This story is based on a miniatures game I played one night called Frostgrave, it produced such great results I couldn’t resist immortalising it in fiction.
There was a chill in the air as Tim lead his warband into the ancient library, more of a chill anyway than was usual in the frozen city. The library remained mostly intact despite several sections of roof having fallen in and the supporting columns having distinctive and concerning cracks in them.
Not a place for heavy handed spells Tim thought, best make this a quick grab and dash. His thief had already informed him of another warband in the area, led by Tim the Necromancer, or Tiny Tim as he liked to call him, nobody was running his name through the mud. He had already cast a fool’s gold spell into the maze, that would keep them occupied for a time, and he had a few other tricks up his sleeve. Being an Illusionist was so much fun he thought with a smile.
Signalling to his warband they split off into teams immediately after entering the library, instantly beginning to disappear amongst the forest of books and debris. His apprentice approached him, a look of confusion across his face.
“Tim…what were my orders again?”
He smacked his apprentice across the back of his head. “Listen next time Merlin, you have a simple task, keep Wilfred and Bayman alive. DO NOT go after any treasure, they will handle that, and DO NOT attempt to cast complex spells…my foot still aches from the last time”, he said frowning and rotating his foot slowly.
“Yes, yes…ok”, said Merlin, a slightly embarrassed look on his face. He retreated quickly and followed the two men-at-arms off to the right, quickly disappearing around a large column, mouthing spells as he went, trying to remember them.
Finally when everyone had disappeared from view Tim knelt down next to his two warhounds, Pip and Baxter, petting them gently. “Are you ready to cause some mayhem boys?” he asked smiling. They barked in reply, distinctive high pitched barks owing to their beak shaped mouths and other bird like features. They were the rough shape of a dog, but skinnier with angry looking bones clearly visible under the skin, streamlined bodies and emphasized muscles. To anyone else they were terrifying, but to him they were cherished and loyal friends.
With a single word they disappeared, barely making a sound, any movement barely visible they were so fast. He smiled knowingly, someone was going to have a very bad day.
Now that was sorted Tim could get down to business, he needed to get a better view of the library so he prepared a wizard’s eye spell. Concentrating he cast it as high on a nearby column as he dared and it stuck, no problem. Feeling the connection he let his third eye open within his mind, slowly revealing a view of the entire maze sprawled out beneath him, it wound round and round, zig zagging this way and that, all surrounding a central tower which rose 30 feet into the air.
He could see a few of his warband winding their way through the labyrinth of books, although there was no trace of his thief or his warhounds, no surprise there then. He also saw movement at the far end of the library, presumably the other warband mobilising, they would have to act fast but he had faith in his men. Deciding they could handle themselves he turned his attention to the central tower, there seemed to be a chest of some sort resting at the very top, in the middle of what seemed to be a viewing platform. Nothing guaranteed but chests usually held something interesting, smiling he readied another spell, slightly trickier this time, a teleport, but well worth it. As he let it loose he travelled from amongst the books to the top of the tower in the blink of an eye, smugly smiling to himself in satisfaction he strolled over to the chest and opened it. He retrieved what looked like a bag of gold and an old spell book…a split second before a lance of intense pain rushed through his head and he collapsed to the ground.
After his embarrassment Merlin was eager to prove himself, but he didn’t want to disobey his master either, so he dutifully followed Bayman and Wilfred through the winding lanes of the crumbling library, admiring the majesty of the library and imagining what it must have been like in its prime. There were hundreds if not thousands of years of magical history and study here, and all they could risk taking were the truly unique items, distinguished items of value and power, because the most important thing to his master was the acquisition of magical power…and gold. There were so many interesting things here, records that might tell them more about the people who built the city, about their culture, their history, but apparently all that mattered was their power.
He breathed a heavy sigh and turned his attention back to Bayman and Wilfred, just in time to avoid walking face first into a wall. The two soldiers laughed, watching him from an open square up ahead, Bayman’s foot sat squarely on a chest.
“Hey daydreamer”, Bayman said, “this what you’re looking for?” A cocky half smile on his face.
Merlin straightened himself up, embarrassing himself was becoming a habit, but he tried to make it look like he knew what he was doing as he strode over to join them. “Yes…thank you, now let’s see what we’ve got”.
Bayman nodded, kneeling down and slowly opening the chest, revealing a bag of gold and an old spell book. “Hmm, better not risk carrying these round with us, I’ll head back and catch up with you guys later”. He eyed Merlin, silently asking permission, he nodded, Merlin may be a bit odd but he was still their boss when Tim wasn’t around. Bayman slipped both the bag of gold and the book into a satchel bag and began to retreat the way they had come, when out of nowhere an arrow whizzed past his ear. “Shit!” he exclaimed, and threw himself behind a bookcase while everyone else took cover.
Further arrows rained down at steady intervals, none of them hitting their mark but causing concern nonetheless. Bayman could still get away, he was near the route back to the entrance, but the others were stuck.
“We need to get the treasure away safely”, said Wilfred, dutifully following orders, “Bayman should head back, I can take care of this upstart”.
Bayman nodded and readied himself to dash after the next arrow, but Merlin called “Wait!” They both turned to him and could see him preparing a spell, they winced. Merlin’s ability with magic was…iffy at best, and had often done more harm than good, this time however they seemed to be lucky, for as Merlin released the spell Bayman turned completely invisible.
Merlin looked distinctly happy with himself, Wilfed let out a breath he didn’t realise he’d been holding, and Bayman…well nobody knew what Bayman was doing, they couldn’t see him, but they assumed he was ok and had set off back towards the entrance.
“Right, lets deal with this troublemaker then”, declared Wilfred, dashing forward to take cover behind another bookcase.
Merlin was a little more unsure, “Erm….you go ahead, I’ll just stay here and….you know…guard the route back”.
“Suit yourself”, said Wilfred nonchalantly, more than happy to be rid of Merlin, he would just slow him down or worse get him killed. He charged off into the maze, homing in on the source of the pesky arrows.
Watching him go Merlin turn with a start as he heard a cry of pain go up from the centre of the maze, he knew that voice, it was Tim’s voice. As much as he disliked it he knew he had to help, if Tim were killed they were all in trouble, so he set off towards the centre platform.
A thief’s life is quiet, a thief’s life makes no impression on others, a thief may go unnoticed even in a crowded place, go places others couldn’t, and leave before anybody knew they were there. Which is why he couldn’t understand the approach of his fellow mercenaries, already he could hear cries and the clash of swords echoing around the great chamber. A thief doesn’t strike often, but when they do you will never know they are there until you feel cold steel piercing your flesh. If you face someone head on, sword in hand, sure you have a chance of success, maybe 50/50 depending on how to dice fall, but when a thief strikes there is no random chance, it is sure and it is certain.
He actually identified with the warhounds more than he did the men-at-arms and the thugs, at least they knew how to be quick and quiet, only facing their prey at the last moment, leaving little to chance. But even then there was chance, not certainty, and therefore he stuck to his own methods, they had served him well in the past, why shouldn’t they continue to do so. Besides, as impressive as they were those hounds freaked him out, it wasn’t like he was scared of them, he knew Tim had them completely tamed, but there was something unnatural about them that gave him the chills.
Shaking his head he dismissed thoughts of creepy dogs and senseless confrontation, he had no use for those thoughts, he hopefully wouldn’t have any need to kill today, even a silent kill caused problems. How to hide the body for one, making sure nobody discovered it, and there was no way of replacing the missing person in the enemy’s ranks, their absence would soon be noticed.
He kept to the shadows, his footfalls never making a sound, his heartbeat calm and steady. Glancing around each corner as he approached, his muscles tight in case a threat should present itself, yet nothing came. He came at last to a slightly raised platform, at the centre of which was a chest, his goal, but its exposed position made him wary. It sat in the centre of the raised dais, no shadows or cover for concealment, he would be totally exposed. So he waited, a distraction was better than cover, he just had to wait for his moment.
And he didn’t have to wait long, an almighty roar went up throughout the library, a roar so loud his head snapped in its direction and the hairs on his neck stood on end. He had no idea what had made the noise but it sounded angry, something best to be avoided if at all possible. The roar had caused a commotion, giving him his ideal distraction, he had instinctually moved and was already approaching the chest. A quick check of the lid indicated it was locked, easily picked but now wasn’t the time, scooping the chest up in his arms he darted back into the shadows and silently made his way back to the entrance…nobody having known he was ever there.
“Urrggh”, groaned Tim, pushing himself onto his elbows. “That really really hurt!” he grunted. He tasted remnants of magic in the air, “bone dart, fucking bone dart”, he cursed. Pushing himself up onto his knees he wobbled slightly, he felt weak, really weak, he’d taken a serious hit, maybe a couple. He berated himself for not being cautious, but he had only been visible on the tower for a few seconds, grudgingly he had to admit that whoever had cast the spell had dam good aim and quick reflexes. It couldn’t have been the apprentice, must have been Tim the lesser he thought, his respect for the man increasing ever so slightly.
He closed his eyes and looked out through his wizard’s eye, the library was an even bigger mess than when they arrived. He could see Merlin moving slowly between bookcases to the right, sort of in the direction of the tower but looking thoroughly lost and confused, he just shook his head, that boy needed an inject of brains. Nearby he saw Wilfred closing in on an enemy archer, that made him chuckle, the poor archer had no idea what was coming for him. Bayman was nowhere to be seen, but that was better than a body he supposed, and neither was his thief but that was how it should be. Another man-at-arms and their thug were closing on the tower, coming to his aid, and off to the far left he saw…
Tim froze as he heard the almighty roar and saw what it was coming from at exactly the same moment, it was a bear, and no normal bear, this bear was huge! Tim the lesser must have summoned it….but how? He didn’t have any knowledge of summoning magic but that must be a tricky spell to say the least. Hmm, Tim the lesser might have to have a change of title soon he thought, grudgingly admitting even more respect for his abilities. He remained wide eyed as he watched the bear, it seemed to be in distress and was very very angry. Upon discovering the reason for this he both smiled and frowned in the same expression, not an easy feat in itself. Pip and Baxter had ambushed him and were tearing at him from his flanks, attempting to keep out of his reach while inflicting as much damage as possible, and while Tim was more than happy for his pet eviscerators to lay into this bear as much as they liked, he was concerned for their safety, that bear was big and very dangerous, one miss-step would spell disaster.
Now he was rid of that useless excuse for a wizard Merlin, Wilfred moved with greater speed and agility, belying his short stature. He knew the rough direction of the archer from the shots which had almost impaled himself and his compatriots, however clever archers were notorious for being slippery to get hold of, he’d have to be one step ahead of him if he had any hope of catching him and not an arrow between the eyes.
As he rounded the corner to where he had guessed the archer was firing from he stopped short….or not, he thought. The archer was just stood there, leading over a bannister on a raised balcony, taking the occasional pot shot into the maze. There must be something wrong, some trick or illusion, nobody was that stupid he thought, but there didn’t seem to be anything, he was just standing there, almost casually. The archer glanced behind him, the first smart thing he’d done yet in Wilfred’s mind, which forced him to duck back into the shadows, it also gave him a brief look at his face. He was young, really young, he barely looked strong enough to pull the bow string back, no wonder he was making so many mistakes. Wilfred cursed under his breath, somebody that young shouldn’t be in a place like this, he had his whole life ahead of him, what could possibly drive him into mercenary work up here in the frozen wastes of an ancient city. Action and adventure was one thing, but it led to this kind of situation, Wilfred knew that if he didn’t take this guy out there was no hiding it from Tim, he would know, he always knew, so now he had to kill this youngster, end his life and deal with the guilt…unless.
Creeping forward and keeping his footfalls as quiet as possible, he gripped his axe tighter in his hands. Close enough now to see the archer’s muscles strain as he pulled back his bowstring, he held his breath and moved forward until he was an few inches behind the archer’s shoulder. He tapped it lightly, visibly making him jump, and said ever so politely, “Sorry about this, it’s nothing personal”, before slamming the butt of his axe into the archers temple, dropping him like a sack of spuds into a pile on the floor.
As he looked down at the limp body on the floor he hoped two things, one, that Tim wouldn’t ask too many questions, and two, that the youngster would take this as a hint and get the hell out of the mercenary game as quickly as possible, somehow he doubted either of those things were going to happen.
From the moment Tim had heard the bear’s almighty roar he had wanted out of this accursed place as quickly as possible, but he had a responsibility to look after the members of his warband…and he’d rather not have to hire more, good help was hard to come by in the Frozen City, an expensive. He surveyed the battlefield through his wizard’s eye, daring not too look over the parapet as another bone dart would be more than enough to finish him off in his current state. There seemed to be fighting going on all around him, although that mainly seemed to be from his allies near the base of the tower defending his position, further afield he caught glimpses of a general retreat. This could only mean that all the treasure that could be acquired had been and was being taken to a safe place, sadly with all the opposition that had been thrown against them this also meant the enemy had a certain amount of treasure also.
Confirming his thoughts he spied an opposing thug grabbing a large chest and lugging it onto his shoulders, for a moment Tim considered using a spell to stop him, however no sooner had the chest touched his shoulders than it disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Tim couldn’t help but laugh as he saw the thug curse, he loved his fool’s gold spell, he’d have to remember to practise that one.
A yelp from the left flank wiped the smile off his face however, as his earlier fears were realised, one of his warhounds, he couldn’t tell which one from this distance, had got a little too close to that monstrous bear and paid the price. It was now in the process of being torn limb from limb as the other hound did what it could to help it, to no avail. The bear was just too big and strong, and the second hound still had to keep his distance for fear of getting caught himself. The now very dead hound would be sorely missed, more than any other member of the warband he really liked those dogs.
Taking a last glance around the library he spied the body of an archer, no doubt Wilfred’s handiwork, and the hopeless Merlin still lost in the maze of bookcases, he felt the time was right for a full and rapid retreat with their loot. He conjured a quick spell in his hands and shot what looked like a firework into the sky, everyone knew the signal, even the hounds, they would all retreat back the way they had come. His fighters near the base of the tower would retreat as well, knowing Tim could handle his own retreat himself, and indeed that is what he intend to do with the next spell he had begun to form, but he needed to make one stop on the way.
With a flash Tim disappeared as the teleport spell successfully cast, but before appeared back at the entrance Tim managed to materialise a hand in mid-air behind his bird brained apprentice Merlin. He gave him a hard smack across the back of the head and let his hand fade out and the teleport spell carry him to his destination, satisfied that that would both freak Merlin out and hopefully teach him a lesson.
Catching his breath now he was back at the libraries entrance, he watched the others arrive one by one. He gave a start as an invisible Bayman reported in first, informing Tim that he had acquired some treasure. Tim smiled, although he wasn’t sure what he was smiling at, and congratulated Bayman on his success. The realisation that Merlin had managed to cast an invisibility spell was surprising, but even a broken clock was right twice a day, so he didn’t give it much thought. Next came his trusty thief, simply giving Tim a sly wink before vacating the building. Merlin appeared next looking slightly rattled, Tim made an effort to ignore him and hold back fits of laughter as he passed by.
He bent low to comfort Baxter as he returned, Pip having been the unfortunate hound who had ended up as a bear’s play toy. Baxter was subdued, but the fire still burned in his eyes, he would fight again. Other members that had been defending him at the tower passed by, he thanked each in turn for their service, they simply smiled and nodded, and last but not least came Wilfred. As per usual he reported on the enemy forces last known positions and treasure hoard, usually being the one who formed the rear guard, and then he left along with the others.
There was something off about Wilfred, he had acted completely normal, which seemed to make Tim more suspicious, he would have to dig a bit to find out if he was hiding anything when they got back to camp. As he closed the door on the library he mused how such an innocuous building could give them so much trouble, however he was happy with what they had acquired and so was left smiling left the building far behind.