Malair stood at the entrance of Halle Stronghold surveying the ruins. The courtyard around him was nothing but toppled pillars and mounds of stone. A guardhouse off to the left was missing half of the wall, giant oak beams jutting out where the stone had ripped away. A rusted chain swung from one of the beams. The main hall rose imposingly overhead; its great stained glass rose bloom shattered and broken over the oak doors. The doors themselves lay broken, the left one looking as if some creature from a child’s nightmare had come and bit off a chunk. The right door was lying smashed on the steps leading up to the hall. A crow cawed somewhere nearby, and Malair jumped slightly.
He tightened his leather bracers and checked that his twin daggers were loose in the sheaths strapped to the outside of his calves. His dark brown hair hung straight to his shoulders, and his green eyes shone vividly even on the brightest days in the Upper World. A breeze swept over the ruins as Malair raised his arm to shield his face from the dust cloud racing towards him. As the breeze died down, he looked around the ruins from the entrance one last time. His gaze lingered on the giant beams in the shattered guardhouse. The chain was gone.
Malair rubbed his eyes and blinked a couple of times. Nope, definitely no chain. He must have been imagining things earlier. He walked into the courtyard, small stones crunching underfoot. An unearthly moan echoed over the ruins causing him to freeze. His eyes darted around as he crouched pulling out his daggers. The moan faded away with a fresh breeze and as the wind passed the sound was gone. He remained for a few moments before sliding his daggers back into their sheaths.
He proceeded forward towards the main entrance to the stronghold. Skirting around piles of rubble and over some large beams of wood, the crunch of stones changed. He grimaced he recognized the sound. Looking down he saw human bones and smashed skulls, some of them looked fresh. A rattling chain echoed across the ruins. Malair froze and looked around again. Nothing was in sight.
Malair stepped across the threshold of the stronghold and was assaulted with the smell of death. Someplace within the depths of the stronghold, a steady stream of water fell. There was natural light filtering down from windows in the walls and skylights. He crept through the entryway and into the great hall. Pillars lay broken over the floor, a section off to the back collapsed over the dais where the throne would have set. Malair had studied the history of the Upper World for a long time.
Halle Stronghold was the seat of power for a small kingdom ruled over by a queen from the house of Sidon. One of the few kingdoms where a queen sat in power, they had prospered a great deal until a larger kingdom nearby had marched in and overwhelmed the small number of defenders. Halle Stronghold fell into the hands of the more experienced invaders, but the architecture had been left alone. Despite the slaughter, the invaders had a love for architecture, and Halle Stronghold was nothing short of a marvel.
Back in its prime, Halle Stronghold was surrounded by soaring pillars and strong walls. The great hall was marble from wall to wall with a great purple and blue woven carpet running down the middle. Gold trim lined the pillars near the floor and lofty ceiling. Great skylights were open to the air allowing bright light to filter in. A small skylight over the throne had a mechanical contraption with polished silver that rotated through the day. The sunlight beat against the polished silver and fell on the throne at all times of the day.
A column cracked and fell somewhere behind the caved in area. Malair skirted to the edge and moved down the length of the hall. A whirring noise echoed. Apparently, the mechanical contraption filtering sunlight down was still working. And then it died again. Corridors left the great hall leading towards private quarters, the kitchens, and wine cellar. He was here for one thing though, the Queen’s Scepter.
A slender silver rod topped with a small clear diamond, the Queen’s Scepter was more than what it appeared, more than even the last queen knew it was. Legend had it that any person with even the slightest hint of impurity would be corrupted, but the power it gave the user was worth it. The Scepter had caused the small kingdom to rise and had caused more than one kingdom to fall. Just thinking about something would result in the Scepter bending the natural world to the user’s desires. Earthquakes, mudslides, floods, fires, anything the user could imagine could potentially be created and manipulated if it already existed.
As he came around the dais, he saw the broken remains of the throne. Made of marble and edged with black marble, the throne had enough room for two full-grown people to sit comfortably. A few threads remained from what would have been sapphire throws lying across the throne. He mounted the few steps up the dais to the throne and slipped into it. He sat looking forward at the collapsed ceiling, then he slumped. He had no idea where the queen’s body lay, but the scepter would be with her for sure. No one outside the royal family had been allowed to handle the scepter, and the queen’s family had been slaughtered as she watched. At least the history Malair had learned from traveling bards had said that. Someplace in the ruins, though, her body lay with the scepter.
He startled out of his thoughts hearing a distant and steady thump sounding like footsteps. He closed his eyes and focused. Somewhere on the second floor. The steady thumps faded away. No one else was supposed to be here but maybe bandits had taken up residence. He would have to proceed carefully. He pulled his daggers out and stepped down the dais and into a corridor leading off to the left of the great hall.
He poked his head into a small room with a smashed in door. Dark stains on the wall and floor along with slash marks in the wooden bed frame told him someone had died here. Several more rooms down this corridor had resulted in similar discoveries. Where the hell was the queen lying in state? And there was the thumping sound again. Malair slipped into the room and gazed down the length of the hallway, the thumping stopped. A cold presence fell in the corridor. The thumping picked up again, and Malair’s heart began to race. Just outside the door, the thumping stopped. Ice began to form on the door frame. He yanked his fingers away just before ice froze over them. He could barely see outside the room.
A behemoth of a figure, his skin tinged blue with great blades attached to his hands, ice cracked under his step as he wandered down the corridor. Well, this was unexpected but at least he knew what was making the thumping sounds, not that he would want to run into whatever it was.
Malair slipped up the narrow stairwell in the back of the stronghold. Still no luck in finding the queen’s resting chamber. It was here someplace; the bards had alluded to that without a doubt. Deeper he moved into the maze of halls and stairwells. The stronghold was much larger than it looked outside. Only one door left in this hallway, this had to be it. A gentle push and it swung silently inwards.
A pale blue light filled the room. There in the center lay the dead queen preserved by the power of the scepter. Her beauty remained even in death. The room was lined with rich blue curtains, the floor free of dust. The queen lay on a black marble slab dressed in a dark green dress that had been smoothed out lovingly by her attendants so many years ago. Her rich blond hair was pulled back as she had always worn it. There in her hands lay the brilliant silver scepter topped with that flawless diamond. A wealth of power in such a small instrument. No wonder kingdoms had risen and fallen at its hands.
Malair stepped up to the side of the beautiful queen’s eternal resting place. His hand trembled as he reached out. He hesitated just above the scepter. It was all right here. He just had to but take the Queen’s Scepter and he would have no equal in all of the Upper World. So much power. Yes, it would be his.
He grasped the scepter and his fingers grew icy cold. From somewhere in the stronghold an unearthly howl resonated. He looked down to see the queen’s head had turned and was staring at him; her eyes opened wide. He hastily yanked the scepter out of her hands and stumbled back from the marble slab as he watched the dead queen rise from it. Her face grew dark with fury as he fell and scurried back towards the door. She took first one step and then another and another as he found himself with his back to the wall. She stretched her hand out and made to snatch the scepter back from him as he fell through the floor.
Malair landed hard on his back as his breath was knocked from him. Up above the dead queen watched through the hole that had formed in the floor. Malair watched as the dead queen began to age and decomposed before his very eyes. He rolled out of the way as her skeleton pitched forward and hit the ground next to him. A black cloak fluttered down along with her dark green dress. He lay on the ground for a few moments until the unearthly howl sounded again from the second floor somewhere near the hole in the ceiling above him. He scrambled grabbing the cloak and shoved the scepter through the back of his belt. Swinging the cloak around he ran out of the room and found himself in the great hall.
From the left side of the hall, the great blue behemoth emerged, its eyes pure white and seemingly fixed on Malair. It took a couple of steps forward slowly.
Malair judged the distance, with the speed that the brute moved he should be able to get out of the ruins before the brute got anywhere near him. It was time to leave for sure now. Two steps more from the behemoth.
“Myyyy queeeeennnnnnnn!” The brute howled shaking the dust from the chandeliers still hanging. Another column crashed down behind the behemoth.
Yes, now it was time to go for sure. Malair took off towards the main entrance.
The brute appeared in front of him.
Damn, he was fast. Malair compensated and ducked left as the brute swung his weapon. Malair’s daggers appeared in his hands as he rolled to a stop behind the brute. Two quick slashes to the back of the behemoth’s knees. A weapon came around faster than Malair thought possible. His daggers flew and caught the attack. Not enough to stop it. Malair tumbled head over heels into the wall with a resounding thud. He opened his eyes to see the brute slowly walking over to him.
The slices to the back of the knee should have crippled him. What the hell was going on?
Malair rolled out of the way as the behemoth swung both his weapons downward and they hit the marble floor.
Chips and splinters of marble exploded.
Malair threw up his arms to cover his face.
The behemoth’s weapons were stuck in the marble floor.
Malair scrambled back to get away from the behemoth.
The weapons were pulled from the marble effortlessly.
Malair rolled back and brought his daggers up to catch the behemoth’s blow. He was flat on his back with the tips of the brute’s blades just above his nose. Long, tough pieces of blackened steel shaped with a slight curve. They were growing darker by the moment.
Malair’s hold on the weapons faltered momentarily. What the? He pushed back. His hold faltered again bringing the blades closer to his face. Are his weapons, absorbing my energy? Malair pushed back and faltered again. Damn it. With one last effort, he pushed up and to the side. The brute stumbled, pitching forward as Malair rolled away.
He was up and running to the broken doorway.
The brute was mere feet behind.
Only fifty feet more.
The brutes weapons were swinging and just missing his cloak.
Only twenty feet.
The blades caught the very edge of Malair’s cloak.
Malair tugged at the clasp holding the cloak on.
A guttural roar erupted from the brute as Malair burst out of the great hall into the ruins of the courtyard.
He got halfway across the courtyard before he realized the brute was no longer behind him. He skidded to a halt and turned.
Dull eyes stared back. The great brute stood there in the entryway. His gently curved swords hung down at his sides.
Malair slowly backed away towards the entrance of the ruins. The brute did not move. He crossed the entrance and the brute still stood watching him leave. He finally turned to face the great plain surrounding the ruins of Halle Stronghold. The Queen’s Scepter was finally his.