Episode 01: The Mad Mage of Madzone
Part 2: The Road to Madness
Louisa, the Village Leader of Dunn, told the trio that the Mad Mage lived on the Isle of Insanity in the Lake of Lunacy at the heart of the Madzone. The only access to the island was through the Troll Bridge (a causeway, really), as the lake itself was inhabited by a terrible monster. No one had ever seen it whole, they had only ever seen the great and terrible pseudopods that rose up from the waters to grab anyone who came too close... grab them and drag them screaming into the lake, never to be seen again!
However, the beast never left the lake, and never bothered the Mad Mage or his minions, so long as they remained on the island and on the Troll Bridge. Anyone walking along the shore of the lake, though, was fair game. The marshy ruins next to the lake were not safe, either, as the thing spawned smaller versions of itself that hunted in the marshes and even far down the rivers that fed and debouched from the lake. Thus, the only safe passage was over the Troll Bridge... which was guarded by not one, but two fortresses.
The first was at the crossing of two ancient roads, built within four great circles of ancient stone...
"Ah, a cloverleaf!" Canthar exclaimed.
"Clover... leaf?" Rash asked.
"It's a... the Ancients they... never mind," Canther said. "Louisa, please continue!"
The second fortress was a pair of towers built right at the entry to the Troll Bridge. The road between the fortresses was walled on either side by Ancient walls, as was the Ancient road that crossed the other at the first fortress... it was part of a series of great Ancient roads that made a circuit around the heart of Madzone, known as the Madline. But the walls, being Ancient, were in poor repair... so one could perhaps sneak through them, through the ruins of Madzone, to the second fortress... but beyond that, and of the island, Louisa knew little to nothing...
The trio resolved to follow the Ancient road north, into sight of the first fortress, then determine how to proceed from there. They thanked Louisa and the people of Dunn for the meal, then turned to go. "And the next time you see us," Rash called to them as they mounted up, "I swear that the humans of Madzone will be free!"
"Bakra, Canthar, we ride!"
And off they rode. They passed north, through burned fields and orchards, to the southern Madline, which they followed east. They then turned onto a northerly Ancient road, which crossed with the road to the Troll Bridge.
"See Rash, this is a clover-leaf... more or less," Canther said as he waved at the incomprehensible mess of Ancient, shattered concrete and steel. "A true clover-leaf would look more like, well, like a clover-leaf. It was an interchange where the Ancient vehicles would cross over from one road to the next."
"Hah," muttered the Barbarian. "Why cross over from one road to another on road, when you could just ride your horse over the grasses and dirt?"
Canthar just shook his head and gave up trying to explain...
As they travelled north, luck was with them, and they caught no sight of the servants of the mad Mage, nor of anyone else. Traders did not come up in these parts any more, not since the Mad Mage settled in, anyway, and even rarely before then. They noticed that there were great tears in the walls around them; in some places Ancient vehicles lay in ruin, half through the Ancient walls. In others, tall buildings from the other side of the walls had collapsed on the walls, knocking them down. Through these gaps, from a tall hill that overlooked even the tallest walls, the trio got their first glance at the ruins at the heart of Madzone.
Aptly named it was, for it was a great jumble of ruined Ancient buildings, that looked like they had been picked up, spun about, and dropped by a mad giant. Between the ruins they could make out the fog-covered lake, and far in the center of the lake, upon the Isle of Insanity, the huge Citadel of the Mad Mage. A vast square of stone and steel, with towers, merlons, and crenellations. Above it, in the center of the Citadel, they could barely make out a shining gold dome, glittering through the thick gray fog.
They rode silently and slowly now, for surely they were coming close to a guard post, if not the first fortress itself. As they came to the crest of a small hill, they looked out, and there saw the first fortress. They jumped down from their steeds and walked back to the side of the road, into the shadow of one of the walls. The trio then crawled forward on their hands and knees to the crest of the hill. Canthar pulled out his spyglass. With it he was able to make out the details of the four towers of the fortress, one in each circle of the cloverleaf; in between each, a large double gate, wide enough to allow four wagons to pass. Each tower was made of a pile of Ancient vehicles, mortared together with bricks, wood, and other detritus from the ruins, the whole top built with a wooden walkway, merlons, and crenellations. The double gate was shod with the roofs of Ancient cars and hubcaps, each door large enough to require three trolls to open it!
"Well, we're not going through THAT!" Canthar exclaimed, as he passed the spyglass to Rash.
Rash looked out, and counted quietly. "Why not?" he asked. "I count only two Rattocks per tower... that's only eight. We could easily take eight!"
"True, but how many are inside the fortress? And what alarms do they have? Surely there are trolls within to open those huge gates... or well, maybe they have an Ancient engine to do that, I suppose. But still."
"Aye, but still... I suppose..." sighed the Barbarian.
"I'm sure there are plenty more Rattocks on the island," grinned the Puma Girl. "Not to mention a LOT of trolls. I'm sure we'll find a few good fights on the island!"
"Yes, the island. We shall pass this tiny little fortress and get to the real battle faster. To the island, then, sorcerer. How shall we get there?"
They decided to send their steeds back to Dunn... Arlith the feliquine could well understand Bakra's directions, and Firestorm and Arcaidia followed his lead implicitly. They then went back to the last large rent in the wall facing Madzone, and climbed over and through the rubble into the ruins.
It was like going into a cavern, as the twisted remnants of Ancient buildings met and merged above their heads. Light spattered through the great holes in the Ancient buildings above. The ground beneath their feet was uneven, covered in rubble, and dotted with trees, shrubs, and vines. Here and there they could make out the skeleton of an Ancient vehicle, or a pile of Ancient goods encased in hardened mud or even lava; there an anonymous pile of dirt out of which bone-like remnants poked, next to another Ancient vehicle that looked like it could have driven away, were the dust removed from its windows and detritus pried from within the wheel hubs.
"It is always so strange to go into these Ancient ruins," ruminated Rash out loud. "My people hold them to be taboo... and for good reason, as most are filled with terrible monsters! But to think that so many, many humans lived in these... "cities"... as they were called. It seems impossible."
Bakra reached out to the Ancient vehicle, and drew a smiley face in the dust on the windshield... thought again, grinned, then added fangs to the curved line of the mouth. "And so many of the things of these Ancient peoples can still be used! That's what I find hard to believe after, what, two-thousand years, is that how long ago it was?" she asked Canthar.
"Yes, two thousand years, or so the Wizards believe," the Sorcerer replied. "The Council of Wizards has many theories on why the things of the Ancients are so well preserved. I myself favor the theory that the very nature of the Great Catastrophe resulted in the preservation of the Ancient things. You see, according to the Rogue Planet theory, a planet from Outer Space entered the solar system and hurtled between the Earth and the Moon..."
"Outer... Space?" muttered Rash, as he picked his way carefully through the ruins.
They were now nearing the marshy portion of the ruins, a wide swath of Madzone that was part land, part lake, and he was wary lest the Spawn of the Lake Beast take them unawares... and was only half listening to Canthar as he droned on, as he was wont to do.
Unfortunately, Canthar was not, himself, as aware as he should have been; and his lecture apparently distracted his companions, for when, while considering the lectures he'd had on the Great Catastrophe, he stumbled into a watery inlet from the lake... and the inlet reached up and grabbed at him!
Or so it seemed, when a blue-green pseudopod slithered from the muddy waters and wrapped itself around his left arm. Canthar yelled, as much in pain as from shock, for the pseudopod was coated in a noxious acidici substance that burned and at the same time numbed his skin. He felt a shock course through his body, but resisted the lassitude that followed. Remembering his training, he reached out with his free hand and a broad bolt of magical energy flashed out and struck at the watery tentacle.
"Demon dogs!" cried Rash, as the vast, obscene, amorphous blob from which the pseudopod extended lurched forth from the muddy waters, half on to dry land, and reached out with more pseudopods that extended from its body without warning. The humm and whine of the Star Sword rang out as Rash leapt forward to the attack. But as fast as he was, Bakra was even quicker on the draw, as an arrow flashed through the air and neatly cut the pseudopod holding the Sorcerer in twain.
The thing burbled in anger and writhed in hate, and extended a mass of pseudopods toward the three, but Rash had already closed with the beast, and a searing fan of blue-white light flashed, and the Star Sword clove through the thing, its tentacles and obscene form melting back into gelatinous ooze that slowly dribbled its way back into the lake...
Bakra cocked her head; her face screwed up in concentration. They heard the wind in the reeds and the hiss from between Canthar's teeth as he rubbed the reddening, blistering skin on his arm.
"They heard him cry out... we were too close to the road to the causeway. I can hear the guards calling to each other. They are coming this way!" Quickly they ducked deeper into the ruins, Rash covering their tracks as best he could. They crawled into the dirt and muck filling an ancient building.
The glass windowed walls were long gone, and the faded yellow booths and tables were warped and cracked. Oddly, though, the strange tableau of statuary at the front remained intact and in excellent condition. Canthar's mind wandered briefly as he realized that he and his friends were hiding in one of the ancient and ubiquitous "Temples of the Golden Arches." The icons were surely among the best he'd ever seen outside of a Wizard's collection... the devil known as "The Hamburglar" grinned at him, as he had for the last two thousand years... With a jingle and the thud of heavy feet, he knew the minions of Mad Mage stood outside their hiding place...
To be continued...