“Run!” cried Ickim. “I’ll hold him off!”
Myrtle strapped her bow to her back and sheathed her knife. She quickly wrapped her arms around Darek, though as an adolescent human boy, he was very nearly her height. She shoved him towards the door, careful to give a wide berth to the fallen Death Knight. Darek looked at the Death Knight and gave a cry as it began raising itself to its knees.
Ickim groaned and summoned his dark shadow, Mikci, again. Mikci appeared in the air, hovering above the knight for a brief moment before drawing a shadowy blade and slamming it into the knight’s back. Ickim picked himself up off the cold stone floor and followed Myrtle and Darek as they retreated down the halls of the mausoleum. The kobold kept his focus on Mikci, slashing and striking at the Death Knight’s rotten and undead body until Ickim’s dark shadow was too far away and Mikci vanished.
They found themselves closer to the stairs leading up to the cemetery, trying to hurry to get back to the outside world. Halfway up, Ickim collapsed. The wound was bleeding again.
“Stay here,” ordered Myrtle, leaving Darek behind. She passed him her dagger and said, “Keep this out. Stab anything that comes near us.”
“But what about-” began Darek.
“It’s going to be alright,” she replied. Myrtle stepped down the stairs and came to Ickim. “Come on, Ickim. We need to get out of here. You need to stand.”
“So… tired,” gasped Ickim. The pain in his chest was intense. He could tell his normally vibrant red scales were turning a sickly pale color as the blood pooled out of him. His pants were stained red and he was leaving bloody tracks behind himself.
Myrtle looked down the stairs into the mausoleum. She could hear a faint clanging noise, probably the steel footsteps of the Death Knight following them. She had to act fast to save Ickim. Myrtle pulled out a pouch from her bag and removed a white paste. Ickim recognized it immediately. It was a healing salve that she kept. By itself, the salve was useless. But if Myrtle focused her magic through it, it had powerful healing properties.
“Save it,” said Ickim, trying to push her hand away. “You might need it.”
“I need it now,” she said in a stern tone.
She dipped her fingers into the salve, removing a thick glob of the white paste. Ickim winced from the sharp pain as Myrtle rubbed it quickly across his cut. As she did so, she began muttering words in her native tongue, something that Ickim did not know, though he recognized it as a magical chanting of some kind. A few moments later, Ickim felt color return to his skin. He blinked a few times before trying to stand up.
“You fools! Return my squire! I will kill you all!” came a terrible screeching voice. The Death Knight was almost upon them.
“The doors!” said Myrtle, standing up with Ickim. The two of them shoved themselves against the metal gate of the crypt, forcing it shut with a loud clang. “It won’t hold,” she said. “Can we brace it?”
Ickim drew one of his scimitars and looked at it longingly. “Good bye, curvy sword,” he muttered. He slammed it in between the bars of the twisted gate. He checked the movement of the gate with a few tugs. The gate would hold, but not for long. “He’s trapped for now.”
“No, he isn’t!” cried Darek. “He’s incredibly strong. I think he’ll be able to break through that.”
“What do we do?” asked Ickim. The clanging of metal boots were coming closer and closer.
Myrtle thought about it for a moment, still listening for the Death Knight. Then she remembered! “Darek, what did you say down in the crypt? Something about a stake?”
“Yes, a stake!” he replied. “From the Red Tree. It’s here in the forest. The Red Tree is where they… hanged him.”
“That’s cheerful,” scoffed Myrtle. “Do you know where it is?”
Darek looked around. It was midday still, and the brightness of the sun, even through the thick canopy of trees above them, made looking around difficult. “I think it’s over there,” he replied. “The Death Knight brought me to it. He didn’t say much about it, but… I’m positive that a stake from that tree can kill him.”
“Let’s do that, then,” said Ickim. “Come on!”
The Death Knight would be coming for them soon. They were certain of it. They were being as hasty as possible, too, so their tracks would be easy to spot. Occasionally, Myrtle led the group through the thicket away from the trails, but they’d always come back to the trail anyway. The Death Knight would surely know exactly where they were going.
Ickim was beginning to pale again, but he was insistent on continuing onward and refused more healing from Myrtle. Myrtle worried about her friend. Ever since those thieves had stolen his armor, she felt that he was relatively unprotected. Maybe if they survived this, she could buy him something new to protect him. Until then, they had to stay alive. Darek, young as he was, was moving far too slow through the forest. He didn’t have the stamina that Myrtle or Ickim had, even as weak as Ickim was right now. Fortunately, he listened to directions. When Myrtle had the group stop while she scouted ahead, she knew that he would be quiet and would do what he was asked. He was scared and trembled during short rests, though.
Hours passed before Darek piped, “This looks familiar. I think we’re close to the Red Tree!” He indicated a nearby rock and began leading the group now. Myrtle and Ickim followed close behind until they came to a junction in the woods.
Ahead of them was a large grouping of oak trees, some of the tallest in the forest. In the middle of them was one particular tree. When Darek called it the ‘Red Tree’, he could not have picked a more apt name. The leaves on the Red Tree were the color of fresh blood, and even glistened in the soft sunlight through the branches. Even its bark was a deep, rich burgundy color. The tree certainly looked out of place. It was a lot bigger than it looked from the path. For a while, the three of them could do nothing but stare at it. Apart from its awful red color, there didn’t seem to be anything else out of the ordinary. It was simply red.
“Let’s make a stake,” said Myrtle.
Before they could move, they heard the clanging again. The metal boots. They were charging down the path, moving at inhuman speed.
“What do we do?” shouted Darek, panicked. “Please, you’ve got to-”
“Stay behind us,” ordered Ickim, drawing his remaining scimitar. He summoned his dark shadow and placed him ahead of them, towards the sound of the incoming Death Knight.
“Darek, listen to me,” said Myrtle. “Take that dagger I gave you and cut off a branch of the tree. Start whittling a stake out of it. When I tell you to, pass it to me or Ickim so we can take him out. Got it?”
Darek never got a chance to reply. The Death Knight came lumbering out of the thicket, howling in guttural rage. His greatsword was in his hand. The black pools of his eyes swirled in vengeance. Darek darted away towards the Red Tree while Ickim and Myrtle got ready to fight.
Myrtle immediately agitated her swarm of spirits. The spirits coalesced into tiny goats that charged forward with the power of her bow. The arrow stuck into the Death Knight’s shoulder. With a quick movement of his free hand, he grasped the arrow shaft and pulled it out, casting the arrow aside. The goat spirits slammed into him, but he charged on. Mikci tried an attack against the Death Knight, but he narrowly dodged it. Ickim rushed forward clanging his sword against the enemy’s.
“The stake!” cried Myrtle. “Hurry, kid!”
Before she could hear Darek’s answer, a heavy blade swung at her. Myrtle caught the blade in her side and fell to the ground, gasping. The Death Knight stood over her and raised his blade again. Myrtle barely noticed that the blade was bloody already. She wondered if it was just her blood on its tip, or if it was Ickim’s. The blade came down, but was caught by Mikci. The dark shadow appeared just in time, blocking the attack, before disappearing again.
Ickim howled and lunged at the Death Knight, but the Knight spun on his heel, slamming his sword’s hilt into Ickim’s head. The kobold fell senseless to the ground. Myrtle raised herself up, crying out loud from the wound in her side, and launched another arrow. The Death Knight didn’t expect this attack and the goat spirits knocked him to the ground.
“Ickim! Are you-”
Ickim raised himself up, clumsy and dazed. He hissed and drew out the Sword of the Goddess’s Wrath from his belt. The long black sword gleamed as it slashed at the Death Knight. The Death Knight howled, this time in fear, as the sword erupted into flames. It clashed against the Death Knight’s greatsword, breaking it into shards before impaling itself into the Death Knight’s chest. The Death Knight shuddered and fell backwards. But just like last time, his body began to twitch as undeath kept him alive.
Ickim fell back. His chest ached again, and now his arms did, too. The strike on the Death Knight was too much for him. He felt like he was about to pass out, but Ickim knew he had to focus. The Sword of the Goddess’s Wrath could injure the Death Knight, but it wasn’t going to die just yet. They needed the stake.
“Darek!” shouted Myrtle, crawling away from the Death Knight. “We need the stake now!”
Darek rushed toward. In one hand was Myrtle’s dagger. In the other was a small branch with a carved end. He ran up to the fallen Death Knight, but the Knight’s moving arm caught him and flung him away.
“No, no, no,” gasped the Death Knight. “Squire! My squire! I will… I will kill you all…”
Myrtle pushed herself to her feet and jumped onto the Death Knight’s arm, pinning it to the ground. Ickim did the same, crawling onto the other arm. The Death Knight tried to thrash against him, but the sword in its abdomen kept it from moving much. Darek jumped forward again and pressed the stake against its chest. It wasn’t piercing the armor.
“Mikci! Come on!” shouted Ickim. The dark shadow appeared in the air above them again. It drew its shadowy version of Ickim’s blade, but wielding it like a hammer. It slammed the hilt against the stake. The stake moved into the armor, pushing through the thick leathers. Mikci struck it again.
“No, I-” began the Death Knight.
On the third strike, the stake pierced through the armor and into the Death Knight’s chest. A sudden convulsion erupted from the Death Knight’s frame, strong enough to throw Ickim, Myrtle, and Darek off. They each gathered themselves, ready to fight again, but the Death Knight never rose again. It shook violently, but the shakings lessened over the next few moments. Finally, the Death Knight was completely still. The group did not move, waiting. A moment passed, and nothing more happened. The Death Knight was gone.
The injured heroes escaped the Weathercote Woods as quick as their injuries would allow them. They had buried the Death Knight as best as they could under a blanket of dirt, rocks, and leaves. All the while, they worried he would rise again. But the Death Knight never moved. Ickim left the Sword of the Goddess’s Wrath buried in the woods, deep in a crevice and covered in stones. The sword was still warm to the touch, its fiery blade alive after striking down the Death Knight. The Blood Knight and the cultists of Kiaransalee would hopefully leave them alone if they left the sword behind.
Myrtle’s reserves of magic were spent, so her healing salve could not help them. Ickim and Myrtle bound up their wounds as best as they could and raced through the forest, eager to leave the horrible place behind. By the evening, they were free of the woods and came upon the open grassland. The sky was overcast, threatening rain, but they persisted. Ickim felt like they were being watched, like the Blood Knight would be upon them at any minute.
The next morning came, completely uneventful. Rain was falling peacefully, cleansing the countryside. The Weathercote Woods in the distance were as quiet as the day before. Myrtle and Ickim, feeling refreshed after their rest, continued on foot with the young Darek, grateful that nothing else had come upon them.
They reached Orlbar by nightfall, and went immediately to the Brewmont homestead. Lord and Lady Brewmont were ecstatic to see them, having been nearly without hope after seeing Ickim and Myrtle off a few days ago. Ickim and Myrtle kept back for a few joyous moments while the Brewmonts reunited. Darek could barely get any words out over the sound of Lady Brewmont’s gleeful crying.
After a while, Lord Brewmont approached the two short heroes. He motioned for them to sit in a pair of comfortable cushioned chairs before leaving the room. He came back moments later with a large leather pouch.
“I owe you so much,” said Elric Brewmont, sitting in a chair opposite of them. “I promised two thousand gold pieces. I fear it may not be enough, but-”
“Oh, no!” squeaked Myrtle. “Lord Brewmont, that is more than enough, I promise!”
“Right,” agreed Ickim. “We accepted the job for two thousand. Any more would be very dishonest.”
Lord Brewmont beamed at them. “Could I at least have you stay with us until you leave Orlbar?” he asked. “It would be an honor to have you in our home.”
Myrtle and Ickim looked at each other, then back to Lord Brewmont with a nod.
“Any chance you could make us pancakes?” asked Myrtle.
The next day, Ickim and Myrtle left Orlbar. They bid farewell to Lord and Lady Brewmont. Darek hugged each of them and told them that he wanted to grow up to be a strong adventurer like them. Myrtle offered her dagger to Darek and told him that he’d need to learn to protect himself and his family. Darek happily agreed. They waved goodbye, and Ickim and Myrtle left Orlbar behind them.
“What do you want to do with the money?” asked Ickim. He placed the sticks into the ring of rocks and began lighting their campfire for the night.
“I’m not sure,” replied Myrtle. She began rummaging through her pack, pulling out the pancakes that Lady Brewmont had given them before they had left the Brewmont Estate in Orlbar. Lady Brewmont wrapped up a stack of pancakes for them, and gave them a jar of syrup. Ickim had eaten most of the jar during their travels today.
“What about some new swords?”
“I think that’s a given. You lost one in the woods.”
“Two, actually,” corrected Ickim, sitting down by the campfire. “I had that other one-”
“Let’s not talk about the Blood Knight or his nasty sword,” interrupted Myrtle. “Bad business. Bad memories.”
“Good point,” said Ickim. “One sword, then. And some new armor. I feel naked without my armor.”
“You could have bought some in Orlbar.”
“I’m too short. They didn’t have anything to fit my size.”
Myrtle placed a cold pancake into her frying pan and set it over the campfire. “Loudwater is going to be the same,” she said. “No one makes armor for kobolds, Ickim.”
“Yes, but in Loudwater, I might find a blacksmith who can fit me some new armor, much sooner than the weird guy in Orlbar. He didn’t seem to know what to do with me.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Simon, Myrtle’s badger, and Mouse, Ickim’s mouse, were sitting lazily on a stump, warming themselves comfortably by the fire. The pan was hot now, and the pancake was reheated. Myrtle pried it out of the pan and onto Ickim’s plate with a fork. Ickim drizzled some syrup on it and began to munch happily.
“Magic swords?” suggested Ickim at length.
“Too expensive,” said Myrtle, placing another pancake into the frying pan.
“Well, what about you? What do you want to buy?” asked Ickim. He stuffed the rest of the pancake into his mouth.
“Well,” she began. “I think we should finally do it.”
“Start a guild, silly!”
“The Short Stack Guild,” mused Ickim. “Can we finally start it?”
“With two thousand gold pieces, we sure can!” she said.
They chewed on the pancakes long into the night until the food was all gone. The campfire kept them warm, but the thoughts of finally starting their own guild lit a fire in their chests.