Grendel looked up at the castle, standing ominously atop a large black crag. It was dark and foreboding, and a bright yellow light shone from the highest tower. He shivered, despite himself. He wondered how powerful a wizard you had to be in order to earn such a lavish home; Grendel couldnt imagine himself living in such a place, though he imagined the isolation would be great for his studies- peace and quiet, with no interruptions, and all the time in the world just to read. Hed make his castle a little fairer though, and maybe a little less intimidating. And hed probably have a little garden, where he could grow magical herbs. He suddenly chastised himself; he was little more than an apprentice, and he was getting ahead of himself. And besides, Grendel had always hated nobles, and their vast wealth and large homes- hed be as bad as one of them, if he had a castle!
He followed Hringgoar slowly, winding his way along a path which climbed the hill. In the distance, thunder flashed, illuminating the top of the trees. A vast field of eaves materialised suddenly around him, and he realised how high theyd climbed. The castle now loomed, directly above them, and a rocky stair, carved into the crag, led directly to a large pair of doors. As a loud thunder rolled across the trees, Grendel watched Hringgoar begin the ascent. Morandor quickly followed, and Grendel did likewise, testing the stone carefully with his foot. The steps were steep, and badly carved, and littered with loose stones. The climb wasnt going to be easy.
Lightning flashed again, followed quickly by more thunder. The storm was getting nearer. Grendel took a deep breath, then began to hurry up the steps; if the rain came now, the stairs would be even more treacherous. He reached back a couple of times, to help Maree. Mep was close behind her, and Bremmy was at the back, looking fearfully behind him for any sign of the wolves. They made slow work, taking each step carefully, so as not to slip and plummet to the hard rocks below. The lower ground now was lost to view, hidden by a shoulder of rock, though the distant trees suggested they were very high indeed. Grendel slipped once or twice, only narrowly managing to catch himself. At one point, he slipped down three steps, knocking Maree over in the process. Fortunately, she managed to grip onto a rock, saving both herself and Grendel. Mep also fell, but was swiftly caught by Bremmy, who was surprisingly deft was such a large warrior.
After what seemed like an hour, the group reached the top of the crag, just as rain began to cascade heavily from the dark clouds. Hringgoar had reached the top long ago, and was waiting patiently. He held out a clawed paw to help Morandor up, and did the same for Grendel. Grendel in turn helped Maree and the others onto the rocky shelf.
"My lord is waiting for you within, hmm?" Hringgoar said. "You may let yourself in- it is not, hmm, permitted for me to go any further."
Grendel looked at the doors, a few meters away. They were tall, and made of some kind of coppery metal, elaborately carved with Dragons, Pegasi and other magical creatures. He looked up slowly, taking in the rest of the castle; it was dark, and its architecture was imposing- tall jagged spires topped its many turrets, and flying buttresses dominated its walls. Gargoyles loomed threateningly above him, smiling viciously and pouring the rain over the sides of the crag. Few lights were lit within, but the castle glowed with a pale blue light.
"A little creepy," Mep said, following Grendels gaze.
"And a little over the top," Morandor said grumpily. "But, its better than standing outside in this infernal storm- come on!"
"I think Id rather take my chances with the rain," said Maree, shivering, her long hair clinging damply to her face.
Despite her protest, she followed and, Grendel noted, even seemed a little excited to be there. Grendel didnt understand her sometimes; did she not realize the danger they faced?
Hringgoar watched them for a while, before turning back and running down the steps. He was greeted by a loud chorus of wolf-howls, which were quickly suppressed by another loud thunder clap. Then all was quiet.
Grendel followed Morandor towards the doors, gripping Marees hand tightly, as much for his own reassurance as well as hers. The rain dropped depressingly around them, and Grendel could hear Bremmy mumbling and complaining about something, behind him. Morandor reached the door and, after a moments analysis, knocked loudly on it with his staff.
As if in reply, lighting flashed again, directly overhead, and struck the topmost spire of the castle. A shower of broken tiles slid downwards, before clattering harmlessly over the edge of the crag. Maree screamed, and almost crushed Grendels hand with her grip. Morandor muttered something, which didnt sound very nice, then knocked again.
This time the doors swung open, of their own accord. They swung slowly inwards, with a loud creak, though there appeared to be no one to open them. A bright yellow light shone outwards, illuminating the threshold. Marees grip lessened at the sight of the warm light, but Grendels fear merely increased.
"Can I wait out here?" asked Mep, with a strange smile.
"No!" said everyone else.
Morandor was the first to cross the threshold, walking cautiously, his staff held defensively in front of him. Grendel unsheafed one of his daggers, and he noticed the rest of his companions were similarly arming themselves. As he passed through the doors, he found himself in a large hallway. Twenty large asphalt statues lined the walls, most of which were larger than life-size, and carved in the visages of great and powerful wizards. Many of them had strange monstrous heads, or four arms, or giant bat wings. The hallway was dissected by a long black carpet which occupied the centre of the floor, and ended at another pair of doors at the far end of the room. Grendel, despite his fear, couldnt help but feel that the room was in bad taste. It seemed to have been designed with fear and intimidation in mind, and maybe a little cliche. Yet the effect, in the end, seemed a little fake and over-cluttered, as if the designer had tried too hard. The ominous creak emanating from a room somewhere above them, heightened the effect. Grendel wondered if maybe the owner was over-compensating, and really wasnt very fearsome at all. He looked at the others; Maree was holding onto him tightly, her eyes wide with fear- Morandor too seemed to be walking very carefully, and was brandishing his staff as if he expected an attack at any minute. Mep and Bremmy were walking in silence, gripping their weapons. Maybe he was wrong, then. Maybe this was fear. Perhaps the reason it seemed so cliche was because it was. Maybe the reason this room was so similar to all the childhood horror stories hed read about was because it was the inspiration for them. Grendel swallowed hard, then.
He walked in silence, struggling between his lack of fear, and the thought that perhaps he had entered somewhere where the word fear paled in comparison to the reality of the real terror within. Then he decided that perhaps he thought too much, and that if he wasnt scared then that was simply because there was nothing to be scared of. Feel, dont think.
Then Morandor opened the door at the end of the hallway, and Grendel screamed. A deep, intense and heartfelt scream, filled with fear!
The room beyond was large, and set-up like a vast throne room. The floor was tiled with shiny red and black checks, and the walls were covered with long, black curtains. At the far end of the room sat an ornate over-sized throne, carved with many-headed beasts, atop a large red dais, reached by three steps. Sat upon the throne was the reason for Grendels fear; a large humanoid, bigger than a troll, dressed in long black robes. Two large black wings were curled around him, and he had three wolvish heads atop his shoulders. He glared at them malevolently, with three pairs of eyes, red drool dripping from his maws. He tapped the arm of the throne impatiently, with long skeletal fingers.
"So, you come at last," it said, three voices mingled together. "And what business does the puny Morandor have in the home of Valaxus the Mighty?"
Morandor scowled at the puny remark, yet bowed courteously. "Great Valaxus, we come to seek an answer to a riddle."
"So, you want my aid. Yet I notice you come without either gifts or tribute," Valaxus growled. "Why, tell me, should I lower myself to help you, when you offer me nothing in return. Do you think I have nothing to do but help those who cant help themselves."
Morandor seemed to be struggling with his temper, yet knew better than to annoy such an obviously powerful wizard. "We are on an errand of great importance, Great Valaxus, and it is vital we do not fail. There is great danger if..........."
"Silence!" said Valaxus, standing up and showing his true height. Grendel gaped; its three heads reached all the way to the ceiling, and its wings, now outstretched, spanned all the way to the walls. How could something so large live in a castle so obviously made for smaller beings. "I know what your errand is, foolish man. Do you think anything passes in Rhutalath without my knowledge! I did not bring you here to offer assistance, I brought you here for tribute! Now, give me something worthy of my attention, or Ill incinerate you where you stand!"
Maree gasped in fear, and clung to Grendel. Mep looked a little taken aback, but Bremmy was glaring at the figure, gripping his axe.
"We bring you nothing but the pleasure of our company, Valaxus," Morandor said testily, "And news from outside. And Id imagine someone as isolated as yourself would appreciate both."
The figure walked woodenly forward, and peered malignantly at Morandor. "Puny man, do not mince words with me. You are alive only because I will it. Give me tribute, or you will be enslaved."
Morandor frowned. "Enslaved? A minute ago you were offering us death. It seems the longer we parley, the lesser our sentence. But I must say I find your welcome most ill-mannered. What, o great Valaxus," said Morandor mockingly, "Can puny men such as we hope to bring to you, a great and powerful....whatever you are."
Grendel tensed at the words. Morandor seemed to becoming more bold with the wizard. Indeed, Grendel thought, the fear which had gripped him when he walked in the room seemed to be lessening- almost as if a spell, which had enchanted him, had suddenly been lifted.
Valaxus looked temporarily stunned, but recovered quickly. "You are insolent, mortal, and I shall be happy to teach you manners! But I will have my tribute; anything which you have, will do. Food, fruit, that staff you carry. Maybe even that girl you bring," he said, looking at Maree, and drooling savagely. "Yes, she shall be a fitting tribute!"
Maree clung to Grendel, but stared at the creature defiantly. Bremmy seemed ready to leap at the beast, though Morandor gestured for him to stay put. Grendel was a little confused. How could such a powerful wizard be lacking in such basic things as food? What good would a lesser wizards staff be? And why would he go to the trouble of creating such a large castle, and make it too small for him to live comfortably in? Something didnt seem right. Grendel could sense power, though. Valaxus must be powerful indeed if he was emitting so much power without even casting a spell.
Morandor smiled. "You parley well indeed; it is pure genius to call me ill-mannered after I have already done the same to you. Do you not have insults of your own, so that you must copy all I say? And cant you get your own food? Have you already outgrown your humble dwellings so much that you cant fit through the door to get your own food?" Morandor grinned slyly at the beast, and Grendel was shocked that the old wizard seemed to be following the same line of thought as himself.
"Silence!! You will be quiet!" shouted the three heads, maniacally.
"We will? What, no threat this time? Has our sentence lessened so much already?" Morandor said.
"Silence!" said Valaxus again, and this time a black fireball was hurled towards Morandor. Morandor managed to deflect it slightly with his staff, though the momentum knocked him back, into the wall.
Bremmy, angry at seeing Morandor attacked, dived forward towards the beast, his axe raised. He leapt at Valaxus, yet somehow passed through the wizard, and ended up sprawled on the other side of the room, at the base of the dais.
Grendel watched it all, though in truth he was distracted. An idea had just struck him. When the fireball had been cast, Grendel had detected an outburst of power, though it didnt feel like it had emanated from Valaxus. Moreover, for a brief second, as the fire materialized, Valaxus seemed to flicker, as if he had briefly left the room. Grendel pondered these facts, and began to walk slowly towards the dais.
"Foolish men, I shall teach you to insult Valaxus the Great!" said the beast, ignoring Grendels presence. Another fireball erupted, seemingly from behind the beast, and again Valaxus flickered.
"Teach us? But you make it so easy!" said Morandor, deflecting the fireball back at Valaxus. The fireball passed harmlessly through Valaxus body, dissipating before it struck a curtain, yet Morandor showed no surprise. Instead, he seemed to be watching Grendel with a look of satisfaction on his face.
Maree called out once to Grendel in alarm, as he reached the dais, as another fireball shot towards him. Grendel, without breaking stride, merely flicked his hand and the fireball dissolved. Maree and Mep looked shocked at Grendels power, but the young wizard finally knew the truth. Powerful indeed. Pah!
"You will be destroyed! I will kill you all! You will all rot in the pits of Udum with Balzot one-horn!!" screamed Valaxus, running towards Grendel. Grendel smiled at the desperation in the wizards voice, as he climbed the dais, and went to the curtain at the back of the room.
"I will turn you to dust! The dark one will feed you to his fire-hounds! You will regret messing with the Great Valaxus!" Valaxus stood boldly in front of Grendel, but Grendel ignored him, walked through him and pulled back the curtain.
"You will writhe in agony in the fires of hell, with maggots nibbling at your..." the voice cut off, as the curtain drew back to reveal a little gnome, on a small wooden stool, with a small orb in his hand. "Er.....hello," said the gnome in a squeaky voice. "Can I help you?"
Mep stared in disgust at the plate that had been laid in front of him. The Vulfen, after bowing to Mep, moved around the table and began to give plates to the rest of the group. Mep poked the food experimentally, and glared at it, as if expecting it to come back to life. It glared back at him. Bats! Bloody roast bats! What kind of person fed his guests and would-be conquerors with plague-infested vermin. Then again, Mep considered, maybe it was a kind of petty revenge on Valaxus behalf, providing his oppressors with tough, half-cooked rodent, with a side-helping of Black Death. It made no difference to Mep anyway, he supposed- he never touched meat!
To his left, Maree gasped in indignation as she realized just what it was theyd been served. Grendel, next to her, had gone a pale and sickly colour, and was fervently pushing the dish away.
"Is it not to your liking?" Valaxus asked Grendel, in his squeaky voice. "If you wish, I can have the servants bring some Blood-grubs. Or maybe some dung-larvae?" Grendel shook his head, and began to poke at the bat with his fork, feigning interest. "I am sorry," continued Valaxus, "But very little grows or lives in this forest; I have to make do with what I can find. Youll find you soon get used to it. Normally I would have fried it in Maggot-juice, but theres been shortage recently."
"Worry not," said Morandor, nibbling on a wing. "Its actually quite tasty."
Bremmy made a slurp of agreement, as he viciously bit the head of his bat. "Its good, indeed," said Bremmy, "I would like the recipe, before we leave."
Valaxus nodded. "Its quite simple," said the gnome, "You take a bat, and you cook it over a fire........"
Mep listened to the gnome with mild fascination. It was strange how, an hour ago, the wizard had been trying to taunt and kill them, yet now they were his guests. Despite the macabre cuisine, Valaxus really was trying to be a good host, and had even offered them a room for the night. Morandor had refused, whinging once again that their errand was too important. Just once, Mep wished they could spent a night in the warmth, with no threat of mutant frogs, irate priests or evil trees. Everyone seemed to be out to get him, and he wasnt sure why. He didnt get it- he was so lovable!
But Valaxus had turned out to be a decent chap, after all. He had apologized profusely for trying to scare them, and had gone into a long-winded and squeaky protest about how diminutive wizards had to try their best to be intimidating, so as to discourage visitors. The protest was quickly replaced by imploring, followed swiftly by begging. Morandor, strangely, seemed amused by it all, and had graciously accepted the apologies, and the invitation of the meal. The two wizards seemed to be getting on well, and were currently deep in discussion about the finer points of magic, and the effect of essence storms on the fragile Rhutalathian ecology. Grendel, still idly poking his bat, was listening intently.
"Have we any wine?" Bremmy asked, munching on Marees bat, which he had taken from her plate. "Itd go down well, with this fine food." The drool and bat-grease dripping from his small beard revealed that there was no sarcasm in Bremmys comment.
"Of course- how ungracious of me," the Gnome said, getting out of his seat. He ran to a door at the back of the large hall they were in, and spoke hurriedly in a strange language. Then he rushed back, bowing to Bremmy. The gnome really was highly-strung. "Forgive me, it is on its way." Bremmy nodded, throwing a small bone onto the plate. Mep winced at the barbarism, and tried to distract himself with his surroundings. The hall they were in was large, with two doors on each wall. The floor was made of carved beech, as was the long table they were sat at. On the wall across from Mep a large fire burned in a hearth, flanked by two large tapestries depicting a great battle. It was quite a homely place, far removed from the fake horror of the throne-room and entry-hall.
"Now, to business," said Morandor, pushing his half-eaten bat towards Bremmy. "We are looking for the Vale of Unicorns, and it was suggested you may know where it is."
"Aye, I do, I do," said Valaxus hurriedly. He nodded to a Vulfen who brought in a pitcher of wine. The Vulfen began to pour wine into everyones cups, starting with Bremmys. Bremmy accepted it gratefully, took a big draft, and then set to work on Morandors food. "But, why are you going there? Why, indeed? To do harm?"
Morandor smiled amicably. "No, not to do harm. Yet the business is ours, and ours alone. Yet I will tell you this much- if we dont find it, great peril will befall the land. Including this little haven of yours." Mep, listening intently, absently took a sniff of his wine- it had a strange and musty smell, and a greenish tint to it. He tasted it experimentally; it wasnt bad.
"That much I know. Yet intention or not, harm may result from your visit. The Vale is a sanctuary, long unvisited by man," said Valaxus, "Even your very presence there could corrupt such a place. At the very least, your visit could alter the Vale, for better or worse. Where man walks, he leaves footprints."
Morandor nodded. "You are right, of course. Yet we go to stop someone who, without doubt, means to cause harm. We may not need to set foot in the vale, yet we need to know where it is. With any luck we could stop this man before he ever arrives at the Sacred Place."
"Your hearts mean well," Valaxus said, "I can see that. Understand me, that with this knowledge I possess comes great responsibility; I swore never to reveal the secret to anyone. Yet, I can sense that this man you chase is closer than you think to reaching his goal. Therefore, I will tell you what you wish to know. Dont drink too much of that, its very potent." The last comment was directed towards Bremmy, who was washing down Morandors bat with Marees wine.
Morandor nodded solemnly. "I thank you, and promise to keep the secret, as you have done all these years."
"This is really good, what is it?" asked Mep, holding up the wine-cup. The cup seemed to bend in his vision, and he put it down quickly.
"Its Sourcap Wine," Valaxus said, distractedly. "Its made from mushrooms. It can be very hallucinogenic."
Mep nodded, trying not to panic. But it was difficult when the table seemed to be floating, the fire seemed to be taunting him, and everyone had grown an extra head. He blinked quickly, and the heads disappeared.
"The vale you seek," said Valaxus, "is about 20 leagues to the north of here, in a forest known as the Forest of Mists."
Morandor stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I think I know the place," he said. "On the edge of Isana?" Mep looked around hurriedly, looking for the two dragons hed just seen. He began to feel a little bit scared, and picked up his cutting knife off the table. The knife suddenly turned into a sword of fire, and he smiled. "Nice," he said.
"Yes, the very same. The Vale is hidden deep within the forest, under the vast roots of a great oak. It exists outside the normal world as we know it. Normally it would be difficult to find, yet a wizard with your power should be able to sense it, once youre within a certain distance."
Mep began to slap himself viciously, trying to kill the army of ants which had suddenly appeared, and were crawling over his flesh. "Get off me," he yelled. He fell off his seat, and began to roll on the floor, still aware that there were dragons lurking nearby. Morandor looked disdainfully at him, but continued the conversation. "And Id be able to sense it once Im within the eaves of the forest?" Morandor asked.
"Goodness no," said Valaxus. "You cant enter the forest. You are touched."
Morandor looked a little confused at first, before realization dawned. "I see. So I cannot enter the forest. Yet I assume once were that close, even a minor wizard like Grendel here could sense it. He could go in, and find it. That is if hes not done anything silly with one of the village wenches," he said, peering suspiciously at Grendel, then to Maree. Neither of the two seemed to understand the reference, though to Meps eyes they began to breathe fire in retaliation to the comment. "By Drals nose! Get up Alf Mep!" Morandor said.
Mep backed away from the suddenly demonic Morandor and began to whimper, occasionally slapping himself to get rid of the unseen ants. "Are you alright, Mep?" Maree asked, suddenly standing to help him up. She held out a hand to assist him, but Mep just gurgled and stared at her. She was completely naked. He smiled foolishly, staring at her chest.
"I sense all your companions are untouched, Morandor," Valaxus said, "They should be able to enter the forest. It wont be easy though; the forest has ways of keeping you from your destination, if it decides it dislikes you."
"Thats were our foolish shepherd will come in useful," Morandor said, sighing as Mep began to run away from Maree, who had suddenly sprouted wings. He hid behind Morandors chair, chattering wildy to himself. "Does no one else see that?" Mep asked, "Does nobody else see it?" Then he stopped chattering, as the room filled with more naked girls, all peering lustfully at him.
"Well, we have to try, either way." Morandor said. "I thank you for your help, Valaxus."
"Are you sure you do not wish the spend the night here?" Valaxus asked. He stared with amusement at Mep, who was now making rude suggestions to the fireplace. "It is a long walk."
"Exactly," Morandor said. "A long walk, with little time to spare. Thank you but no, Valaxus. We must be on our way."
"As you wish," the gnome said, smiling. "Then I wish you good luck."
"Thank you," Morandor said, standing up. "For the love of Eleniel! Bremmy, sort that idiot out," he said, indicating Mep. Mep, after being rejected by the fireplace, had moved back to the naked Maree. Maree, shocked at the language Mep was using, slapped him.
The four-headed Bremmy walked over to Mep, who was rubbing his red-cheek in shock. The last thing Mep saw was a large Morrim fist heading for his face. Then there was blackness, and the demons and lusty girls disappeared...............