Adventure Date: October 30, 2009
Last Updated: December 28, 2009
Risca wiped the gore from Guifoon’s blade. Glancing down at the drow’s corpse, a glaive still clasped in one hand, he admired the killing blow: an arrow pinned the drow’s skull to the wall behind it. The battle of Chonis’ tomb had been brief but bloody. He felt a bit better, for he had unleashed his vengeance on those who had harmed Swan. Tomorrow, if he lived, he would release his fury on his enemies again and again until he had fulfilled his vow - his name would live in infamy in drow society.
“Gave you some trouble, this one?” he teased Okul. Okul’s glare spoke eloquently of his frustration and his wounded pride. Bowing formally to the group, he said in a stiff voice, “Thank you for your help. Though I wish the final stroke would have been mine, I appreciate the assistance.” Turning away, he was about to step out of the lit area when Gideon stopped him.
“Don’t be a fool,” he whispered. “You need healing.” Shadows flickered along Gideon’s face as he spoke. “No one thinks less of you because you didn’t deal the fatal blow. Pride, Okul, pride. Pride has been the downfall of many. They were too proud to learn from their mistakes.” Pointing at the gashes on Okul’s body, he continued. “You chased the foe down in a rage on your own, even after he had cut you badly. His weapon not only wounded your body, it wounded your pride. Your pride may be your undoing one day unless you learn to control your prideful temper.”
Okul’s eyes smoldered, but Gideon would not back down. Gripping Okul’s head, Gideon focused complex flows of divine energy and guided them throughout Okul’s body, flitting along his injuries even as they were scoured clean. Okul did not roar or flail about as his wounds mended. He didn’t even blink. He shivered. That was all. Feeling all of Okul’s injuries close, Gideon removed his hands. “Remember what I have told you.” Without a word, Okul stepped into the magical darkness still surrounding the illumination of the Daylight pellet and vanished from sight. He was stalking any prey that had escaped their notice.
Several seconds later, the darkness disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. Swan could be seen treating Risca’s wounds, his arms gesturing wildly as he bragged of his various feats when he decimated the drow ranks. Neon had quickly assembled any useful items from their fallen enemies and was examining them closely.
As Risca finished his story with a hearty laugh, Neon motioned him over. Neon handed him a breastplate, its workmanship evident to all. “Here,” he said. “It is as light as a feather. Mithral for sure and just the right size. I know you’ve been looking for something like this for a while.”
Looking it over, Risca could see that Neon’s assessment had been right. Removing his mithral chain shirt, he slid the breastplate on. The fit was almost perfect. Swan began adjusting the various buckles, tightening them as well as letting them out when needed until the armor fit snugly. “My thanks, Neon. This will serve my needs nicely.” Clapping him on the shoulder, Risca surveyed the room.
The room was wide, lined with two parallel rows of pillars. At the northern end of the room, past the two trios of pillars, stood a simple stone altar. A large, stone face leered at them from above the altar, its mouth made into a manic grin. The proportions of the face were gargantuan - an adult halfling could easily stroll into its mouth. Another stone face, on the opposite side of the room and facing its companion, hung high on the wall, its face contorted into a severe frown.
By this time, Neon had left Kilzadi and Gideon to examine the pile of treasure he had collected to sort through it for the useful and the magical. Removing items from his magical pouch, Gideon replaced them quickly with other, more valuable items. Searching the altar for any secret caches and compartments, Neon found it to be a single, solid slab of granite.
Swan, for her part, had gone to stare at the frowning, stone face. She was fascinated by the cruel lines on its face and the menace that seemed to emanate from it. As she peered closely at the carving, she noticed what appeared to be a small stick or branch trapped inside its mouth. “How did that get there?” she asked herself. And then she had a flash of insight. Hearing Neon cursing about the lack of gold and jewels, she turned to him and called him over in her sweetest voice. “Oh Neon. I think I found something.”
Neon, realizing that Swan had probably found the hidden cache that he had been searching for, said loudly, “Good job, Swan. I told you that if you looked over there you would find something useful!” Swan squawked as the others complimented Gideon on his wise words of advice. “Get over here, you shyster!”
Neon sauntered over, a huge grin on his face. “Yes, my lady sweet?” Swan’s response was neither sweet nor lady-like. Neon’s grin grew even wider. “Your sweet poetry leads me to believe that you love me, but your dulcet tones would deafen an ox.”
“Just look at what I found in the mouth of the stone carving,” she said in an irritated tone. Neon studied the small, wooden stick. “It’s a lever. For what, I don’t know, but there is only one sure way to know.” Turning around, he addressed Risca. “Hey Risca, I need you to do me a favour.”
Risca had been standing guard in the hallway to ensure no enemies snuck up on them. Walking over, he wondered where Okul had disappeared to, but didn’t put too much thought into it. He figured he would show up on his own good time. Glancing at the lever, Risca snorted. “Neon, don’t be a coward. Just pull the lever yourself.”
“Not as clueless as you appear to be,” Neon muttered under his breath. In a louder tone, he continued. “It’s not cowardice,” Neon explained in a hurt tone. “It is just that you are stronger than I am and the lever might be stuck, so your burly strength will be needed to get it to move. Also, if a trap is set off, I will be in a better position to deal with it as it goes off.”
Risca snorted again. “Deal with it?! What, from behind one of the pillars as you shield yourself?” He and Swan shared a chuckle. “Ah, let’s be done with this.” Gripping the lever, Risca yanked it down. A rumbling, deep within the earth, shook the heels of their boots. Slowly, the section of the wall that made the backdrop to the mouth of the frowning stone face dropped into the ground. Behind it, a narrow, twenty foot corridor could be seen. An unmarked stone casket sat at the end of the corridor. A thick layer of dust and cobwebs covered the entire interior of the secret corridor, but fresh tracks could be seen leading to and from the stone casket.
Risca stretched out his hand, his fingertips gently caressed the stonework. “Dwarven craftsmanship,” he whispered, pride filling his voice. “No wonder the tomb still seems like new.” Checking the masonry more closely, he moved into the corridor without even thinking. Reaching the casket, he could see that it, too, was dwarven-made. It was simple in its design, but made to survive even if the entire hill came crashing down on it.
As he lifted the lid, he heard Neon cry out in warning. “Beware any traps!” Risca didn’t even flinch; he wasn’t afraid of any trap. As he finished removing the lid, he placed it gently to the side and looked inside the casket. He was only mildly surprised to find that there was no body within. The casket was filled with finely-made clothing - boots of the softest leather, outfits made of sheer silks and threaded with jewel dust, cloaks lined with rare fur - as well as a large sack. Many bottles lay on top of the clothing, cushioned to prevent them from breaking.
Pulling out the sack, Risca shoved his hand in and pulled out chains of gold, jewels dangling delicately from them. Perusing them with a knowing eye, he snorted softly in disgust - though they were pretty, they were hardly worth the effort. Dropping the jewels back into the leather bag, he tossed it at Kilzadi. “Catch. Not worth much, but we risked our necks for it and I guess we earned them. There’s also some fancy clothes and a little bit of liquor in there. Just remember to save me a bottle or two.” Walking out of the narrow corridor, Neon, Kilzadi, and Gideon crowded in to inspect the contents of the stone casket.
The bottles of wine immediately caught Gideon’s attention. They were of a rare vintage: they were a green grape wine name Pearls of the Moon. They would fetch a pretty penny. And there seemed to be more than just a couple of bottles. As Neon gently removed the clothing from the casket, more and more bottles could be seen within the folds of the clothes for protection.
Neon had been more fascinated with the clothes than anything else. He handled them with care: the six outfits were of the latest fashion in Harrowdale and were worth more than their weight in silver. Folding them gently, he placed them inside Gideon’s magical bag of holding. All the while, Kilzadi scanned the entire corridor for any traces of magic, but found none.
Swan had been scanning the area and noticed something amiss: Okul had left the immediate area and was not standing guard as he normally did. She became instantly concerned. Without a backwards glance, she ran off to find him. A few moments later, she found him in one of the side halls, running through his stances with his spear.
“Okul,” she began. She stopped in her tracks when she saw the animosity in his eyes when he turned to her.
He replied sharply. “What? Is there an enemy nearby?” Looking around briefly, he shook his head. “No? Then let me finish my training.” Turning his back on Swan, he continued his drills. His intensity was unnerving - an avalanche poised to fall, held back by only a thread.
Swan was disheartened and hurt deeply by Okul’s indifference. His spear was a whirling blur in his hands. He kept moving faster and faster, until he seemed to sprint from one stance to the next, yet his movements were as sharp as a sword’s edge. Swan waited for him to stop, or at least slow, but he didn’t. His speed increased.
Conviction crystallized in Swan’s heart. Stepping forward, she crossed the invisible threshold marked by the length of Okul’s spear. The spearhead darted out and stopped abruptly, inches from Swan’s face. It was all she could do to not gasp in fear. Swan looked at Okul with sadness in her eyes. “Has your vow to the spear filled your soul with happiness?” His eyes blinked once, the only sign betraying that he heard her words.
Swan continued. “Is perfection all you seek? All you need?” Again, Okul blinked. “What of our friendship? Does it mean nothing?” Turning her back to him, she raised her arms up, leaving herself completely vulnerable. “In payment for all you have done for me and the others, you may now ask anything you wish from me. Anything at all.” She paused. “Do you need my life, Okul? It is yours.” Swan made no move to protect herself. Okul’s hands trembled. Swan’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I mean this Okul. If you mean to strike, do so now.”
Swan heard Okul’s feet shift and she braced herself. She turned when she heard his spear clatter on the ground. Okul had dropped to his knees and his face was stricken. “What have I become?” Okul’s shoulders shook as he gently wept. For the briefest moment, he had been tempted to remove the stain he thought tarnished his soul with a quick thrust of his spear. That moment shook him to the soul and brought clarity to his thoughts. It is not worth that price.
Okul spoke brokenly. “I...am so...very...”
Swan knelt beside him and pulled him close. “There is no need for that. Let us think of this as a misunderstanding among old friends. It’s over and we can be thankful we’ll never again have that sort of misunderstanding between us.” Helping each other rise, Swan gave Okul a final hug. “Let’s return to the others. I don’t know about you, but I sure could go from some warm food. I only hope that Risca hasn’t eaten it all already.” Okul flashed her a brief smile, and they walked over to rejoin the others.
When they returned, they found that a temporary camp had been set up in the pillared room. A small fire sent shadows flitting along the walls as Neon cooked a stew. Kilzadi sat meditating, focusing his inner strength, pooling it into a reservoir that he could tap to accomplish whatever he dreamed of. Gideon was knelt in prayer, staring at the flames, beseeching Kossuth to bless him with holy power to destroy His enemies. Risca stood guard, but his focus kept being drawn back to the stew that Neon was making. When he finally noticed Swan and Okul, he yelled out their names. “Where have you two been? I almost ate your share of dinner.” At that, Okul and Swan shared a private smile, and sat down to enjoy the meal.
The party left Tomb of Chonis before first light. They knew the path they had to follow to reach the Skull Staff wound its way west, but the quality of path was unknown. By late afternoon, they reached a large, bog-like area. The grasslands had gradually changed into rolling hills, and copses of trees began to appear more frequently. An earthy, musky odor became more and more prevalent the further they traveled west until they sighted a small, surface river feeding into a large stagnant pool of brown water.
Mosses and lichens covered the rocks and earth, anyplace where the water wasn’t too deep. A wall of willow trees surrounded the area, cutting the bog off from the rest of the environment. The only incongruent aspect was a log covered in skulls found near the water’s edge, looking as if it had been thrust into the muddy mire at an angle by a giant.
Stepping along the only narrow path that threaded the bog, Gideon speculated, “This must be the Staff of Skulls.” Before anyone could respond, the heroes were startled by a whistling sound.
“What...” Kilzadi began as arrows rained down around them. Neon tackled Swan, shielding her with his body. Several arrows thunked into the ground around them; a couple struck his body but were prevented from piercing his flesh by his mail shirt. One hit his right arm, the point passing shallowly under the skin and then out again. Cursing, he tore the arrow out of the wound point first and threw it aside. Blood from the flesh wound soaked up his arm and dripped onto the spongy earth. Neon’s arm began to feel numb, his muscles slowed by the soporific on the arrow heads. Before he could shout a warning, Gideon collapsed on his side, two arrows protruding from his arm where he had protected Kilzadi. Though the wounds were not mortal, Gideon had been knocked unconscious, his body twitching as the toxin coursed through his veins.
Lizard-like creatures burst from the tree line, most were human-sized, but a trio were colossal. Smaller lizardfolk, their claws dug in securely to the branches and trunks of trees, took aim with their bows and prepared to launch another volley. The larger lizardfolk drew nets from the cords wrapped around their waists and stalked the heroes.
As Gideon’s body fell, the rest of the heroes exploded into action. Okul and Risca ran forward to engage the larger lizardfolk and hold them at bay. As they ran forward, nets were thrown at them. Okul dodged the net, sliding through the muck to avoid the twisting cords of vine. Risca, unused to the mire, was stuck for one instant, but it was enough. Ropes of thick vine fell on his shoulders and head, wrapping around his limbs and trapping them. In a fit of rage, he tore at them, ripping some off of himself even as the rest tangled themselves even more tightly. With a growl of frustration, he continued charging his opponent, dragging the rest of the net behind him.
Swan rolled out from underneath Neon’s protective embrace and sprinted towards the Skull Staff. Her feet darted so quickly, they hardly left a ripple in the muddy water. Jumping and twisting in mid-air, she avoided the constricting embrace of a net and then, impossibly, continued running up the grim monument, drawing her bow. As she reached the same height as the head of the first large lizardfolk, she loosed her arrow. Her feathered friend shattered its skull and embedded itself into its brain, shoving the large lizardfolk backwards. Its arms spinning, it hadn’t even realized it was already dead. Falling backwards into the muck, it slowly sank until it was out of sight.
When Gideon collapsed, Kilzadi could only watch in anger as the attack meant for him had appeared to kill one of Kossuth’s faithful. A deep-seeded fury burned at his soul as power focused into the palm of his hand. Almost casually, he tossed a small, glowing pebble into the midst of many of the lizardfolk. As it landed, the pebble engulfed them in a massive ball of flame. The heat washed over Kilzadi as he smiled in satisfaction. The lizardfolk, who had not been incinerated instantly, were badly scarred and knocked off their feet - they wouldn’t be participating in battle anytime soon, if ever.
“Hey Risca,” Neon called out. “Need a hand with that net?” Risca’s only response was a growl as he swung Guifoon at another opponent. “I guess not,” Neon muttered to himself. Launching an arrow, he caught a lizardfolk in its side just as it was about to tear at Risca’s flesh from behind. It twirled from the impact of the arrow and fell heavily into the muck. Seeing Swan skipping along precariously on the Skull Staff surrounded by enemies, he rushed forward to help her (though she hardly needed it at the time).
Kilzadi could hear the high-pitched squeaking that passed for language by the small lizardfolk in the trees. With difficulty, he recognized the draconic tongue. As he strained to hear, he realized they were talking about him and thought he was the greatest threat. Looking up quickly, he could see them aiming at him with their arrows. His mystical energies were still drained from his last spell, Kilzadi realized, with a little bit of panic, that he was almost completely defenceless at this point. As the arrows winged towards him, two got caught in the folds of his cloak while the third lodged itself in his calf. Ripping the arrow out caused stars of pain to dance within his vision, but Kilzadi, by sheer force of will, didn’t lose consciousness. Squeezing the wound, Kilzadi forced his blood and the toxin out of the wound, and quickly cauterized the injury with a flash of fire. Gritting his teeth as he applied weight to his injured leg, Kilzadi turned his attention to his tormentors. “Yes, you should be afraid right now,” he said to himself - they seemed to be in an apoplexy of terror.
“Something is not right,” Okul shouted. “They seem more interested in catching us than hurting us.” Dodging another net, he slammed the butt of his spear into the gut of one of the larger lizardfolk. It grunted in pain, but its abdomen didn’t yield to the impact as Okul had expected. The slick muck plus the shock of hitting something so hard drove Okul’s spear out of his grip. Only slightly taken aback by this turn of events, Okul reached for the secondary spear strapped to his back and threw himself into combat again.
Neon was not faring well. As he reached the foot of the Skull Staff, a lizardfolk erupted from the bog, spraying water in his eyes. As he blinked away the blinding fluid, he felt a net settle on his body and tighten around his arms. Remembering the training he had received from Dameon, Neon began leaping and twirling his body, tightening the ropes around himself but also loosening the lizardfolk’s grip on the net. With a final lunge, the net tore free from scaly hands and the desperate race between Neon, who was trying to remove the net while leaping around, and the lizardfolk, who was frantically trying to grab the net again, commenced.
A large club, the size of a small tree, rushed towards Okul. Okul just managed to partially deflect the blow. Even with his ears ringing, he knew something was wrong - a weapon that sized in the hands of such a powerful creature, his skull should have been paste. At worst, he would have a bad headache later on. They’re holding back. Why? As the question kept repeating itself in his mind, Okul glanced over at his companions.
Risca was in a death struggle with one of the lizardfolk. As he tried to swing Guifoon down on its head, it held the haft of the axe with one of its clawed hands. Its other hand gripped Risca’s shield firmly, preventing him from shifting his body away. As Risca strained to pull his weapon and shield out of his enemy’s grip, its tail whipped around and slammed him in the back of his head. Dazed, he fell to one knee and tried to feebly block the next expected attack. But it never came. Seeing that Risca was out of the battle, at least temporarily, the lizardfolk turned its attention to Kilzadi.
Swan saw Risca sink to his knee - he moved his axe and shield instinctively to block any forthcoming attacks, but it was a futile effort. “NO!” Running down the Skull Staff, she drew an arrow and nocked it quickly. Before, her movements had been graceful; now, they were desperate. Moving too quickly, her footing slipped on a skull and she stumbled. While trying to catch herself, she lost her grip on her bow and watched it fall to the muck below. Even that did not stop her. Undaunted, she drew Gutripper and continued her mad rush to Risca’s side.
In a daze, Risca heard Swan’s voice from afar, yelling at him to get up. “No, Swan. Get back. It’s not worth it.” Riled to new levels of anger, Risca began to swing Guifoon blindly to clear the area around him. His actions, for the moment, were desperate and, unfortunately, ineffective.
These odds stink worse than this swamp, Kilzadi thought. If we get out of this, I swear I will slap myself for thinking such a stupid pun. But for now, we need to get out of this. Quickly chanting again, he threw another glowing sphere at a cluster of lizardfolk near Okul and Risca. Another brilliant burst, and all the lizardfolk fell except for one - one of the remaining giant lizardfolk. But even he looked badly burned.
Time to stay out of trouble. Throwing himself into the muck, Kilzadi crawled along to make himself a harder target. Three more arrows whistled towards him, but they all missed their mark. Seeing that they faced no easy prey, the injured large lizardfolk roared his challenge and tried to dive backwards into the bog. In midair, Okul’s spear caught it squarely in its chest and sent it flopping into the murky water. The lizardfolk thrashed for a moment, then sank beneath the water’s murky surface.
Hearing their leader’s cry of defiance, the rest of the lizardfolk began withdrawing quickly. Swan rushed down and scooped up her bow and sprinted to Risca’s side, barely avoiding a wild swing from Guifoon. “Risca! It’s me, Swan!” she cried.
“Swan?” he replied, still a little dazed.
“Back to back! The enemy still surrounds us!” Matching her actions to her words, she moved to cover his flank with her bow. Shaking the last of the fog from his mind, Risca took a firm grip on Guifoon and prepared for the onslaught. It never came.
The lizardfolk were in full retreat. The ones who had been in melee with the companions had already disappeared into the stagnant waters of the bog. The archers were climbing down the trees so that they, too, could escape unscathed. Or so they hoped. Okul’s powerful legs drove him forward, his arm went back, and his spear arched high into the air. A high-pitched death scream filled the air as one of the lizardfolk archers was pinned through its chest to the tree it was climbing down.
Not to be out done, Risca whipped out his bow and fired off two quick arrows at another archer. Though the first arrow missed, the second thudded into its chest, piercing through and through. Its lifeblood pumped out of the wound into the muddy water. Risca turned to Swan to boast of his accomplishment when he noticed that she had already loosed her own arrow. Turning back to the last archer, Risca saw her arrow speed between the boles of the trees and take the small lizardfolk in the throat. With a snap, its head came up and it somersaulted backward out of its tree. Swan smiled sweetly. “Your two arrows to my one. Were you going to say something?” Honey dripped from her voice. Risca just snorted.
“Now that you are done showing off,” Neon said in an irritated tone, “do you mind getting this net off of me?” As the nets were removed, Okul moved amongst their fallen foes to find any clues as to why they had attacked. The moment the pressure of combat dissipated, Kilzadi ran over to where Gideon lay.
Gideon’s eyes stared at nothing. Rolling him onto his back, Kilzadi spoke softly to Gideon. “I’m sorry, brother. You didn’t have to give up your life for mine.” Reaching over to close Gideon’s eyes, Kilzadi was greatly shocked when Gideon suddenly sat up. Yelling an oath, Kiladi tumbled backwards in surprise. A burst of flame flared from Kilzadi’s hands and lit up the afternoon sky. “By Kossuth!”
Gideon blinked away the sluggish feeling pervading his mind. Stretching a little, he asked, “What did I miss?” Kilzadi, glad his comrade had not died, quickly got to his feet and extended his hand to Gideon. As Gideon stood, Kilzadi said, “Kossuth is truly with you.” Gideon face beamed. “But next time you decide to come back from the dead, try to give some warning.”
Before Gideon could reply, he heard Okul call out, “Gideon, quickly! This one’s still alive!” One of the lizardfolk, a larger specimen that had been bowled over by Kilzadi’s fireball, groaned in agony as Okul approached.
Gideon rushed over and applied a tourniquet to stop its bleeding. Unfortunately, he applied it around the lizardfolk’s throat and it suffocated quickly. “Oops.”
“Oops?!?!” Okul was incredulous.
“I’m a healer, dammit, not a miracle worker!” Gideon replied. Untying the tourniquet, he said, “Let’s see if we can find any other clues.” The lizardfolks’ behaviour had been bizarre - they had attacked readily, but they hadn’t seemed to want to cause them severe harm. What had they been up to?
The others looked at each other and each silently prayed for good health for themselves and their companions - Gideon’s health care system left something to be desired.
Searching their opponents’ bodies, they found that the weapons and tools they held were primitive, not of much use. Swan approached the Skull Staff to get a closer look at the skulls. Many of the skulls came from orcs and goblins, but several came from more rare and tougher creatures - a few were from a hydra and one of them appeared to be from a scrag, or aquatic troll. “I wonder why this was made?” she asked aloud.
“Maybe as a warning to others,” Kilzadi surmised. “There is no real way of determining the truth without asking the creators of this...lovely architecture.”
“We’re wasting our time here,” Neon complained. His thoughts had drifted back to his friend Osier. The more time elapsed, the less chance Osier had to live. “Let’s get going.” Though the battle had been fierce, little time had slipped away - it was still late afternoon.
Continuing down the path, the party passed deeper and deeper into the bog. A thin layer of fog could be seen masking the true nature of what lay underfoot; a small misstep could lead to death. The path led through the bogs and to a clearing of sorts. They came upon another large pool of water just past the bog. The water was clear and steam wafted gently from its surface. Periodically, gouts of water and steam would shoot up from the surface of the pool.
“This seems a nice place to give Risca his bath,” Neon began. The others laughed, particularly Risca. Suddenly, he reached for Guifoon on his shoulder. The laughter was cut like a knife. A lone lizardman could be seen on the other side of the pool of geyser water.
Weapons were quickly drawn and eyes peered around, looking for other opponents. None appeared. The lizardman approached cautiously, its arms up in surrender. Swan’s arrow followed its every movement. When he was within reach of Okul’s spear, he stopped and spread his arms. “Welcome, hairy onesssss.” His sibilant voice wrapped itself around the Chondathan tongue. “I come in peassssse. We sssshare a common enemy. “ The companions looked at one another and sheathed their weapons. Gesturing for them to follow him, the lizardman led them deeper into the bog. It appeared to walk on water, but they spotted the cut stones, cleverly placed just below the surface of the water, upon which he walked. Following in its wake, it continued to address them. “Come share ssssoup. Sssssnail and eel ssssoup.”
Gideon signalled the others. “I don’t sense anything but the truth from this one. I think we can trust it.” With a few misgivings, they took Gideon’s word and tried to relax. They reached a small island in the center of the lake, a small fire burned beneath a copse of trees. Gesturing for them to sit, the lizardman started handing out bowls of soup in wooden bowls. “I am Kessesek, chieftain of the Sharktooth Tribe.”
“I am Gideon, Chosen of Kossuth, and these are my companions.”
“I apologize for before. We attacked you to free you.” The companions looked at each other in confusion. Kessesek explained, “We thought you were like the other dream walkerssss. We have sssseen many hairy onesss pass by our land.”
Neon interrupted. “Many hairy ones?” he asked. “Who were they with? And what do you mean ‘dream walkers’?”
“We call them dream walkerssss because they seem to live through a waking dream.” Kessesek shuddered. “They are not natural, but they listen to the other hairy ones in the dark robessss. They are hate and evil! We have seen many groupssss of dream walkerssss following the robed onesss.”
Robed ones... Gideon pulled Shan Thar’s robes from his magical pouch. “Robes like this?”
Kessesek drew back hissing. “Deceiversssss!” Rage was clearly painted on his face.
Neon reacted quickly to calm the lizardman down. “No, no! We claimed this from our enemies in our search for our missing friend!” he explained. “They have taken someone close to us and we think our friend has become one of the dream walkers. We only seek to rescue the one lost to us and stop this from happening to others.”
Kessesek was immediately interested in Neon’s words. “One of your tribe was taken?” Neon nodded. “You wish to return her?” Close enough. Neon nodded again. “My mate was sssstolen from me. Free your mate and mine!” Kessesek gripped Neon’s arms - Neon winced as claws dug into his flesh. “Free my ensssslaved brethren! My tribe will aid you however we may if you will do thissss.” Hope glimmered in Kessesek’s eyes.
They gathered close to plan their next move.
“Do you know where the dark robes have taken their prisoners?” Okul asked.
“They all go to the giant sssstone housssse in the middle of the sssswamp.” Kessesek’s voice filled with dismay. “Whoever enterssss never returnssss.”
“Do you know how many dark robes and dream walkers there are inside the stone house?” Swan asked.
“There are many,” Kessesek replied. “Ssssome entered the ssstone housssse many daysss ago, but too many for my tribe to beat. And the dark robesss are not alone.” The lizardman’s face grew even more grim. “The Shadowssscale Tribe workssss with the dark robessss. The Shadowssscale Tribe were called dragonslayerssss. Now, they are led by a black dragon, Despayr. Their chieftain, Ketsarra, is dragon blooded - Ketsarra is sssscaled and horned like Despayr, her ssssire.”
Despayr.... Where have I heard that name before? Kilzadi dredged his mind to find the memory. Could it be the same Despayr that Lady Arthas referred to? Yet another puzzle piece. Drow, fanatics, dragons. How far does this stretch? Relaying his thoughts and fears to the others, they realized that this was merely a small part of a much larger whole. Kilzadi began to ask about the black dragon.
“Let me tell you the tale of the Shadowssscale Tribe,” Kessesek said. “Long have the black dragonsss flown over our ssswamp. The Dragonssslayer Tribe hassss claimed to kill ssseveral in decadesss passst, the most recent of whom was Tyra. Then Despayr came, and the ssslayersss became his ssslavesss. We do not know where he lairsss.” Kessesek eyes blinked more rapidly in agitation. “Sssomething hasss happened to them. When their raidersss came to our landsss thisss year, they were changed. Their eyesss glowed like fire, and shadowsss wrapped their ssscalesss to protect them. They were dead - their ssspiritsss departed and replaced by darknessss.” Kessesek’s clawed fist slapped loudly into his palm. “Now they attack usss, to kill or capture. Thossse who are captured face a fate worssse than death: they become Shadowssscalesss and return to fight their nessstmatesss.”
Kessesek’s tail whipped around unconsciously. “We could not ssstand againssst their raidersss. Many Sharptoothsss died. More were taken prisssoner and carried back to the hairy onesss’ keep. Other tribesss were also attacked. The Sharptooth tribe sssurvivesss only because it hasss joined with the Blackscalesss and the Poison Dusksss.”
Kessesek stood and began to pace. “We sssee that you are no friend of the Shadowssscalesss and those in the hairy onesss’ keep, and we asssk you to help usss. I believe that sssome of our people are held in the dark tower. They captured the old chieftain and my mate, Ashala, in a recent raid, and we have not ssseen them amongssst the dead.” Kessesek’s head dropped. “My rissse to chieftain wass tainted by this ill fortune. Will you free them?” The Seekers looked at each other; without a word, they reached a silent consensus. Yes.
Kessesek misread the look they gave each other. “If you help usss, we will help you. We have little, and we own no golden or silver circlesss, but I will give you all I own. If you free those in the keep, I will give you all my magic.”
“You didn’t build the stone house?” Gideon asked. “Did you find any hidden paths in?”
“Many generationssss ago, so our shamanssss ssssay, a group of sssstrange hairy onessss came into our land and built the sssstone house. Why? We don’t know. We kept away from the mad onessss - they didn’t threaten us and the land issss large. Another group arrived. Our land wassss filled with sssoundsss of war, and then nothing. The hairy onesss were gone; there were no sssignsss they had ever been, except for the ssstone houssse.”
Who would bother building a stone keep in a bog? And who attacked them? Gideon wondered. Kessesek continued. “We were never interessssted in the ssstone houssse - it ssseemed to be a place of evil. After the black robessss began usssing it, it truly did become cursssed.” Kessesek paused. “We never found any sssecret waysss in.”
Risca gripped Kessesek’s shoulders. “We shall return them to you. Where is the stone house? ”
Kessesek’s voice filled with excitement. “It isss not far from here. Maybe a quarter day’ssss walk.”
Risca rose to his feet. “Then lead on.”
“No.” Kessesek stopped the companions. “By the time we reach the ssstone houssse, it will be dark. They will be at their sssstrongessst. Let ussss wait until the morning, when they will be at their weakessst.”
Sitting down, they began to eat the snail and eel soup, and discuss battle plans. The sun set and darkness began to quickly cover the land. Fireflies flitted along the surface of the water as the nocturnal creatures came out, their sound filling the air. It was a beautiful sight that they all admired. Swan looked up to see the stars as they began to wink into existence - but a large section of the sky wasn’t lighting up. Something’s blocking the view. As her eyes adjusted, she could see more detail of the floating object. It looked like a giant, olive-coloured brain, but gigantic in proportions; a beak, like that found on a hawk, could be seen on its ‘front’ and ten long, pale, olive-green tentacles dangled beneath it. The abomination dropped from the sky towards them.
Kilzadi recognized the threat - a grell. Whether grells were natural creatures that followed a curious evolutionary path or were the mad creations of an insane deity would never be known. Kilzadi just knew that they were dangerous. “Watch out! We’re under attack from above! Beware the tentacles! They numb the body!” Splashes could be heard around them. In the dying light, the companions could see lizardfolk, their eyes pits of darkness, rising out of the water and gliding towards them. They didn’t say a word, but their intent was clear.
“Shadowssscalesssss!” Kessesek hissed. “Dead eyessss! I will rip out your....”
Kessesek’s voice was suddenly cut off as a tentacle wrapped itself around him. The grell hoisted his body twenty feet in the air as other tentacles wrapped themselves around his squirming form. Spines, laced with toxin, tried to inject their paralytic poison into the lizardman’s body, but were unable to pierce his scaled hide.
“Kossuth, grant your blessings on us!” A holy nimbus surrounded Gideon and flared out, enveloping the Seekers. Heartened by the presence of Gideon’s deity, they attacked with renewed zeal.
“Help Kessesek!” Okul shouted. “Risca and I will stop the Shadowscales!” Waves of Shadowscales rushed forward. Both Risca and Okul moved to intercept them, acting as an immovable barricade for the lizardfolk to crash against.
The sound of twin twangs snapped through the air. Arrows sunk, one-two, feather-deep into the grell’s side. A horrid shriek escaped its beak as it dropped its prey. Kessesek twisted in mid-air and managed to land feet first on the ground, his tail whipping around in agitation. Pulling out a crocodile tooth, he turned to the approaching lizardfolk and cried out, “By the power of Essyllis, begone foul Shadowscale!”
Waves of invisible holy energy left a ripple in the air as it tore through the Shadowscale. Four of their number shrieked in unholy agony, clutching their heads with their clawed hands; ebony smoke flared from their eyes and dissipated into the night sky before they collapsed to the ground, dead. The outlines of their bodies blurred and they melted into a black goo that seeped into the earth. Having reduced the press, Kessesek quickly turned back towards the grell, but he was too late. Another tentacle whipped out and slashed him across the chest. A spine broke off in the wound, pumping its poison into Kessesek’s blood - his body stiffened as all his muscles went rigid. Kessesek fell heavily to the ground.
The remaining Shadowscale warriors swarmed Okul and Risca. Several stayed to occupy both fighters, while the rest slipped by to attack the other Seekers. Okul’s spear struck several Shadowscale in rapid succession, and they dissolved into pools of dark ooze. Guifoon cut a bloody path through the rest - limbs and heads flew as they were severed from bodies; organs and bones burst from the force of impact. Though not as precise as Okul, Risca was no less effective.
Gideon turned his attention to the grell. Summoning a ball of kinetic energy, he released it as a ball of pure sound that engulfed the grell. Staggered, the grell turned its attention to Gideon. Though it had no eyes, it became evident that it was focusing on Gideon as its next victim.
Suddenly, Gideon was pushed out of the way. Kilzadi stepped forward, his arms thrust forward. “Burn!” Twin jets of fire lanced toward the grell. The grell dropped suddenly, and both scorching rays passed harmlessly over it. Now it was even closer to Kilzadi and Gideon, and hungry for revenge.
Swan somersaulted over Kilzadi’s head. In mid-flip, she unleashed her arrow. The missile flew true - into the grell’s beaked maw and through its brain. A hideous, chocking squawk was the last sound the grell made before it plummeted to the ground. Though its tentacles twitched and showed signs of life, as a whole, the grell was dead.
Seeing the grell fall, Neon wheeled around and launched his next arrow at a lunging Shadowscale. The arrow was a blur, but the Shadowscale fell to the ground, dissolving as it fell, its brain shot through and through. Kilzadi attempted the same thing, pivoting quickly to launch a deadly bolt of fire at the last Shadowscale, but he didn’t prove as fast as Neon. The Shadowscale managed to get within reach of Kilzadi before he could complete his spell and knocked his arm up while kicking his feet out from under him. The fiery blast was sent harmlessly into the sky and the Shadowscale drew back its claws to rip out Kilzadi’s throat. The Shadowscale stiffened, then began to dissolve. Kilzadi could see Gideon, grinning, his crystal morningstar in hand. “Need a hand?”
Transferring his weapon to his shield hand, he reached out and gripped Kilzadi’s hand and hauled him to his feet. Despite the indignity of being knocked on his back, Kilzadi grinned his thanks to Gideon. Assessing the situation, they could see that all their enemies had been dispatched. But at what price? Kessesek had still not gotten up. Gideon rushed over to Kessesek’s side and started treating his wounds.
None of Kessesek’s injuries proved substantial. The only thing that mystified Gideon was the fact that Kessesek was still incapacitated. As Gideon closed up the scratch on Kessesek’s chest, he pulled out a small thorn-like object. What is this? Immediately, Kessesek began to twitch. Several moments later, he staggered to his feet. Struggling to speak, he hissed, “Now you ssssee the evil we face. I will take you to the sssstone housssse in the morning.”
Before dawn, Kessesek led the Seekers to the lair of the dark robes. The bog was still prevalent, though there were more and more copses of willow trees. From afar, the companions could see the stone house - a fairly large stone keep - through the trees. Kessesek held up his arm and halted. “Here.” Handing a stick with feathers and teeth wrapped around it to Gideon, he explained. “Thissss wasss made by our shaman. It will help heal ssssmall woundssss. It issss not much, but it will be of ussse to ussss.”
Gideon frowned. “What do you mean ‘us’? We will free your mate and our friend. You can not come with us. It is too dangerous. Do you remember what happened last night?”
Kessesek turned his unblinking stare to Gideon. “I remember. But, I will ssssee this through.” His tone left no room for arguments. “Now here isss what we will face.” Taking his claw, he traced a rough map of the area surrounding the keep. “Though we’ve never been insssside, we have had glimpssssesss from the treetops.”
“How are we going to get inside?” Risca asked.
Good question thought Neon. “Let’s scout the area and get some more details. Then we can come up with a plan. We pulled off the impossible when we stormed the fake Temple of Mystra, so I’m sure we can do it again.”
Swan returned shortly and summarized the obstacles they had to overcome. “Though it looks run down, that keep is still fairly solid. There are pools of water surrounding the keep, and some of the walls have holes in them, but they are filled with water, not making it easy to sneak in. The walls themselves are fifteen feet high; they’re covered in vines, but are quite smooth and slippery with slime and muck, making scaling the walls very difficult. The treeline is close to the walls, but not that close, so we won’t get much cover as we approach the keep. There is a thirty-foot tall tower near the center of the courtyard and I don’t know if it is manned or not. If it is, they will be able to spot us easily before we can reach the walls. And on top of that, there seems to be only one entry: it is a fairly large opening blocked by at least two portcullises and overseen by a gatehouse. There are numerous arrow slits near the gatehouse, which makes me inclined to sneaking in versus storming the barrier - we’ll be riddled with arrows before we could gain entry.”
Neon sighed. “Well that’s depressing.”
“Hey,” Risca snapped, “if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth rolling out of bed!”
Okul smiled. “But for once, I would like it to be slightly easier.” He chuckled dryly. “But you’re right - no risk, no glory.”
Kilzadi spoke up. “I have an idea. We still have the dark robes and false amulets, right?” Gideon nodded. “Well then, Gideon and I will dress up as clerics of Shar (who are pretending to be clerics of Mystra - our enemies have their own plans within plans, their own stacked treacheries) leading another group of dream walkers. We’ll bluff our way in past their outer defences and make our way into the keep proper. Then we can find the prisoners, free them, and make our way out without alerting anyone.”
Everyone stared at Kilzadi. Finally, Neon laughed. “That’s the oldest trick in the book!”
“I told you before,” Gideon explained, “pessimism is not a survival trait.”
“We can do this.” Kilzadi’s voice dropped to a hush. “We just have to make it convincing.”
Risca cracked his knuckles. “Who wants to live forever, anyway? Let’s do this.”
“At worst,” Swan piped in, “we’ll be no worse off than if we tried to storm the place.”
“The plan is sound,” Okul added. “Let’s proceed.”
Slipping into the dark robes, Gideon and Kilzadi drew the hoods over their heads to mask their faces. They placed the amulets over their robes so that they could be seen clearly by any sentries. With luck, they would be able to get close enough without getting themselves killed. Kilzadi led the group, with the others trailing slowly behind him. They did their best to hide their weapons under their clothes but still be easily accessible if the need arose. Gideon was at the back of the procession, praying very hard to Kossuth that their plan would work.
As they approached, they could see a small keep, overgrown and run down, rising before them. The details of the keep matched Swan’s previous assessment. A pond of dark water hugged the end of the wall they faced, as well as the northeastern corner. The structure was a long enclosure formed by crumbling, fifteen foot walls covered with creeping vines. The enclosure surrounded a windowless tower found at the northern end that rose to twice the height of the walls. The path led to the southeast corner, where a portcullis blocked a passageway leading through the wall. Flickering firelight escaped out of the arrow slits in the wall near the portcullis, and torches burned in front of the keep as well. A thin line of smoke rose into the air near the gate.
The rusting iron portcullis blocked the way into a covered corridor leading to the keep’s enclosure. Arrow slits lined the outer wall next to the gateway, as well as one wall of the corridor beyond the gate. Another portcullis blocked the far end of the corridor. Rubble choked the floor of the corridor; presumably, the rubble were pieces fallen from the ceiling.
As they approached the exterior portcullis, a voice called out in Chondathan. “Who goes there?”
Kilzadi stepped forward and addressed the gatehouse with an imposing voice. “We are delivering the next batch of the ‘faithful’. Open the portcullis.”
“The next batch?” Doubt filled the guard’s voice. ”So soon after the last one?”
“We’ve had an eventful evening - the temple in Harrowdale was attacked and we just managed to escape. Before we left, we managed to bring along these recruits - they are prime subjects and too valuable to lose,” Kilzadi explained.
The guard ignored Kilzadi’s last statement. “Who are you?” he demanded.
Kilzadi drew himself up, his back straight, and said in his most powerful tone, “I am Kevrin, a true, faithful servant of my Goddess, and emissary of Lady Arthas. I demand to see the commander.” All could hear the quick intake of breath - Kevrin was well known and apparently feared. “Open the gate.”
“A moment, please.” The guard’s tone was flustered. A short time later, the companions could hear a portcullis being raised, followed by the creaking of wood. A figure dressed in studded leather armor approached. “Follow me.” Leading them through a sally port to the inner portcullis, the guard paused only to close the outer portcullis. The heroes watched him surreptitiously - they may need to open the portcullis in haste in the near future.
Passing the inner portcullis, the guard led them to the inner courtyard of the keep. A large open space stood between the gatehouse and the main building of the keep. Surrounded by crumbling walls, the courtyard looked as though it was on the verge of disappearing into the swamp. Parts of the outer wall had crumbled - time and nature had worn away at the stone defences more effectively than siege weapons, but not in an efficient manner. On the west side, a large pool of water was spreading inward. Two broad clusters of ferns, shrubs, and vines had sprung up between the uneven flagstones. Mats of putrid yellow-green algae filled a bleached stone fountain near the center of the courtyard, and a sheen of green water extended from the fountain toward the great hall. Across from the courtyard, the keep’s great hall still stood relatively intact, though the walls at the west front corner were deteriorating.
The gatehouse took up the south-eastern corner of the courtyard. The northern wall was dominated by the keep itself. A large set of double doors marked the main entrance to the keep, though it was flanked on either side by single doors placed close to the outer wall. The keep was serviceable, but in desperate need of repairs.
“Follow me.” The guard gestured. “I’ll take you to Starweaver Bestra.” As they were led towards the double doors, Gideon covertly looked around. He quickly bit back an oath - drow! Four of their number walked in the courtyard, their bodies cloaked in heavy clothing. There was no mistaking the supple, gliding movements or the silent hand-talk. Digesting this piece of information, Gideon turned his attention to the keep.
The guard opened the double doors and led them inside. The interior of the great hall was in worse shape than it seemed from the outside. The entryway was choked with rubble - some had fallen from the ceiling, some were remnants of fallen pillars or collapsing walls. The area gave a definite impression that it could collapse at any time.
Directly opposite the main doors was a wall with two widely spaced doors leading north. Paired lines of columns led to a double door on the right. A crumbling, headless statue stood in a corner to the left, and a rubble-strewn hallway led off past it.
Five Shadowscales stood ready inside the room. Kilzadi shuddered and kept his distance from them as the party moved past.
“This way.” The guard opened the double doors and led them into what appeared to have been a waiting room. A pile of refuse lay in this room, a heap of dead plants mixed with bones, leather, and other trash. The rest of the floor was clear. Another single door stood to the east.
Passing through the waiting room, the guard opened the single door. They entered a large, L-shaped room. The room was filled with dancing shadows, though no light source other than your own was immediately visible. Two corners of the room were partially caved in, with rubble scattered on the floor and the sky visible through the holes in the ceiling.
A woman, clad in plate, stood reading a scroll. A heavy mace hung from her belt and she seemed to be the type of person who wouldn’t hesitate to use it. Seeing the guard bow deeply, she rolled the scroll up, placing it in a case at her side, and waited. The guard, knowing he was the subject of the commander’s scrutiny, was obviously flustered. “Starweaver Bestra, these recruits showed up at the gate claiming there was trouble at the temple in Harrowdale and that they needed to see you with some urgency.”
She turned to address Kilzadi. “Explain yourselves.” Her eyes were twin emeralds, though hard and flinty. There was no compassion - only an expectation of obeisance.
Kilzadi mimicked the guards bow. “Fembris told me to bring this one to Despayr because he is dragon-marked.” Pointing at Okul, he signalled for Gideon to push Okul’s head down to expose the golden scales on his neck.
Bestra stood in contemplation. She quickly passed her hands in front of her face while chanting in an arcane tongue. A nimbus flittered around her head before settling into it. I’ve seen this effect before. She’s trying to read our thoughts. Hoping she would focus her attention on him, Kilzadi began running through multiplication tables in his mind in an attempt to deflect her mental probes.
Turning to Kilzadi again, Bestra’s eyes glowed with a magical intensity. “So you say he is dragonborne?”
“See for yourself.” Kilzadi drew Okul forward towards Bestra, placing him within weapon’s reach.
Bestra only glanced at Okul casually. Turning her weird, wide-eyed stare to Kilzadi, her eyes developed a peculiar luminous quality. “I am sure Despayr would like this gift, but this recruit does not serve our purposes unless he has been touched by the Weave.” She looked at him expectantly.
“I am uncertain if he has or not.” Kilzadi stalled for time. What are they doing with the ‘recruits’?
“Are the rest weave users? If they are to be sacrificed, they need to have that quality.”
Kilzadi pointed at Neon. “This one is.” Watching Bestra, he knew she was growing more and more suspicious. Bowing deeply again, Kilzadi used the opportunity to covertly take a step forward. Drawing in arcane energy, he prepared to strike out.
“So what was so urgent that you had to bring these recruits now?” Bestra’s tone left no illusion as to how she felt - suspicious.
Kilzadi responded with a bolt of fire aimed at her heart. Though the fiery projectile flew true, Bestra’s armor deflected some of the blast. Shocked, the guard stumbled back. “To us! To us! Traitors are attacking!”
Scurrying up a nearby wall, Swan launched an arrow. Bestra shrieked as Swan’s feathered accomplice found the gap in the armpit of her armor. Clutching at the wound, Bestra staggered back, bloody foam flecking her lips. “It will not end this way!”
“You may be a priestess,” Neon quipped as his blade slashed through the chain armor on her shoulder, “but you are no prophet.”
Risca rushed forward swinging. His first blow severed her arm at the elbow. Guifoon cut so smoothly that Bestra’s remained upright. Risca’s return swing sheared through Bestra’s neck, making her head leap from her shoulders.
The guard, in a frenzy, leaped at Risca, screaming maniacally. Ducking deeply, some of Risca’s hair was clipped from his head as the sword passed by harmlessly. Stumbling, the guard gasped as Okul shoved his spear deep into his entrails. Grabbing at his intestines as they spilled out, he collapsed in a heap. “That went well,” Okul commented.
Gideon called for Kossuth’s blessing upon the companions and moved to check the door they had entered from. “Oh man.” Drow and Shadowscales stalked the halls. Shouts of alarm filled the courtyard. It was about to get very crowded. “It seems we have stirred the hornets’ nest!”
Meanwhile, Kilzadi moved swiftly to the double doors and placed his ear to listen. On the other side, orders were being barked and feet were thudding rapidly - a storm of swords was building to a crescendo. Stepping back, he swore. “More trouble this way.” Concentrating, he summoned arcane energy to greet their enemies.
Knowing they had but a few moments to spare, the Seekers made the most of it. Swan called forth a protective barrier around herself and assumed a position high on the wall - a rain of feathered steel would fall on anyone foolish enough to charge down the hallway. Neon pulled out a flask and drank its contents down in a single gulp; instantly, his moves became more smooth and swift. His feet barely touching the ground, he joined Gideon to hold the door.
Okul also pulled out a flask; as he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, he felt energy and resilience coursing through his blood. He was ready. Joining Kilzadi at the double doors, he was going to ensure that no one, man or monster, would pass. Kilzadi completed his first spell: several duplicates of himself stepped out from his body, mimicking his every move.
Time to even the odds. Gideon thrust his symbol of Kossuth forward. “Begone, foul ones! You have no power here! Wither in the holy flame that is Kossuth!” Four out of five Shadowscale, overwhelmed, fled down the hall, shoving past the drow, away from Gideon. Surprised, the drow understood they faced a deadly foe. Drawing out chains that had been hidden under their cloaks, they began to twirl them as they moved forward. The last Shadowscale, though distressed, pressed on. Stepping up to the threshold of the door, it swung at Neon. Neon moved with preternatural speed and shoved the Shadowscale to the side. Its claws dug into the side of a drow who had moved forward to strike Gideon, ruining its attack.
Risca ran forward and planted his feet in the doorway. Seeing the odds, he smiled. “Honour for my comrades and no one else! Embrace death!” Guifoon lashed out and burst through the side of the Shadowscale. Stricken, it fell to the ground and dissolved into goo. An arrow flew overhead and caught a drow in its thigh. Howling in pain, Swan smiled sweetly - her revenge had only begun.
The drow moved forward cautiously. This would not be an easy fight, but they were confident that they could overcome these top-dwellers easily. A chain lashed out and caught Risca across his skull. He hardly blinked. Turning towards his attacker, the drow was taken aback at how Risca seemed to shrug off the blow so effortlessly. This fight may prove more difficult than they anticipated.
“Hey, drow!” The drow looked over Risca’s shoulder at Neon. “Catch.” With that, Neon flung a pellet into the room. As it hit the paving stones, it burst, releasing a flash of blinding light. Stunned, the drow stumbled back helplessly. Neon’s smile vanished as he saw several warrior-priests enter his field of view at the end of the hallway, as well as more soldiers from the courtyard. “Trouble’s coming!”
Gideon tried to incapacitate the drow further by releasing a burst of sound in their vicinity. The shockwave of sound rushed over them, but immediately, Gideon could see that the wave of sound did not buffet them. The drow’s innate magical resistance had protected them from harm. “Kilzadi, we may need your assistance!”
Kilzadi turned to Okul. The question was not needed. “Go help them. I’ll be fine.” Bracing himself, he readied his spear to strike the moment the double doors would open. Suddenly, the doors were flung open. Okul could see three drow at the forefront: two had obviously forced the door open while the third stood slightly back twirling a chain. Behind them, a large lizardfolk, her body covered in dark scales and her head crowned with horns, assessed the situation. Ketsarra.
Okul’s spear thrust forward, catching one of the door-opening drow in the shoulder. A chain wrapped itself around Okul’s spear and ripped it from his grasp. Cursing, Okul tried to step back to draw his other spear, but the two drow flanking him would not give him a chance to re-arm himself. Their rapiers drank deeply of his blood - both wounds were severe, but not terminal. Okul bellowed in pain and struck them with his gauntleted fist. One received a broken nose, the other lost several teeth.
Swan heard Okul’s cry of pain. Oh no. Swan ran along the wall and threw her own pellet at the drow stalking Okul. Another flash of blinding light surrounded them, stunning them and, at least for the moment, removed their threat from Okul.
A glowing pellet flew over Risca’s shoulder and landed amongst the drow. The ensuing ball of flame engulfed the drow and Risca. The blast set Risca’s beard ablaze, but the drow remained unharmed. Kilzadi swore. What now?
Neon darted into the room past Risca and stabbed a drow. It sought to strike back, but Neon had already dashed back behind Risca. Risca stood his ground. Several chains thrashed him, breaking skin and pulping muscle, but he refused to fall. Risca could hear Gideon about to pull him back. “This shall not stand! Get behind me, Gideon! Foul ones. Do you imagine that Risca the fierce, Risca the warrior, would bow down to you? Risca Foraker bows to no one! NO ONE!” The last was a fierce roar. A chain wrapped around his shield arm, smashing flesh, smashing bone. Risca, gritting his teeth, gripped the chain and yanked hard. The drow was pulled off balance. Guifoon caught the drow in the side, crushing its ribs and organs. Another swing caught the arm of another drow. Only a quick sidestep by the drow prevented the loss of its arm.
Three glowing missiles slammed into Risca, slowing his erupting rage. Risca’s vision was blurred; red tears fell from his eyes, yet he managed to see three robed figures at the end of the hallway pointing at him. Blood fell freely from his wounds, but he ignored it. He would keep his promise to Marthammor Duin, and, more importantly, to Swan - he would wipe the scourge that was the drow from the face of Faerun.
Gideon realized that Risca was berserk - he made no effort to avoid the whirling chains, standing straight up and plunging ever forward, with no thought in his frenzied mind but to slay. His axe swung like a wheel of death around him, each blow was followed by the crunch of steel, a spurt of blood, a cry of agony. Gideon had known instantly that his best task was to protect Risca and maintain his strength. Beseeching Kossuth, Gideon placed his hands on Risca’s back. Holy fire swept over his body, burning away his injuries. Risca’s breathing came easier and his axe was gripped more tightly.
Another glowing sphere arced over Risca and landed amongst the robed figures. The blast knocked them all off their feet; a group of soldiers that had run in were also caught in the blast and incinerated. Their cries echoed in the hall. Kilzadi was a walking inferno. As the smoke cleared, a plate-clad soldier wearing a yellow cape moved into view. “By the power of Mystra!” Risca felt a wave of chilling energy brush past his body. Shaking the feeling, Risca understood that, though this cleric appeared to be a true follower of Mystra, he had been duped and had to be dealt with.
Okul’s situation continued to degenerate. A drow, wrapped in robes, appeared behind Ketsarra. Gesturing, he closed his eyes and began chanting a spell. The rapier-armed drow pressed their advantage and lunged at Okul. With an equal amount of speed and grace, Okul drew another spear while dodging both rapiers. Planting the spear, he managed to catch one of the drow in the shoulder, twisting it about painfully.
A chain whipped out again and wrapped around the spear’s head. A quick flick and the spear flew out of Okul’s hands. “That was bad!” Okul yelled. The chain darted back and struck Okul squarely in the chest, knocking him back a step. “That was worse!”
Swan called for help. “Big trouble over here! We could use some help!” Even as she yelled, she ran along the wall and launched an arrow at the chain-wielding drow. Her anger was still fresh in her mind - as well as a good dose of healthy fear. But she would not let the fear rule her. The arrow plunged into his side but barely slowed his movements.
Without turning, Risca yelled to the others. “Go help Okul.” Gideon and Kilzadi hesitated for a second; Okul’s cries of pain made their minds up for them. Running over, Risca could hear them summoning mystical energies. “You, too, Neon.”
Neon laughed. “I don’t think so, Risca!” Neon twirled to dodge a chain swipe and continued his spin to slash an adjacent drow. “I can’t let you have all the fun! Plus, Swan would kill me if you died!” Risca grunted at the last statement. He’s right.
A chain wrapped itself around Guifoon and its wielder dropped to the floor, wrapping himself in his chain. His allies protected him from any retaliation. The desperate ploy had its desired effect - the force of the chain tore Guifoon out of Risca’s hands. Neon stepped in quickly to deflect the attacks of the other two drow while Risca drew his dark blade. Growling, Risca re-entered the fray.
A sickly, green beam engulfed Okul. His strength began to fail him. The drow smirked at him and began chanting another spell. The smirk disappeared as a blast of fire engulfed the three lead drow - all fell before the firestorm created by Kilzadi. Okul’s wounds began to mend - Gideon, sacrificing his own health, was absorbing the damage Okul was receiving. Okul’s situation had improved.
The cleric of Mystra slowly walked towards Risca, and he suddenly felt his limbs go rigid. Through sheer will, he forced his limbs to move again. It felt like his body was tearing itself apart, but he managed to overcome the spell.
Ketsarra stepped forward, grinning. Her mouth opened impossibly wide and a jet of acid sprayed Okul and Kilzadi. “Fools! I wield power even unknown to my father, Despayr!”
“I’m not impressed.” Okul drank a potion to cure his wounds and, without taking his eyes off of Ketsarra, picked up his spear. “I see you carry a spear as well. Let’s see if you know how to use it, child.”
Ketsarra’s eyes went wide with rage. “You die first.” Two more rapier-wielding drow entered the room and moved to engage Okul. Ketsarra stood back and watched as Okul deflected sword strikes, four in total, and still managed to attack one of her minions. Impressive, but futile. Okul continued his dance, holding both drow, elite warriors in their own right, at bay.
Chains crashed all around Risca. Neon did his best to deflect and distract the drow, but they seemed determined to destroy the tenacious dwarf. Suddenly, Risca felt another wave of healing fire wash over him. “Gideon, I thought I told you to help Okul!”
Gideon blocked a chain. “You’re welcome.” Stubborn dwarf.
Another burst of fire engulfed the lead drow. They managed to stand their ground, but they were hurt badly - their skin was badly blistered and the hilts of their weapons left ugly welts on their hands. Still, they continued to press Okul.
“Mystra, silence these heretics!” Suddenly, Risca, Gideon, Kilzadi, and Neon could hear nothing. A bubble surrounded where they stood, absorbing all sound. Gideon and Kilzadi thought the same thing. Uh oh. Kilzadi stepped back; the sound of combat resumed.
Seeing the drow in need of assistance, Ketsarra knew she had to take a more active role in the battle. Reaching over her shoulder, she drew a javelin and aimed it at Okul. Her arm whipped forward, and the javelin, the moment it left her hand, became a powerful lightning bolt. Sparks flew as the magical lightning bolt tore through Okul and one of the drow. The drow dropped, convulsing, and didn’t get up. Quickly, Okul put his back to the wall to gain some cover and drank another potion. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have goaded her. The other drow thrust at Okul - his sword bent almost in half as he missed and struck the wall instead.
A chain caught Risca in the pit of his stomach, knocking the wind from him. Another chain, in perfect tandem, struck him across the temple, dropping him to the ground. His wounds were ghastly - his flesh was torn where the chains had struck him and he was bleeding internally. Gideon cried out, or at least tried to because of the sphere of silence, and rushed to Risca’s side. Pressing a potion to his lips, Risca drank mechanically at first, and then with more interest as his wounds began to heal. About to give his thanks to Gideon, Risca noticed that he winced in pain and blood began running out from underneath his armor. What’s happening? He hasn’t been hit, yet he’s bleeding like a stuck pig...
There was no time for Risca to figure out the mystery. Gideon had expected to be struck by chains, but nothing happened. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Kilzadi there, drawing away attacks from Gideon and Risca. I can’t believe I’m doing this for that smelly dwarf. A chain struck one of his images, dispelling it. Another chain struck his side - Kilzadi and his images all bent over, grasping the wound. Risca stepped forward quickly again to cover Kilzadi. Pretty brave for a mage. As soon as Risca stepped forward, seven twirling star-shaped shurikens appeared in front of him and tried to slash his face.
Shurikens? Gideon was shocked. Maybe he is a true follower of Mystra.
Swan darted along the wall, dodging the acidic spume from Ketsarra. As she ran, she launched another arrow - the last rapier-wielding drow had his head pinned to the ground. Twitching a little, he died quickly.
Ketsarra rushed forward, being openly careless. Okul stepped into her path and braced himself. She screamed as she thrust with her spear from on high - she screamed again as Okul’s spear broke through her ribs to the heart underneath. Ketsarra, held up by Okul’s spear, gave a death rattle. Then the sound changed to something more chilling. While Okul watched, spellbound, Ketsarra pulled herself off of Okul’s spear and smiled. The mortal wound in her chest was little more than a scar. She seemed - proud.
“As I said, you die first.” Ketsarra laughed as she came in wildly. “I had expected more of a fight from you, spear-brother. You disappoint me.”
It was all Okul could do to keep her spear from piercing him. How do you slay an opponent who doesn’t bleed?
The others heard Okul’s plight, but they were a little pre-occupied themselves. Neon and Risca were doing their best to eliminate the threat of the chain-wielding drow, but they proved difficult to hit. The drow worked perfectly together, protecting each others’ flanks while opening up their opponents defences to strike. Though Risca and Neon fought well together, it could be seen, easily, that the drow had trained together for years to perfect their technique.
Finally, Risca and Neon managed to down one of the drow. Neon drew the drow in. As the drow’s chain whipped out, Neon reached out and twined the chain around his arm. He had caught the chain when it had the least amount of momentum, an impressive feat in and of itself, but his flesh still bruised badly. A painful wound, but not a fatal one. Yanking on the chain, the drow stumbled. Risca was there. Up went the double-bitted axe and then down it fell with a meaty smack, and the drow’s head was cut from his thrashing body. Three down, one to go.
The drow pointed at Swan and a sickly, green ray shot out at her. Gripping the wall, Swan performed an impossible somersault, her body perpendicular to the ground, dodging the ray. I don’t know what that was, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t good. As she turned to shoot an arrow at Ketsarra, she saw Gideon step toward the dragon-blooded one.
“Begone, Ketsarra!” Going on a hunch, Gideon was trying to drive Ketsarra away with his holy aura. “You have no power here! Wither in the holy flame that is Kossuth!” Ketsarra screamed in agony and fled from Gideon, through the double doors, and then out of sight. Undead. That would explain the bloodless wounds.
The only opponent left in front of Swan was the drow magic-user. Drawing her drow-bane arrow, she took careful aim and sent her feathered friend into the drow’s abdomen. Howling in agony, he tried to cast a spell, but lost his focus. The arrow dug into his guts and every time he moved, it tore at them. Turning to flee, the magic-user managed to dodge Okul’s spear thrust, but before he could reach any cover, another arrow caught him in the back of the neck and flew right through. His spinal column severed and his throat torn open, the drow flopped to the ground and died in a pool of his own blood.
The last chain-wielding drow was desperate to find an escape route. His comrades were dead or down, and, though the dwarf and arcanist seemed to have dreadful wounds, he was badly outnumbered. Spinning, he caught Risca in the side with his chain. Ribs snapped and Risca’s side caved in slightly.
Risca felt so very cold, but he would not give up. “This ends now.” With the last ounce of his strength, he slammed Guifoon down, splitting the drow’s chain and crushing the drow’s shoulder. The last drow coughed out his life and fell to the floor.
“Swan.” The sound of her name broke the sudden silence in a cracked whisper. Risca stood, Guifoon still gripped tightly in one hand. The sound of Neon rushing to his side seemed so far away. Then the axe slipped from his hand, his eyes began to glaze over; with a long sigh, he began to fall to the floor.
Neon caught Risca’s body as it began to fall. “Gideon!” Gideon limped over - he was in no better shape than Risca, even though not a single weapon or spell had touched him. Gideon’s hands worked quickly over Risca’s wounds, binding flesh and stopping blood loss. Leaning back on his haunches, Gideon smiled grimly. Loss of blood had weakened Risca - he had a score of deep wounds, but none of them mortal. He would be on his feet sooner rather than later, boasting of this exploit.
The cleric of Mystra could see his enemies huddled around the dwarf’s fallen form. Fear surged up inside his heart. He hated them, all of them, so much that he fleetingly considered trying to kill them with a spell. But the fear returned even stronger than before and abruptly, his thoughts turned to escape. Escape so that he could live!
Already, he turned to flee. Only a few more steps. He would be free. He would survive. He had to fight down the sudden impulse to laugh out loud. A glowing ball flew overhead. The cleric watched it in fascination as fell in front of his face. And then his face was gone as the ball exploded into a violent ball of flame. Kilzadi’s smile was grim.