Rise of a new Shadow 26
Spree's dark secret
According to Gnarl, the Mellow Hills were nothing but a short walk away. Still, the roiling hills were so steep and dense that Orell's mount was unable to get through without tearing itself a sizeable path first, something that slowed him down to the point Orell decided to leave it behind and walk there the old-fashioned way instead: on foot, with a sizeable horde of Minions in tow. It was an unusual constellation – the horde leader of each tribe or a more fit stand-in in the case of the Blues, Canis, Chasm and Mirage as additional supervisors, while the rest of the horde consisted of trainees. Orell didn’t expect particularly dangerous foes in Spree, but with what he heard Gnarl say about the area, it appeared to better go for skill variety than strength. An easy task that would allow the trainees to gather some field experience without overexerting them when fighting off sheep and retrieving artefacts.
The news that sheep had supposedly stolen the artefacts had spread among the Minions like a wildfire, as 'sheepies' were a word Orell repeatedly heard being giggled, whispered and rasped from behind. Despite the tall, deformed rocks allowing all kinds of mutants to hide in between, they were surprisingly relaxed, as if the prospect of 'sheepies' was enough for them to throw all measures of safety into the wind.
Orell gave them a mental command to be quiet and listened into the dead silence of the Grim Wastelands for anything more unusual than wind whistling between the jagged spikes and the occasional trickle and clatter of falling rocks. He was sure there was an odd, stuttering droning in the air, too low to be properly heard. But maybe it was just his imagination.
Despite Orell's initial worries, they encountered nothing but the everpresent birds flying above their heads or sitting atop the highest rocks where they ran their crooked beaks through their shaggy feathers, multiple eyes on their chests observing the passing horde. A few times the Minions did see the strange sheep hopping over the rocks in a distance again. They were excitedly pointing at the white animals, shoving others to get their attention and calling 'sheepie sheepie sheepie' at them like a curious child would at a cat in an attempt to encourage it to come closer. The sheep wanted none of that, jumping out of sight shortly after they were seen.
It didn’t stop at the ordinary sheep.
Occasionally, there were growths among the deformed plants, looking like stray organs. Orell paid them no heed, as for him, a deformed plant was a deformed plant. It was much later when he realized what those growths really were.
One of the Greens saw it first. Jabbing one of his elongate claws ahead, he shouted: “There sheepie!”and ran towards the woolly little cloud that had gotten lost on the Wasteland’s rock spires, followed by half of the horde. Teeth were exposed, weapons raised, but the enthusiasm fizzled out when they saw the ‘sheep’ up close.
There was indeed the soft, white wool and a pair of round, yellow eyes, but that was it. Some pulsing, veiny flesh could be seen at the edges, growing on the rock’s surface.
“No sheepie!” one of the Browns exclaimed, pointing at the growth with a clawed hand and giving Orell a look that reminded him of a disappointed child. The other Minions shared his sentiments and got back into their usual position behind their master, still grumbling about the sheep having turned out to be fake. Orell, on the other hand, found the sight oddly revolting; while he had seen worse, something about this carpet of wool-producing flesh on the rock felt so inherently wrong to him that even the Infected Forest’s unicorn parasites were like ordinary animals in comparison.
“Seems like you are nearing your goal, Sire,” Gnarl said, directing Orell’s attention away from the disgusting sight. “And if you see anything resembling pumpkins, stay away from them.”
Orell didn't ask Gnarl about the pumpkins; he was aware that those and the sheep had been major agricultural products of the Mellow Hills before the Wasteland swallowed them up, and he had already seen what the rampant magic had done to the latter.
Either way, he was getting closer to leaving the Wastelands and partial sheep growing on rocks were better than the bloodthirsty red monstrosities from before.
They passed a few more sheep growths, among them a twitching lump of flesh on a rock wall perpetually bleating as if trapped in neverending agony. One of the Reds put it out of its misery with a well-aimed fireball, but it did nothing to relieve the Minions' desire for actual sheep.
As if the gods had listened to their prayers, they did encounter what looked like an actual sheep soon enough. It just stood there on the path, unmoving. Orell gave it a doubtful glance, but when a good part of his Minions charged at it, he didn’t stop them.
With the way they were running, hollering and raising their weapons, he doubted that even a mental command would stop them in their track.
The sheep remained unresponsive to the sight, not even moving an eye. But as soon as the Minions came close enough, it’s face distorted grotesquely and emitted a loud, shrill shriek before falling apart into blue-glowing sludge.
The enthusiasm on many Minion faces switched to surprise and the momentum of the horde carried them over the puddle. There was shouting and cursing, Minions tumbled over each other that sometimes there were feet seen above the others’ heads. As Orell came closer, he saw several of them shaking the sheep sludge off their feet, the glowing drops flying around and hitting other Minions, setting off a chain reaction. A number of Blues burst out laughing at the reactions.
“The Wasteland gloop really reached a new low by now,” Gnarl commented, sounding as disgusted as the Minions looked. “Taking on the shape of sheep of all things.”
“That was Wasteland gloop?” Orell asked with alarm in his voice.
Something changed within the horde. Where the Minions were at first mostly concerned with getting the blue drops off their bodies, their attention suddenly began to shift to the place the fake sheep had been standing.
This was terrible. They saw sheepies, but always out of reach, either far away and being mean, or close by and incomplete. Needless to say, all this teasing had Klud and the others so sheep-starved they had run at the first opportunity they had seen. Klud had been among the first, running faster than the others, at least faster than those not on wolfback.
But this sheep turned out to be a disappointment, not running to make it more fun, not obliviously staring at them just to be surprised by a blade to the neck, but screaming and rudely melting in front of their eyes instead, depriving them of their well-deserved fun. Jaws snapped into thin air, blades cut through the last falling drops of ooze. Feet stepped into the glowing puddle where the sheep had been standing, pushed into it by the Minions behind.
Klud had run into it himself, barely managing not to trip as his intense fear and disgust of the ooze fought against his own momentum. He had heard what it did from the older Minions, those who were alive when their previous Master ruled. He screamed and shook his feet, trying to get it off as quickly as possible, not caring in the slightest about the drops getting onto the other Minions around him. Luckily, the gloop wasn’t sticky and he quickly managed to shake and scrape off most of it, leaving only wetness and an unpleasant tingling feeling behind.
Loud laughing to his side made him turn his head, to see if there was something he could laugh himself at. It was a Blue he didn’t know the name of, hollering and pointing a webbed finger at him.
“Shut up, trout!” Klud shouted at the Blue.
“Me not Trout, me Dace!” the Blue replied, laughing even louder.
Then the laugh died in his throat and his face expression turned to worry.
Serves you right to laugh at me, Klud thought, assuming it was his glare that shut the Blue up. But his gaze was notably directed past Klud.
The reason for this was Taffy. He had been the most unlucky one of the Minions, as he had not only been stepping into the puddle, but had fallen right into it. His whole front was splattered with ooze, his frantic attempts at wiping it off had only spread it further over his arms and armour. But his attempts at wiping the gloop off slowed and became less focussed until he was just clutching his chest and looking at the blue veins running up his arms in horror. He began to scratch the veins, his claws tearing through scales until red blood interspersed with blue sparks stained them.
Then he fell onto all fours, his back bulging and extending underneath his armour, until the straps snapped and revealed blistery skin of the same sick colouration as the warped rocks around them.
Taffy’s head rose, two mismatched, pupil-less eyes staring at the Minions around him. Then his face distorted into a grimace of pain and rage, his jaw opened wide to show several rows of teeth that had freshly pushed through bleeding gums and an overly-long tongue rolled out of his mouth while he grew bigger and bigger.
All of a sudden, the tip of a spear shot out of Taffy’s mouth. The mutating Minion stopped growling in an instant, briefly spasmed and collapsed. Behind him, Klud could see Canis standing on his wolf’s back, staring at the corpse in distaste. He got off his mount to pull the spear out of Taffy’s head, shook the blood off and let his gaze pass over the surrounding Minions. He rarely spoke, but this gaze was more than enough to tell everyone that this same fate would await them if they started mutating.
Klud swallowed and lowered his ears. His displeasure over the unfulfilled lust for sheep and him stepping into the puddle didn’t matter here. He had been among the lucky ones.
The melting sheep had been a lesson for the Minions. With one having been killed due to mutating and Gnarl stating that the mutation made it impossible for the Minion to be revived in any other way than creating a whole new Minion from the lifeforce that had been extracted from the corpse, the horde remained silent about the sheep jumping over the rocks in the distance, or the woolly lumps growing on various surfaces. They even passed by several more of the melting sheep, which were usually met with a Red throwing a fireball at them or any other Minion throwing a rock.
Orell himself was livid, more at himself than at the Minions. He shouldn’t have expected anything not treacherous from a sheep standing around like that and keep his Minions under better control; instead, he had let his horde just run into the trap.
A rather unexpected feature of the landscape took Orell off his seething anger, half-buried under rocks that looked more like they had grown over it rather than collapsed over its top. A lot of it had rotted away and was partially covered in vein-like growths, but the low, sloping shape and the round opening where the door once was told him this was halfling architecture.
“You are close, Sire. You are definitely close.”
“That is a halfling building,” Orell said. He knew about the Mellow Hills being halfling territory, but Spree was a human village.
“Yes, a very peculiar halfling building. I remember how the Minions ransacked it, back then when the halflings had enslaved the population of Spree to feed their ever-growing king. Had quite a lot of gold stored in there.”
A sheep’s head emerged from the opening, extending outside on a shaggy neck that was way too long for a normal sheep. Its face split along three seams to reveal fleshy tendrils covered in teeth. Orell gave the creature a disgusted look and marched on, leaving the sheep head to hiss and sputter where it was. The Minions followed without giving the mutated sheep a second glance.
At least they would be done here soon.
Slowly, the landscape began to change and it surely was not for the better. The dead rock showed less and less of itself, vanishing under a layer of odd grass that had the colour and texture of flesh. And this was the least strange feature. Where the grass was not growing, veins pulsed over the ground, sometimes merging into tumorous growths that appeared like they tried to assemble into sheep without any knowledge of how a sheep was supposed to look like. Most of then were small, growing no more than a hoof or an eye, but sometimes it was a monstrosity of several sheep melted together towering over Orell, its many yellow eyes following their movements and a distorted bleating coming from its indiscernible orifices.
In between, more strange growths appeared, some looked like gigantic mushrooms covered in spines, others were large, vein-covered orbs. Elongate, centipede-like sheep crawled over these growths. While those did behave more or less like ordinary sheep, the Minions still remained wary of the creatures, probably afraid that those were similar traps like the ooze-sheep from before.
Orell found it weird how dominant the sheep were in this bizarre landscape. There were melting sheep, centipede sheep climbing over the plants, balloon sheep silently floating through the air, tumorous sheep growing on the ground. Even the soundscape was consisting of nothing but bleating, ranging from high-pitched and short, which reminded Orell of the tiny dogs kept by Aurenthurian aristocrats to low and drawn out, as if it came from a sheep the size of a mountain.
There were less and less of the spine-like rocks growing from the ground, allowing them to look further ahead, to see more of the bizarre landscape.
They crested a hill, and as soon as Orell could see beyond the raise covered by ovine growths, he had the distinct feeling that they had reached their destination. It was a sunlit gentle valley with a small village in its middle, built right next to a meandering creek and surrounded by fields with sheep and small accumulations of trees. It was like one of those idyllic paintings popular among the wealthier populace, weren't it for its inherent wrongness.
The grey clouds of the Grim Wastelands were twirling around the valley as if they refused to enter the sky above it, as if the warped landscape that had spelled death for thousands somehow was repulsed by this little bit of land, leaving it almost unaltered. Of course, the grass was still of the colour of a bled-out corpse, the sheep had all kinds of sizes and shapes and he was somehow unable to properly focus on the village down below, as if the buildings vanished when he fixated them, only to reappear in the corner of his vision again. There was no birdsong or the chirping of grasshoppers, only sheep sounds of every pitch imaginable, and the smell wafting through the air was not that of grass, flowers and dung, but the ashen, cindery smell of the Grim Wastelands mixed with rotten flesh and rancid oil.
“That is definitely Spree, Sire,” Gnarl said, his voice strangely wary.
“Gnarl, do you know what is going on here? Something is definitely not right, this is not something the ooze would have caused. I would prefer to know what I'm up against before I get turned into a sheep,” Orell asked.
“It's... curious, that is all I can say. Your predecessor never entered this area, as he preferred to have as little to do with the Grim Wastelands as possible. It seems like Spree had gotten a continent-sized dose of fool's luck and got spared by the initial explosion, then somehow avoiding the mutagenic runoff. Master, do you know anything about cleanup efforts in Spree? Otherwise, I might ask Juno, maybe she knows more about it.”
Orell was sceptical. He knew about the cleanup efforts in the Grim Wastelands, but those always had been concentrated around the easy-to-reach edges and larger accumulations of the ooze, or were driven into the directions of major settlements like Heaven's Peak. No one cared about the Mellow Hills, considering it was close to the epicentre and didn't have anything of value besides pumpkins and sheep. Most of the original populace was dead and the survivors had settled in Alsemark, the Heartlands or Nordberg, living there the same way they had lived in their previous homeland.
So what was the reason for the state of the Spree valley?
As Orell stood there pondering the unusual appearance of the land ahead, the Minions begun to grow bored. Many were drooling at the sight of the woolly balls in the distance and a few had discovered that some of the weeds had tiny sheep growing on them that floated away like dandelion seeds when being struck.
Before they could run off after the small puffballs floating in the air and end up in another trap, Orell gave them a mental command to stay close to him and descended into the valley himself.
It was strange to walk in sunlight while thick, grey clouds were twirling across the sky all around them. However, neither him nor the Minions were growing wool, started bleating or got the intense desire to jump around in the grass, which made at least one of Orell's fears unfounded.
“Look, more sheepies!” one of the Minions exclaimed. His jagged dagger pointed at a flock on a hillock, standing there and eating the flesh-grass. For the most part, they appeared like regular sheep, weren't it for their size and the odd shapes the fleece couldn't hide entirely. And despite their rather normal appearance, their sight caused the same revulsion in Orell as any of the previous sheep creatures did.
“No,” he said sternly. “You know what happened last time you ran after the first sheep you saw.”
The Minions whined at the sight, but none of them was stupid enough to try his luck.
“No burn the sheepies?” one of the Reds asked Igniot, a fireball already in his hand. It was Mirage who gave the answer in his stead, a deep hiss and a shake of her masked head.
One by one, the sheep stopped eating and began to stare back, their large, golden eyes with elongated pupils showing a strange level of awareness. Then the first one rose to its hind legs and squared its shoulders, extending its elongate front hooves that were either grown or sharpened into a claw-like shape.
The man-sheep shook its head a few times and shouted a few challenging bleats at the horde, while the rest of the flock rose to show their sharpened hooves as well. But they stayed on their hillock and Orell was not interested in taking up with the man-sheep's challenge, despite the reveal doing nothing about the Minions' eagerness to fight them.
“That surely explains how the sheep were able to steal the artefacts from the old Tower,” Gnarl commented. “Interesting, usually the gloop turns everything into bigger, dumber versions of itself, but it seemed to have the opposite effect on sheep. Maybe there is a level of stupidity so unfathomable it goes full circle and becomes genius?”
“Do you think there is a second Hraffheim hidden somewhere, populated by those man-sheep?” Orell asked jokingly. It was to mask his uneasiness; he had experience with dealing with humans, elves, dwarves or halflings and had at least some understanding of how gnomes, trolls or the less common races were thinking, but sheep that had developed intelligence thanks to magical mutation was something entirely new to him. Those man-sheep might act reasonable one moment only to try to crack his skull with their horns the next. At least he didn't see more flocks in the vicinity or the path ahead.
Letting the Minions trailing behind him have an eye on the man-sheep, Orell continued onwards, meandering down the gentle slope of the hill and towards the flickering village ahead. The Minions changed back to a wary tenseness, something Orell barely noticed – he tried his best to block out the sounds of the horde to focus on the soundscape. He was sure that among the bleating filling the air there were words, talking to him but staying just out of his reach.
Maybe it was just his imagination letting the bleating sound like speech.
A sheep floated past, directing Orell’s attention away from the sounds and onto a run-down shack in between the spiky growths resembling sun-dials. Several bleached, warped bones were visible in the grass in front of it.
“Sire, maybe it is worth to let the Minions take a look inside. You won’t believe how often you can find valuables that way,” a discernible voice entered the bleating.
“I don’t really trust it,” Orell thought aloud, then decided to send Mirage forward – if anything was wrong with the hut, she could easily phase out of danger.
The masked Minion stepped forward, body kept low between the fleshy grass and using rocks to break the line of sight. The shack remained a shack, its bent, darkened planks staying in the places dictated by the nails that barely kept the construct together.
That was until Mirage had crept close enough to look into the doorframe. All of a sudden, the lopsided door slammed shut, dispersing the green smoke left behind by the Green phasing back next to Orell. She hissed and extended her claws as the shack, which was now unravelling itself on fleshy tendons and revealing the teeth covering the planks’ insides as it thrashed around, seemingly in search of the prey it had missed.
Orell noticed that the shack was rooted to the ground and unable to reach anyone from its position. As he wanted to leave the thing behind, one of the Reds got his attention. He was one of the bombardiers Jet had trained, his body wrapped in leather straps that held numerous clay orbs.
“Can me? Can me?” he excitedly asked while unhooking one of his bombs.
Orell’s nod was all he needed, spitting a small glob of napalm onto the bomb’s fuse, then throwing it at the raging shack’s door. The shack snatched the bomb out of the air, gobbling it up like a half-starved dog would do with a dead rat. It reformed back into a shack as quickly as it had expanded into its feeding form, but remained such for less than a second – the bomb exploded inside, tearing the mutated construct apart into wooden planks, torn sinews and loose teeth that scattered the surroundings while its original position was replaced by a charred crater and a plume of smoke. The onlooking Minions cheered, even some of the horde leaders and marauders joining in this time.
“No valuables,” Orell determined. “Unless you know a tooth fairy, that thing had enough choppers to be traded for a whole chest worth of coins.”
“Hmm, now that you mention it…” Gnarl started.
“Gnarl, I wasn’t serious.”
There were a few more shacks along the path, one of it already unfolding and drooling at the Minions passing by. To save on bombs, Orell let the Reds set them all on fire. At least the flames provided some outlet for the tense Minions.
The flickering village was obscured by a group of trees which Orell preferred to walk around rather than through. It wasn’t much of a detour and he was sure to keep Spree’s position in mind. A small creek crossed their path, where small, woolly fish were keeping up with the current. The Blues splashed around in their attempt to catch the fish, while the rest of the Minions just stepped through it, disgusted but not acting up like at the ravine river in the Infected Forest.
Climbing the bank, Orell was sure he was standing in front of what had once been a field. The fleshy grass was taller, with longer stalks extending past the leaves, their tips covered in bulbous growths that looked like something between grapes and eyeballs. Some patches appeared freshly-mowed, with large stacks of flesh-hay in their middle.
Did the man-sheep do this or was this a leftover of the original Spree?
Tentatively, Orell entered the mutated wheat field. The only unusual thing he noticed was that once he touched the stalks, their growths burst open and tiny, wet lambs fell out of them, vanishing between the grass blades until only their high-pitched bleating indicated their presence. The Minions were delighted at first, digging through the grass to find the tiny lambs, but a mental command quickly put them back in line.
Behind the wheat field was another one, covered in the tendrilous growths with large, veiny orbs in between, something Orell now assumed to be mutated pumpkins.
“Sire, be careful and remember what I told you. For a vegetable looking that stupid, pumpkins are surprisingly treacherous.”
Orell said nothing. Gnarl likely had his reasons, but the alternatives were a longer detour, or going into the patch of trees, which he trusted even less. At least, here he could see where he was going and the pumpkins didn’t appear like they were hiding anything, especially since he had walked past these growths before.
A fence made of rotten wood separated the two fields, which Orell hacked a way inside without much effort. The Minions quickly widened the opening, throwing pieces of the fence everywhere.
At first, Orell thought the pumpkin field would be easier to traverse, but it turned out the tangles were so prone to snagging on his and the Minions’ feet that he suspected they were actively attempting at tripping them. The Browns slashed at the tangles around their feet to make progress faster, something that was quickly adapted by Orell with his sword and the rest of the Minions with their claws.
It went well, at first. After the first three slashes at the tangles, Orell didn’t get snagged nearly as often as before he decided to apply the blade to them. Instead, they were attacked by the orbs themselves.
Just as they reached the middle of the field, several of the rounded structures deflated, splitting among the seams running down their length to reveal orange sheep heads on long stalks, their skin looking like pulp and their teeth like long, sharp pumpkin seeds.
The Minions startled at the sight, but quickly regained their wits, hitting the sheep heads with their clubs, cutting stalks with swords and ramming axes into the central bulbs. Orell cut two heads off in a swoop, the jaws remaining clenched around a Red's arm as if they haven't noticed being severed from their body. The fire of the Reds did nothing to the thick, wet attackers beside making burning heads bite at those less fire-resistant.
The Minions clustered around their master both for his and their own protection, slowly moving and rotating through the patch of sheep-pumpkins. The single heads were easy to take care of, but there were too many orbs releasing their sheep heads for everyone to get out of this fight unscathed. One particularly unfortunate Brown was bitten in the neck artery when a pumpkin-sheep head darted past his shield, spraying the sheep head as well as several nearby Minions with his blood. A Green cut the stalk and a Blue tore the head away, which still held a chunk of flesh in its pumpkin seed teeth, then flung it as far into the patch as possible, before hoisting the unconscious Brown over his shoulder and retreating into the cluster of better-armed Minions.
In the end, they managed to make it out of the pumpkin patch without a single Minion having been lost there. The one Brown who had bled to death by now was resurrected, immediately showing the scar on his neck off to another Brown, who ignored him due to having nasty-looking burns on his right arm courtesy of being bitten by a head engulfed in a Red's napalm. He used said arm to punch the scarred Brown in the face the moment a Blue had taken care of it.
“Stop acting up, you will need your energy later,” Orell sternly told them, emphasizing his words with a mental command. Giving the now-still pumpkins a last, wary look, he continued on.
Spree was better visible once the group of trees parted, appearing much closer than Orell had expected it to be. Whatever the strange flickering he had seen from the distance was, now it was gone, the village presenting itself as so ordinary it became deeply unsettling.
Ordinary save for the sheep, Orell reminded himself once he saw several of them float through the air.
Mirage and several other Greens were sent ahead to scout the village while the rest of the Minions along with their master took a bit of time to rest, the latter summoning a Gate to have some food brought. This time, Orell insisted on the Minions receiving their food from the Netherworld as well, since he trusted the area around Spree even less than the rest of the Grim Wastelands.
The Greens returned faster than expected, telling they found nothing of note beyond the half-broken palisade.
“Did you see any Tower artefacts?”
Mirage shook her masked head. “No artefacts.”
“Did you look properly?” Gnarl barged in. “Or does your Master have to do everything himself?”
“Did look!” the Green hissed back. “Checked behind every open door. Lots of old things there, then hay, sheep crap, sticks, stones and unripe pumpkins.”
“Hmm, that definitely sounds like the mutated sheep are using the buildings. Sire, it is definitely worth to take a proper look at the hamlet.”
With the Greens having scarfed down the leftovers, the horde was ready to continue. The village was surrounded by a small moat, the wooden bridges long-decayed and replaced by earth and rocks dumped into the ditch to fill it up.
Orell stopped, one leg remaining in mid-air. Did someone just talk? He looked around, the only possible sources being a few sheep floating above his head and the Minions following him. The voice was definitely not that of a Minion. Listening into the bleating, he didn’t hear any other words. Maybe it was really just his imagination playing pranks on him, just multiple bleats resembling a word by sheer chance. Getting his mind off the word and back onto searching for artefacts, he stepped forwards and into Spree proper.
“Well then… you know what to do, it’s the same procedure as in the paladin stronghold. Canis, you and the other wolf riders sniff the area for any buried or hidden artefacts. Mirage, show your students how to pick locks if you encounter any. The rest just searches the old-fashioned way and informs me when something of interest is found.”
The Minions dispersed, being surprisingly silent. Orell himself entered the nearest hut. Its door was hanging by one hinge and inside there was nothing but a large table, a broken bed and several decayed crates, everything covered in a generous layer of dust and cobwebs. A typical abandoned shack, weren’t it for the path in the dust leading to the bed, which had dried flesh-grass lyingon top of the rotten bedsheet.
“Nothing to see here, Master,” Gnarl said.
The second abode wasn’t any different, neither was the third. Small huts with spare furniture, everything being mouldy and dusty. One of the Reds directed his attention to a trapdoor and with the effort of several Browns, the rusty hinges squealed open to reveal a small cellar. The stench that hit them was so overwhelming Orell decided to call a Green to take a look at it. He returned with a wine bottle in hand, which one of the Browns snatched away, pulled the cork with his teeth and took a sip, only to spit it out immediately and throw the bottle back down into the cellar. The smell of vinegar added itself to the dust and the decades-old food stored below.
In the end, the search turned out to be an utter disappointment. The Minions produced a number of coins, carved charms and simple jewellery made with quartz, amber and river mussel shells befitting the simple people having lived there. Orell looked at the spoils spread on the ground in front of the inn.
“That isn’t enough to satisfy a mentally retarded farmer wench!” Gnarl exclaimed. “Do not tell me there were no Tower artefacts found here!”
“Gnarl, you have seen yourself what Spree looked like. Wherever the sheep have brought the Tower artefacts, they are not here.”
“But where else would they be? Hidden atop a spire insurmountable by anything but sheep hooves? Buried underneath a random crooked tree?”
“Why would they do that?” Orell mused. “What would they get out of removing the artefacts out of a long-abandoned tower just to hide them in an inaccessible place? I would expect it somewhere close, in a place we haven’t searched yet.”
“Sire, you are asking about the motivations of sheep here,” Gnarl replied.
“As you can see, we are dealing with sheep, Gnarl.” Orell spread his arms and slowly turned around, to give his advisor a good look of the surroundings. “There’s man-sheep on the distant pastures, floating sheep above us, even the plants are part sheep. You have more experience with the motivations of sheep than I have, so maybe-”
His eyes met with the inn’s doors. While the Minions searching it haven’t reported about any artefacts there, he hadn’t looked at the place’s interiors himself, either. Spree was a simple settlement that didn’t have any temple, town hall or other outstanding building beside its inn, as if the place the locals got drunk was also where they worshipped and managed their affairs as well.
“...maybe this is where anything of interest is hidden.”
“If there is, I will have whoever searched the inn thrown in a pit filled with slobbering puppies.”
With the Minions having pocketed the coins and donned the charms and jewellery, they regrouped behind Orell and followed him into the inn. Its interior was as ordinary as an inn in a rural area could get. Instead of bothering with the main space or the rooms above, Orell headed straight for the bar and searched the ground. And indeed, there was a trapdoor underneath a rotten, frayed mat he kicked away in several pieces.
“Searched thoroughly, didn’t you?” Several pairs of ears drooped.
The door was pushed open, being surprisingly easy to move compared with the one inside the hut. Orell could make out the top steps of a flight of stairs made of hardened earth leading down, probably built this way to withstand the weight of the barrels being carried up and down. Beyond that, it was so dark that it appeared like the shadows had become solidified.
A stool’s leg, some rotten rags and a Red’s fuel were enough to banish the darkness into the corners once Orell stepped down. There, he saw the mentioned barrels taking up the entire space on the right wall, some of them missing their bottoms. He glanced inside one of them, finding nothing but grime and a few dried flowers with the distinct shape of sheep heads inside.
While no artefacts, it was still a clear sign of the cellar being used by the sheep.
A trail in the dust led along the wall and vanishing behind a corner. Several of the Greens hissed softly and there was yelping at the top of the stairs. The wolves absolutely refused to step into the cellar, ultimately letting Orell decide for Canis to take them outside and wait there, while their dismounted riders were much more compliant to follow their master deeper into the cellar.
Around the corner, Orell found a surprisingly solid-looking door. It creaked open with an obnoxiously loud sound, as if it tried to appear as creepy as possible. Behind there was another, smaller room with collapsed racks – and a brick wall on the other size, with a man-sized hole smashed into it.
“I can almost smell the magic of the artefacts coming from there, Master!”
Orell agreed with his advisor, everything pointed towards the lost artefacts being somewhere in this cellar. He did wonder about the hole in the brick wall, though, considering it was more than strange for an inn to refuse any space to store goods by bricking a part up.
With the makeshift torch outstretched, Orell reached through the opening. The sputtering flames peeled the shape of a simple corridor out of the darkness, which turned to the left just a few steps ahead. As Orell walked around the corner he saw the same thing again – a few steps of tunnel, then a bend.
It continued like this for a while, becoming more and more aggravating. It was like an useless maze, where the goal was not to have the visitor lost, but to force them to walk as long as possible inside a relatively tiny space.
But the trails in the dust assured him that they were on the right path.
Behind one bend he could finally see a change in the form of crude drawings on the wall. Taking a look at them, he recognized the scrawlings as sheep.
What else, he thought, huffing in annoyance.
As they continued, the drawings became more plentiful and elaborate. Where it was crude scribbles in the beginning, they became more detailed, letting Orell recognize more than just sheep. There were trees, sunflowers, pumpkins, surprisingly even some drawings of long-eared creatures that could be Minions. And there were several objects that Orell assumed to be suns, but filled out with soot or whatever else had been used as paint.
Around another corner, a major change happened, as the wall was split by a dark, vertical drawing with lines emanating from its tip, little scribbles all around it depicting people and animals writhing in agony while additional body parts not belonging in their places grew on them.
A depiction of the Cataclysm.
“Hah, those woolbrains really commemorated the old Tower! Too bad they did it at the moment of its end.”
Orell gave the drawing a closer look. He had only seen some paintings of the event, each looking vastly different than the other, one particularly memorable showing deformed Minions drooling the ooze over the lands. This one was remarkable in its simplicity, no focus on the suffering of a few individuals, no allegories for the corruption of the people who ultimately suffered from it. The only thing he couldn’t make any sense out of were horns and hooves at the very bottom of the drawing. Most likely, those were supposed to be the man-sheep the Cataclysm had spawned, after all.
Except the horns and sheep didn’t stop in the drawings beyond.
The scenes were sheep and pumpkins and sunflowers again, but they were clearly the warped versions Orell had seen outside. The black suns increased in frequency, their shape becoming more erratic and said horns and hooves being inside them. Corners were blackened, showing such body parts as well.
“Sire, don’t mind me interrupting your gallery stroll, but I do have the faint impression this tunnel is impossible. I’m pretty sure the turns it takes should have it intersect with itself many times over.”
“Are you sure about it? It’s easy to lose your orientation below ground.”
“Master, we Minions have been living in holes and tunnels most of our lives, I should know one thing or two about orienting myself in a tunnel. You see, when we walk by the Mother Goddess’ sacred bosom!”
Gnarl’s sudden change in topic was caused by Orell laying his eyes onto another drawing different from the Cataclysm depiction, except this time, it wasn’t a historical event drawn onto the wall. The flickering light of the torch revealed an entity vaguely resembling a sheep, with multiple faces, off proportions and wool forming strange patterns on its body. It was surrounded by the black swirls the black suns had been fashioned in, surrounded by man-sheep bowing to it. Tendrils extended from its black corona to touch some of its subjects, caressing some, threatening others.
“Are you this surprised the sheep here started worshipping a sheep god?” Orell stated with a grin. If he remembered right about Gnarl’s explanations on how gods worked, such an entity had been prayed into existence by the sheep that had come up with it.
“That isn’t a simple sheep god, Sire. I have heard of his existence. It is an ancient harvest deity that the people of the Mellow Hills have worshipped. The religion fell out of favour, mostly because the surrounding populace disagreed with the blood sacrifices and orgies part. A shame, really. Every religion needs blood sacrifice and orgies, if you ask me.”
Orell gave the drawing a closer look. “An ancient god?” He remembered the wooden idol from the paladin stronghold, although it had shown something much different than the monstrous sheep on the wall.
“Indeed, Master. Despite being forgotten for the most part, many of its influences never really vanished, probably keeping the god strong through the times. Hmm, it would certainly explain why the pumpkins were big and the sheep plentiful in Spree. And now with those things that look like the previous locals just with a bit more hair on them having started to worship him again proper, he must have gained more strength by the day. Master, it is better we strike sooner than later and end the existence of this woolly menace!”
Orell glanced to the side, side-eyeing his non-present advisor. “Gnarl, are you listening to yourself? That is a god, sheep or not. I will collect the artefacts and turn my back to the Grim Wastelands forever. Maybe Spree will become an exclusion zone if the area can't be purified, or the refugees' descendants could return to worship their old god again. Either way, it is not my problem.”
“Sire, I do tell you, it will be your problem. And in case of gods, those are fought best when at their weakest. Which you can improve by taking care of his worshippers. I'm sure the Minions would be delighted.”
“And run into sludge again?”
“In that case, let Charon and a horde of Reds deal with the sheep. Then the Barracks will have enough roasted mutton to feast on for weeks.”
Orell decided not to further argue with Gnarl about this topic. There were simply more pressing matters to deal with than some sheep deity suddenly having an influx of new worshippers.
Orell’s head jerked to the side. That was certainly not a bleat sounding like speech for a change, but a whispering, resonating voice in his head. Not that the sheep god attempted to force himself into the communication line with Gnarl...
Pushing those concerning thoughts to the side, Orell continued through the winding corridor, until he entered a place that appeared to be its end. Rather than a narrow tunnel between rock walls, the torch's light fell into a larger chamber so unlike the tunnel that it appeared like it was part of a much older facility the tunnel under Spree had accidentally dug out. Where the light grey limestone bricks ended, walls made of a greasy-looking, dark-green rock covered in reliefs but untouched by any cuts began. Most of said reliefs were flowing shapes that looked like tentacles, but given the circumstances, they were more likely to be strands of fleece. The chamber wasn't spacious, but it felt like something much bigger than what Orell and the Minions could see with their eyes.
The other side's wall was almost completely covered up by bizarre glyphs that looked overstretched and warped, forming a definite end for the long, winding tunnel.
Just one thing was missing; there was not a single trace of the artefacts they were looking for.
“Looks like this is a dead end.”
Orell stepped forward, to take a closer look at the glyphs on the wall. Then he stopped, turning his head to the side. “What, Gnarl, no swearing tirade this time?”
His motions brought something very wrong into the corner of his perception, and as he fully turned around, he saw that there was no tunnel leading out of the chamber any longer. “What is going on!?”
Some of the Minions reacted panicked, raking their claws over the wall where the entrance had been without leaving any marks, while others kept staring at the glyphs as if entranced by them.
“Sire, I have to apologize. I was gravely mistaken about what we are dealing here with. That isn’t an ordinary harvest deity Spree had been worshipping after all.”
“Gnarl, what do you mean?”
“This is is not an ordinary god like the Mother Goddess or Punarim, a being prayed into existence and weakened by being forgotten. This is one of the old gods, having rewarded his worshippers just because he had felt like it. And now it looks like he has taken special interest in you. The only way out is the way forwards. In any case, it has been nice to know you, Master.”
“Gnarl, what do you mean,” Orell repeated, his voice louder this time.
“ I’m not giving you a good chance of surviving this encounter, that is all. But I will do my best to aid you. Sire, step closer to the writings, they must hold the key to the way out.”
Seething, but with literally no other option left, Orell did as Gnarl said, focussing on the middle of the glyph-covered wall.
All of a sudden, the glyphs began to flow and contract into readable words.
“Master, read them out!”
“Here rests Ovurrghat-ah-Baahthul.” The glyphs rearranged themselves to their previous unreadable and warped shape, while other glyphs reshaped themselves to be read.
“Despite closed, his eyes stare out into the world. Despite resting, his wool reaches out to touch minds. Despite silent, his voice reverberates inside souls. Enter, little lamb, be seen by his eyes, be embraced by his wool, listen to his voice. Come closer, little ewe, carry his eyes, wear his wool, speak his voice. Approach, little ram, see, think, speak, awaken.”
Upon the last word, the grooves between the glyphs deepened, letting them part like a nest of writhing snakes that pulled away into the walls to reveal a path ahead, a pitch-black rectangle the sputtering light of the torch couldn’t illuminate.
Then a gust of wind from the rectangle blew the torch out to leave everyone in darkness.
Just before Orell could open his mouth to curse his luck, the walls themselves began to glow in an oily, green light, allowing him to see again. This time, he was able to see what lay ahead as well, a short tunnel that opened into a larger chamber.
With the distinct feeling that the transition between his own and the old god’s reality had become complete through the change of illumination, Orell entered the tunnel, a deathly silent horde following in his steps.
The hall turned out to be somewhat underwhelming. It was rectangular, three flights of stairs on each side leading up to a stone door, carved with what appeared to be four sheep heads merged at their tops with a single eye in between. The rest of the hall was carved in similar motifs, eyes with elongate pupils surrounded by writhing strands of wool, with the ceiling bearing another depiction of a four-headed, one eyed sheep, while the tiled ground was covered in more abstract imagery.
As Orell looked around the hall, he heard a scratching noise and a rumble to his left. As he turned into the sound’s direction, his eyes met with one of his Minions, his eyes wide in horror and mouth corners pulled back in embarrassment. He was standing on one of the large tiles covering the ground, sunken a bit deeper than the rest and the lines on it glowing a sickly green light, which extended past the sunken tile until abruptly stopping at the edges of other tiles.
“Seems to be some kind of pressure plate puzzle, Master,” Gnarl groaned. “We are in the sanctum of an ovine elder deity, and still they can’t think of anything better than pressure plates.”
“How does this work…” Orell absent-mindedly said. He had heard of those kinds of puzzles, apparently they were fairly popular among the Evernightian elves and still included in several buildings in the Golden City, sometimes as a toy for the children of wealthy families, sometimes as triggers of traps for burglars. But since the Minion who accidentally triggered one of the plates was still alive and unharmed, Orell assumed the plates in the hall were safe to use.
The best idea he had was to send a Minion onto one of the tiles where the glowing lines ended. As soon as the Minion’s weight was rested on the plate, he heard the same scratching and rumbling as before, with the interrupted lines continuing through the activated plate, making several turns and continuing outwards until they were truncated by other pressure plates again. Orell repeated the process two more times, putting a Minion onto the plates where the glowing lines ended, extending their reach that way. With the fourth plate activated, one of the lines ran up a flight of stairs and lit up the outline of one of the carved sheep heads.
This gave Orell an idea.
Spreading his Minions across the hall's centre and experimenting around with their placements, Orell managed to light up the three other heads of the door. As he had expected, once the final head was glowing in a green light, the eye sunk into the door and it parted by the seams of its four sheep, each side retracting into the walls, floor or ceiling. A smile danced around Orell's lips, then he headed for the new opening.
There was a narrow corridor behind it, the walls covered in images of eyes. More eyes awaited him and the Minions at the end, where eye-bearing tiles were adorning every surface without any pattern.
“Another dead end,” Orell said. Aside from the ocular carvings, the room contained nothing, not even another corridor cutting into it.
“As long as you haven't solved the room's secret, for sure,” Gnarl commented.
Orell looked around, but refrained from any verbal retorts. He had come to stand atop the eye carving in the middle of the room's floor, which excluded it from being a pressure plate puzzle, unless it was one that he and the Minions were not heavy enough to operate. And the rest of the eye-adorned tiles were located in places that made them completely unusable as pressure plates.
Whatever the answer for the room’s secret was, he had to find out the question first.
Obviously, the eyes were a part of the puzzle. The one on the floor was especially prominent and considering it was one that was definitely accessible, Orell decided to start with it. Looking it over, he didn’t see anything remarkable, no seams of pressure plates, no buttons, no parts that could be moved and turned. Just a simple tile with a simple carving, a wide eye with an elongate pupil, resembling that of a sheep.
All of a sudden, the pupil jerked to the right.
After the initial jolt from the sudden movement of solid rock, Orell turned his head in the direction the eye showed, with his own eyes ending up on another eye tile. Which also changed its gaze to stare into a particular direction.
Following the eyes’ directions, his head moved from wall to ceiling and back to a different wall. He heard the Minions grumble, but did his best not to be distracted by them.
Almost dizzy from the constant head-turning, Orell was surprised when his eyes ended up on a naked wall rather than another staring tile. About to curse his luck and look back to the eye he had come from, something happened; the tiles of the eyeless wall began to flicker and warp as if they were underwater, changing their shape and colouration. As the flickering waned, the simple tiles had become a map.
“Now that was underwhelming,” Gnarl commented. Orell looked around, noticing how the door he had used to enter the room has gone, the map covering its location instead.
But then again, reality had taken a vacation from this temple.
As the Minions continued their grumbling, Orell took a closer look at the map. Despite it being shaped from tiles he doubted could be created by normal means, it wasn’t depicting anything more unusual but the known world, although there were the outlines of continents at the borders he hadn’t heard of. The one in the centre he did recognize, given away by the fjords of Nordberg and the Frostlands, the range of the Golden Mountains and the basin of Ruboria below. There were some spots on the map probably indicating cities. He saw neither the Golden City nor Cordiopolis among them, but one nearby spot was where he assumed Matthi-Nel to be, as well as some other spots he he couldn’t do anything with. Likely, the map was too old to have the younger cities while still marking those that were buried and forgotten.
Orell’s eyes wandered to the upper right side of the roughened tiles depicting the mountain range, searching for the location of the Mellow Hills. He wondered if Spree would be marked, considering it was right above the entrance to this location. And indeed, one small nub on a tile was where he assumed Spree to be.
“Why don’t you give it a little push, Master?”
Orell gave the nub a closer look. It didn’t look like it had any seams that would make it work like a button, but in a place where doors disappeared at will, what would?
An armoured finger pushed against the glazed protrusion, which didn’t yield in the slightest. Yet the reaction was what Orell had hoped for. The map began to unfurl, as if the solid rock tiles were nothing but paper, scrunching up and rolling away to reveal the room he had come from.
All of it just to return to the start.
At least, the Minions could work off their disappointment and boredom a bit by connecting the tile lights again and direct the lines to a different door, something they were doing on their own this time. Orell used the idleness to think about the situation.
There were three doors, one of which would lead him… wherever the sheep god wanted him to go. At least one of the other doors had faced him with a riddle to solve, apparently having him and the Minions locked inside until it was done.
He sincerely hoped the next door to open would be the right one.
Cheering from several Minion throats and the grinding of rock brought Orell out of his thoughts. After ascending the flight of stairs, he stopped at the doorframe, peering inside. It did appear to open into a straight corridor, the other end shrouded in shadows. The sight crept him slightly out, but at least it appeared not to be another puzzle-room.
The moment Orell stepped through the door, a gust of wind made him briefly close his eyes, but that short moment was enough for him to be presented with a completely different scenery the next moment.
Rather than standing in the corridor he had seen, he saw grass. Ordinary, green grass covering an ordinary, hilly landscape with ordinary sheep. Orell would have thought he had ended up in the Mellow Hills before the Cataclysm turned the grass into flesh and an awakened old god's influence turned the sheep into parts of everything, weren't it for the bizarre sky. While the bright light illuminating the scene was reminiscent of a clear sky with a midday sun, what Orell actually saw was a vortex of roiling grey and purple clouds, dancing around an enormous black void where the sun was suggested to be.
Seemingly paying no heed to the drastic change in scenery or the looming sky above, the Minions sounded ecstatic about the sight of the white balls of wool in the distance. Or so it appeared, as when Orell looked back, he saw a wide-eyed, huddled horde standing in a tight cluster bristling with weapons, eyes and ears everywhere. One of the Minions appeared rather sheepish with his embarrassed grin, most likely being the one who had uttered his enthusiasm.
Looking at the sheep in the distance, Orell wondered what was going on. “Gnarl, can you hear me?”
Judging by the absence of an answer or even the advisor's usual commentary in regards to these kinds of rural landscapes, he was soon sure there was no connection to the Netherworld present.
A last look at the detached doorframe standing in the midst of the meadow, Orell walked ahead, following the direction the vanished corridor had given.
It was clear this was another puzzle to solve. Yet, unlike the first time, the solution wasn’t nearly as evident as in the room with the eyes.
A closer look at the surroundings didn’t give him any hints on what to do. It was nothing but hills, grass and sheep in the distance. Would he have to walk until something changed? That didn’t make any sense. The first puzzle had let him follow the gazes of eyes to show him a map of the world.
Despite closed, his eyes stare out into the world, came to his mind. Orell stopped. If the first riddle was referring to the first sentence of the glyphs that opened the portal to the temple, then the second riddle would have to refer to the glyphs as well. He tried to remember what the second sentence had been. Unfortunately, Gnarl was unreachable.
There was something about ewes, wool and voices, that much Orell knew. Considering the eerie silence of the meadow where no bird sang, no grasshopper chirped, no wind blew through the grass and branches, he could rule out voices for now. Wool and ewes was something the could work with.
Changing his direction towards the nearest sheep, Orell wondered what he would have to do with it. With his eyes on the creature’s white wool and the Minions trailing behind, he strode through the grass. But no matter how much he walked, it seemed like the sheep he focussed on was not coming any closer. Stopping, Orell commanded one of his Minions to run towards the sheep and just see if he could reach it. One of the Browns ran out, first enthusiastic, then coming to a halt right in front of the sheep.
“Sheepies always away!” he called back, waving his arms, the right one passing through the sheep like it was nothing.
Orell called the Minion back. Not only were the sheep on the meadow illusions, they were also personal, everyone seeing their own sheep.
A part of the puzzle, but not the part he had to start with.
As he stood there, trying to think of where to start with the riddle, Orell noticed a strand of wool in the grass. He picked it up; with wool being mentioned by the glyphs and it being the only remarkable thing in the meadow aside from the sheep themselves, it might be a hint to riddle he had to solve to get out of there.
It appeared like an ordinary chunk of sheep hair, shed by the only creatures inhabiting the place, but unlike them, being tangible.
He heard bleating cut through the silence. Looking up from the strand and at the sheep in question, Orell noticed all of them had their heads lifted, staring directly at him. Out of curiosity, he dropped the strand, and the sheep lowered their heads back into the grass, but also the distance between him and them visibly stretched, bringing them to a greater distance.
Orell picked up the wool strand again, upon which the sheep bleated and lifted their heads to stare at him, getting closer again. Be embraced by his wool. This was the idea he needed; his eyes scoured the grass for more wool strands and soon enough, he could pick up another, the sheep once again coming closer.
“Minions, look for these wool strands.”
At first, they looked sceptical, but a command was a command. Soon enough, they were swarming over the meadow, some far enough to run through the staring sheep, picking up strands and bringing them to Orell. A few of them made it a competition about who could bring the most or the biggest strands. Orell let them have their fun, focussing on the sheep himself, which moved closer one strand at a time.
As soon as the sheep were so close Orell could reach out and touch them, something happened. The sheep bleated in unison and the sizeable roll of wool in his hands sprung to life, writhing like a mass of worms. He dropped it out of surprise, upon which the roll all but exploded, the strands wrapping around his legs and rapidly creeping higher, enveloping his panicking Minions as well. Immobilized by the wool and unable to do anything, Orell could only see the sheep leaping at him before the wool wrapped over his helmet and obscured his eyes. There was muffled screaming of his Minions all around him, nearly drowned out by the sheep’s bleating. Darkness and silence followed, then the wool retreated and Orell stood in the doorway again, looking into the hall with the pressure plates again.
“There you are, Sire!” the voice of his advisor startled him and the Minions. “Where have you been, the Shroud had shown nothing but darkness once you had crossed the threshold!”
“On a meadow, collecting wool and being assaulted by sheep,” Orell replied dryly. “Do you remember what the text outside had said? The riddles of this temple are tied directly to it and I’m sure there will be another one to solve before I can actually progress.”
“It was the demented ramblings of cultists whose minds had turned into sheep manure and dropped out of their ears in the shape of little brown pellets, Master,” Gnarl said while the Minions were busy with stepping on pressure plates and connecting glowing lines. “But I remember a bit of it. Three parts, the first about the old god’s eyes, the second about his wool, the third about his voice.”
“You have seen the eyes part, they had pointed at a map of the world,” Orell replied. “And the second riddle had me collect wool strands, only to be enveloped by it. What did the god’s voice do?”
“Let me remember the scribbles… ‘Despite silent, his voice reverberates inside souls.’ I think those were the words. And something about speaking in his voice.” Gnarl briefly paused, when the Minions started cheering once all four lines had hit the remaining closed door. “It could mean that you will have to talk to- Sire, look out!”
The pieces of the door slid into the walls and the doorframe fell apart. The entire room collapsed, separating into stones, then pebbles, then sand, which fell into a void below, taking everyone inside the room with them. Orell lost his footing and tumbled between the green dust, Minions flailing and screaming around him. The sounds of the voices, including his own, grew silent, followed by darkness.
After a span that might have been a second or an eternity, quiet sounds permeated through the suffocating weight of the shadows. They sounded like distant echoes, becoming clearer with time. A lot of it seemed to be nothing but sheep bleating, other voices appeared to form words or sentences, with the same kind of deep, bleating voice.
“Go, go away.”
“Where are you going?”
The voices came from every direction. Orell tried to answer, still remembering the hints Gnarl had given, but he could neither speak nor inhale. It seemed like he didn't have any lungs or mouth at all.
“I want to show you something.”
“Go back where you came from.”
Panic bubbled I his mind for a moment, leading to nothing in his disembodied state. After Orell had calmed down upon repeatedly telling himself that he wasn't suffocating, he tried out whatever there was still left he could do.
“Welcome home, friend. Please sit by my side.”
After several trials, Orell at least knew he was able to walk. Using his legs – how many of them did he have? - he decided to head into whatever direction the more inviting sentences came from and avoided the dismissing words. But the longer he moved towards the invitations, the quieter they grew and the less frequently they were said, while the rejections came more often, in loud, booming voices almost drowning out the invitations.
“You are not welcome here!”
Orell tried to orient himself in the void. Was this even the right direction, or were the invitations nothing but lies to lead him astray? Was he even able to correct his course, track his way back in a world of nothing but echoes? What would happen if he followed the wrong voices to their end?
Unsure of what to do, Orell decided to go the opposite direction and find the place where the volume and frequency of the voices was the same. It worked well at first; following the dismissive voices made them become quieter while the inviting ones grew louder.
All of a sudden, a loud bleat ripped through the void, silencing all other voices.
Orell's too many legs entangled, flowed into each other while whatever served him for a head twisted and bent. There was a yank, more twisting, a complete loss of orientation. Then the darkness faded away into a gloomy green and there were muffled voices around him again, but he couldn't tell whether they were the same as in the void or not. Orell gasped and repeatedly inhaled stale, dusty air.
He was able to breathe again?
While his senses slowly wrapped around their surroundings, the gloomy green solidified into faintly glowing rock and the voices coalesced into the high-pitched, raspy noises of Minions, one particularly prominent shouting into his ear.
“Master! Are you awake? Answer me, Master!”
“Gnarl, is that you?”
“Of course it's me, Sire! You had your old advisor nearly worry a big dump into his pants, fainting upon the door's opening like a fine lady who has seen a fat spider in the corner!”
“Orell slowly pushed himself up and looked around. He was in the pressure tile room again, the room that had disintegrated before his very eyes. Minions all around him were getting up and looking around in confusion.
“Gnarl... what did you see happen on your side?”
“As I told you, the door opened and you fainted, Master. Poor Gnarl was shouting his lungs out to have you awaken again.”
“I saw the room fall apart and everyone dropping into a void below, where nothing but voices existed.” Orell blinked. “It was the third riddle.”
“This temple is getting more and more insane,” Gnarl sighed. “What was the solution?”
“It was...” Orell started. But what was it? Certainly not going into one direction, then walking back.
“Minions, did any of you find the way out of the void with the voices?”
Several pairs of yellow eyes in dumbfound faces stared at him, save for one Red whose grin was wide enough to swallow his ears.
“Yes, Master! Went after baah of the biggest sheepie!”
Orell just stared at the grinning Minion for several seconds, as dumbfounded as the other Minions had been staring at him. He couldn't believe it was one of his Minions who had found the solution to the riddle. On the other hand, following sheep was more appealing to them than it was to him, which probably predestined them to solve the riddle faster than he could have.
Trying to hide his embarrassment, Orell looked into the direction the final door must have had opened. And there it was, a suspiciously simple corridor behind a doorframe.
Gathering his Minions around him, Orell ascended the short flight of stairs and stepped through the doorframe, braced for the worst. But nothing happened, no appearing in a completely different place, no disintegration of the walls. Even the passage to the pressure tile room didn't vanish behind him. The light coming from the walls grew ever dimmer, with a section of the corridor being in complete darkness before the green glow continued ahead again. He slowed down in the dark section, feeling his way with his feet to not step into something he preferred to avoid or falling off an invisible ledge.
The corridor ended at another closed door decorated with sheep head carvings. But rather than having to activate it with pressure plates, this one slid open on its own, revealing a brighter green light coming from what appeared to be a larger hall.
“If I didn't know who resides here, I would be complaining about plagiarism,” Gnarl commented.
The similarities of the hall and the Dark Tower's throne room weren't lost on Orell himself. While the light was green, much dimmer and coming from the rocks themselves, it was a similar layout of a wide platform connected to the ceiling with sets of ornamented pillars, falling off into a glowing abyss at the distance. There was even a depression in the middle, similar to the teleporter Orell was regularly using to commute between his new home and whatever place in the world he had currently his dealings with.
A malformed figure stood in the depression, looking away into the abyss' direction, but slowly turning around once Orell had stepped into the hall, revealing an oddly familiar face.
“You have changed, Bloodsheep,” Orell said with a calm voice, but inside, he felt like he was about to retch.
Haeren Bloodsheep, the former governor of Nordberg, was barely recognizable. The not very tall but portly man had become a hulking monster the size of a troll. Orell recognized a few rags of the clothing the governor had worn when they had met in Nordberg, in between the shaggy sheep wool now growing all over his body. The joints in his legs were bending the wrong way, making Haeren's stance on his large hooves slightly unstable and his arms split at the elbows, ending in hands at the upper and in hooves at the lower branch. Three eyes were fixating Orell and the Minions on the left side of his face, while the right side had no eyes at all; instead a large, curved horn was growing out of the grotesquely stretched eye socket.
Haeren's mouth, strangely human in his distorted face, curled in a smirk. “Bloodsheep… that myself has been. The new myself is a gift from the Great One.”
“If you consider looking like the child of a troll who had become a Spree citizen a gift, that is,” Gnarl said, his voice dripping with disgust.
“And you should receive the gift yourself,” Haeren continued in his raspy, stuttering voice. “The Great One has led you to the sanctum for a reason.”
“You are mistaken, Haeren. I came here on my own volition, and I will leave on my own volition as well. Because unlike you, my mind isn’t made out of mutton.”
Haeren laughed, a sound that resembled more a sick ram than a man. “Ah, it still thinks it can resist. Can you not feel the Great One’s magnificence, shining from the stone, swinging in the air, speaking in your mind? You must be blind, little lamb. Come, I will show you, then you will see.”
Haeren, or whatever he had become by now, stepped closer. A low droning began to fill the air, a sound that could be felt rather than heard. An odd desire arose in Orell, to walk forwards, to peer into the glowing abyss beyond the platform, to…
A sharp pain in his head snapped him back to reality. It was as if the droning interacted with the stuffed feeling in his head the link to the Minions caused. A feeling he was able to ignore most of the time by now, but it appeared like the droning was making it bigger and spikier, which made it impossible to ignore. As irritating as it was, it did distract his mind from the intruding thoughts.
“Do not hesitate, the Great One will accept anyone who comes to him.”
“Master, I can’t listen to this stupid sheep’s bleating any longer. Put that lamb to slaughter!”
Orell didn’t have any objections to Gnarl's suggestion. He wanted out rather than in, and the former Nordberg governor was in his way.
“Too bad for him that I never really cared about sheep,” Orell replied and drew his sword. There was no reaction visible on Haeren’s features, save for a slight increase in tension.
“But you will.” With a speed Orell wouldn’t have expected the troll-sized monstrosity to move, Haeren was upon him, the hooves splitting off his elbows clanking against a blade risen in the last moment. Orell stepped backwards, half to get out of the swinging arms’ range, half driven back by the strength of the impacts. The Minions were moving back as well, enthusiastic to join but thankfully waiting for a command, even if it required some of the more eager individuals to be physically restrained by their leaders. Blocking and retreating, Orell tried to come up with a better strategy.
A mental command directed at the bomb carriers let them spread out to the side. Holding his sword in front of himself, Orell enticed Haeren to swing at it and beat it out of his hand, a feint the mutated governor eagerly went for. He swung in a wide arch, but rather than blocking, Orell moved the blade out of the hoof's trajectory, resulting in his opponent staggering to the side to regain his balance. But rather than taking the opportunity and swing his sword at the compromised foe, Orell jumped back, giving the bombardiers the command they were waiting for.
Several bombs hit the monstrosity, some cracking on impact, some entangling themselves in the coarse sheep fur and rags covering his body. The next moment fiery explosions bloomed where Haeren was standing and loud booms echoed through the hall. The Minions cheered, one of them shouting “Bye bye, sheepie!”, but the cheering died in their throats when the smoke cleared up to reveal a battered, but very much alive governor.
He now truly deserved the name 'Bloodsheep'. One of his human hands was shredded to a stump and large swaths of wool and underlying skin were blown away, leaving behind raw patches that seeped blood of undeterminable colour. The other reason the name was deserved was the unbridled bloodthirst now shining in his three eyes.
Bloodsheep roared and shook his head, then charged to the left as if the grievous wounds were nothing to him.Before anyone could process the movement, one of the bombardiers was impaled on his horn. Haeren flung his head around and let the Minion fly off in a wide arc, the gurgling shriek ending with a thud in the distance. The remaining bombardiers lit their clay orbs, but before either could throw them, one was kicked so hard that he collided with the distant wall and the other was crushed underneath a hoof. Orell let his other Minions retreat, away from the explosions of the lit bombs the mad mutant had ignored in his rage. They did very little to stop the now even more battered monstrosity from charging the horde from the clouds of smoke.
And thus went Orell's best chances at vanquishing Nordberg's former governor. His mind was racing while the tried his best to anticipate the charges and move the Minions out of the way, all the while avoiding the attacks as well. If he only could slow that mad sheep-man down...
To keep the Blues out of harm's way, he sent them off to a dimly-lit corner with the order to retrieve any dead Minion and revive them there, then told the shield carriers and remaining Reds to stay close to each other. The rest of the horde was gathered in a tight cluster to have all of Haeren's attention on it.
As expected, the mutant charged the Minions. They dispersed, but not before Orell drew his sword across Haeren's left leg, doing little to slow him down. Haeren managed to close his remaining hand around a Green, only for her to vanish in a puff of green smoke and reappear on his neck, sinking both hands into the open wounds. This put his charges to a temporary stop, which Orell used to let the other Greens and Browns jump into the fray, concentrating their efforts on his legs.
Haeren's incensed roar rung in Orell's ears when the Minions' collective effort showed results and forced him onto his backwards-facing knees. But just as Orell gave them the command to sink their weapons into more vital areas and raised his sword himself to take the former governor out for good, four spindly, hoofed legs erupted from his back, wiping the Minions off him and digging themselves into the floor to lift him off the ground like an oversized, misshapen spider.
“You cannot escape your fate!” he exclaimed, aiming his back-legs at the scattered Minions and hitting several of them. They were precise, crushing a head here, collapsing a ribcage there. One Brown attempted to roll away under the descending hoof, then his shriek drowned out the everpresent droning when his arm was shattered.
Orell let the Minions disperse away from the stomping legs, sending the Brown with the broken arm into the direction the Blues were stationed.
“Sire, I hate when they do that! You cut their legs off, only for them growing two new ones for every one you remove. It's like a hydra with toe fungus!”
“Less witty commentary, more advice, please!” Orell shouted back. Sure, he had stopped Haeren from charging his Minions like a mad bull, but the new situation wasn't much better.
“Distract him with your magic, the spell stone isn't in the Netherworld to be only used as a cockring!”
Chastising himself for constantly forgetting about his magic, Orell shrouded himself and the Minions in the black, vibrating smoke to displace them and let Haeren's attacks hit nothing but thin air while allowing the Minions to attack his legs unhindered. But rather than continuing his attacks, Haeren just laughed, a disgusting sound that was more sheep than man.
“Your little lies do not compare to the tales the Great One can spin,” he said. Then reality turned inside-out.
Bloodsheep was a Minion, bloated to grotesque proportions and burned, the Minions were all miniature copies of himself. He was standing on the ceiling, the platform gone, staring down into the green-glowing abyss where for a moment he glimpsed into the single eye of something enormous and incomprehensible, before looking at himself out of three mismatched eyes, then seeing a kaleidoscope of images through the eyes connected to the two dozen minds of his Minions. He blinked and his mind was back in his own head, Haeren was a bleeding, ovine monstrosity and his Minions were the multicoloured, sulphur-eyed little creatures he knew again. But now, the green light shining from the rocks that formed the sanctum was coalescing into shapes.
As expected, they were sheep, but rather than docile, woolly creatures, these were ever-changing monstrosities consisting of hooves, maws and horns, growing and dissolving their parts in erratic patterns. The sheep began to attack the Minions, but rather than being illusions like he could conjure up, these apparitions were real. Their teeth left behind bloody gashes, their horns created puncture wounds, but every kind of weapon directed at them phased through like thin air. At first, Orell attempted to get his Minions out of the apparitions’ range, but then he was caught up with avoiding two of them himself, trying to bite through his greaves.
“Sire, the Blue Minions! Call the Blue Minions back!”
Right, Blue Minions could affect ghosts. Orell did as his advisor said, having both sheep phasing through his armour and their multiple maws’ teeth in his legs when several of them came charging in his direction. Blue sparks flew and disintegrated the green apparitions, then healed the wounds that had been left behind. One of the Blues could congeal his magic into short blades around his hands, which he enthusiastically used to slice through the ghost sheep attacking the other Minions, all the while laughing maniacally and shouting “die sheepies, die!”
But new apparitions formed as quickly as the Blues dissolved them.
Just as Orell wanted to let out a curse at the situation, he saw several of the Blues entwine their arms and close their eyes like in deep thought. Without them pushing the apparitions back, several jumped at the group of Blues, their fronts turning into nothing but jaws and horns. They never reached their targets; it seemed like the Blues were generating an apparition-disintegrating force field, a force field with a quickly-growing radius.
“Defenders, to them!” Orell called out to emphasize the mental command directed at the shield-carrying Browns.
Soon enough, the Blues’ force field had enveloped a good part of the hall, leaving behind a number of dead and injured Minions, and a rather surprised Bloodsheep.
“And now, to you,” Orell growled, extending his sword. The mutated former governor turned towards him on his four sheep legs. He bleated and charged, his single horn aimed at Orell. After he had half of the distance covered, a flame bloomed on the ground, cutting Bloodsheep’s path of. He screamed at the sight, but couldn’t stop himself from barrelling into the fire, splattering drops of the burning napalm puddle onto his spindly legs.
“No matter what you do, you cannot escape!”
Orell grinned and let the two Reds continue with forming barriers of flame. While the most useful bombardiers were dead, Jet had trained other Reds, which had been instructed in spraying their flames in a stream rather than lobbing them as fireballs. Employing this ability to let them spit their fuel onto the ground allowed for at least restricting the movement of his enemy, at least until the Blues not busy with maintaining the anti-apparition force field had healed and revived more of the Greens and Blues.
Flames criss-crossed the ground, some already simmering down, others still bright. Orell manoeuvred the Browns that weren’t shield carriers and all his Greens through to fight Bloodsheep. The Browns went for the legs while the Greens jumped on his back to sink their claws into the remnants of wool and raw flesh. The attack was short and disastrous: Bloodsheep stomped his body onto the ground to have his back-legs free and wipe off the green attackers. Browns were stunned or crushed by the impact, Greens flew off, some landing in the flames. The Reds had to subdue them to extinguish the fire, prolonging the time they couldn’t form new barriers to have Haeren contained.
Free from the Minions, Haeren charged at Orell again, who had to drop his concentration on the Minions and jump to the side. As if Haeren expected this, He abruptly stopped, spun around and kicked at his adversary. Orell could narrowly avoid the long, spindly sheep leg with its too many joints, then swung his sword against it with the aim to cut it off. The leg turned out to be tougher than he expected, resulting in the blade becoming stuck in the bone and being wrenched out of his hands.
“You will not resist!” Bloodsheep exclaimed, giving Orell a kick hard enough to take him off his feet and let him slide several metres over the smooth tiles. A few moment he could do nothing but lay there and gasp, the kick against his chest having beaten the air out of his lungs. The hall stood on the side and Haeren was looking even more like an oversized cross of a man-sheep and a misshapen spider from this angle, weren’t it for a mound and some shards obstructing Orell’s view.
There were three bombardiers in the horde, all three dead. Two flung away into the distance, one crushed against the ground. Orell scrambled to his feet and looked around before focussing on the advancing monstrosity. It was enough; he saw what he wanted. Disarmed as he was, there were only the Minions left to fight. The Reds he had called to his side made it just in time to form a fiery blockade and stop Haeren’s charge to allow their master to avoid being kicked across the hall again.
Being more careful of the fire and more sure of bringing his opponent down, Haeren avoided the barrier entirely, but the Reds were quick to form another barrier, directing him further to the right, towards the heap Orell kept squinting at.
“Sire, get the Greens!”
“I know what you plan! Greens can swallow their own venom and belch it out as a toxic, highly-flammable gas this appreciator of ovine obscenities would have no qualms about stepping in, making him walk straight into your trap!”
Silently thanking Gnarl for the suggestion, Orell called some Greens to his side and forwarded the command. They nodded and ran off, leaving Orell alone with his Reds and Bloodsheep.
“Stop fighting it,” Haeren fell out, his hooves cracking the ground on which Orell was standing just a moment ago. “There is no other way out!”
“Then I will tear one through!”
A bleating laugh. “The only way out leads through the Great One himself. You either comply, or you perish.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Haeren stopped, and laughed again. “Oh, you foolish little child. Once, I was foolish like you, thinking I could fight it. But then the Great One spread his wool over-”
Whatever the former governor wanted to say, it went under in a booming explosion. Haeren’s need for loquaciousness came at the right moment, as he had stopped right next to the impaled, broken corpse of the bombardier he had killed earlier. Most of the bombs were shattered, their explosive contents out in the open, only needing a spark to be set off. The Greens had shrouded the corpse in green clouds, which a fireball from the Reds had ignited once Orell had stepped back far enough. When he saw the ball of flame sailing towards the trap they had set up, he ran, a mental command telling the Minions to do the same. Still, he could feel the heat of the explosion even through his armour and the blast wave made him nearly fall again.
Orell stumbled to a halt and turned around. There, in the spot that had turned into a brief inferno just moments ago, he could make out a heap lying in the smoke. Haeren was barely recognizable now. He looked more like something one could find on the skewers of a dwarven festival, at a time when the festival had already progressed and the skewers were eaten half-empty. He saw charred flesh and splinters of broken bones sticking out of them, yet the mass was still twitching, mangled remains of limbs trying to push it off the ground.
“Foolish child,” the mass croaked. “I will be part of the Great One now. But you will not be saved.”
Orell picked up his sword. The explosion must have dislodged it from the leg it had been stuck in.
“I do not care about your sheep god’s salvation.” With those final words, he drove the sword through a crack in Haeren’s exposed skull.
The mass twitched again, then remained still and silent. Minions collected all around him, a horde that was now half as big as the one he had entered the hall with. Orell exhaled in relief. The unnaturally tough, reality-warping monstrosity that had been Haeren Bloodsheep was defeated, all thanks to the Minions and their many skills. And Gnarl’s knowledge of them.
Orell reluctantly wanted to thank the advisor, but the words never left his mouth. The hall turned inside out, extended into a long tube. Losing all sense of orientation, of his surroundings, of himself, Orell was flung into the darkness of the tube before an image exploded in front of him, solidifying into the shape of multiple enormous sheep heads merged into one, with a single burning eye in the middle, constantly flickering and shifting.
The face of Ovurrghat-ah-Baahthul himself.
“You defeated my avatar – strong – excellent – new avatar – worthy.” The god didn’t speak, but forced his own thoughts into Orell’s unravelling mind. The words made barely any sense to him, but he instinctively knew what they entailed. He wanted to flee, to run, just get away from this consuming presence.
“Will take – become – blessing – don’t resist – no escape.”
Orell’s struggles began to wane. There was nothing to struggle against, as there was no ground or walls in reach, he didn’t even have a body any more. It was like being a pair of eyes that could see in all directions at once, all directions pointing at the old god’s eye staring into his very essence. There was only a distant part of him left to resist, but that part was quickly drowned out completely by the complacency consuming his thoughts.
The image of Ovurrghat-ah-Baahthul exploded into a mass of writhing wool, which pulled back to reveal the area around Spree, and Orell hanging in the air hundreds of metres above ground. He regained the feeling of having a body, but only to feel it shifting. His back arching to an angle that was impossible, he looked up at the sky-blue eye in the storm of roiling clouds. He saw many eyes open, yellow and with elongate pupils, all staring at him while he grew, changed, turned into the vessel for the god to fill. He roared at the eyes, a deep, monstrous sound that was distinctly sheep-like, then spread his woolly wings and launched himself at the sky.
“Can’t resist – stop – no choice – no escape – part of me.”
Orell roared and sputtered at the voice in his head. His mind was too far gone to make any sense of the words, but he could still feel the intentions behind them. He was he, and the eyes were not he.
“I am everywhere.”
Orell roared even louder in response, but this time, there was a new undertone in it, one that was unfathomably ancient and powerful, like the very foundations of the world grinding against each other.
“Not – mine – stop – decided!”
The image of Spree underneath Orell’s wings collapsed as rock spires began to push through the soil, tearing apart the grass and skewering the buildings, until it looked like a forest made out of smooth, dark purple rock. The forest melted and flew apart to reveal a sulphurous eye matching the blue eye above. It began to stretch down and as if invisible hands got a hold of him, Orell was pulled down into the smouldering hole below. He growled briefly, but then turned to plummet into the extending tunnel by himself. He felt shifting again; the wool was burned off his body and his wings flew apart, Multiple eyes merged into two and steel armour grew over his skin.
“Mine – rightful – thief!”
“Not yours,” a voice answered from the depths, so deep that it could be felt rather than heard. It was as if the extending abyss was the throat itself that had formed the words.
Orell defiantly looked back, where the sky above Spree had become the face of Ovurrghat-ah-Baahthul again, the one eye in the middle staring out of a multitude of enraged sheep heads. Then the purple rock spires grew into his field of vision and blocked the view, all the while Orell fell into the glowing abyss, deeper and deeper.
Orell opened his eyes and was greeted by the sight of more rock spires, arranged in a floral shape and slowly spinning while lightning cracked between them. Two faces, one grey and wrinkled, the other brown and wide-eyed, entered the view, both staring at him in confusion.
“Master, excuse me?”
“Gnarl, Grime, what… what are you doing here?” His voice sounded like he hadn’t spoken in a century; even his memories of talking after being freed from the Golden City’s dungeon sounded nicer.
“I could ask you the same, Master. I was doing my job, advising you in a fight against an insane governor who loved mutton so much that he decided to become it himself while worrying my heart out. And just as I wanted to congratulate you on your glorious victory, from one moment to another, the portal is closed and you are all just lying atop of it.”
“What?” Orell pushed himself up on aching arms, seeing a number of Minions all around him, looking as confused as he felt.
“I might repeat myself, but I could ask you the same.”
Orell pushed himself up on shaky legs, then had to lean forwards against his knees while fighting a surge of nausea. He did remember snippets of what happened between defeating Haeren and showing up in the Netherworld without walking through a portal, but he understood nothing of it.
“In all the time I have served countless Overlords, such a thing has never happened before. Master, was it another jiggery-pokery where odd things were happening while leaving me out of the loop completely?”
“Gnarl, I… I will try to remember later.” Orell staggered and wobbled out of the pit, trying not to step on any Minions that still hadn’t risen.
“Either way, with that sheep lover out of the way and you having returned safely, there are a few matters to discuss. While you have been looking for the lost artefacts, I have… Sire?” Ignoring his advisor completely, Orell was heading for the flight of stairs that would lead up to the private quarters, all his thoughts focussed on how unpleasant it would be to ascend them in his current state.
“Is there anything we can do for you, Sire? Freshly-brewed tea, maybe?”
“No, just… let me lay down for a bit.”
He had just gone through a warped dimension, a taxing battle and survived a failed attempt of an old god trying to mould him into a shape more to his liking, only to be saved by something that held even more power than the sheep god. His mind felt like jelly, which was being stirred by a child with bare hands. Whatever Gnarl wanted to talk about, it would have to wait.
A to Z Episode 11
I'm still in beta-reading mode for the two stories I'm reading for friends, so I think that this might become a long comment.
-- Edit, yep, this became a long comment. But not without reason, as it's a really good one!
Oh, I hope he returns to bring that mount along later. It would be a shame to have to leave it so early, before we have even begun to use it properly.
Phhft, it was about time that one of us really truly delved into all the sheep memes and material. And having it done in such a twisted fashion with monstrous sheeps, and weird sheep-growth is absolutely the way to go about it.
I like that Orell is actually more revolted by the sheep-growth than he was in the infected forest. And You have done a pretty good job with making this part actually ominous and off-putting, even with the constant minion-jokes.
*Shudder*... ooze, bad memories. Suddenly the minions aren't that excited anymore.
This place is so much more twisted and disgusting than the corrupted forest ever was. Congratulations, Ramul, you win the prize of have written the most horrid and despicable place in any of our stories. I think the way Sun wrote the Wastelands in MM was scarier, but this is more disgusting and disturbing by far.
You have gotten good at this. This slow, budding dread is very engaging to read. I quite like this chapter so far. It may just be the long time since last chapter, but this is definitely my favourite in a while.
"Maybe there is a level of stupidity so unfathomable it goes full circle and becomes genius?”
- Phhft, that's an amazing line!
Mimic house go boom! As minions would have said XD
I'm normally not a fan of 'long periods of walking, nothing happening' but in this case it was so tense and uncanny, that the suspense made it engaging instead of boring. And it was quite interesting to read.
Pumpking-sheep!? Truly a horrid abomination. Something that would normally be a minion-dream come true, but clearly very much not so today.
"But where else would they be? Hidden atop a spire insurmountable by anything but sheep hooves? Buried underneath a random crooked tree?”
- Gnarl is on point here. You have written him really well. Entertaining, but not random or exaggerated. This chapter is probably some of the closest to him from the game I have read in your story so far.
It creaked open with an obnoxiously loud sound, as if it tried to appear as creepy as possible.
- This chapter is full of gems XD
I love this walk in the tunnel and the paintings on the wall. It feels really immersive and creepy and fascinating. A far cry from the kind of joking parody that the games often portray. I think that this chapter is one of the best and most interesting things that you have written in a long time, perhaps ever. It's really good!
I'm really into what is going on here. And that depiction of Sheepthullu is awesome. Very excited to see it in-the-wool, so to speak.
Okay, that "Find me," was downright chilling. That straight up reminded me of something out of a lovecraftian game where you hear the ancient entities in your mind.
Of course there is a ruin of some ancient temple or fallen city below Spree, of course there is. And I don't mind it what-so-ever XD
Loved the inscription! And at this point we have gone so far into the body-horror and eldritch creepiness that all remarks about wool and sheep have lost all humour and a just suitably disturbing. Great work!
Again, with the sanctum, I can't remember ever seeing something as mundane as sheep ever made this creepy and horrifyingly fascinating. It's a delight to read.
It's convenient for Orell that he has a bunch of useful minions around to press plates and other stuff. Imagine have to operate all that secret machinery on your own.
I quite enjoyed the riddles and how he had to solve them. Reminded me of when I had to write the sphinx riddle that Kelaris had to solve. The first one here was a little difficult to figure out what was actually going on and how to imagine the layout of the place, but I hardly blame you for that. Writing something that is heavily dependent on visualising a specific area in the right way can be very challenging.
The third trial / riddle was my favourite. The kind of strange, disembodied state and the warped sense of the voices and word was creepy in the best way.
“Yes, Master! Went after baah of the biggest sheepie!”
- Bhahahahaha! That is amazing! Orell outsmarted by a minion. That must be one of the first times in history that the minion have proved smarter than their master XD
And not only that, but apparently only one person had to solve the riddle, and a minion did it! That's absolutely amazing XD
Fuck he is ugly. Body horror at its worst. Urgh. But at the very least, I appreciate the poetic reversal of one of Orell's very first and most pathetic enemies returning far later as something far more formidable. In this case what I would assume to be something akin to a high-priest or avatar of the sheep-god.
“Master, I can’t listen to this stupid sheep’s bleating any longer. Put that lamb to slaughter!”
- Yes, finally! I have been waiting for this pun the whole chapter.
Haha! Not losing his sword this time!
And great... now he has minions too. Disgusting flea-ridden ghost monstrosities as they are.
I do appreciating that Orell still isn't entirely used to fighting as an Overlord and keep forgetting to use magic or his minions in the correct manner.
Oh?! This is a new trick. Nice going blues!
This is pretty cool, seeing the minions, Orell, and Gnarl all working together in coordination. It's fun and almost touching to read. And really cool. This is absolutely one of the most enjoyable fights in a long time. Great work!
Whoo! One ex-gorvernor now little more than burnt mutton.
Oh, this is going to be bad, very bad...
I hope the minions got out safely too, and that there weren't left to just starve to death inside the eldritch labyrinth place.
Okay, so I have only two complaints to this chapter. One practical and one of personal taste.
Firstly - This is a reaaaally long chapter. It must be well over ten thousand words. It got fatiguing to read and I feel it that it could easily have been split into two or even three parts.
Secondly - I personally am rarely a fan of using gods, especially for divine intervention. So the ending with Orell being all but destroyed by Ovurrghat-ah-Baahthul, only to be suddenly rescued by another out-of-nowhere god (or similar entity) fell a bit flat for me. It's the same reason that I'm generally not fond of the presence of Taegan in MM and SE.
That is not so say that either this or Sun's stories are worse for using gods like that, it's just not to my specific taste.
But that aside, I think this was an absolutely fantastic chapter. Perhaps the single best piece of writing that you have written so far in my opinion. I felt like your skill have increased noticeably since last time. The pacing was good, atmosphere and level of description was great, and the dialogue in particular was excellent here. Really solid work all-around!
I found nothing! You must have really polished this one. I didn't notice a single typo or grammatical error this time around.
It’s nice to see that despite beta-reading two stories, you still took the time to read this chapter.
He will, it’s his designated ride now.
Now that you mention it, I’m kind of surprised no one of us has milked the sheep memes for all they’re worth, considering their prevalence in Overlord.
The sheep growths being revolting in such a way was the first indicator that they’re coming from something different than the ooze mutants. And the Infected Forest is basically just ooze mutants, except they happened by low exposure over a long time, making the mutations more useful.
Thanks; my intentions with the scenery seem to be clearly visible. It’s basically Spree crossed with Innsmouth, but far higher eldritch abomination involvement.
That is good to know; I was seriously wondering if the inclusion of the stuff between seeing Spree and arriving there was necessary, or if I should have cut it shorter.
It’s basically all what Spree is known for merged into one thing. Turns out, it’s not as delightful as when the parts are being separate.
Thanks for the confirmation, I was doubting my Gnarl-writing, as I haven’t done it for quite some time, or engaged in first-hand observations.
Heh, thanks. It’s still a joking parody, both of Lovecraft-style horror stories and of Spree itself. Because looking at it from a distance, that harmless, idyllic place being the resting place of a reality-bending ovine eldritch abomination is pretty funny.
Mission accomplished, then.
Well, the original Lovecraft stories made something as mundane as fish creepy, mostly because he was afraid of sea life.
The original Overlord games are full of puzzles that need Minions to solve, which this part of the story was alluding to.
Heh, the sphinx riddle was one of the best I’ve seen.
Well, the riddle was cut out for the Minions. Most humans would assume the riddle has something to do with the voices, while Minions would just chase sheepies instead. Methinks the riddle section needed a bit of fun, otherwise it would have been boring.
The funniest part is that the section where Bloodsheep is described had been written a few years ago, while I was still sitting in the Infected Forest arcs. Sometimes, inspiration for a future scene strikes, and I put it to digital paper. And yes, the Bloodsheep part finally gets wrapped up.
Except he did lose it, at least temporarily in the middle of a fight.
Orell better be growing into his role fast enough. Although, the whole Minion specialisation is indeed new for him, as he never had so many types in the horde.
Good to know that scrapping half of the already-written fight and rewriting it with the focus on utilizing the different Minion types was a good decision. After two intense one-on-one sword duels it was a different type of end fight.
As the scene in the Netherworld showed, they did. Although, the Minions waiting outside are still there, but they will play a role in the next chapter.
Yep, it’s long. But thanks to Deviantart now having a higher limit on text file sizes, I didn’t have to break it up and posted it in one piece.
Personally… I’m not a fan of it, either. But on the other hand, there isn’t much a mere mortal can do against a god, and if they can, it often makes the god look weak. What happened there is that the Netherworld itself yanked its possession back. Methinks it’s a thing I need to clear up in the next chapter properly.
That is great to know. The chapter was worked on and off for quite some time. It being called one of my best is rather unexpected (especially since I recently read the Matthi-Nel battle again and thought my skills have deteriorated since then, as it was pretty well-written), but good that I outperformed my own expectations, considering my main hope was that it was at least coherent considering the time I had worked on it.
My pleasure. I'm annoyingly busy with stuff right now, but I thought I owed one of your stories a look took.
Ah, good to hear.
It's an interesting take to have to two kinds of mutations be so different. The infected forest basically being a twisted version of evolution on steroids, and the Spree one being outright reality warping around the theme of sheep.
I think it was a good idea to keep it, as it worked pretty well.
Gnarl was spot on, it may have been a lucky accident but it worked.
Yes, so do see the point of the parody, but a lot of horror is also taking something harmless or normal and twisting it into something wrong, and that was done very effectively here.
Yes, you have done a pretty good job of incorporating the gameplay elements. RoanS feels far more like it could have been a game itself, in comparison to RD and SE, which don't really use game elements in that way.
Thank you ^^
You are very right, the fun added in the last riddle did a lot to liven up the tension and make it enjoyable to read. The fact of a minion solving an ancient arcane riddle like that by simply doing what minion do is one of the funniest things in any of our stories so far. It was a stroke of brilliance.
That happens often to me too, I get ideas for scenes that I write out, but won't be implemented for sometimes years. I have a whole chapter of RD that I wrote all the way in the start of the story that won't be implemented until something like another hundred thousand words down the line XD
Orell is learning fast. Even if he is new to it, he does come up with good ideas pretty quickly and is smart at figuring out innovative solutions.
That's understandable, but I would still recommend splitting it just for ease of reading. It was exhausting to read, and long enough that I had split my reading into two parts anyway.
Ah! That makes is far more palatable, so to speak. I do already see the Netherworld as a kind of semi-sentient entity anyway, so that works a lot better for me.
I doubt your skill has deteriorated in any form. But I do understand if you felt the Matthi-Nel battle was better. Sometimes we just write a scene that works really well. For instance, I still think the sea battle at the end of the pirate arc in RD is the single best scene in that entire story, and that is three arcs since I wrote that. But that is just a case of everything coming together to make that scene work really well, not that I have gotten worse since then.
Well, maybe it was a useful diversion from the intense reading of those two stories, too.
Exactly. And then there ar ethe regular Wasteland mutations, which are pulp fiction radioactivity.
Maybe Gnarl is just a part of all of us by now.
Mostly because RoanS is based on Overlord 3 game ideas I had collected, that way, they're not going to waste.
Heh. It's quite amusing that the 'let a Minion solve the riddle' mostly came from me getting bored with writing the riddles and not wanting to extend the sequence even further.
You do it in a much more extensive way than I do. For me, it's usually just a list of notes.
That's one of his traits, as it makes for a more interesting character than the mute who does everything as Gnarl suggests, like seen with the actual game protagonists.
Yeah, that is a part that needs some proper explaining in the next chapter. For this one, it was a 'what the hell' moment, though the rock being described the same way Netherworkd rock usually is was an indicator for what snatched the sheep god's designated sacrifice away.
Methinks that often depends on the subject. Both were epic battles.
True enough, that's a good point. It was a breath of fresh air to read something so different. That it happened to be an excellent chapter was obviously a great bonus.
Phhft, Gnarl has been absorbed in the collective conscious now.
Heh, the fact that one of my favourite scenes arose from what is essentially being bored is amazing. It just proves that great moment can arise from all kind of strange events.
To be fair, most of mine are just short notes too, that chapter is the strange exception.
Absolutely. And I quite enjoy how Orell, Estell, and Kelaris all feel quite distinct from one another, despite having the same role and being being written by friends who share much the same ideas and views about the game.
I see that now, and that was probably a good idea. We can always explain that in depths later.
Yes, I certainly agree on there.