RSS

Category Archives: The Flight of the Dawn Arrow

A long arc from a real-world D&D campaign that I novelized.

The Circle Opens (0)

The Circle Opens (0)

You may have read another post here called “The Flight of the Dawn Arrow”. That was the real ending to a real campaign that my friend and I ran for 5 years. Today I thought I’d bring you the beginning. I’m also going to write up an arc from the early part of the campaign. But that’s for another day.


Master Wei Chi was in the great hall, listening and occasionally speaking to the the South winds. The high domed chamber seemed to almost sing in harmony with the breeze, the nodding trees that lined the amphitheater dozing as if in lullaby.

His afternoon meditation was broken by the patter of a student’s footfalls. He begged forgiveness for the interruption and gave thanks for the communion with the winds, bowed twice and rose to his feet, turning to face a year seven male, Grelleck, the young boy’s face showed fear and shock. Something had happened.

“Master Wei, honored teacher, there are visitors in the Grove!”

The old monk scowled as the boy’s excitement chased away the last of the visiting winds, a rumble of wings went with it, starlings and an old owl. The boy scrunched his shoulders and winced.

“Forgive me, Master”

The old man suddenly headed towards the doors and Grelleck scrambled to follow, but Master Wei said, “Food for our guests. Quickly, now.” and heard the boy change direction behind him, heading for the cavern stairs. The monk moved upwards, a vast flight of polished maple risers enscribed with prayers of protection, harmony, peace, and reflection. The warm springtime sun lit the whole in a honeyed light, and at dawn and dusk you could watch the light slowly pour down or rise up the six-hundred metre staircase and become entranced. Master Wei had no time for reflection today.

He crested the staircase and stepped into the mass of gardens and fields that surrounded the Circle of Reflection Monastery, which itself was a granite plinth rising like a giants leg-bone out of the earth, with caverns and tunnels hollowed out in the rock beneath the surface.

Master Wei headed across the outer gardens, seeing students at work, or rest, he spoke to none of them, his mind turning over recent events, sorting and sieving, but no visitors were due for many months.

He was not troubled. Trouble would not come knocking.

The outer grove was a stand of cherry trees, flaming pink in the springtime breeze. As he neared, he spoke a phrase in his native tongue and many dozens of spirit creatures suddenly sprang into view, clustered in the trees and throughout the ground cover of the old cherry stand.
He smiled to see them, calling out to them as friends and the birds, and squirrels, and rabbits and more, started chattering to him all at once, of 2 people come to the right place, the right grove, to petition for access or at least an audience with Master Wei. One was old and sick. The other was young and afraid. Neither posed a threat, at least not that the kami could sense, and they could do no harm in the Grove anyway.The old monk thanked them for their help and reassured them of his friendship and gratitude for their guardianship. The kami did not answer, but scattered away and disappeared, even to his enchanted-eyes.

He stepped across the threshold, knowing he was welcome in this sacred place, and immediately sensed the presence of the other 2, as he knew they were now sensing him.

Anyone entering the Grove is always a friend come to visit, or an ally come to trade goods or trade gossip, but none of those were expected, and strangers in this part of the Emerald Hills are rare, as there is nothing but hostile monsters and miles of confusing-to-navigate, endlessly rolling green hills, dotted with the occasional cavern, cave or sinkhole, and teeming with clans of orcs and hobgoblins and many warring ogre tribes.

These two were not known to Master Wei, but they were very far from home. The dark skin and angular features of the Ashaarian people were hard to miss. Their dress was simple and functional, with minimal weaponry and few possessions. He saw the young one had a crowd of kami gathered at his feet and sitting atop his head and shoulders. Truest sign there was that this boy was to be trusted. The older one was very old, he saw, and was indeed sick with some wasting disease, but a fire lit his eyes and he looked ready to maybe take on a few orcs before he died.

The elder Ashaarian turned and spoke quietly to the boy, who then sat down where he was, the invisible kami snuggling into his lap and cuddled all around his legs and torso, and the elder Ashaarian stepped forward out of earshot of the young one and much to Master Wei’s surprise, spoke in the quick, clipped cadence of a long-time speaker of the monk’s native tongue, Rokugan.

“Honored Teacher and Wisest of the Ka, forgive my intrusion into your solitude and work, but I have come to you on the orders of a shadow thought long dead. He has shown me much that I wish I hadn’t seen, and sent me thousands of leagues to find your hidden sanctuary.” The man stopped and looked pained, and Master Wei stepped forward to place a steadying hand on his elbow, when the elder stranger whispered, in Common, “We are all lost if he ever finds the truth.” and then the elder swooned at that moment and Master Wei quickly asked permission, received a near-instantaneous answer of yes, and then eased the frail old man into a seated position against the trunk of an old cherry tree.

He looked around and saw Han Xu, his family kami, currently in the shape of a feline, waiting nearby. He smiled and asked if the Wise One could give entrance to his students, and felt the Grove admit two of his older students, a year 15 named Fenner, who walked quickly to Master Wei’s position and laid down a basket of food and drink, and a year 17 named Ainosh, who stood back and waited, hands behind his back.

Master Wei returned his attention to the elder man and asked him softly in Rokugan for his name. The man’s eyes fluttered open and fought for focus but whatever burden he was carrying proved too much and he sank back into unconsciousness. The young one, watching nearby, rose and walked cautiously forward and said in Aqaba, the city-tongue of Akbar of Ashaaria, oft called The Shining City, “He never eats, and he sleeps too much. He is dying, but he won’t tell me why.”

Master Wei looked up at him and gave him a reassuring smile and spoke to him in Al’Ishi, the only northern Ashaarian language he knew, hoping the boy knew enough to get his meaning, and said “He is near to his end, it is true, but his winds still blow. Please rest, and let me tend to him.”

This seemed to placate the young boy because he smiled and nodded and replied in Al’Ishi “Many thanks. I would share salt with you and be honored to do so. Wet winds for your help.”

Clearly the boy understood him perfectly and Master Wei said no more for the boy went back and sat down near their meager belongings and only watched with curious eyes.

The crowd of kami around him had thinned with only three or four cats loafing near his feet.

None would come near the old man. He had not been warned of any threat, but while the kami were wise beyond measure, they were not infallible.

Master Wei was tempted to move them into the Monastery’s main grounds, but some part of him, that part that has kept him alive for far longer than he wanted, that part of him spoke in whispers and it was whispering now, urging caution and this alone colored his decision to let the strangers tarry here, where it was safe, where the strangers from the South could be watched, where they could be repulsed, if necessary.

The Master felt the caution and the kami’s trust start to mix. Strange. These opposing ideas were actually causing conflict within him. He could feel the discord churning through his essence, clouding his reason and the revulsion of his weakness sickened him, and he took six short cleansing breaths and focused.

The frail old man was still unconscious, and a quick pass of the Master’s expert hands and eyes revealed that there was no hope. Comfort was all that could matter now. He used his own cloak as a blanket and rearranged the old man on the ground, and with a few words, asked the four Winds for a blessing to ease his passage.

The old monk’s mind then turned to this man in his care, and grappled with several questions: Firstly, how does an Ashaarian come to speak his native language when it was forbidden to teach it to non-natives? He was not known to Master Wei, nor had any of his spies in the many places of the Realms alerted him to such a man. His mind turned to anyone who could have taught this man the language of his homeland, and thought of no one who would be in a position to reveal themselves so openly. No, there could be no one. Even if that were somehow possible, who would gain from it? Master Wei’s enemies were the perfect number. Zero. He thought. He quickly searched his mind, replaying details of battles past and found no flaw, no risen enemy to torment him or deceive him (again).

The Master was ever watchful, ever vigilant of the comings-and-goings of the Hills and the Realms. “Strange”, he thought, “how all my time is spent thinking of the darkness we all worked so hard to obliterate. Its absence causes us to conjure it now more frequently than when it was still a present threat.”

He frowned. Evil’s insidious persistence gave him a cold shiver.

The more he pondered this the more he began to worry that poor planning and shortsightedness had blinded him. Alarms started to ring in his mind and he thought, “Am I being deceived even now? If not treachery seen, then perhaps unseen? I have stayed and watched. I have watched and waited and it has been quiet. If not, then death and the next cycle, but I have seen no signs, no shadows of doom creeping in silently to strangle and blind us. No signs at all. Perhaps that in itself is the sign!”

Master Wei frowned and clamped a firm grip on that nonsense and pushed it away. Hard.

“It will not do to puzzle and brood,” he thought, “I need to act. Could this instead be an ally helping from afar? Unseen? Unspoken? There are a few of those I can think of who would, who could do this thing. Yes.”

He nodded unconsciously, and over across the grove the boy waiting worriedly for the fate of this old man saw this slight nod and felt better somehow, even though he had no idea why.

He returned to the old man and rummaged in the basket the students had delivered. He brought out a carved wooden box, opened the box and used the herbs inside to infuse a cold tea. After a few moments he eased the elderly man’s head up and got him to drink, the man’s eyes fluttered open and he drank greedily, using his own hand to tip the cup upwards, some of the tea spilling down across his chin and robes. The man lay back, gasping, wiped his hand across his mouth and spoke again in Rokugan.

“Ah, that was refreshing. Many gentle winds for your help, Honored Teacher.” He stopped again, panting slightly, still regaining his wind. With help from Master Wei he sat up a bit, and he wiped some drool from his mouth and said, “There is much we need to speak of and I haven’t much time. My name is Elder-Master Ikshir of the Quluthane and over there is my apprentice, Moham, and we have traveled from the Aqaba Conclave to speak with you. I’m afraid much of what I have to say will not be pleasant. Please send Moham away, he has a quick mind and I don’t want to worry him.” He stopped and took some more tea, smiling at the taste.

Without having to ask, the kami near Moham revealed themselves to the boy. Delighted, he began to play and romp around with them, and the kami led the boy away from the quiet scene.
When it was silent again, Master Wei looked closely at this strange druid from the South and waited for him to begin.

When Ikshir began he spoke in quick, low tones, the jumbled singsong of Rokugan, the native tongue of the Empire of Clu, and again the Master was struck at how eerie this man’s accent was. He spoke as if he had walked the dusty streets of Mishima personally! It was flawless, and that was what troubled him. It was too good, too perfect, no outsider would ever be able to develop a homegrown bent to his daily speech unless he was born there, unless he ate and slept there! Master Wei’s mind raced to keep up with what the old man was saying and strove to drive this troublesome distraction from his mind.

“Master Wei, I bring word to you from an ancient friend. He-who-was-Lord-Deshthen. He is coming. You cannot win. You cannot resist. You should compose your death poem soon.”

The monk looked away. A minute passed. “When?”

“Come the Plantings. A few weeks, perhaps.”

Master Wei turned away from Ikshir and stood. He then paced a few yards among the falling blossoms and the kami of the Grove started to reappear near him, their presence lending him strength as he felt the shock of this wash over him, testing his will.

Ikshir said, “He says he is called Dreadcircle now. He says he is the servant of the Unmaking.”

Master Wei snorted and almost laughed, an ugly short sound, and barked, “I know what he is now. I know whom he serves. I was there!”

The elder Asharrian took the last of his tea and leaned his head against the old tree. He said, very simply, “I am an old man now. I have walked the endless dune seas of my home and seen the shattered Pinnacles of the Anasazi. I once advised Rama Narali about improvements to the palace gardens and was honored for my knowledge and hard work. I am dead in a few hours, and there is nothing anyone can do. My part is over now. I should tell you everything before Moham returns.”

Master Wei kept his back to the old man and waited for Ikshir to continue, his mind a calm hurricane.

Ikshir said, “When Moham was a baby his parents were savaged by the beasts of the Dune Seas and their caravan was lost. The boy was found only hours after the attack by some good folk, the Al’Ishi of T’Taan, whose swift horses carried him north to Akbar to deliver him into the care of the Holy Circle of Swords, as agreed by an ancient compact.

He was looked at by the Shining Light and deemed worthy to join the Quluthane, stewards of the sands, though we wage constant war against the beasts and raiders of the Scorching Winds, we accepted his nomination.

When I carried him through the circle of our most holy and sacred place of worship, the ancient ring shook with a mighty tremor and all of my order were thrown down and badly shaken. When the violence finally stopped, the head of our order, a wise and ancient druid called Ahen’ichep’ukatt, suddenly cried out in a loud voice “The prophecy of the Codex has come true! The Llanyr is broken!”

A horrified gasp escaped as we stood and saw it was true. The truly ancient stone ring built by the first of the Quluthane was now slanted at a sharp angle and two of the plinths had sheared off and the lintel of the trilithon had dislodged and lay vertically resting against one of its supporting plinths. The Llanyr Aatma, sacred circle, was lifeless and our order had lost a vital link with our gods and with the rest of the Realms.

Our Arch Druid, Ahen’ichep’ukatt was looking at Moham with a most intense stare, and spoke again pointing at the boy and said “It is said in the Codex that when the Aatma is broken a child of the Faith will travel far from these lands to wake the Kala Jaandra, the Dawn Arrow, and the child will wrestle, and lose, with the many tentacles of the Void.”

Before any of the druids could erupt with questions, the Arch Druid plunged on, saying “I have heard from the Chaos Hunters that female twins have been taken into the Forge, as prophesied in the Codex! They are the shaddar-kai, the Catalysts, and there is no mistaking that these are truly the end times, and the Void’s fell wrath will soon darken all the lands unless we prepare this boy!”

The old man stopped and asked for more tea. Master Wei did the labor himself, his hands were sure and steady and Ikshir seemed to gain some comfort from this quiet ritual.

After he had drank, dribbling a little down his tunic, Ikshir began again, and said,

“The Arch Druid pulled Moham out of my arms and held him up for all to see He shouted, “We show the Beacon his true path or we are all lost! We must protect him at all costs!”

The Arch Druid handed Moham back to me and said to me in almost a whisper, his voice hoarse with emotion “Keep him and train him quickly, Ikshir, for we don’t have much time, three decades, maybe less. Make him strong and smart and tell him nothing of his true destiny. Nothing must prevent him from waking the Arrow.”

Moham learned quickly and soon grew into a faithful follower and defender of our ways and our people. I told him nothing, as Arch Druid Ahen’ichep’ukatt instructed me, and 6 months ago we left Ashaaria on our trip, ostensibly to deliver a gift to you, Master Wei, from the Arch-Druid himself, and Moham was told that he was coming to study the domains of the northern realms, so different from our own.

Now we are here, and now you have been warned, Kala Jaandra, and now I can die knowing I played my small part in the defense of our home, our Drexlor.” Ikshir slumped a bit, his face draining of energy, and his demeanor visibly paled. But he still smiled at Master Wei, and he tried to take his hand.

Master Wei returned the smile and took Ikshir’s bony hand in both of his own. “I thank you for the warning, but I am not the Kala Jaandra of your prophecies. I am called the Prava’chaan, the Archer, or have you not read the second Kaand of the Codex?”

Ikshir’s eyes flew open. “How did y- , Only the most powerful of our order are allowed access to the holy kaands. It is not possible!”

Master Wei smiled and said “I am privy to secrets you could not dream of blessed defender. I am one of the Ka, and know my place in the grand cataclysm to come. Do not doubt me, for I have been to the outer realms and I have seen the face of evil incarnate.”

Ikshir, unable to rise to his feet, nodded his head in the most reverential manner he could manage and spoke humbly to Master Wei, begging his forgiveness and assuring him that he would do nothing to interfere with his dharma and did not mean to offend the wise, powerful and ancient monk.

Master Wei softly, “I will aim the Arrow true, blessed defender, but no man or god can predict where it will land.“ and the master smirked and said “He’s dwarven you know.”

Elder-Master Ikshir, 5th circle of Renewal, Aqaba-Quluthane, smiled back one last time at the kindly face of Master Chi and breathed his last in the Grove of Harmonious Reflection 436 miles inside the borders of the Emerald Hills of Gemseed.

In exactly 16 days the Monastery would be razed to the ground and Master Wei and his students murdered. Only one survives. A one-armed hill-dwarven student monk named Klemgathed Shalecott. The Dawn Arrow. Fated to save the world, it all began here, in this place, with the Monastery in flames, his master and friends butchered and the face of a former paladin, now called Dreadcircle, etched in his mind.

Dreadcircle is a servant to Okotarg-the-Deformed, a necromancer of unmatched power, known to the world as The Unmaking, or The Void.
In exactly 27 years, 15 months, 2 weeks and 1 day, The Dawn Arrow and The Void meet.

For the first and last time.

Advertisements
 
 

The Dead Swamp (1)

The Dead Swamp (1)

This is another snapshot in the story of Klemgathed Shalecott, known as the Dawn Arrow. The events of this tale take place approximately six months after the events of “The Flight of the Dawn Arrow”.

Yes, all this stuff “really” happened and my mate Ben actually did everything that you find in these tales. I told him I would be posting this section of the story and he shuddered. I guess I put the fear of the gods into him and that makes me smile.

After discovering that the former-paladin, Dreadcircle, was in fact a minion of the necromancer, Okotarg-of-the-Void, he set out in pursuit of knowledge that would help him exact revenge for his murdered teacher and classmates.

A few weeks slogging through the rolling maze of the Emerald Hills found Klem back in his ancestral homelands, the hill dwarven lands known as Tanagrak. His people were under siege by forces of Dreadcircle, and it was during this time that Klem was slain by treachery.

Instead of finding himself in the afterlife, he awoke in the cloistered tower of the mage, Tohloth Wayfinder, in the capitol of Gemseed, the city of New Sybar. Tohloth told him the true story of who Dreadcircle was and why he had abandoned his order and joined with the enemy. Unbeknownst to Klem, Tohloth was being hunted by agents of the Emperor of Rega, who ostensibly ruled these lands from afar. Tohloth also said that he raised him from the dead so that Klemgathed could fulfill his destiny. Seems legit.

Klem himself was now being hunted. He fled the city and headed south. This is where our tale opens. This is part one of two.


Klemgathed Shalecott was on the run. He had no choice, really, ever since he had met the renegade mage, Tohloth Wayfinder his life had turned upside-down. It was the first of Shrouds, the season of Shadow, and he was about to swim across the River Po and enter the Skelking Moors, once called The Dead Swamp. Alone. Not his finest moment, but the rest of the continent was closed to him, and he needed to get out of Gemseed quickly. The only port that he could think of where the Regan government wouldn’t be looking for him was the lonely hamlet of Stricken, some 400 kilometres from where he stood at the riverbank in west Gemseed.

The first of Shrouds. There would be nothing but gloom for the next month, and the month after that, nothing but darkness. He had to move quickly.

Its not easy to swim with one arm. Klem had no choice. The water was cold and swift. He struggled to keep his gear and himself afloat. He had a few meager possessions in an oiled cloth, wrapped in burlap and tied to his waist. He had no armor and did not need any. Monks disdained such clumsy trappings.

The only thing of value he did have was an ancient katana strapped to his back. It’s name was Shonang, the Fate Blade, and it was the home of the spirit of a truly ancient being, the Cluian monk Akou-Taie, who had been imprisoned within the blade centuries ago and now only had one purpose – to destroy the demon rakshasha, Shao-Ti, and escape his prison.

After 30 minutes spent in freezing cold water, the dwarven monk finally hauled himself up onto the far bank and lay there for a few minutes, catching his breath. As he rested, he reviewed what he knew about The Skelking Moors.

Once, the Upper Eastern half of Gemseed was a fertile land of rolling hills, small patches of forest, and productive farmland. It was cut off from the Wilds of Aka-Na to the south by the Llanelli River, and was once home to thousands who provided the bulk of food to Gemseed’s cities. What was not eaten was exported the rest to the Middle Kingdoms, and had proved a bulwark against famine in ages past.

During the Age of Darkness the continent was besieged by the Chaos Wars, and the land was beset by tens of thousands of dark elves, known as Drow to their enemies. They boiled up from the Underdark and the Underdeep through many gorges, caverns and sinkholes. They had one aim – to destroy the surface dwellers and take revenge for being banished millenia ago.

Their leader, the Drow queen, Xanthaniax Dru’ell Dru’ess, nearly won the war. Without the help of the paladin army of Akbar, the Shining City of Ashaaria, Gemseed would have certainly been lost to the forces of darkness.
After nearly 2,000 years of war, Queen Dru’ell Dru’ess was defeated and her daughter, the Witch Rakasha, tried to lead a new revolt, enslaving thousands and building a massive fortress in the northern reaches of Eastern Gemseed while the combined armies of Light disbanded, believing the threat passed.

Eventually, she was also defeated, but she did not go quietly, as her mother before her. Her rage enabled her to live on as a banshee. On the day of her death she rose as a restless spirit, and her death wails slew all whom she had enslaved and all who served her. The day of her death also began the death knell for Eastern Gemseed.

Rakasha cursed the land, and a spate of foul water gushed from the walls of her once-mighty fortress.

It flooded the surrounding lands, and over the centuries, had stagnated and destroyed the fertile land, creeping outwards every year, slowly devouring the land.

Now called the Dead Swamp, it was broken into four sections – to the north-west were The Bogs of Sorrow, where Rakasha’s castle still stood; The Blackbog Pits, in the north-east, was where the village of Stricken now fought a losing battle against the ever-widening swamp; to the south-east were The Festering Fens, where the Mistmire Clans now battled against the rampant breeding of foul monsters; and in the south-west was The Stinking Quagmire, where Klem now found himself, pinned against the shoreline.

Rakasha’s dread will could be felt even this far south of her citadel. It was said that she saw and heard all that transpired in her domain, and that all who died here served her malice.

Klemgathed got to his feet, checked again that the Fate Blade would not answer his requests (Akou-Taie had gone silent ever since Klem had his beliefs shaken to the point where he didn’t know what he believed anymore, and the blade would not come free from the scabbard), and set off towards the remnants of an ancient road, now half-sunken in the greasy-grey waters.

It took Klem nearly a month to transverse the swamp. He had been attacked by vapor rats on a daily basis, strange half-magical vermin who could turn to smoke at will, and defied his attempts at driving them away. He had sheltered in the destroyed remains of an ancient logging camp when the foul-smelling fogs that gave this section of the swamp its name nearly choked him to death. He had seen Catoblepas grazing in the distance, great hulking creatures with long necks whose very gaze could turn the unwary to stone. He had seen Vampiric Mists, blood-red from recent feedings, wafting on the sulfurous winds. He was out of food, weakened from his travails and beginning to lose hope that he would ever reach the distant village, when a group of Mistmire appeared out of the fogs in his darkest hours.

The swamp-folk known as the Mistmire were the last souls he expected to see. They were generally rumored to be a xenophobic group, too used to Rakasha’s tricks and nightmare-sendings to trust strangers, but this group had a psionic hidden among them, and Klem could feel the pyschic tendrils of questing probes touch his mind again and again, looking for lies and weakness. Whatever tests they posed his weary intellect, he must have passed, as the group of nearly three-dozen of them took him into their camp, gave him food, water and rest, and, after he told his story, agreed to escort him to Stricken.

The village was pathetic. A mishmash of clapboard shacks and removable sections of wooden walls, necessitated by the constant need to keep moving away from the encroaching waters, it was home to several hundred of the poorest folk the monk had ever seen. Everyone looked hungry and sick, and they all had the same haunted look in their eyes. He was beginning to think that this excruciating journey was a mistake, when he was approached by Elder Estiss Gra, a thin, sickly, elderly man, with raggedy grey hair who offered what meager comforts the village could provide to the newest arrival.

In a ramshackle room, with the gusts of the season of Shadows pouring through the ill-fitted boards, the greasy, foul-smelling oil lamps threw crazy silhouettes upon the walls and Klem felt as if he might be still on the shores of the Stinking Quags, raving in a fever dream, and all this was just some horrible nightmare.

The elder said, “If its a ship you are needing, you might be in for a wait. Very few pass these shorelines, and certainly none move during the dark season. You seem to be a dwarf of the Emerald Hills, if my old eyes have not failed me?”

Klem nodded yes, and sipped the sour mushroom brew that had been slowly going warm in the wooden tankard in his hands.

The elder continued, “Ah! I thought so! Once your people and ours were strong allies, before the curse took these lands, and the saga-singers tell of a great battle fought against the forces of darkness where our people and yours shared blood and sorrow.”
Klemgathed said nothing, he cared little for history and even less for the exploits of his kinsmen. Indeed, his loathing for the pursuits of glory and gold were what drove him away from his ancestral homelands to begin with, and he merely nodded and tried to stay awake.

Elder Gra continued, “If I may be so bold, there is a matter of great importance that I would like to discuss with you. It concerns the Witch.”

Klem sipped his now-warm ale and nodded for the old man to continue. Let him ramble all he wants, thought the monk, as long as I can keep him in good spirits, perhaps I can shelter here until the season of Shadows ends and I can find a ship out of this gods-forsaken place.

The elder motioned to one of his servants, who opened an ill-hanging door and the gyrating light picked out the trappings of a paladin of Akbar. The man, well out of his youth, was like a jewel in a dung heap. His armor and weapons shone, and he carried himself as only those from the Shining City could, not with arrogance, but with the certainty of superiority and grace.

Elder Gra saw Klemgathed’s face and laughed, a bubbly, wheezing sound, and said “Didn’t expect to see one of the Silversword warriors in this shithole did you? Let me introduce T’agan Kamsare, of the Holy Order of the Cleansing Light, lately detached from his duties and come to our humble village to help us dispose of the witch, Rakasha, once and for all.”

Klem nearly choked and dropped the ale tankard from his hands, the tepid suds leaking through the many gaps in the warped floorboards, and he finally found his voice, “You plan on destroying Rakasha? Are you mad or drunk?”

The elder’s teenage guards bristled, and one moved to strike the monk, when Elder Gra barked, “Enough! Our guest is not to be touched! Besides, I have the feeling you would end up nursing a broken arm if you tried, Pilba.”

The boy ground his teeth and stepped back, glaring daggers at Klem.

Elder Gra smiled and said, “I am perhaps a bit drunk, and most certainly mad, I’d have to be to stay in this deadly place, but godsdammit, this is our home! I won’t give up without a fight!”

Klem nodded, impressed by the old man’s restraint and said, quietly, “There must have been others, yes? I can’t be the first you’ve approached.”
Elder Gra said, “There have been hundreds. All have failed. None have returned. Even with the temptation of a sizable reward, none have been able to do this. I was born in Stricken. I watched my grandfather torn apart by a darktentacles, watched my father gasp for breath when the Drowned attacked. I have lost four sons to vapor rats. None who live here have known peace. All have lost those they loved. But we are the children of Gemseed, and no Drow witch is going to drive us away!”

The elder broke down in coughing, a wet, diseased sound, and his guards rushed to his aid, wiping the spittle from his lips and offering a cup of warm ale to ease his gasps.

Klem shook his head. This is folly.

The paladin finally spoke. “I can see you think that this is a foolhardy idea. Perhaps. I came here after begging my commander to let me go. We of the Order are sworn to destroy all forms of perverted death. Rakasha’s reign of terror has gone on too long. It must end. The Sacred Kaands speak of a time when the witch is defeated and the gates to the lower planes sealed. I believe that time is now. Will you not join me?”

Klem barked a sound that had no business masquerading as a laugh. “I have my own troubles, and have no wish to join the other hundreds of fools who have met their end in this cursed place. I just want a ship and to see the shores of this land fading into the horizon.”

The paladin bristled, and he said, “You wish to run. I don’t know what you are running from and I do not care. But you owe the people of Stricken for pulling your sorry carcass from the bogs. We would not be going alone. There are four Mistmire warriors who would join us. They are a formidable people and know these lands better than anyone alive. If I must, I will make it my sole purpose to ensure you never make it onto the next ship.”

Now Klem bristled and he stood, and said “Are you threatening me?”

T’agan Kamsare smiled and said, “A paladin never threatens. He has no need.”

Klemgathed smiled, and then sighed, and laughed. He knew when he was defeated. Fighting this man would serve no purpose.“Your people and mine have much in common. Warrior of light, I accept your proposal. On one condition.”

T’agan inclined his head and gestured for the monk to continue.

“If we do this thing. If we truly destroy Rakasha, then you will let me have access to the records stored in the Shining City. I want to see the rolls-of-admission to The Forge.”

T’agan raised one eyebrow and said, in wonder, “What you ask, is no easy thing. I cannot guara—”

Klem interrupted, “Then I am not coming. Access to the records or we will see just how formidable your skills really are in keeping me here.”

T’agan paused for a minute. He chewed his lip in thought and said, “There is a way. If we win, I will take you to my friend in Akbar, and he can give you access.”

Klem smiled and turned to Elder Gra, who was now breathing easy once again. “Ale, if you please, Elder Gra! We have a banshee to destroy!”

The elder laughed and cups were handed round.

Klem held his crooked tankard up and said, “To suicide!”

 

 

 
 

The Meeting (2)

The Meeting (2)

The day of the historic meeting between Klemgathed Shalecott and T’agan Kamsare (born Mohab Ik-ibn Hathepshup, and known as “The Beacon” in the Holy Kaands of the Quluthane) took place on the 7th of Shrouds, the season of Drifts, Drexlor’s second autumn of the year 1006 in the Age of the Emperor. On the holiday to Cyric, the sleeping god, the Day of the Dead, the two set things into motion that would resonate for the next thousand years.

The Dawn Arrow and the boy who once visited the monastery of Klem’s youth, and was known then as the Beacon, and who would be soon known as the Key in the Sacred Kaands of the Divine Ten of Akbar, met in the poorest room in the village of Stricken.
The crooked shack shuddered and rattled in the strong winds and the stinking fish-oil lamps clattered and jumped. A meager fire had been built in the open-mud floor, a crude pit ringed with ancient chunks from some ancient field stone wall, perhaps, or chunk of now-toppled tower, brought to such lowly use. The smoldering peat threw off little heat, but kept the light bright enough for them to see the horror in one-another’s eyes.

A near-emptied keg of mushroom ale sat between them. Their cups were empty, kicked over and scuffled away. The meeting had ended. The Mistmire had gone.

The task they faced in two short months seemed impossible. How do you sneak up on an entity that is ever-watchful and cannot be tricked? The ‘Mire were clear on this. Rakasha was omniscient in her domain. Utterly insane and bloodthirsty. She could call the dead to rise and serve her anywhere in the swamp. The waters had corrupted all forms of plant and animal life. Its very touch was corrosive and would leach the oils from your skin, leaving you dry and tight, the perfect feeding surface for the clouds of black fly, mosquito and swamp-gnat that roamed in thirsty packs around the swamp lands.

“The banshee-witch sees all and hears all”, said Fennick, one of the two Muckfighters, “and her will saps all who enter her immediate domain of the drive to live. You will feel it pressing down on you, like an unseen weight, urging to you to give up, to turn back, to submit to her awesome power. We will most likely have to fight the Risen while once we cross into the Bogs of Sorrow.”

T’agan started to question this, when Dipdunk, Bogshadow of the group, piped up. “Aye, the foul bitch can command all who have died within her demense to rise up and serve her. And not just people. Animals, fish, insects, everything. We have fought them before. They look like zombies, but they are not mindless. They serve the Witch and they will not stop until we are dead or they have been cut down.” He spat a thick stream of tobacco juice onto the packed mud floor. “Fuckin Risen. They are quick and strong and they answer to no rebukes from priests.” He glared hard at T’agan. “Or paladins. They are bound to her and only to her, and you will need to be on your guard all the godsrotting time. Unless you wish to join them.” Dipdunk smiled and his tobacco stained teeth looked black in the flickering lamplight.

“If that wasn’t bad enough,” said Fennick, “the closer you get to the castle, the more the waters themselves will start to whisper to you. The urging is always there, mind you, but it works very slowly this far from the Keep. Her sweet, loving beckoning to lie down and go to sleep. Breathe deep and go to sleep in the waters. Her love is so strong, she needs you to lie down with her and sleep. For love. For ever. It gets louder the closer you get.” He looked around at the others. “We’ve never gotten too close.”

T’agan’s eyes were wide by this point. He was trained to fight undeath, his Order dealt mostly with necromancers and their minions, but this was something else. This was a creature of unearthly power.

He prayed to Lodis, the Truthbringer, for guidance and wondered how he was going to survive this. If this could, in fact, even be done. He had been raised with the druids of the sands, the Quluthane, and brought before the ten Ramas of the city. He was deemed worthy to enter the Forge, the training mini-city of the Paladin Orders. He emerged from the Forge as a Lightbringer Paladin of Lodis, the Order of the Cleansing Light. Oaths were sacred to him. Oathbreakers were the reason his order existed. Necromancy was the ultimate betrayal of death over life. The Order had received gifts from Lodis, the Oathbinder, and they could not be slain by any death magics of any kind, save by the gods themselves. He did not fear Rakasha’s deathly wail, but her whispering enticements. His musings were interrupted by Klem asking a question of Tesseract, the Bogweaver, who responded with, “No one knows whats inside the witch’s castle. No one’s ever gotten that close. There is an old map that purports to be an aerial reconnaissance sketch from a Regan airship, showing the outlines of the Keep, but I can’t verify its authenticity. Would you care to see it?”

Klem set down his tankard and reached for the grimy parchment, tipping its small size towards the guttering firepit. He said nothing for many long minutes. The others sipped in silence, letting the monk chew over the document, and Dipdunk, wondered again how the hell a one-armed monk ever came to be. Was his other arm twice as fast? He sculled the last of his tankard and laughed aloud.

Klem looked up. Smiled. “I agree. I think its far too large to search. We need an a miracle to find where her bones are. You have any fancy ideas, mate?”

T’agan shook his head no, took the drawing from Klem’s outstretched hand and glanced at it only for a second before handing it back to Tesseract, who had just filled his sixth tankard and was starting to wonder if this whole idea of taking outsiders through the goddamn Moors wasn’t just a practice run for suicide. No way the Lightbringer could maneuver in that ridiculous mail. And a one-armed dwarf? If he stepped in a big hole, they’d lose him. The whole goddamn place was a big hole. He hoped he could swim at least.

He took the drawing from T’agan and folded it away again. When he turned back, he said, “There’s another problem.”
Klem smiled. “Oh?”

“There is a dragon in the Moors. Its not entirely…still alive anymore. Hasn’t slowed it down.”
Dipdunk, ever the wise-ass, pipes up, “Aye, in fact, you could say that its even prettier in death” and he laughs to beat the devil. “Muckskull’s his name. The Foul is his apple….applilation. Fogs! What is that word again?”
Fennick tosses his empty tankard at Dunk’s head and says “Stop being clever and get the bloody hell on with it. Tell him the funny part. The part that will make him laugh.”

Klem’s eyebrow goes up. T’agan drops his faraway look and stares Fennick right in the eye and says, “Jokes are not required during a strategy meeting.”

Dunk laughs again and calls out, “Humor is not required either, but its a damn sight better than screaming while some creepy crawly chews your guts out! Eh?! How’s that for funny?”
T’agan opens his mouth to retort with something witty, like, “I don’t find that funny at all.”, when Klem cuts in, “What’s the joke? The real one I mean? Make me laugh. I want to see just how deep we are in this thing that some people say must be done.”
T’agan, suddenly sober, stiffens, and again is cut off, this time by Moonblood, another Muckfighter, who had been silent to this point, except for his opening grumble to the monk and the paladin of, “These two look soft. Are you soft? Soft things are easy to chew. I don’t like watching things eat the people that I’m supposed to be helping. I’m getting tired of Gra’s champions. It’s depressing.”

Moon says “The joke is that Muckskull is a full sized adult undead black dragon. And its controlled by Rakasha’s consort-in-death. His name is Ma’kabi and he is even more insane than she is. The dragon serves Ma’kabi, and nests close to the castle. We have battled it twice.”

Klem blurts out, “You people fight dragons?” and T’agan nearly shouts, “There are two spirits?”

The room devolves into the voice of crowd as the half-drunken Mistmire and the rapidly-sobering adventurers begin to bicker over the defensive strategies for assaults by land, sea and air.

In the end, the only strategy open to them was the only one that was ever available. They had to go straight at Rakasha as fast as they could, as hard as they could, and hope they had enough to at least get a foothold on the castle grounds. The odds they faced. Well. I wouldn’t give you a nickel for them.

Klem stayed half-pissed on mushy ale through the rest of Shrouds. On the 30th, the mid-year Feast of Cygnus the Binder, the Mistmire departed for their hidden camps in the Moors, saying they would return after Stones, the season of the Tombing, which brought snow and sometimes rapid thaws and re-freezes that made for treacherous conditions for the nomadic ‘Mire.

This second-of-the-year winter was one of the worst Klem could recall in his lifetime. At Master Wei’s monastery the winters were blunted by whatever arcane magics his old teacher had hidden on the grounds. He could remember cold and snow from his childhood, though. Even the winding tunnels of the Tanagrak nations felt the bite of ice and bitter chill, but this, in the swamps like a vagabond…he drank a lot and avoided T’agan when he could. The paladin was not a nuisance, but his ideas of why this impossible suicide-run was necessary were getting tiresome, and Klem just wanted to be warm again, and be somewhere he could sit and think, quietly, with the wind and the trees and the moon. His childhood vow to destroy Okotarg-the-Unmaking was not forgotten, but still unformed, like a dream half-remembered. He needed to get away from Gemseed, and find a way to sneak into the Fortress at Haliakala, the Great Library and find out all he could about the necromancer. For now, though, he just wanted to find that quiet place within himself. To remember summer. He drank another tankard and drifted through the snows, a quiet flake of boozy waiting.

T’agan was content to exercise and pray in his own freezing cold shack alone. Klemgathed’s appetites were almost crude to his ways of thinking. Excess only bred weakness. He wanted desperately to show him the Truth, but was forbidden to speak during this month. In Gemseed it was now the first day of the third spring, Tempest, the season of the Torrents, a month of downpours and flooding rains. In Ashaaria, however, this was Liarsmoon, one of the Three Foolsmoons, and he dare not speak an untruth that would displease Lodis, the Promisekeeper.

The swamp folk of Stricken pulled their moving town back every week on Sunday. During the Stones, however, they did not need to, and pulled themselves inwards, for warmth. Imagine a smelly, smoky, open-topped wooden labyrinth that reeked of spilled mushroom ale and spent lover’s stink, for there was naught else to do during the unpredictable weather.

When the rains came in Tempest, they village transformed. It moved with a purpose. Everyone was on alert and the assaults sometimes came daily from the Pits to the west and the Fens to the south. Corrupted lizard-men, crazed with hunger and rage, came at them again and again. Flocks of mating stirges swooped them every hour on the hour. The Mistmire returned from their winter camps, and the ramshackle community geared for the season of war. The village, besieged, had no more time to shelter two outsiders who had made them a promise.

On the 3rd of Tempest, The party of six dashed out of Stricken by canoe under the cover of no moon, and headed west into the Blackbog Pits, aimed straight for the heart of Rakasha’s domain.

 
 

Intermission (3)

Intermission (3)

The Void swept the lodestone from the slab of veined black marble and threw up his arms and roared at his empty chamber, “Treacherous witch!”

His robes hissed like vipers on the bare stone floor as he paced back and forth, balled fists crossed behind his back, and he muttered to himself, murderous curses and bloody revenges, occasionally shouting out insults in his native Gandaharian, a language designed for describing the mechanics of magic, and his epithets created harmonic ripples that took form and sped outward, at the speed of light, creating changes that would inadvertently give succor to an enemy that grew stronger the closer he came to discovering the old necromancer’s secrets.

He cursed Rakasha, the banshee witch, again, for her stubbornness and bitter malice. His request had been simple. Kill the Dwarven monk and keep safe a book the corpse would be carrying. He had an agent ready to retrieve it, but dared not take any direct action against the monk just now. The blade Klemgathed carried was spirit-bound, and powerful. Okotarg’s machinations would most certainly alert the trapped ghost, and he did not need any more trouble. The dwarf traveled with a paladin who had studied as much of the forbidden teachings of Okotarg’s power as was dared deemed safe by the Silver City of Akbar.

His enemies were trapped in the domain of a banshee of incredible power. She only need use a fraction of her power to destroy them and retrieve a simple book! And she balked! Raged at Okotarg’s “intrusion” of her demesne and challenged him with threats! As if that angry ghost could do more than rage from her swampy-prison. The old elf threw his head back and laughed.

He stopped pacing and turned to his bookshelves. His eyes roamed the dangerous texts, searching for a particular one that had no business in this unnatural place. Halfway down the long wall of shelves he smiled and reached for a plain leather-bound book. Its cover was etched and stained with some plant dye, turmeric perhaps, or jackwort. Its title was written in Canpok, the workaday cant of the Canathane, a druidic sect of considerable power. It said, “Musings on Death”, and had a rather ugly looking death’s head as a frontspiece, surrounded by a circle, and the whole was stained with madder. There was no author’s credit, which was not surprising. The druids were not known for boasting, preferring to add to the order’s knowledge anonymously.

The ancient elf’s hands caressed the old book, a thin smile drifting over his face, and he cracked open the cover, opening it to a middle section, and an ink plate depicting a perfect Sigil of Binding was laid opposite the end of a lengthy discourse on the specific mechanics of telepathically controlling undead thralls. Okotarg knew it well. He had read this book hundreds of times. It was one of his dearest possessions. Inside this thick tome were a great deal of facts about the forbidden arts of necromancy. These facts were the reason that the druid order (and their allies) were so successful in combating those who used the dead to achieve their own ends. It was also the reason that Okotarg had been able to gain such immense power. He had spent his life using necromancy that specifically didn’t follow these well-worn traditions and incantations. His magic, combined with the stolen Force of Unmaking, was untraceable by normal means, and usually drained the magic reserves from any person or thing that attempted to divine or interfere with any of his conjurings.

He smiled again. His most prized possession. Without it, the Ramas of Akbar would have burned him out of his lair centuries ago. He had one last trick up his sleeve for the Canathane, too, but that little secret was not ready to play out, not yet.

But first, he needed the book that the meddling dwarf monk was carrying. It was important for Okotarg’s long-term plans, but until Klemgathed and his party moved out of the Witch’s domain, he was powerless to intervene. Things were about to get a lot worse, though, unforeseen and unexpectedly, due to a few well-spoken slanders, just minutes ago.

 
 

Into The Bogs (4)

Into The Bogs (4)

The bog engulfed them in the gusty black night, and Klemgathed was overwhelmed by the sour reek of the endless dark expanse. He and T’agan had been given strict instructions by the Mistmire. A host of information was drilled into them again and again in the last days before they slipped out of Stricken, and one still rang through Klem’s mind, on pain of death, make no sounds. The Mistmire were angry when the pre-journey meetings first began, and belligerent in their contempt for the dozens of adventures that had come before them.

“And all of them are dead,” spat Dipdunk, the old rogue’s eyes glittering in the stinking lamplight. “Dead because they wouldn’t listen to them who’s job it is to survive here.” He looked around at the other three Mistmire, and nodded at the group’s unofficial leader, Fennick, and turned back to Klem, and said “We are tired of fools dying and having to clean up what they stirred up!” Dip pointed with his knife at wide-eyed T’agan, and said “You’ll not be praying aloud every morning, and you won’t be wearing that get-up either.”

Moonblood stepped out of the shadows and handed T’agan a bundle of leather mail and said, “Quieter. Safer.”, and then stepped back, and Fennick spoke up. “We will teach you the signals. Hand-slang that the ‘Mire have been using for generations. You never speak once we begin. You do not cry out, you do not whisper, you do not mouth anything. Rakasha sees and hears everything.”

Tesseract, the Bogweaver, said, “We will be traveling under cover of illusion, do you understand? We must be the swamp, we can leave no ripple, no trace of our passage, or the witch will send everything against us. Risen will come at us until we are outnumbered ten-to-one.”

Dipdunk, filling his mug with the foamy mushroom ale that Stricken produced en masse, turned and interrupted, “The godsrotting bog will still come at us, aye. Have no doubt of that. The creatures and plant life are all out to get a mouthful of us, and the dangers are manifold, and once we get to the blasted citadel, things will real–” Tesseract cut in, irritated as always when Dip was into his cups, and back-bent with complaint and woe. “We have many defenses to shield us, and as long as you both listen and remember what we have taught you, then we stand a very good chance of making it to the castle unharmed. I don’t think we have a chance against the witch, but I’m tired of fighting her. I want it to end. Let it be with these two.”
Dipdunk scowled, and sculled the rest of his tankard, letting out a raggedy belch as he wiped his face.

Fennick laughed, embarrased, and said, to T’agan, “You said your order has trained you to fight necromancy. What can you bring to shield us? Have you any skills beyond being a soldier?”
T’agan stood, his shoulders squared up and he looked Fennick in the eye as he would his commanding officer, and said, “I have not always been a soldier. I was trained as a druid in the Quluthane, but my desert skills will not help us here, I agree. If the creatures of the swamp obey Rakasha’s will, then they must be evil. I have many ways to shield us from malevolence, and I intend to use all of them, to my death if need be, to see this witch destroyed! I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because I don’t think we’d stand a chance without your guidance, but I am no tenderfoot!”

Fennick stepped back and looked at Moonblood, who shrugged, and they watched T’agan pace, his voice measured, but firm, as he detailed the campaigns he had been a part of in the deserts of Ashaaria, and it was all very impressive, but the Mistmire, and Klemgathed, were both of the same mind: Could this man learn to take orders and keep his emotions under control during an onslaught of which he could not even conceive? They all doubted it. But Klem’s thoughts did not turn away after this conclusion. He had a belief that this man would transform into something quite remarkable after his character, and his life, was tested in the most extreme ways. Klem interruped T’agan’s empassioned monologue, with “I believe in you, T’agan. I would not trust my life to anyone else.”
The paladin stared at Klemgathed. Perhaps a minute passed, the Mistmire all silently watching.

Klem laughed and tossed his empty tankard to T’agan, and teased, “Doesn’t mean you still can’t fetch me beer, and not laugh at my jokes.”

T’agan fielded the catch, and frowned, and the room erupted in laughter, all but T’agan in on the joke, who turned to fill the monk’s cup, and turned his mind inward, calling on his training. Soon he felt a warmth inside himself, and he let that good light grow, and felt it expand beyond his body, and it filled the room, surrounding the others, and he felt a pulse from two of the others. One was the mage, which was no surprise to T’agan, but the other one was Klem, which was. He smiled and let the light fade away to just a wisp inside himself, ready to be called upon again if needed, but never to extinguish.

Klem was a good dwarf. He had chosen to risk his life to help free the people of Stricken. T’agan would watch him, though, and if he turned away from that path in the dark of the swamps, well… Then he would have to be dealt with, but it would not come to that, the paladin was sure.

Klem’s body jerked awake and he looked up and around, slightly panicked. He had been dreaming. Gods, how had he fallen asleep? Adreneline dumped into his system as he felt the bog’s vapors close around him once again. The fetid stench of the black mud they all had to slather themselves with before they got into the swamp was enough to turn his stomach.

The two muckfighters were alert, in the prow of the large canoe, bows half-drawn, scanning the darkness before them. Tesseract was in trance, maintaining the illusion that hid them all, the canoe “as a large, floating log,” he said as they shoved off. Dipdunk was in the stern, a single paddle stroke every ten to fifteen seconds was his only movement. They lazily slid through the tangled hassock islands of the Black Bogs, as drowned hills and stubbornly hungry maw-trees formed a labyrinth impossible to imagine, but mentally-charted by the ‘Mire over hundreds of years, the journey-songs memorized from youth, and reinforced with yearly contests and revels of boasting and sour mushroom beer.

T’agan was also in trance, behind Tesseract, in the middle of the canoe. He was attempting to sense the approach of evil creatures, but when he first dropped in, he was almost overwhelmed by the smothering blanket of Rakasha’s malice. It was a constant presence, like a dissonance in his mind, and it was hard to concentrate, even harder to sense changes in that harmonic. He scowled and shifted in his seat.

Klemgathed was the only not really doing anything. He could not use a bow, and he had no magicks to call upon. His head was down and he was lost in thought. His eyes fell on the dried and well-packaged provisions the ‘Mire had packed. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing was forgotten. They must live on this canoe for almost two weeks, Fennick had said, barring any run-ins with the wildlife or Rakasha’s detection.

Moonblood, on starboard point, gestured in hand-slang to Dip to slow their speed. The longboat instantly slowed and Fennick and Moonblood’s bows came into line. They looked like mirror-images, elbows cocked, chins up, and then they loosed, as one, and as Klem blinked, the bows were nocked again and loosed again, in unison, and Klem heard a distant, low squeal, but no outcry of pain.

The muckfighters relaxed, and Dipdunk pushed them into motion again, slow and steady, and so it went, through the long night, until Klem would go mad from the tension. Two more times the muckfighters aimed and loosed their silent bows. Whatever had threatened them, died swiftly and without fanfare. Klem never saw any of them, and kept his silent vigil, his mind churning, wondering what the dawn would bring.

The season brought heavy, cold winds in the mornings, gusty and full of ice. These were the miserable times for the water-bound party. Their faces and fingers would go numb, and once Moonblood’s bowstrung snapped without warning, and though it lashed his wrist and drew a lot of blood, the muckfighter did not cry aloud, and T’agan wondered again who these people were, that could drive themselves to such discipline, and would choose to stay in such a cursed place.

The sun was feeble, watery and weak through the heavy cloud, but it brought enough light to show the two outsiders just how desolate their surroundings were. They could not see one single green thing. All was a drab smear of greys and browns, with the black, smelly mud that gave this part of the swamp its name encrusted around every tiny island, like pie muck on a fat man’s gob.

Stirge and black fly drifted in hungry clouds in the skies above and around them. Their mud-armoring kept the bloodsuckers from finding them, and Klem gave a shiver. He hated godsdamn Stirges, and this place was fecund with them. Hangman trees drooped twitching vines into the waters and fished up whatever swam near. Froghemoths, fifteen-foot tall monstrosities that shambled through the waters and scooped up black crabs from the muddy waters often screamed in ear-splitting recognition calls that drove the outsiders to distraction, while the incessant croaking of billions of flesh-eating frogs threatened to drive them insane.

Throughout all, daytime or night, was the soft whispering of Rakasha’s lustful entreaties, to cast off their possessions and sleep in the watery bed of the lonely, but beautiful queen. All of it began to take its toll on Tesseract, whose illusions were the sole reason they could travel in such safety. He could not rest, or take his ease at all until they reached a bolthole that the ‘Mire had long used, some two more days into the future. A week without sleep or rest, forced to hold a mathematical construct in your mind took a fortitude that Klemgathed admired, and he wondered again if the arcane path was one he should pursue. After I’m done being hunted by the Empire, that is, he thought.

They had come nearly a hundred kilometres, and they had several hundred to go, and they were only twenty kilometres or so from a place of relative safety, an underground cavern with its entrance hidden in the middle of one of the larger islands. It had been re-inhabited a few times, once or twice with tragic consequences, before the Bogweavers put a permanent illusion at its mouth, and renewed the repulsion fields that surrounded it every season, if they were able.

As the sun was setting, and the party all resigned themselves to another long night in the squealing dark, Tesseract’s strength finally faltered. His weary mind wandered and the illusion surrounded them collapsed. The mage slumped forwards, into the paladin’s back, and Klem hauled him upright and grabbed his limp face, checking his eyes, and silently cursing to himself. Tesseract was out cold.

Dipdunk dropped his breakfast of salt-fish and jerky and scrambled for the paddle. The canoe shot into the waning light of the bogs fully exposed, as the muckfighters knelt in the bow, trying to keep a low-profile. T’agan dropped his divinations and helped Klem attend to Tesseract. The monk wasn’t doing much other than slapping the unconscious mage’s face as hard and as quietly as he could, and T’agan grabbed his hands and glared at him. Klem raised his eyebrows and sat back, gesturing to the paladin as if to say, “Let’s see if you can do better”.

T’agan said a silent prayer to Lodis, and asked for his strength to heal Tesseract’s body and mind, so that they could carry the fight all the way to the witch’s heart. He opened his eyes and laid his hands on Tesseract’s head and could feel the hot burn of his Lord’s divine power flow through him and into the mage. Tesseract’s eyes fluttered open and then fear and concern crushed his face. He sat up quickly, pushing T’agan away and immediately knelt and bowed his head. He gestured in Arcan, setting up the framework for a concealing illusion, when the boat suddenly rocked violently, and he was knocked into the gunwale, the strands of foundational power suddenly winking out as he cracked his head.

The canoe fetched up against the side of a small island and the party scrambled out as the canoe was flipped upside down and the rotting corpses of a mob of Risen emerged, dripping, from the muck.

The party fought in silence, the fear of speaking so-drilled into the outsiders that they never even considered yelling out or calling for help as they once would. Though they had never fought together before, they proved themselves well, T’agan moreso than the monk, who nearly got himself surrounded as he underestimated the strength of the shambling zombies.

Barely a minute after the first group of Risen were put down, another came at them from another direction, nearly three dozen this time, and Fennick signaled that they must flee, and they scrambled for the canoe, three paddles out now, stealth-be-damned, and they barreled away from the mob of undead, who slowly sunk under the water again, as if they never had been.

Tesseract got the illusion up again, but not before they were attacked twice more by Risen, and the mage had to spend precious spell energy on waves of fire and sheets of acid to help put them down. Even after they were hidden by the magicks again, none of them could stop shaking, the Mistmire had never seen that many Risen come at them at once. Before, the witch would only send a few at at time, maybe once an hour, enough to keep them rattled, but not driving them to outright flight. The party all concluded that this time the banshee-witch was not toying with them for her amusement. Dipdunk wondered again who these outsiders were, to draw such a reaction from the banshee. If the illusion failed again, they would likely not survive.

They were in stealth mode again, Dipdunk on the single stern paddle, and all was as it was before, except now they had tasted the fury of Rakasha’s hatred, seen the rotted corpses serve her will, relentless until they were nearly fully dismembered, and Klem’s hands and feet were covered with dried gore. They somehow made it to morning again, a day from their bolt-hole, when Moonblood turned and gestured wildly in the rising light. He pointed into the sky, again and again, and Klem and T’agan followed his pointing hand and saw something that made Klem’s stomach flip over.

Cruising in the dawning morning sky, was a large, dark shape, flying with a grace that could only be found in the airborne acrobatics of a dragon, and even undead it was a sight to behold, liquid beauty-in-motion, tumbling and sliding through the hazy morning fogs.

They had found Muckskull-the-Foul, and worse than that, Tesseract had warned, back in the stinking shack in Stricken, that the dragon’s senses could pierce his magicks as easily as a knife through butter.

With a cry that echoed through the festering swamps, the dragon turned and came for them, a predator that could not be denied.

 
 

Against The Odds (5)

Against The Odds (5)

The Mistmire piled out of the long canoe, pulling T’agan and Klemgathed from the vessel with exhortations, all rules of silence forgotten, as they scrambled onto a boggy outcrop, mostly rocky and bare, a spindly swamp oak sapling the lone cover as the long, terrifying shadow of Muckskull-the-Foul fell across them. It’s roar shook the swamp lands, and even the now-undead Fog Giant King Unlub the Hungry looked up from his roasting-Lizardmen dinner and peered southward into the mists.

T’agan was kneeling and chanting aloud in Aqaba, his head down, his sword drawn and tip-down in the muck, one hand on the pommel, one arm extended, hand up, palm out, beseeching Lodis to bless and sanctify this tiny island from evil, and to watch over and protect their hearts and minds from its corrupting influences.

The muckfighters, Fennick and Moonblood, were in an archer’s battle stance, arrow-tips sighted on the nightmarish creature, unbelievably huge, stooping like a hawk towards them, and they fired as one, four fast volleys, straight towards the creatures maw and eyes, peppering them, and then Muckskull was upon them, legs like massive oaks that ended in talons that a full-sized horse could have stood under freely, and to the dragon’s surprise, it bounced off a shell of Divine will that T’agan had humbly asked for from the Oathbinder, Lodis. Muckskull screeched in frustration and its wing-wind as it pulled for altitude tumbled the entire group onto their backsides, Klem ending in the fetid waters of the swamp itself and as he scrambled out the seductive whispering of Rakasha’s lusty entreaties screamed loud and close in his mind, and he cried out in fear, but the fear in her words, and her frustration came through to him, and he recited a mantra to clear his mind and pushed her away. For the moment.

This emboldened him and as he saw Muckskull bank and turn for another pass, he knew that the witch feared her final death, and if this was her gatekeeper, then Klemgathed Shalecott was up for the challenge. He queried Tesseract’s arcana, asking if Flight was possible, and the mage’s eyes lit up and he grinned a rare smile and quickly sketched the construct and spoke the triggering harmonic, and Klem lifted into the air, the monk laughing aloud and the others gawped for a moment, before Dipdunk shouted, “Punch ‘im in the nose, ya mad bastard! And you lot, throw everything you got at ‘im before he decides to give us a faceful of breath weapon!”

Tesseract begins to Weave. As the dragon comes at them, he manages to give the Muckfighters Bull Strength, and they laugh aloud and drop their rigs, pulling long blades and Fennick makes a step with his hand and squats, preparing Moonblood for a short flight of his own. Dipdunk was watching everywhere except at the dragon, watching for attacks from the swamp, surely the old bitch wasn’t going to just let them fight a legendary dragon without some sort of treachery? He stood by T’agan’s kneeling form, and vowed to protect this man as long as he could, a vow he had promised to never give to any man again, not after the life he had led, never again, but this was no ordinary day. They had to win this fight or he was never going home again. The old rogue stood a little taller, and he kept a keen eye on the foggy bogs.

 

Muckskull was pissed. He was in full flight now, determined to hose the tiny island with a sheet of acid and eliminate his Master’s enemies in one strong attack. The shield had startled him, and hurt as well, the divine energy making his talons itch, as pieces of them flaked off as he hurtled at the weakling humans clinging to their tiny rock. Suddenly something flew past his vision, large even for a bird, and with one eye, quickly tracked it and saw a tiny dwarf flying straight at him! It made a blurring motion with its hands and pain exploded through the ancient dragon’s skull. Muckskull howled and suddenly back-stalled, slowing his progress and he started to fall towards the black waters of the swamp.
Moonblood, at the top of his generous leap, rammed his long sword up to the hilt in Muckskull’s lower torso, the greasy, purple-mottled flesh came away and fatty slabs, and ichor the color of waste poured over the warriors hands, and he cursed as he fell back towards the island, his sword and arms dripping.

Klemgathed was relentless. Like an angry wasp, he stayed close to the dragon’s head and pummeled it with rapid melees of punches and kicks, the monk’s power was considerable, the nature of Master Wei’s training, and his punishment began to take a toll on the humongous beast and he drove it to earth, a few hundred metres from the rest of the party. Its massive body splashed up foul swamp water and drenched Klem from head to toe as he fell with the dragon, his Fly spell worn off at last.

The others launched the canoe, T’agan up and with them, his eyes slightly glazed from his long devotions, and they rocketed towards Muckskull who was thrashing around, his tail knocking trees over and splashing water and knocking rocks around, and they were forced to slow, and wait for a chance.

Klem stayed on the body of Muckskull himself, subjecting the dragon to a physical beating not recommended to anything mortal, cracking the spine of the old beast one bone at a time, and crippling one of the dragon’s wings just as the rest of the party dashed across the final space and spilled out onto a substantially larger island, grassy and once-thick with trees, most of them crushed and splintered now, creating a very hazardous environment for all concerned.

Tesseract held the others back and called for Klem to shelter himself as he sketched the construct that would allow him to release five times the energy than he normally would, a risk that would most certainly knock the mage out, if not outright stop his heart from the sheer burn of that much energy transferring through his harmonic, but he was tired of war, and this was a moment that deserved such a sacrifice, and he smiled and his hands came up, ready to draw the final sigil and he spoke the triggering lyric and his fingers twitched and a ball of fire formed between his hand and suddenly swelled, out of control, to the size of a horse and the others staggered back and Tesseract shouted as the Fireball roared towards the crippled dragon and the explosion blinded everyone, except the witch Rakasha, and she howled in defiance as her consort Makabi dropped his head as Muckskull’s death dropped the link.

She raised spectral clawed fingers and chanted, and the waters in the swamp began to boil.

Klemgathed, dripping water and muddy from his life-saving plunge off the burning dragon, came around the smoldering carcass and saw the other gathered around Tesseract, who was down.

T’agan was kneeling beside him and as Klem ran up to them, the paladin smiled as the mage opened his eyes, and T’agan pulled Tesseract to his feet, and the muckfighters gave a cheer, and then they all noticed it. The boiling waters.

The Mistmire exploded into action, they herded Klem and T’agan into the canoe and they pushed off into the roiling waters, and the air was cold, no heat drove these disturbances, and Dipdunk was shitting himself, predicting doom and death and lamenting his own lost life in ever-more filthy and graphic terms while the others paddled like madmen, trying to make it to the ‘Mire’s shelter, an illusory-hidden shelter only a few kilometers from where Muckskull found them. They raced for it as the waters finally settled around them. The boiling stopped. The frogs and insects started singing again. The eerie calm unnerved all of them and once or twice Fennick or Moonblood let off a stray arrow at nothing, paranoia coloring their actions.

The banshee-witch had decided to wait. To make certain of her victory, she would allow them to hide in their pitiful cave. They would never leave it alive. Why chase them when she could simply bottle them up? She moved her Risen under the waters, massing a group that would stay hidden until called.

When the group found the ‘Mire’s hidden camp, none of them trusted the situation. The swamp felt like it was holding its breath and they were no fools. They had deduced the witch’s intentions and they did not stop, they could not stop, they only had one plan, the same plan they started with. The only plan that was available to them. Go at Rakasha as fast as they can. Tesseract managed to reform the shielding illusion, the one magick that she could not pierce with her malice, and they shot away into the swamps, the witch howling with rage and frustration.

She sent groups of Risen blindly in all directions, and commanded the birds and creatures to stop their natural lifecycles and hunt for the intruders.

They were in full silence mode again. They paddled north into the Bogs of Sorrow. Straight at Rakasha’s castle. Against all odds the party avoids all detection, Tesseract’s stamina being augmented daily by T’agan’s prayers and the muckfighters use all their combined skills of a lifetime surviving in this cursed place to avoid all the Risen that are searching for them. It wasn’t too hard, the witch was sending them in large, massed groups, sometimes up to one-hundred of them, and they were not silent. Perhaps manipulating them all individually was beyond her, Klem pondered (to his DM), and thanked Kalan, The Fickle for smiling upon them.

After four days, just after noon, the unmistakable silhouettes of man-made shapes loomed out of the mists, and the tops of Rakasha’s castle could be seen by the astonished party. They slowed and silently drifted for many minutes towards it, the mists thinning as they beached on a rocky shore, the crumbling ramparts before them, and the massive monstrosity of the architecture made T’agan blanch in fear. It exuded pain and lament. It was as if the very walls themselves were crying out at a pitch too soft to fully hear. Every one felt it, and they all grimaced, suddenly beset with headaches, and Tesseract’s illusion collapsed.

They piled out of the canoe, weapons drawn, battle formation, fully expecting to be rushed from the shadowy archways of the huge citadel ruins. But no mad rush of enemies boiled from the old castle. Only the sound of a single armor-clad warrior rang through the air, clangly metal-on-stone and whomever he was, he was large, and heavy, and Tesseract near-completed a full barrage of Magic Missiles, when an enormous warrior walked out of the shadow of the bailey and onto the shoreline. His helmet was split and crooked and his armor, once fine plate-and-chain battle armor, was rusted and dilapidated. An oversized bastard sword was casually leaning on one shoulder, dried blood and rust caking the thick blade.

The party all looked at one another and braced for a rough fight. It lasted far longer than it should have. The Tool of Rakasha inflicted some heavy damage to the group. T’agan was nearly dead, run through the middle by the warrior’s wicked blade, and the rest were badly wounded, the sole exception being Dipdunk, who used Klem’s tactic on the dragon on the massive warrior. The Tool of Rakasha never saw him, but felt every sting of his blade, and the old rogue himself finished the Tool off, plunging his long daggers into the bastard’s kidneys twice each, before kicking off and watching the formidable foe drop.

At that moment the words of Okotarg, spoken in ancient Gandaharian, with intent, and powered by will, added their harmonic to the immediate area, and the powerful magics did two things that the vexed Necromancer did not intend. The harmonic energies resonated with the Fate Blade that was strapped to Klem’s back, and the powerful spirit inside, the monk Akou-Taie, was able to manifest a physical form outside the prison of the katana known as Sho-Nang.

The second unintended consequence was a harmonic dissonance that shattered the powerful illusion that protected the amulet that housed Rakasha’s cursed aatma, her true essence. Many other minor magics that were scattered around the castle itself, through the witch’s machinations or remnants from other assailants, also collapsed, and a nearby connection to several small demi-planes was temporarily disrupted, but the party never knew anything about these events having any connection to Okotarg, and neither did the old enemy. Rakasha’s death ultimately hurt Okotarg, not helped him. A large part of his plan to destroy Gemseed hinged on seizing the power of the Risen for himself, through Rakasha. Once she was enslaved to the Force of Unmaking, then he had a very powerful new toy to add to his vast collection already assembled and hidden throughout Gemseed.

When Akou-Taie materialized, he gained access to a large portion of his arcane access that had been removed while in spirit form and imprisoned in the dissonance-cage of the blade, Sho-Nang.

He owed a great deal to Klemgathed, for the dwarf had promised a true oath, overseen by T’agan himself, that he would help lift Akou-Taie’s curse and help him destroy Shao Ti, the demon raksasha who first uttered the curse that plagued him.

The old monk used his arcane access to reopen his divine connection to the sleeping dragon-dreamform that dwelled beneath the Kingdom of Clu, and with his devotion and humble apologies for his absence, gently prodded the dangerous being awake, beseeching it for aid and begging its forgiveness for his neglect. The gambit paid off and the Akou-Taie felt the connection in his mind reopen and the overwhelming feeling of life rushed over him, and he touched each member of the group that was wounded, T’agan first, who had, at that point, actually died, but was reborn and the others were healed, their wounds and fatigued vanished, and Akou-Taie bowed to Klem, who bowed back, and Akou-Taie said “Whatever freed me is ending, the note is dying away, and I must return to the sword. I can give you one more boon, but choose quickly!” Klem, grateful for his life and the life of his companions, thought rapidly and then asked for them all to be protected against the deathly wail of the banshee.

The fading monk smiled and it was done. When Akou-Taie had vanished, the others turned to Tesseract, who was now fully refreshed, as they all were, who began casting, when Klem heard something strange from one of the castle’s outbuildings, a ramshackle stable of tumbled stone.

Dipdunk prodded him in the ribs and hissed at him, “We need to move! Come on!”

The party ran for the main bailey and gatehouse, and a strange tubular creature, thousands of tiny openings all over its body, a weird whistling lowing from it, slithered through the ruins behind them, drawn by the new sounds and the sun started to dip into the muddy horizon, the lamp dimming and finally going out, as the party found themselves in the labyrinthine ruins and the banshee’s lair was somewhere below them, in the deepening dark.

 
 

Downward, Into Shadow (6)

Downward, Into Shadow (6)

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.