Klemgathed, T’agan, and the Mistmire crept into Rakasha’s castle as the sun was setting, blots of crimson red light from the gaping holes in the citadel walls washed the crumbling inner bailey in bloody luminosity.
The Mistmire had not argued at this necessity, Rakasha knew where they were, exactly. She could hear every word they spoke, stealth was pointless. Waiting, futile. Hordes of Risen would simply whittle them down until none stood to oppose the banshee-witch and her poltergeist-lover, Makabi.
The bailey’s gatehouse was mostly tumbled, and a gaping entry-way stood, doorless, opening onto a staircase covered in the powdery grey of old bone and myriad wispy black tendrils of mold clung to every damp surface.
The party picked their way through this collapsed landscape and crossed the threshold of the gatehouse doorway, every one of them gripped by unrelenting tension, the dripping silence adding to their anticipation of attack at any moment. At every moment.
In spite of their senses cranked to maximum, none of them read the signs clearly enough.
Fennick, ranger’s blade-in-hand, lead the way, followed by the unsmiling paladin, T’agan and the mage, Tesseract. Something niggled the other ranger’s mind, and Moonblood paused, only for a moment, before the mimic struck.
In the form of the lintel and doorframe, it grappled the stunned muckfighter with four sticky pseudopods and the warrior screamed in pain as acids bubbled the flesh from his exposed skin. Dipdunk, only a pace behind Moonblood, was struck a glancing blow, and he was knocked down, and he wailed as the skin on his forearm bubbled thickly with a sticky green mucus. Klemgathed was shocked by this sudden attack, but his mind quickly assessed one critical fact. His skills were useless against this monster. If he so much as touched it, his skin would liquify. He was not without a recourse, however, and he scrambled forward to snatch Dipdunk’s short bow and a few arrows before tumbling away and landing in an archer’s crouch.
On the other side, at the head of the crumbling stairs, Tesseract shoved Fennick aside and quickly cast Magic Missile at the mimic’s ropey false-tentacles, and they lit the thing with an ignus fatuus, causing the monster to pull the injured portion of itself back, freeing Moonblood’s waist, but leaving a thick, green mucal smear around the warrior’s midsection, which even now began to slowly smoke.
Fennick bellowed and after Tesseract had cast, he shouldered him aside and skewered one side of the mimic with a two-handed plunge, and roared encouragement as the creature’s ichor began to pour freely from the wound. Moonblood wept in pain as the creature’s agony caused it to squeeze him harder for now his flesh was mostly gone and the muscles of his arms and neck were being dissolved in bloody gouts.
Dipdunk was wounded, but enraged and after the wind from Klem’s two arrows blew the fringe of his hair up, he filled his hands with his two long daggers and tumbled forward, slicing into the mimic’s form with a deft, surgical touch and springing back to avoid the creature’s foul-smelling blood.
The mimic, angry, in pain, and dying, thought back over its long life, and its many thousands of savory meals, and felt a ripple of regret pass through its polymorphic form. It had been greedy and stupid, but hunger had driven it nearly insane. Enslaved to Rakasha’s will, it could do nothing other than defend her, but even it knew that to attack so many at once was folly. As it slid into death, it cursed the banshee and wished for her final demise. The party felt much the same, but were now consumed with the death of Moonblood, his mutilated body now falling to pieces.
Fennick was inconsolable, clutching Moonblood’s remains and weeping aloud, his sorrow so visceral that T’agan had to turn away, physically sick, and he emptied his stomach in sympathy.
Dipdunk was cursing under his breath, a litany of filth and curses that took a lifetime to acquire. He was up to his elbows in gore, kneeling before the doorway, gutting the bulk of the dead mimic’s form, slicing away slime covered slabs and knobs, tossing them away over his shoulder.
Tesseract’s jaw was set, his fists clenched, and he was staring down the crumbling stairway into the pitch black. He did not look at the others and he did not speak. T’agan, after rinsing his mouth, tried to softly speak to him but the bogweaver only spat some apostasy and the paladin paled, and quickly left him alone.
Klemgathed felt sorrow and rage wash over him, and wondered again how he had ended up here. This was his life? Is this why he left the tanagrak, the diggings of his people? To watch friends die bloody so that evil could survive? So that evil could thrive? His mind touched the memory of the face of Master Wei, butchered in the fields of his monastery and he felt something inside him change. A fire lit, and began to burn brightly. He took 18 slow breaths, stoking his rage. His ego queried his id. The answer was “Yes. I will.”
At that moment, the fate blade, Sho-Nang, prisonhouse of the spirit of Akou-Taie, the Shining One, sensed this shift of Klem’s spirit towards law and justice, and once more granted Klemgathed its power.
Klem felt his arm moving towards the blade, as if his muscles knew what his brain had not yet caught up to, and he watched himself unsheath Sho-Nang. The katana was a masterwork and its deadly beauty granted Klemgathed unnatural speed, a celerity that turned the monk into a fighting machine that was truly awe-inspiring. Klem suddenly began to step the katas that Master Wei had drilled into him.
None of the others, save T’agan, paid him any mind, lost as they were in their own pain.
T’agan saw Klemgathed perform a blade-dance that none outside the crystal city of the silver elves even knew existed, such was his fortunate honor that day. T’agan knew war, knew tactics and strategy and could fight with a dozen different weapons in a dozen different styles, but he knew, at once, that not even one of the Holy Ramas of Akbar could stand against Klemgathed now. It sent a shiver down him, and he knew that he would follow Klemgathed until the bitter end, wherever that may be. T’agan glimpsed, however briefly, Klem’s future, and his own, and he knew he could not turn away from it.
Dipdunk crowed and pulled slime-covered arms from deep within the mimic’s body, a slippery sack-like organ in his arms. He dumped it on cobbles and slit it open like one would slice open an orange.
Objects glittered within and he began to stuff his pockets, wispy strings of slime blowing freely in the freshening evening breeze.
Fennick returned from where he had lain a cairn over Moonblood. He had vowed to himself to bring his brother home, after the witch was given her final death, and his tears had dried, replaced by a grim mask of hatred and determination that his mother would have not recognized.
Tesseract finally stopped acting a statue and curled his fingers into claws, and began whispering in Arcan, weaving spell chains and stay-anchors that laced the air with tiny chains of glowing sigils.
T’agan cornered Dipdunk and forced him to hold still while he tried to clear away some of the goop that clung in obstinate clumps to the old rogue’s clothes and body. He asked Lodis for his favor, was obliged, and healed the worst of Dunk’s wounds. Dipdunk only grunted at him, and pressed a ring into his hand as payment. T’agan grimaced, his hand now sticky and he used up a bit more precious water to clean it, and the ring, that was a twisted twin-band of gold connecting in a tiny round amethyst. It looked like it would fit him perfectly, and he glanced around at the others, but none were watching him. He slipped the ring onto his shield hand and a word in Arcan was whispered into his mind. He picked up his shield and rejoined the others.
No Risen had come at them. Nothing had charged at them from the stairwell. Nothing scurried in the surrounding ruins. The silence, as night fell, filled the survivors with dread.
From this quiet came a mournful, multi-layered crooning, as wind through a gapped eave.
Klemgathed whipped his head around, a smile lighting his face, and T’agan said, “What? What is it?”
But the monk said nothing, just held his hand up for patience, and stepped away from the group, and was almost instantly swallowed up by darkness, for no one yet had lit a lantern or torch, and the ruins were black as pitch.
The others huddled, and spoke in hand-slang as best they could, T’agan struggling to keep up with the fingerbabble. They decided to wait, and not pursue Klem, and minutes later were rewarded when Klem reappeared like a ghost, and he had a lopsided grin on his bearded face. He looked at them, each in turn, and then softly spoke, defying the Mistmire’s orders on silence.
“I’ve found a friend. A child of Braxis. Can you believe it?”
The Mistmire raised eyebrows and gave querying glances to one another, but T’agan spoke up and said, “Braxis? The Cavern Lord? He-of-the-Deep? He had a child?”
Klem grinned again, and said, “Not his child. One of his kin. A brillix.”
None of the others knew the Dwarven word. T’agan said so.
Klem said nothing, but simply turned and made a queer noise with his throat, vibratory and lyric.
Tesseract quickly weaved Light, and the half-stacked walls sprung into view, and the deep shadows from the tumbled stones leaped out in stark contrast.
A creature shambled into the light, nearly twice as tall as Fennick, who was tall for a human, and it was like nothing any of the Mistmire, or the paladin, had ever dreamed of. It moved with a liquid grace, as if were sliding over and around the stone, but it appeared to have legs, or at least appendages that acted like legs. “It’s covered in holes”, thought Fennick, but then he realized, it was holes. Thousands of them. It was from these that the eerie keening originated, the queer sound not unlike an instrument he had once heard at the Ferngully markets, played by a gnomish bard who called the thing a thyr-a-myn.
A brillix (Sussurus)
It sounded like nothing natural, that’s what Dipdunk thought, and just watching it made his stomach flip over. He hissed, “This thing’s a friend? Ta what? A bloody madman? That sound. It makes my teeth itch!”
Klem made another sound in his throat at the brillix, and the creature stopped where it was and slowly undulated itself, like seaweed in a tidal pool, it seemed that being still was not in its nature.
The monk turned to the party and returned to hand-slang. “Our ally is the natural enemy of undead. They cannot stand the creature’s song. It causes them great pain.” He returned to Common and said, “Our people have had long, but infrequent contact with the Children of Braxis. Long and ever have they been our allies, however, and all dwarven children are taught to speak with them. The brillix was most likely summoned here by a rock-mage, and when the mage died, it was trapped here. Unable to leave because of the Risen, but immune to the witch’s power. It seems very eager for companions. We would be foolish to leave it behind.”
The others quickly concurred, and they began to arrange themselves to enter the depths of the citadel, the brillix pulling up the rear behind Klemgathed, who frequently spoke to it in a pidgeon that had been developed over many millenia between the Dwarves and the brillix population. As long as Klem did not mistreat it, it would faithfully do whatever he asked, for as long as he asked, such was the love between the species.
As they descended into the castle, they came across many bones. Many were very old, and some were not, but all had the same common condition. They were all shattered into pieces, as if they had been individually hammered into shards. Dipdunk noticed something else, too. There were no doors. Plenty of doorways, but they had not come across a single door, only the evidence of them, half-twisted hinges and bent pins.
Chamber after chamber was explored. Nothing was found save shattered bones and the evidence of ancient campsites. Spiders and lizards scuttled away from the Light that Tesseract kept refreshing. Nothing attacked them. Even the constant, nearly sub-aural enticements from Rakasha had fallen away. The witch was silent. As was her demesne. The tension was cranked to the breaking point and the group, deep within the citadel’s underground maze, finally found a chamber sealed with doors.
The antechamber that they were in appeared to have been the scene of a terrible battle. The walls and floors were scorched and some of the floor had run to slag. Smashed bone littered the floor and, oddly, graffiti was painted on the massive double doors before them. The doors were a dark, almost black wood, carved in a bas-relief of sickening imagery; twisted and malicious beings were devouring humans and Elves, Dwarves and Gnomes in a seemingly never-ending array of gory torture and sexual abominations. Crudely splashed on them was white paint, as if someone had attempted to paint over the carvings in a childish fit of frustration.
T’agan was nearly physically sick again looking at the doors into a Temple of Abohar, for that’s what they surely were, any foundling in the Forge would have known that. What he found strange was the graffiti. They looked like Ashaarian runes, almost, as if a madman or a very young child had tried to draw them and didn’t quite get them right. T’agan tilted his head, realizing the rune forms were in a circle, and then he suddenly understood what he was looking at.
Fennick and Tesseract were near the antechamber’s empty doorframe, quickly hand-slanging, hammering out strategies and retreat scenarios.
Dipdunk was very close to the carved double-doors, as close as he could get his old eyes without actually touching, and he was as certain as he had ever been in his life that these doors were lousy with traps, and probably some cruel ones, at that.
Klemgathed was watching Dipdunk, one hand lightly resting on Sho-Nang, absent-mindedly.
T’agan whispered a plea to Lodis for strength and guidance, then shouted to Dunk and Klem, “Get back! Away from the doors! Now!”
The monk and the rogue looked sharply at T’agan, and Dipdunk opened his mouth to say something cutting when he saw the look on the paladin’s face, a look he was coming to respect (and fear) and he got off his knees and moved off with Klem to join the others by the doorless entry.
T’agan held his hand out, palm up, eyes downcast, and he implored Lodis for true sight, to cut through illusion and reveal all lies. He felt the power surge through him and he thanked the Oathbinder for his steadfast faith and power. When T’agan looked up again, his mind could see what his eyes had been tricked into believing.
What was once a circle of binding, and a very powerful one, had been warped and twisted into a glyph of destruction, and he quickly averted his eyes, lest he accidentally read all of it and set off the magical trap. The writing was Ashaarian, there was no doubt. The sigils used to lay the binding were ancient and were devious in their message. The banshee-witch would never be able to circumvent its rules, but he saw what she had been able to do, and that was to subvert the sigils themselves, by rearranging the paint, molecule by molecule.
His mind goggled. How many centuries had it taken her? To twist the binding so that it still trapped her in the chamber beyond, but also served as a powerful trap to any who would seek to ignore the binding and seek the banshee’s final death? Rakasha’s twisted will sent a cold ripple through his body, and he shuddered.
Klem was suddenly at his side. “What is it?”
T’agan felt the monk’s inner calm and strength, and felt glad again that he had chosen this path. He turned to the monk and said, “She is inside. But this,” and he gestured at the painted “graffiti”, “both traps her inside and threatens us with death if we try to enter.”
Klem frowned. Tesseract appeared at his shoulder. The mage said, “We could dispel it, maybe. Or trigger it remotely, perhaps?”
T’agan thought it over, but he never had a chance to answer the bogweaver, because at that moment, the will of Rakasha flooded back, and her voice was suddenly everywhere, it filled every chamber, every tumbled hallway, and it was as loud as a shout in her mind.
“COWARDS AND LIARS! RAPISTS AND THIEVES! MURDERERS AND VILLAINS, BASTARDS AND MOTHERFUCKERS! YOU DARE CHALLENGE ME? THEN COME AND GET ME! COME AND GET ME COME AND GET ME COME AND GET ME COME AND GET ME!”
Fennick rose to the bait and hurled himself at the doors, grabbing both handles and bracing himself.
T’agan and Klemgathed howled at him to stop, and Dipdunk babbled of traps, while Tesseract moved as the brillix slid into the antechamber, and the mage began to weave.
It was, of course, too late.
Fennick broke the seal, validating an instant-prophecy babbled from the mouth of a madman in the city of Ravenhawk two continents away, and the room turned to fire as the glyph of destruction activated and the ancient curse roared over them.