
“Take us there,” Kilian said, “and call off the others if they come near. That’s all we want. We’re not here to kill anyone.”
“Anyone else,” Roon whispered to Hiccup, who nodded grimly.
Zolto agreed and got slowly to his feet, leading them out of the gore-streaked kitchens filled with the bodies of giants, ogres, mephits and goblins. They followed him cautiously, some members of their party looking more pained than others as they moved along large passageways, deeper into the mountain. The halls became cleaner and more nicely carved, and Zolto only needed to bark orders to a couple of giants and some ogres along the way. Finally, they reached a set of wooden doors carved with two fire giant figures in rich armour, their swords touching in the middle.
Zolto threw open the doors, revealing a lavishly decorated bedroom with thick red and gold tapestries carpeting the walls. There was a large chest in the corner that he pointed at. “It’s in there,” he breathed, looking exhausted. “I don’t even care about it, really.” He shrugged, utterly defeated.
On their way back out of the kitchens, Roon, with the help of Opal, slid the burned wire ball containing the gnome corpse into their bag of holding. They left Zolto on the landing and snuck back up the stairs, past the hanging vonendod, and on to the shaft where the platform moved slowly down.
They’d asked the Duke about the weapon as Evelyn took the large seashell from Zolto’s treasure chest.
The vonendod was nearing completion, the Duke told them. They had almost all the parts to it. They planned to use it first against the dragons, and then against whoever else got in their way.
“We shouldn’t have left him alive,” Thia said angrily as they stood and waited for the platform to reach their level.
“We must get to the court of Hecaton first,” Kilian said. “Then we can worry about Zolto and his plans.”
The elf shook her head but said nothing.
“Wait here,” Roon said, holding up a hand and looking back. “I want to try something.”
“What?” Kilian demanded. “No, we don’t have time.” He pointed to the platform, which was only a few floors away from them now.
“It will only take a minute,” Roon promised, and dashed back to the open chamber containing the vonendod.
He stared at the large metallic thing with the thick red ruby in its forehead. He breathed deeply and closed his eyes. “Baravar,” he whispered to his god, “is there anything you can do?”
Then he whispered the slow incantation to dispel the magic. He felt the magic around the humanoid-shaped weapon and tried to draw it away from the metal, but the magic went deep. It threaded through every vein and drop of the thing. He clenched his jaw and tried to pull it free, but it of was no use.
Roon ran back down the hallway and saw everyone already standing on the platform, several floors above him. They were shouting at him to get on. Roon threw out a hand and a small door appeared. He stepped through it and appeared a moment later on the platform next to his friends.
“So?” Kilian said as they moved incrementally upward. “What did you do?”
“I wasn’t strong enough,” Roon said quietly as he stared at the moving stone wall, then looked around at their confused expressions. “I tried to dispel the magic within the vonendod. I didn’t think it would work, but I had to try…”
“It was a good thought,” Kilian said, nodding approvingly.
“Sir Nibbleswooooooorth!” Hiccup shouted down.
“He sent his squirrel away during the battle,” Opal explained, a worried expression on her face, “but he hasn’t come back. Oh, I do hope he’s okay.”
Roon nodded seriously, and they all began calling for the squirrel as they moved slowly upward.
They all stepped off at the top into sunlight and breathed in the fresh air. Thia looked at the waterwheel and turned to Flint. “Hey, dwarf. Want to help me destroy this wheel?”
“With pleasure,” Flint said, taking out his axe and gripping it with anticipation.
“Sir Nibblesworth!” Hiccup cried as the squirrel appeared at the top of the shaft, chattering at his owner angrily.
Thia shot the waterwheel with fire alongside Kilian while the dwarf cut the ropes and chains free. The platform fell into darkness, leaving a gaping hole behind and a following, echoing crash at the bottom. They all stepped aside and watched the thing burn down to water level before turning away and beginning their hike back to the smoldering town of the yak folk. Opal called for Marteen through the sending stone, and a few hours later the airship arrived to pick them up.
As they waited for the ship, Roon broke the burnt gnome out of its ball cage and cast a speaking spell to the corpse. It cracked as its burned neck moved and Roon asked for its name, how it died, and who it loved most. The lost spirit gave him the answers, and he laid it to rest in a mound of freshly turned dirt. Atop the buried form, he planted a large smooth stone using magic and engraved words upon its surface: “Here lies Grijo, a brave gnome who loved his brother.”
That night, they sat on the deck of the airship with the conch between them and began formulating their next plan. In the back of his mind, Roon felt something fade, and some of his confidence waned as the balloons billowed out and the ship moved westward across the sky.