May you live in Interesting Times.
und die sieben Helden
Lena walked briskly through another bent stone corridor. She hurried carefully, but did not rush around heedlessly like she’d seen the new slaves do. House Varach had been her home for as long as she could remember, and its family members were quick in teaching their underlings proper manners. At least that was what they called their frequent punishments.
Carrying a message up to the higher reaches of the Varach column, she was glad that she was leaving the ground level behind.
The matron mother was furious, and quick to vent her anger on otherwise ignored slaves. She was probably still standing vigil in front of the main entrance, warding away nosy visits of rival houses.
Recent events had not been beneficial to house Varach and had only resulted in more frequent and cruel punishments by the mistresses and masters. The side of her head still throbbed from when she had brought wine to a lower officiary after another search had just left his room. Several familiar faces had disappeared during the last months, although usually the punishments were meticulous to not harm the slave’s ability to function.
Lena kept to the outer wall of the corridor, where she would be able to hear any early echoes of approaching steps. Hastening up a flight of stairs, the only sounds heard were the faint slaps of her bare feet hitting the floor.
In a poorly-lit chamber many levels below the ascending slave, pitiful sobs were drowned once again in a cask of dirty water, strong arms forcing the small head effortlessly down. Light traces of blood seeped from a multitude of tiny cuts on his face and hairless skull. Where a mop of brown hair should have been were angry red blotches and misshapen blisters of scorched skin, revealing where bundles of hair had been ripped and burnt. The touch of salt water ignited his wounds as if they were cut, ripped and burnt into him once more. He shrieked mindlessly, his precious breath escaping his lungs while he was held in an iron grip.
In terrible need for air, he gulped and breathed in the tainted water. Spasms wracked his torso to choke the water out of his lungs, but he only succeeded in sucking in more.
With an abrupt jerk, he was pulled out with a splash and thrown onto the stone floor. One punch to his chest had him retching and gasping for air. He rolled weakly onto his side and, inbetween shuddering breaths, heaved the water out.
A soft female voice said coolly, with the accent he had grown to hate,
“Maybe now you might want to tell us the whole truth. That you are not acting alone, we believe. Since how else could you have entered our house? All by yourself and without any magical help? Such stealthy an assassin most assuredly would have Lolth’s blessing.”
His cheek still pressed to the wet stone plates, he opened his unfocussed eyes, looking along the ground. Willing his eyes to focus with a conscious effort, he saw fine leather boots with delicate symbols etched in silver on black.
His gaze travelled upwards, following the silvery filigree up along the outside of the trousers’ legs. His tormentor sat crosslegged on a bare stool, one midnight black hand resting on her knee and the other gesticulating, emphasizing her speech elegantly. A male drow positioned himself behind her and to the side, his thick arms belying his finesse with exotic small blades.
As she lowered her hand, her red eyes found his, capturing his attention. With a barely perceptible tone of anger coloring her silken voice, she continued, “But you continue to waste our precious time. Repeating the same story again and again, you seem not to grasp the hopeless situation you are in. Do not deceive yourself in thinking you might ever be released from here, not alive nor dead, before we have gleaned the information we desire.”
He averted his face from the icy stare, forcing the words through his throat, rough from hours of screaming.
“I, I have told you before..”
A quick gesture, and the male torturer stepped nimbly forward to kick the quivering halfling in the stomach, sliding him backwards against a well kept iron maiden, then moving back to his position.
“You speak when spoken to. I thought we had this already established, but matters of etiquette seem hard to understand for you surface-dwellers.” A pause, the prisoner curled tight into a ball, coughing feebly, then “Now, speak.”
Between painful gasps, he said through clenched teeth “I have told you before, I am with a group of surface-dwellers, as you call us, and we want to help you get rid of the slime avatar. It is our..”
“Ah, yes. Again, as with your poor manners, it seems your learning disability is universal. We have been there before. You come to us with an offer of assistance? Of help, even? How dense do you think we are? Even a feebleminded sun-lover like you wouldn’t believe yourself. We should rid ourselves of the oozing offal that the other houses seem to adore so much? Probably best with a grand overt assault on their filthy highness?”
She gestured again, and the torturer lifted the halfling with a vice-like grip into a solid chair, facing the seated woman. He secured the arms, wrists, ankles and chest tightly to the chair, fastening the fingers through tight loops to the armrest. He then grabbed a small hammer from the tool table, turning back to attention in a fluid motion.
“I do not know what your training encompasses but you can trust me, this has only been the beginning. So far, we have been courteous to you, even though you try to insult us with your antagonistic obstruction. Ranagh is a master of his art, and our house has long been considered prodigious therein. However abominable your teachers were, whatever pains you had to bear before you were put on your mission, it will be as nothing compared to how we will persuade you to cooperate. Oh, be assured, you will assist us.”
At an imperceptible nod, Ranagh took a short iron spike and, with measured strikes, hammered it into the delicate skin under the halfling’s left pinky’s nail. He screamed, struggling desperately to pull back his hand, but to no avail. The torturer continued on the other fingers without pause, swinging the hammer like clockwork, driving home a nail with each sentence.
“You will tell us who sent you. You will tell us which house aided you, who gave you such detailed knowledge of our house? Any of these sycophantic houses, crawling and creeping like the gunk they worship, would want to fall upon us, if we would just blunder. They are just waiting for a mistake like that. But obviously their patience has run out, trying so actively to send us to our doom. Who sent you? Which house sent you? Tell me the name of the house!”
“Dawach! Dawach. It is Dawach.”, he cried, the only house name that came to his muddled thoughts.
“Hmm, D’vach. Now that is intriguing. We are making progress! Quiet him for a moment, then continue on his other hand. Our matron would want to know this at once.”
A well-aimed blow, and Ranagh knocked the halfling unconscious, then prepared a bucket of water. The priestess stood up gracefully, then incanted a prayer to the spider-goddess, Lolth. Working her spell, she focussed on their matron for a sending of the gathered intelligence. Certain countermeasures would have to be taken. Then the halfling could be put on the rack, another tool for quick information. She finished her prayer and detailed the message to her matron.
Several levels above the ascending slave girl, a tall figure walked determinedly downward. The soft blue and violet gleam of infrequent crystals affixed to the corridor walls reflected off his mithril breastplate, offering his well-accustomed eyes more light than necessary.
The military staccato of his hardened leather boots hitting the ground was frighteningly loud to his elven ears. He strained to keep the path-finding prayer in his mind and at the same time scan for any unwelcome sound or sight.
Alert for the traitorous steps of approaching guards, he followed the guiding touch of his god. He strode down the circular pathway to the next descending stairway.
His black cloak billowed behind him, its silver trim of wild flames reflecting the lilac-blue light. A shield was strapped to his left arm, covering most of his side, but he held it askew, securing his longsword’s sheath with his left hand to keep it from clanging. A blackened iron mask concealed his elven features, rising high to merge with his dark hair and adding a tinny echo to his voice and breath.
His thoughts turned to his intended destination, a cell somewhere below his current position, where his halfling friend was imprisoned and most certainly being tortured. Only hours had passed since Hobbes had been captured. He’d been on a mission to contact house Varach’s matron mother, and the consequences were easy to foresee in this drow cesspit.
The thought turned his focused frown into a scowl. The idea of working together with drow, Lolth-devotees at that, had been repulsive to him from the start. The self control required to stay calm and not try to slay this misbegotten pack of vermin whenever he could, no disrespect to vermin, was quite taxing, he thought. But Ea’amonn had lent him strength, and now He would grant His might to rescue his helpless little friend. They would bust him out of the arachnid clutches of Lolth’s servants.
Over the rhythm of his steps, he noticed the hard echoes of someone approaching. Quickly he spun around, and walked back the way he came. He tried not to quicken his steps and marched on as before.
He passed the foot of the stairs he had just come down and walked on through the corridor’s other semicircular arm.
The footsteps faded behind him, until he was sure to walk alone again. He descended the next flight of stairs and continued on, intent on avoiding any further close encounters.
Lena climbed another set of stairs and moved on. She had crossed paths with very few fellow slaves and almost no drow, probably because most of the Varach drow were either busy in their rooms, most likely preparing for another search, standing guard or praying in their temples.
As she walked, she mentally hummed a tune heard long ago, setting the pace with her quick footsteps. A second set of footsteps echoed through the corridor, the slower tempo clashing with her inner melody. Sounds of hard boots hitting the stone floor told her that this was no mere slave coming towards her, but a higher member of the Varach house. She judged by the echoes to still have a few steps before they met and walked on, ready to react.
When the steps came too close for her to risk a beating, she threw herself onto her knees and prostrated herself on the floor.
Nevêr sensed the low barefoot steps just as they stopped, but knew it was too late for him to turn back again. Thinking that it was not very likely for drow to walk barefoot, he continued on, stepping more forcefully than usual. Around the curve, he saw a slave lying on the floor, her hands to the sides of her forehead on the ground. She did not move as he neared.
Lena stayed immobile, her brow touching the cold stone and her eyes squeezed shut, fearfully anticipating a kick that never came. She held her pose until the steps sounded remote enough, then rose and went on her way to the high reaches again. She was glad that she had avoided another punishment, though this drow had smelled a little strange. She ascribed the mystery to all drow’s incomprehensible ways and dropped the thought, listening for any other approaching noise.
Intent on her assignment, Lena never noticed the trail of clouds at the ceiling, lagging behind the passing elf.
“That went well, better than I feared it would.”, a voice spoke in Nevêr’s mind. It still felt weird, after so much time growing accustomed to this form of communication, to feel what the other was saying instead of hearing it. It felt instantaneous, a sudden understanding of what the other was thinking, sending to you.
“Faith, my dear Lambrac, is Ea’amonn’s brightest flame. You offer yourself as candle, your faith in Ea’amonn and your prayers are the spark igniting the wick, and Ea’amonn in his benevolence dignifies your trust by lending air to brighten the flame and grow it into a great, cleansing fire.”
“That, or you think logically and remember how all slaves have acted towards drow house members.” countered Vias evenly. “In my understanding, your metaphor would make more sense if your god were the candle and your faith the spark. Your prayers would then fan the flame higher in the ways you desire.”
“But Vias, that would make Ea’amonn nothing less than a tool. In this flawed view He could have no choice in the matter of whom He would want to aid.”
Lambrac interjected impatiently, “Before we follow the well-trodden path of this argument further, let’s concentrate on finding Hobbes unnoticed and getting him out of this hornet’s nest. The way our plan is succeeding right now, the more I’m expecting a nasty and devastating surprise. Let’s make sure it won’t be by a mistake of ours.”
“With Ea’amonn’s help, I’ve got every possible trap covered. But near ground level we have to expect more activity, so stay alert. I won’t have you floating leisurely after me while I do all the work. Be ready to sprint, or rather rush your vaporous selves to where I tell you.”
“As your solid density wishes!”, Lambrac replied.
Never continued his march down, followed by his ethereal friends, staying close to the ceiling as an amorphous cloud.
The majority of her guards were patrolling the walls surrounding the courtyard and other, less visible entrances far above or below her. Standing with folded arms in front of the grand entrance, she faced the outer walls, thinking. The courtyard itself was empty, with the exception of the gate keeper and her newest visitors. Visitors was maybe too inaccurate a description for these two, she corrected herself. All these slime-infatuated intruders wanted was another chance to scour her house for anything secret or incriminating. Or plant something incriminating, she added mentally.
The matron mother of house Varach stood unmoving, an impassable bastion before her home. Listening to the latest reasoning behind their demands – Demands, ha! The audacity! – she thought about the current turn of events concerning her house. As the only house still loyal to Lolth, hers was the single focus of the other houses’ attacks. All others had succumbed to or enthusiastically embraced the vulgar slime god Ghaunadaur. Where before they had been at each other’s throats, for the moment hers was their common prey. And seen as the weakest house in its isolation, she thought, they followed Ghaunadaur’s simplistic principle after a fashion: “The strongest weed out the weak to strengthen the stock of all.”
But she would not be known as the matron who let house Varach fall into ruins. Their significance had already diminished with the partial collapse of the city. The city’s library, their charge, had perished beneath the rubble below, and her house’s influence with it.
Yet she felt some sign of Lolth’s behind this chaotic downturn of events, another chance to prove herself before her goddess. She would not yield to the spider goddess’ repulsive enemy. Her best minds were turned to finding a way to dispose of Ghaunadaur’s avatar, but all previous attempts had failed. And the pressure of the other houses was building, especially after these outsiders’ attacks that were now being blamed on her, just another excuse to steal more of her secrets and weaken house Varach further.
She knew then she would offer another sacrifice to Lolth at today’s mass, to pray to the goddess’ guidance for an inspiring idea or chance.
As she was standing there and blocking any outsider from entering her house, the stream of reasoning from the probing party had not ebbed. Instead it had turned into a more hostile dispute. House Varach’s matron mother did not fall for the bait. She was aware of the priestess’ knowledge of her skill and power, far superior to the priestess’ own. The priestess would not dare to initiate any open confrontation other than verbally. At least not yet.
Radiating an aura seeped in antipathy, she stood her ground.
If any observer had been paying attention to the decorated windows looking into the foyer, they would have seen a well-armored elf darting into a side door leading down.
Immediately after he was through, Never closed the door behind him and spied through the keyhole, checking to see if any guard had noticed them passing by. Lambrac, Vias, and Yve had shot ahead of him through a small gap between the ground and door. They had arrived at the ground floor shortly before and miraculously encountered noone. Making sure that nobody from outside was watching the entrance hall, they had taken their chances and dashed for the door indicated 1by Ea’amonn’s pathfinding prayer. It had been locked, but fortunately the spell also conveyed to him how to unlock the door.
Passing into the descending stairway, he felt a severe cold emanating from the next 3 steps. “Don’t stand on these steps!”, he cautioned mentally, before he remembered their gaseous forms. “Keep away from the steps, they trigger some kind of trap. Let’s not test its mettle.”
“We’ll stay behind you as before, just to be sure.”, Vias asserted.
Never jumped lithely over the biting cold to land on steps comforting warm to his senses. Ea’amonn’s magic at work, he thought reassuringly.
They worked their way downward, with divine help bypassing several treacherous traps more. Some were snares of magical nature, others mundane but clevery hidden beneath different triggers.
Lambrac grew more unsettled the further they advanced without incident. Externally this manifested in jittery movements of his misty shape, yet inwardly he became muted and alert. The now infrequently immured crystals illumined their quiet procession eerily, not helping his state of mind. His focus zipped from one corner to the next, scanning for ambushes and traps that Never might have missed. He strained between the urge to hurry to Hobbes and the need for a safe and silent approach.
They floated behind Never, who left the descending path and stepped into an even passage. The rock walls were slashed with randomly appearing and disappearing crystal veins, giving off a murky violet and pinkish glow. Looking down the straight path, they saw large pitch-black holes interspersed in regular intervals in the walls. Never’s spell led them past strongly fortified doors devoid of light. Lambrac’s tension seemed ready to snap, when a bone-jarring scream echoed down the stone corridor. Never flinched, his blood frozen in his veins as Lambrac’s cloud zig-zagged forward and back, sending “Was that him? Did that sound like Hobbes?”
Never remained silent.
“N’ver?”, Vias asked.
“This is it.”, he replied, “The third to our right. You better start to condense into your physical selves again.”
“Finally!”, Lambrac sighed, eager to vent his agitation.
“I say we hit them fast and hard. Give them no chance to react or slay Hobbes out of spite.”, Vias offered. “I’ll tend to Hobbes, and you take care of the drow.”
“What if there are too many of them?”, Yve asked.
“I worry that there won’t be enough.”, Lambrac said, and added “Let’s do the mute minotaur.” They stared at him questioningly. “Mute, quiet. Minotaur, charging… I’m just trying to fill in for Hobbes.”, Lambrac explained defensively.
“Still, a good idea. I’ll augment this coin here, where we’re still far enough away, and you just have to hold onto it. Then we move in for the kill.”
Vias, Yve and Lambrac took their positions around Never for lookout, while Never whispered a faint prayer at a coin in his hand. All noise vanished suddenly, and N’ver handed the coin to Lambrac, who pocketed it, with the mental message “Get at them as fast as you can, otherwise I won’t be able to assist you with Ea’amonn’s strength.”
“Got it! Now, let’s rescue our friend.”
They moved swiftly to the door, entombed in unnatural silence. Vias took hold of the handle while Lambrac, Yve and Never got into their places. Signalling, Vias abruptly pulled the door open and Lambrac stormed inside, brandishing his ice coated bastard sword. In the far corner, he saw a naked and beaten Hobbes stretched on a rack, between a female drow, obviously a priestess from her expensive clothes and armor, and a strong male drow, his arms bare and pushing the rack’s wheel. While Never entered the torture chamber to have a better overview, two arrows shot past him at the male drow. One missed him narrowly and cut his side, the second sunk into his hip, causing him to let go off the wheel in shock.
Vias stepped into the door and noticed the female priestess spinning around in furious surprise. He worked quickly, concentrating on Hobbes, who was strung agonizingly to the rack. Vias imagined Hobbes’ strained joints and elongated muscles, the sting of the manacles cutting into his feet and wrists, rough bars lacerating his back. With increasing speed, he envisioned the rack’s lines, its wheel, its dimensions and its weight. Having committed the entirety to his mind, Vias sunk into himself, taking the mental image with him to his focal point. There, he created a small hourglass tied to the psychic effigy. Willing his energy into the isolated communion of hourglass, Hobbes and torture rack, he forced each grain of sand to fall more slowly, until the cascade of sand filling the lower half stopped altogether. Accompanied by a low, bass-pitched hum, Vias returned and opened his eyes, two burning points of silver fire. The droning increased and peaked the instant a rainbow flash of light swept away from him and his image’s counterpart disappeared in a shimmer of silver energy. Satisfied, he broadened his focus back to the entire room. Vias recognized Never reciting a prayer, calling for the dark flames of Ea’amonn’s breath, then his sight fell on Lambrac at the back of the chamber.
Lambrac arrived charging at the priestess, the only noise he registered the jolting of his heavy steps and the pumping of blood rushing through his body. She started waving her arms and hands intricately, but Lambrac lunged, his sword swinging down, reflecting the lilac ambient light in a gleaming arc. Tiny icy flakes drifted off in the crescent stroke. The sword hit, slicing deep into her side. Lambrac forced the gash deeper as he pulled his weapon out for the next attack. Almost no blood flowed from the wound where the chilling blade had frozen all it touched.
The male drow recovered swiftly, pouncing unarmed at Lambrac, trying to get a hold of him. Expertly, Lambrac stepped aside and swung defensively at him, shearing through the arrows sticking out of his side. Another volley of arrows noiselessly appeared in his side, slamming into the drow, one scantily missing him and shattering against the wall. Vias concentrated, gathering ectoplasm from his surroundings and, with another sweep of rainbow lights centered on him, encased the door on the opposite side behind an opaque barrier. While he moved back into the hallway to look out for reinforcements, he saw Never hurling white-hot flames at the priestess. Each blaze shot hungrily forward, and he realized that this was the first time he could actually see them. Before, only Never’s gestures and his victim’s remains had attested to the ferocity of these scorching missiles. His half-orc body was still too drastic a change for him to have acclimatized completely, he thought.
The female drow staggered below Lambrac’s onslaught of stabs and carving slashes, her frozen wounds thawing from invisibly burning cloth, until she finally crumbled beneath a blow opening her shoulder wide down her chest. Time slowed down as Lambrac spun, deflecting a disarming grab for his weapon and in the same movement cutting at the attacking drow’s outstretched arms. Fingers and tips fell down, tumbling onto the wet floor. Once more arrows shot past, knocking the still standing drow backwards. Before he could catch his balance, he started to writhe in agony. With one arm he was trying to protect his eyes and with the other to pat his clothes down while voicing a silent scream. Amid the next salvo of arrows and flames he fell over, dead. Only Vias could perceive the dance of the flames consuming the two corpses.
With a single thought, he smashed the spiritual hourglass and Hobbes reappeared instantly, no time having passed for him. Lambrac quickly rushed to his side, freeing him from the rack. Hobbes slumped sapless in his arms, losing consciousness. When Never reached them, he pocketed the silencing coin from Lambrac in his magical pouch, cancelling its effect. He layed his hand on Hobbes’ mutilated back and summoned a little his god’s healing power with a short prayer. When Hobbes remained unconscious, he held high his holy symbol with his other hand and channelled more energy into the frail body to cure and mend what had been broken.
This, and a fresh bucket of cold water brought the nude halfling back to his confused senses. In his mind he was still being tortured, only hallucinating this fervent dream of rescue. Yet a simmer of Ea’amonn’s strength seemed to brush his senses and with enormous effort, he calmed his thoughts.
Recognizing his friends, he almost fell over again from relief.
“I, ..I had thought that this time, I would not make it out alive.”
“We’ve cut you out of their clutches, but we haven’t left their web yet.”, Lambrac said relieved but solemnly.
“One second, we have to do something about your smell..”, Never remarked, creating a large blob of water above Hobbes. The water splashed down and for an instant Hobbes was thrown back to the moment he had been drowning in a water bucket. He exploded into motion, tossing around and shaking and scratching like a rabid animal. Lambrac started to grasp him, but Vias held him back, saying “Let him, he won’t recognize you until he’s calmed himself down. It’s better to talk to him. We should also give him something to dress. He can’t leave walking around naked.”
They managed to pacify Hobbes and then dress him quickly with some of Lambrac’s extra clothing. He didn’t look completely saved from the brink of the abyss, but it seemed to help the storm in his mind.
Never talked to Hobbes, speaking reassuringly, “Alright, Hobbes. We’re glad to have you back, and it is with heavy heart that we need to burden you already with something important. I could find you and bring us past many traps with Ea’amonn’s help, but I cannot do this again before resting. Thus it falls to you to lead us by the traps unharmed. I will assist you in any manner possible, but the help that brought us here is now barred to us. Vias assured us that teleportation is not possible in here, but I still have one more Wind Walk in me. So the plan is the following: You get us to ground level, and from there we float to freedom. Do you think you can endure that?”
“Anything to get me outta here.”
Never nodded, then proceeded to cast his spell, ending with a soft touch to Hobbes’ shoulder. Hobbes’ silhouette faded and dissolved into a cloud of countless droplets. “Now transform back. You’ll take the lead.”
Vias walked into the room, refreshing the power linking all minds together, enabling them to speak telepathically again. Afterwards, he, Lambrac and Yve dissolved back into their cloud forms.
Hobbes collected himself and walked silently in Never’s indicated direction. He soon fell back into the familiar rhythm of looking for traps. His steps were careful and his bare feet perceived even the smallest depression and yielding of fake floor tiles. His damaged hands brushed once over his ravaged head, then caressed the walls as he tread forward. On their way upward, Hobbes appeared as if in trance. His movements were methodical and his conversation was limited to detached instructions. Never followed his lead, the others a trail of clouds above him. Hobbes’ progress halted at a few most intricate traps, but only temporarily. When he reached three triggered steps before a locked door, he examined their mechanics and ruled “We can pass above these steps. They are purely touch-sensitive. I don’t have the strength to jump anymore though. Someone has to carry me over.”
Never answered, “This has to be the first trap we passed on our way down, so we’re at the door to the ground level. Hobbes, you can morph into gaseous form and then we’ll find a way out.”
“Where do you want to float through? We can’t go through the front entrance without being noticed.”, Lambrac asked.
Vias added, “Maybe there is a place where it is misty anyway and we wouldn’t stand out. Like a steam bath or a bubbling cauldron. Hobbes, didn’t you enter a kitchen before you were caught? There should be a chimney or something equivalent.”
“Oh, right. Yes, I think I could find it again. It’s only two stairways up the ground floor.”
“Good. Then that’s the plan. We make sure the hall is still empty and follow Hobbes through.”, Never said as he dissolved into a cloud. Yve partly flowed below the door, spying into the room, “The hall is empty, yet there are still guards outside the entrance, as before. Which door do we go through?”
“Facing the entrance, it is the first to the left of it. It leads to the servants’ gangway.”, Hobbes replied.
“I can see it. The path is clear and straight, but I suggest we fly hugging the ground.”
“Agreed. After the door we should stay close to the ceiling again, until Hobbes finds the kitchen. On your mark, Hobbes.”
They flitted along the floor, straight for the gap below the hinted door. Once through, they rose up to the corridor’s ceiling and followed Hobbes’ directions. They passed above a descending slave, his attention fixed on the filled cups he was carrying on a silver plate. As they arrived at the kitchen, another slave closed the door and started off in the other direction.
“This is the kitchen. I don’t remember its layout, but there should be what we’re looking for.”
Never peaked into the kitchen, detailing his view to the group. “There is a baking oven at the center of the right wall that has pipework above it.”
“I’m not so sure about this plan anymore,” Lambrac said. “Me neither,” Hobbes agreed.
“Well, I am. Follow, if you want to leave.”, Never baited and zipped into the kitchen. He flew along the ground and then shot into the oven, rising along the pipes. The others followed quickly, and one by one they entered the pipework, drifting higher until they were spat out of the side of the grand house, where Never already waited, floating. “I see nobody distrusted the idea enough to be left behind. Let’s go to Gwydion and care for Hobbes appropriately. I’m sure he is anxious for news.”, he said and they flew off over the city. As they passed overhead Varach’s courtyard, they saw the matron mother still standing there. A pair of drow were leaving while a familiar robed drow was in conversation with the matron. Leaving the scene behind, they steered toward their camp.
Gwydion stood guard at the camp, deep in thoughts. He faced the city and imagined the horrors happening to his friends, scratching the molded skin around his torque unconsciously. He had suffered in there, but not been tortured. Gwydion looked around again, searching for any sight or sound of approaching patrols. He sensed a gust of wind, then recognized the immaterial shapes of the returning rescue group. Their spectral bodies touched down and solidified gradually, thanks to Never’s divine spell. He hurried toward the smallest huddled form and embraced Hobbes, relieved, “Welcome back.”
While recounting their tale, they found some food and better fitting clothes and fed and dressed Hobbes carefully. Yve took first guard and the others settled down exhausted. Hobbes fell into troubled sleep and had to be wakened from time to time to be calmed.
When the town gates opened, Yve stood stock-still and observed the growing gap. She was surprised when she recognized the brown-robed drow leaving the city alone. She quickly woke the others. They monitored his route, until he stopped a distance from them and started to gesture with his arms and hands. In a On a notion, Lambrac whispered to him loudly “Greetings from Afarel, your dwarven friend.”, but Vias interjected curtly, concentrating, “Won’t help.” With a blink, the drow disappeared.
“What..?”, Lambrac breathed.
“I’ve got him,” Vias replied. “He teleported along the ravine. I can get us there if we’re quick. But only four of us. Decide swiftly, who’s going to stay here?”
Hobbes said softly, “I’ll stay. I don’t have much in me yet.” Gwydion acquiesced, “I’ll remain here as well. I can hold and stay guard another couple hours. Just don’t let history repeat itself. Captivity is not an option.”
“Then that’s settled. Gather around me and prepare yourself. I don’t know what we’ll be facing where we arrive.” Vias said with burning eyes. Another breath and they were gone.
“Alright Hobbes, bedtime for you.” Gwydion said, grinning. “Don’t have to say THAT twice!”
They settled back in their camp, Gwydion on guard and Hobbes chewing languidly on a ration while falling asleep.
Vias, Yve, Lambrac and Never appeared on the ledge somewhere further down the gorge. They heard quietly receding steps, but from the other side of the ravine. Vias looked over, “So close, but oh so far.. goes the saying.” “You forget, we can still use the gaseous walk. The enchantment lasts 12 hours.”, Never said proudly. “Good, then let’s not loose him. Who knows what he’s doing out here… One moment, though.” Vias concentrated and shaped a mental link between them before they transformed and swept up. They crossed the gorge, then followed the ledge high in the air. They stopped when they overheard a conversation. Listening closely, the could not understand any spoken word, but recognized the speech pattern as Undercommon. In the absence of almost any light they could make out only silhouettes. A robed shape, probably their acquaintance, stood before another silhouette on a large throne-like form, listening to what he said. Two other outlines stood to the side next to a large outcropping of rock. A comment by the throne-seated person, a female voice, and the rock formation moved suddenly to stand next to her. It was far larger and heavier built than a normal drow, and above its head ended the grip of an oversized weapon. At the feet of the female was another large and moving shape that they could not discern. They decided to wait until the conversation was finished and then catch the robed drow on his way back to initiate a dialog there. After the report was finished, the female leader spoke a few sentences, then the robed one bowed and left the way he had come.
As he passed below the group of clouds, they started to follow him, discussing how best to talk to him. He did not walk far, when he started to cast a spell. Never swiftly landed down and dismissed his cloud form to instantly pop back into his material form. As he called softly to the casting drow, Vias sunk into his mental center and tied an imaginary anchor to his image of the robed drow. This should keep him from teleporting away, Vias thought. When he opened his eyes, a silver ray shot from them to the gesturing drow, enveloping him in a shimmering silver and emerald field. He turned around, calling out and gesturing for another spell again. Never spoke quickly, “No, we do not mean you harm. We come with greetings from Afarel and want to ask you for cooperation or help against the slime avatar…” The robed drow disappeared in a blink. “He cannot have teleported, he must be invisible. Talk to make him stop running away..”, Vias sent urgently. “I’m already trying.”, Never replied. “Please stop, listen to me. We do not mean harm.” He stopped when he noticed the noise of a whole legion approaching. “Verdammte Schlacke”, he swore in Elvish, “how can there be so many? This has got to be forty or more warriors. Vias, can you teleport us out of here? I don’t have anything useful left.. Unless we want to put up a fight.”
“Only if we touch, and they’re almost around the bend, says Yve. I think we should talk with them on their terms. We came here to talk with the hooded guy, and maybe we can find out more about the leader as well.” replied Vias.
“We don’t have much choice anyway, they’ve arrived,” said Lambrac, as the giant person appeared at the corner, weapon drawn and a group of armed drow at his heels. Never lifted his arms slowly away from his body.
Yve, Vias and Lambrac drifted close to Never. The robed drow suddenly appeared next to the giant and they felt their wind walk enchantment being torn asunder, causing them to regain their physical forms instantly. The band of armed drow had increased in the meantime. As one, they stepped to the side and opened an alley in their midst through which walked slowly the female drow. A large lizard heralded her, and she held a black leash secured to a strong collar around his thick neck. She stopped past the giant and said, “What do we have here? Surface dwellers? And a priest of Ea’amonn among them, banded with one of Orc-blood? That is certainly going to be a most curious conversation. I suggest you follow us back to a more comfortable place, where you can tell us about you and how you found this place.” With that the lizard turned amphibiously and back through the alley of warriors standing at attention. The giant and the hooded drow did not leave their spots and continued to stare at the confounded group. “I don’t think we have the choice of declining her invitation.”, Never remarked mentally. “I concur. After you then, dear friend.”, Vias motioned.
They walked tensely toward the narrow lane between the warriors. Before they arrived the giant turned and entered the pathway, escorting them. When they passed into the alley, the robed person dropped in behind them, making up the rear. In that constellation, the warriors walking in step behind them, they walked back to the throne-like place, where the female drow had already seated herself. The giant signed them to stop at a respectable distance, continuing until he stood behind her, to her side. Their hooded escort bowed deeply, and they with him catching the cue, then positioned himself on her other side. “How do you come to be here?”, she demanded, speaking lightly accentuated Common.
“I am Neveranuanikii Shai’i’zarron and we came here to speak with the robed person at your side.” Never explained what had happened, telling her of their charge of destroying the Lurker’s avatar after having broken Tiamat’s attempt to establish her own region on the material plane and defeated her manifestation in the Wyrmbone mountains.
One of her delicate eyebrows rose, “I am impressed. You do not appear to be the match of an avatar of Tiamat’s ferocity. Looks can be deceiving, even more than words, can they not? Now tell us, how do you come to find this place? It was well hidden, until now.”
“We were trying to contact a local party that we thought might be amicable to the idea of getting rid of the avatar to find some possible support in our cause. After our first attempt to contact House Varach had failed, we subsequently tried to contact the robed man at your side since we had already met him once before and separated under non-hostile circumstances. Furthermore, a common friend, a dwarf and former slave named Afarel, had described your man as someone open to our approaches.”
She turned to the hooded character and waited for him to explain himself. He told her of the dwarf leading excavations for the missing library in the slave pits and his ensuing escape at the hands of those in front of her.
Focussing back on Never, he continued his tale. “When your robed magician left the gates earlier, we tracked his teleportation and tracked him here, with the intent on talking with him without drawing too much attention. On that part we were not successful.”
“In that you are correct. But you are also lucky. I believe you. And because I enjoyed your telling of your accomplishments thus far, I am going to impart on you information without which your quest is doomed to fail, and your lives along with it.” She adjusted her position and the giant lizard looked up, its slitted tongue darting out. She threw an indistinguishable bit, which it swallowed with a few, strong chews.
“There have already been a number of efforts to send Ghaunadaur’s avatar back to where it oozed from, but all have failed. Whatever was thrown at it, it absorbed, increasing its size and stench. And all further assaults, even helped with magic as many were before, will fail the same way if they lack one important factor. The avatar can only be banished by an ancient divine ritual. The cunning goddess Lolth had long ago described such a ritual to her highest acolytes in order to assist in defeating a rival god, one of her ex-lovers, in fact. This ritual had been written down and imparted by these followers in a book whose value was soon forgotten in her chaotic ways. Nevertheless, the tome survived the ages within a well-tended library in teh city you just hailed from, BLABLABLA. But, as you have now undoubtedly guessed, the library disappeared in the collapse of half of BLABLABLA. My mage had been working on finding the entrance to the library, but even so we are still missing one vital part: The key to the library, protected by the matron of the keepers of the library, house Varach. She is the crucial next step to learn the ancient ritual. Considering that no specific devotion is required for the ritual but an intricate knowledge of divine magic, I judge that a priest Ea’amonn’s of your stature is plenty to wield and control this ritual. Thus you must convince the matron of house Varach to give you the key to her library for you to succeed on your mission.”
Motioning to the robed man, she said, “Moreover, to teach my mage a lesson to apply more stealth in his labors, he will assist you with your endeavor.”
Never bowed gratefully, “We are deeply indebted, dear lady. How can we repay you your generosity, Miss….”, he let the pause grow. She simply smiled, waiting for him to continue. “We do not yet know your name,” “And it shall remain so, you may stay content in your blissful ignorance. You are excused to leave now. Please direct any further questions at my mage, who will be accompanying you.”
Never bowed again, concertedly with Vias, Yve and Lambrac, and they shuffled backwards, then walked composedly toward the back of the guards to wait for the magician. He arrived there after a short while, appearing not too happy about his charge.
“We are glad that you will assist us. Unfortunately we are stranded here at the moment. Is it possible for you to take all of us along with you in your teleport.”, Never asked politely.
The other breathed a sigh, shaking his head in resignation. “Yes, it seems I can help you with that, too. Please step closer. We’ll arrive where you assumedly saw me leave.”
With a word, they blinked away and reappeared at the position he had promised. After telling them where and how to contact him, he left them and went to the city.