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CATACOMBSChapter Seventeen


he trio charged through the dark tunnels, feet hammering against the stone. Stinger was in the lead, followed directly by Hermes with Nimbus bringing up the rear. They wove through the network of corridors, scrambling for the protection of the Vinefront. The regular, percussive clangs of their pursuer’s footfalls rang all too closely on their heels.

Well, at least it’s not bloodwolves. It’s nice to get some variety for a change, and murderous, animated armor is, if nothing else, a deviation from the norm.

It was then that Nimbus slammed into Hermes, causing the kid, in turn, to slam into Stinger.

“Watch it!” Hermes complained.

“Why are we stopping?” said Nimbus.

“Wrong turn.”

“Wrong turn? I thought you knew these tunnels!”

“It’s been a while!”

“Why didn’t you use your map?”

“There was no time to read a map!”

“Oh, but there’s time for dying, right? There’s always time for dying!”

“Um,” said Hermes, “I think it’s time for fighting.”

He was right. The hollow suit of plate armor kicked up sparks as its iron feet grated to a halt on the stone floor. The silver suit shone red in the light of a nearby torch. The empty fingers of its right gauntlet were clamped tightly around the hilt of its double-edged sword.

“Return to the complex or suffer punishment.” its voice echoed.

Nimbus raised his own sword in response. Now would be a great time for my lightning keyword to come to me. Assuming, of course, that electricity would even affect this thing.

Fortunately, Nimbus wasn’t the only one with a little magic. Hermes stepped forward and took a wide stance. His clothing flapped in a sudden breeze as his arms wove gracefully through the air then suddenly shot forward. A blast of air howled through the cave, momentarily throwing the armor off balance.

Unfortunately, the armor adapted quickly, leaning into the wind and raising its sword. In one swift motion, the enemy hurled the sword end-over-end. Leaping out of the way, Hermes was forced to abandon his magical assault.

The sword clattered in the tunnels behind the party. Stinger took advantage of the opening by lunging forward and delivering a solid kick to the armor’s breastplate. However, his efforts yielded few results. The armor took a step back and raised its hand as if to grasp something. Stinger planted his boot on the armor’s metal foot and threw his shoulder forward However, his attempt to topple the enemy was in vain.

Nimbus stepped forward to help, but something distracted him: a ringing reverberation, like a tuning fork, coming from behind. He caught his breath as he realized what it was.

“Stinger! Get down!” Nimbus tackled him to the ground as the armor’s sword shot through the air and into its hand, the hilt cudgeling Nimbus’ shoulder blade as it passed above him. Nimbus gritted his teeth in pain.

“I’ve got it!” Hermes cried, “Get to the side, and get ready to run!”

Nimbus and Stinger scrambled to their feet and hugged either side of the tunnel as a powerful gust raged through the passage. Once again, the armor braced itself, readying its weapon to throw, but it never got the chance. The wind changed course, causing the armor to pitch forward onto the rocky floor, one arm detaching at the pauldron with a heavy clang.

Stinger leaped over the prostrate foe and rushed back the way they had come, with Nimbus and Hermes close behind.

Nimbus wasn’t sure what would happen first: would his legs crumble, or would his lungs tear? Either way, when the group rounded the last corner and the saw the Vinefront’s main entrance up ahead, his relief was profound.

“Open the door!” Stinger shouted, still several yards away. “Hey! Open the door!”

Nimbus and Hermes joined in as they approached the barrier of woven vines. Nimbus glanced backwards as Stinger hammered the shield in the door’s center with the hilt of his dagger. Nothing.

“Can’t we force it open?” said Nimbus.

“It’s barred.” Stinger replied, before returning to shouting and banging.

The racket made it difficult to hear much, but Nimbus thought he could make out the clang of armor plated footfalls coming from behind. Come on, come on… The door was still closed, and Nimbus was now certain he could hear their pursuer. He swallowed and drew his sword as the armor came into view, advancing steadily towards its victims. Its arm was once again mounted on its torso. Its sword was drawn, prepared to strike them down. It strode inevitably down the tunnel, a solemn force of destruction.

And now they were cornered.

This is it. If I don’t remember my blasted keyword this second we’re all finished. Nimbus wracked his brain. The battle with the bloodwolves… What did I—

“Nimbus! Let’s go!” Stinger grabbed Nimbus by the shoulder and pulled him through the suddenly open door. Upon reaching the other side, Stinger immediately slammed and bolted the thick, woven barrier.

Everyone took a moment to catch their breath, resting in the teal illumination of the Vinefront’s unique fungal population.

“The door won’t hold.” said Stinger in between gasps.

“Why not? What’s out there?” demanded Gilgamesh, whom Nimbus realized must have let them in.

Stinger held up a hand for silence, and the group held their breath as the regular pounding of footsteps grew louder, approached the door and… stopped. Nimbus heard the sound of a sword being sheathed.

“Remain in the complex.” echoed the armor from beyond the door.

“Who is that?” said Gilgamesh.

“We met this crazy suit of armor in the tunnels. It tried to kill us.” said Nimbus.

“Three of you ran away from one slate in a suit of armor?” Gilgamesh shook his head.

“It’s not a slate, just some… animated suit of full plate armor. There’s no-one in it; it can’t be killed.”

“But it stopped.” said Stinger. “It thinks we’re in the complex.”

“Complex? What—”

“I don’t know, Gilgamesh. We’re safe for now, but we’re trapped.”

“We have food here, though.” said Hermes. “We can just stay here, right?”

“The water won’t last. We need to trade with the Sanctuary.” said Stinger.

“What’s going on.” Witte approached. “Why wouldn’t we be able to maintain our traditional trading arrangements?”

“I’ll tell you what’s going on.” There was a glimmer in Gilgamesh’s eyes. “I’m about to show some milksops how to handle plate armor.”

A small crowd gathered around the entrance to the Vinefront, murmuring and demanding to know what the fuss was about. They formed a ring around Gilgamesh, who was now adorned with his breastplate, pauldron, and helmet. Gilgamesh’s short ax swung at his side, though his spear was nowhere to be seen. Having fetched his own armor, Nimbus joined the ring, standing next to Hermes and Witte. Witte, he noticed, was in the process of adjusting straps that affixed what looked like a scroll to her right forearm.

“What’s that?” Nimbus wondered?

“Just a mite bit of security in case Gil gets in over his head.”

“You think he will?”

“You’re the one who’s seen what he’s up against: you know better than I.”

The conversation was cut short when Gilgamesh spoke up.

“Alright, let’s make one thing clear.” Gilgamesh paced as he addressed the crowd. “None of you lot know anything about how to counter plate armor.”

Well, what do you expect? Wolves don’t wear armor.

“So you’re fortunate to have someone like me around who knows a thing or two about fighting.” Gilgamesh continued. “Number one, you don’t fight plate armor with swords and arrows. Plate armor was built to stop cutting weapons, and they will bounce off like a handful of pebbles. No, what you need…” Gilgamesh plucked his ax from his belt and raised it above his head. “…is a weapon with weight. Plate armor is for crushing, and the poor sap inside won’t put up much of a fight once his breastplate’s bent inward.

“Now, I’ve been told this particular plate armor has no person inside. I’ll believe it when I see it, but let’s say it doesn’t; I’d like to see it fight back when I’ve crushed all its joints.”

A small cheer went up.

“Everyone sure is confident about this.” Nimbus muttered to Hermes.

“Gilgamesh is the most superb warrior we have.” Witte finished adjusting the straps on her scroll and looked up to monitor the proceedings. “If he can’t win, I doubt anyone else will manage.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Open the gate!” shouted Gilgamesh.

A man darted forward, unbolted the door, and jumped back as he pulled it open. There was the enemy. The armor stood, stoic. Its helmet rotated to the left, to the right.

“This is not the complex.” An ominous scraping sound echoed through the cave as the armor drew its weapon. “Return to the complex or suffer punishment.”

Gilgamesh was incredible. His eyes burned with focus as he ducked and sidestepped the armor’s every attack. Then, just when the enemy was off guard, Gilgamesh struck. The first blow was to the wrist, mangling the gauntlet and knocking his foe’s sword to the ground. Gilgamesh swung for the other arm, mashing the elbow joint and rendering it immobile. One more swing sent the helmet clattering across the floor, a severe gash in the crown.

The crowd retreated as the armor staggered back towards them, but Gilgamesh hooked its shoulder with the blade of his ax and threw his enemy to the ground in the center of the circle. A savage strike, and his ax blade dented the once pristine breastplate. Another, and the dent widened into a valley. One more, and plate armor ruptured, leaving a jagged hole. The armor didn’t move as Gilgamesh yanked his ax out of the broken metal.

“Wha’d’ya know, it was hollow after all.” Gilgamesh boasted, throwing his arms into the air as the small crowd cheered.

“That was… brutal.” said Nimbus.

“It was awesome!” said Hermes.

“Hmm. Gil certainly knows how to put on a show.” added Witte, loosening the straps on the scroll.

The celebrations were cut short by a loud creak, followed by a low hum. Gilgamesh and the crowd turned towards the source of the sound. “No…”

It was the armor. The metal groaned as it bent itself back into shape. It hissed as gashes fused seamlessly together. It reverberated as its isolated components shot towards the body, reassembling the metallic monstrosity.

“Your noncompliance has been acknowledged and will be discontinued.”

The armor threw its sword, catching Gilgamesh by surprise. Gilgamesh managed to deflect the projectile with his ax, but the armor rushed in and floored him with a gauntlet to the gut. The warrior gasped for air as his foe stood over him, sword returning to its iron fist.

The crowd fell back, scrambling to find weapons. Nimbus hefted his sword, but he knew he wouldn’t reach Gilgamesh before it was too late: the sword was descending.

Suddenly, a blast of flame engulfed the armor. It staggered back as the stream of fire continued, holding up a gauntlet as if to protect itself. Nimbus turned to see Witte, the source of the flare, advancing, right arm outstretched, the scroll wrapped around her forearm glowing with energy. When the barrage ended, the front of the suit shone red with heat, but the figure remained.

“Bloody apparition…” Witte initiated another torrent of flame, then another and another, all as ineffectual as the first, until she finally stepped back, clearly drained. “It’s invincible.”

Stinger appeared out of the crowd, “Everyone! Get out of here! Escape into the tunnels! Stick together and set a trap!”

“We’ll never escape it long enough, and the wolves—!” said Nimbus.

“You can handle wolves, and this…” Stinger drew his bow. “…I’ll slow this thing down.”

“No, you can’t!” shouted Hermes.

Gilgamesh pulled himself to his feet. “He’s right, Stinger. Your arrows won’t put a dent in that thing. To puncture its hide you’d need at least a crossbow bolt!”

Nimbus inhaled sharply. Bolt.

8 July 2015

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