An old story I wrote when I was a kid. A D&D campaign had gone unfinished, so to appease my players I wrote a conclusion. -sk
Three from Cormyr
Out of Darkness, Three will come
They will fight for Aber Toril’s fate
The Night cannot stand before them
At the brink of oblivion they will press on
Two allies will fall before the end arrives
But the remaining, with the strength of the fallen
Will follow the moon to their goal.
-Carath Nor, Year of the Wilting
From the bow of the Narwhale, Ront, Sabatta, and Dregia watched the Gem of Cormyr grow steadily brighter upon the northern horizon. Suzail’s lights rested just below a dark red line in the sky, a peculiar coloration shaped like a grand scepter of blood with the city as its crowning stone. The three men had watched months earlier as that red mark had expanded out from the mountains of Silverymoon and almost bridged a celestial gap that would have let one of the three Old Gods claim all of Aber Toril. That had been too close for their taste, and had cost them five close friends. Now they returned home after another narrow victory in Chult, and again despair accompanied success; Minuet had fallen in the battle that had ensued and her absence filled the air between them with a sickening malaise. Even the bright rays of the gibbous moon overhead seemed stymied by the black emotions that hung unspoken between the companions.
“We arrive soon my friends. Lady Caldnei will be pleased to hear of our success.”
Unseen in the night a cloaked figure had approached, a sword and axe hung at his belt. He carried himself with a sharp grace; smooth, and punctuated by darting glances at any flickering of the shadows.
The tension dissipated for a moment and the three turned to face Dante Nazreth, special envoy of the Steel Regent. The giant half-orc, Ront, exhaled deeply and cracked his intertwined knuckles high above his head. Sabatta reached into his pocket as he came about and brought out a pre-wrapped cigarette. He nodded once, placed the cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a match he struck on the rail. The bright cherry cast angular shadows on Sabatta’s face beneath the black, wide brimmed hat.
“The rings finally failed, I only hope we haven’t taken too long to get back,” Dregia replied, used to his two companions rarely taking the initiative in conversation, though for differing reasons. Sabatta was a quiet loner; Ront was simply stupid.
Dante brought his hand up to examine a ring identical to three rings the others wore. It was a burnished gold color with the seal of the War Wizards etched upon the top.
“Indeed, the Weave seems to be in a critical stage, it would seem that magic can no longer be relied upon.”
“Selune will guide us,” Sabatta answered, dark eyes peering out from under his hat, “only Baldur’s Gate remains, now.”
Ront shook his head up and down vigorously and grunted in agreement. Dregia didn’t seem as convinced.
“Suzail used to glow much brighter in the deep, dark night. So much of it has been destroyed, so many people gone.” He hung his head and leaned back on the wooden rail. “Let’s reserve judgment until we see what we’re coming home to.”
“The disease has advanced to the later stages, Alus…The Regent,” Caladnei corrected herself, “does not have much longer.” The young war wizard met the gaze of the four assembled men, seeing the pained realization in the mens’ face that their friend and ruler of one of the last free nations in the realms, was on her death bed. Caladnei attempted to remain stoic; what would Vanghy have said if he could see her now, violet eyes watering in front of the kingdom’s soldiers. But these men: Ront, Dregia, Sabatta, and even Dante were more than just fighters, they had become sure friends and her brief shame dissipated when she saw their looks of deepest sympathy and sadness.
Sabatta, removing his hat in respect, stepped forward and placed his hand upon Caladnei’s shoulder, gripping it lightly. “Allow me to go to her, perhaps Selune can offer some assistance even if priestly magic has failed us.”
Caladnei nodded and motioned for a guard to escort the black-clad cleric. “Of course, I’m sure it would please her if she were conscious.”
“By your leave,” Sabatta bowed, turned and followed the guard out of the room.
“What is this disease, what’s happened since we left?” Dregia stepped forward, palms upward, voice somewhere between curiosity and anger. His chin thrust forward, prominently displaying the scar he had worn for some time, a trophy of a battle long past.
Caladnei collected herself, pushing her shoulder length, auburn hair behind her ear, and pouring three glasses of wine from a carafe on a small desk. The room they were in was well furnished, near the center of the palace for protection, for it was the hub from which most of the kingdom’s military plans were made. A large table dominated the space, covered in maps and battle plans set aside from earlier briefings, and though there were tens of chairs, the assembled companions preferred to stand in the face of such dire tidings. Caladnei passed out the drinks and answered.
“Two weeks after you left someone managed to poison the water supply. The effects were not immediately apparent, but quite virulent once symptoms pronounced themselves. Most who drank large quantities of the tainted stuff died relatively quickly – they were the lucky ones. Others, like Lady Alusair, are wracked with constant pain until they finally expire, their bones broken by the extreme tension in their muscles. At best guess twenty thousand have already died, with thousands more to follow. We are fortunate that most of the military was already out of the city.”
“Good,” Ront responded, though his face remained dour. The simple response brought the faintest of smiles to Caladnei’s face, though it quickly faded.
“The military has been moved?” Dregia asked, taking a drink from the wine glass.
“Are they aware that The Regent is ill?” Dante added.
“To answer your question, Dante, no, they have not yet been informed, and I fear their response to that news. To answer your implied question Dregia the times are desperate indeed; the Church has begun to move its forces.” She let that statement settle in, and saw in even Ront’s paling complexion that the news was understood. A direct confrontation with the Church, who still had magic under their control, was almost certain defeat. “Silverymoon has deployed their armies in a joint effort with us to the North, with our armies bottling them in to the West. We hope to limit their ability to bring all their manpower to bear, but…” She let the statement hang, and bit her lip when the effect was to leave a foreboding silence.
Ront was the first to speak, the awkward moment lost on him, “So what do you want us to do?”
Caladnei gave a flat smile, her face troubled. “You do yourself credit Ront; you are more perceptive than you look and I apologize for not speaking more directly. You, Dregia, and Sabatta know Baldur’s Gate, you know what the Church is like, and might be able to get where our armies cannot. I hate to put merit in a prophesy, but the people believe in you, and I have faith in your abilities,” she looked down and shook her head, “I’m sorry it all sounds so hollow and hopeless, but the ideas have run dry. This is it, and I beg your forgiveness to ask such a thing of you. I won’t order you, will the three of you try?”
Dante’s face grew tight and his eyebrows drew together, “Three? There will be four of us.”
“Dante, I need you with the armies, watching over the commanders. When they find out that the Regent is unable to perform her duties…”
“But m’Lady, I belong…”
Dregia gripped Dante’s shoulder in his gloved hand and brought him about to face him. “No my good friend, she’s right, and we won’t have any further deaths on our hands. We can do this ourselves, let us see this through.”
“That isn’t your decision!”
“But it is hers,” Dregia snapped, gesturing at Caladnei. “If the armies break, there won’t be time for anyone to get to Baldur’s Gate, and those things will run rampant in the streets of Suzail, killing every remaining man, woman, and child, and extinguishing the light of hope for all time.”
For a moment Dante glared defiantly, but finally the fires behind his eyes cooled and he nodded his head, “You are right of course,” he said.
“Very well,” the war wizard drew herself to full height and projected the remains of her confidence. “Inform Sabatta of the plan, prepare yourselves and do what you must. If the Gods can still hear us, may they protect all of us long enough for you to make some difference, whatever it may be.”
Dregia and Ront had just started collecting what supplies they kept in their small barracks room when Sabatta arrived. The leather clad cleric looked even more taciturn and stern than normal as he slammed the door behind him and stalked to his bed, sitting heavily upon the uneven straw mattress. A puff of dust accompanied the creaking impact.
“Was there anything you could do?” Ront asked, his skills of empathy severely lacking.
Dregia breathed a quick gout of air from his nose, as if to expel the sum of his frustration and responded without making eye-contact,
“Nothing. Selune has seen fit to gift me and no other with spells, and the ability to cure disease is among these, but,” he ground his teeth hard enough that Dregia, sitting nearby, could hear tiny pops, “this is something different. It resists everything I throw at it. I’ve lessened her pain, that’s the best I could do.” He finally looked at the half-orc,
“She won’t live more than a few more days, a week at most.”
Ront gave a single nod, and pulled the pure black axe he always carried off his back. The cleaving blade would have been near impossible for even the largest of normal men to carry around, let alone wield effectively. In Ront’s hands, however, the masterful weapon looked well balanced and intimidating. It had been a gift from the goddess Shar, given to the companions by Selune, and the Barbarian had used it quite adeptly since. He bounced it in his hands as if testing the weight.
“I’ll hurt whoever did this,” Ront stated flatly.
Dregia saw the hate in his friend’s eyes and had no doubt about the sincerity of the threat. He was about to go back to assembling his traveling gear when Sabatta once again spoke up,
“What’s wrong with your axe?” The peculiar question and hint of alarm in Sabatta’s voice went through Dregia like an electric current, and his eyes shot back towards Ront. The orc stared with an obvious lack of comprehension as the black metal head of the blade began to deteriorate into a fine particulate, evaporating like crushed, charred wood sprinkled into a strong wind.
“Something is wrong,” said Dregia. Then he found himself drowning in pain. Agony coursed through his mind, as a piercing, disembodied scream transmuted to white-hot fire burned through his brain, suffocating all conscious thought. He grabbed his head reflexively and rolled about on the floor, keening along with the mad wail only he could hear.
Ront’s mouth hung open, paralyzed by the sudden situation developing, most concerned about his axe, which was now a rapidly dwindling handle (though in later tales he would claim he jumped instantly to Dregia’s aid). Sabatta took the initiative and ran to the beleaguered ranger’s side. A quick spell-prayer failed to produce any discernable benefit, and so he searched for answers elsewhere. Reaching into the pocket of his leather duster, Sabatta pulled out a small cube, no larger than an apple. The object had a peculiar inner light, a multitude of almost-colors dancing behind a white-rose casing, in a rhythmic, living manner. He held it aloft as one would an egg if it were the most valuable object in the world, and spoke at it.
“Librarian, what’s happening, analyze this.”
A tenor voice eminated from the cube in response,
“Please redefine ‘this’. There are quite a few magical and non-magical processes currently ongoing within the range of my,”
“This, Librarian, whatever is happening to Dregia.”
“Ah, one moment please,” the cube pulsed before going on, “Unknown, though he does appear to be in great deal of distress. I would suggest,”
“What about Ront’s axe?” Sabatta cut the voice off.
“It would appear that the weapon in question, though it could hardly be called an axe any longer, has lost its connection to its external source of power. Either some effect has cut this room off from the rest of the multiverse – an assessment that I can find no evidence for – or, its source of power has been somehow terminated.”
“Shar,” Sabatta whispered, noting that Dregia had choked out the word at the same time.
“Huh? What does Shar have to do with my axe?” Ront demanded, looking quizzically at Sabatta and the now cognizant Cormyrian.
Dregia attempted to sit up and choke words through his dry mouth but only a few haggard phrases escaped
“Shar, she…she has…”
“Shar is dead,” Sabatta finished for him.
“You are correct Chosen,” a voice like bells on the wind infused the room with an audible warmth. The three heroes looked towards the corner of the room to see what appeared to be a young girl come into being, coalescing vaporously as moonlight from behind pure, white clouds. The child-being had a soft glow that pierced every sense and elicited immediate and total tranquility and contentment, and the three heroes almost cried out in the painful perfection of the moment. It was a Shard, celestial servants of the Moon Maiden, Lady Selune, one of two true Gods of the Realms.
“I have come to tell you what you must do,” it said.
Dregia grimaced and squinted his eyes in the face of the Shard’s light.
“Could you turn that down a notch, miss?” He asked.
The girl tilted her head to the side, silver hair cascading across her shoulders, and gave no indication of comprehension; her face remained placid.
“The light hurts his eyes, Child of Selune, perhaps he has too much connection to Shar. If you could contain your glow, though it pains me to ask you to do so.”
“Of course Chosen,” the Shard responded, nodding its head in assent. The ambient illumination immediately dimmed.
Dregia mumbled to the side shrugging his shoulders, “Sure, she listens to you,” Ront could just make out.
“My mistress is embattled at the moment, and her sister has fallen. The situation forced her to send a proxy to convey her wishes, and thus I am here to assist you in a vital task, one which the Realms will depend upon.”
“Command us,” Sabatta said, taking a knee in front of the girl, and lowering his gaze.
The Shard paused a moment and continued, taking the remaining silence as agreement.
“My mistress, long ago, secreted away a magical device of pure living energy that was used to bring about the creation of all Aber Toril, the Promethigenesis. In it is invested a small bit of the twin goddesses collective power, a sink in which they collected their diametric forces of existence, light and darkness, in rare cooperation. As you recall, my mistress used a portion of her very being to defeat the old gods before, and her hope is to do the same once again. As you certainly have noticed, your opponents have required more force to destroy each time; in Silverymoon you defeated one of the old gods using your own power, but they feed off of eachother and only with the assistance of Dendar, an extention of Shar, were you able to defeat the creature in Chult. Now, the final god rising in Baldur’s Gate may require a similar sacrifice that occurred ages ago to first free the Realms. My mistress is overextended and could not survive a similar rending of her spirit, but the Promethigenesis offers an alternative.”
Ront nodded, sagely, though his face betrayed a lack of understanding. However, the general idea of “find item, get item” was familiar to him.
“So where did she put it?” He asked. Sabatta shot him an icy look, and Dregia chuckled, but the Shard was unfazed by the lack of etiquette.
“She gave the item to a being both the sisters trusted, another female god-like being committed to balance and neutrality within the multiverse, a power known as ‘the Lady of Pain.’”
“Delightful name,” Dregia interjected.
“You are fortunate that the Lady of Pain will be expecting you; I am here to create a bridge for you to cross, connecting you to a doorway within Sigil where she resides. Retrieve the Promethigenesis and bring it back to the portal so that I may take you to Baldur’s Gate and execute the final portion of Selune’s plan.”
“Sounds pretty cut and dry,” Dregia said. He had stood up by then and was rummaging about in the closet, when he brought out a pair of swords and an axe. “We’ll need our old weapons, Ront, after these Sharran versions dried up on us,” Dregia motioned to the empty sheaths on his bed that used to hold black blades similar to Ront’s cleaver.
“Yeah, yeah!” Ront smiled, jumping up and down.
Sabatta ignored his two friends and focused on the Shard. “Is there anything further you require of us?” he inquired.
“The Shards will be preparing the untainted land within this kingdom for a ritual important to my mistress’ plan. We will require the assistance of devoted humans to help power the magics. Are there people you trust that may assist us in this endeavor?”
Sabatta nodded, “Of course, I have two in mind, I will inform them and then shall we leave?”
“Yes, Chosen,” the Shard replied, for the first time her child-like face becoming a mask of concern, “time grows ever shorter, and the enemy will not wait. Hope truly rests in your hands.”
“Then lets set this ritual up and set out,” Dregia said. There was no argument. After a brief stop at first Caladnei’s quarters, and then Dante’s the Shard opened a portal and the companions were off.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Dregia said. The three companions were trudging along a narrow path, the pale white of moonlight, that seemed to be suspended in an infinite sky of starry midnight. The moon, near-full in the background, was the same hue as the bridge on which they walked.
“Used to what?” Sabatta asked, keeping the pace at the head of the group, seemingly content with their form of transportion.
“To what? Look I’ve seen magic and all, but when a little girl, an extention of a Goddess given, but something that looks like a little girl evaporates into thin air and becomes a portal I walk through and the bridge we’re walking on now, well, it’s a little weird, you have to admit,”
“I don’t,” was all Sabatta said, the hat shading his features and making it impossible to tell whether he was telling the truth.
“Where’d the little girl go?” Ront asked from the back, his head swiveling about on his shoulders, taking in the impossible sights like a dog trying to keep up with a butterfly.
“This bridge is a physical manifestation of the path Selune has set for us,” Sabatta expounded, “it is one of the most glorious sights I have had the pleasure to behold, excluding, of course, the Moon Maiden herself.”
“OK, stop right there,” Dregia laughed, holding up his hands as if to defend himself, “I don’t need to hear another hour long one-man discussion about how beautiful the moon is. Fine, none of this is weird, you win. I did want to talk to you about this prophesy though, something about it is eating at me.”
“What about it?” Sabatta asked.
“I’m worried Sabatta; I mean, this is it, friend; the world could be coming apart and I’m not sure we can hold it together. And add to that, a creepy prophesy – that’s been pretty accurate I might add – says that someone else we know is going to die, probably one of us. I, I don’t know maybe I just want to hear what I’m thinking to calm myself down, but I’m tired of being the only thing between everything and oblivion.”
“Lady Selune will provide.”
“Damn it Sabatta, Lady Selune may die, do you realize that? She’s a goddess but she is fighting for her life, and if we fail it’s over. Is this not sinking in? What if she’s as lost as we are, huh?” Dregia took a deep breath to steady himself, surprised at his own outburst.
“What do you want me to say, Dregia; I’m worried. We might lose, and if I fail I’ve failed the Goddess who has given meaning to my life. But considering that possibility is pointless, and so I trust in myself, in you and Ront, and in Selune because it is the only way to continue on. And I know that you trust in something enough that you have come this far. No, something else has rattled you or you wouldn’t even bring this up. What might that be, hmm, my friend?”
Dregia continued in silence for a while before responding, his voice drawn and quiet as if he were telling an important secret, “I’ve been thinking about the prophesy, and I know a friend might die, but what if it is something even worse than that, what if,”
“Hey, look up ahead,” Ront exclaimed, pointing to a mote of light ahead. The magical nature of the bridge brought it closer much faster than their walking would normally have warranted.
“A portal, Ront, the end of the moonbridge; we have arrived at our destination.” The mote grew until it appeared to be an old oak door, outlined in white fire. On the right side, near waist high a burnished bronze handle was connected to the wooden frame. Sabatta reached for it and pulled it open towards himself; beyond was more white fire, churning wildly but throwing off no heat.
“Shall we?” Sabatta held his hand out, beckoning.
“Woo hoo,” Ront yelled and cast himself into the roiling flames, his disappearance accompanied by a cork-from-a-bottle pop.
Dregia was about to jump through when Sabatta placed his outstretched hand on his shoulder.
“We will talk about your concerns later.”
“It’s nothing,” Dregia said, and jumped into the portal, Sabatta right behind him.
The first thing Sabatta noticed when he came through the other side of the portal was the scent of rotting flesh, strong enough to force the wind out of him. He had appeared at the end of an alley, the walls around him a motley assortment of building stones, and the sky above corpse gray, to match the bodies strewn about his feet. Reeling from the odor, Sabatta noticed Ront and Dregia in the midst of combat with a half dozen creatures.
“Sabatta, Tarpers!” Ront yelled to the cleric, as he swung his axe in a constant arc in front of him, passing through the air with a cat-like hiss, promising death. The creatures he fought were grossly alien, standing 8 feet tall and tripedal. Their skin was a dark green brown, and embedded in their oozing, slime covered bodies were the shapes of tens of faces, mouths agape in silent agony, writhing from within the skin as if trying to escape. The things arms were thick as a man’s, but long enough that their tentacle-like barbed fingers dragged on the ground, and attached from the arms to the waist were thick, bat like membranes for flight. The heroes had fought this enemy before, and their presence meant that the Church of the Old Gods was here already, and Sabatta knew that was very bad news.
One of the creatures reached an arm in too close and lost a hand with a loud slurp and pop of rending flesh and snapping bone. The tarper reeled back and gave a high pitched wail. Ront tried to press his advantage, but the narrow alley didn’t give enough room to maneuver. When he moved forward the allies of the injured beast pressed in from the sides, forcing him to return to protective back and forth swings. What was worse, Dregia had no room to assist the beleaguered orc in melee. Instead he had drawn a bow, and was taking every opportunity to put arrows into the enemy. He put one of the darts through a tarper’s eyes and turned to Sabatta.
“Anytime you’d care to jump in,” he said.
Sabatta focused himself and shut out the distractions around him. He pictured himself on the shore of a dark lake, the moon high overhead, the only object in the sky, shining upon the still waters below. The reflection however, was magnified immensely, large enough to cover the entire surface; this was the power he drew upon, a representation of Selune’s boon, and as he stepped into the mind-representation of the lake he drew deeply of that power.
One of the tarpers had glided over Ront while Sabatta was concentrating, forcing Dregia to engage it. He dropped his bow and drew a pair of swords, one shorter than the other, but both straight and broad. The thing moved to attack the cleric, but Dregia interposed himself, lashing out at the tarpers arm with the shorter sword, driving it aside and thrusting in with the longer sword to keep his distance. The blade pierced deeply, as if thrust into thick mud, the wound spraying a vicious liquid once extracted. A bit splashed upon the ranger’s sleeve and fire sprung into life. He fought through it, pressed into combat as he was, keeping his opponent back with a flashy but ineffective rapid succession of thrusts towards its face. It staggered back, swiping at the darting blades.
Just then a pillar of flame erupted from the air, splashing down like a waterfall upon the tarpers Ront kept at bay. The things wailed in agony, skin crackling and turning dark black as the flames hungrily consumed their moist flesh.
“Ront, look out!” Seeing an opening, Dregia rushed forward, and shouldered into his already off-balance tarper, pushing it backwards. Ront, warned ahead of time, planted his foot and shoved himself aside as the creature stumbled backwards falling into the conflagration with the others. Its screeches barely increased the demonic cacophony. Finally the spell died away and the bodies slumped to the floor, silent.
“Very nice, Sabatta, I like that one,” Dregia complimented, slapping out the small blaze on his sleeve.
“Mmm, fire,” was all Ront added.
“If those demons are here then we must hurry,” Sabatta said, looking at the other corpses that shared the alley with them, “it appears there has been fighting going on within Sigil for some time now, if these humanoid bodies are any indication; we may already be too late.” He pointed at the collection of human, elven, and dwarven bodies that were cast about the alley, their wounds suggesting the tarpers had killed them some time ago.
“Alright, lets head out then, and try and be a bit more inconspicuous than normal, Ront, ‘kay?” said Dregia, giving the the orc a look of mock disgust.
Ront laughed, a rumbling growl from deep in his chest.
“So Sigil is a city, shaped something like a hollow donut, with the buildings on the inside, that floats atop the central spire of the multiverse, which itself is like a great wheel, subdivided into the homes of the gods, demons, angels, and other such things, based upon the moral and social outlook of the residents.” Sabatta whispered, careful to keep his volume in check as the companions picked their way through the streets of the City of Doors. The crossroads of the multiverse had seen better days; buildings were burning, structures had been knocked down in cataclysmic magical combat, and bodies littered the ground and choked the air with the smell of rot.
Next to him, Dregia kept a close look out for further tarpers, or worse, while listening to the impromptu lecture the cleric was giving.
“Uh huh,” he said trying to sound interested, but failing miserably. He wondered again why he had gotten Sabatta started on the subject.
“You asked,” Sabatta responded quietly, “anyway, Sigil is known as the ‘City of Doors’ because of its central location within the greater multiverse and because of the fact that thousands, maybe more, of portals connect it to a multitude of locations upon the great wheel, so you see,”
Suddenly, Dregia brought his hand up and Sabatta fell silent. Ront, scouting up ahead had noted something and was motioning the other two to join him at the forward position, near the corner of a partially collapsed building on the corner of the street ahead.
Picking their way over the wreckage, the cleric and ranger moved up to the orc and looked to see what the trouble was. Further down the roadway, a group of ten tarpers were lumbering slowly towards them, stopping periodically to examine any space a person might be able to hide.
“Look there,” Ront said, extending his hand toward a hollow in the street that must have been blasted out by some explosion. A collection of wood had fallen over the hole, but the three men could still make out a young male figure hiding within the rubble, in the search path of the beasts.
“Damn,” Dregia spat, running his hand through his short cropped hair, “alright, lets do this. Ront,” he looked over at the barbarian.
“I’ll go around the buildings, behind them,” Ront finished the thought.
Dregia grunted an affirmative and watched the orc disappear around the far side of the building they hid behind. Meanwhile, Sabatta centered himself, preparing another spell to deal with the situation at hand. Sorting through and discarding options in his head he finally decided upon a spell solution.
“Ready here,” he said.
Down the street Dregia could see Ront poke his head out from an alley a few yards behind the approaching tarpers. He shot a thumbs up signal and crouched low in the shadows, preparing to leap out upon the unsuspecting targets.
“Now,” Dregia whispered.
Sabatta’s brow furrowed as he began a complex, though brief, incantation. When he finished, a wall of scintillating blades appeared amidst the beasts, launching them into frenzied confusion. The storm of metal was devastating, scything through flesh and bone and casting bits of green-grey flesh into the air. Three fell immediately, while two others lay helpless on the ground, crippled by the deadly spell.
Ront chose that same moment to commence his attack, springing from the shadows as if from a catapult and transferring his momentum into the first massive, over-head swing from his axe. The blade bit into the nearest tarper’s shoulder and continued into the chest before Ront wrenched it free, assisted by the creature’s body falling dead to the ground. Pressing the attack, the barbarian went into a spin, bringing the weapon all the way around himself, creating more deadly speed, and brought it whistling into the back of another of his enemies. The crack resounded throughout the street, snapping through bone and sending another of the things tumbling lifeless to the stones.
Taking advantage of his friends’ distraction, Dregia hustled towards the chaos, then slid feet first into the improvised shelter in which the male figure was hiding. Closer now, the ranger could see the individual was indeed male, though possessing small blue, curving horns at the top of his head, and a swaying, leathery tail like a rat’s. However, the first thing Dregia noted about the man was that he was armed with barbed daggers, and one was pointed at him, glinting against the single shaft of light that cut into the dark recess.
“Who in the abyss do you think you are, berk?” the demonic thing snarled.
The tarpers initial confusion faded rather quickly, though their resistance developed into little more than a racing brawl, charging at Ront with no regard for personal well-being. Even so, with the odds five to one, Ront had to worry more about defense than he cared to. Claws came flowing in from all directions, grazing his armor as he blocked what blows he could with the flat of his blade. Sabatta switched to his dual repeating crossbows, fearing to use area spells with his friend in close to the enemy. The magical bolts lanced out, piercing many of the orc’s tormenters multiple times, but in their single minded rage they seemed to ignore the wounds.
As Sabatta continued to send forth the biting messengers, a burst of fire flashed in the sky, momentarily dazzling the cleric. Following the detonation, a flurry of additional missiles joined the cleric’s in flight, emanating from the burnt out buildings all along the street. Arrows of magical energy, arcs of wildly arcing electricity, gouts of fire, as well as more mundane projectiles impacted the remaining tarpers attacking Ront, burning, bludgeoning, and cutting them down where they stood. Quiet reigned upon the battleground, a few stray fires snapping angrily against the silence.
Emerging from the surrounding buildings stepped three figures, two to each side of the avenue, moving like predators about unknown prey. One of the more peculiar, a hybrid with the body and legs of a ram, and the chest and head (minus the curved ram horns) of a man approached Ront with a trident held at the ready.
Sabatta rushed forward, hands held palms forward in an attempt forestall any further conflict; he could see his hemmed in orc friend drop instinctively into a striking crouch and wasn’t sure that these newcomers meant any harm – but Ront certainly did.
“Hail and well met, is there some issue you take with us attacking these creatures?” the cleric hollered at the group.
“It seems we disrupted their little ambush,” Sabatta heard Dregia say. Looking over he saw the ranger, pushing a decidedly demonic looking man ahead of him. Dregia had the stranger’s arm locked behind his back, which appeared to be causing a good deal of discomfort; Sabatta guessed Dregia was just fine with inflicting that pain, based on the angry look on his face.
Dregia shoved his captive forward, and cast a barbed dagger he was holding to the ground in front of the ram-man’s feet.
“Want to explain why this joker decided to point a dagger in my face?” he said, “And in case you didn’t notice, you guys are making my friend Ront nervous, and you saw what he does when he’s nervous.”
The group around the barbarian backed off a half step as Ront emitted a threatening rumble, oblivious to the shared smile between him and the Dregia.
The ram horned being clopped forward, lowering his trident slightly.
“My apologies for our assistance,” he said with an acid tone, “but as you say, we were on patrol attempting to cleanse the city of these things,”
Sabatta pulled from his satchel the multi-colored cube, causing the four strangers to start.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Sabatta said, silently cursing himself for the mistake of drawing on unknown object during diplomatic relations, “this is the Librarian, it just might prove useful for translation issues and the like.”
“A mimir?” a elven woman in crimson armor asked, “that you have named?” Sabatta noted that her head was shaved with intricate red tattoos where the hair used to be.
The cleric shook his head, “I’m not familiar with that term, but the Librarian is a living construct used as a repository of information,”
“Ok, we all know each other now,” Dregia said, just loud enough to be rude, “why don’t you tell me what you are.” He looked the ram-man up and down.
“Though guests traditionally introduce themselves first, I will endulge you,” the hybrid man responded, “I am Corvus, First Factotum of the Transcendent Order, and marginally in charge of this group, charged with eliminating any enemies still within Sigil.”
“Give me that,” Dregia fumed, grabbing the Librarian from Sabatta’s hand, “Librarian, what is he, and don’t take that philosophically, just literally.”
“He is a Bauriur,” the Librarian said.
“There we go, you’re a Bauriur named Corvus,” Dregia said, giving the Librarian back to Sabatta, who was making his displeasure at the Ranger’s behavior known with an askew glance. “Go’n then.”
Corvus frowned but continued, “This is Tholn, another member of the Transcendents, whom you have already met and disarmed,”
The blue skinned man flashed a smile of pointed teeth and waved, still rubbing his shoulder from where it was twisted.
“Illandrine,” Corvus gestured at the elven woman, “is a member of the Harmonium, the de facto law around Sigil, though the remaining factions have allied during the current threat. Finally, our mages Bekral and Mekral, also of the Harmonium. The last two of the group, both men who appeared to be identical twins with stern countenance and deep gold eyes, bowed while keeping vigilant watch on the surrounding area.
“We are looking for the Lady of Pain,” Sabatta stated, narrowing his eyes when the assembled strangers gave him blank stares or laughed outright. “I’m not sure what’s funny, but if you could direct us to her, we would be out of your hair.”
Corvus, finished laughing silently, then grew solemn and looked the cleric up and down. “You’re serious, aren’t you?” he finally said.
“Corvus,” Illandrine spoke up, attaching a ball and chain at her belt, “we should leave the streets if we are to talk any more, the Burning Man bar is nearby, I don’t know if anyone is left, but it isn’t in the area controlled by the enemy.”
Corvus nodded in agreement. “You are more versed in such things I, the decision is sound.” He turned his body to the three companions, a complicated maneuver in Dregia’s eyes that required all four of the ram legs to move in concert. “Perhaps you would care to join us, and we can clear everything up?” Corvus asked.
“You know Minuet!” Illandrine exclaimed, nearly spilling the mug of ale the group of warriors had appropriated from the Burning Man larders. It was unlikely anyone would mind. The building was abandoned, given up by the owners after the conflict in Sigil began; it was near the front but not yet overtaken. Only one person, if you could call him that, still shared the oaken hall with the new temporary residents: a burning human effigy, wrapped in yellow flames and lighting the common room in flickering glow that gave the bar its name. Why he was trapped in such a condition Dregia could hardly guess, some sort of wizardry he supposed, but it certainly gave the place an ambiance for which he didn’t care. Dregia watched Ront, sitting at a table to himself, sharpening a green dagger with a bloodshot eye in the center of the pommel. He recognized it as the one the barbarian had used on many occasions to affect time in peculiar ways, but the intelligent thing always asked a harsh price; Dregia didn’t like it.
“Put that away,” the ranger yelled at Ront, ignoring or avoiding Illandrine’s question, “that thing is bad news.”
Ront looked up at Dregia, seemed to consider resisting, then obeyed, sheathing the weapon. “Ok, sorry,” he said. Dregia could tell it required some effort, the thing exerting its will upon his friend.
“Yes, we knew her,” Sabatta finally responded to Illandrine’s implied inquiry, his voice low and soft, crackling like old paper. “She traveled with us for quite some time.” The conversation had been animated and jovial until this subject had come up. Now Sabatta cast his eyes downward and puffed away at a long pipe, blowing smoke from time to time out the side of his mouth.
Corvus, the other member of the group at the table not on watch duty outside, could sense the unease in the cleric’s words but continued down the conversation’s darkening path.
“We traveled with her as well. An incredible swordswoman and loyal friend. Tell me, where is she now.”
The question was cast, and while those assembled at the table likely knew the answer, it remained undivulged for a pale moment.
“She died, fighting the false gods, and protecting the people under her command. Dregia and Sabatta still blame themselves, but she believed in them and wouldn’t have acted any differently in the end.” It was Ront who spoke up, surprising everyone with his verbosity. The silence at the news was cliché but unavoidable.
After a moment, Ront continued, “We fought the enemy at Chult and took her body back, but we didn’t know what she was exactly – she wasn’t human was all we knew, even if she looked like one – so we didn’t know how to honor her in death. I hope we did all right,” Ront became somber, reached for the dagger at his belt again as if by nervous habit, pulled up and instead drummed his fingers on the stained wood of his table.
A lopsided smile broke on Illandrine’s face, bumped into a full grin by a contained chuckle, then degenerated into full out laughter. The others looked at her with a mixture of horror and anger, unsure what to think.
“I’m sorry,” the elven woman said, bringing herself together, “I’m sorry, friends, but…Corvus…she never told them what she was,” She chortled again, “she truly never told you, did she?” She looked at Sabatta and Dregia, red tattoos dancing in the light.
“No, she didn’t,” Dregia said, now more curious than angry, “I always wondered myself, but she never…well I didn’t want to intrude.” He gripped the side of the table, knuckles whitening.
“She never told me,” Sabatta said through his teeth, still clenching down on the pipe, “but I once saw her true form thanks to a True Seeing I cast. Wonderous to behold.” He nodded his head sagely.
For a moment Dregia copied the cleric’s bobbing head, then paused, then stared at Sabatta, mouth hanging just open.
“What in the hells do you mean you knew what she was?” Dregia asked, voice rising a half octive, “When were you going to tell the rest of us?”
“I was throwing around True Seeings wantonly.” Sabatta said, keeping his voice level, “I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse. And as you said, she probably didn’t want anyone intruding. It might have caused issues.”
Dregia’s mouth was still drooped open, and his brow was furrowed as if in deep thought. “Well it’s causing issues right now, Gods damn it! Beshaba’s breath, are Ront and I the only people in the realms who don’t know what Minuet was?” he gestured about to accentuate his point. A moment later, his rhetorical question ignored, and Corvus now laughing quietly as well, he calmed and went on, “all right, enough, what was she?
Illandrine giggled for another second, then spoke, “Of course we’ll tell you, Dregia, I’m sure she would want you to know, though you may be surprised, she…”
The door to the Burning Man whisked open and Tholn jumped through. The demonic man was disheveled and apparently wounded, favoring his left leg.
“More creatures,” he yelled, glancing over his shoulder as if their name would summon them right behind him, “and something new I’ve never seen, they got Bek and…”
His words were cut off as tens of tendril-like projections penetrated the back of his head and chest from somewhere outside, and burst through the front with explosive force. The attack dislodged an eye, that hung suspended from the socket by pink tissue, and the wounds bled freely while his corpse stood suspended, as if unbelieving of the sudden extinguishing of life. Finally, the tendrils withdrew and Tholn’s body fell limply to the floor.
“Tholn,” Corvus bellowed, making a move to run to the fallen half-demon even as a large group of beasts began to flow through the Burning Man’s door. The things looked originally human, but their skin was rotted and bloated, projecting a smell that could be detected from across the room. They shambled in two by two, strange tendril-feelers projected off their bodies as if groping blindly for the next target, even though their eyes held a malevolent intelligence.
Illandrine grabbed Corvus’ shoulder and spun him about, as Ront, Dregia, and Sabatta drew for their various weapons. “It’s over, Corvus, there’s a back way out, lets go!” She screamed the declaration in the ram-man’s face, familiar with the stunned despair she saw in his eyes from years as a Harmonium soldier, and attempting to shock him out of it. She shoved Corvus towards the larder door in the back, “Move!”
Ront rolled to his left and slashed his axe to the side as a few of the creatures’ tendrils elongated with ballistic speed and stabbed the air where the orc once stood. The blade severed them clean, spraying black ichor like unmanned hoses. Dregia whipped his two swords in quick circles, parrying attacks from multiple beasts while backing towards the larder door. The heavy blades weren’t meant for wide, swinging blocks against quick, darting blows, and as fluidly as he controlled his blades, the tendrils were testing his agility to the fullest. His hands moved in dizzying patterns, seeming to overlap and switch places as they sliced back the onslaught, until two more of the creatures projected their tendrils and managed to break him down. One slipped past and penetrated his shoulder, tearing a clean gap in his armor and flesh. He fell to the floor with a grunt.
Sabatta leaped the table and fired his repeating crossbows wildly. Seeing his companion drop, he ran to his side, just rolling under a collection of the deadly tentacles, and leveled both his weapons at the offending beast. Twang, twang, thunk, thunk, and the one that had injured Dregia went down with two bolts in its eyes.
“Thanks,” Dregia gasped as the tendril in his shoulder whithered, and the five that had been headed directly for his face shriveled in mid air. He somersaulted backward, landing on his feat. “Ront, lets go!” Dregia yelled at the barbarian, who had flipped a table and seemed to want to hold his ground against the things, now numbering near 14 and ranks growing. Ront ducked as tendrils shot over his head and the table, and swished the axe, adding to a small pile of appendages that were collected by his feat. He grinned at Dregia, but then nodded, “Here I come,” he said, then sprinted for the door the rest of the companions waited at.
More of the things shambled in, as the group of heroes ripped the door open hustled into the kitchen and slammed the barrier behind them. The combination of pantry and cooking area was quite large, with enough space for ten people to work comfortably, but there wasn’t time to take in the sights; only the door to the alley behind the Burning Man bar was of any interest to them right now. They had made sure to scout out alternative exits prior to sitting down to rest.
Dregia jogged across the room with the others while Durg kept a shoulder on the entry they had just closed to keep the monsters out. A tendril punctured the wood next to Ront’s eye, just as a group of tendrils shot through the portal leading to the outside.
“Gods, no,” Illandrine muttered, “they’re around back.”
“What now,” Ront asked as another tendril pierced right by his chest.
“The tunnel near the furnace, we can head down, you said there were tunnels,” Sabatta said, moving towards the furnace as more tentacles burst from the impeding wood.
“You don’t understand,” Illandrine said, shaking her head and holding her forhead between thumb and forefinger, “that ladder leads to undersigil, we’d need help.”
“Anywhere is better than here, no arguments, lets go, hurry up Ront,” Sabatta rebutted, joining Dregia near the metal grate on the floor. The doors to the common room and alley continued to shake under constant assault.
Gathered around the man-sized grate a chill fell over Dregia. His gaze rose from the ground to fall heavily upon the massive frame of Corvus. It was obvious to the ranger: Ront would barely fit down the hole; Corvus didn’t stand a chance.
“Frag,” he said, voice nearly inaudible, as he saw realization dawn on everyone’s faces.
“I didn’t expect to have to use the UnderSigil passage yet,” Corvus said, wan smile on his face, “no, I won’t fit,”
“Then we fight,” Ront growled, rubbing the flat of his axe to remove the black bile spread across it. The motion only served to smear the substance.
“We might be able to take them,” Sabatta added, “I have a few spells…”
“I can hear how many there are as well as you,” Corvus interrupted, referring to the shuffle and howl the companions all heard even through the heavy wood walls of the kitchen, “Just go, once a transcendent has made a decision they stick with it.”
“To hells with that,” Dregia spat, “Sabatta, you must have a spell to shrink him, I’m not losing another…”
A chunk of wood snapped off the door to the alley with a loud crack, stopping the ranger mid-sentence. Corvus grabbed the metal grate and ripped it from the ground.
“GO!” he bellowed, shoving Illandrine towards the tunnel’s ladder.
Illandrine turned to the ram man, her crimson armor creaking slightly at the difficult angle, but flexing like a second skin. She pulled a chain from around her neck on which hung a small shield, filigreed in fine gold – the symbol of the Harmonium.
“It has been an honor defending the city of Sigil with you, Corvus,” she said, tilting her head in respect.
“Thank you,” Corvus said, returning the bow, “I have seen how you respect this symbol; I will honor it in battle.” He began to place the chain and shield into his pocket, returning Illandrine’s bow.
“Feel free to honor it, but you should wear it, too. It’s a protective charm; maybe it will let you take a few more with you,” she smiled bittersweet for a moment, the turned and jumped onto the ladder, sliding into the dark.
“Good luck,” Ront said, and followed the woman.
“I’m sorry,” Dregia whispered, avoiding eye contact and climbing after the barbarian. Soon he had disappeared as well.
Sabatta lingered a moment, as if lost in thought. Finally he spoke,
“There is nothing I can offer to make death easier, Corvus. I appreciate your sacrifice, but to die because a grate was too small – it is hardly a fair or heroic death,” Sabatta looked at him, eyes shaded by the wide brimmed hat. The cleric’s expression was unreadable. “But when you get to the other side and you stand before Selune, Minuet beside you, tell them both that Sabatta sent you, and that I’m sorry.”
Twang, thump, a bolt buried itself in Corvus’ right eye, killing him instantly.
Sabatta clipped the crossbow to his belt and descended the ladder into UnderSigil.
“Worshipping the Lady, in the mazes you will wait, but any fools who follow Dabus, find a crueler fate,”
Dregia glanced over at Illandrine as she whisperd the final verses to some tune he had never heard before, making sure to keep the light-ensorcelled torch Sabatta had given him held wide out to illuminate the travelers otherwise pitch black path. Illandrine, on point with him, had a similar magic “torch,” which lit her clearly worried face.
“What’s that song?” Ront said from the back, voice echoing in the chambers around them, and, Dregia was surprised to see, causing Illandrine to start.
“A nursery rhyme about Undersigil,” she whispered back, eyes nervously scanning the tunnels ahead, “the Dabus live down here, or at least it seems they do; no one has ever really seen where they go once they get down here. I could sing you a few hundred more ditties that all suggest we shouldn’t be down here.”
“It is pretty uninviting down here,” Dregia agreed, taking in what he could make out in the faint glow. The tunnels they tread were obviously old, and most of what they had passed already appeared to not have been traversed in ages. However, the area was a confusing honeycombed lattice, promising ambush around every corner, and alien sounds echoed through the cyclopean walls, on the cusp of perception, painting unsettling unknowns in the minds of listeners. The floors varied from dry stone, to slime-slicked, treacherous slopes, and the smell was a dry tomb.
“Uninviting indeed,” Sabatta offered, reaching through his satchels and pouches for his favorite pipe. Realizing he had dropped that particular hard-wood smoker back at the Burning Man he harrumphed and pulled out an intricately carved bone replacement. With a flick of his fingers the pipe’s tobacco-filled cup lit up, casting a glow equivalent to many torches onto the dark walls.
“Did you have to pick that one?” Dregia asked, indicating the radiant object in the cleric’s mouth, “don’t you remember what happened in the Shaareach?”
“You aren’t on that again, are you?” Sabatta said, moving the pipe from side to side in his mouth, as if to decide where it was most comfortable. Ront sighed; Dregia continued.
“Again? Tell me why we were stuck in that ratty bar, nearly apprehended by those Shaaran patrols. Nevermind, I’ll tell you; you had to smoke your damned light up pipe and attract the attention of everyone within a block – what a useless magical item.”
“Ront punching that guard and ‘seeing if he could fit him in a barrel’ as Ront put it may have had something to do with it,” Sabatta replied, emotionlessly, but a raised eyebrow and a glance cast back towards the half orc spoke volumes.
“Yeah, I want some credit,” Ront said, nodding.
“I’m not doling out credit, Ront, but if you want some ‘credit’ there’s plenty to go around: your living tattoo from the church we begged you not to get, the subsequent rebellion of said tattoo, and lets not even get started on Rontina.”
Dregia and Sabatta shuddered. Ront smiled wistfully.
“Is it getting darker?” Illandrine’s sudden question stalled any further arguments from Dregia. The query had given him a strong sense of unease that forestalled any further conversation; their surroundings had grown darker and while he had not noticed it actively, distracted as he had been with the discussion, he was aware on a subconscious level that the light level hadn’t just declined like a torch on its last legs, but more like the shadows were increasing, smothering the magical torches they bore.
“Did you…” Dregia didn’t need to finish his question as he looked back and saw Sabatta with the glowing pipe still in his mouth, shaking his head negative. The light from the bulb seemed subdued, but it was hard to tell if it was any more than a trick of the close quarters. Ront had stopped at the back of the party, his cocked head and furled brow showing he didn’t grasp why everyone had decided to stop.
Illandrine had her head hung low, back hunched slightly, and scanned the multitude of tunnels like a wary predator, her hand resting on the pommel of her sword.
“What do you think it is?” Sabatta whispered to the Harmonium woman.
“I have no idea,” the elf hissed, “it might be nothing, it might be the Lady Herself: that’s why we shouldn’t be down here.”
Sabatta rasied his eyebrows to Dregia, wordlessly deferring judgment about the next course of action to the experienced ranger.
The Cormyrian ran a hand through his hair and took stock of the tunnels. “We move on for now, but if the shadows get much deeper…” a wave of the hand put the conclusion off until later.
The companions nodded in agreement and pushed deeper into Undersigil.
The decision was not long in coming. Soon afterwards the magical lights they carried cast light as dim as burning embers and even Sabatta’s magical pipe had muted to the dull red of steel from a forge.
“Time to go,” Dregia said, pointing back the way they had come and turning about. As he began to head in the opposite direction, however, he realized something was wrong. The air seemed to solidify around him, resisting his movement as if he were walking upstream in a swift current. He could see Ront and Sabatta, now in the lead after they had turned around, were having similar difficulties.
“Look,” Illandrine said, and the companions turned to see what had caught her attention. The elven woman was struggling to move forward as well, but had the dim light of her magic torch held near to one of her arms. A translucent, fibrous material, seemingly spun from the cloying shadows around them, hung from one of her red-armoured wrists like a fine string caught in a breeze, disappearing into the darkness behind them.
“We need to move, now,” Sabatta yelled, when Illandrine was pulled forcibly into the darkness, leaving no time for her to even call out.
With a feral growl, Ront drew his greataxe from his back and charged past the cleric and ranger. Dregia called after him, trying to stop his blind charge, but the half-orc crashed into the darkness, which seemed to yield to his entrance like thick smoke. No noise came from beyond.
“It’s getting even darker,” Dregia said, blades already in his hands and moving to stand by the cleric, “we’ve got trouble.”
Sabatta wasn’t listening, concentrating on some divine magic the ranger assumed, when everything went black. Dregia steadied himself, crouched low with swords held forward, and listened as much as felt for sounds or movement around him. Nearby Sabatta droned on in a harsh whisper, preparing a spell that Dregia decided would be in everyone best interest that he finish. Making sure he wasn’t disturbed was his job.
To the right and high, a minute scratching and a steady click, like bubbles from a crab’s mouth, caught his attention. He brought his blades up just in time to make contact with a long, slender object that came streaking in towards his chest. The impact resounded with a dull clang, but pushed the attack wide to his right. Hoping to catch his attacker off guard, he spun with the attack and brought his longer sword arcing diagonally from low to high. Dregia nearly lost his balance when the swing drew nothing but air, but he used his displaced momentum to roll across the tunnel, narrowly avoiding another thrust from his unseen enemy.
“Whatever you’re going to do Sabatta!” Dregia called, double thrusting at another empty space. In a brief moment of panic the ranger knew he had left himself open, and without the ability to see he likely would not stop the next attack. He prepared himself as best he could when his vision suddenly shifted wildly. The very blackness around him took on a subtle outline, like a sun lined nimbus of a cloud, dark and light exchanging roles for one precious moment, and churning through the morass Dregia could clearly see a pointed barb aimed directly for him. Taking no time to consider the origin of his good fortune, he barely caught the enemy’s counter attack between his two blades and slammed it against the wall. A solid snap told him that he had broken whatever he had caught, but a sudden burning in his calf also told the ranger that one of the stabbing instruments had pierced from one side of his leg to the other. The pain increased when the object was removed an instant later, and his vision dove back to inky black. The injury made him slower, and Dregia knew that his opponent had gained an even greater advantage.
Finally Sabatta’s litany ended and a piercing light exploded in Dregia’s field of vision. Now able to see through squinted eyes, he considered that the darkness might have been preferable to the scene before him. A gaunt, arachnid creature hung from the ceiling above him, perhaps 4 meters ahead. The thing had a flat, round central body, covered in black, chitinous plates and whispy hair that seemed composed of liquid shadow, blurring its outline except for the multifaceted onyx eyes which bored back at Dregia like a deep, vengeful abyss. The spider’s eight arms were horribly long and hooked, stretching to encompass the entire hall, a web unto themselves, one that was both active in its attack and deadly in execution.
The creature recoiled from the light, wailing piteously, and began thrashing about, anxious to destroy the source of the agonizing emission. One of the barbs lanced by Dregia, right towards Sabatta’s midsection. The cleric, drained momentarily by his spell casting had no time to step aside. He brought his staff before him and deflected some of the blow, but it was not enough. The rapier thin leg punched into his abdomen, rattled for a moment, then withdrew. Sabatta gasped, fell to his knees and finally face down, passed out.
“Damn,” Dregia said, eyes finally adjusting to the brightness of the spell his incapacitated friend had just cast – or was the spell already draining and dimming he thought to himself. Knowing that time might be running out, the ranger squared to his opponent and charged straight ahead, wielding his two swords like cleavers. The long legs battered him but the shadow-spider had trouble bringing the sharp tips to bear as Dregia closed in on the hazy midsection. The larger of his blades came down in an overhead swing, shearing through the armored abdomen and popping three bony legs off the beast. The force of the blow cast the arachnid to the ground, but one of its remaining legs managed to dart towards Dregia’s head. He missed the block with his smaller blade, but interposed his arm, which was cut deep, but the attack was one of desperation – the ranger had his victory, and at the bottom of the things abyssal eyes, Dregia saw fear. He reversed the longsword in his hand and leaned in to drive the point into his opponent time and again. The tough exoskeleton popped and cracked, soon giving way to a wet *shluck* as the blade continued to drive home. Sensing danger, the Cormyrian rolled backwards as the five remaining legs curled in to the body, but he settled when he realized the motion was part of the thing’s death throws, mimicking its smaller, mundane relatives.
Upon the shadow spider’s last breath the shadows began to disperse, evaporating away like a mist under the hot sun. The magical torches sprung back full force, outlining the fallen forms of Sabatta, Ront, and Illandrine cast about the tunnel.
“Alright,” Dregia whispered to no one but himself, “I’m beginning to understand the problem with Undersigil.”
Consciousness lapped at the shores of Sabattas mind like thousands of venomous snakes, delivering waves of pain and nausea. For a time all he knew was an agonizing knot just below his ribs and his own rattling breath between his teeth. He focused the sum of his will on stabilizing that rhythmic task; at the very least it kept his mind off the burning. Eventually – he couldn’t tell how long it took – Sabatta was able to open his eyes, peering with unaccustomed sight towards a silhouette that looked like Dregia.
“H-How…” Sabatta tried to speak, the words failing to traverse his desert mouth.
“You’ve been out for about two days, if my guess is right, though without the sun overhead it’s hard to tell,” Dregia answered, coming into focus. “Ront and Illandrine are sick, they haven’t woken up, probably poison. I did what I could,” He pointed to the two bodies with a sideways glance.
Sabatta sat up, head swimming, but fought through it. He crawled over to Ront and began the incantation for a anti-poison spell, feeling the magic begin to take hold.
Dregia looked on, his face not quite hiding concern behind annoyance
“Careful,” he said, “you know, you’ve got a pretty big hole in your midsection I barely patched up,”
Sabatta finished the spell, put his hand on his bandaged wound, then moved to cast his spell on Illandrine. “I’ll live,” was all he replied.
Dregia rolled his eyes, “’Thank you’ never hurt,” he mumbled, with a lopsided grin; if Sabatta wasn’t talking much he was probably getting better. Or he was dieing, Dregia considered, but at least terseness was familiar.
“I’ve done what I can,” Sabatta said, finishing a spell to deal with his own wounds. The color had returned to his face and the throbbing pain behind his eyes was now just a dull ache. “They should come out of it soon.” He stood up, wobbled a bit and then steadied.
“I moved us into the alcove that spider thing was living in,” Dregia stated, gesturing about the non-descript stone surroundings they resided in, “figured most critters that might try and hurt us wouldn’t hang around that thing’s territory. I took the time to scout a bit, couldn’t find an exit; I’m starting to agree with our ‘Harmonium” friend – I don’t think I like this place.”
“We aren’t leaving,” Sabatta said matter of factly, not looking up from the crossbow he had drawn and was checking. He pulled the bolt back, didn’t like something he saw and began to disassemble the complex weapon.
Dregia scowled at his friend, not in the mood for intrigue, “Why in the nine hells not? I hate this mysterious garbage you pull sometimes.”
“Illandrine said that Dabus come down here. The Shard told me some things privately, and one of those things was that the Lady would be found with the Dabus. That’s why.”
Sabatta knew the expression on his friend’s face: it meant he was not convinced, and also suspicious. As the ranger had said, and Sabatta knew well, Dregia did not like mysteries.
Dregia scowled for a few more seconds, wanting to make sure it got through before he continued, “OK, lets assume we need to keep looking down here for the Lady, which I’ll remind you Illandrine won’t care for, is there anything else the Shard told you ‘privately’ you’d like to share before we go on? You know I hate this kind of ‘surprise briefing’.”
Ront began to stir and Sabatta turned to see how he was doing. Dregia shook his head, scowl growing, but recognizing that the cleric had dismissed him; he could be even more secretive than normal when it came to his faith and Selune. Still, the ranger trusted his friend, and wouldn’t do anything to bring harm to the party, it’s just that sometimes his personal plans didn’t work out quite for everyone’s benefit.
“I’m sick,” Ront grunted weakly, though his hardy constitution had already allowed him to leap to a crouching position, the magic having expunged the poison and the damage it had done from his body, “but mostly I’m hungry. Where’s the food?”
The half orc sniffed the air, then began to rummage in his pack that was set by his feet. After a brief inspection, he found a hard roll and some cheese which he began to devour with little regard for breathing. Nearby, Illandrine had woken as well, and while tough, she didn’t have quite the recuperative powers of the barbarian.
“I thought I was dead,” she commented once she had collected herself.
Ront offered her a lump of cheese he had just taken a wet bite of, which to her credit she politely refused, hardly sneering at all.
“Thankfully the spider seemed content to save prey for later consumption or you might have been,” Dregia offered as explanation, “whatever the spider was.”
“A shadrith,” the woman answered, “they rarely are denied their prey, much less made to be the prey; I commend and thank you.”
“Not necessary,” Sabatta said, finishing his tinkering with the crossbow and placing it back in the proper holster.
“Right, you kill things too, so we’re even” Ront explained, food tumbling from his mouth.
Dregia grabbed some food from his pack and passed it to Illandrine.
“Take that, get some strength back and we’ll move on when everyone is ready.”
The group took a meal in relative silence, anxious to be on their way. A few minutes later the heroes had broken camp and moved back out into the dark expanses of Undersigil.
When the rough walls of the tunnels slowly transitioned to well hewn passageways, it served to make the travel much easier. Of course, for the four companions, the natural rock had become a relatively familiar aspect of an otherwise dismal enterprise, and when the familiar gave way to an unexpected new aspect of the surroundings, anxiety came with it. Everyone was on edge, expecting some threat to emerge – for something must live in a well maintained area as this, they reasoned – and such was their troubled state of mind when they met their first Dabus, and nearly killed their first Dabus as well.
Ront was in the lead, the brunt of the party’s combat prowess ready to engage any obstacle, followed closely by Dregia and Illandrine. Sabatta kept the back well lit, holding a bright, magical torch above his head to ensure the Dregia and Illandrine could see. Ront needed no such assistance as his vision was effective even in complete darkness, a gift of his orcish blood. As they came to another intersection, a robed figure floated into view. It was totally silent, two feet suspended 6 inches above the floor, with a long, humanoid face, ridged from the top of the nose to the back of a top-bald head. The tension was already high, wound like a bow string, and with a potential enemy appearing without a sound, Ront was off like a bolt.
The half orc charged forward, lowering his shoulder to bull rush the thin, pale creature. He connected squarely, driving it to the ground, or at least 6 inches from the ground which was as close as it could get, bouncing back like a magnet forced to a like pole. Sabatta drew one of his crossbows, and took aim, but held, worried he would hit his engaged companion, while Dregia tried to leap in to action. The result, thanks to a well placed kick to the shins from Illandrine, was to leap two feet forward, into a wall, and then into a sprawl on the floor.
“Ront, stop! Stop, it’s a friend, a Dabus, do not make this mistake and stop!” Illandrine exclaimed, in her urgency spouting any phrase that meant ‘cease what you are doing’ that came to mind.
The great axe veered from the Dabus’ face to imbed itself an inch deep in the stone corner. Only the magical nature of the weapon prevented it from shattering outright, but the vibrations from the impact were painful. Ront let go of the weapon’s haft and shook both his hands vigorously. He glared at Illandrine, blaming her for his discomfort.
“I’m sorry, all of you, this is a Dabus, and bad things happen to those who hurt them, I had to stop you.”
Dregia kicked into a stand and sheathed his swords. “Uh, effective method of stopping me,” he said; Illandrine caught the bit of acid in his voice.
Sabatta put his crossbow away and readjusted his hat to hide his eyes more. He pointed towards the Dabus with thumb and index finger.
It’s leaving,” was all he said.
The three others looked over and down the hall to realize that the Dabus had indeed risen from a prone position during their brief conversation, and had taken off at a good clip, impressive considering it didn’t have any visible propulsion.
“After it,” Dregia yelled, catalyzing Ront into pursuit.
“What’s the need?” Illandrine asked, though she jogged after the others as they tried to keep pace with the powerful barbarian, her scarlet armor clanging.
“It supposedly might know where this Lady is we’re looking for,”
She bowed and shook her head, “Always wanted to visit the mazes,” she whispered, but sped up to stay even.
Soon Ront had outpaced the rest of them, and Dregia led the way, using the thudding footfalls of the half orc to navigate the corridors. The indistinguishable twists and turns blurred by, and a lesser navigator might have lost his way or forgotten the path taken. Dregia maintained the course until, abruptly, the footfalls he had been following stopped.
“Ront, are you alright,” Sabatta asked, catching up to Dregia, hand atop his hat, holding it in place.
“Yes, but mostly no, I’m a bit stuck. Could you come to my voice,” Ront said in the distance. His voice had a peculiar echo, as if he were talking from inside a padded box. The three others followed the sound quickly but cautiously until they came to a peculiar sight.
Ahead, the passage was blocked by a bizarre wall, made of stone but molded in such a way as to appear liquid, like a vertical pool boiling mad with vibration. However, far more relevant was the half-form of Ront seemingly embedded within the rock. The small of his back, and rear leg protruded out as if caught in mid stride, while the rest of him disappeared into the wall beyond. The movement of these visible body parts implied that, somehow, the orc still lived despite the predicament.
Sabatta began rifling his pockets for the answer-filled Librarian in synch with a closer examination from Illandrine and the bewildered questioning of Dregia.
“How, I mean why… Ront, what is the deal?” was all the ranger could sputter.
From what he assumed was the other side, Ront’s voice reverberated through,
“I chased the monster and it ran through. When I came through I got stuck,”
Illandrine had removed a scarlet gauntlet and felt for a seam between Ront’s leg and the stone that encased it. There was none.
“His leg is fused into the stone,” she said, looking back at the two men, and rocking back from the stunning discovery on crouched legs. She nearly fell but caught herself on a mailed palm. “It’s amazing he’s still alive.”
Sabatta finally withdrew the iridescent cube that was the librarian and held it before him, the mesmerizing object winking between unnamed colors.
“Can you get out?” Dregia added, while nodding at the cleric’s quick decision to get the Librarian out, “I mean, can you break the wall?”
“What do you think the first thing I tried to do was?” Ront called back, “I break things, it’s what I do. If it could be broken I would break it, even if I weren’t trapped in it. I even raged,” he said referring to his ability to focus even greater levels of strength, “but it wouldn’t break. If it broke would I be stuck?”
Dregia gave Sabatta a look half way between exasperated and amused, and laconically waved his hand palm up to signal that Sabatta had the floor. Meanwhile a distraught and very not-amused Ront continued to mutter, though the tirade couldn’t be heard well through the block.
“What exactly is this wall, Librarian,” Sabatta said, speaking to the box he held in his hand.
The tenor voice chimed back, “Your dark pack is not terribly better than the library I was in before, you know; there are quite a few questionable food stuffs in there, and I’ve tired long ago analyzing the three types of tobacco you blend for your smoke. Not to mention, in the library there was some research that suggested smoking has many negative side effects including…”
“Thank you, Librarian,” Sabatta interrupted gruffly, subduing his temper “I will look into more interesting residency for you on my person, but Ront is stuck in a wall, what do you know,”
“That would be most appreciated, perhaps if you threw in some illusory magical items, they really do have the most interesting auras, constantly shifting and undulating – it’s rather hard to describe, but I’m sure…”
“Of course, of course, Ront. Stuck. Right. The wall is a reasonably common, though far more powerful than an average specimen, defensive magical item of a transmutive nature. It’s primary function is to provide a yielding surface to those who are permitted to enter, and to harden and become impregnable – usually relatively speaking, though in the case of magic of this wall’s magnitude I’m not sure if it isn’t literal – to any attempt to bypass it.”
“How do you turn it off?”
“A variety of means present themselves based on my current knowledge. For example, in the Third Ketrical Supplicant of Durthen, the Aglazian at the time, Faz’reth’Anz, had an encounter with a Naelorn, which, we all know,” the Librarian gave a high hooting noise as if to laugh, “is not a creature of the family Lornerns an Aglazian would care to encounter,”
“Skip to the end of the story, please,” Sabatta hissed menacingly.
“Well, needless to say, and you are missing a fine story, a password of some sort is usually required whether verbal, or simply the essential make up of the subject permitted to enter,”
“Great,” Sabatta said, sending an uneasy glance at Dregia and Illandrine. Both of them shook their heads, at a loss. For a while an ignorant silence reigned, that reign supported by Ront’s continued yelling from the other side of the wall.
Finally the Librarian spoke up,
“If I may, though you didn’t want to hear any of the masterpiece that is the Third Ketrical Supplicant of Durthen, there are portions I omitted that may be of some interest though not directly related to your inquiry, namely the divine connection with these gateways,” the disembodied voice stopped, perhaps for dramatic effect, if such a thing was possible for a intelligent magical cube, before continuing. “These devices are almost always able to be bypassed by either deities or their particular representatives. While that might not be particularly helpful, I thought it would be worth mentioning considering your…unique…connection with your patron.”
Illandrine watched the exchange with interest, impressed with the knowledge and interactivity of what Sabatta had called the Librarian.
“Do you think that will help?” she asked once it had finished speaking.
“I’m not sure,” Sabatta said, placing the Librarian back at his belt, but somewhere where it could “see” out – a small reward and thank you for the information – “I have an idea what I could try.”
“Then by all means,” Dregia said, anxious to get his friend out of the magical snare.
Sabatta began to focus inward, searching with his mind’s eye to gaze upon the divine power that lie dormant within him. This was not like any spell, such miracles were cantrips before what he required of himself now. He saw the placid lake of moonlight in his second sight, the representation of the magic he could draw upon, but this time he wouldn’t be simply soaking amid the energizing waters – he would need to create a forceful wave, to shape and mold the very essence of the magic and channel it from himself to impose his and Selune’s will upon the impudent impediment. As he concentrated, summoning up all the control he had, the still waters began to ripple, then grew turbulent, like a powerful river, raging against the confines of an enclosed space. He prepared to draw from this torrent, to cast it from him, when,
“Nice job, Sabatta,”
It was Illandrine. His concentration broken, he opened his eyes to see that the wall had dispersed, as if it had been only a figment. Ront lay sprawled on the floor, though the Harmonium woman was trying to help him to his feet.
“I…” Sabatta began, but didn’t finish, feeling a bit fatigued after drawing so much divine might. Did I finish the casting? He thought to himself, but the question remained unspoken, translated into the outside world by the troubled scowl on his hat-shaded face.
Only Dregia noted the look that crossed the cleric’s face, and he only barely registered its existence, for he was concentrating almost fully on the green dagger with a cyclopian eyeball in the pommel that Ront had slipped into his belt when he thought no one was looking. For a moment, a chill, surreal moment of terrible certainty, Dregia saw the one eye gaze back menacingly, full of horrid knowledge immemorial, before it was blinded by the passage into the thick leather sheath.
The size of the cavern was staggering, impossible in stature and breadth if it weren’t right before them, defying logic with arrogant, mute existence. The four companions stood upon the lip of a cave mouth that overlooked the colossal expanse, near one hundred feet up the craggy wall, and for a time none spoke, coming to terms with the fantastic vista. As they observed, it became apparent that the size was not the only unique aspect of the cavern, but also the abnormal shape and layout.
“Amazing,” Dregia said quietly, “it looks circular,” he gestured to the curving walls, “but I can’t see to the other side. What about you Ront?”
“Mmm,” was all Ront answered, transfixed by a shimmering light suspended in the center of the emptiness, straight ahead.
Sabatta pointed at the terrain just below them, “Look at the rock there, dark red, almost like fire, but there,” he pointed far to the right, “to the other side the rock is grey. The whole thing looks subdivided, though I can’t say why.”
Dregia nodded his head slowly in ascent, “If I didn’t know better; it almost looks like the floor is moving.”
The other three did not deny the observation.
“Any idea what it is, oh native one,” he asked, smiling at Illandrine.
“This is beyond me,” the elven woman answered, “if I had to say, it sounds ridiculous, but it looks like the great wheel of the multiverse, or a model, or something like that.”
She looked away from the cavern and between their faces, self-conscious of her suggestion, but was relieved to see her three friends obviously agreed with her assessment – or didn’t understand it in one particular case.
“You may be right,” Sabatta confirmed, “below us, Baator, to the right, Gehenna and the Grey wastes, and look there to the left, barely in view,” he pointed to an area he had just noted, nearly lost in the occulting distance, “if those aren’t the gears of Mechanus!”
It was true; several massive gears gyred at the edge of sight.
“Do you have a spell to get us down?” Dregia asked after a time, further overwhelmed by what he was seeing, “Only place to go is forward, I suppose.”
The cleric spread his arms wide and waggled his fingers as if stretching before a performance.
“Of course,” was all he said.
The trip across the ‘model’ of the multiverse was disconcerting for Dregia, not because of any perceived threat, but because of the level of detail – maddening detail – that the whole replica displayed. Each river, ocean, mountain expanse, dipping valley, small town, and massive city were painstakingly reproduced – at least he assumed, never having traveled the planes himself. What’s more, everything moved in a perfect, lifelike manner, distilled down to a miniature marvel of simulacra. Currently they walked upon the Outlands, the neutral, central portion of the great Disc. None of his lumbering steps seemed to affect the terrain he stepped on, but back ‘in’ Baator he had stepped on what looked to be a massive army of demonic forces, and while he held no love for Devils, the thought that his step might be wreaking incredible havoc, of each step manipulating all of existence on such a grand scale with so simple an action was something he became preoccupied with. From that point on he had painstakingly avoided stepping on anything that looked populated or, in the rare case that it was noticeable on this scale, alive.
In the lead, apparently less concerned with the cosmic wakes and eddies they might be casting off about themselves, Sabatta, Illandrine, and Ront kept their sights on the light in front of them. As they grew closer the single, bright light turned out to be a collection of smaller, fainter lights, suspended in the ‘sky’ above and emitted from what they could only describe as tiny and fragile crystal spheres.
Illandrine was breathless.
Even Ront was touched by the beauty.
Sabatta had seen Selune first hand, and was convinced he had seen better.
Finally they could make out something that didn’t belong; a massive arch made up of two columns, one made of black onyx, the other pristine white marble. Above these rested a blood-red, transparent stone that bridged the other two and completed the construct. If the companions had a bird’s eye view they might have confirmed that it was placed precisely where the spire of Sigil should be.
“Careful, Sabatta,” Ront said, “there are people up there,”
Sabatta noticed there were indeed a small mob of people waiting at the monument, he identified them as Dabus, but three figures among the group stood out more than the rest. Two of the figures were just like the other Dabus in all respects except for two things. First, their robes were not the gentle grey of the others, but one white and the other black. Second, neither floated like their bretheren, but had their feet planted firmly on the ground.
The third, however, was far different and far, far more imposing. From what he could tell, it was female, draped in grey cloth that reached to the ground and concealed her feet. Her hands, if she had them, were likewise hidden in sleeves that met in front of her as if in prayer. Slate eyes stared down a narrow, upturned nose and across porceline, doll-like skin, and even at a considerable distance the four companions felt like insects observed by a displeased empress. Most striking were the blades; scythed, curving, elegant, hypnotizing blades that ensconced her face like a royal headdress, poking from under the robes on her back, and even smaller spikes on the end of a swaying tail just noticeable as they drew nearer. They knew her name without hearing it, as if it were screamed in their ears and battered into their bones until they felt more than knew a single title: The Lady of Pain.
“I won’t go,” Illandrine said.
Dregia and the others turned to look at her and saw the model of fear; the normally powerful, confident harmonium woman was breathing in short gasps, hands clenched hard enough that her metal gauntlets were squeeling in protest. Her eyes were wide, and she looked far smaller than ever before.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Dregia told Illandrine, though he wasn’t sure he believed it himself. He had a bad feeling about this, as the saying goes. “We’re here to meet with her.”
Ront gripped his axe, assuming that would bolster the elf’s nerves. It had no effect.
“Lady Selune protects us, Illandrine,” Sabatta offered, but he doubted it would change her mind. Now that he thought about it, anytime he added ‘Selune’ to a sentence most people tended to tune him out, but he cast that blasphemous thought aside.
Illandrine was stalwart. “That’s The Lady,” she said, as if that were explanation enough. For any resident of Sigil it would have been, and her fear would have been understandable as well, even standing at this distance seen as foolishly brave. Her three companions simply didn’t understand the implications – ignorance often lends apparent courage.
“OK, wait here then,” Dregia said. He shrugged his shoulders and began heading towards the assembly he had the impression was waiting specifically for them. Based on the otherwise stalwart woman’s reaction to the situation, however, the ranger decided it would behoove him to approach the whole thing cautiously. He joined Ront and Sabatta, and the three, side by side, walked with purpose until face to face with the three unique envoys.
Standing before the Lady, it was now apparent that she was quite tall; still elegant, but quite a bit more intimidating standing a full head above Ront. Sabatta bowed low, not sure how to proceed, and Dregia followed suit after a momentary delay, assuming the cleric knew some aspect of protocol when dealing with supremely powerful beings with which he was unfamiliar. In response, a further Dabus filtered out from the anonymous masses and stood beside the Lady, returning the companions show of courtesy. She looked to the newcomer, some sort of silent exchange apparent to Sabatta, then made eye contact with the three heroes in turn. Suddenly, flowing script appeared above the newcomers head, scribing out words that pooled into sentences.
“Welcome to Godshome, Chosen, we have been waiting for you.”
“We are honored by your hospitality,” Sabatta answered, speaking precisely and measuring each word before speaking, “we are most appreciative for your assistance in these times of difficulty.”
Dregia, standing across from the dark garbed Dabus noted the creatures cryptic smile shift to a fuming snear. The curious behavior almost made him forget what he was going to say, but he managed to get it out before Sabatta got on a roll.
“What is this place; who are you?”
The script continued, old text replaced by new answers.
“This is Godshome, Chosen, the meeting place of the divine, where neutrality holds lease and the multiverse is balanced. We are the caretakers; this is Oreth,” the Dabus motioned to the white cloaked member, “representative of the First Gods, and this is Fell,” this time the Dabus indicated his dark clad brother, “who represents the Old Gods and their interests.”
Upon hearing ‘Old Gods’ Ront grabbed the hilt of his axe and stared Fell down. Even Dregia and Sabatta had to keep their hands from going to weapons.
“What nonsense is this?” Dregia found himself yelling, though after a shamed glance at the imperious Lady he immediately regretted raising his voice.
“Explain,” Ront roared in agreement.
“All things come in triplicate in the ring of the multiverse, Chosen, Godshome and yourselves no exception. If we are to help the pawns of the First Gods, then the Old Gods must be served as well.”
“That is the…” Dregia began.
“Of course, we understand m’Lady,” Sabatta finished for the ranger. He cleared his throat, hinting that Dregia should watch his words. Dregia, of course, ignored him.
“At least you color code your good guys and bad guys,” he said sarcastically, matching Fell’s snear, “but why the red stone in the arch? Did you run out of marble?”
The sarcasm was either lost on the Dabus or ignored.
“In colors, grey is the neutral point of light and dark, but in life the color of balance is blood, and so the red stone, Chosen,”
“Stop calling me chosen,”
“As you wish, your title bears no relevance to what you are, but you are each chosen, the rule of three providing one for Selune, one for Shar, and one for the Old Gods,” the Dabus’ eyes flicked towards Ront.
The half orc scowled, “What lies are these?” he demanded, stepping forward. The motion drew the placid watch of the Lady, and while Ront seemed unfazed, Sabatta had the distinct impression he should calm his friend down quickly.
“None of us side with the Old Gods, we are united and have a bond of trust, you must be mistaken,” he offered, motioning for Ront to be still.
Fell surprised them all by thought writing next,
“Each of you carries a particular spark of divinity, whether in purpose or paying the due of fate, he will come to assist the Old Gods, Chosen,” it spelled out, with a stylized flourish on the word ‘chosen’. Dregia assumed the barb was directed at him, and so responded,
“Your opinion doesn’t concern us, keep it to yourself, traitor. I’m sick of this prophesy drek, give us the promethigenesis. Now.” He wanted done with this line of discussion immediately, telling himself that it was because he was weary of hearing his supposed ‘fate’ laid out before him, but knowing in some small recess of his mind that it was because the idea of Ront accidentally assisting the Church made a tiny bit of sense; in fact, it had happened before the frustrating voice chimed. The idea that he had the remnants of the goddess Shar’s power residing in him wasn’t particularly inviting either, but it explained the incident with the spider-thing earlier.
“Of course,” the grey Dabus wrote.
The Lady of Pain opened her sleeves, her hands, if she had hands to see, were still hidden in the dark folds of the long robes. However, suspended before her Dregia saw a small ball of blackness, cast in such contrast to reality that he had to blink his eyes to assure himself it wasn’t some sudden imperfection in his sight. Orbiting this anomaly were small clumps of opalescent white matter that clumped together in non-geometric shapes, and whizzed about and collided lazily at all different angles, making the entire object approximately one foot in diameter. As he observed, the circling matter slowed, joining together and seeming to reach out towards him, responding to his devoted focus. He started, losing his concentration, and the orbits returned to aimless amorphism.
“Ooh, axe!” Ront said.
Sabatta shook his head, “No, Ront; don’t you see a book of prayers?”
“Nope, axe,” the barbarian answered, almost salivating.
“The Promethigenesis is not bound by any one form,” this time it was Oreth, the Dabus in white who script-spoke, “like attracts like, and it will respond to one who is most invested with the power of its originator.”
Sabatta assumed that meant him, approached and took up the book he saw. Once in his hands, the cleric gently stowed it next to the Librarian within his pouches.
“That should be interesting to look at,” he told the knowledgeable, living item.
The three heroes bowed, gave their thanks, and after this terse goodby, finally rejoined the obviously anxious Illandrine.
“Can we please go now?” the elven woman asked.
“Yes,” Ront answered, “lets find a way out of here back to the portal,”
They all agreed and head back the way they came. After a time one looked back in curiosity to find that the assembly at the arch had dispersed, nowhere to be seen.
Finding an exit took some time, but eventually Ront and Dregia’s superior tracking skills prevailed, discovering a small tunnel that exited into “The Friendly Fiend,” a small shop in what Illandrine identified as the “Market Ward” of Sigil. Soon after they found a contingent of Sigilian defenders with whom the elven woman decided to stay and assist. The farewells were brief and respectful, with promises by the three companions to return as soon as possible; hopefully to celebrate the defeat of the Old Gods and the retaking of Sigil’s streets. It was not long after that they were back in a corpse strewn alley in front of the oak and brass door that represented the portal back to Faerun.
Sabatta grasped the handle and pulled, revealing a moonlight glow beyond the door.
“It would seem we aren’t yet too late,” he said, shoulders slumping just a bit with that weight lifted off them.
“I love this part,” Ront exclaimed with mirth before jumping full speed into the swirling portal.
Dregia smiled, “See you on the other side,” he told the cleric, then followed the enthusiastic half orc into the pale. Sabatta soon joined the other two as well, and the three found themselves on the moonbridge to the Realms.
The path was swift and clear just as Sabatta remembered it – no less from the Moon Maiden – and he found himself wistfully watching the shimmering, near-full moon in the infinite skies overhead. His mind wandered for a time, considering the myriad of ways in which he loved his goddess, walking slowly with eyes always focused above. He wasn’t sure how long he had observed, when he noticed that the edges of the heavenly body had grown ragged and torn, as if it had been chewed upon by an overzealous dog. Whatever the actual cause, he knew it was an ill omen indeed.
“We may have a problem,” The cleric hollered towards his two friends, who had gotten rather far ahead during his daydreaming. Both Ront and Dregia stopped, and Dregia jogged back to see what Sabatta had noticed. Ront did what came naturally and drew his axe but held his ground.
“What is it now,” the Cormyrian asked, annoyance evident in his voice – not at the messenger, but the same old message: trouble.
Sabatta drew his lips thin, concerned with what he saw, “The moon above, do you see it?”
Dregia looked up at the damaged orb, “Looks a bit worse for wear,” he noted, really not sure what to think, “any idea why,”
“No, but it does not…”
Sabatta stopped mid sentence eyes widening in horror.
“Huh, what’s the problem?” Dregia asked, and followed the cleric’s eyes to the translucent path beneath them. A large crack, was etched into the magical bridge and spiderwebbing outward, first slowly then building speed. In only a few seconds the single crack had joined others appearing all along the structure, coming together like thousands of lines on a confused map.
“I think I’m too heavy for the bridge,” Ront yelled from ahead.
“Ront, don’t move, the magic is coming apart!” Sabatta barked back, “I’m going to try and reinforce it.”
He never had the chance to try. He watched as the moonbridge shattered into millions of jagged, beautiful shards, silently – Sabatta was strangely conscious of his expectation for a sound like breaking glass that never came – tumbling into the star filled void, the three companions, far less silent, close behind.
Nothingness. Clinging, cloying, all encompassing, wet. Wet? Ront burst from the water with a primal roar, sending a geyser-like eruption into the air. The liquid, scented like blossoming lilacs, ran in his eyes, stinging and blurring his vision. He tried to collect himself, listening carefully. Why had his gregarious battle cry distorted near the end, and sounded like a womanly scream? Rubbing his eyes, and scooping away soapy bubbles he got his first look at his surroundings, and rather liked what he saw. A group of obviously distraught women, most clutching only towels to protect their modesty, were warbling in unison at the barbarian’s sudden appearance. The enjoyment ended rather abruptly, however, when someone smashed a heavy object down over his head. He whipped around, startling his female “attacker,” before letting forth another terrifying growl. This had the effect of bringing the young lady instantly to tears, and Ront was dumbfounded once again, and now feeling rather bad about himself. Not knowing how to respond to such a complex emotional situation he leapt from the marble bath, and slipped and slid his way to the double doors of the lavish bathing chamber.
“Sorry, sorry,” he yelled over the din of frantic women, using his meaty hands to give himself blinders, “I’m not looking.”
He tried to pull up short at the doors and open them, but the slick floor caused him to crash full speed into the thick wood barriers. Unfortunately, the doors were designed to open inward. Of course, it was only unfortunate for the owners, as the massive half orc plowed through, taking them off their hinges and leaving them hanging at an awkward angle, barely suspended by the warped metal clasps. He examined his new surroundings: a long hall, lined with expensive paintings (at least he assumed), wooden walls, and a red and grey stone floor. Ront felt like the place was familiar, but he was certainly familiar with having weapons pointed at him, which the four guards in the hall were doing with their halberds. Fortunately, Ront was also familiar to one of the guards.
“Master Ront?” the guard said, and Ront could now see that all four wore the colors and emblem of the Cormyrian royal family.
“Huh?” Ront responded.
“It is you, Master Ront, we were told you had left for the front some time ago. It’s a pleasure to meet you, I’ve heard quite a bit about you, are Dregia and Sabatta with you?” The guard was somewhere between reverent and gushing.
“I’m in Suzail?”
“Uh, yes sir, is that a surprise sir?”
“Hmm, I need to see Caladnei I think,”
The guard looked happy to be of help, “Right away sir, follow me,”
The confused half-orc followed behind the four guards, trying to work out what had happened. Thinking, not one of his strong points, was even more difficult with the four guards around him whispering like school children about meeting the Ront. They had all been on that bridge thing, then it had broken and he had been falling, then he ended up in the baths. He lost his train of thought when the baths popped into his head, and by the time he remembered what he was supposed to be brainstorming, Ront and his entourage arrived at Caladnei’s chamber door.
“By your leave, Master Ront, sir,” the lead guard said, before leading his men back the way they had come. Ront was almost surprised they didn’t cheer and give eachother ‘high fives’.
He knocked with the metal knocker, and waited a moment until he heard “come in” from the other side. When he entered he saw Caladnei at a cherry-wood desk, drawing up some sort of diagram or map, the type of complicated thing Ront didn’t understand. The room was the paradigm of opulence, a massive, silk and fur strewn bed, expensive wood furniture including a massive dresser larger than some hotel rooms Ront had stayed in, and a chest inlaid with ivory and onyx. The entire room was painted with a mural, depicting the history of Cormyr, focusing on the exploits of the Chief War Wizard of different ages, complete with gemstones and gold filigree to highlight important objects and people.
“What is it?” Caladnei asked brusquely, but did a double take when she saw Ront out of the corner of her eye. “Ront, what are you doing here, have you retrieved the item you were after?”
“I don’t know how I got here, but we got it, I think,” he said.
“Then why are you here?” she stood up, unable to contain her curiosity sitting, “Are Dregia and Sabatta with you?”
Ront shook his head, “We were separated when the big bridge thing fell apart, but if I’m ok I assume they are.”
That didn’t seem to satisfy Caladnei, who absentmindedly pushed a lock of auburn hair behind her ear, considering the ramifications of her friend’s news. Unlike the barbarian, the canny sorceress had run through a plethora of contingencies before the half orc had decided what next to say.
“Is there some way to find them?” Ront asked
“I don’t think so, without magic we don’t have too many options; we’ll have to trust in them to carry on,” Caladnei responded as confidently as possible. “I know they can handle themselves or Lady Alusair and myself would not have chosen them those long years ago.”
Ront nodded his head once.
“Is Dante helping the Shards with their ritual?”
“It’s why I have my window boarded up,” she gestured to the curtained window that normally overlooked the immaculate courtyard of the palace. When Ront seemed confused at this statement, she walked over and pulled back the layered drapes. Outside he could now see a bright light, spilling out from a great column of pale fire that stretched to the sky. Surrounding this spectacle were five Shards, all appearing as young girls identical to the one he had seen earlier. As far as Ront could tell, the pillar extended to the forever; the top was not visible from where he stood, even if he came close to the glass pane and craned his neck for a better view. The entire thing was painfully bright, and threatened to make his eyes water if he stared too long. “To tell the truth, I have no idea what they’re doing,” Caladnei admitted, “but Dante has loyally retrieved whatever they needed, often old magical relics and personal effects of yours and the other two, oddly enough,”
“Lets go see Dante,” Ront interrupted, blinking away the after image in his field of vision.
“I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you,” the War Wizardess said.
Dregia’s eyes snapped open. He was sprawled in tall grass, with the night sky bearing down on him overhead. Nearby he could see Sabatta beginning to rise as well, and behind him what looked to be a thin beam of light projecting into the sky, far on the northeastern horizon in the direction of Suzail. It finally terminated when it ran into the moon, which seemed to have become almost stationary low in the heavens.
“You are finally awake, Chosen,”
Dregia rolled onto his stomach, pushed away from the voice and scrambled to his feet. Standing before him was a girl, with silver-white hair like spun moonlight, and a perfectly proportioned, placid face.
“Gods damn it!” he yelled, running his hand through his hair, and rocking skittishly, “you cannot go around surprising me like that, you’re shaving years off my life!”
“That is entirely unacceptable, Chosen, you are needed for some time to come, Selune would ask you refrain from being surprised any further,”
Dregia rolled his eyes, “And stop calling me Chosen.” He looked the Shard in the eyes, projecting his aggravation but found that he couldn’t stare at the glow for more than a few moments without turning away.
“Did you get brighter?” the ranger asked.
The girl turned her head slightly to the side, remaining silent. It annoyed the hell out of Dregia.
“Is there a problem?” Sabatta asked, bringing himself to a sitting position. He dusted his hat off, which had fallen off his head, and placed it back on his head.
“Yeah, my vision has been acting up for a while now, and now this Shard is messing with me again; everything seems brighter,” Dregia said.
“You are the Chosen, what remains of Shar remains in you,” the wan girl responded, as if it were the most obvious thing in the multiverse. It didn’t do anything to improve his attitude.
“Great, so I get to carry around a bit of Shar, and in return I get blinded anytime the sun rises, good trade, thanks,”
Sabatta rose to his full height, head scanning from side to side. He took this chance to interrupt, “Where’s Ront?”
Dregia swiveled around, trying to find the half orc as well. He pirouetted full circle until he was squinting at the Shard once more, blaming it before any discussion.
“We are near a day out of Baldur’s Gate, near a day from facing your fate which awaits you there. Ront faces his fate in Suzail,”
“Gods, no,” Sabatta whispered, prompting Dregia to turn to him suspiciously.
“Want to tell me what I’m missing?”
It wasn’t the cleric, who had grown quite somber and distant that answered, but the girl again,
“Ront is destined to die in Suzail; he has his part to play,”
For a time Dregia simply gaped, while Sabatta looked on, eyes hidden in shadow.
“You’re lieing,” the ranger said, but knew the girl had little reason to do so. He felt anger boiling up as he realized the gravity of the situation, and realized he could lose a friend.
“You knew this, didn’t you?” Dregia’s voice broke slightly, as he turned to Sabatta, barely containing his rage.
“Yes,” was all Sabatta answered.
“We’re going back then, take us, now,”
The Shard answered again, “I cannot; the moonbridges have failed and Selune is taxed to her limits. I myself will soon dissipate into non-existence.”
“Then we’re walking,” Dregia said, violently ripping his backpack up from the ground.
“You will not arrive in time,” the Shard said.
“Shut up!” the Cormyrian bellowed, putting the sum of his anger and loss into the command, the force and volume scratching his throat. Unlike previously ignored commands, this one had a decidedly different effect. The Shard was buffeted, as if by a sudden, powerful wind and rocked back, looking frightened if Dregia didn’t know better, and remaining silent.
Sabatta looked on and saw a very different Dregia than he was used to, and whatever it was that had changed – he assumed it had to do with his connection to Shar – he felt it would be very positive to calm him down.
“The Shard told me that Ront was to die in Cormyr before we left, my friend; I didn’t feel that I should say anything,” Sabatta said with a dry mouth, nervous, but stalwart in outside performance. He couldn’t be sure, the whole effect was like an apparition or a barely realized dream, but the darkness around the angry man seemed to slide about him, leaving small eddies and currents around his body, and making the stars behind his frame twinkle or disappear.
“You didn’t think he deserved to know?” Dregia hissed.
“Deserved, yes, but we were heading to Sigil, I dared hope he would be safe. And knowing where you will die isn’t healthy.”
“Healthier than dieing because he didn’t know,”
“Perhaps,” said Sabatta, “but consider that if a man knows he is to die tomorrow, he often goes out of his way to make sure it happens; if he doesn’t race towards death, maybe he can cheat it,”
“Nice theory, were you going to put it on his tombstone?” Dregia snarled back.
“It was the right thing to do,” the cleric said.
“Well, the right thing to do now is ride back to Suzail and save him,”
Sabatta shook his head, “Fortunately, I believe you already know that that is not the right thing to do. We have to go to Baldur’s Gate and stop the Church now, or we never will,”
Dregia glared at his friend and stalked towards him, his muscles taught and barely restrained. Breathing heavily, he simply glowered for some time.
“You’re right,” he finally said, relaxing a bit. Suddenly he brought his right arm up and around, planting his fist on Sabatta’s jaw with a solid thwack. The cleric fell back a step, but didn’t fall, just slowly brought his head back around until it faced forward. “lets go then,” Dregia said. He stalked off in the general direction of Baldur’s Gate, not bothering to look back.
Sabatta stayed a moment, trying to flex out the soreness in his jaw.
The Shard finally spoke again, it’s voice even more subdued,
“The ritual goes as planned, you can see it there in the distance, Chosen of Selune,” She pointed at the beam of light and moon to the Northeast, “It is imperative for you to know, you mustn’t allow the Old Gods to follow that beacon to Selune; it must end here.”
Sabatta nodded, understanding the meaning behind the Shard’s words; he opened his mouth as if about to speak, but remained silent, then bowed and walked off after Dregia.
“Good Luck, both of you,” the Shard said some time later as she watched the two companions move off in the distance. Her feet began to grow hazy, and then dispersed like mist, followed by her legs, then chest, then neck. The fading continued past her chin, above her thin lips, beyond her small nose and the one tear that tumbled down a porcelain cheek, and finally all the way up until nothing remained but a few motes that flitted and winked out in the growing darkness.
The green dagger reflected the torches in the mess hall, casting dull viridian beams onto Ront’s face as he sat staring into its one jaundiced eye. The angles it produced were somehow skewed, recognizably wrong in pattern, but exactly how it was impossible to tell. Of course Ront didn’t mind; he was always wholly fascinated by the spectacle it produced, and by the abilities it could provide, making the world slow down around him and manipulating time, though he often had the impression it exacted some cruel, premeditated price. Still, he couldn’t imagine parting with the item.
“Those Shards are damned literal,” Dante Nazreth said, sitting by his side at the mess table, chewing on a piece of overcooked meat, “you should have seen when the sergeant told that old joke about the Wyvernspurs near one of them; I barely saved him from being roasted.”
Ront just grunted in response.
“Put that thing away, would you,”
The half orc fondled the pommel for a few more seconds, but finally turned the dagger about in his hand a pushed it into its leather sheath.
“About time,” Dante pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head, “I can’t eat that stuff anymore. And I have to say, I’m getting sick of sitting around taking orders from kids, give me a few tarpers any day, eh?”
Ront didn’t have much to say, just giving a dejected “yeah” to his friend. He had found himself growing more and more depressed ever since he had arrived in Suzail. Dante had tried to involve him in preparing the ritual, they had worked the whole day and even a bit past sunset, but he just wasn’t terribly suited to the task.
“The ritual is going well, at least that’s what those creepy child things say, maybe this war can finally end,”
“I should be out fighting,” Ront said, pounding the table with one solid fist.
Dante nodded his head, agreeing with the barbarian’s sentiment, “So should I, so should I. We both wanted to be out there with Dregia and Sabatta but we have our orders. Caladnei and Lady Alusair have to be able to count on us. Who knows, maybe we’ll get one last good fight before this magical pillar of light ruins all our fun,” He gave a sly wink, and the corner of his lip curled into a smile.
However, Ront was now less interested in fighting,
“Alusair is still alive?” he asked, perking up noticeably, leaning forward at the edge of his seat.
Dante nodded again, “She stabilized a bit after you left to do whatever you had to do. She isn’t awake, but from what I’ve been told she isn’t in danger of dieing anymore. You would have to go and talk to the royal apothecary or guards yourself and ask. Can’t let it get out that the Regent is indisposed, though.”
Ront shot out of his seat, slid over the table, and jogged towards the door.
“Don’t get in a fight,” Dante yelled after him jokingly as the half orc charged into the hall and began heading for the Regent’s room. He didn’t understand why no one had told him that Alusair had recovered, if even a little, but he aimed to at least pay his respects.
He finally arrived at his destination, a bit out of breath after running through the winding passages of the palace. The doorway was guarded by the elite royal guard of Cormyr, as expected, however the number of men interposing themselves was a bit unexpected, numbering twelve outside in the wide hallway. He approached the entryway, paying little attention to anyone else when two broad swords crossed in front of him, barring his path.
“I’m sorry, sir, no one is permitted to see the Regent, yourself included,” one of the helmed men told him, voice echoing from inside the metal helmet.
“I’m going in there to see my friend,” Ront told the assemblage matter of factly, punctuating the statement with a patented growl. This time, however, it failed to produce results.
“Forgive me, but I have my orders, I’d be happy to send someone to fetch you when the orders are lifted,”
Ront was in a bad mood. He was supposed to be bathing in the blood of his fallen enemies at that very moment with Dregia and Sabatta, not cutting through red tape with an obnoxious guard who had probably never known the joy of killing three men using the corpse of their fallen ally. Thus he decided to deal with both his problems at once. The furious half orc tackled the nearest guard, disarming him and then casting him aside.
“I said I’m going in,” he told the eleven still conscious sentinels.
Things quickly degenerated into a brawl from there.
“What’s going on here?”
It was Caladnei, her voice bringing immediate stillness to the previously frenetic melee.
“Explain yourselves, soldiers,”
The guard on duty, developing a black eye on a now unhelmed face, stood at attention,
“M’am, Ront was attempting to enter the Steel Regent’s chambers without authorization,” he told the War Wizardess.
Caladnei raised one of her thin eyebrows,
“Is this true Ront?”
“Yeah, I guess,” the half orc answered, looking a bit sheepish and releasing the head lock he had on one of the guards. The man fell to the ground choking severely.
“I expect more from you,” she said, and Ront wilted just a bit more, “but I should have been more clear in my orders, you are always permitted to visit with the Regent, if you would care to do so now I will attend with you,”
The barbarian shook his head enthusiastically, indicating the affirmative.
“Get another unit here and get an apothecary to tend to those wounds,” she told the remaining guards. They all bowed and excused themselves as the she and Ront opened the double doors and entered the room beyond. Inside, the atmosphere was subdued, plain white walls with a few landscape paintings, a table with various herbs and instruments residing upon it, and a large, plush bed upon which rested Alusair. Five doctors were jostling back and forth between the table and Alusair like bees visiting an inviting flower. Ront came close to the sleeping woman, feeling out of place in the quiet room – it reminded him of a library, and he always got kicked out of those.
He looked at the woman’s face. She looked healthy except for rivulets of black coloration beneath her skin. The small blemishes weren’t similar to normal skin pigmentation, soft and even, but sharp like pen strokes and uniformly onyx.
“The doctors aren’t sure if the marks are permanent,” Caladnei offered, “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you she had improved, it was so minor I didn’t want to raise hopes, or risk having her illness become general knowledge,”
“It’s ok,” Ront answered, keeping his eyes on Alusair. He had always respected the woman, probably more than most people realized he was capable, and felt that his duty was validated by having such a noble commander. To see her laid low by some poison made him feel helpless, unable to help the woman who had seen merit in a lowly soldier, the bastard half child of a violent conception, enough to make him an elite soldier of Cormyr. His eyes watered as he mulled his impotence in the situation.
“No hope,” he heard his mind say to itself, and he thought he might agree.
“No hope,” the voice said again. Ront was suddenly on edge. That wasn’t his voice he heard in his head, but it was still familiar, as if it had been with him for a long time. He looked down, his eyes drawn to the sheath at his belt. “The dagger?” he thought to himself. Somehow that seemed right.
“The vessel must be prepared that the advent succeeds. She will die, and your sacrifices have created the door,”
Ront looked worriedly at Alusair.
“Caladnei, something’s wrong,” he said.
“What is it?”
The half orc stopped suddenly. As he looked, the black marks in the Steel Regent’s face had spread and elongated at an impossible speed. Ront had merely blinked, and now they completely covered the woman’s features in an intricate web of symmetric pattern of lines and eldritch symbols. He had seen something similar before but couldn’t place it, having little time to consider as Alusair opened her eyes and began screaming.
“The eyes! Get them away,” she keened, thrashing about uncontrollably.
“Doctors!” Caladnei barked, looking on in horror. The apothecaries came rushing over, pushing Ront out of the way.
The stunned half orc stepped aside, trying to figure out what she could possibly mean. Then his stomach turned and he felt sick realization fall coldly over his limbs. He reached down and pulled out the green steel dagger and looked in its jaundiced eye.
Alusair regained control of her faculties all at once, head swiveling and locking on to the half orc.
“Ront, the dagger, get rid of the dagger!”
Ront stood transfixed for a moment as a second eye began to grow on the thick bottom blade of the dagger. It sprang into full size with a wet plop, blinked, and opened wide, an identical facsimile of the other eye. Soon, a cascade of growths began appearing all over the weapon. He threw the dagger with all his might and it sunk deeply into the wall, popping one of the orbs and spraying blood onto the white paint. Caladnei, the doctors, and a now conscious, tattooed Alusair looked on with disbelief as the eyes continued to sprout.
“We have to go, NOW!” Ront yelled.
Sabatta could smell the rot wafting over the walls of Baldur’s gate from three hundred paces. The skyline he remembered so well from his earlier missions no longer eclipsed quite as many stars in the night sky, some of the taller buildings having been burnt or razed in the final, merciless culling when the city populace refused to bow down. Only a few lonely structures still rose above the wooden palisades, their skeletons exposed, the upper levels swaying on fire-blackened supports. One edifice remained untouched; the Church of the Old Gods. From this distance, standing along the shore of the Chionthar river, he could just make out the stone steeple with its massive, deep viridian bell residing within.
“How long ago was it,” Sabatta wondered aloud as he and Dregia wrapped and stored equipment that could be easily damaged by water.
“Not long enough by a long shot,” Dregia answered, making sure that his swords were well protected by the oiled wrappings he was using.
Sabatta removed his hat, and seemed to consider how the wide brim would fit in his backpack without it being crushed or bent. He held it at a few angles, considering each for a moment, before giving a grimace and pushing it stiffly back onto his head
“Leather and suede are waterproof, right?” he asked Dregia, scratching the back of his neck trying to decide if his prized possession would be safe.
The ranger actually laughed, a bitter note but with a hint of mirth, “That hat is invincible; even if we don’t make it I’m sure it will,” He huffed a bit, then went on, pausing at his work for a tired moment, “This is it, isn’t it? It’s all down to this?”
“It is,” Sabatta said.
“Never thought we’d be swimming our way to glory,”
“Certainly not, I hate swimming,”
“Your water breathing spell ready?”
“As soon as you are,”
“Alright, we’ve got a war to win, let’s do this thing,”
Dregia smirked, pulled his pack to his shoulder and slapped the cleric on the shoulder as Sabatta began his brief incantation. Once he finished the two companions slipped into the swift moving Chionthar and disappeared beneath the surface. The murky waters rolled along with its passengers, past the wall, through the grate that Zeus O’Cutty had long ago taught the ranger to bypass, into a small, man-made tributary meandering into the edge of the city, giving Baldur’s Gate a protected water source in the event of external threat.
They both emerged slowly from the stream, moving with a practiced grace. Each move was calculated, each muscle accounted for to leave hardly a ripple on the surface, hardly a drop created that might betray their position. Dregia pulled himself onto the muddy shore, with Sabatta close behind, hat wet and sagging, but still attached to the cleric’s head. Nearby was a man gathering water with a wooden bucket, his face and exposed skin covered in ochre, sickly tattoos that squirmed beneath his skin, identifying him as a devoted of the Church. If he noticed anything amiss he gave no sign.
Sabatta pointed at the acolyte, then at Dregia, then slashed his thumb across his neck. The ranger nodded and withdrew and delicately unwrapped his short sword. The blade was almost invisible thanks to the weapon black he had applied earlier, and he stalked over to his target. His hand whipped out, wrapping around the oblivious man’s mouth, stifling his surprised cry and pained scream as the sword drove into his lower back. Dregia leaned in and kicked the acolytes legs out, then forced his face into the water, punching the weapon down a few more times until the ranger no longer felt any resistance. He stood and motioned Sabatta forward.
“Nice work,” the cleric said as the two picked their way from building to building under cover of night, “the final Old God must have a focus somewhere in the city. We need to find it and use the Promethigenesis to eradicate the physical manifestation,”
“How do we do that?” Dregia asked as he watched a patrol of tarpers cross the street in front of them. After they passed he gave the all clear and they scampered forward.
“I have no idea,” Sabatta whispered.
The ranger just shook his head and smiled, running on adrenaline.
Sabatta went on, “Let’s check the central church first,”
They darted between the shadows, taking the fastest path they knew to the middle of town. After some time Sabatta became aware of two things that didn’t sit quite right with him. First, as the companions infiltrated deeper into the city-turned-necropolis, the shadows seemed to be set up just a bit too perfectly for them to move unseen. He thought he saw them contort and twist like searching fingers out of the corner of his eye, but any time he would turn and look they were retreated to their natural positions. Second, and more disturbing, there just weren’t enough Church forces in the streets; the armies having been moved could account for the lack, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it meant problems ahead. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who thought the same way.
“This is a little too easy,” Dregia said, glancing at Sabatta to see if he agreed as they paused in the shadow of a free standing wall. The rest of the building, an establishment known as ‘The Coiled Serpent,’ had been immolated, leaving only ash and a sign that read ‘erpent’ as a reminder it ever existed. Sabatta sighed – he had really liked that bar.
“I agree, any ideas?”
“If they’re all at the church, we’d better not keep them waiting,”
Sabatta removed his hat and shook it, flinging drops of water about the ground, “After you then, not much further,”
Two more alleys and the Church was in sight, the font from which the pestilence of the Old Gods had first risen, the beginning and the end, one way or another. It’s stone walls were far too plain for the atrocities they had hidden within, entirely too mute for the thousands of tortured screams they had muffled as the priests, acolytes, and their twisted masters commanded ceaseless blood spilled, pain without purpose, and an ultimate goal that was no less than the eradication or mutilated parody of all life on the surface of Faerun.
The large, open courtyard stood in contrast to the plain church. In it the two companions could see a roiling contingent of tarpers and other twisted charicatures of life prepared for battle, the army of the apocalypse prepared to ride out upon the plains of Megiddo. They clawed and bit at eachother like hyenas jockeying for position around a fresh kill, and all surrounded a horrific, burbling mass of jaundiced eyeballs. As Dregia and Sabatta looked on, paralyzed by disgust, they saw as, one by one, the beasts entered into the anomaly and disappeared, constantly thinning the remaining ranks. Soon only two figures remained within the courtyard, standing near the repugnant blob.
High above the great green bell tolled, its deep tones echoing out across the vacant city. The very heavens themselves must have been shaken by the discordant peels, as the clouded sky as if on cue began to release a slow drizzle of rain that soon became a smothering torrent of water, cascading straight down in the still, midsummer eve. To the two companions the whole scene became like a dream – or nightmare; every aspect of the moment was a hazy amalgam of feelings and ambiance, yet each particular aspect – the rain, the bell’s toll, the roiling eyes, the two figures that they could feel waited patiently for them – took on a terrible clarity when focused upon. Fighting such feelings down, Dregia and Sabatta collected themselves and stepped from the alley, into the courtyard beyond. Whatever was happening it was certain to them both that this was the focal point; whatever was happening, it ended here.
Together the ranger and cleric walked forward, side by side, with weapons in hand. Sabatta’s face was nearly invisible beneath his drooping black hat, but his mouth was pulled back in a thin line of determination. Dregia face was a similar mask, eyes narrowed against the rain, obscuring his coal black eyes.
“Priest of the Old Gods!” Sabatta yelled over the din of both the ringing bell and pouring rain as both he and Dregia came within twenty paces of the other two beings within the courtyard. The bell’s calls ceased as he uttered the words, stopping in mid strike.
“We are here to kill you and your master, whatever false god that may be. There will be no quarter; you will answer for the lives you have taken and the crimes against all of Faerun. Prepare yourself.”
A dry laugh cracked through the hammering rain, coincided but not drowned by the report from a great bolt of lightning. The Priest, visage covered in the bone-white mask of the clergy, bobbed slowly to his show of amusement. His disguise appeared to shift between tortured expressions, all of them identifiably human, but impossible to replicate on a living face. He brought a hand to his covered brow, while his other arm, a tentacle, writhed mindlessly within his cloak. Near him the other figure, covered in robes, remained silent.
“Poor child of Selune,” the Priest’s voice was hollow, as if speaking from a bottomless void, but the sound carried right to Dregia and Sabatta’s ears “you know so little, have accomplished so little. Your goddess had her time, my master will now claim what is his.”
“We’re not giving it up,” Dregia said, interrupting.
The masked priest chortled again, “Ah, bastard child of Shar, what you choose is meaningless. When you look beyond your limited perception of the multiverse you realize there is no meaning behind it, your actions, everything you believe are echoes in an open field, an anomaly of free will destined to die out. And when you gasp your last breath, crying into the endless expanse, no one will hear you, and existence will move on with no disturbance to mark your passing. My master is eternal; he rises above such concerns.”
“Save your lies so you may comfort yourself with them in the abyss,” Dregia yelled, stomping his foot in the now muddy ground, “as for your master being eternal, I think we proved that the rest of your ‘Old Gods’ aren’t quite as eternal as they hoped,”
Dregia and Sabatta were surprised when this final comment sent the priest into longer throws of laughter, the mask jarring up and down with the ferocity of it. When finished he spoke once more.
“Oh I will revel in your despair when the ignorance is finally cast from your eyes and you see all that has fallen into place for my master’s return to dominance. ‘Two allies will fall before the end,’ is that phrase familiar to you, sad puppets?”
Dregia froze at those words, struck silent, but Sabatta spoke.
“They are the prophesy, the one that assures your defeat – we will defeat you with the aid of Selune, the ritual can be seen even from here,” he pointed to the pillar of light in the distance with a confident nod.
“Through the rose colored glass, as they say,” the priest said shaking his head. “Hear it again for the first time – Out of Darkness, Three will come, the three old gods. They will fight, and have fought, for aber-toril’s fate. Shar cannot stand before them. Two of my master’s brothers have fallen, but he feeds on their strength and with that strength he will follow the moon,” the priest gestured mockingly to the same pillar Sabatta had just indicated, “to his goal.”
Each word of the revised poem was torture for Dregia. It was what he had feared, what he had tried to express to Sabatta days ago on the moon bridge, and here it was spit in his face by their enemy at the edge of oblivion. Sabatta was momentarily stunned by the revelation, his mouth curled in a shocked frown. Their foe took the chance to continue.
“The forces you just saw disappear have traveled to Suzail, the site of your precious Selune’s ritual, and there they will detain Alusair – who has been prepared through magical poisoning for another, very different ritual – and when she is brought into synch with the vessel of our God that resides here, then the Old Gods will be reborn and my master will reign supreme.”
For a while only the rain made any noise, thunder occasionally cracking in the distance.
“We will destroy the vessel,” Sabatta yelled, building up his confidence through volume, “I assume that is it,” he said pointing at the other figure standing by the priest.
Dregia observed the otherwise forgotten being that shared the courtyard with them. Things seemed to be unraveling fast, and something about the silent figure made him all the more anxious than he already was. He felt that his skin would crawl off just looking in its direction.
“Allow me one last delight, oh Chosen of the late, great Shar and Selune, I give you the vessel of the Old Gods, the advent of my master.
The silent figure pulled back the heavy grey hood to reveal an intricately scarred face, cut with eldritch symbols and lines. It was a woman, cruelly tortured to become the vessel of destruction for the entire Realms, and when she showed herself Dregia and Sabatta’s hearts sunk to new lows.
“Are you still so sure of yourselves now, Chosen, seeing who you would choose to kill,” the priest asked sarcastically.
The vessel of the Old Gods was Belinda Nightfeather.
Ront was knee deep in tarpers and other creatures for which he had no name, but still the enemy kept coming. He, Alusair, and Caladnei had fought a desperate retreat through the palace to the war room, but were now cut off. Ront placed himself between the oncoming menace and the Steel Regent, who was still weak from her illness, while Caladnei, who could cast no spells with the weave as it was, was doing a valiant job protecting the half orc’s flanks. The two were cutting down twisted creatures as fast as they could, but when one fell two would come through the door in its place. Ront was no genius, but he had a strong grasp of tactics and could see this battle wouldn’t end well if it were allowed to progress without a change in strategy.
“Caladnei, whatever happens protect the Regent,” the barbarian yelled as his axe took a tarper clean through the thigh, then deep into the collar bone on the back swing as the creature fell, off balance. “I’m going to try and clear a path,”
“There are too many,” Caladnei hollered back, driving her blade through an arm that was aimed for the Ront’s midsection and kicking it away. However, she acquiesced and took up a position behind the warrior, suited more to protecting Alusair.
Ront could see she was right; there were far too many for him to safely clear a path to the exit. He had noted that fact before the idea even formed in his mind, but Ront didn’t plan to get there safely.
With a ferocious bellow, Ront charged into the midst of the tarpers that surrounded him, recklessly swinging his axe and throwing his weight into any target that presented itself. Three of the winged creatures fell howling as the blade slashed down across an undefended face, then spilled the alien innards of another, and left the last to roll in agony on the ground, two of its legs cut off above the ankle. The sudden surge caught the tarpers off guard and the half orc needed no prompting to press the advantage. He kept the head of the axe whistling, bringing it around his head with each swing, keeping the speed up rather than utilizing more defensive half-swings, to maximize the casualties.
Two more tarpers came in hard and he smashed his weapon into the side of one, catapulting it into the other and moving them out of the way. Another came in behind, raking its claws across his face in four bloody lines, and Ront responded with the only recourse available; he bit down at the “wrist” of the thing that had hit him, crushing down with all the force he could muster and severing what served as tendons. The hand rolled up uselessly and retracted from his face, his enemy screeching in agony. Another three saw an opening and moved around him, thinking to wall him in and contain the threat. Ront charged full force into the one, hitting it with his knees and arms and crashing to the ground on top. The other two raked and pounded his back, but he ignored the pain, instead smashing the pinned tarper’s head into the stone floor over and over until he heard a wet pop and it went limp.
Rolling forward to buy himself a reprieve, he instead ended up between two more creatures, the tentacle-laced zombies from previous encounters. One shot the protrusions out, punching two holes clean through Ront’s right arm, but he roared in the face of the other and drove the spiked end of the axe into its chest, lifting it to smash into the ceiling, then bringing it down over his head onto the zombie that had injured him. They came together with a splash.
“Ront, I can’t hold these two,” Caladnei suddenly yelled from behind. He whipped around to see a duo of tarpers pressing in against the war wizardess and the obviously exhausted, but fighting Alusair. Ront couldn’t give up his position without surrendering all the space he’d made in the room so he brought his greataxe high over his head, then spun it forward, launching it in a wild trajectory straight for one of the offending creatures. It connected squarely, severing the spine and leaving it twitching spasmically on the ground, its thin fingers and membranous wings vibrating before eternal torpor.
Caladnei called a “Look out,” a moment too soon as a huge arm pounded and ripped into his back, driving him to the ground. With no weapon, Ront spun about and jumped to his feet, plunging his thumbs as far as he could into the tarper’s eyes until it stopped keening in pain. The blood burned his thumbs badly, but they weren’t his favorite digits anyway.
The door was in sight, no longer an impossibility after the last ditch attack, but Ront had suffered the penalty for his brash actions. He was bleeding badly into his eyes, and from a multitude of cuts that had gone right through his light armor, not to mention what he assumed was a broken right arm and a collection of cracked ribs. Still, as far as the half orc was concerned the task was winnable now, he could hold off the remaining creatures long enough to make an escape for the Steel Regent, that’s what mattered.
Up ahead the tarpers poised for an attack, then stepped aside, letting a robed figure step into view. His cloaks were pale, sickly yellow and he wore a death white mask – a priest of the Old Gods, Ront would know one anywhere, even with blurry vision and a pint of blood welling in his eyes.
The priest began to chant, a guttural, ugly sound that promised pain, and Ront gave one last cacophonous battle roar that left his ears ringing and charged at the frail man, each footfall pounding faster than the last into the floor, propelling him with startling speed.
Ront knew it wasn’t fast enough.
Ront saw the priest hold forth his hand and a bolt of crackling blue electricity sprung forth, clawing hungrily through the air and impacting the half orc in the chest like the prow of a war galley. He hit the ground his vision clouding, closing in around him and threatening unconsciousness.
“No, Ront!” he heard Caladnei yell and run across the room, hacking down a zombie before she was backhanded by a tarper and sent sprawling. Ront tried to stand when another bolt hit him in the chest, driving him into the ground and leaving a cracked, shallow crater around his shattered body. The last thing he saw was the tarpers and the priest dragging Alusair out of the room, toward whatever fate they had in store for her, with him powerless to stop it.
Then the world went black.
“We’ll see it through, to the bitter end,” It was Sabatta who finally spoke, confidence returning to his voice and face. He holstered the repeating crossbow he had drawn, and reached for the holy symbol that hung on his neck, yanking free the chain that suspended it from his neck with a sharp tug.
Dregia shrugged his shoulders, “I’m with him I guess; bad news for you,” He looked over at his friend, asking for answers with his eyes.
“I’ll handle Beli…the Vessel, you deal with the priest,” Sabatta said.
Dregia nodded and brought his swords into a guard position, the rain still coming down hard.
The Priest held his hands aloft, like a maestro preparing an orchestra.
“A bitter end, indeed,” he yelled, and like that the battle was joined.
Water sluicing into his eyes, Dregia charged at the priest, the muddy ground sucking at every footfall and slowing him down. He kept his steps quick and shallow to compensate, drifting over the mud as best he could, preparing to avoid any response from his foe. The priest responded how the ranger expected, chanting out the guttural words of a spell. Each syllable seemed to energize the air, culminating in a great shout that sent roiling energy cascading towards the cormyrian, filling the air with the sound of tearing meat. Dregia tried to sidestep out of the way, but the wet ground tripped him up and turned the maneuver into a clumsy roll and flip back to standing, but it had the same effect, avoiding the malicious spell. He closed the rest of the distance as fast as possible to interrupt the next spell the priest had already begun.
Meanwhile Sabatta had begun his own struggle, one entirely more personal. He held his holy symbol and the promethigenesis, appearing as a clerical writ to him, at the ready, prepared to cast a spell, but felt that he should try to reason with his one time friend and charge first.
“Belinda, it’s me, Sabatta,” He lowered his hands slightly in anticipation of a positive response, “Give me some sign that a piece of you still resides within the vessel and I will do my best to fight it with you,”
The Vessel floated lightly into the air and opened her mouth, letting out a deafening, high pitched howl, like wind through a cave. Her body remained still, but her head jolted and thrashed about at erratic intervals, sometimes blurred with the speed of the motion. Sabatta brought the objects back into a ready position immediately.
“I suppose that is an answer of sorts,” he said.
He searched his mind and picked a spell, whipping through the incantation and pouring the energy into and through the promethigenesis. Coruscant flames erupted from the device, purifying fires of moonlight striking the Vessel unerringly, causing her to keen louder and rock with the force of the strikes. However, the attack came far from destroying her. Sabatta frowned and began weighing the rest of his arcane arsenal as the scarred woman recovered and floated nearer.
Dregia was pressing the priest, and had managed to interrupt his spell, but otherwise things weren’t going well. The twisted man was preternaturally fast, able to parry each of the ranger’s thrusts with the bloated tentacle arm that seemed hard as stone. Every time his sword connected with the appendage, Dregia’s teeth would rattle from the force of the blow. The white mask that stared back at him continued to morph into inhuman guises, but all of the faces took on a mocking, half-smile appearance as the battle wore on.
The priest brought his tentacle down in a great overhead swing. Dregia blocked high, easily interposing his smaller sword, but the force was far more than he expected, and his blade was knocked from his hands. He barely had time to step out of the way as the tentacle smashed into the ground and sent out waves of mud to either side.
“You really don’t have the time for this, Chosen,” the man said, stepping back and waiting for Dregia to make the next move, “time is on my master’s side,”
“I’m going to enjoy ripping that smile-like thing off your masked face,” Dregia spit back, reclosing the distance and thrusting both blades in hard. Impossibly fast, the priest brought his inhuman arm around and connected with the ranger’s chest. The blow picked Dregia up and threw him backward, thirty feet into the wall of a burnt out building. He slid to the ground, coughing up blood and leaking vitae from other wounds that blended away in the rain.
Sabatta saw his friend tossed away like a rag doll but was occupied with other problems. The promethigenesis combined with his spells were holding the Vessel at bay, preventing her from gaining much more than a step or two on him, but it didn’t seem to be enough. Every spell burned and scored flesh, exposing a pulsating, rubbery second layer within the Vessel, but each time the damage regenerating just as quickly. What’s more, the Vessel was now generating ephemeral feelers that pressed in on Sabatta from all sides. He could feel their cold through the protection barriers he had erected, and while he was safe for now, the probing things forced him to devote precious magic to defense. Still, there were a few more tricks he could try.
Then things went wrong.
Dregia was rousing himself, bringing his eyes back into focus when the Sabatta’s scream brought everything back into clarity. He looked up to see his friend lieing on the ground, holding his head in pain. It didn’t look to Dregia as if the cleric had been struck or successfully attacked, leaving him wondering what had caused the extreme agony Sabatta was obviously experiencing. The answer came when the pillar of white moonlight in the sky to the northeast suddenly winked out, presenting the cormyrian with only one thought; Selune was gone.
As Dregia watched, stunned, the Vessel’s skin seemed to hatch, peeling back with a angry rip as a new form poured out from within. Its skin was reflective and black, like a collection of oily bubbles, the entirety of its volume perhaps twice the body that originally contained it and growing. When he focused on any individual nodule, Dregia felt he was plunging into a turbulent sea of stars, chaotic and nightmarish in their meaningless complexity. Only hatred and disgust kept him from being overwhelmed by terror as it crept forward, the magical feelers it had created previously contacting with Sabatta’s skin. Everything they touched withered and desiccated, and the cleric yelled louder with the added pain. The promethigenesis rolled nearby, away from the monster, until it sank part way into the mud, and stopped.
“It begins!” the Priest of the Old Gods declared with psychotic mirth, “Let your blood consecrate the advent!”
Dante Nazreth marshaled the last of the palace forces, using his hand axe to direct the charge and strike down foes in his way. A long, curved blade hung in his other hand, dangling uselessly thanks to a deep puncture wound. He had been there when the courtyard had fallen; what must have been hundreds of tarpers, shambling bodies, and worse pouring in, driving the defenders back, and then holding their ground. During the chaos, Dante had seen Lady Alusair amidst the horde, battling uselessly against the surging tide of bodies as they dragged her towards whatever dreadful purpose the Church had in mind. The Shards had fallen in the first moments, continuing their tireless work with no regard to the melee at hand until the inexorable blades drove in and extinguished the pillar’s light. “It is finished,” one had told him as it dissipated into a thousand motes of light, “may Shar protect him,”
It certainly seemed finished from where Dante stood. The army of the Church had ceded the northern end of the courtyard to the Purple Dragon forces, a large raised platform that led into the lower ball room and offered a excellent staging area and vantage point over the rest of the spacious, open square, but weren’t giving an inch more. From here, even as he held a tarper at bay with his axe, Dante could see Alusair bound within the very circle the Shard’s had been using for their ritual, a priest chanting and gesturing grandly nearby.
He spun low, hooked the head of his axe behind the tarper’s leg and pulled, putting the large creature off balance. Coming back around, Dante brought the hatched down on the thing’s arm, then face when the arm broke and gave way.
Nearby, a purple dragon used his shield to bash a tarper down the stairs of the platform, causing it to roll uncontrolled and bowling over a few of its foul bretheren.
“Sir, they have Lady Alusair, it looks to be some sort of ritual,” the armored man called over the din, echoing inside his helmet.
Dante slashed a zombie, driving it to the ground and kicking it down the stairs.
“I see that sergeant, but we’re running short on manpower here,”
“I don’t think they have any reinforcements either,” the sergeant said, while shielding himself from an avalanche of blows from a tarper, each strike leaving deep dents, “we’ve got to push for Alusair, that is the only thing that matters now,”
Dante wasn’t sure that was the only thing that mattered at that very instant; truth be told he could think of quite a few other issues that mattered much more than retrieving the Steel Regent from the middle of a battalion of angry monsters. Dante was an agent of the crown, he did what he needed to do to get the job done, and he had always loyally executed his missions no matter the cost, but Dante was also pragmatic. It was impossible to stay alive in his work without being so, and staying alive usually topped his priorities during assignments. It rubbed him the wrong way that death might be an only option in this instance. Two to one odds told him it probably was.
“Alright sergeant, you’ve got your wish,” Dante drew a deep breath and yelled as loud as he could, “Purple dragons, we are taking back the Regent, give me one last push and when we reach the abyss I’ll put in a word for you with Orcus himself,”
Some of the men cheered and a few others laughed grimly as they surged forward, ready to defend their sovereign and appreciative of Dante’s humor – it was a hushed whisper among the soldiers that the stern envoy of the crown must have dealt with the abyssal lords to have survived his duties for so long.
A sudden roar from behind the enemy and within the palace, loud enough to shake the stones upon the ground, stopped the counter attack in its first steps. Even the abominations halted what they were doing and turned to gape or stare at the unexpected noise. Only the priest continued unabated, calling out blasphemous prayers to the Old Gods.
Accounts of what happened next are both varied and colorful, and the exact details of the events that took place within the walled confines of the palace gardens were debated for years to come by seers and peasants alike. The “facts” as related by Dante Nazreth are usually accepted as most reputable, but even his words are brought into question, often considered modesty for his role in what occurred or hallucination brought on by blood loss.
From behind the throngs of the twisted minions, a great clamor drew closer, as if a herd of war stallions galloped through the east wing of the palace, anxious to join the fray. In a storm of glass and wood, a massive figure shot through a far window, appearing to be a man, though much larger, arms like hard iron and legs pumping powerfully before they even hit the ground. Whoever, or whatever, it was, it wielded an axe with a haft the thickness of a wine bottle, and a blade that rivaled a guillotine, and such was it put to use, rolling the heads of two tarpers to the ground as the pestilent horrors tried to recover.
Even the priest must have felt some fear at the appearance of such an apparition,
“Stop them, the ritual is in the critical stages,” he croaked as a deep orange circle of light grew around him. Lady Alusair began to cringe in pain, but refused her captor the victory of hearing her cry out.
“You heard him men, lets not keep him waiting – once more, for Cormyr!” Dante bellowed.
Another resounding cheer from the Dragons and the battle was once again joined.
Nazreth had to keep himself focused on his own opponents, usually not a problem for a fighter of his caliber, because of the almost hypnotizing dance of death the unknown newcomer was performing in the very midst of the densest groups of monsters. The dervish offered only carnage and death to all who approached, tearing a swath straight towards the circle of power and the Steel Regent. The stone of the ground had grown slick with ichor in the path of destruction, and some of the zombies fell when they walked the blood washed lane, their skills of balance having died with their bodies.
As Dante finished off his second opponent, his hatchet buried in the nasal cavity of a tentacled zombie, he looked up to see the lone fighter reach the glowing circle of light. The man was covered in scars and cuts, almost none of his person devoid of blood – much of it his own – and had a flat face with small tusks that jutted out from his bottom lips, indicating he may be of half-orcish blood.
“Ront, is that you?” Dante asked as loud as he could. He thought the blood covered figure turned and even smiled for a fleeting moment, but later would never be sure.
“No, you fools, stop him at all costs!”
A desperate note had entered the Priests voice, but he continued the ritual, unable to interrupt the powerful magics he was channeling. Five large ogre sized zombies, faces rotted effigies of their original dog-like visage, tried to restrain the orc man, but they were shoved aside. The half orc grabbed the Steel Regent, and tossed her from the circle, and her tattoos, which had been rhythmically dancing to the mad, piping tones of the priest’s chant were stilled.
“No,” the Priest yelled, anger in his voice, “No!”
The second yell was one of fear and pain as the cloying orange energy of the circle searched for a new vessel and chose the failed priest in Alusair’s place. Dante looked on in disgust as the priest bloated before his eyes, his skin looked like tallow, and began to bubble and rupture in great gouts of blood and pus, that escaped from the wounds along with snake like tendrils of magical energy. The half orc brought his axe high over his head and brought it down with such velocity and force that it split the priest down the middle, exposing a mutated, maggot interior just before the building energy reached critical mass. Then the space inside the circle burned with hungry orange fire and everything within it was gone.
The remaining Church creatures wailed once, like a pack of wolves to the moon, before falling to the ground, motionless.
Dante stood in the middle of the open air palace courtyard, now a charnel house, shin high in the dead, uncomprehending of what he had thought impossible mere moments ago.
The battle for Suzail had been won.
Dregia crawled along the ground, pulling himself with one arm as he watched his friend drained of life, impotent to stop the shambling, alien mound. Sabatta still called out in fevered agony, both at losing his goddess, and the torturous magical attack to which the Vessel subjected him, when another sound added to the dissonance; a low, moaning wail like wind from the mouth of a cave. The reverberation came from the avatar of the Old Gods: Something was happening to the Vessel.
“What is this!” the head priest asked aloud as the Vessel began to thrash about, rolling amid the sodden earth and casting off ripples of tangible force. The ranger gritted his teeth and managed to claw his way along the slick ground, coating himself in mud, until he was face to face with Sabatta.
“Sabatta, are you all right, you have to get it together,” Dregia told the cleric while making sure the Vessel was still distracted.
“Shar, Shar,” was all Sabatta could choke out. Dregia found it peculiar, however, that the cleric would be fixated on Selune’s twin when his own goddess had just been destroyed.
“Damnit Sabatta,” the Cormyrian pushed himself to a crouch and then a hobbled half-stand, one sword still in his hand, held at challenge to the priest and the now recovering Vessel.
The priest of the Old Gods looked Dregia in the eyes, where once the mask displayed mocking, it now held only hate.
“A minor setback only, the timetable has been delayed, but the avatar lives. As I said, Chosen, time is on our side,”
As if to agree with the statement, the mutable, protoplasmic entity ceased its thrashing and focused – Dregia could feel it focusing – on the companions.
“Selune is dead, she has joined her duplicitous sister Shar, and the only Chosen invested with power lies humbled on the ground before me.” The priest said, volume growing with each proclamation, until his voice cracked madly at his voice’s threshold, “A quick death will no longer suit you, all of Faerun will pay for such resistance.”
Dregia found himself stretching to full height, unbidden strength reentering his body as his rage at all the Church had done grew within him.
“No,” the ranger stated.
“What can you do, small nothing,” the priest spit the words, as the Vessel began to squirm forward, slurping in the sucking mud, “you are but a man; dust upon the gale of the Old Gods!”
Dregia’s rage grew. It felt to him as if a ball of cold fire had welled within his chest and threatened to shoot out upon the arrogant priest that would dare to claim his world.
“No,” Dregia said again.
The priest was livid, mask no longer displaying features even vaguely human, first mouths with toothed eyes, finally a stew of organic shapes.
“Enough, you will die for your insolence!”
“No,” Sabatta said, grabbing Dregia’s ankle from the ground as the Vessel began to tumble towards them. The ranger looked down and saw the cleric, staring at the promethigenesis that had fallen nearby. Dregia reached down and picked it up, touching it for the first time; to him it still appeared as the small orbiting model, a moonlight glow from the center, surrounded by darker, floating satellites.
“You want this?” Dregia asked, even though he already felt the answer.
“No,” was all Sabatta said.
It had been building for some time, buried, hidden within him by the Lady of Lies, the Queen of Darkness for this pivotal instant. Her deception was masterful, and only now did the Priest of the Old Gods, and the Avatar itself see through the charade for the trap Dregia was.
“Slay him, slay him,” a bit of fear had crept into the hate of the priest’s tone, “it is Shar master, some last trick to play!”
“Even gods die, Avatar and Priest. Some are reborn as Selune shall be, others join the void they pretend consumes all. And so for you,” Dregia narrowed his eyes, “I am become death, Old One.”
The promethigenesis flared to life in Dregia’s hands. He concentrated to tap his very spirit and free Shar’s spark, releasing it in a deluge through the promethigenesis that dwarfed any river in force, belittled the very sun in immolating hunger. The effort was monumental; the ranger could feel himself slipping away, straining to control it, prevent himself, his very being, from joining the magical force of which the artifact drank from him deeply.
Finally it culminated. There was no light, no dark, no such emissions from the device as the two opposed forces of the Two Goddesses worked in delicate, vengeful concert to rework reality as its master wished. A shimmering shadow spread in all directions like a stone’s ripple in a lake, washing over the last Avatar of the Old Gods, and the last of the Chief Priests. Dregia could feel their consciousness, clawing at reality, trying to deny the change to the very fabric of existence that he was forcing upon them, but to the ranger such struggles, compared to controlling the promethigenesis, were flies upon his web. He snuffed them out, and both physical and spiritual forms were squelched to nothing, utterly annihilated. Like that, the war for all of Aber Toril was done.
The Cormyrian fell to his knees once more, his wounds catching up to him now that the remains of Shar had left him. The rain still fell, and he sank deeply into the welcoming ground.
“We did it Sabatta, I think we won,”
Dregia almost wept with relief, and he began to shake as he ran out of adrenaline and began to come to terms with how close they had come. Glancing over at the cleric, he could see his friend’s eyes were closed.
Scrambling over, refusing to believe this could happen at the dawn of victory, he checked for any signs of life. There were none.
As the sun peeked from behind the eastern hills and lanced through the clouds onto the broken city of Baldur’s Gate, Dregia’s sat for a long while and let his tears wash away in the cleansing rain.
The speeches were at an end, the service concluded, and all that remained was to carry the empty pall of Ront the Great to its final resting place, yet all of Suzail remained at a standstill as it had all morning; the entirety of the populace dutifully followed the symbolic casket like a great black snake coiling through the heart of the city. At the front of the procession Dante Nazreth, Caladnei, and the Steel Regent bore the weight of the wooden placeholder alone, despite their many injuries that had yet to heal. What remained of Lady Alusair’s personal guard had insisted she ride alongside them, just behind the front of the march, but both she and Caladnei had scoffed at the suggestion, intending to honor their friend’s sacrifice as they saw fit.
Dregia could see his three comrades pass by as they wound their way to the royal cemetery; Dante grimacing with no complaint as the burden bore down on his wrecked shoulder still in a sling, Alusair weeping openly before her subjects, face still etched by the pen-thin lines, and the Caladnei with tilted head, face hidden behind auburn locks. The ranger did not join them, however. He had spoken briefly at the palace, telling all assembled an honest recount of the true hero the half orc had been, but Dregia had chosen to watch the rest from the side. The others had understood.
Finally they passed by and Dregia turned about and walked into the alley behind him, pushing by the few onlookers who were physically unable to carry on with the parade yet wished to see the champion off, and entered the alley behind the market square, collecting his thoughts in the relative silence of the recess as he moved. There was still much to do, a land to be rebuilt, and other friends who asked of his attention.
He stopped in mid stride when a soft glow emanated from a dead end path to his left, and shifted to look within. A young girl stood before him, suffused by a soft, moonlight glow, out of place amidst the scattered trash and motley stone walls of the plain alley.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Dregia said, bowing theatrically, “what can I do for you,”
The Shard smiled back, casting tangible warmth upon the ranger, “My master bid me check upon you; does the day find you well?” Her features shifted to a questioning tilt of the head and pursing of the lips.
“I’ll need time, but,” he considered the question for a moment before answering, “I think we’re going to make it. How are things for your master?”
“He takes to his new position with a dignity and skill befitting one of his stature, but as you say, he will need time – something we have the luxury of now, thanks to you.
Dregia held his hand up, denying the statement,
“Thanks to all of us, I just played my part and I’m glad it’s done,”
“The transfer of power went well between my previous mistress and my new master; it was fortunate she anticipated the attack on Suzail and began the ritual with your friends’ help to pass her essence on at the moment the Church thought to destroy her, as they did Shar.”
“The timing could have been better,” Dregia chuckled lightly, “we were kinda in the middle of an important fight when he started rolling around on the ground screaming.”
For a few moments the two were silent, appraising eachother and considering what next to say. At last the cormyrian spoke.
“I would appreciate it if you would make sure you new master -if Sabatta – takes care of Ront, wherever he might be now. Can you do that?”
“Of course, Dregia Felhoon, he would have it no other way,” the Shard answered nodding her head.
Dregia bowed again and turned as the Shard faded, flashed and disappeared behind him. He took a step forward, but felt a tugging at the back of his mind and looked back to see where the girl had stood. In her place was a black, wide brimmed hat, resting lightly on the dusty ground. Dregia walked over, picked it up, brushing off a bit of sediment that had fallen upon the otherwise well tended brim, and placed it atop his head, adjusting it back and forth until it was snug.
Whistling a tune to himself, Dregia Felhoon strolled from the alley, back into the streets of Suzail. There was much left to do, much left to repair, missions yet to complete, but for now he would purchase a pipe to go with his new fedora, enjoy the victory, and tell those who would listen the tale of the Three from Cormyr.