Fruit of the Fallen

Tower of Fate
Winter's End

Part 36 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Blightspot Spire, One Hour to Midnight
Marwyn throws himself into the tower as the barrier surrounding it fades momentarily. He and the others pass into a large circular room, just as the spell reactivates. Lesani’s insight into the enchantment proved to be correct.
Throck was about to speak, when they saw what was before them. A pile of various debris had been piled in the center of the room, forming a makeshift barricade between them and the stairs upwards. Several humanoids wearing cultist robes were visible taking cover behind the barricade, and one screams as they enter, “They’ve breached the tower!” This was punctuated by the release of several readied attacks, which cut into the eight as they stood out in the open.

The barrage was mostly magical, a mixture of various arcane energies. There were a few arrows scattered among it, though, evidenced by the one that lodges itself in Marwyn’s arm. The bard winces as both magic and arrow assaults him, and he panics slightly when he realizes that he had already used most of his spells for that day. He was also unsure what the druids had left, especially considering they were now at half their original number.
These thoughts were pushed aside as he scrambled for any cover he could find. Said cover turned out to be Vargard, who brought his shield forward to block further attacks. From behind the warrior’s bulky frame, Marwyn sees Throck raise his staff. The ground surrounding the barricade starts to shake, causing some of those behind it to fall prone. More importantly, however, the shoddy construction of the fortifications betrayed its occupants, and some of the sections collapsed. This did little to take care of the dozen or so cultists, but it leveled the playing field somewhat.

The bard finds that his arm is still somewhat usable, and joins the rest of his team in a return volley. One of the opponents goes down to this, though this was mostly due to an unintentional focusing of fire on the most exposed cultist. The first part of the battle was mostly composed of this, both sides trading volleys while Marwyn and group moved closer to the barricade. The attackers took the worst of it, with only one shield between them. All this changed, however, when Vargard, Cletus, and Jorduna finally got within melee range.
The four, as Kansif had also pulled out his longsword, charged the barricade. All four were sporting wounds from the approach, though now they had the advantage. Vargard was the first to vault the barricade, and Marwyn watched as he cut down a cultist with a single stoke from the momentum of the charge. The bard, as well as the other three hanging back, were now unchallenged as they continued their ranged assault. With no one skilled enough to face their melee fighters, or free to engage their ranged fighters, the cultists were soon routed.

As the last one fell, Valdir took the chance to inform everyone of what he had sensed from the moment he’d entered the tower. “I can practically feel reality unravelling,” he reports, holding a hand over his glowing mark, “The seal’s gonna go soon.”
“Now may be a good time to explain our goal,” Throck says, while tending to wounds from the fight, “Our order has sustained more casualties than I anticipated, and there is little reason to hold back this information anymore.”
“Don’t you just have to do druid stuff at the top of the tower?” Jorduna asks, not liking the sound of Valdir’s statement.
“Not exactly,” Throck answers, “The seal was placed around a magical artifact known as the Moonpool. It’s origins aren’t known, but the aberrants once used its power to rend the barriers between planes. The cultists must have discovered how to use it.”
Lesani perks up at this, and says, “I have not heard mention of this. How long have you been aware of such an anomaly?”
“For quite some time,” Throck answers, “The secret of the Moonpool has been passed down through our order, one of the many sites which must not be reclaimed by the aberrants.”
“How’ll you fix the seal?” Vargard asks, having been fully restored by the druid’s ministartions.
“This,” the gatekeeper answers, retrieving a vial from somewhere on his person. It was small, barely containing a few drops of liquid, and glowed faintly in the low light of the tower, “Our lore claims this fluid can destroy the Moonpool. It too has been passed from gatekeeper to gatekeeper, until it was passed into my hands. Such a measure has not been deemed necessary, until now.”

The news was absorbed by Marwyn and his friends as their wounds were finished healing. When Throck grimly informs them that this was the last of his group’s healing magic, Jorduna asks, “Can’t one of you just go invisible and toss it in?”
“There will likely be competent spellcasters guarding the pool,” Throck answers, “And there is the prophecy to consider.”
“Damned prophecy says there should be six of us,” Jorduna contests, “You keep conveniently forgetting that part.”
Vargard sighs, and realizes he’d have to come to the druid’s aid here, “We can’t afford to lose any more of the druids, Jor. If for no other reason than we wouldn’t survive ourselves.”
“But you admit this is crazy? That we’re probably going to die anyways?” Jorduna presses the issue.
“Yes. Let’s keep moving,” Vargard says simply, walking towards the set of stairs.

The large antechamber that the group had entered into appeared once to have been a throne room. Or, at least, that was the consensus among the eight as they picked their way across the room. Some of the rubble definitely looked like it could have come from a large seat, though everything was too aged to tell for sure. What was certain was the location of the stairs up, opposite of the main doors and recessed slightly into the wall. As they began the climb, Marwyn noticed several perches extending back out into the main tower room, and gave silent thanks that none of the cultists had thought to use them. Perhaps they simply hadn’t expected the tower’s defenses to go down.
For what seemed the hundredth time that day, Marwyn called on Winter for aid, but his prayers went unanswered. Either things had to grow impossibly more desperate to merit his aid, or the spirit had deceived him. The bard struggled to tell which eventuality would be worse. His right hand instinctively reached for his ring, but he pulls it back after a moment of thought. He couldn’t trouble Mevalyn with this, not while there was still hope of survival. But if there wasn’t…

Marwyn shakes himself, driving the thoughts away. Creeping up the tower, the group had just passed above the initial chamber. From the occasional external archer’s slit Marwyn could see they had also climbed above most of the collapsed buildings of the castle. Seeing one of the moons in the distance, the bard reflexively tries Winter again. To no avail.

The group stops once they reach the top of the stairs. Ahead of them lie the ruins of an ancient aviary. Stalls were built into most of the outer ring of the tower, with three exceptions. Two were openings to flights of stairs, one occupied by Marwyn and allies, the other leading farther up. To their right, they also saw a large opening. The floor extended outwards, forming a landing pad. At first Marwyn wondered what kind of aberrant would have been kept here. Then he fervently rescinded his curiosity as the thought struck him that he may find out.
“Anyone see anything?” Vargard whispers, glancing out into the room ahead. The center was fairly clear and didn’t provide any cover to anyone trying to conceal themselves. The stalls, however, were still mostly standing, and were large enough to hide something really nasty.
Valdir points to the center of the room, and reports, “There. Dimensional boundaries are weak, something was summoned less than a day ago. Not an aberrant though.”
“How can you tell?” Lesani asks, curiosity getting the better of her regardless of the present circumstances.
“They don’t usually come from Khyber,” Valdir reasons, “If I had to guess Master Throck, this is where that flying demon came from. By the looks of it, the madmen were only able to summon one before…” the initiate stops, face growing pale. Gazing upwards in horror, the half-orc’s eyes continue rolling back as the druid faints.

Throck was able to catch his unconscious subordinate before they hit the ground, but he was unable to prevent the tip of Valdir’s scabbard from scraping against the stone floor. There was a breathless moment as everyone waited to see if anything had heard it. Then the screeching started.

Something big flew in through the landing pad, settling in the center of the room and roaring defiantly at the invaders. Marwyn recoiled from the sight, the beast before him was horrendous. It appeared a terrible combination of man and boar, held impossibly aloft by two small wings. That in and of itself was enough to force the bard to fight against retching, but the demon’s body was also covered in several writhing symbiotes as well. The black appendages reminded Marwyn of the trials he had faced previously that day, only deepening his fear.

Almost absentmindedly, the demon tore off one of the symbiotes, then roars again as it bares its claws. “Nalfeshnee!” Lesani yells, rapidly attempting to relay combat advice, “Deadly melee, with a fear aura close range!”
“Our goal is too close!” Throck cries over her, and casts a spell on his staff, “Adept, we shall draw its ire. The chosen ones must survive!”
The other druid nods grimly, drawing his longsword. He shouts, “I’m with you, Master!” The two charge forwards, intercepting the Nalfeshnee’s charge before any of The Split Falchion had time to react. The gap was small, however, as Vargard and Jorduna both follow into melee. The druids occupied the demon’s front, allowing the latter to strike at the exposed creature’s back.
The hastily formed formation would have been effective, if the foe had merely accepted the punishment. However, the nalfeshnee would not be taken down so easily. It snarls in anger as Jorduna’s daggers bury themselves into its back. With a brief buildup of arcane power, the demon’s flesh glows brightly with a horrid light. All save Throck are turned back by a sudden, intense fear, fleeing from the beast.

Or, at least, the try to. As he turns, Kansif’s foot gets snagged by one of the flailing symbiotes, exposing him to the full wrath of the nalfeshnee. With a cruel snap of its neck, it tears a good chunk of the druid’s neck out. Throck screams in anger as he sees his ally fall, and redoubles his efforts to slay the demon.
All this had taken place before Marwyn had even withdrawn his bow. Shocked as he was by the swift execution of Kansif, he had been far enough away to avoid the demon’s fear affect. Cletus and Lesani were likewise able to continue the fight, though Valdir remained motionless on the ground next to them. The initiate’s health was the least of their concerns, however, as the nalfeshnee turns its claws to Throck.
The three opened fire with their arsenal, which was literal fire in the case of Lesani. All three attacks land, the demon was definitely not concerned with avoiding them at the moment. The warlock curses to herself when she sees the effect of the volley, however. Only Marwyn’s arrows had fully penetrated the nalfeshnee’s hide. Cletus’ stopped halfway through, and part of Lesani’s spell was diverted before taking full effect. “It is resistant to our attacks!” Lesani cries, “You must use magical weaponry!”
Vargard rallies himself, barely catching the end of the warlock’s statement as he turns around. He pauses briefly to observe Kansif’s corpse, then charges back to the nalfeshnee. Jorduna wasn’t able to muster as much mental strength, though fortunately her flight ended in one of the stalls, rather than either set of stairs.

Without the rogue, however, the team only had few weapons able to properly damage the nalfeshnee. Throck and Vargard, who had switched to his shield, were both doing their part, as was Marwyn from afar. Unfortunately, neither Cletus nor Lesani were able to breach the magical protection which guarded the demon. Grunting in incomprehensible fury, at least to those who did not understand dwarvish, Cletus withdraws his two shorts swords and closes to melee range.
Another burst of light from the nalfeshnee sends him running back, gripped by its fear effect, though it was at this point Jorduna rejoined the melee. The demon was dealing terrible damage all this time, however, using both sets of claws and fangs to lash out at anyone too close. The symbiotes played a lesser roll, but Kansif stood testament to their full potential, making each attempt to strike the beast a potentially lethal mistake.
Most of the demon’s punishment was focused on Throck, who had the gall to first challenge it. As Marwyn reached for one of his last few arrows, he sees the gatekeeper finally fold under the oppressive strikes of the nalfeshnee.
Vargard moves quickly to stand over the gatekeeper, denying a finishing blow, though he too was hurting. “Les!” he cries, as he, Jorduna, and Cletus bombard it with blades, “Now would be a good time for a banish spell!”
“I can not!” Lesani protests, tossing another low powered spell in an attempt to do some damage, “I tried to warn you, but I am at present limited to one attempt each day.”
“How the hell do we kill this thing?” Vargard shouts back, noticing that the demon, while it had acquired several good wounds of its own, acted as if it did not feel anything.

Marwyn, now fully out of arrows, wonders the same thing. As he ponders whether he should join the melee with his rapier, he notices Lesani had refrained from casting another spell. Looking to her, Marwyn notices that the elf had instead spent the last few seconds studying the nalfeshnee intently. Coming to a conclusion, she shouts back, “Rip out the symbiotes!”
“What?!” Vargard asks, confused.
“Just do it!” Lesani shouts, and turns to Marwyn, “Can you muster an Arrow of Ill Omen?”

Reaching within himself to judge the remaining arcane power, Marwyn slowly nods. “But I don’t have an arrow.”
“Yes you do!” Lesani cries, and hastily withdraws one from the quiver Valdir was carrying. Marwyn had forgotten that, in their flight from the armory, Eivald had granted his bow to the initiate. The projectile was of slightly different make than he was used to, but it would do.
The three in melee, meanwhile, had shifted their focus to taking out the nalfeshnee’s symbiotes. Granted, the dwindling number of grabbing tentacles had made the melee slightly easier, and the removal of each seemed to cause the demon great pain. However, each attacker was now one or two strikes away from falling.
“It’s gotta be now Les!” Vargard shouts desperately, feeling the weight of his armor start forcing him down.
Lesani, realizing that she could wait no longer, whispers to Marwyn, “Now,” and then more loudly shouts, “Var, aim for the neck!”

Marwyn looses his arrow, charging it with the last of his arcane talent. Striking the demon, the enchantment on the projectile worked its magic. Reality warped ever so slightly to the spell’s whim, subtly manipulating Vargard’s desperate two-handed strike. The blade was guided from its previous path, ending in a glancing blow off the demon’s back, and to the nape of the nalfeshnee’s neck. The demon’s eyes go wide in surprise, and these same eyes stare back at Vargard when the head lands on the floor.

“Kansif! Master Throck!” a shout breaks through the silence that followed the nalfeshnee’s death. Valdir has risen, and was greeted with the sight of both druids lying in pools of blood. The half-orc barrels past the weakened mercenaries. Seeing that Kansif was beyond help, the druid instead turns to Throck. “Help me!” he cries to the rest, as the druid frantically pours what little power he had left into stabilizing the gatekeeper.
As Marwyn helps the druid rouse Throck, the others bandage their wounds. Spell reserves were at a minimum, forcing those who had fought in melee to carry on without curative spells.

Regaining consciousness, Throck weakly asks, “Is it finished?”
“That thing is dead,” Marwyn says.
“No, the seal. Is it restored?” Throck clarifies, trying to stand and opening one of his wounds in the process.
“We couldn’t leave you behind Master,” Valdir protests, “You have to seal the rift.”
“I cannot go on,” Throck says grimly, “You must finish our task initiate. Take this.” The gatekeeper holds out the small vial of fluid he had shown the party earlier.
“They can’t finish this without you, now go! Go!” he shouts to the rest.
“This is bullshit,” Jorduna complains, “There’s no way we can fight like this. What if there’s another one up there?”
“We’re finishing this Jor. That’s an order,” Vargard says gruffly, fighting through the pain from his wounds as he stands. The hobgoblin comes as close as she ever had to countermanding Vargard, but she sees little point in protesting. It wasn’t as if she could do much else, after all.
With their stealth likely ruined by the melee, the six instead take off at a sprint up the far stairs.

Top Floor, Minutes to Midnight
Several other doorways entice the group as they ascend, but Valdir waves them away each time. They were heading for the top floor, and couldn’t spare any delay. When they finally make it to the last doorway, they are greeted by a room strewn with bodies.
Cultists lay across the room, some slain by what look like sword cuts, others by magic. More importantly, in the center of the domed room was a small, silver pool. It practically radiated arcane magic, and Marwyn noticed that Valdir’s mark was glowing so brightly as to be incandescent. Seeing their goal in sight, with little visible resistance, the druid hastily withdraws the vial Throck had given him. Before anyone else can stop him, he winds up, and tosses it in the pool.

Everyone stares at the druid in disbelief, before waiting for the potion to take effect. The silence is broken by twisted laughter, and weapons are drawn as one of the black robes rises. The figure wasn’t a normal cultist, however. It was as if someone had replaced a man’s head with a squid, and what skin showed was a deep blue. “Oh please, come in. I was just finished a small… snack,” it says in common, and Marwyn notices a strange fluid dripping from the creature’s mouth, “Though I caution against coming too close. Some of you look rather spent from fighting my pet, I imagine I could kill you with one stroke.” Lightning crackles from the aberrant’s hands, to emphasize this point.
“Did it work?” Vargard asks Valdir quietly, during the monologue.
“No…” Valdir says, staring in horror at the pool, “It didn’t…”
“I hope that you have more in reserve than whatever that was,” the aberrant continues, “Otherwise I’d be a little disappointed. After all, you’ve torn through this castle just to get here. Surely you weren’t betting it all on that.”
“Valdir, what’s going on?” Vargard shouts.
“It’s… a mind flayer,” the druid responds weakly, “And it’s opening a hole to… Xoriat.”
“Indeed,” the aberrant nods, “I believe you caught sight of it earlier, or else your kind find me more repulsive than I thought. They certainly didn’t,” it says, kicking one of the cultists, “Though that was probably due to the fact that I was offering them unlimited power and all that. Fools that they were, they even started the ritual for me. Now all I have to do is finish what they started.”

The situation was precarious. The druid’s solution had failed miserably, and there was no possible way they could take down the mind flayer without losing a few people at least. Seeing what it had did to the room full of competent summoners, it was doubtful any would survive. The only hope, their last hope, was the prophecy.
“Prophecy?” the mind flayer asks aloud. It had been watching the group’s internal dilemma with interest, and far more closely than any had imagined. Seizing on another errant thought through its eldritch powers, it laughs. “That boy is going to stop me? How can he do that, when he obeys me?”
“I don’t,” Marwyn starts, but then is suddenly overwhelmed by an indomitable mental assault. The bard loses all control of his body, and finds himself moving towards the mind flayer against his will. Vargard tries to stop the bard, but a crack of lighting forces him to shy away out of self-preservation.
Eyeing Lesani, the mind flayer threatens, “The next one won’t miss. No tricks, warlock. And try to keep an open mind, you may find serving the daelkyr to be a rewarding experience.”
“Never,” Lesani cries, but is unable to act. She was more knowledgeable of mind flayers than the others, and understood that the one before her really could end her weakened friends with but a thought. To say nothing of the control it currently extended over Marwyn.
Speaking of which, it was surreal how calm the bard looked as he walked further and further away from his friends. Jorduna’s cries of, “Dammit Kid wake up, you’re going to get us all killed,” were completely ignored. As far as anyone could tell, the mind flayer’s control over the bard was total.

This wasn’t entirely true, as Marwyn’s mind remained free to lament over the situation. The bard railed against the control, but every attempt to throw off the mind flayer resulted in a mental backlash that sent him reeling. With every failed attempt to free himself Marwyn grew less and less able to resist the spell, and he lost control entirely as he feet started dragging through the moon pool. Amidst the drama of the situation, none noticed when the dragonshard on Marwyn’s bow started glowing faintly.
“I can still sense the Gatekeeper below,” the mind flayer continues, “That is good. You bring me a child of Tharashk AND a full-fledged guardian of this plane to corrupt? Very thoughtful of you. I might even suggest to my masters that you retain some semblance of your original selves. Or, perhaps, I will grant you death. You are welcome to choose for yourselves if you wish,” it finishes, taunting the five still arrayed against him.
“Valdir, how much more time?” Vargard asks, watching helplessly as Marwyn takes position beside the mind flayer.
“The seal’s all but gone,” Valdir reports hopelessly.
“Yes, and soon the others will follow,” the aberrant continues its monologue, “The Daelkyr will reclaim what was once theirs, and all who serve them will reap the rewards.”

From beside the aberrant, mind dulled from the magical control over him, Marwyn hears a voice say, “Not if we act now.”
Winter?! Marwyn thinks, and then curses himself as he remembers the aberrant’s ability to read minds.
“Fear not, Marwyn. My presence, as well as your thoughts, are now shielded, as they were from the deva in Irian.”
“Then help me kill this bastard,” Marwyn pleads, still unable to control his own body.
“Unfortunately I am unable to overcome the spell currently gripping you, not in the time we have.”
“Then what’s the point? My friends do anything and they die, but at least they can act!” Marwyn screams internally, “And what the hell am I supposed to do? Even if I’m free, I can’t even cast anything. I’m spent!”
“Not totally,” Winter replies calmly, “You were chosen for several reasons, the most important being the mark you still bear. Bring to the front of your mind the impossible spell you cast once before.”
Marwyn was baffled by Winter’s words, until he thinks of the only thing Winter could mean. “Les said I shouldn’t cast that again,” he protests.
“Your spell is crude, hastily-fashioned,” Winter explains, “I will improve it, and through your mark possess that which you create. Follow my instructions, and we will win this day.”

Those outside of the mental conversation were completely unaware of its existence. To the mind flayer, and the five across from him, Marwyn was still standing there blankly. The aberrant was making another spirited pitch of the advantages of living in a daelkyr world, none of which enticed those assembled, when it stops suddenly.
“I warned you, Warlock,” the aberrant cries venomously, “Did you think I would not notice your servant? Death it is.” The mind flayer sends out a bolt of lightning aimed straight for Jorduna, whose unnatural ability to dodge such spells momentarily failed her. Death would have been certain, if not for Valdir, who threw himself in front of the bolt.
The druid’s lack of injuries allowed him to survive the spell, but it still knocked him unconscious. Nonplussed, the aberrant readies another one, and then looks on in shock as it stops midway between him and the mercenaries.

A pale blue figure was slowly fading into vision, with one of its hands outstretched to block the third lightning bolt. “What magic is this?” the mind flayer cries, loosing a variety of spells at the figure. Thinking quickly, Vargard and the others start to move forward, until an ethereal voice speaks to them.
“No! Stay back, you will only endanger yourselves,” it warns them.
After assurances from Lesani that the voice wasn’t conjured by the mind flayer, Vargard asks, “Then what the hell should we do?”
“Put your faith in the prophecy!” the voice responds.

Marwyn, meanwhile, was watching with amazement from the perspective of the ghostly figure. “How is this possible?” he thinks.
“Your mark is essentially a channel for the power of souls,” Winter replies, though now that he was absorbing the mind flayer’s spells, the explanation was distracted and rather hurried, “The intricacies of which are more complex than we have time to discuss. You must know only one thing, that when this foe is defeated, I will close the rift between planes.”
“How?” Marwyn asks, watching as the mind flayer tried and failed to make itself invisible.
“The rent that was torn into Siberys must be restored with the Great Dragon’s primal essence,” Winter explains, now directing the ghostly figure inexorably towards the mind flayer.
“The vial of liquid that Valdir tossed in!” Marwyn exclaims.
“No,” Winter says sadly, “That was but the failed attempts of the Gatekeepers to destroy the tear. If they had truly succeeded, then there would be no need for a seal. I am primal essence of the Great Dragon, and through me this plane will be safeguarded.”
The figure, which now had a hand around the throat of the mind flayer, paused for a moment as Marwyn objects, “You’re going to kill yourself?”
“That which is not truly alive, cannot truly die,” Winter says, closing the fist and breaking the mind flayer’s neck. With the death of the mind flayer, Marwyn’s control of his own body was restored. Unable to split his mind between the being Winter possessed, and his own body, Marwyn’s vision shifts to that of his own eyes.

He, along with everyone else, turns away as the figure emits a blinding light and heads back towards the pool in the center of the room. The light continues for what seems to be an eternity, and then finally fades. Where the pool had once been was now just a shallow depression in the stonework, and Valdir’s dragonmark had faded to the point where it appeared just to be a tattoo.
“What the hell was that?” Jorduna was the first to break the silence, walking over where the moon pool once was and waving a hand through the space, “Did we win?”
Everyone looks expectantly to Marwyn, who was too stunned to answer. Eventually, Vargard thinks to rouse the druid. The initiates breathing was somewhat shallow, and there were nasty burns where the bolt had hit him, but the half-orc was alive. When he first awakes it is with a terror, screaming, “My sight, it is…” but then takes full stock of the situation. Breathlessly, he exclaims, “The seal is gone!”
“What!?” Jorduna cries, grabbing her daggers back out of their scabbards.
“No, the seal is gone!” Valdir repeats unhelpfully, in an odd mirthful tone. Seeing his companions confusion, he explains, “The seal is gone for there is nothing for it to seal! The planar weakening… it’s been reversed! The daelkyr can never return!”
“At least through this location,” Lesani grimly reminds, though her remark was ignored as Jorduna decked Valdir.

The rogue laughed even as Vargard restrained her, and the warrior asked, “Why the hell’d you do that Jor?!”
“We’re free!” Jorduna exclaims, “That damned geas thing is gone!” Realizing this, and that Jorduna probably wouldn’t assault the druid again, he releases the hobgoblin. Indeed, the rogue helps the druid back onto his feet.
“Sorry, had to know,” Jorduna apologizes, and pokes one of the druid’s burns, “And hey, looks like I owe you one.”
“I’d settle for no one punching me again,” Valdir says weakly, “And as much as I enjoy our newfound friendship, I do suggest we return quickly to Master Throck.”
“Friend…” Jorduna says blankly, suddenly stuck between rage, and incredulous mirth. She decides on the latter, and her laughter at a joke no one else quite understood put everyone slightly on edge as they descended.

Throck sighs with relief when he sees all six return to where he lay. While he was still injured, he had recovered enough to stand. “It is done,” he says, “I felt the land rejoice as it was made whole once more. Was the potion effective?”
“No,” Lesani answers first, “The rift was sealed by the entity named ‘Winter’ in the prophecy. It appeared to possess an unseen servant generated by Marwyn, and used that form to act. How this was accomplished is beyond me, however.”
Throck shakes his head and says, “That matters not. Will one of you try Talia, I have hopes that she made it out of this damned place.”
Vargard connects to Lesani’s sending stone, and the voice of the adept comes through. “Master Throck?”
“I’m here, Adept,” the gatekeeper answers, “I must inform you of the loss of Eivald and Kansif. Our goal, however, was accomplished through their sacrifices.”
“This is bittersweet news Master,” Talia responds, “I am concealed some ways away from Blightspot. Will you be departing soon?”
“Yes. I believe we will be joining our friends on their way to Greenheart. This news necessitates a personal report.”
“Understood Master,” Talia responds.

“Exactly how are we getting down?” Vargard asks, taking the stone back, “Or did that barrier go down with the moonpool?”
“I imagine it hasn’t,” Throck denies, “Though transportation out of this place will prove easier than our arrival. The skies are clear,” the druid points out, indicating the night sky through the landing pad, “I have enough strength to carry us down.”
“What’d mean when you said you were coming with us to Greenheart?” Jorduna asks, “Why the hell are we going there?”
“You are free to go where you please, of course,” Throck reassures, “Though I recommend staying with us as far as Greenheart. Unless you want to walk across the entirety of the Shadow Marches.”
“We’ll keep with you for now,” Vargard confirms, “Just focus on the bright side Jor.”
“What, trudging through the swamp, or going back to the place where we were cursed for the second time?” the hobgoblin asks rhetorically.
“Neither,” Vargard answers, “I’m talking about us getting paid.”

Two Weeks Later, Fairhaven
There wasn’t much of note in The Split Falchion’s second journey through the Shadow Marches. Some aberrants did assault them, but after the first night’s rest, the group was able to return to full strength. Throck had mournfully noted that, while the rift had been completely fixed, there would inevitably be some of the foul kind that would escape attempts to purge them.
Upon returning to the sunken keep, the group was met by a mage who had teleported in the day before. From there, they returned to Greenheart, and were immediately taken into the protection of House Windhailer. The surviving gatekeeper druids bid them goodbye then, as it was unlikely they would meet again. A report had to be made to ‘Grandmaster Oalian’, and their time would then likely be taken up with hunting those remaining aberrants that had broken through. As for the mercenaries, the words of Jorduna perfectly summarized the group’s general opinion of the Eldeen Reaches’ capital. They wanted to ‘get paid and get the hell out before they were dragged into any more doomsday plots.’
Unfortunately, this would not be as easy as anticipated. It wasn’t that the druids were trying to back out of their end of the deal, it was that they were unable to secure their payment. The group would need to visit a moderately-sized lending house, and the trade-averse Greenheart was lacking one. This sort of issue piqued the mercenaries interests, as ‘not having enough money to pay you right now’ is somewhat a good sign. The druids were reserved on the exact amount they would be paid, but assured them it would be more than enough. In deference to Marwyn’s wish to see Mevalyn as soon as possible, Vargard had chosen for their marker to be fulfilled in Fairhaven.

So, two weeks after the Spring Solstice, The Split Falchion finds themselves in Bixby’s Monetary Exchange. The desk clerk straightened right up after being told what their business was, and directed them to a private room. There, another of the exchanges officials, and two very large bodyguards, waited for them. A small pouch lay on the table in front of them, too small in the mercenaries’ opinions.
“Ah yes, The Split Falchion, was it?” the official asks.
“Yes,” Vargard confirms, taking the seat opposite the official, “We’re here to get paid.”
“Of course. Do you have the ruby?” the official questions expectantly. Vargard glances at Jorduna, who hesitantly withdraws the astral ruby. It’d been with her for the best part of a month, and even for a fair exchange, she was loathe to lose it.

The official does a number of examinations on the ruby, some mundane, and some magical. Eventually he comes to a decision, and nods graciously. “All is in order. Our establishment has taken its 5% transaction fee, fulfilled by the buyer,” he adds hastily, when Vargard shoots him a glare, “And the rest shall be remitted to you. You may inspect the payment, and then depart at your leisure.” The official stands, and, flanked by his bodyguards, leaves the room. All that was left was the small pouch, the only reward the five would get for saving the world.

Vargard gently picks up the pouch, and loosens the drawstring. Upon seeing the contents, he cries, “By the Sovereigns,” and carefully upends the bag. Exactly 100 coins tumble out of the leather, though it was not their number which impressed the warrior. Every single one was made from platinum.
“We’re rich,” Jorduna says softly, “We’re rich!”
“I had no idea astral rubies were this valuable,” Lesani says in a shocked tone, arcanically scanning the coins for any sign of forgery. They were genuine.

Marwyn was handed twenty of the coins by a bemused Vargard, and the bard stared at them in wonder. The coinage dwarfed what he had earned from his entire time with the mercenaries. Indeed, they probably dwarfed what a common citizen of Aundair would earn in his lifetime. Perhaps not enough to set him up for life, especially considering his wife, but enough so that he wouldn’t have to put his life on the line for years at least.
At that, Marwyn comes to a realization. He’d nearly died several times, and had died on one occasion, in the procurement of this fortune. Now, presented with the opportunity to abandon the mercenary’s lifestyle, the bard found himself questioning if he had only ever been in it for the money. This questions were pushed aside as Cletus says, “’ow ‘bout we all put in onna these for a night o’ drinkin’?”
“I don’t know, we probably shouldn’t repeat First Tower,” Vargard says. An idea strikes him, and he then says, “I have a better idea.”

The Crowned Leper
The bartender and owner of The Crowned Leper had owned the establishment for a fair few decades. He’d known the members of The Split Falchion for as long as they’d been a part of the group. Hell, it all started in his tavern. That dwarf and Vargard, trading war stories and finding out they were both competent enough for someone to pay for their skills. There wasn’t much they could do that would surprise him anymore, but the offer to buy his establishment was definitely something.
The bartender raised an incredulous eye at the few platinum coins held out to him, mumbled something about the divines, and went to ‘fetch some paperwork’. An hour later, all five members of The Split Falchion were equal owners of The Crowned Leper. They would of course retain the staff, but Vargard mentioned that they would need someone to manage the day-to-day business. This was said while the warrior stared directly at the now former owner of The Crowned Leper, and the man was handed another coin as first year’s salary.
The man’s upcoming question as to what the hell this was accomplishing was answered when Cletus asked for the key to the liquor storeroom.

The Next Day
Everyone woke up the next morning with a raging headache. While last night’s partying hadn’t been quite the one First Tower had been, the celebration was certainly noteworthy enough to be recorded in the city’s histories. Even Cletus was hungover, though this was because he had put a considerable dent in the tavern’s hard stock.
The event was doubly joyous for Marwyn, as Mevalyn had made it to Fairhaven sometime during the afternoon. The bard could still smell the saltwater off her clothes, but she deflected any questions by pulling out the ‘loot’ she had gained from her trip. She was only slightly disappointed when Marwyn showed her his coin purse.
He was now gathered around one of the surviving tables in the barroom, along with the other members of The Split Falchion. The rest of the bar was empty, as last night’s cavorting had required the tavern’s manager to close temporarily for repairs. Mevalyn was making arrangements to move what she had stored with The Mired Harper down to The Crowned Leper, as well as tracking down those few items that the bartender had already pawned when she had disappeared unexpectedly.

Something was off, though. Jorduna was sitting back from the table, radiating nervousness. No one else seemed to know what was going on, so eventually Vargard was forced to ask, “Jor, what is it?”
“Var…” she starts hesitantly, “I’ve got something to get off my chest.”
Vargard takes a moment to take an obvious look around the empty room, before say, “Looks like it’s just us. What’s up?”
“I’m leaving the Falchion,” Jorduna says quickly, “I’m not taking a break, I don’t need some time, I’m leaving.”
With surprise all around, Cletus is the first to react. “’m too,” he says, face downward. “Thought ‘bout it. Not a cow’rd, but dyin’ once is enough. Got ‘nough ta satisfy me.”
As Marwyn looks on in horror, Vargard thinks for a moment, and nods. “We have come too close to the edge on too many occasions,” the warrior says, “It might just be time for a career change.”
“But,” Marwyn sputters, “What if there are more jobs?”
“Someone else’ll do ‘em,” Vargard shrugs, “Most of the ones we did were coming from the Royal Eyes anyways, and that door’s firmly closed. Les, what do you think?”
“I would enjoy a more permanent vacation, certainly,” Lesani says, after some moments thought, “I would not be opposed to remaining in town, though suspending our mercenary unit does seem the practical solution.”

“So… what do I do?” Marwyn asks, looking between his four friends.
“It may be worthwhile to visit the university, Marwyn,” Lesani says, “Increase your magical aptitude. I imagine you will find life without constant threat to be an improvement. It is not as if we will disappear from your lives.”
“Uh, about that,” Jorduna speaks up, “Cletus and I are leaving the city altogether.”
“Together?” Vargard asks, eyebrow raised.
“Yeah,” Jorduna nods, “At least at first. Might try for Darguun, see if any fences can be mended. A gatekeeper vouching for me could make the difference.”
“When did you set that up?” Vargard wonders.
Jorduna shrugs and answers, “You weren’t with me the entire time through those swamps.”
“There’s good ‘untin’ down there,” Cletus adds to the conversation, “Nice change o’ pace. Got tha’ stones, at least.”
“What about you, Var? What will you do?” Lesani asks.
“I might take a leave of absence from Fairhaven as well,” Vargard says, thinking deeply. He was secretly glad that Jorduna had brought up breaking up their group, as he would’ve suggested it eventually. Hidden away in his chest pocket was a small letter that had been lying next to him this morning. It contained only five words: ‘We need to meet, Son,’ along with a signature. A signature Vargard recognized, and believed impossible to forge. “Family business,” he simply says to his friends.
“Are we in agreement?” Lesani asks the group in general, “We all sever from The Split Falchion?”
“Yes,” Vargard says.
“Yeah,” Jorduna replies.
Cletus merely nods, bringing the initiative to Marwyn. What he said wouldn’t matter, the majority had decided. All that was left was to see if he would accept it.

Coming to a decision, Marwyn smiles wistfully. “Sure. It’s been an adventure though.”
“Indeed,” Vargard says warmly, “One I doubt I’ll ever forget.” The warrior then looks to the five’s empty glasses, and banters, “Guh, the service here is terrible. I’ve half a mind to speak with the owner. I think they’re in the storeroom, anyone else want to check?” There was general agreement, and the five went on the last adventure they’d ever have together.
Sage, as she was known to those rare few to encounter her, looks up from a book in surprise as a dragonshard glows faintly on her table. “Winter? No… it can’t be.”
“Indeed,” a voice issues forth from the shard weakly, “For I am not named Winter.”
“You cold bastard, how’d you do it?” Sage cries good-naturedly, “I thought you gave yourself up to seal the rift.”
“As is the case with discussing matters of the planes in this tongue, the matter is complicated,” Winter replies, “My power is certainly gone. Yet, it appears part of me still persists.”
“Well, you’re just in time for some fresh insight into the prophecy,” Sage answers, turning back to her book, “If you’re still interested after your near death experience.”
“My ceasing to exist could not properly be called death, for I am more akin to a specter than one who is alive already,” Winter pedantically corrects her.
“Always focused on the little trifles, Winter. Sometimes you just have to let it go,” Sage chides the dragonshard.
“Were it not for your incessant need for the prophecy to rhyme, Sage, they could have been saved some amount of trouble,” Winter contests, “’Friends to the last’?”
Sage sighs, and admits “’Friends in the end’, it just didn’t sound right. But that’s the problem with you people, always picking at the little things. If I’d changed that, they would’ve just fought over some other little quibbling matter. Why the fuss, it all worked out in the end?”
“Some of them did perish,” Winter reminds her.
“Many more will in the time to come,” Sage says, suddenly casting a dark tone over the conversation, “And many have already.”

The dragonshard is silent at this, finally unable to find fault in Sage’s words. Shifting topics, it asks, “Your new prophecy, does it have anything to do with the Son?”
“Partially,” Sage says, unsure of herself, “Though it appears he will be granted only a limited role. To be honest, I’m not sure that young lad would enjoy taking part in what’s to come. This is a dark prophecy.”
“Many are,” Winter says, “Though there always seems to be light in every darkness.”
Sage perks up at this, and reaches for a quill, “Light in the darkness,” she muses, “Thank you, Winter. I was trying to think of how to say that.”
“Something I should know?” Winter asks, when Sage becomes lost in her writing.
“Oh, you’ll just have to see it play out for now Winter,” Sage says, taking care to conceal the writing from the dragonshard, “I often wonder if I am a seer or a storyteller. I guess it just depends on how you look at it.”
“Is there a point to this Sage? Speaking with you is rather taxing now, given my recent activities.”
“What kind of storyteller gives away the ending before the story’s even begun?” Sage asks rhetorically, and says, “You should focus on getting back to… whatever passes for a state of health for you. Come back when darkness and madness align, that’s when the show’ll really start.”
“Sage, you are being intentionally obtuse,” Winter protests, but senses he will get little else from the witch, “Though I will attempt to solve your riddle.”
“You better Winter,” Sage says in parting, “This is shaping up to be a story for the ages.”

The End

Assault on Blightspot
Storm of the Century

Part 35 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Shadow Marches
While Jorduna angrily sharpened her knives away from the rest of the group, Throck led the rest through records of the first siege of Blightspot. This attack was of course much greater in scale, occurring during the Daelkyr War. Siege engines would hardly play into this attack.
Unfortunately, said records had been passed down through both generations and language barriers. The full schematics of the castle, referenced many times throughout the text, had been lost. The map of the outer wall, however, was included, and served as the initial topic of the discussion.

“Time will have certainly degraded the stonework,” Throck explains, pulling out the map, “Though our other option is attempting to scout for a new location.”
“I’m not in favor of splitting our group again,” Vargard argues, to which Throck agrees.
“We’ll be avoiding large bodies of water from now on,” Throck continues, “Though once this is over we will still need to cleanse the surrounding lands of any remaining greater aberrants. We will handle that end, of course,” Throck adds, after all in The Split Falchion give him an incredulous look. “Now, we have two options as to how we are entering Blightspot,” the druid says, referencing two points on the map. “The closest one is a postern gate that should lead to a hidden part of the castle. Aberrants may appear anywhere, but it is my opinion that those hallways will be a safer route. The second is a main gate which was destroyed during the initial siege, which leads into the courtyard.”
“What’s the problem with the postern?” Vargard asks, not seeing the downside.
Throck sighs, and answers, “It’s closed. Only opens from the inside too. I am able to fly two people into the castle. With your bard’s invisibility spell, infiltration could be possible. We three would then open the gate, scouting our path through as we make our way to it.”

“Didn’t we just agree that we weren’t splitting the party?” Vargard asks.
“Thus the main gate,” Throck replies inexorably. “The courtyard will no doubt have a greater number of aberrations. It will be a tough fight, though our enemy would also be more exposed. Further, it is a shorter route to the central keep.”
“Can’t you all just fly us to the central tower?” Marwyn asks, thinking he had seized upon the easy solution.
Eivald was the one to answer, his voice still somewhat shaky from the trauma he had endured, “Druidic shifting is n…not as potent as arcane shifting. At l…least not until you are as powerful as G…gatekeeper Throck. Not even I can fly yet.”
“And even invisible, there is always a chance for detection,” Throck takes over, “We have no idea what we could face in Blightspot, and there are ways to disenchant invisibility. Another reason to stray from the postern gate,” Throck says aside, “I could manage to take everyone, but it would require multiple trips.”
“So, the main gate,” Vargard says conversationally, “If I judge that map correctly, we will have to circle the castle before reaching it.”
“Indeed,” Throck nods, “Though from the looks of your cloaks, I would say you aren’t entirely unaccustomed to stealth. My people have slightly alternative means, but the trip should be less dangerous than flying over the parapets.”

“So what do we do once we get there?” Jorduna asks, entering the conversation aggressively. “Just charge in? Or do we send in scouts first so they can get mind controlled again? How the hell are we supposed to assault a damned castle with just the ten of us?”
“Combat in the courtyard is not inevitable,” Throck answers calmly, “We are not entirely certain of the layout. Means of slipping past undetected may avail themselves.”
“Aboleths will not be present in Blightspot, Jor,” Lesani adds confidently, “Their physical forms require constant immersion in water. Based on elevation, there will be little standing water. That does not preclude any other aberrants capable of spellcraft, though none we should face should have the power to puppeteer minds.”

Unable to face the dual assault with any coherent counterargument, Jorduna returns with a huff to the spot where she had been sharpening her knives. Muttered curses were barely audible, and most were directed at the druids.
After everyone had turned away from the rogue, conversation resumed. “It goes without saying that conversation will be… difficult while we approach the main gate.”
“I can imagine why,” Vargard says, “Doubt I’ll be able to keep track of you, though I imagine Les will have that covered.”
“Correct,” Lesani offers.
“Then it is settled,” Throck says, “We will approach the castle today, and evaluate our options one we make it to the main gate. The possibility that there are better entrances does exist, and we would do well to be wary of them.”
“Are your druids ready to leave?” Vargard asks.
“About as ready as yours, I imagine.”

Several Hours Later
The approach to the main gate was about the easiest task accomplished by the group since the first few hours of travelling through the swamp. The druids all adopted various natural forms to evade suspicion, and the mercenaries were skilled enough to move without being detected. After a certain point the amount of vegetation dropped off, to the point where the land was void of vegetation a few hundred feet from the castle walls. The fact that they kept a healthy distance from the castle walls largely negated this lack of cover.
The group did not, however, spot any opening into the castle on the way in. The first disappointment came when Throck spotted the postern gate. After briefly shifting back into orc form, he confirmed that it was still secured. From there, it was just stretches of obsidian black wall, practically unbroken as it rose from the swamp.
There were some evidence of ancient damage, likely caused by the siege which took the castle. Marwyn noticed that the increased proximity to the walls likewise affected the latent sensation of fear. These weren’t walls that had been constructed, rather they appeared to have been dragged up from the earth in one solid mass. Sharp protrusions dotted the surface at random intervals, for no other purpose than to harass any would-be climbers. Distant crenellations lined the top of the walls, and the bard could barely make out the remains of an ancient iron pot that filled one such battlement. He tried not to think about what had filled the vessel when there were still those defending the castle.

The main gate itself was massive, at least 50 feet wide and doubly as tall. The old rusted gate was still down, though a large breach in the center ruined any defensive value it once gave. The edges of the rent still glowed faintly with traces of arcane magic.
Beyond the gate was a wide road, the buildings pressed back to make the other side of the gate very exposed. In the distance it appeared to narrow as it led to keep. Random debris lined the street, and those buildings that were visible exhibited the same ancient wounds that the castle walls had. Most buildings appeared to have collapsed, though further decay was limited by the absence of any invasive vegetation. Whatever was keeping the land from reclaiming this place was assuring it would stand for centuries to come.
Most interesting of the immediate area, however, were cart tracks pressed into the earth leading through the gate.

“Fresh”, Cletus remarks, glancing at them, “Cart’s pass’d many times.”
“Aberrants don’t use carts,” Throck replies, shifting back behind the cover of the gate, “Those must be from the cultists who have endangered us all. Can you tell how many passed through here?”
“No,” Cletus reports, “Just tha’ cart and two horses. Freshest tracks lead inwards.”
“Still here,” Throck exhales, thinking, “If we’re unlucky, they’ll have fortified themselves in with the seal’s enchantments once the aberrations started breaking through. Though that is not an immediate problem. The road looks clear of enemies, though that is no guarantee.”

Everyone takes a look down the main road at the mention of this, but detects no movement in the immediate area. Something was flying around the central spire, but it was too far to worry about at this moment.
Looking closer at the buildings, Marwyn feels the lingering dread intensify. The walls, made from the same strange material which the walls were constructed from, also bore the spikes that lined the castle walls. The key difference, was that bodies decorated some of the spikes. Skeletons from ancient victims hang from a few, though from others hung fresher corpses. Of particular note was one adorned in black, with a red symbol threaded onto the shoulders.

“I can’t be certain from this distance, but that appears to be a member of the Khyber cult,” Throck informs, “That confirms our suspicions.”
“What would be sticking bodies to the wall like that?” Marwyn asks, trying not to look at the garish display.
“Not something we would want to fight,” Throck answers enigmatically, “Most aberrations would simply consume or corrupt their victims. This is a display of power, and a warning, which speaks to intelligence. I am somewhat worried that it appears to be mimicking the actions of the aberrants which once held Blightspot.”
“I thought you said there wouldn’t be anything too powerful here,” Vargard asks, straining to keep his voice at a whisper.
Lesani intervenes on Throck’s behalf, saying, “Intelligence does not necessary suggest overwhelming power. I believe we should focus on scouting the road ahead, all this discussion is achieving is putting us at risk of discovery.”
Vargard accepts the warlock’s explanation, realizing it was futile to debate the point. No matter what lurked within Blightspot, their mission remained the same. “No sense in sending in scouts if we’ve taken this route to stay together,” he points out.
“Agreed,” Throck concludes, “I feel it would be best to stick close to one of the rows of buildings. Left or right?”
“Left,” Vargard chooses, “Shields’ll be facing any ambushers.”
“Good point,” Throck compliments.

As the ten began carefully making their way into the castle, Jorduna fades behind Marwyn. “Kid,” she whispers as quietly as possible, “Last chance to admit this was all made up.”
Marwyn sympathized with the rogue’s plea, but it didn’t change his answer, “I didn’t Jor. But would it really matter?”
“’d make me feel better when I gut these druids, one this is all over,” Jorduna replies, and Marwyn wasn’t sure whether or not she was serious. He crosses the city gate, hopeful that this would trigger Winter’s arrival. Nothing comes, however, and his dragonshard remains a dull blue.

The group started making its way towards the center of the city. The constant need for stealth was starting to wear on Marwyn, it was a completely different way of movement from just walking. The trauma wasn’t just physical, it was mental. Always on alert, always watching the ground for the quietest path, trying not to go so slowly as to fall behind.

The rubble that was one a city square provided cover from one side as they continued, and fortunately there was little chance of ambush from the twisted wreck. Over the first half hour they did encounter several mounds of roving flesh, covered in eyes and mouths, though they were either easily dispatched or avoided. It wasn’t until they passed the first major crossroad that they ran into something of note.

Adept Talia, who was leading the group, stopped suddenly as she peeks out behind the corner. The druids had remained in their bipedal forms once they had crossed into the castle, as their increased combat efficiency was worth the lower stealth capabilities. Her face was slightly pale as she reports to Throck, “Beholders. Almost half a dozen.”
“What?” Throck says, taking a look for himself. Everyone else readied weapons, either because they knew what they were about to fight, or because of the look on Talia’s face. “Adept, count the stalks,” he orders, stepping back into cover.

Talia takes another measured look, and gives an exasperated grunt afterwards. “Four.” Lesani and the rest of the druids stow their weapons, relief visible.
“Mind filling us in?” Vargard asks, as the rest of the mercenaries weren’t entirely sure what was going on.
“A flock of spectators is nearby. Far less powerful than a beholder, though still somewhat of a hazard,” Throck explains, “It was an understandable mistake by my adept. The only real difference is the number of eye stalks, and they are in close formation.”
“So let’s go around them,” Vargard argues.
“They are closing in on our position,” Talia reports, still angry with herself for the error, “It is quite simple. We ambush them, or they ambush us.”
“Eivald, nothing that will draw attention,” Throck advises, and then says to Vargard, “There is not much you will be able to do warrior, unfortunately. These beasts are capable of flight, though your blades may be useful to finish any that are brought down. Have the rest of your men prepare themselves.”
“We should coordinate attacks,” Vargard points out, “Bring down as many as possible with the first volley.”
“Of course, but decide quickly,” Throck shoots back, nervously glancing at the five approaching enemies, “My druids will target them separately, ideally we will have two on each.”
“Got it,” Vargard answers, and hurriedly echoes the suggestion to his men behind him.

The creatures suddenly rounded the corner, hell bent on reaching somewhere. As soon as they were in sight, the ten adventures loosed their prepared attacks on them. Vargard had borrowed a hand crossbow from Marwyn, letting him engage with the rest. The warrior wasn’t too familiar with the weapon, but it was better than nothing.
The creatures themselves were hideous, a single bulbous mass with several stacks radiating from the central mass. Each stalk ended in an eyeball, and one massive one was stuck in the center of each beast. The exact number of enemies was hard to pin down, they were all concentrated in one mass. The team had coordinated their attacks based on which appeared first, though the foe’s formation had thrown off this timing. That was both advantageous and disadvantageous.
Three of the orbs dropped immediately, folding under the combined firepower of the majority of the team. What remained, however, was terrifying.

“Beholder!” Lesani shouts, noticing that the majority of the eye stalks had remained with the floating mass. Two masses remained in the air, a spectator, and one other. The larger mass turns to the warlock, maw twisted into a gloating grin. The warlock curses for forgetting herself, as the shout had attracted several of the flesh mounds, bringing them into combat.
Vargard draws both his swords, running to deal with those enemies on the ground, while the rest prepare to face the floating orb. The main eye, still fixed upon Lesani, emits a nearly blinding glare. When Marwyn, who was standing next to the warlock, regains his vision, he realizes it wasn’t his physical sense that had been blinded. In a panic, he discovers that he is unable to sense anything magical, or draw on any arcane power.
“It’s tracking you with an anti-magic field!” Throck shouts from the other side of the beholder, as Lesani was still too disoriented to give tactical advice, “Anything under the gaze of the main eye is!”
Jorduna, also being stared down by the main eye, briefly wondered if the effect was nullifying the geas. Fortunately for the druids, however, the beholder clarified her priorities by firing a blast of light at Vargard. The warrior was able to duck out of the way of the jet black beam, but the sight focused the rage which had been building up in Jorduna for so long, much as crystal focuses sunlight.

“I don’t need magic!” She yells, running at the beholder. Launching deftly off of one of the flesh mounds, which was attempting to consume her leg the entire time, she flies towards the beholder. “I… have… knives!”
The bulbous aberrant attempts to retaliate with one of its eye stalks, then realizes it’s mistake in including Jorduna in its antimagic field. Two daggers land in its central mass, providing Jorduna a means with which to hold on. After brutally digging her boots into the flesh as well, the rogue frees an arm to continue her mad assault.

Impressive as the display was, the rest of the team was having bigger issues. Each stalk acted independently, able to harass most of others without distracting the beholder itself. There was still the spectator to consider as well, which was using its own feebler eye beams to assist the beholder. Marwyn and Lesani were struggling to do anything while under the gaze of the beholder. Moving was pointless, as it would only bring others into the gaze of the monstrosity. While safe from any of the eye beams, they were still under assault by the flesh mounds. Lesani had to carefully poke away at them with a dagger, while Marwyn was having more luck with his rapier.
The druids, meanwhile, were focused on avoiding the anti-magic field, and bringing down the two flying aberrations. Jorduna’s new position made it somewhat difficult for them to aim projectiles, though they managed. Working together, they bring down the spectator without too much trouble, though Adept Kansif pays the price when a red beam strikes him. The druid takes off in a panic towards the castle gate, barely able to avoid the flesh mounds on his way. In the next moment, Throck catches a ray straight to the temple, causing the druid to collapse into an enchanted sleep. With a final beam, the beholder lifts up Cletus, dangling him above a growing number of flesh mounds.

The dwarf had, up until this point, been solely focused on pouring as many arrows into the beholder as he could. Marwyn was impressed by the sheer rate of fire coming from the dwarf, he had somehow managed to almost double his speed since his demise. He’d also been trying to make for the area covered by the anti-magic zone, himself unharmed by it, though said flesh mounds had been blocking his path. Now, magically lifted in the air, he directed his fire straight down.

The beholder, meanwhile, was starting to feel some of the punishment that its foes were dealing. Jorduna was constantly whittling away at it, though she wasn’t able to strike with all of her might latched onto the creature. Seeing its last spectator fall, and still plenty of able foes, it makes the decision to retreat.
“Jor, jump off!” Vargard tries to yell, but the noise of the battle, which was drawing more and more flesh mounds towards the fray, drowns him out. He fumbles with his sending stone, but the rogue doesn’t notice hers signaling. She was wholly focused on striking out at the berserker. Those on the ground watch as the beholder hovers farther into the air, attempting to get out of range of the party’s attacks.

Eventually, Jorduna realizes that the volley accompanying her attacks had stopped. Looking down, she experiences a moment of vertigo when she gauges the distance between her and the ground to be more than a couple hundred feet. She was almost level with the top spire of the central tower, though she was much too busy to look closely at it. What’s worse, was that the beholder had stopped the effect of its main eye. She was now literally staring down the barrels of 10 magical lasers.
Deciding to take her chances with gravity, the rogue pushed off from the beholder. The rapid descent proved more than enough to dodge the rapid burst of beams from the beholder, but it would also prove fatal if nothing was done.

She was halfway to the ground when the giant eagle caught her in its talons, diving with the catch so as to slow the rogue’s fall more gently. Jorduna struggled initially, until she gathered that the talons were only gripping her, and not crushing her.

Throck gently lands, dropping the hobgoblin moments before. He had been rudely awoken from his sleep when one of the flesh mounds had attacked him, and quickly acted when he saw the beholder carrying Jorduna away. The rogue mutters a quick, “Thanks,” before going to check on her friends.
The rest of the team was more or less ok. They had broken the assault from the flesh mounds while Throck was retrieving Jorduna, the local area eventually running out of twisted flesh to throw at them. Everyone had taken some injuries, either from fighting off the flesh mounds, or from errant shots from the beholder. Cletus was especially roughed up after being dropped into a pit of teeth, but was recovering under Talia’s ministrations. Kansif had returned one he had recovered from his own trials, roughed up slightly from the return journey. With the immediate area safe, to a degree, the group took a quick rest.

“I’ve never fought so many gibbering mouthers before,” Kansif says conversationally, adrenaline still pumping, “And you, warrior, you’re pretty good with both those swords. Why even use the shield?”
“Gives me options,” Vargard grunts, and turns to the Gatekeeper “Throck, I thought you said there wasn’t anything more powerful than an aboleth. Forgive my ignorance, but that seemed more powerful than an aboleth.”
“Yes, you are correct,” Throck concedes, “It is my belief that several of the spectators had merged together to create that monstrosity. Another to add to the list once we are done here.”
“In a way, we are fortunate,” Lesani says, “Anything within the courtyard would have surely been drawn by the sounds of combat.”
“Funny way of looking at it Les,” Jorduna says. The hobgoblin had joined the group proper in its discussion, having ever so slightly warmed to the group for some reason. “I’d say we nearly got killed. Again.”
“Life of a mercenary, eh Jor?” Vargard points out.
“Not a mercenary if you aren’t getting paid,” the rogue retorts.
“What gave you that impression?” Throck asks simply.

“Wait, we’re getting paid?” Jorduna asks incredulously.
“Yes? I assumed…”
“Well, someone could have mentioned that literally any time,” Jorduna complains, “Would have taken some of the edge of this death sentence.”
“I thought that was made clear to you,” Throck tries to reason.
“Oh, you mean when they told us we’d die if we didn’t cooperate,” the rogue continues with her rant, “So it’s a ‘your life is your reward’ kinda thing?”
“Jor, why don’t you let the druid talk?” Vargard says, even though he secretly enjoyed someone letting the druids have it.
“I wasn’t aware you…” Throck begins, but then gets to the point, “Master Oalian knew you were attempting to sell an astral ruby. Such treasure if often difficult to find a trustworthy buyer for. When you return from this expedition, however, we will broker the sale. You will certainly fetch more than if you had merely tried selling it yourselves.”
“Who will the buyer be?” Vargard asks, “I’m not travelling all the way to Trolanport just to offload it at a slightly higher value.”
“You don’t understand,” Throck says, “We will give you the full sale value up front. Delivering the ruby to the buyer is our responsibility.”

“Master Throck, I believe we should focus on the task at hand,” Talia says politely, “The beholder may return if it can muster more allies. Or simply alert others to our presence, time is short.”
“Indeed,” Throck says, rising, “From the courtyard, the entrance to the central tower. There, to the top, where we unseat any remaining cultists and restore the dimensional seal. Follow me!”

Blightspot Central Courtyard
The group comes to a circular absence of rubble that is Castle Tantetril’s central courtyard. Between travelling and skirmishes, most of the day’s time had been taken up. There was perhaps an hour left in the day, leaving the unfortunate possibility that they would have to make camp at some point.
The courtyard was indeed empty, though slime trails suggested that it was once been inhabited by flesh mounds (or gibbering mouthers, as Kansif had called them). Had they not been drawn by the battle in the main street, this would have been the site of another battle. Yet, there was one other obstacle waiting for them.
At the opposite end of the courtyard was a moat, which surrounded the central tower. The moat itself was empty, water long since drained. The drawbridge was also lowered, but the entrance itself was wreathed in a purple energy field. Arcane, to Marwyn’s eye, as it blazed with magical energy.

“I was afraid of this,” Throck says, pulling out the siege notes once more, “The attackers noted a defensive enchantment on the keep. The cultists likely activated it once the aberrants invaded. They were able to bring it down by deactivating it from two locations within the city… simultaneously.”
“You aren’t saying what I think you’re saying,” Vargard challenges, “Do you even know where these locations are?”
“The sites are indicated… on the castle map,” Throck replies hesitantly, “Though from the rest of the text I can divine the general location. The devices reek arcane energy, once there someone of that persuasion should easily sense them.”
“Simultaneously,” Vargard repeats, seizing upon that word.
“Yes…” Throck admits, “In order to access the tower, we will need to lower that field.”

“Oh hell no,” Jorduna says, “Hell no. Just fly us up to a window, screw stealt… huh,” the rogue grunts, looking up and seeing something she had briefly glanced at early. “Guys? Look up.”
Everyone follows the rogue’s gaze, and sees something flying around the upper regions of the tower. It was different from the enemies they had fought before, however, in that those with keener eyes recognized it as a demon. It was too far to make out specific details, but it was no aberrant.
“I cannot attempt to fly us in with that patrolling,” Throck says. “The cultists likely summoned that for additional defense. They have a competent summoner among them, it seems. We are lucky it did not see us when you fell from the beholder.”
“Alright, fine. You take one, we’ll take the other,” Jorduna says, surreptitiously moving somewhere with overhead cover.
“Impossible,” Lesani cuts in, “Your geas will likely prevent our group from straying too far from a druid. Further, none of the Gatekeepers are apt at sensing out arcane anomalies. Finally, they have no sending stones. We could lend them one, but the other points stand. I would suggest myself and Marwyn go with separate groups.”
“What?” Marwyn says, jolted by the sound of his name. He’d been a little out of focus ever since the last battle, the flesh mounds that had attacked him had been gibbering nonsense the entire time. He’d still not entirely recovered from what had likely been an assault on his mind.
“You are the second best arcane detector among us,” Lesani explains, “It makes the most logical sense. Cletus and Jorduna should likewise remain in separate groups, to act as scouts if necessary.”
“Alright,” Marwyn says, trying to get his head back together while the rest assembled worked out their plan.

It was eventually decided upon that Throck and Vargard would head the separate groups. This was a natural decision and was accepted readily. Lesani and Cletus would accompany the warrior, while Jorduna and Marwyn would work under Throck. As for the druids, Talia and Valdir would go with Vargard, while Eivald and Kansif would remain under Throck. Distress signals and other matters were worked out, and then each group departed down opposite streets. Neither left down the road they had come from, which made both groups slightly nervous.

Vargard’s Group
Vargard had left through the eastern road, leading his group carefully towards their objective. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were looking for, but Lesani had assured him she would know when they found it. Throck had instructed him to head for the ‘eastern most gatehouse’. The arcane trigger was somewhere nearby.
“Kansif,” Lesani addresses the druid while they were walking, “How is the seal’s integrity?”
“Still weakening,” the man replies depressingly, “Now that we’re this close I can almost… feel the assault on our plane. Whoever is doing this is insane!”
“Perhaps,” the warlock says thoughtfully.

“Quiet!” Cletus hisses, motioning for everyone to stop. It takes a few more seconds Valdir and Kansif to follow suit, being unversed in the mercenary’s hand signs. “Mov’nt ahead.”
A figure wearing black robes stumbles around the corner, flailing wildly. The five taking cover behind some rubble expected to see pursuers, but none came. Vargard gives a skeptical glance at Lesani when the newcomer falls to the ground, still convulsing.
“Some form of confusion enchantment,” Lesani reports after studying the cultist for a minute or so, “Wearing off shortly.”
Talia stands up suddenly, saying, “Wait here.” She then quickly moves towards the sprawled cultist.
Surprised, Vargard is unable to catch the druid as she moves out into the street. Talia makes it to the writhing cultist without being detected, however, and Vargard lets out a sigh of relief when she makes it back to their position with a captive.

“What the hell was that?” Vargard asks, as Cletus gags the prisoner.
“Securing him without alerting others to our presence,” Talia answers nonchalantly, tying the cultist’s wrists.
“I meant charging off without letting any of us know.”
“It was my understanding that the nature of our alliance was of dual leadership. With Throck leading the other strike force, command of the druids defaults to me.”
“You couldn’t have given us a heads up?”
Talia shrugs, and answers, “This was faster.”

Vargard lets out an exasperated sigh, and asks Lesani, “How much longer will he be out of it?”
“Perhaps a minute,” Lesani answers, and then returns, “Wait, if Talia is leading the druids on this team, who do they believe is leading our two allies on the other?”
“From what I have seen of your two companions, one will sullenly follow in the background, while the other will follow Master Throck without question,” Talia answers, “Though obviously the Son is the nominal leader.”
“Gods,” Vargard curses, “No one ever let Jor know about this.”

Meanwhile, the cultist’s resistance against his bonds became more focused, and the muffled grunts seemed more intelligible than before. “We should see what he knows of the lock,” Talia points out, noticing this, “Who should interrogate him?”
“I imagine you would be best suited Adept,” Lesani answers, “Though I imagine it will not take more than death threats to loosen his tongue.”
Talia nods, and manifests primal energy in her hands as a show of force to the cultist. “I’ll manage.”

“I’m going to make this simple,” Talia says, pressing against the cultist’s chest with her foot, “Give us detailed directions to the arcane locks, and information on your allies, and I will leave your fate to the aberrants.”
“You have to take the gag out first…” Vargard whispers awkwardly, after a moment of silence.
Fortunately the cultist didn’t hear that, so Talia’s timing wasn’t ruined. “Choose wisely,” she says slowly, careful not to show any annoyance. She cuts the side of the gag, purposefully nicking the prisoner’s cheek as well. Her foot remained where it was.
After spitting out the rest of the cloth, the cultist looks at Talia wide-eyed, “You’re crazy! This place is swarming with those things!”
“Not my doing,” Talia responds, “Though I am perfectly willing to stop more from coming if you would be so kind as to cooperate.”
The man looks to the others, but finds no allies in the crowd behind Talia. Lesani was admittedly worried for the cultist’s health, but only because they wouldn’t be able to interrogate a man with a crushed trachea.

“You… you gotta get me out of the city!” the man cries, “Then I…I’ll tell you whatever you…”
“No,” Talia shakes her head, “You tell us everything now, and I don’t kill you.”
“B..but,” the man protests, and then feels the blood dripping from his chin.
Meanwhile, Vargard pulls out his sending stone. “Marwyn, put Throck on,” Vargard talks into the stone, “We’re about to get some intel he needs to hear.”

“Y,you’ll let me go, right?” the cultist asks feebly, wheezing slightly as the pressure on his chest increases slightly.
“Of course,” Talia nods.
The man struggles to draw breath, and then folds, “This ‘uge flying orb attacked us. Eyes everywhere. Got hit by one of them and things got kinda fuzzy.”
“Beholder,” the five adventurers say at once, with various amounts of trepidation.
“Right,” the cultist says, just glad that the pressure on his chest was waning, “I don’t know how to get there ‘cause of the whole… wait!” he cries as Talia brandishes her sword, “You can’t miss it. Only building I’ve seen still standing, and it’s pretty tall. Built into the walls. Dunno if anyone’s still alive or if…”
“What about the other lock?” Talia asks.
“Other… you mean the other camp?” the cultist says hurriedly, spurred on by a mean look from Talia, “No one’s heard from them since the nasties arrived. No one’s keen on going near there either. Dunno what’s there, I’ve just been…”
“He doesn’t know anything else,” Talia says dismissively, stepping off the cultist, “Off you go. Shoo.”
“Which way’s the… right,” the man says, backing away from Talia’s sword, “I just… thank you, I…” he runs off, looking around and trying to find a way out of the city.

“Get all that?” Vargard asks.
“Yes,” Throck acknowledges, through the sending stone, “A shame he did not know more. We’ve arrived at our target, and will let you when we’ve reached our lock.”
“We’ll let you know when we’ve reached the gatehouse,” Vargard says, “And don’t get any of my people killed.”

Talia, meanwhile, hands the short sword back to Valdir. “You have done well to keep its blade sharp. It appears you may need it again.”
“Yeah,” the initiate agrees, “Especially if we don’t get to the seal in time.”
Vargard moves closer to the two, picking up on the conversation, “Getting worse?”
“Yeah,” Valdir nods grimly, “Strong enough to hold back invaders, but not for long.”
“More reason to hurry,” Lesani cuts in, “Especially if we are to face the beholder again. Not to sound morbid, but if we are quick, it may still be dealing with the cultists.”
“I am more worried with why it attacked in the first place,” Talia argues, “It speaks to the possibility that the aberrants are aware of the barrier surrounding the central tower as well. They are organized.”
Vargard clears his throat, and says, “All I’m hearing are reasons to move. So let’s go.”
“Of course,” Talia agrees.

Throck’s Group, Meanwhile
Marwyn had departed from the central tower with a building unease. Travelling with the druids wasn’t necessarily an ordeal, but now Vargard had left him alone with them. Well, he also had Jorduna, though that was hardly a boon. He still wasn’t sure what she planned to do once released from her magical bonds, and feared what might happen if this occurred without Vargard present.
Speaking of which, Throck had led he and Jorduna through the western road. According to his notes, their lock was located in what had been referred to as an ‘armory’, dug into the earth. The druid had remarked that there must be enchantments supporting the underground bunker, as the soft earth here would not normally support such construction. The group fervently hoped that said enchantments were still active.

Their lock, being located inside of the castle as opposed to near its walls, was also closer to the central tower. They arrive just as Marwyn’s sending stone goes off.
“What is it?” Throck asks, as Marwyn hands him the stone.
“Var said to give you the stone,” the bard answers, “I think they’re… interrogating someone.”
“Interesting,” Throck comments as he receives the stone. Marwyn, for his part, shudders a little as he remembers the times his group had been forced to resort to such measures before. This piques Jorduna’s interests as well, though for different reasons.

Eventually, Throck hands the stone back to Marwyn. He’d kept the volume low so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention, leaving the others somewhat in the dark as to what was conveyed.
“What’d they want?” Jorduna was the first to ask, curiosity overpowering her moroseness.
“They had captured a cultist, and extracted information from him,” Throck answers, “Apparently the aberrants have laid siege to their target, assaulting the cultists already there.”
“But they fare well?” Kansif questions, “Especially so to take a captive.”
“Yes, though there was little information for our part, unfortunately,” Throck continues, “The captive appeared to be little more than a blind follower. I imagine we might face more of his number, if those of the Dragon Below still guard this lock.”

“Doesn’t look much like an armory,” Jorduna comments, and Marwyn agrees that the half-collapsed building seemed similar to those around it. A slight difference is the wooden beams propping up a makeshift entrance, construction done by the cultists, no doubt. It looked shoddy, and the bard was slightly nervous as they walked under the creaking beams.
“No signs of fighting, at least,” Kansif points out, stepping carefully over some rubble that had almost sent Marwyn sprawling, “Anyone hear anything?”
“Silence,” Throck reports, though at first it was mistaken as a command, “This is disturbing. Marwyn, are you sensing anything?”
“N…no,” Marwyn hastily says, realizing he had forgotten to keep his senses open for the arcane lock.
“I’d imagine we would need to be closer,” the Gatekeeper comments. The orc was having some trouble with navigating the collapsed building. The path they walked seemed to have been quarried from the surrounding rubble, and there wasn’t nearly enough headroom for the druid’s stature. “I’d imagine we’d encounter a way down soon.”
“What, like a trapdoor?” Jorduna asks nonchalantly, “We passed one a few minutes ago.”

After struggling not to berate the rogue, Throck asks her diplomatically to lead them back to where she had seen the trapdoor. At first the druids thought she was misleading them, until she pulled back an unassuming section of the floor to reveal a passage down. It was simply a hole cut into the earth, with a rope tied to a stake driven just below hatch.
“It’ll be a lot easier going down than it will be coming up,” Marwyn says, “Wait…”
“What is it?” Throck asks, stopping himself at the last moment from descending.
“I can sense a faint aura now,” Marwyn reports, indeed feeling something in the distance. It was an odd magical sensation, though. The air below seemed ragged, pulsing with an uneven energy field. The eddies were weak now, though they hinted at a greater force. “I guess it’s the lock?”
“Seige notes said that it could be sensed from a distance,” Throck shrugs, “Everyone follow me carefully. We have no idea what is down there. And rogue, try to remember not to run off.”

The climb down was short, though somewhat constricted for the orc. As he was leading the descent, this caused somewhat a problem, until he simply shifted into something smaller. Fortunately, the passages below were large enough to accommodate his normal size.
The tunnels, for that is what they were, were resplendent with supports holding back their inevitable collapse. Aside from the beams, however, the immediate area was clear.
“This really doesn’t look like an armory,” Jorduna complains, “Are you sure you read those notes right?”
The gatekeeper continues to ignore the rogue’s impudence, taking it as a miracle she wasn’t actively trying to find some way around the binds of the geas. “Something may have gotten lost in translation,” he admits, “Marwyn, have you a lead on the lock.”
“Uh…” Marwyn stalls, as he tests both directions, “That way,” he finally decides, pointing to the tunnel leading back into the city.
“Rogue, are you as keen for traps as you are trapdoors?” Kansif asks suddenly, “I’d expect there to be traps around an armory.”
Jorduna scoffs, “Can I find traps? Are you actually asking for my help?”
“Yes,” Kansif replies flatly.

Kansif’s plea turned out to be useful when, only after a minute after the group had started moving the hobgoblin had spotted a thin tripwire. The trap’s mechanisms had proved to have been disrupted by movement of the surrounding earth, but it still validated the adept’s actions.
As they moved closer to the source of the aura, Marwyn began to feel more and more ill. The enchantment, whatever it was, was wrong.
“Anyone see that?” Jorduna asks suddenly, daggers in both hands.
“Trap?” Throck asks.
“No, movement,” Jorduna replies, “It seemed small. Maybe a rat.”
Throck stops suddenly, grabbing the hobgoblin by the arm. The rogue would have protested if not for the look on his face. Orcs couldn’t go pale, but Throck was making a spirited attempt to try. “Armory…”
“Get off,” Jorduna grunts, shaking herself free from the gatekeeper’s grip, “What the hell?”
“This is an armory for living weapons,” Throck says, drawing a staff, “Eyes to our surroundings. Has anyone been attacked?”

Marwyn was confused by the sudden change in the gatekeeper’s demeanor, but more so when Eivald suddenly pats him down, as if checking for weapons. Kansif gives Jorduna the same treatment. While Jorduna complies, sensing implicit danger, she conveniently fails to mention several of the weapons she did have concealed on her. The adept finishes with several thin cuts where hidden daggers had nicked him.
“No parasites, Master,” Eivald reports.
“Someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?” Jorduna protests.
Throck sighs, “Aberrant munitions are not always as straightforward as ours. Sometimes minor aberrants themselves are attached to hosts for use as weapons. While this is not strictly harmful to the bearer…”
“A swarm of them’ll eat a man,” Kansif finishes, “And we’re walking right into a den of ‘em.”
“Your leader did mention the cultists hear had gone silent as soon as the aberrants returned,” Throck says, “The weakening of the planar seal must have awakened any symbiotes in the area.”
Marwyn, feeling his skin crawl despite having Eivald’s assurance that he was clear, asked, “What do they look like?”
“Some, like eels,” Throck answers, “Though it may vary. If one fuses with you it can be removed, but only with injury to yourself. We must remain absolutely vigilant. Marwyn, you should remain in the center of our formation, you are the last who should be subjected to this.”

So Marwyn continued to lead the retinue towards the arcane source. Now that they were watchful, several of the creatures Throck described were spotted during their walk. They lingered in the shadows, however, and fled quickly when one of the druids tossed fire at them. The tunnel branched off at several points, yet the pull of the arcane aura was still forward down the main one.

The effect of the aura was almost nauseating to Marwyn when they found the first corpse. Skeleton was more apt a word, though even the bones had been cracked in search of any nutrients.
“Gods,” Marwyn says, overcome by the image.
“Keep moving,” Throck guides, “No point in stopping.”
“Why haven’t they just swarmed us already?” Jorduna asks, looking at the body grimly, “If they can do that…”
“They fear fire,” Kansif answers, “Our talents are enough to scare the horde, though hunger may embolden them if we linger more than necessary.”
“Keep it up then. Hey kid, how much farther?”
“I can’t,” Marwyn tries to say, but then stops as he holds in a retch. Arcanically attuned as he was, Marwyn was taking the brunt of the twisted aura, though the others were beginning to feel its effects as well, “Strong though,” he finishes feebly.
“I believe we have indeed arrived,” Throck clarifies, “This poor soul was likely a guard for the cultist’s encampment down here. And I believe I see tents in the distance.”
“What?” Jorduna questions, herself peering into the edge of her vision, “How the hell, I don’t see anything.”
“You may have a keen eye for traps, rogue,” the orc answers, “But I believe I have the advantage here.”

Indeed, the party finds themselves coming to a broken camp. The same deconstructed corpses met them, though there were far more than the one at the entrance to this place. The tunnel had widened into a cavern. The tents were constructed towards the outwards part of the space, while in the center remained only a plinth. The greatest amount of corpses seemed concentrated on that area.
“There,” Marwyn points weakly at the pedestal.
“Var. Yeah, it’s Jor,” the hobgoblin speaks into her sending stone, “Found the thing. Where the hell are you?”
“Still travelling to the gatehouse,” Vargard reports, “Are you safe?”
“Dunno,” Jorduna shrugs, “Hey druid, are we about to get swarmed?”
Throck takes a good look around, and answers, “This area appears to be clean of any aberrant filth. Likely, once the symbiotes… consumed the inhabitants, they moved elsewhere in search of fresh hosts. But they will return eventually.”
“Druid says to hurry up,” Jorduna relays.
“Alright,” Vargard nods, “Les wants Marwyn to try and figure out the locks if he can.’
“He’s pretty out of it boss,” Jorduna responds, “Might want to warn Les that these locks are pretty toxic.”
“Got it. Don’t take any risks.”
“I’ll get the job done boss,” Jorduna replies, signing off. The five then move towards the arcane lock, to both secure the area, and their way into the central tower.

Meanwhile, Vargard’s Group
The sun had sunk below the horizon when the group had finally found the gatehouse. The streets were far from regular, and their twisting took what should have been a quick journey and extended it. When they arrived, they immediately identified the target building, by way of noticing the beholder that was sieging it.
The eye rays shone brightly in the darkness, illuminating windows as they darted through. There appeared to be defenders still alive behind the fortifications as both arrow and spell returned fire. A massive ruined gate stood beside the building, blocked by the rubble from the other gatehouse which had collapsed.

“Valdir, can you sense the lock?” Talia asks in a whisper.
“No,” the man answers, “I don’t…”
Lesani interrupts, pointing to the top of the structure, “There, where there are still those defending. The spell is definitely of aberrant origin.”
“You can sense it from this far?” Valdir asks, straining to detect anything himself.
The elf nods, retracting her finger, “Your vision is rather selective, I imagine. Whereas I have trained myself to find and identify traces of arcane magic. We are still too far for me to decipher anything from it, of course,” she coughs slightly as she says this, and continues, “Though Jor’s warning is in fact necessary. Whatever foul magics were used to secure the keep are repulsive. I will likely be impaired if we venture closer.”
“Les, we need you to work the lock,” Vargard points out.
“I am not saying I will not go. Simply that doing so will impair me.”

“We should also be concerned with the combatants up there,” Talia interjects into the conversation, “We can disguise ourselves, but you three will need to worry about being spotted.”
“Like ‘ell,” Cletus grumbles, while staring down the beholder from cover. The dwarf still remembered being tossed into the flesh mounds.
Lesani sighs, and replies, “Our ranger can handle himself, though it is a valid concern for Var and myself.”
Valdir points out to the gatehouse’s windows, and reports, “I’m seeing less return fire. The cultists there have almost been defeated.”

“We aren’t taking the structure, we’re hitting a button,” Vargard says suddenly, “Forget stealth. Throck, get ready on your end,” the warrior says, speaking into his ending stone.
“Haste would be appreciated,” the gatekeeper responds, “Marwyn is not doing well this close to the lock, and several symbiotes have tested our defenses.”
“That’s the idea,” the warrior replies, drawing both of his swords, “Let’s go, in and out, then run back to the tower.”
“This is insane!” Talia protests, as Vargard breaks cover and runs to the tower. However, upon seeing all but Valdir do the same, she realizes she had been outvoted.

The run to the gatehouse was brief, and thankfully so. The beholder was much more focused on finishing off the few remaining cultists, and no other aberrants seemed to be taking part in the assault. Vargard wonders briefly if they had killed most of the force that had been intending to assault the gatehouse, before his shoulder crashed into the gatehouse’s door.

The rotted wood yielded easily, as did the two cultists who had tried escaping through the ground exit. The five let them leave, not having the time to deal with them otherwise. The climb up was as easy as the entry, as all of the other cultists had been drawn to the top of the gatehouse. As Vargard finishes the ascent, he sees the last of these fall to one of the Beholder’s eye beams, disintegrating into a fine powder. The room had once contained a variety of furniture, most of which had been pressed against the windows in a desperate attempt to create cover. The only piece still standing was a plinth towards the back of the room.
“That is it,” Lesani says, pointing at the plinth. She was handling the debilitating aura better than Marwyn, but it was still wearing on her defenses, “I will need to…”
“Les, do what you need to do, and tell me when you’re ready,” Vargard orders, and turns to the rest, “We’ve got to hold off that creature. Before it…”

The warrior was cut off, however, when the outer wall was breached. The beholder had thrown its whole weight at the stonework, and the stones which had already taken the punishment of many of its rays yielded under its bulk. The face grinned once again at Lesani in recognition, though it held its antimagic field. Instead, it supplied several of its rays, all directed at Lesani.
Lesani disappeared suddenly. By the way the rays impacted the wall behind where the warlock once stood, Vargard figured she had teleported to the far corner, and then cast her invisibility on herself. “Hold it off!” Vargard yells, dropping one of his swords and grabbing his shield.
The battle that followed was a desperate play for time as their invisible warlock tried to disable the lock. It would have been over quickly if the low ceiling had not impaired the beholder’s ability to maneuver its eye stalks. Once everyone had placed themselves between the plinth and the aberrant, it completely held back its antimagic field.

As it was, everyone took at least one beam over the course of the fight. Vargard himself was hit by one that seemed to freeze his muscles, and would have remained an easy target if not for Cletus tackling him out of the way of more beams. After what seemed like an eternity of purely defensive posturing, Lesani speaks up.
“Var, we have a major problem!” the elf says desperately.
“What?” Vargard shouts back, amidst a building ominous feeling.
“The unstable magical aura is due to the cultists perverting the enchantment. The barrier around the tower will now reestablish itself one minute after deactivation!”
“It appears we will have to secure this building,” Talia yells, “Any suggestions?”
“I hesitate to use this spell,” Lesani replies, “Yet I can attempt to banish the beholder.”
“You can do what?” Jorduna yells back, “Why didn’t you do that at the beginning?”
“It is the last spell I have held back,” Lesani answers, “And…”
“Les, just do it!” Vargard cries, noticing that the beholder was once again turning its stalks towards the warlock.
“But,” Lesani begins the protest, then comes to the same realization. With a silent plea to Oalian, she prepares the spell.

Valdir, meanwhile, had been keeping up with the conversation. It would have been hard not to hear the raised voices mere feet away, and thus knew what the warlock was attempting. The half-orc also knew it wouldn’t be enough, at least not on its own. Mark glowing, the druid could see the beholder bolstering its presence in this plane, having read the aura of Lesani’s building spell.
So just as Lesani and the beholder were to release their spells, the druid charged forward while quickly firing off one himself. Strong winds form around him, buffeting both the beholder and Vargard, who had engaged the beast in melee. The sudden wind threw off the beholder, and as it reestablished its physical orientation, its focus towards its metaphysical bearings was thrown off. Just as its beams were about to fire at Lesani, the giant orb disappeared from the orb with a soft pop.

Everyone save the warlock stares at the space the beholder occupies, before sighing with relief when it does not reappear.
“Good job Les,” Vargard says, “How long will it stay gone?”
“Forever, unless it finds another way into our realm,” the warlock responds, voice growing more ragged with both her recent expenditure and the continuing barrage from the arcane lock’s aura, “But we have more pressing matters to attend to. One of us must remain behind at each lock in order to gain entry.”
“What?!” Talia exclaims, “Master Throck said we only needed to trigger each one simultaneously.”
“That appears to be the original designers intent, though the cultists appear to have added another safety measure,” Lesani explains, “We must be before the tower when the shield is deactivated.”

“Shit,” Vargard says, pulling out his sending stone, “Marwyn, Marwyn, are you there?”
“Var!” Marwyn says, fear evident in his voice, “Please tell me we can get out of here!”
“What’s going on?”
“We’re under attack!” the bard yells.

Throck’s Group, Meanwhile
The five who had invaded the armory had at first remained by the lock without much contesting their position. A few of the eel-like symbiotes had probed the entrances of the chamber, but had been driven back by the druid’s fire. However, just as Vargard’s group had begun it’s assault on the gatehouse, a mass of the symbiotes had poured in.
The druids had quickly thrown up a circle of fire around the plinth, but that would not last forever. Even with continuous attacks on the symbiotes, there were still far too many to handle before their defenses would expire. The relief of Vargard’s call quickly turned to dread when Marwyn relayed his message.
“Are they insane?” Jorduna cries, “We’re gonna be worm food in a few seconds and they want someone to stay here?! Like hell.”
“The geas is now in your favor, rogue,” Throck contests, “It must be one of my druids who remains at each plinth. Though our situation is too precarious, I do not see how we can…”
“Master,” Eivald speaks up suddenly, “There is a way. I can remain concealed here until you are at the tower.”
Throck looks incredulously at his adept, until he realizes what the druid was proposing, “You would not survive.”
“That is not important, if this is to work you must go now!” Eivald yells, “Our fire spells are nearly spent. Leave one of your sending stones activated near the plinth, and I shall act when called.”

Throck nods, and grabs the sending stone out of Marwyn’s frail hands. “I will explain later, but we will have a man in position,” the orc says, and then hands the stone to Eivald. “Your services to this land will be remembered, Gatekeeper.”
Steeling himself for what was to come, Eivald merely nods, and then sinks into the rock below. This act would have been called into question, if not for the symbiotes still outside the wall of fire.
“Marwyn, if you can make us invisible, now would be the time,” Throck says.
“O…ok,” Marwyn says in a shaken voice, eyes still fixed on where Eivald had melted into the floor, “It’ll go away if…”
“We know kid, just do it!” Jorduna yells, and, galvanized, Marwyn complies.

When the fires die down, the symbiotes lunge towards the plinth. Most simply surround it, though a few latch onto the four escaping when they collide midair. As Marwyn and the rest flee, they all acquire a few symbiotes as they latch onto their flesh. There weren’t enough on one person to trigger a feeding frenzy, though the two non-druids almost reveal themselves in a panic. All four manage to get through, however, and after a certain time the group stops to burn off the parasites.
Throck grabs the group’s last sending stone from Jorduna, and contacts Vargard. “Eivald will remain by the lock as we make our way to the tower.”
“Everything’s quiet here too,” Vargard reports, “Any input on who should stay?”
“It must Talia or Valdir,” Throck answers, “Your geas will not allow another to stay. Give one of your sending stones to the one who remains, and then hurry to the tower.”
“Sure,” Vargard says, “What’s Eivald going to do after he hits the lock?”
Throck sighs, and answers, “He shall join Marvel in the legends of our order.”
“I… understand,” Vargard replies, suddenly appreciating Throck’s situation, “We’ll meet you at the tower.”

Vargard’s Group
Vargard grimly disconnects, and turns to Talia. “One of you’ll have to stay and disable the barrier. Who…”
“There is no choice,” Talia interrupts, “Valdir will return with you. I have the greatest chance of remaining long enough to activate the lock, and then escape any who assault this position. What of the one they are leaving behind.”
“Throck… he said Eivald is staying behind,” Vargard answers, deciding to conceal the full truth for now, “Take this, we’ll let you know when we reach the tower.”
“Understood,” Talia nods, accepting the stone, “Windhailer, how do I operate the mechanism?”
“Simply place your hand on the plinth,” Lesani answers, “Though do not do so for an extended period of time. There may be repercussions.”
“I will go conceal myself until the right moment. I imagine it will be impossible for me to join you once you are in the tower. If you are successful, I will instead be waiting outside the castle walls.”
“Talia, do you think you’ll be able to make it?” Valdir asks, concern in his voice.
“I will be fine initiate. Now go, preserve the seal!”

With that, Vargard led the rest out, breaking into a sprint towards the center of the castle.

Blightspot Spire, One Hour to Midnight
Vargard’s breath was ragged as he arrives back in the courtyard before the tower. Throck and his group had arrived half an hour before, and had mostly recovered from their wounds. Not wasting time nor breath on greetings, the eight assembled before the barrier flickering across the tower entrance. Raising the sending stone, Throck commanded his two adepts to lower the barrier.
In the gatehouse, a rat hiding between walls bolted out suddenly, shifted into a half-orc, slipped between several aberrants which had appeared a few minutes earlier, and slammed her hand on the plinth. Shrugging off the few attacks that were directed towards her, Talia waited until confirmation that the barrier had dropped before retreating. She dove out of the hole created by the beholder, avoiding swipes from those enemies around her on her way out.
Eivald was less fortunate. He had spent the entire time faintly aware of the writhing mass of symbiotes above him, and the knowledge that there would be no escape wore on him. But he kept his vigil, and leapt into action as soon as the signal was sent. The aberrants bore into his flesh the moment he reappeared, but he ignored the pain and activated the plinth before him. Just before the druid was consumed totally, he heard Throck confirm that they had entered the tower. Eivald smiled briefly, before his flesh was devoured, and all that was left was another skeleton left beside the plinth.

Concluded in Part 36, Tower of Fate – Winter’s End

The Gatekeepers
Those Who Watch, Those Who Wait

Part 34 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

One Day Later, 3 Days to Spring Solstice
“Damn Druids,” Jorduna curses, waking up to the pungent aromas and soft terrain of The Shadow Marches. The collection of bogs and wetlands used to be a bountiful land. That was before the daelkyr came, using breaches between their realm and Eberron to lay waste to the region. What happened here might have happened to the rest of Eberron, or worse, if not for the combined efforts of all who opposed them.
Once Vargard and the rest of The Split Falchion had learned of the geas they had been placed under, there was no resisting the Gatekeeper druids. Lesani herself was exempt from the enchantment, but only because of her existing ties to Oalian. Shakris, to her great dismay, was informed that she too had been placed under the geas. All who were involved in the decision believed her to be the sixth person mentioned in the prophecy, despite the wizard’s frantic arguments that she was more an acquaintance than a friend.

So the six had travelled through the Gatekeeper’s secretive teleportation network, ending up deep within The Shadow Marches.
The Gatekeeper group, a mixture of half-orcs, humans, and one orc, had all gathered to greet their guests. They were all druids, that much was obvious. The head druid, who was the only ‘true’ Gatekeeper in the group, greeted them. An orc, he was far gentler than the druids in Greenheart, though this was likely just an attempt to win over his reluctant allies. Naming himself Druid Thock, he then told the group that they should rest today, while he and his druids constructed a plan of action on the upper floor.
The team was invited to contribute to these discussions if they wished, though their presence wasn’t needed. The ruined keep, whose slightly-flooded basement hid the teleportation circle, would remain safe for the time being. Vargard declined the offer, wanting to instead talk with his own team and figure out what to do.

Despite her dual loyalty, Lesani cast silence over their little gathering to further isolate them from the Gatekeepers. They had made camp in the largest of the rooms on the ground floor, a room which also housed the Gatekeeper’s camp and the stairs up to the next floor.
“It’ll be a big vacation Jor. Trees, Jor, think about the trees Jor! Everyone else wants to go, what could possibly go wrong with chasing down a prophecy that got us sent to hell,” Jorduna’s complaining, which had been internal up until this point, continued.
“At least they didn’t take the ruby,” Marwyn compromises, feeling at least a little responsible for their situation considering his role in the prophecy, “Even if they aren’t exactly paying us, they didn’t rob us either.”
“Like hell they didn’t,” Jorduna shouts back, unafraid now that her tone was muted to outside ears, “What exactly do you call this? A vacation?” she stresses the last word, throwing it in the faces of everyone else.
“Jor, calm down,” Vargard orders, and the hobgoblin is temporarily mollified by her superior’s words, “Les, what the hell is this?!”
“Var, I did not know,” Lesani pleads, not liking the look of anger in the warrior’s eyes, despite herself harboring similar emotions, “My meeting with the Gatekeeper was less a discussion and more a briefing. Master Oalian had ruled before I had even reentered the Reaches. While I understand their motivations for this trap, I still despise their refusal to attempt to bargain with us.”
“At least you ain’t cursed. Again,” Jor replies bitterly. She eyes an open exterior door, and an idea forms. She drops to a whisper, saying, “Var, I’m going to make a break for it. Someone should be able to remove this, and we can keep in contact with the stones. If none of the druids see me….”
“Jor, I do not think…” Lesani begins, but the hobgoblin was done listening to her. Vargard attempted to order the hobgoblin back, but Jorduna had just passed the area covered by the silence spell. The warrior was about to rush over and drag the rogue back, when another wave of pain hit the latter, just as they crossed the threshold.

Throck was down in an instant, though he wasn’t angry. “Apologies,” the orc pleads genuinely, “I did not mention that Oalian would likely have restricted you to this base before we are ready to move out, and then to within a certain distance of at least one of our number.” The Gatekeeper then realizes the presence of the silence spell, and continues, “Feel free to talk amongst yourselves without fear of eavesdroppers.”
“What’d you care?” Jorduna challenges him, body weakened from the geas backlash but spirit still fierce.
The druid frowns, and what appears to be shame lights across his face. Eventually, Throck answers, “The decision to place you under a geas was not mine. Though I would not question Oalian, and I believe in the urgency of the task at hand, I find such measures distasteful. For what it is worth, I see you as equals in this venture. I must return now to my fellows. Please, do not attempt to fight your restraints, for my sake as well as yours.” He gives a formal nod in parting, and ascends back to the second floor.
“It appears Throck is more a kindred spirit than I would have believed,” Lesani observes.
“Like hell,” Jorduna replies.

The rogue managed to trigger the geas’ wrath three more times over the course before Vargard directly ordered her to stop fighting the spell. Each infraction, which consisted of either a direct physical threat to one of the Gatekeepers, or attempts to flee, seemed to inflict more and more pain to the rogue.
Thock decided it was a good time to explain the exact limitations of the geas while he healed Jorduna. The Gatekeeper also suggested that the spell took into account intent along with their actions. It wouldn’t penalize them for striking a druid if attempting to shock them out of a trance, for example. Though regrettably, the feedback would grow to the point of lethality if resistance was constant. All of this led Lesani to believe that Oalian had used a greater geas when binding her companions, and such measures surprised her. Even though she herself believed in the prophecy, her master wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

Marwyn had spent the night blaming himself for everything. He hadn’t asked for this, of course, but to the bard the only reason his friends were again trapped by a curse was his part in some kind of prophecy. He must have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of his self-loathing, because he wakes suddenly to Jorduna’s cursing of the druids.
Breakfast was taken from the party’s supplies, which had thankfully been replenished in Sharn before they were run out of the city. Marwyn had also taken to carrying more with him, his second separation from the rest of his group finally teaching him that he couldn’t always rely on others to pack mule for him.
The druids had their own provisions, which appeared to be primarily drawn from game native to the area. The Split Falchion would have to resort to this as well if the prophecy wasn’t fulfilled soon.

To that end, Vargard was politely told by one of the apprentice gatekeepers that Throck wanted to see him in order to discuss their next move. The druid’s attitude was deferential, though the warrior couldn’t tell if that was due to actual respect, or more of a deferral to Throck’s position on the mercenaries. The other druids had kept their distance up until this point, keeping primarily to themselves.
This pattern continued when the two groups meet at the top of the keep. Throck himself was at the head of a long, rotted table upon which a map had been laid out. The rest of the druids remained behind him, impassively.
Vargard and Lesani were at the other end, waiting for Throck to begin. Marwyn was just behind the two, while Jorduna was glaring at everyone opposite to her from the doorway. Cletus and Shakris were in the far corner, the latter still trying to reconciliate having been kidnapped by druids, and the former surveying the landscape. The rough terrain and ample locations for an enemy to launch an ambush did not endear themselves to the ranger.

Everyone being assembled, Throck clears his throat and begins. “Our mission is to prevent the failing of the dimensional seal which safeguards this area from aberrant invasion,” the orc explains, indicating the circle drawn on the map which marks the zone. The area encapsulated was somewhere in the north-west region, bordering part of the Western Deep Wood. “I have been safeguarding this region for many years, yet I have never seen the wards this weak. Something is attempting to break through our protections, which we do not have the strength to replace at present. If this seal falls, we are looking at what may be the first foothold the daelkyr have had in our lands for centuries.”

“I assume the Cult is your first suspect?” Lesani asks, resolving to try and guide her companions through this as quickly as possible, “How long will the seals hold at current rate?”
“Those who worship Khyber are indeed ones we suspect to be involved,” Throck confirms, glad that there wasn’t any sign of open hostility yet from his ‘allies’, “Their presence in these lands have long threatened both our order, and Khorvaire as a whole. As for the seal, the situation is grim. Minor aberrants have started slipping through the cracks. On their own they are simply another breed of monster that haunts The Shadow Marches, but they herald a greater storm.”
Lesani, aware her companions weren’t aware familiar with the politics regarding of the Gatekeepers, asked for a moment to explain the Cult of the Dragon Below. “They are small sects of the Aashta clan, a part of House Tharask. Their intents vary from simply following old tenets of the clan, to a dangerous obsession with Khyber.”
“For the most part, our order remains uneasily at peace with the cults,” Throck continues, sensing a moment where he could interrupt, “However we will not tolerate their actions now.”

“I’m not an expert on the Great Dragons,” Vargard says, “But from what I’ve heard Les talk about, the aberrants come from Siberys, not Khyber. How’s this cult involved?”
Throck sighs, and taps a spot on the map close to him grimly, “Blightspot. That’s our name for it, but officially it is Castle Tantetril. There are two regions in our area capable of supporting heavy buildings. This keep is one, the other is the site of a large daelkyr ruin. We keep clear of it because we aren’t suicidal, but unfortunately fate has seen it to lead us into its clutches. The failing seal is centered there, and it is our belief that a cult has endangered it with their mad quest to rob what should be left to rest.”

With the conversation turning towards the specifics of their mission, the rest of the mercenaries come to the table. Shakris remained where she was, however, now trying to desperately probe for any weakness in the geas that affected her.
“My knowledge of Blightspot isn’t total, but I believe I should be able to guide us to where the seal’s primary enchantments are located,” Throck continues, “We can stabilize the seal once there, so long as it has not entirely failed.”
“If your damned magic is the only thing keeping monsters out,” Jorduna says challengingly, “And it’s failing, doesn’t that mean the place will be filled with monsters? And why do you even need us if you’re all entirely capable of fixing your own damn mess?!”
The Gatekeeper weathers her storm patiently, sympathetic to the rage despite who it was directed to. Finally, he answers, “We do expect the presence of aberrants, for which your presence will be welcome. However, the draconic prophecy you uncovered leads us to believe your presence will be crucial in finishing this task.” Jorduna laughs sardonically at the mention of the prophecy, and storms out of the room muttering to herself. A few of the druids behind Throck look at her incredulously, though the orc himself continues undaunted, addressing those who remain. “We are in agreeance with Warlock Windhailer that Marwyn is likely the one ‘Son of the Sea’, and is thus most integral to restoring the seal.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Marwyn asks.
“Draconic prophecy is always vague. Though in our history, we have seen it come to pass many times,” Throck answers, “I am not sure what will pass, only that it will follow the prophecy.”

Vargard, thinking more in terms of tactics, throws out a question, “What’s the short term plan?”
“We take boats across the swamp to Blightspot,” Throck answers, “It should only be a day’s travel, perhaps two if we run into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Aberrants, as previously mentioned. Other beasts haunt the swamps, though most we are able to deflect without resorting to combat,” Throck answers, “Two of my adepts are particularly skilled at this.”
“In my opinion, there is little point in discussing Blightspot until we are there,” Vargard points out, “And I believe I speak for my companions when I say this matter should be resolved as quickly as possible.”
“Those sentiments are indeed shared by my party as well,” Throck agrees, “Meet us by the main entrance in one hour. We will properly introduce ourselves, and be off.”

One Hour Later
Jorduna had to be tracked down by Vargard, who found her angrily chiseling offensive script into a wall with an adamantine dagger. At first she had been hesitant, unsure if the action would trigger the geas. She soon discovered otherwise, and gleefully defaced the old building.
His rogue collected, Vargard and the others meet the druids back in the great hall. They had broken down camp in the meantime, and were assembled much like they were when the mercenaries had come through the portal. “I am Gatekeeper Throck, as you are aware,” the orc explains, “My companions have kept their silence thus far in deference to me, and with respect to your… particular situation. Though now that we are about to depart this place, such measures will no longer be needed.”
“Adept Talia,” a half-orc at Throck’s side says quickly, giving a formal nod alongside the introduction. She withdraws a bow and continues, “Ranged martial focus, curative spell focus, and secondary squad leader when necessary.” The druids finally impressed Jorduna with this, as the hobgoblin had always respected team discipline. She grudgingly admitted that they reminded her of the Wordbearers, though she was careful to hide it from the rest.
“Adept Eivald,” the human to Throck’s left carries on, “I’m the team’s scout. Transformative spell focus,” and the man’s skin ripples at this in a show of druidic power, “I also know a few artillery spells.”
“Adept Kansif,” a human druid steps up, “The only one more in tune with the land than I am is Throck. Eivald spots something too close to us and most of the time I’ll be able to keep it away. ‘ve got a nasty razor for anything that doesn’t” Kansif finished, patting a longsword on her hip.
“Initiate Valdir,” said one of the two towards the back of the druids. Now that the focus was on the half-orc, those familiar with House Tharask noticed he bore a mark of finding. This point wasn’t addressed, however, in favor of letting the druid continue, “I’ve been with the Gatekeepers for two years now. My Mark allows me to keep track of the dimensional seals more easily, though I still have much to learn. Right now I act as ranged support for the rest of the group.”
The last druid, a young human male, finishes, “Initiate Marvel. Gatekeepers took me in after something destroyed my village. Small place, not many memories,” he says almost nonchalantly, “Still in training, though I’m battle ready.”

The druid’s display surprised Marwyn, it was rather organized for people who hid in ruined swamp keeps. Though admittedly, if they really were fighting horrors from another dimension, such tactical precision might be necessary. He fingered the ring in his pocket, and wondered if he could get away with talking to Mevalyn while they were on the boat.
Vargard also approved, though for a different reason. These druids seemed reliable, not the kind of people who would throw a curse on you after offering hospitality. “I’m our frontline,” he starts, feeling he should reciprocate the druid’s greeting if they would be fighting together, “And leader. Not sure how chain of command will go, but we can sort that out later. Lesani’s our main magical support, though it seems you are familiar with her.” Throck nods in confirmation, and Vargard continues, “Jorduna’s our infiltrator, works both melee and short-range. If you can flank an enemy with her and draw their attention, she can get some good work in with her knives. Cletus is a pretty good shot with his bow, but he’s just as good with those short swords. No one’s quieter than him either, I’ll usually send him ahead with Jor if I can.”
“Jor?” Throck asks.
“Jorduna,” Vargard repeats, frustrated with himself for the slip, “It’s just a habit for us. Anyways, last is Marwyn. Usually sticks with a bow, most of his spellcasting enhances that. Has a rapier for close calls, with some healing magic. Between him and Les we can probably make a good number of us invisible.”
“That could be useful at Blightspot, though beforehand, not so much,” Throck says, “Speaking of which, we should go. Before something eats our boats, of course.” By his tone, it was clear that the orc was serious.
“Damn druids,” Jorduna curses again, under her breath.

The boats were tied to a dock which extended from the small hill which the ruined keep was built upon. Swamp stretched as far as the eye could see. Off in the mid distance something sank into the water. The druids didn’t seem to worry though, so Marwyn didn’t either.
Throck and the two half orcs each loaded onto separate boats, spreading their greater weight across the boats more evenly. Kansif and Marvel each loaded onto the fourth boat, while Adept Eivald remained at shore. Shakris, still mute, had to be practically dragged onto one while the mercenaries boarded by themselves. Marwyn was stuck with Throck, whose boat would head the formation.
Just before they would cast off, Throck addresses Eivald. “Keep a moderate circle Eivald. Not too far, the extra weight on these tugs will reduce our speed.”
“Of course Master Throck,” the adept nods. As each of the boats shove off, Eivald slips into the water, transforming into something with scales. Marwyn, who was wondering why the druid wasn’t on one of the boats, was startled. Though as before, the lack of concern from the other druids mollified him. The bard even found that he could track Eivald’s movements when he was close to him, a low primal signature surrounded the druid, though he soon lost track when the druid circled farther out.

Throck guided the remaining members through the swamp, himself moving the oars while telling Marwyn where to turn the tiller. They accidentally ran aground a few times, the boats only had at most a foot of water beneath them. But the orc was more than capable of pushing them back onto course, and not much time was lost to Marwyn learning how to steer.
Those who weren’t working the boats were at a constant vigil, examining anything that looked or sounded odd. With the exception of Shakris, who had so far been diving deeper into a depressed coma. The unfortunate reality was that there were many unusual sounds and sights in the swamp, putting everyone on edge.
Guided by Throck, the trip through the swamp took them through seemingly random directions. At times, they were forced to go single file due to the banks encroaching close on either side. Other times, the swamp was wide enough to allow for an arrowhead formation. Any natural wildlife that ventured too close to the boat diverted suddenly, along with a burst of primal energy from one of the druids behind Marwyn. The bard soon found out what happened when the group encountered something they couldn’t magically turn away.

Marwyn nearly has a panic attack when a crocodile pulls itself over the edge of his boat, but relaxes when he recognizes the primal aura surrounding it.
“Got something Eivald?” Throck asks to the rapidly unshifting druid.
“Definitely an aberrant, up by the channel half a mile ahead. Could be more, didn’t want to get too close. Big bastard,” Eivald reports, in an even tone. Marwyn, still putting his rapier into its sheath, was surprised by the composed manor of the druid considering what he’d just been through.
“We’ll go around,” Throck answers, nodding grimly, “Take the west path and edge around. Unfortunate, but we would lose more time displacing the creatures.”
“Understood,” Eivald acknowledges, and slips back into the water.

There were several other instances of this over the course of the trip, and judging by the nonchalance of the druids it was a regular occurrence. Throck’s knowledge of the land seemed immense. Any obstruction relayed to him was instantly met with orders for a new path. On the fifth such time, however, his knowledge ran dry.
“Damn,” Throck curses, after Eivald had told him of three hostiles blocking the pass ahead. He stops rowing, and the other four boats move close together. The width of the channel prevented them from putting two boats next to each other, so the conversation was somewhat ludicrous as everyone tried to talk loud enough for everyone to hear, but quiet enough as to not attract attention.

“What is it?” Vargard asks, from the third boat.
“Enemies ahead,” Throck answers, straining to keep his voice at a proper volume. Vargard sighs and just pulls out his sending stone, Marwyn doing the same. “Ah, very useful,” Throck compliments, glad that he was able to move down to a murmur. The mercenaries on the other boats did likewise, allowing for a more muted conversation.
“Never seen them before,” Eivald explains, after being prompted by Throck, “Three large twisted things, writhing appendages, eyes all over.”
“Eyes?” Vargard asks.
“Yes. It’s somewhat disturbing,” Eivald confirms, “We can’t avoid them, but they haven’t noticed us yet.”
There was silence on the line, until Cletus offers, “Can’ move tha’ boats over land?”
“No,” Throck answers, “With all the maneuverings we’ve been forced into, we have been forced to take what is akin to a river, whose outlet is not for another mile. Dragging these boats across land would take more time than simply combating the creatures would.”
“I thought the whole point of this was to avoid fighting aberrants?” Jorduna challenges, hidden anger coming to the surface somewhat.
“We can tackle three servants of the Far Realm if you are more content guarding the boats,” Throck answers back, deftly silencing the rogue without raising his voice.

It was eventually decided that Adept Talia, Adept Kansif and Shakris would guard the boats. The former, as she would make tactical decisions for the group staying behind. The second, in order to ward the area against any curious wildlife. And the latter, because it was clear the wizard was in no state to fight. Throck regretted having to bring her along, but the geas was merciless.
The away party was separated into two groups. Jorduna, Cletus, and Eivald would make silent approach and attempt to circle around aberrants, while the rest waited an appropriate distance. The mercenaries were advised to ‘stand back’ while the druids initiated. Apparently they had something special in mind.

With a note from a high pitched whistle, both Eivald and Throck gathered primal power. It was released into the swamp, and suddenly two giant waves rose from the ground. They collided at the surprised aberrants, which were exactly as horrible as Eivald described. One of the waves might have left some standing, but the combined might of both left all three prone. Vargard was prepared to rush in, but the combination of magical and mundane projectiles quickly finished the three.
“Like I said,” Throck says proudly, “We can handle three servants of the Far Realm. Though stow not your swords, warrior. We will likely need them as we move closer to Blightspot.”
“Alright,” Vargard shrugs.

It was near dusk when Castle Tantetril came into sight. It seemed they wouldn’t reach it until tomorrow, but their target was in reach. The land had been sloping upwards towards the latter part of the day. The swamp was also growing shallower with more time, reducing the paths for the group. Three more groups of aberrants had to be combated, the last raging on for quite a few minutes after a second group appeared from seemingly nowhere. Fortunately, all the injuries sustained were able to be healed by the group. Having 6 druids on your side does have its advantages, Marwyn admits to himself. He remembered the scrapes they’d gotten in before, when his own healing had run out and they were forced to rely on potions.

Throck led the group to a cluster of trees in the swamp, oddly close together considering the terrain. Throck confided that the copse was grown by the Gatekeepers themselves, specifically for this purpose. The boats were concealed with loose foliage, while everyone else made camp.
Curiously, the Gatekeepers consumed only a single berry for their meal, and were content. Marwyn examined the one offered to him, and sensed it was enchanted.
“Goodberry,” Lesani answers the look of confusion on Marwyn’s face, “A comfort of travelling with druids. They are certainly not as filling as normal rations, but they will sustain a grown man an entire day.”
Satisfied, and curious, Marwyn tries the berry. It tasted like what he would have expected of a mundane fruit, but suddenly felt an odd sensation of satiation. He stowed his flask and asked, “Why isn’t this common fare?”
“Would you enjoy eating the same meal day after day, especially if it were one berry?” Lesani asks rhetorically, “There is also the magic which is used to create them to consider. The berries do not last, and druid spells are often needed elsewhere.”
“Oh,” Marwyn replies. Not having much else to do, he turns his attention to the castle in the distance.

It was an odd structure, in that it looked nothing like the architecture he had seen in his time. Coming from one who had seen the capitals of most of the Four Kingdoms, this was saying something. The walls themselves generated a feeling of unease, though he couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the place held monsters like the one that had tried to go for his throat earlier today. Or, it was his lingering thoughts of the prophecy. Though he had talked with Mevalyn again during the trip, despite her being busy with ‘sailing a thrice-plundered galleon with more leaks than loot,’ he hadn’t felt a glimmer of Winter from his dragonshard. The bard fervently hoped that he hadn’t hallucinated the entire thing. Even concrete proof like the copy of the prophecy he’d received from Sage couldn’t dispel his lingering doubts. He’d also acquired the unfortunate habit of waking up and, for just a moment, thinking it was all still some trick by the spirit of Blue Cloak. Marwyn also fervently hoped that would go away soon.

The druids offered to take watch for the night, granting the mercenaries a chance at a full night’s rest. Jorduna didn’t trust them enough to not take a half watch herself, but it was still a nice gesture.

The Next Morning, 2 Days to Spring Solstice
The next day’s travel proceeded as the last day’s had, though Throck had Eivald keep a closer distance. Aberrant sightings had increased, though they were able to dodge any that couldn’t be put down quickly.

“The seals are degrading at an increased rate,” Initiate Valdir reports, as they moved closer. His mark was glowing faintly, “I can feel the rift to Xoriat growing. We need to hurry.”
“Agreed,” Throck answers, “Anyone have sight of Eivald?” The was a general no that resounded throughout the group, and Throck grimaces, “He hasn’t reported in an hour.”
Everyone scanned the immediate area more intensely, searching for the missing druid. Eventually, Valdir manages to find his signature in a pool a few hundred yards to their left. “He isn’t moving,” the initiate reports solemnly.
“We go, now,” Throck orders, jumping out of his boat and onto the shore. It nearly sinks, causing Marwyn to desperately try and follow him out before the water gets over the edge. His effort fortunately saves the hull from taking on water, and the rest of the group follows the druid. Save Shakris, of course, who was going to stick with the boats.

The party arrived at the pond’s edge, and by now most could sense the shapeshifted druid lying at the bottom of the pond. “Eivald, get out of there,” Throck calls out, but to no effect.
“Could be unconscious,” Adept Talia suggests, wading in carefully. There were other organisms within the water, but they shouldn’t bother her so long as she was careful.
Lesani, who was less trusting of the beings within the pool, gives them a deeper inspection. The moment she detected psionic energy, she cries out a warning, but it was already too late. Her cry of “Aboleths!” was punctuated by Talia suddenly summoning a giant vine from the center of the pool, and using it to try and drag Throck in with her. When she turned to face them, her eyes were empty, and it was clear something else was controlling her.

“Get back!” Throck yells, fighting off the vine.
“No!” Lesani countermands, talking quickly “They can shake off the control, but only they are injured first. The creatures will attempt to control others, and steal essence from those they control to defend themselves.”
“Got it, punch the druids!” Jorduna responds, releasing a knife towards Talia. A moment after she worried about the geas, but fortunately nothing to her happened as the blade lodged itself in the druid’s shoulder.
Talia seems to shake a little from the pain, but the glassy look in her eyes doesn’t go away.

“There’s two of them!” Lesani continues, observing the pool, “That means they can control up to six…” she stops midsentence, turning to blast Marwyn with a bolt of energy. The aboleths can’t understand common, but they could read minds, and they’d identified the main threat already. A combined mental assault from both of the aquatic horrors had easily overwhelmed Lesani’s mental defenses while she was attempting to discern theirs.

The fight quickly devolves into a panic as friends turned against each other. Those who weren’t controlled were focused on either avoiding the aboleths or trying to free their friends, allowing the two abberants to focus on those who were close to the pool. Marvel and Kansif are pulled towards the pool by Talia, who was now throwing out lesser spells as she directed the vine. Kansif is quickly controlled as well, while Marvel seems able to resist the mental assault. This did little to help him, however, as Eivald’s primal form now tried to drown him in the pool. In a panic, the druid attempts to shift to something that can’t drown, but soon realizes his mistake as it only allows Eivald a greater hold.
Those who had managed to remain on the shore had to deal with a controlled Lesani and Cletus, as the aboleth also took control of the dwarf. Marwyn was quickly rendered unconscious through the efforts of both, and it took interdiction by Vargard to prevent them from outright killing him. Valdir, wide-eyed, also tried to help by firing half-drawn arrows at the two controlled mercenaries.
Throck, at the center of the storm, manages to fight off a mental assault from one of the aboleths. He curses to himself softly, knowing what he had to do, and silently asked for forgiveness as he summoned a whirpool in the center of the pond.

The suddenly violent current at the middle of the pond disrupted the vine which was still attempting to draw Throck in, as well as the two aboleths. The raging water slapped against Talia, throwing her down and finally freeing her mind. The unshackled druid turns her rage towards the aboleth closest to her, which was currently trying to swim away from the grabbing current. Most of her combative spells had been used against her allies, but fortunately there was one that persisted. Lightning, which had been assaulting those the aboleths hadn’t controlled up until this point, now struck the beast itself. Throck joins the assault from the shore, alternating between throwing poisonous fumes and bolts of cold at the beast. The vine was doing work at the same time, and eventually wrestled the creature into the air.

Though aboleths are certainly intelligent, far more so than the common man, but their physical forms leave much to be desired. To compare them to eels would be an insult to the latter. Besides beauty, they also lacked natural armor, relying instead on their superior aquatic mobility to dodge attacks. Suspended in air, it was helpless against its attackers.
With the fall of the first aboleth, Cletus snaps out of his trance. After an extremely vulgar string of curses, he wrestles Lesani to the ground and shouts, “Go! I’ve got ‘er!” The second aboleth lasted not much longer than the first, though it did almost manage to escape the vortex before the vine dragged it back in. Its last thought was of regret for choosing that particular spell from Talia’s repertoire.

And then it was over. The fighting had thankfully not attracted any other monsters, though it had left everyone drained. Those under the aboleth’s control had been forced to expend most of the magic, and those that hadn’t were drained from resisting. Marwyn was unconscious, several were on the brink, and both Marvel and Eivald were missing.
Adept Eivald answers to both when he emerges from the pool in his true form. Blood was dripping from his mouth, and he was holding his hands away from him with what appeared to be shocked disgust. “I…I killed him.”
“Eivald…” Throck says softly, “What happened?”
“I… I had sensed something. Here,” the druid answers weakly, “And then, I don’t remember… not until I had ripped out Marvel’s…”
“It was not you,” Lesani answers firmly, “Aboleths are skilled at…”
“Leave it, Les,” Vargard says softly, though it didn’t seem like Eivald had registered her words anyways.
“Talia, take Eivald back to the boats if you are able. We will make camp at next opportunity,” Throck says, to which the adept nods. Those who had been under the control of the aboleth seemed to have rebounded quickly, save Eivald. “You should return as well, I will recover for Marvel’s remains.”
Everyone else departs. Marwyn wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, as he had just been revived, but he didn’t like the grim looks. He fortunately counted four of his friends, but only five of the druids. Something had gone horribly wrong.

Fate continued to frown upon them when the group returned to where they had kept their boats. The timber which had made up their hulls had been smashed by some minor aberrants. They were quickly deposed of, but among the wreckage was found Shakris’ corpse. To the woman’s credit, there were signs that she had tried to put up a fight, but alone and afraid she was no match for those who assailed her.
They salvaged what they could, buried Shakris, and then looked for a place to camp.

Throck found his way to the camp somehow, no one bothered questioning how. “Marvel has returned to the earth,” he says in greeting, and notices that two things were missing from camp. “The boats?”
“Destroyed,” Talia responded morosely, “The one we left slain.”
“I must rest,” Throck says, turning away.

“That’s it?” Jorduna asks incredulously, “We get floored and that’s all you say?”
“What more is there to say?” Throck asks, in a defeated tone, “I knew not your friend, and Marvel… we grieve our dead on our own terms.”
“This is all your damn fault! And I bet we’re still going to that damned castle, despite the fact that worse things are waiting for us! And we lost two people before we even really started, how the hell are we supposed to…” Jorduna rages on, but is stopped by Throck’s next words.
“Had I the power to release you from your bonds, I would,” he says forcefully. Not with anger or malice, but with enough strength to drown out the hobgoblin, “Yet we are bound by oath, and you by geas. We complete the mission for the dead, not in spite of them. Now I must go. I will return at dawn. We will continue.”

The druid leaves and silence falls over the camp. The Gatekeepers seemed to be holding vigil for their fallen. Eivard was still taking Marvel’s death hard, though the initial shock was wearing off. The mercenaries simply talked quietly amongst themselves. Marwyn was informed of how the battle had gone whilst he was knocked out, though no one felt the need to go too much into detail.
“So… it’s over, right?” Jorduna asks, still taken aback by the rise she had gotten out of Throck, “Shakris is dead, and we needed her for the prophecy. We’re screwed.”
“I cannot believe that,” Lesani argues, “And we cannot lose hope. As… unpleasant a though it is, Master Oalian was likely mistaken in believing Shakris was part of the prophecy. Or perhaps, she was, and her part has come to an end.”
“That’s pretty cold, Les,” Jorduna points out, “So what you’re saying is ‘Oops, we accidentally got someone killed, but it’s ok because they probably didn’t matter anyways.’”
Lesani bristles, and whispers fiercely, “That is not what I said at all! I mourn her passing as much as you. More perhaps.”
Vargard, sensing an argument that could blow up and reveal their cover, cuts in. “Stop it. This is only making things worse.” The team discipline, frail as it was, held, and the two stopped their fighting.

There were still a few hours left in the day, but no one was intent on moving on. Several had wounds which would have to wait for the next day in order to heal, as between the fight with the aboleth, and all those before, the party’s spell pool had been largely drained. Marwyn was among the ones who had to resort to the bandages applied by Talia.
So, there was little for the bard to do but try to not open any of his wounds. He didn’t want to bother Mevalyn with any of this, from the sound of it she was having her own adventures. The others present were clearly against any form of conversation. Not having much else to do, the bard idly practiced loading his crossbow, being careful not to make too much noise. The last thing anyone needed was alerting more of the aberrants.

The Next Day, 1 Day to Spring Solstice
This night the watch was split between both the mercenaries and the druids, allowing those more injured on either side to rest. Those who made up the last watch saw Throck return, haggard but unharmed. He speaks with Lesani, who due to her nature had risen hours before.
“Will they continue?” the orc asks simply.
“What choice do they have?” Lesani answers evenly, “Had we the chance to return, you would have never lost Marvel.”
Throck shrugs off the last part, not feeling it worth challenging. “We will need to make it on foot, without the boats. At the very least, we shall not run into any more of the scum which assaulted us yesterday.”
“How dire must the seal’s integrity be to allow aboleths through?” Lesani questions, pulling Throck further away.
“We do not know if the aberrants were not here already,” Throck answers easily.
“Liar,” Lesani calls out softly, “Had they been on Eberron for an appreciable time, they would have assaulted us with flesh servants as well. These were new arrivals.”
“Warlock, you are making this more difficult than it has to be,” Throck whispers back fiercely, and then sighs. “Valdir is the only other who knows. While I have led you to believe the seals are gradually degrading the truth is… more difficult.”
“Why the deception?”
The Gatekeeper thinks to himself for a moment, weighing the situation. Eventually, he relents, “The truth may have led even my own druids to lose hope. The seal… failed. Briefly, before failsafe built into the enchantments were activated. But in that time…”
“When was this?” the warlock sternly interrogates, shock evident on her features, “For how long?”
“I do not know,” Throck answers honestly, “Only that it happened. I had hoped, not long enough for anything too dangerous to slip through. When we encountered those aboleths…”
“Aboleths are the least of our worries,” Lesani interrupts again, “Had a daelkyr been wise to opening rift…”
“I have been assured that is not the case,” Throck fires back, worried that Lesani’s loudening words would spill into the wrong ears, “This land has not been visited by much more powerful than that of an aboleth for some time.”
“You have discerned this personally?”
“Where did you think I had absconded to this past night?” Throck answers knowingly, “Had the answer been different, I would not have us continue.”
Lesani nods, now understanding the druid’s motivations more clearly. One thing bothers her, however, “You have discerned that nothing more powerful than an aboleth has invaded this land?”
“Yes,” Throck repeats.
“That still leaves the fact that there are creatures as powerful as aboleths, likely at highest concentration within Blightspot.”
“Oh,” Throck says, taking her point, “There is that to consider.” He takes a closer look at those resting, and notices the ones wearing bandages. “You have injured.”
“Remnants from yesterday,” Lesani explains.
“I shall correct this,” Throck replies, moving towards the wounded.

The dawn of the next day brought renewed hope to the travelers. Throck’s ministrations were enough to fully restore the group. The deaths of Marvel and Shakris still weighed heavily on all assembled, but the general consensus was to push through the grief and finish the mission. Jorduna was the major outlier, retreating further into a bitter silence.

All that was left to discuss was the final stretch of the journey, and then the great obstacle itself. Castle Tantetril, or Blightspot, an ancient Daelkyr fortress filled with monsters from another dimension. With the fate of the world at stake, the ten adventurers began planning their assault.

Continued in Part 35, Assault on Blightspot – Storm of the Century

The Eldeen Reaches
A Fade to Green

Part 33 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Ragged Flagon, First Tower, One Week Later
The bartender of The Ragged Flagon had seen many things in his lifetime. Owning a bar opposite of a lightning rail terminal which led straight to Sharn will do that to you. Travelling performers, magical oddities, regiments of troops moving to and from the front lines, there wasn’t many things that would surprise the surly elf.
That being said, Cael had absolutely no idea what he had been handed for payment of ‘all the booze you have in the place’ by a thoroughly unpleasant and travel worn hobgoblin. It was… something stick like? Clear, it was definitely clear. Fortunately, one of his regulars from Morgrave was in, and he tiredly handed it over to the wizard to check on the off chance it was actually worth something. When one of the bouncers caught her trying to sneak out with the thing, Cael’s interest suddenly peaked.
Bargaining with the hobgoblin was renewed, and eventually the odd crystal stick was traded for half of the grog and three cases of finer drink from the Flagon’s hold. The bartender shrugged when it was all over. From what his wizard friend had covertly told him, the stick was exceedingly rare and valuable. He didn’t understand why, but in exchange for forgetting the whole ‘trying to flee with the valuable stick’, the wizard had offered to broker its sale. She was even so kind as to forget any kind of commission.
The hobgoblin then left having secured the deal. The bartender scratches his head, thinking of how many barrels he’d have to bring up. Thinking quickly, he deputized three of the stronger looking men amidst the crowd to help him with the barrels. They happily obliged, sensing the beginning of what promised to be an epic night.

Jorduna met up with the rest of her team, who had just left the town’s most expensive bathhouse. That is, to say, its only one. They would have drawn straws to decide who would go ahead to the tavern, but Jorduna didn’t want to let go of her loot.
Unfortunately, the angels that had sent them back to Eberron were very precise about where they returned them, which was back in the center of the King’s Forest. Fortunately they didn’t feel it necessary to return Il’yena to Cyre, now the Mournlands, which everyone felt was generous of them.
The walk back was mercifully uneventful. Perin was nowhere to be found, though honestly Vargard and the others hadn’t expected otherwise. Food was still low, though now that Cletus had returned to the land of the living, this rapidly changed. He also spotted several bandits who were attempting to in turn scout his group, but they quickly fled as soon as they caught sight of Vargard.
The first real shock came when they found the main road and ran into some travelers. During the following conversation, they determined that several months had passed. The New Year had come and gone, and both Olarune, and winter, were coming to a close. 997 YK. There was some debate over how this could have happened, and the group eventually blamed dodgy planar travel for the time shifts.
It was at this point that Lesani had pulled Vargard to the side, again repeating her desire to travel to the Eldeen Reaches. Vargard thought for a moment, then begged her to stay until at least First Tower. Besides, he had reasoned, Sharn was her best bet for finding some way of travel. Il’yena had two years of history to catch up on herself, and didn’t want to miss The Split Falchion’s celebration of their return. It was also her own celebration, but that was marred by the deaths or obliviations of her own friends.
So, one week after they had returned to Eberron, The Split Falchion treated the town of First Tower to a celebration it hadn’t seen in years. No one knew quite what it was about, only that one of the local taverns had practically opened its stores to the public based on a ‘private donation’. Other taverns soon followed their example to varying degrees, smelling blood in the water. After all, not everyone could funnel into one tavern. Soon, the only persons not inebriated were those who were profiting from the drunkenness of others, both bartenders and cutpurses alike.

As the city had partied throughout the night, so too did the inevitable collective hangover arrive. Hearing reports of mass revelry and the inevitable crimes which follow, Sharn sent and emergency force of guardsmen to secure the town. They’d come equipped to quell a full-scale riot, but these preparations were largely unnecessary. Mostly, they rounded up anyone too drunk to stand, and anyone brazenly committing a crime.
All of The Split Falchion had escaped the night relatively unscathed, however. Marwyn probably had it worse than most others, however, as he had a certain someone to remember every time anyone made a pass at him. Mevalyn had of course already been briefed on the situation, her voice was in his head the moment he had touched down to Eberron. She would have taken the first train to Sharn in order to meet him, but had apparently been caught up in some kind of pirate business. She assured him that everything was fine, and was currently on her way back to Khorvaire. The exact details were reserved for a proper face-to-face retelling.
So, when the bard woke up alone and in his own bed, he did what no other bard in the history of time had done and called it a win.

After all had awoken and recovered from their respective troubles, the group met in one of the few pristine tavern rooms left in First Tower. They were trying to make the meeting quick, before anyone had realized that it had been they who had started all of this.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sha starts, “And I’m going to journey to New Cyre. Someone, at least, should be told of what happened to Marvor and the others, they may still have family that survived. I wish I could stay with you, but…”
“You do what you have to have to,” Vargard tells her gently, “Do you have enough to make the journey?”
“Oh yes, you have been very generous,” the eldarin replies, tapping the gold pouch the group had given her. Normally, Vargard may have been more reserved with their gold, but the anticipated income from Jorduna’s ruby put those thoughts aside. “I had reserved a seat on one of the trains last night… I think. It should be leaving soon, so I…”
“Go,” Vargard nods, having noticed the eladrin nervously glancing towards every guard that passed outside the window. She still hadn’t gotten used to the world not being at war, and didn’t exactly have identification.

“Wait, wasn’t she in the prophecy?” Jorduna asks, watching her go, “Not that I’m complaining about ignoring that ratty piece of paper, but…”
“The prophecy said Marwyn would stand with five others, true,” Lesani answers, “Though, assuming the ‘assault’ was what we endured, it could not be Il’yena. The prophecy mentioned only four in that assault, which we can safely assume to be us.”
“Oh,” Jorduna says, concern abated. “Wonder who the sixth man is.”
“If the prophecy really is true, guess we’ll find out,” Vargard grunts.

The warrior pauses for a moment, dreading what was to be discussed next, “So. I’m just going to say it. Lesani is heading off to the Eldeen Reaches. She thinks the prophecy we heard is dire enough to warrant warning… the proper authorities.”
“We’re still going on about this prophecy thing?” Jorduna bristles suddenly, “Dammit Var. This is the Royal Eyes all over again. We go chasing this thing and it’ll get us all killed. Again, in some cases.”
“I am perfectly willing to go alone, if Var decides not to follow me,” Lesani clarifies, to the surprise of Jorduna.
“Wait, you’re not going with her Var?” the hobgoblin asks, incredulous, “I thought…”
“If the rest of you don’t want to go, then we’ll see what happens in Sharn,” Vargard heads her off, “We’ll have to tell Morgrave about Perin. The University won’t be pleased, and we probably won’t want to stay in town for long. I’m thinking of taking some time off from all this since you had the presence of mind to salvage something from this mess,” the warrior continues, and Jorduna accepts the implicit compliment, “My thoughts are that The Eldeen Reaches are as good a place as any to get some R&R. I’m sure Cletus wouldn’t mind, so we might as well accompany Les. Though if anyone has any other ideas?”
Marwyn, as usual, instantly deferred to Vargard’s opinion and stayed quiet. Cletus wasn’t that far behind, spending some time in the forriest of all the forests on Eberron sounded like a nice vacation after the literal hell he went through in Mabar. Jorduna thought for a moment, and reading the room properly, decided that she had been outvoted before one had even been called. Satisfied with the silence, Vargard then informed the group that he was “going to call an old friend to arrange transport,” and left the room, careful not to step on one of the drunks the guard had missed.

Sharn, Morgrave University, One Day Later
When Vargard had arrived at the gates of Morgrave University, identifying himself and his intent, he had assumed there would be some form of response. What he didn’t expect was his immediate detention by armed guard with the suggestion to not reach for the two swords hanging from his waist. What really blew him away, however, was who they led him to.

“You utter bastard!” Professor Perin shouts to Vargard as the warrior is escorted into his office, “You leave for me dead in the middle of the woods after I was mauled by wolves, and now you come here expecting payment?!”
“Wolves…?” Vargard replies weakly, still getting a handle on the situation.
“Well, I’ll have you know that your due payment will be rendered,” Perin continues, wincing slightly as he got up to stand, “Hopefully a stay in Sharn’s finest dark hole will teach you not to leave a man bleeding to death in the woods.”
Vargard actually shrinks a little under the professor’s bluster, before he remembers who was wearing the spectacles in this conversation. “How the hell did you get out of there alive?” he yells right back. The guards behind them draw their weapons, but wouldn’t actually interfere unless things got physical. Probably.
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know,” Perin sarcastically returns, “I was captured by bandits! And after spending two weeks bleeding to death in their camp, Morgrave finally got a ransom through! Then, after a week of travelling while bleeding to death, I was barely returned to what now appears to be a permanent position at this damned desk!” Perin finishes.
Now that he had a chance to fully inspect the professor, Vargard did notice that one of the elf’s legs was suspiciously wooden. He sighed internally and realized that the man’s anger, while ill-informed, was probably justified.
“Did I mention nearly bleeding to death?” Perin lashes out again, while Vargard thought.

Finally deciding on what to say, a remark on what would hopefully defuse the situation, Vargard simply asks softly, “No, I meant how did you get out of Mabar?”
“W..w..what?” Perin sputters, “Is that some kind of threat?”
“I mean,” Vargard continues, making sure to tone down the aggression, “If we were sent to Mabar, it only follows that you were too. Seeing how much trouble we went through to get out, I’m a little confused as to how you managed it on your own.”
The professor glares at him for a few seconds in shocked silence, trying to tell if he was bluffing. Eventually, the elf comes to the conclusion that the warrior had to be lying, no matter what his gut was telling. “Do you want to try giving me an excuse that will actually make sense?”
“No, because I’m sure the truth would more than explain our actions,” Vargard fires right back. Meanwhile, the two guards behind him were quietly trying to figure out amongst themselves why everyone was getting upset over The May Bar, and how spending three months drinking in Cliffside was getting the merc off the hook.

An impasse was quickly reached, where Vargard stubbornly maintained his innocence and Perin just the same refused to believe him. Eventually, the guard sergeant shrugged and suggested bringing everyone to the station where Mr. Zone of Truth could settle matters. In the meantime, Vargard was allowed to contact the rest of his team on the condition that they not try to flee the city, and instead meet him at the guard station. Vargard had to give the safe word at least three times before he was sure Jorduna wouldn’t try something.
The warrior was shuffled into a guarded room while Perin watches from the window with anticipation. He was admittedly impressed at how long the mercenary was keeping up the charade, but knew the façade was about to be revealed for what it was.
Another guard, bearing the symbol of one of the Sovereign Host, walks into the room and casts the spell. Just as quickly, he departs, leaving Vargard and the interrogator. The spell zone of truth wasn’t used often among the city watch, there were often better means of acquiring the truth, and it didn’t work every time. In this case, however, the spell was being used more to verify the truth than to acquire it.
So the interrogator began with a series of ‘control questions’ to make sure that they spell had taken effect. These questions became increasing probing and personal over time, until finally Vargard gave the frustrated response typical for someone under the effect of a zone of truth, ‘I don’t want to answer that question.’ The interrogator smiles and declares that they were in business, and nods to Perin.
The elf’s expression goes from smug, to disbelieving, to horrified, to some kind of weird assortment of facial expressions that Marwyn could only guess was immense internal conflict as Vargard relayed his side of the story. He wasn’t stupid enough to spill some of the more sensitive topics, and the interrogator certainly wasn’t pressing the issue when he barely understood half of what the warrior was saying anyway.

When Vargard finishes, the interrogator briefly leaves the room and asks if Perin was satisfied. The elf weakly nods, and then says, “The University is dropping its complaint against these mercenaries.” The guard interrogator smiled, and grabbed one of the passing footmen to guide everyone back out onto the street. As they were walking, Perin took turns staring at each member of The Split Falchion, trying his hardest to determine if they were some kind of corporeal ghost or, perhaps, disguised demon. He knew something wasn’t right, and damn him if he couldn’t figure it out.
“If it’s any consolation,” Vargard says as they exit the guard station, “I do regret that we weren’t able to defend you. The promised payment is, of course, forfeit, and we have plans to leave the city within the week.”
“Good,” Perin replies distractedly, “Very good. Goodbye. Please don’t come back.” He then takes off, as fast as his one and a half legs would allow at least.

Meanwhile, Shakris
The winter of 996 hadn’t gone well for Professor Langhorn either. Relatively speaking, it was a cakewalk compared to the mercenaries, but being complete disgraced as an academic is never a fun thing to go through. Whether he had been a little too vague about his capabilities when describing his research to Morgrave University, or had flat out lied to them, Shakris would never know. When, after two months, they were asked to give a progress report to the university’s board, ‘nothing’ was a poorly received response. It wasn’t from a lack of effort, certainly, but the accumulated weather data they had taken amounted to essentially confirming that Sharn was experiencing winter. Even the reports from the few colleagues Langhorn had left in Fairhaven confirmed that the brief cold snap experienced in the beginning of the season had abated, and that it was actually now rather temperate for this time of year.
One of the board members wondered aloud if the professor was even worth the price they paid to transport him from Fairhaven. When the others agreed that this was a fair point, and asked Langhorn for reimbursement after a failure to produce anything of note for the University, the old elf had to admit he was broke.
So, her mentor was thrown into debtor’s prison, and Shakris herself was politely told that her enrollment at Morgrave University had been canceled. Forced to find some way to provide for herself, she eventually found work in one of the many magical shops around Sharn, which felt that it could use a cheap apprentice wizard to help with the merchandise.

She didn’t recognize Jorduna when the hobgoblin had first entered the store. She hadn’t thought of the mercenaries in some time, actually, especially after the university had declared them either dead or wanted for desertion. After Langhorn had been disgraced, her days were then filled with stocking shelves, and examining any curios a customer had brought in.
Her boss was discussing what appeared to be a gemstone with the hobgoblin, when he had offered to take it back to examine. Jorduna returned with, “I didn’t pry that out of a mountain just to let it out of my sight, not without being paid of course,” and it was then when Shakris recognized the voice. She kept quiet though, and tried to duck into the back before any association with the rogue cost her her job.
She was too late, however, as the gruff dwarf who owned the place pointed over to her and said Shakris could take a look at it. It took a far shorter time for Jorduna to recognize the woman, mostly because it had been a far shorter time for the rogue since the last two had met. The hobgoblin unfortunately misread the situation, thinking Shakris was merely a regular of the store, and asked her how Langhorn was doing.
The dwarf finally realized what had been nagging him the whole time, that the rogue looked strikingly similar to the mercenary Morgrave University had blacklisted months ago. He quickly told the hobgoblin to get the hell out of his store, and then did the same with Shakris, explaining a little apologetically that if he pissed off the University his business would die before night’s end.

And so, Valderis found herself once again jobless. At least this time, there was someone who owed her an explanation, instead of the other way around. Jorduna sighed, mumbled something about how if fate wasn’t playing with loaded dice then the cards were definitely marked, and asked if the woman could wait for her explanation until they were in the presence of the rest of her team. And a generous helping of alcohol.

Later, The Crimson Eagle
Vargard had barely convinced Grunhilda to allow them rooms for the night, and only after promising her that they wouldn’t be staying for long. He was surprised at her reticence at first, then realized that Perin was making sure he made good on his promise to leave the city.
He was understandably further annoyed when Jorduna reported in, explaining what had happened with Shakris, along with the guess that they wouldn’t be able to sell the ruby in Sharn for any appreciable amount. There would certainly be someone they could offload it to, but only if they didn’t mind making someone else rich instead.
The six dined with what could be called a melancholy mood, shoved into one of the corners of the bar away from the ‘respectable crowd’. Vargard, tired of explaining their recent multi-planar adventure to a semi-hostile audience, left Shakris’ explanation to Lesani. The wizard had been initially skeptical, but actually examining the ruby which was Jorduna’s prize was all the proof she needed.

“This… this is an astral ruby,” Shakris replies, careful to keep her voice down and the ruby itself hidden from plain view, “This has to be worth a small fortune at least!”
“Astral?” Jorduna asks, interest piqued, “Thought it was just a ruby.”
“Just a?” Shakris begins to yell, before lowering her tone again, “Just a ruby? This is worth at least ten times a normal ruby! Forget magic shops, you need to talk with a noble or one of the Houses to sell this.”
“What distinguishes it from a normal ruby?” Lesani asks. The warlock was now interested in the ruby as well, but more because an apparently magical object had escaped her notice.

Shakris thinks for a while, then decides to press what little luck she had left. “You’re leaving the city soon for the Eldeen Reaches, right? How?”
“Why, do you want a ride?” Vargard asks, noticing that the wizard had suddenly clammed up.
“I think you owe me that much, yeah,” Shakris replies, “Especially considering you’ve gotten me blacklisted too.”
“What about Langhorn? We’re not exactly up for a prison break right now.”
Shakris shrugs, and answers coldly, “Leave him. I’m not really sure he was onto anything this whole time. Sure, he taught me a fair bit of magic. But he ruined my career with that mad obsession of his, let him rot for all I care. Aundair’ll probably try and bailout one of their old battlemages at some point anyway, once his dignity is broken down to the point where he’ll ask for their help.”
“Wait,” Marwyn perks up at this, “That whole ‘everything getting colder’ thing wasn’t real?”
“No!” Shakris replies in a hurt tone, “It was all fake apparently. No one else could verify what he had been suggesting. He probably believed it, I don’t see why he would just lie, but he couldn’t prove it. So, how are you getting out of here?”
“Airship,” Vargard answers, “A little tug called the Asarclane.”

Once Shakris was assured passage out of Sharn, she was remarkably less tight-lipped about what she knew about astral rubies. It wasn’t much, but it definitely convinced Vargard that they should be taking better care of the thing. Answering a question from Lesani, Shakris further explained that they’re properties weren’t magical per se, and that part of their exorbitant value was indeed this quality.
This was both good and bad news. The good news was that the future seemed brighter for the purses of The Split Falchion. The bad news, aside from Jorduna really regretting not grabbing any more gemstones, was that they had planned to use part of the gold from the ruby’s sale to pay for the airship ride.

The Asarclane, Three Days Later
The arrival of The Asarclane into Sharn’s skydocks was met with a mixture of anticipation and relief from the members of The Split Falchion. Sharn was becoming increasingly hostile to them, spurn on by Morgrave University’s ire. Meeting with his old acquaintance, Ramerie, Vargard thanked the elf for answering his sending so quickly, and then regretfully told him that they were coming up a little short on payment. He left out the astral ruby, as Ramerie wasn’t the kind of friend you trusted with information such as that.
The combined purses of The Split Falchion, and the last meager coins from Shakris, amounted to half of Ramerie’s fee, and that was after reducing their bunks to the minimum. Sighing, Jorduna pulls out a knife, and after reassuring the captain that he wasn’t under attack, offered the blade as the rest of the payment. The elf was initially bemused at the seemingly poor offer, until his arcane eye picked up some pleasant looking auras coming off the dagger. He gladly accepts it, and welcoms them aboard.
“You didn’t have to do that, Jor,” Vargard tells the hobgoblin as they board.
“Didn’t want to give him the you-know-what,” Jorduna replies out of the corner of her mouth, and smiles at the gruff fighter, “Besides, I figure you’ll just reimburse me later from the group’s take.”

The travel would take one week, and would mostly use established trade routes. When Vargard raised his eyes at the use of the word ‘mostly’, Ramerie reluctantly explained that Brelish-Droaam border was temporarily closed while diplomats shouted at each other. They could either dodge around the Silver Lake and put three more days onto the travel clock, or go through the Graywall Mountains. Ramerie assured ‘my old chum Vargard’ that he had done this plenty of times, and everything would be fine as none of the patrolling Brelish airships ever went into the mountain range.
Two days into their travels, Ramerie confidently ordered his navigator to take them through the massive piles of earth that were the Greywall Mountains, while the everyone else, crew included, watched nervously. They expected to be through in only a few hours. Then, they learned why Brelish airships didn’t patrol the Greywall Mountains.

It didn’t help that it was raining as if the heavens had flooded. Vargard had carefully suggested waiting for the storms to pass, but Ramerie shut him down by replying that he had a busy schedule and any delay would unfortunately incur additional fees, despite their good relationship.
Spotters were posted every ten feet along the deck to make sure that the airship wouldn’t hit anything as it navigated passes barely thick enough to allow the Asarclane through. Cletus and Jorduna were even tapped to assist with this, the former taking a position in the Crow’s nest while the latter helped on the deck. Things were going as smoothly as they could have, given the circumstances.
Suddenly, one of the spotters cried out, saying he saw something coming at them. Those that heard the cry assumed it was rocks falling from above, and took whatever shelter they could find. Fortunately, at Vargard’s insistence, some cover had been set up along the deck in case the inhabitants of the mountains took offence to their trailblazing. What fell on the crew that didn’t get into cover in time wasn’t rocks, however, it was fire. A couple were immolated, while the rest were put out by a combination of rain and assisting crewmembers. Jorduna had been caught out in the middle of the blast, but had somehow managed to dodge the flames and emerged unscathed.

“Drag’n!” Cletus shouts into his sending stone, and then again to the general crew. He watched as the red drake which had just toasted one or two crewman flew the length of the ship, before disappearing into the haze behind them.
“What?” Vargard replies, and then orders, “Everyone, topside now. Get to cover!”
Marwyn’s blood chills when he hears Cletus’ warning. He’d seen an impressive amount of both combat and monsters for someone his age, it was true. But it was only a rare few who could look at a winged lizard three times as long as they were tall, and not feel a sense of impending doom. Especially when said beast was dousing their flying boat with dragonfire.
The bard finally manages to steel himself, and interrupts a shouting match between Ramerie and Vargard near the ladder up to the main deck.
“If it brings the ship down you’ll die too!” Ramerie yells. He was hiding behind his cabin door, which he quickly closed whenever the dragon made another pass.
“The dagger,” Vargard says simply, “If you want us to take that thing down, we’ll need every weapon we can get! I’m sure you can get its value from the dragon’s corpse, assuming we kill it.”
“Fine!” Ramerie relents, after yet another wave of dragonfire. He quickly disappears into his room, and comes back out with Jorduna’s dagger, “Just kill it!”

Surfacing, Vargard and Marwyn find the deck of the ship in chaos. Half of the crew had either been burned alive, or were too weak to even try and find cover. Those who were left were trying to drag the injured below, as none could even begin to do anything about the fire drake above.
The mercenaries had escaped most of the fire, and Cletus had even put a few good shots into the dragon. Jorduna and Lesani did what they could, but their enemy had never really gotten close enough for either to be effective. Shakris had elected to remain below, and Vargard couldn’t really blame the wizard.
The dragon had made five attacks on the ship when the last two of The Split Falchion joined the battle. With his adrenaline pumping, the earlier fear Marwyn had felt was abated. It helped that the dragon was nowhere in sight, up until the moment Cletus shouted “AFT!”.

Marwyn notices the ranger was punctuating this by readying his bow, and quickly fumbles to bring out his. He can barely pull back on the bowstring before the massive head of the dragon becomes visible amongst the rain. The bard sees immediate confirmation that it was a red dragon, the scales shone brightly even in a downpour, and loosed his arrow. The aim was wide, however, and the bard was nearly toasted before Vargard drags him behind the wall created by the Asarclane’s lifted stern. The two just barely manage to duck under the encroaching wall of fire. Cletus remained unscathed, as his position was well above the majority of the flames. Lesani wasn’t able to get into cover quite as quickly and was slightly scorched, while Jorduna again took the brunt of the fire with impunity. Marwyn couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the hobgoblin, who was standing out in the open, disappear in the center of the fire, and the come out of it completely fine. He made a note to ask how she was doing it if they survived the attack.
“I got the dagger!” Vargard yells, holding the aforementioned blade up, “Will you tell me what it does now?”
“Toss it over!” Jorduna shouts back, which the warrior does. He wasn’t as accustomed to throwing knives as the hobgoblin was, but Jorduna was perfectly capable of prying it out of the floor when he missed. “Paralysis enchantment!” the rogue answers, twirling the knife in her hand, “Think I can knock the bastard out of the sky!”
“One problem,” Lesani counters, though it takes a moment for Marwyn to understand. The warlock was speaking in Elvish for some reason, and if the bard’s ATHS was bad, his elvish was worse. He managed to get the gist, starting to remember the language. “Dragons are resistant to magic. We will need to wear down those defenses or it will simply ignore it. Marwyn, you should use your non-marksman powers to assist!” Marwyn’s spirit falls when he understood what the warlock was saying, and further when he realized there was only one spell he could use.
“Just let me know when it’s go time!” Jorduna replies, switching over to elvish as well. She then resolved to focus on observing the dragon whenever it flew over the ship, trying to anticipate where it would come from.

Another problem reared its head when everyone heard the sound of the hull scraping against one of the mountains. The helmsman had either fled or died, and the Asarclane was now doing its best to beach itself. Vargard swore, and realized he was the only one who could be spared from the fight. While the others prepared for the dragon’s next attempt to catch the airship on fire, he ran to where the ships controls were. Thankfully, the steering column as well as other instruments were located in an enclosed cabin. Unfortunately, said cabin only had three full walls, the one facing forward had a giant open space which allowed the pilot to see where the ship was going. The resulting low wall was all that stood between him and every other strafe from the dragon. The fighter gripped the airship’s controls, steered it away from the rock face, and prayed that Lesani knew what she was doing.

Inevitably the red dragon returned, having refreshed its fiery breath. It was beginning to focus it on portions of the ship, having identified who were the main threats amidst the rapidly disappearing crew. This required it to fly closer to the deck, but the defenders weren’t doing enough to encourage it to keep its distance anyways. Said defenders had relocated to a position that better covered the dragon’s approach, but all were still a little exposed.
Marwyn’s cover of a crate which had been left on the deck provided him some defense, but he was still burnt by the fire that wrapped around the edges. The bard had to hold in a scream as the exposed flesh crackled, and he instinctively uttered a healing spell. He then remembered what he was supposed to be doing, steeled himself, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Hey dragon! You’re wings are, uh, dumb!”
The bard could have sworn that the dragon, whose head was level with him at this point, looked incredulously at the little speck who was insulting its luxurious wings. For a moment it appeared as though the spell had taken hold, but the dragon merely shrugs it off at the last moment. Lesani, who had held back a spell to instead observe Marwyn’s attempt, yells out “Yes! A few more hits, and it will be vulnerable.” This would have emboldened the half-elf, if it also didn’t make him one of the Dragon’s biggest targets.

Speaking of which, he was still partially on fire. The minute or so between strafing runs was spent hurriedly putting Marwyn out, while using more mundane methods to treat his burns. The dragonfire HURT, even with relatively solid cover between most of its volume, and Marwyn wasn’t sure he could survive even one blast on open ground.
Responding to Vargard’s bellows for assistance from below, the ship’s cleric, who had her hands busy treating the wounded crew, did pop her head out temporarily to put some kind of shield over Marwyn. It was nice to see the crew contribute in some way to saving all of their lives, but the five were still mostly left alone to fend for everyone.
The last few seconds before the dragon returned were spent returning to cover. Jorduna remained out in the open, hoping to both draw and dodge most of the dragonfire. From his new position, Marwyn was thankfully shielded from enough of the onslaught to avoid injury. His attempt with another insult had failed to trip the dragon’s defenses, however, as had the shot of black fire from Lesani. Vargard, meanwhile, was forced to abandon his post in favor of not dying a horrible death, and though he avoided the dragonfire, the hull of the Asarclane rubbed a little more of itself off onto the mountainside.

The good news was that, eventually they would wear down the dragon to the point where it would either collapse from the accrued damage, or from Jorduna’s knife. The bad news was that the ship was probably going down well before that. They could only guess, but the general opinion was that the ship could sustain at most 4 more strafes before going down.
Guessing that his last attempt to avoid the dragonfire by hiding behind a crate would end like the first, Marwyn instead got crafty. Three times now he had seen the dragon hose the ship with fire, and had noticed that it couldn’t cover the entire length of the deck with flames. He rapidly explained his plan to the others, and then turned himself invisible.

When the dragon next approached the Asarclane, it saw every still living defender on the top deck gathered in cover by the starboard side. As this was the same side as the crate Marwyn had taken cover behind before, the dragon didn’t think anything of the fact that it could only see four instead of five. This false assumption was corrected when, after focusing its breath on that side of the ship, Marwyn suddenly appeared at the opposite end, away from the majority of the flames. Not having to worry about keeping his head down, Marwyn managed to get off two poorly worded insults, one of which seemed to trigger the last-second defense from the dragon. Likewise, the bolt of dark fire issued from Lesani’s hand was diverted from its course just before impacting the dragon’s hide.
“That should do it!” Lesani yells to Jorduna, “You’ll have to get it on the next pass!”
“You better!” Vargard shouts from the wheelhouse, also having adopted the elvish tongue, “Controls are getting sluggish!”
There was a thud, as Cletus lands from his jump from the crow’s nest. Jorduna looks at him with a mixture of confusion and surprise, as he’d nearly landed on top of her. Cletus merely gestured to the top portions of the ship, which had begun to catch fire despite the rain. Adding this to the beating the rest of the ship was taking, it soon became clear that The Split Falchion would have to stop the assault quickly.

Said attack never came, however. The next few minutes were spent anxiously scanning for any sign of approach by the dragon, but it had apparently flown off. The four on deck briefly speculated as to why, theories ranging from the airship leaving the dragon’s territory, to the beast being able to understand Elvish. Then Vargard shouted over the conversation, saying that unless someone who actually knew how to fly the airship took over the wheel, he’d likely crash the whole thing into a mountain.
The crew carefully made their way back up. The helmsman fortunately survived, though the dragonfire had damaged the ship and killed or critically injured a dozen crewman. Repairs were quickly started under the continuing assault of the rainstorm, while Vargard argued with Ramerie below deck. The warrior resurfaces just as the Asarclane passes the bulk of the Graywall Mountains, with most of his team’s cash in tow. Ramerie had eventually agreed to refund them most of their fee, but only after Vargard had wondered aloud how much it would cost to replace an airship, and observed that it wouldn’t take much more to totally destabilize this one.

The rest of the journey was mercifully calm. The tension between Ramerie and his passengers was eased slightly when they offered to help with repairs, though both sides still felt as if they were being cheated.

Greenheart Approach, One Week to Spring Equinox
The approach to Greenheart was at first unremarkable. The Asarclane had been above the Towering Wood for a few days at this point, and to those on deck it appeared to be all forest. The woods were named appropriately, some trees were so high that the helmsman had to navigate around them, rather than just fly over them. It inevitably dawned on all who approached that such trees were becoming more and more common, until those looking for it recognizes a gathering of such giant trees in the distance. By Vargard’s estimation they were at least a mile away when the airship began to descend.
“What the hell, Ramerie? We’re not there yet,” he complains.
Lesani, however, intercedes before the airship captain, “Var, Greenheart does not permit trade caravans entering the city, and that includes airships. I am afraid this is as close as the Asarclane can go without provoking a response.”

Given this sentiment, then, Vargard was surprised to find a sky dock constructed in a seemingly random forest clearing. There were only a few at the station, rough looking people whose armor was interlaced with plant life, though the warrior had the distinct impression that there were others just out of sight. The six departed the Asarclane, which just as quickly removed itself from its moorings, and disappeared towards the south. Vargard got the distinct impression that no amount of fare would convince Ramerie to make another such journey.
Marwyn, for his part, was feeling creeped out. He shared Vargard’s sensation of being watched, but only on a more subconscious level. This background dread mixed with the memories of all the horrible things that had happened to him in or near a forest, and caused the bard to go quite quiet.
“It should be but an hour to Greenheard,” Lesani informs the others, taking over the lead now that she was close to home. “I must warn you that the circumstances surrounding the city are somewhat different than what is commonly observe in the other kingdoms,” the elf continues, as they began walking in the direction of their destination.
“How so?” Vargard asks, content to let Lesani hold the reigns for a while.
“There are no stores nor inns, as the trade restriction extends within the city itself,” she explains, “And while I name it a city out of respect for its importance to our nation, its size is more equivalent to that of a town. While I will be welcomed back with open arms, I warn the rest of you that you will be treated as guests in another’s house. So long as you avoid flagrant breaches of Greenheart’s ethics, we should be fine, however,” she finishes, directing a particular glance at Jorduna towards the end. The hobgoblin, for her part, swore internally as she realized she had severely underestimated the backwardness of the forest nation.
“No inns? But where will we stay?” Shakris asks, she too being unprepared for the difference in customs.
“Where else?” Lesani asks rhetorically, “My home.”

Windhailer Manor, Later That Day
Lesani had led the six travelers adeptly through the twisting foliage, past the guards patrolling the border of Greenheart (who seemed to recognize Lesani, oddly enough), and into the center of Greenheart. Along the way they passed many people, whose garb ranged from that of what Marwyn now recognized as the Greenheart guard, to loose-fitting, flowing robes of those more peaceful denizens of the village. There were also a few Wardens, heavily armed and armored, who too were wandering Greenheart. Most either ignored the travelers, nodded gracefully in passing, or greeted Lesani when they recognized her. Each greeting was short and formal, however, not keeping either party for long.
The buildings were impressive as well, some appeared constructed through normal means, but others appeared to have been grown from the surrounding plant life. What truly overwhelmed Marwyn, however, was the sense of primal power that littered the air. He had experience enough with divine and arcane energy, but rarely had the bard come across a shaman or druid. Yet here, the stuff was everywhere. It seemed a good third of everyone they passed was someone with some form of primal talent. Even though he couldn’t begin to tap into it, the primal energy gave Marwyn a heady feeling.
That feeling diminished slightly with time, as Marwyn acclimated to the environment, and he was beginning to feel normal again when they finally arrived at Lesani’s ‘home’. That word did it little justice, however, for the structure before them was one of the largest they had seen. The others stared incredulously at Lesani when she rapped on the door, wondering if she had made a mistake.
That the one who opened the door greeted the warlock by name banished those doubts. A serious elf, wielding a bow and wearing his armor as if it were a second skin, suddenly reached out to embrace Lesani.

He then turns to those who had been following Lesani, all signs of grimness replaced by a joy that was just as fierce. “Welcome, welcome! My daughter has told me much of you! Please, come inside,” the man punctuates his greeting with an open gesture to his guests.
They were led into a large room containing an absolutely massive fireplace, and numerous decorative wooden chairs. The chairs, no matter how flimsy they appeared, were actually quite sturdy. The fire likewise burned ferociously, but didn’t damage the wood surrounding it or fill the room with smoke. Both anomalies were obviously the work of magic.
“It is good to see you again, Lesani,” her father says, when all had been seated. He himself remained by the fire, returning to venison which he had obviously been cooking, “As well as your friends, though I see one more than I remember from your most recent tales. Who are you?” he asks Shakris.
The woman, who had only really taken the airship ride to get away from vengeful scholars, was a bit overcome by the hospitality, and took a moment before she could answer, “Shakris Valderis, I was merely travelling with them, I’m not…”
“Oh, it’s ok,” the elf cuts her off, “I don’t need an explanation. I am Folgore Windhailer, if my Lesani hasn’t already spoken of me before.”
“I admit I have kept tales of my homeland somewhat limited,” Lesani says, “Though not out of distrust of my compatriots.”
“Well, I am very glad to meet you all,” Folgore says, removing the now fully cooked venison and offering it to his guests, “However I regretfully must speak with my daughter in private. Should you need anything while we discuss family matters, another of the house will be able to assist you. Lesani?” he looks to the warlock, who follows him out.

When out of sight of the others, Folgore’s demeanor rapidly shifts back to the serious elf that had initially greeted Lesani. “We received your message in full, daughter, though we could scarcely believe you had sent it. You know that the Gatekeepers are not to be disturbed unless absolutely necessary!”
Lesani faces the storm bravely, however, and deferentially responds, “I can verify the prophecy that was relayed, and the circumstances leading to its retrieval. Though I do not fully understand how or why we had come across it, it now appears that fate may be guiding our actions.”
“And that boy is this fabled ‘Winter’s Bow’?” Folgore asks.
“Apparently,” Lesani agrees, “I must attest that he does seem to take to the life of a mercenary surprisingly well. Others his age would have not survived his first trial by fire, much less everything else that has occurred. If this ‘Winter’ spirit has been observing Marwyn for all this time, then perhaps it would go towards explaining some of his more… miraculous feats.”
Folgore sighs, and replies, “I trust your judgment. Most of the Gatekeepers have dispersed for their annual renewal rites, though a few have remained in Greenheart to see to the defenses here. One has expressed interest in meeting with you tomorrow, at dawn. Will you bring your companions?”
“Not initially,” Lesani decides, “Some will probably be against assisting the Gatekeepers, at least at first. I am not sure exactly how much I should tell them.”
“Nothing, at first,” Folgore answers firmly, “Go, and meet with the Gatekeeper tomorrow. It is possible this prophecy is still a falsehood. As for your companions, have they been informed of our traditions?”
“Yes,” Lesani replies nervously, “Though I imagine one of my companions would prefer to go hunting at some point. I am not entirely aware of the current restrictions…”
“I will lend him aid,” Folgore offers, knowing exactly who Lesani was referring to, “He has the looks of a good hunter. If I didn’t know better, I might suspect the dwarf to be a warden. What are his origins?”
“You know father, I am not sure. He rarely talks about his history, or in general honestly.”
“Why, he sounds like the perfect hunting companion,” Folgore remarks thoughtfully.

The Next Day
Marwyn awoke to one of the best nights of sleep he had had in ages. The bard had no idea what had lined the mattress of his bed, but he had fallen asleep the instant he had laid down. Remembering this, Marwyn wearily does a quick scan of the bed, seeing if there was any enchantment that aided rest. He found none, however, the bed was just that good.
For the first time in months, he felt truly relaxed. The goings on of Fairhaven had always awoken him early in the morning, and whenever he went anywhere else he was either roughing it on the road, or under the stress of a job. The denizens of Greenheart appeared to be more conscientious of their neighbors, and the only noise which surrounded him was that of nearby wildlife. The sun was also well above the horizon, surprisingly close to its zenith.
He groggily climbs down the elegant central staircase, back to the foyer where he assumed others would be. He finds only Vargard and Shakris, who were both reading from elvish texts.
“You’re the last up,” Vargard tells Marwyn, answering his question before the bard had even asked, “Les went off somewhere before dawn, Cletus is out with Folgore hunting, and Jor had better be staying out of trouble,” the warrior says, raising his voice just a little towards the end, “I can only assume she’s meeting with whoever handles dire Draconic Prophecies over here. Lesani, I mean. There’s still some breakfast left for you.” The fighter points to a selection of succulent meats resting on one of the hearth stones, kept warm by the fire.
“Thanks,” Marwyn says, taking the food, “I never knew Les had something like… this. Why’s she been with us this whole time?”
“I always knew she was in contact with someone from her home,” Vargard admits, “Though I never imagined this. Always assumed it was an old warden contact, but to find out that her father is a Marshall…”
“A what?”
“Marshall. Something like a warden general,” Vargard explains, “Druidic sects aren’t organized exactly like the military, but it’s safe to say he’s high ranking. A little hard to believe Lesani left the Wardens when her father was this important.”
“Wait, if he’s a druid, why isn’t Les?” Marwyn asks.
“Magic’s funny like that somethings,” Shakris answers, over from her corner, “Sometimes the oldest, decrepit wizard, completely fitting the stereotype everyone imagines a wizard to be, has a grandson gifted to be a shaman. Or vice versa.”
“I’ve never really thought about Les’ patron beforehand, to be honest,” Marwyn says thoughtfully, “Just didn’t occur to me.”
“It doesn’t come up much,” Vargard explains, “The source of her power is Les’ business, as are her reasons for leaving Greenheart.”

“Back Boss,” Jorduna announces, entering the room, “No dice on any buyers. Got the impression that no marketplace means no one wants to buy a really expensive gem, but I did some digging anyways. Think’ll have to wait a little bit longer. At least Les’ folks are the welcoming sort.”
“Indeed,” Vargard agrees. They’d only really interacted with Lesani’s father and a few of what appeared to be a cross between manservant and Warden in training. Likely, the druidic sect added housekeeping duties to their trainees’ education. The warrior assumed there were others related to Lesani within the household, but the place was big enough that they hadn’t run into any. It was equally possible that Folgore was the only actual member of the Windhailer family that was currently living at Windhailer Manor, and that the others were travelling across Khorvaire.
“What do we do now?”
“Relax, Jor,” Vargard answers, “Les’ll let us know if anything’s up when she returns. Until then, I say we take a well-deserved break from other people telling us what to do for money. If we can somehow get out from under this whole prophecy mess, and sell the ruby, I wouldn’t mind taking a longer vacation.”
“At least until the gold runs short, yeah that sounds kinda nice,” Jorduna yields, internally adding that it would be a relief to go somewhere where picking a pocket could only get you landed in jail for a few nights, instead of quite possibly being hunted down by every bowman within miles.
Not wanting to risk offending anyone, and not having a strong reason to leave Windhailer Manor, the four resolved to wait for Cletus and Lesani to return.

Lesani had waited for almost two hours before the Gatekeeper had arrived. She was within one of the more central structures of Greenheart, practically a short walk away from Oalian’s grove. The warlock had expected the wait, and quickly worked with her journal in the rather plain room.
When the Gatekeeper druid did arrive, it was with another in tow. A more ancient druid enters with him, to Lesani’s surprise. Not because of the older druid’s presence, but of the markings adorning their hide (for their natural skin had long ago been augmented with both animal skin and tree bark). It was an Oalian druid, one of the few chosen to act directly under the Great Tree’s will.
Both the Gatekeeper and Lesani wait for the Oalian to take her seat, knowing what would come next. The elder druid shifts a chair close to one of the walls, sits, and takes a deep breath. Tendrils of wood grow out of the wall, and splice into the druid’s barkskin. Eyes glowing faintly, the druid announces, “He is with us,” and then goes into a trance.
Now allowed to speak, the Gatekeeper initiates the conversation sternly, “Warlock Windhailer, it appears you have brought a matter most dire to our attention.”
“Gatekeeper,” Lesani returns, “I do not understand why Master Oalian’s presence is required. I do not suggest it is unwelcome, simply unusual.”
The Gatekeeper sighs, and answers, “It is customary for Oalian to adjudicate any dispute between the druid sects, as you should know.”
Lesani bristles, slowly becoming aware of the jaws of a trap. A slight twinge of betrayal runs through her, though she rarely had contact from her patron, surely Oalian could have given her a sign beforehand. “I was not aware of any dispute between us,” she finally answers cautiously.
“As Winter’s Bow is currently under the protection of a Marshall, our demand will certainly create one,” the Gatekeeper replies.
“You understand the stakes, Windhailer. Your report sharpened a concern we have had for some years. One of our seals is becoming undone, and for all our efforts, we cannot prevent this.” The Gatekeeper lets this hang in the air, observing Lesani’s reaction.
“Where?” Lesani asks quickly, starting to grasp the severity of the situation.
“The Shadow Marches,” the Gatekeeper responds, “And we will need to act quickly to prevent new catastrophe. Xoriat must not be allowed to plague our realm again.”
“Then what is your demand?”
“That you and all you brought help us renew the seal, and fulfill the prophecy,” the druid explains, “You will be transported by our circles to the mire, and attached to the Gatekeeper leading the defense. Master Oalian has been apprised of the situation and has tentatively granted our request. If you have any reason to dissuade him, speak it now.”
“I…” Lesani pauses, floored by the sudden turn of events, “I cannot assure my companions will oblige.”
“That is irrelevant,” the Gatekeeper answers, “They will assist us in defending Eberron.”
“How will you assure their compliance?”
“Leave that to us,” the druid answers ominously, “Master Oalian, does your ruling stand?”

There is a pause, when both looked to the ancient druid connected to the wall. After a moment, her head nods slowly.
“So be it,” the Gatekeeper acknowledges. “Windhailer, I must apologize, but the fate of Eberron takes precedence over anything else.”
“Your reasoning is understandable, but this ambush was an insult.” Lesani responds, as she storms out of the room.

The Warlock manages to reach Windhailer Manor before the rest. “Var, I am sorry. I did not believe it would come to this.”
“Daughter, what is wrong?” Folgore asks, for he and Cletus had returned from their hunt.
“Master Oalian, he…” she tries to explain.
“Marshall Windhailer!” an authoritative voice from outside of the manor shouts. The Warden looks between the door and Lesani, gives the latter an apologetic look, and moves towards the former.

“Les, what’s going on?” Vargard asks, worried.
“The Gatekeepers were more desperate than I had imagined,” the warlock explains, “They have…”
Once more Lesani is cut off when Folgore returns, paler than before. “Lesani, have your friends gather their belongings and meet outside.”
“What?” Vargard asks, still not understanding, “What’s going on?”
“Per the decision of Master Oalian, the Great Druid,” Folgore explains, “You are remanded to the custody of the Gatekeepers until Winter’s Bow has fulfilled its duty. Resisting is… ill-advised.”
“We’re not part of your kingdom, you can’t do this!” Jorduna protests.
“It has been done,” Folgore says ominously, “Though I personally apologize for my failure to protect guests of the house, a higher authority has ruled.”
“Like hell, Var, we’re getting out of AUGH!” Jorduna suddenly screams, clutching her head after trying to reach for one of her knives.
“What the hell? What did you do to her?” Vargard yells, though he was careful not to reach for one of his swords.
“I have done nothing,” Folgore answers, “As I said, it has already been done. Master Oalian has placed upon you a geas. You must comply with the wishes of the Gatekeepers.”
“Or… what?” Jorduna asks weakly. The pain that had struck her had been intense and debilitating, but short lasting.
“Or you shall perish,” Folgore replies simply.

Continued in Part 34, The Gatekeepers – Those Who Watch, Those Who Wait

Winter Unleashed
A Song of Ice

Part 32 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Yesterday, Marwyn
Marwyn had heard Lesani’s shouted warning, but before he could try and jump off the temple’s platform, it had already fired. He all but lost consciousness as his physical form was tossed between the planes like a leaf in the gale. When it all ended, he could only see one thing before his mind was completely overwhelmed. A floating, blue cloak.

The bard awoke in sheer panic, gasping for air. After calming down enough to take in his surroundings, he finds himself somewhat back in the prison cell the Fairhaven guard had taken him to back when they thought him a traitor. Panic resumed as he searched for and failed to find any of his gear. Had it all been a dream? Was he still in this prison, had his escape never happened?
He jumps back as a familiar face melts out of the wall. Daigre, the stone-walking dwarf. “On sec’nd thought, think’ll just leave ya’. Not w’rth tha’ trouble.”
“Wait, wait no! Wait!” Marwyn screams after him. This wasn’t what happened, he was supposed to escape with that dwarf. “Come back!”
“Eh, keep it down, or I’ll keep you down,” a guard yells at him, “Frickin’ lunatics.”
“Let me out! I’m with the Royal Eyes!”
“The what?” the guard responds ignorantly, “Look, not gunna tell you again.”
“Let me out!” Marwyn screams desperately. The guard merely sighs, and cracks him on the head with a baton.

When the bard wakes up, head ringing, he immediately feels the binds around his wrists and ankles. The ropes were taught, so much so that we was being suspended over the table below him. It hurt, but nowhere near as much as it could. Marwyn knew what he was on, he’d been fearing it ever since he’d woken up back in the prison cell. The rack.
“Finally awake? Good,” a voice calls out to him, but Marwyn can’t stretch his head up enough to see the speaker, “I worried that guard may have rendered you brain dead. Not that that would take much effort.”
“Mmmm mph!” Marwyn tries to speak, but he had been gagged as well.
“Sorry, couldn’t quite catch that,” the interrogator says whimsically, “Now let’s see here, agenda, agenda,” and the sound of ruffling paper was heard. The interrogator steps into Marwyn’s field of vision, and to the bard, it appeared to be the same one that had taunted him last time. “Oh yes, Cyrian rebels and all that. Boring!”

The interrogator tosses the parchment he had in his hands to the side, and to Marwyn’s surprise they burst into flames, “I’d rather just skip to the torture. Because you’ve had it a long time coming, bard. A long, time,” the voice menaces. The interrogator pulls out a knife, leans over Marwyn and… cuts one of his hands free? “You can handle it from there,” he says simply, walking away.
Marwyn rips the gag out of his mouth with his free hand and says, “But… what?”
“Of course you’d be stupid enough not to understand what’s going on. I mean, did you actually think you went back in time? Maybe… maybe this will clear things up,” and with those words, the interrogator begins to change. Had he thought to free his other limbs Marwyn would have run, but all he could do was cower as the interrogator’s form ripples and changed. Changed into the terrible shape of Blue Cloak’s true form, the mist wight.

“Thought you were rid of me?” it screams at him, in a screeching voice, “I have suffered so long in this hell, but now…”
“This is impossible! How…” Marwyn blusters, while finally trying to loose his other hand.
“You never removed your mark, you complete, utter, stupid fool! I have no idea how you of all people managed to plane shift, but did you really think you couldn’t be intercepted? My master has powers not even the rest of the gods know of! And despite my failure… he has given me the chance to punish the one responsible. Your agony will be the my last real succor ‘fore eternal damnation, and I will make it last.”
“What… what are you going to do?” Marwyn asks, words barely forming midst his terror.
“What am I going to do? To repay all that you have done?” it asks rhetorically, “I’m letting you go of course.” The figure then turns, and exits the room.

Incredulous, Marwyn redoubles his efforts to free himself before it comes back. He fails, however, as just before the door closes, the hand of the beast stops it. “Oh, by the way, the entirety of this world is a nightmare realm designed solely to inflict you physical and mental trauma. Most was supplied by your own subconscious, though I admit I took some creative liberties with your father. After all, what’s the real difference between a tanner and a butcher? Oh, he’s just thrilled to meet you. So if you just want to starve here that’s fine, I’m sure I’ll think of something to flush you out. It’s the show of your life, bard. You don’t want to leave your audience waiting. Heh heh heh,” the mist laughs as it leaves, the echoing chuckles eventually fading.

Marwyn eventually frees himself, though he wasn’t entirely sure he should. His mind was all over the place, reeling. Was it a bluff, the moment he stepped out he’d get a sword to the neck? Or even worse, was it all true… And what happened to everyone else?
All of his stuff was gone. Just a cloth sack and some rope he could salvage from the rack. One of the boards looked loose, and now he also had weapon. A terrible weapon that wouldn’t as much parry a spoon, but a weapon.
He nervously peeks through the door, not sure what he’d find. It was a hallway reminiscent of the Fairhaven underground, complete with even a guard. The resemblances stopped there however, for the creature before him was obviously a zombie.
“I started off easy, I admit,” Blue Cloak taunts him, his voice seeming to come from nowhere, “Oh, yeah, I can see you wherever you are. And talk to you, so you’ll always have this cheery voice in your head while, you know, your spleen is being eaten or something. Good job getting that stick, I’m sure it’ll help you… ok, I can’t. What are you going to… I’ll just find out. Hey you!” the voice shouts to the zombie, “Dinner time. Let’s go, I want to see some biting. Chop chop.”

The zombie slowly lurches to attention, catching sight of Marwyn. The bard screams as it charges him, and he barely manages to get the door closed. “Oh good, you prolonged your survival by about 2 minutes.”
“Just shut up!” Marwyn yells into the air, trying to hold the door shut.
“Oh, alright, since you’re in charge of this pocket dimension hellhole… oh wait, that would be me,” Blue Cloak says ironically, “So instead, I think I’ll weaken the hinges on that door.”
Marwyn screams again as the wooden door swings inward, the hinges practically falling off. He hurriedly backs away, almost falling backwards onto the rack. With horror, he watches as the zombie shambles towards him. Now that he had an unwanted better look, he realized it was the guard from earlier. The skin was halfway decayed, but it was him.
Fortunately it only tried to claw at him, instead of using the perfectly good sword at its hip. The bard was barely able to keep it off him, and it was also a minute of desperate struggle before Marwyn managed to grasp the hilt of the sabre. From there, it was a stab, and, when he figures out that doesn’t work too well against zombies, a few slashes to end the being.

“Good job,” the voice says mockingly, “You really, really did it. Honestly would’ve been disappointed if that ended you.”
“What’s the point?” Marwyn challenges, “If you can just change anything here, why should I even try?”
“A fair point,” it replies, “I suppose this is the part where I give you some kind of arcane, specific rule which, if you follow, will let you out. Though I suppose the little brain you do have will probably see through it. So yeah, you’re going to die here. It’s just a matter of how, and wouldn’t you like to go out fighting something a little more than a simple undead?”

Marwyn really didn’t know how to respond to that. He didn’t want to die, certainly. He definitely couldn’t just… No, he had to keep moving. There must be a way out, the voice certainly wouldn’t tell him if there was. Maybe this was all a bluff to get him to stop from even looking.

He was halfway down the corridor, resolved to fight whatever was around the next corridor, when the voice chimed in again. “Ok, if you want to get out, just collect the four shards of the master key and unlock the giant lock in the… oh, why do I even try?” it sighs, when Marwyn ignores the voice and keeps walking. “It’s rude to ignore someone you know!”

Suddenly, the floor was littered with broken glass, and the bard grunted in pain when he unknowing stepped on it with his bare feet. “Ah, that’s more like it! Now the fun begins. I think I’ll just sit back a little and enjoy. Have… fun…” the voice slowly drifts away.
The bard tries his hardest not to move, lest he get more glass in his feet. He tries for a moment to heal his wounds, then depressingly remembers he didn’t have anything to channel his powers through. Without a lute, wand, or bow, he was basically magicless. It takes him a few minutes, but he eventually figures out pushing aside the glass with the board he had pried free earlier. It took a while, but he reached the end of the corridor, which was fortunately glass free. There, he took the time to dig out the larger shards so that he could actually walk again. It still hurt, but not by much.

The bard was still freaking out, of course. But rather than cow him, the dangers thus far had emboldened him. It flamed a rage he didn’t know he had in him. Blue Cloak had already tried to ruin his life once. He sure as hell wasn’t tolerating a second time.
The next hallway ended in a stairway up, assumedly to the surface. This wasn’t how Marwyn remembered the prison, but obviously he couldn’t rely on memory. Figuring any trap would be undetectable, he breaks into a sprint and manages to reach the end without trouble. Heading up the stairway, he finds himself in the middle of Fairhaven proper. Burning.
Most of the city seemed ablaze, and everywhere were the sounds of people dying. Some of these scenes were even visible, as people were hacked, bludgeoned, or devoured by a variety of monsters. Some undead, yes, but others were of a different nature. Marwyn wasn’t sure what they were, but he knew he didn’t want to fight any of them.

His attention is immediately drawn by a familiar cry. Down the street, in a ruined shop, Vargard was fighting several goblins. Unthinkingly, Marwyn ran to his aid, and together they easily killed the few enemies. However, when the fight had ended, Vargard turns his blade towards Marwyn.
“This is your fault!” the warrior screams, blind rage in his eyes, “All of this! I should have left you in the gutter I found you in, and run you through while I was at it!”
“Var, I…” Marwyn tries at first to reason, but then comes to a realization. It wasn’t really him.

“My god, took you long enough,” the voice taunts him, as the warrior assaults Marwyn. Shit, Marwyn thinks, he can read my thoughts. “Well of course I can. I’d complain that they were annoying, but honestly there aren’t that many.”
Shut. Up! Marwyn thinks, as he tries to defend against Vargard. He wasn’t a match for him, though, and quickly acquired a deep cut across the torso. Gasping with the pain, Marwyn decides that if he stayed, he’d die. So he ran away.

Fortunately, the warrior didn’t give chase. Instead, he started desperately pleading with the bard. “Marwyn, my leg! I can’t move, you have to get me out of here! Maaarrwwyynn!” the warrior screamed, as the building collapsed on him.
“Ooh, that had to hurt. Of course, you know its fake, but it seems real doesn’t it?”
I’m. Ignoring. You.
“You can try,” the voice says teasingly, “Though I find it interesting that the first horror your mind summoned up was abandonment issues. Geez.”
Gritting his teeth, Marwyn heads for one of the buildings that wasn’t actively on fire. He needed to treat his chest wound.

Mercifully, he was unbothered as he gathered what little supplies were around him. There was just enough cloth to form a rough bandage, and an old bottle that contained some hard alcohol. Now that he wasn’t actively bleeding from the chest, he could try to make sense of the situation. The city was on fire. No one around him was probably real. He needed to find a lute, or a wand, or something before… Wait, there was something…
Immediately, for whatever reason, his train of thought lapsed.
“Hmm, what was that? That just now?” Blue Cloak asks, with what almost sounds like a touch of concern, “What are you up to?”
Marwyn was just as confused as the voice was, however, and this was immediately made clear to his eternal observer.
“Huh. I admit I was overexaggerating your incompetence before but… how in Khyber did an idiot like you best me? Oh well, have some abberants.” The bard wasn’t entirely sure what an abberant was, but he was about to find out.

Two figures suddenly burst through the door of the room he was hiding in. They were humanoid, but purplish. They also seemed to have a squid attached to their faces, so there was that too. He immediately takes off running in the opposite direction, using the only tactic that had worked so far. It was only marginally successful this time, as a bolt of lightning clipped him as he rounded a corner. As he was running, he realized what direction he was being led. Towards Fairhold, and the center of the city. He saw the keep once he had gotten on the main road, abberants still in pursuit. The graceful structure was in all but ruin, however. Gigantic holes had been ripped out of the marble, the pride of Aundair had almost been completely destroyed.
“Hmm, no, this isn’t quite working for me,” the voice croons again, “Watching you run like a frightened, bleeding rabbit is pretty entertaining, but I feel like I’d like a more hands on approach. Tell you what, make it to the throne room before the fire does, and I won’t fillet you quite yet.”
Marwyn was about to wonder what it meant by that, when all of a sudden, a giant wave of fire sprang into life at the city wall. And it started to quickly move inwards.

The bard redoubled his sprint, even though is lungs were giving out. His exertion was intensified by the upward slope when he reached the threshold of Fairhold, but he seemed to be making it barely. The fire had consumed a third of the city thus far, but he was beating it.
When he entered the castle itself, however, he realized a major problem. He had no idea where Aurala’s throne room was, even when Fairhold hadn’t been torn to bits. He wondered for a moment if the ‘throne room’ had been ripped out, and he was meant to find its rubble in the city below. Too late now though, he thinks.
It takes him a while, but eventually he finds the throne, with a wall of fire nipping on his heels. And before him, sitting in it, is none other than Blue Cloak. It’d returned to his cloaked form, probably because it thought it made it look more regal or something.
“It does,” Blue Cloak says, “And would you stop referring to me as an it? Gods, I have feelings you know. Somewhere, probably in a jar. Good job on getting here though. Should probably stop that fire before it kills you.” It snaps its bony fingers, and the fire dies out, leaving just the two of them.

Blue Cloak gets out of the throne, and lands gracefully on the broken floor, opposite of Marwyn. The bard tries to move, but finds himself suddenly incapable of doing so. “Honestly, I don’t know what I was thinking. Your own personal hell? No, I want your pain concentrated. But at least we learned something today. In the time since I’ve seen you you’re still an idiot, and I need to stop being so clever. Well, now that we’ve got that sorted out, I might as well just STAB YOU” It suddenly yells, moving with lightning fast speed and practically gutting Marwyn with a single stroke.
The pain was immense, but Marwyn couldn’t do anything to prevent it. Each cut was ferocious, but at the same time, measure and precise. Intended to inflict tremendous pain without immediately killing him. Eventually it stops, and lets the bard collapse.

Marwyn could barely breathe. He could barely move, let alone breathe. For all the talk of prolonged agony, Blue Cloak was doing its damndest to kill him quickly.
“Oh go on, get up, get up!” the cloaked figure yells, hoisting the bard up, “Do you even know what you did back there? The power that was almost mine which you just snapped in two? Like… like this?” it cries, as it snaps Marwyn’s right arm cleanly. But by now it was just more pain scattered across a canvas of agony. The bard tries to do something with his other arm while Blue Cloak was close, but he could barely muster the strength to make a fist.

“You want to do something? You think you can do something?” Blue Cloak screams in his face, “Come, look at this, look at this.” It drags Marwyn over to the stained glass window behind the throne, and shatters it without anything more than a snap of its fingers. “I have burned your entire world down and that was just setting the scene. I can cure those wounds in an instant, or break every bone in your body. You are mine, now, and forever! And this torment, oh, this is just the beginning. You will come to wish I was this merciful to you, and when you beg for it all to end, I will simply laugh.”
Jump. The word finally became clear. It was what had nagged him earlier, a thought he couldn’t quite pin down. But it wasn’t his, and Blue Cloak didn’t seem to notice. Jump, there it was again. Jump down, into the burning city? Jump! it said again, this time forcefully.

“Wait, what are you…” Blue Cloak begins, but he is suddenly blown away from the bard by a wave of force. Marwyn collapses, inches away from the edge. “This is impossible! You can’t have…”
Jump now! Whatever this new voice was, it seemed to have some power against his tormentor. That was all Marwyn needed to trust it, and he rolled himself off the edge. The plunge was terrifying, but not as much as what awaited him back in the throne room. Death might be a release, he thought, maybe this was just himself letting go, letting it all end. He didn’t want it to end this way, but perhaps, perhaps it was time. He found peace, inches away from the ground.

Marwyn awoke with a gasp, blind. For a moment, he thought himself back in the prison, that it was all starting over again. Then he notices something is trying to crush his head. After wrenching the thing from his skull and crushing it beneath his heel, Marwyn sees a… thing. It is definitely a thing, but it was too amorphous to describe otherwise. “What the hell?” he groans.
“It has no name. For it shouldn’t exist in this realm,” an odd voice tells the bard. It sounded young, definitely male, but very experienced. “Much like you shouldn’t be here.” The voice wasn’t the same as the one Blue Cloak had used, but recent events had left him on edge.
“Who are you?” Marwyn calls out. He didn’t see anything besides a faint light that filled the area, not even in the far horizon. But the voice seemed like it was close.
“A friend,” it reassures him, “That aberration was attempting to corrupt you, using both your fears and perceived agony to destabilize you and induce madness. I am not entirely sure what its intentions were after that, though I assume only more unpleasantness would follow. But I assure you, you have now returned to reality.”
“Who… who are you?” Marwyn repeats uneasily, trying to stand and failing, “Where am I?”
“The Sea of Siberys,” it answers.
“Ok, but who are you?” Marwyn asks again.
“The Sea of Siberys,” it replies again, and the bard feels his jaw go wide when he realizes it was serious.

“You, you can’t be,” Marwyn says, once he had regained his voice, “That’s insane!”
“At first it may appear so. In truth I call myself the Sea of Siberys in the same way you may call yourself Aundair,” the voice tries to explain.
“What?” Marwyn simply asks, not understanding.
There was a small sigh, and then the voice continues, “It is understandable if your trials have left you weary. There is a place nearby where you may rest, with one who can explain more aptly. I believe you have already met.”
“Wait,” Marwyn says, getting his thoughts together, “If I’m really in the Sea, how come I’m not freezing to death or something? How am I standing?”
“Some of the Sea is not dangerous for mortal inhabitants, though I admit if it were not for me you would be,” the voice says, “As for the second matter, you are standing because you think you should be standing. Gravity here is somewhat subjective, I would try not to think on it.”
“O…ok,” Marwyn replies, still not entirely understanding, but now sure that he wasn’t in immediate danger. It could still be a trick on Blue Cloak’s part, if that wasn’t just a nightmare, but he was being optimistic today. “Where should I go?”
“Withdraw your bow,” he says, somewhat relieved that the bard was starting to comprehend him. Marwyn does so, and gapes when he sees his dragonshard glowing fiercely with power. A power he had seen before.
“That, that was you!” Marwyn exclaims, remembering the time the stone had lent terrible power to one of his shots before quickly fading again.
“Yes. Navigate in the direction it glows brightest. I would give better instructions but you really wouldn’t understand them.”
“Alright,” Marwyn nods, ready to move forward. He moves the stone around him, trying to find a heading. Confusion fills him when this direction turns out to be straight downwards.
“Will yourself that way, and that way you will go,” the voice instructs, seeing his confusion. With his concentration now on the dragonshard, Marwyn makes a surpise discovery. He finds that the voice seemed to be originated from the dragonshard. He couldn’t locate the source of the voice earlier, but now that it was literally staring him in the face, it was obvious. For a moment, the bard though to ask exactly why and how this being was inhabiting his dragonshard, but figured all he’d get was an exasperated sigh when the first explanation was too arcane to understand.
Instead, he just decided to get a move on and worry later. It took a few tries, but Marwyn was soon flying through the empty air, holding out the stone in front of him as a guide.

It took what seemed like an hour, but Marwyn eventually got the hang of navigation in what was apparently the Sea of Siberys. What he had experienced prior to this could technically be counted as sleep, and he simply withdrew some rations whenever hunger hit him. The bard was slightly concerned with his supplies, but figured if his guide was willing to save him from some kind of nightmare demon, it would have thought of getting him food at some point in the future as well. His baser needs having been satisfied, all there was to do was continue through the dimly lit eternity of nothing.
With the only input now required being slight course corrections when the dragonshard’s light dimmed, Marwyn’s mind began to wander. The travel felt similar to what flying must be like, and eventually he was able to just enjoy the sensation. And then he realized something he should have immediately.

“Gods!” he shouts, “What about my friends. They should have been with me!”
“I do not know where they are,” the voice answers troublingly. Marwyn was glad to know it was still following him, but the answer was less than comforting.
“I have to go back! They might need my help or…”
“I do, however, know where they will be,” the voice assures him, “And that your present course is the shortest path to them. My compliments on adjusting to movement here, by the way.”
“You know the future?” Marwyn asks skeptically.
“Yes. And no. And in between,” his guide answers unhelpfully, “It is complicated expressing the exact nature of my knowledge in this tongue. To the extent at which you need to be concerned, your friends are still that way,” it finishes, briefly causing the dragonshard to glow more intensely for emphasis.
“But how did we get separated?”
“You look far too sane to have been studying the intricacies of interplanar travel for long enough to understand. I’ll simply say that something on your being caused you to be ‘pulled’ away during transit. Fortunately it wasn’t strong enough to ‘pull’ you all the way, but enough that I could not find you until you were already under assault.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Marwyn replies, “It was probably my Mark. I’d been cursed before after an encounter with something but I think it’s all sorted out now.”
After waiting for the bard to finish, the guide replies, “Yes, I have been watching you for some time. Apparently the master of the mark attempted to use it to throw you into Xoriat. Again, speaking loosely.”
“Best you not concern yourself with that place. Yet. Now, the upcoming section is rather tricky. I will need to focus to navigate the ripples in the Sea. Please save any remaining questions until we are clear.”
“Yeah, sure,” Marwyn nods, not liking the implication behind the phrase ‘ripples in the Sea’.

To Marwyn’s surprise, his surroundings began changing without any warning. What had been an endless void began to shift, growing brighter and tinged with various colors. In the far distance, almost impossibly far, seemed to be land of some sort. The bard also noticed that the stone was taking him through a path which avoided that direction.
This change was also accompanied by sudden vertigo, and Marwyn had to fight to keep down the rations he had eaten earlier. “Apologies,” the guide speaks up, “I believed my presence was enough to shield you from the majority of side effects from plane shifting. This was an error of judgment on my part.”
“We, ugh, we just plane shifted?” Marwyn asks.
“Yes. Again, the how is rather difficult to explain. We are not out of danger yet, and I will need you to stay focused. Whatever you do, do not use spells. It may draw… unwanted attention.”
“Yeah, whatever gets us through this,” Marwyn agrees.
“Oh, and if it feels like you suddenly can’t breathe, please let me know,” he adds nonchalantly.

With not much else to do, Marwyn turns his attention to the objects in the distance. Nothing was close enough to even guess at its identity, but something was better than nothing. When he was nearly blinded by a flash of light he changed his mind. The bard almost asked what exactly was in the distance, but remembered the guide’s instructions and reigned in his tongue.
The guide, however, felt no such limitations. “That was Dol Arrah reinforcements arriving. Interesting, given… Nothing you need worry about.”
“Reinforcements? Is there a war going on up here?” Marwyn figures that conversation was safe so long as the other initiated it.
“An endless war. We are far enough to avoid even the farthest scouts.”
“Over what?”
“Something that is beyond even I,” he answers, “I’m not even sure the Gods know entirely what they’re fighting over. But that it is powerful cannot be denied. Do not worry yourself, that is a war which has been waged for all of time. You would know if one side was on the brink of victory, it would be rather hard to ignore.”
“Oh,” Marwyn says. It was all getting to be a little too much to process. An immortal war fought in Siberys? How was he even supposed to deal with that? Move on, was the answer he eventually came up with. The guide had nothing further to offer, until he let out a warning.
“Another shift is coming up. Last one before our goal. I will be more careful this time, but you should brace yourself all the same.”
“Ok,” Marwyn acknowledges. Now that he was warned, he could feel the slight energy build up around him. For planar travel, it was almost miniscule, especially compared to the temple that had sent him into Siberys in the first place. The shift still hit him, but its impact was negligible. Suddenly, all around him were trees, wildlife, and the sound of rushing water. Or, more accurately, it was all below him.

Marwyn’s scream was cut off when he instinctively cast feather fall. Then it was a moan, as the sudden grasp of gravity had thrown off his sense of balance and induced another bout of vertigo. “Sorry,” the voice from the sound says, “Again. Even in realms where there is true gravity I travel freely. Rest assured I would have stopped you if not for your quick thinking.”
“Uhh,” Marwyn groans again, landing softly in a patch of moss. He actually was going to be sick this time, but fortunately there was a river nearby. A rabbit looked at him inquisitively, before bolting off at the slightest movement in its direction. “Where am I?”
“Lamannia, plane of the Great Forest. We are on its outskirts, and it is doubtful we will run into any sentient inhabitants. I will handle any we do come across.”
“Ok,” Marwyn says, going with it. If anything there was obviously food sources here, and water. He certainly wasn’t drinking from the nearest available source, but that was beside the point. “This place seems ok, actually.”
“It is the realm of servants of several of the Sovereign Host. Some of the land has been corrupted, though by and large it is a relatively safe harbor amidst the Sea of Siberys. Had my influence gone unchallenged, it would have been here you would have landed,” the voice from the dragonshard explains, which was now dangling from Marwyn’s bow. “Before any thoughts of hunting come to mind, I warn you. Use of your bow while I am with you is unadvisable.”
“Sure,” Marwyn obliges, not even trying to question the guide’s advice at this point, “So where am I going now?”

“A moment,” the voice says, fading towards the end. The bluish light emanating from the dragonshard also fades. For a moment, Marwyn panics, before the light returns. “The cottage is always changing positions. I don’t know why the seer is so insistent on its eccentricities. I have a heading now, either way. Start making your way across the stream, my glow will continue to guide you.”
The trip through the forest was remarkably more pleasant than the journey thus far. The presence of life around him was abundant, and the very forest was itself a marvel. True, the rampant growth caused him to sometimes need to detour or, as a last resort, cut his way through, but for the first time since he had caught sight of that damned temple back in the King’s Forest, Marwyn was regaining a sense of normalcy.
Sure, when he saw the cottage that had giant chicken legs poking out of the bottom, that was a little weird. But it wasn’t even in his top five list of disturbing or odd things he had seen today, and the forest walk had improved his mood. He carefully climbed up the stairs, thinking any sudden sounds or movement would alert the house. Finally, not entirely sure what he’d find, he knocked on the door.

The Cottage
“Ah, Winter, you’ve finally arrived. Come in, come in,” an eldery, feminine voice beckoned from inside. She sounded familiar, though Marwyn couldn’t place the voice. He certainly never met anyone who had called him…
“My name is not Winter,” his guide protested, and Marwyn sees the light fade from his dragonshard.
“Marwyn, you should come in too,” she says amiably. Marwyn opens the door to see a surprisingly well-ordered hut, considering that it was balanced atop two unstable avian legs. The walls themselves were lined with what looked like knickknacks, though to Marwyn’s eye they all contained magic to varying degrees. There was also a bed, and a desk. On the desk held what looked to be another frost dragonshard, and it had just began to light up. Sitting near this dragonshard was an old woman, and now that he could see her, Marwyn recognized her.
“Yul’adan?” Marwyn asks.
“Not anymore,” she answers sadly, “But I am pleased to see you have finally managed to find your way here. Didn’t run into too much trouble, did he Winter?”
“My name is not Winter,” his guide insists again.
“It might as well be,” she says, sighing. Marwyn got the impression that this was an old point of contention. “What did he tell you it was?” she probes, turning to Marwyn.
“The… the Sea of Siberys?” Marwyn answers awkwardly.
“It is the technical truth,” Winter argues, “Now, we aren’t here to challenge my identity. The Bow has questions.”
“The what?”
“Winter, you’re getting ahead of yourself,” the woman sighs, “Always a rush. But we have time, it appears,” she says, glancing to one of the ambiguous artifacts on the walls. “Let’s start with who I am.”

The woman shifts in her chair, getting herself comfortable for what looked like a long story. “Would you like some sweets, deer?” she asks, reaching for a bowl on the desk.
“Uh, no thanks,” Marwyn says, his stomach was still roiling from before, “You were saying?”
“Ah, yes. For now, you should call be Sage. It’s not my true name, but apparently none of us are going by are true names here, are we?” she shoots a sideways glare at the glowing dragonshard, which Marwyn could have sworn shrank a little under the gaze. “My true home is here, which may make you wonder why I approached you on Eberron. You are aware of where you are, aren’t you?” she asks, suddenly concerned.
“Yeah, Siberys,” Marwyn reassures, “Wint… uh, he told me,” Marwyn says, nodding towards the dragonshard. He wasn’t quite ready to take a position on the Winter/Sea of Siberys debate. “I mean no offense but, you seem a little different from the person I met there.”
“Yes, that was because it was merely a copy of me,” Sage pauses, thinking carefully, and then continues, “A rather unsightly ritual, the details of which I won’t bore you with, allows my persona to inhabit the body of one on Eberron. It is necessary, however.”
“Here, I can study the prophecies of Siberys in relative comfort and safety,” Sage explains, looking out the window, “But I damn well can’t do anything about events on Eberron. Not directly, of course,” she says, with a knowing grin. “So, every other generation or abouts one is chosen to rely my words. Of course, the world shapes all it encounters according to its own whims, so there are slight differences.”
“’Sage’,” Winter cuts in, dragging out the name slightly longer than necessary, “This isn’t what he came for.”
“I don’t actually know what I’m here for,” Marwyn adds, “I just know this is helping me to get to my friends. Somehow.”
“Oh, it is more than that, Son of the Sea,” Sage responds, tone suddenly serious, “You have been brought here to discuss matters which imperil all of Eberron.”

“Finally,” Winter says, “It’s time. Tell him who I am, and who he is.”
“Winter, as he is so loathe to be called,” Sage begins, “Is the Sea of Siberys. In a way. He is a spirit which inhabits the void, a small splinter of Siberys herself.”
“S..s..Siberys?” Marwyn stutters, floored, “The dragon Siberys? The world dragon?”
“Yes,” Sage nods, “A being as great as she could not simply die, the power must go somewhere. A small part was invested in beings such as Winter.”
“Thus, I am the Sea of Siberys,” Winter argues again, “A part of the great whole. Giving me a name different from this entirely ignores the…”
“Winter, do you want me to explain this or not?” Sage challenges. When Winter doesn’t reply, she continues, “As pieces of Siberys, the dragonshards can host both his being, and his power. Otherwise, it would be impossible for him to be speaking with us. You have felt him before this moment, yes?”
“Yeah, but on Eberron,” Marwyn replies, “How did you do that?”
“I did what I should not be capable of, because the barrier between Eberron and Siberys is being eroded,” Winter replies, “It has happened before, and it required the entire strength of Eberron to undo. Now, we are trying to prevent this from occurring a second time.”

“No offense,” Marwyn says, still in awe of who was before him, “But why am I here? I’m just a bard, there are others who could do more. Something like this, couldn’t a god intervene?”
“Because it is your destiny, as Son of the Sea,” Sage explains, “You wondered why I called you thus before. Yes?”
“Right. It makes no sense,” Marwyn agrees.
“Only because you haven’t heard the full prophecy,” Sage explains. She hushes Marwyn’s next question with a finger, and reaches for one of the books on the table. It seemed ancient, with only enchantment holding the parchment together. Cracking it open carefully, Sage begins to read.

“With the mists of death comes an end to war
Armistice among five kingdoms now four
New foes rise to pierce their armor
The Sea of Siberys brought by force to new harbor

An old foe from time immemorial
Resumes it ancient endless toil
Black robes and black hearts seek to disgrace
That which none may truly replace

Take caution in these desperate times
When close to where the darkness lies
There good intent brings great calamity
With dying of light and great insanity

But heed the coming of the Son of the Sea
Bearing the Traveler’s mark and Marksman’s pedigree
Flanked by five heroes, friend to the last
Fleeing each their own troubled past

Though before evil is vanquished, they will be tested
Broken, one fallen, the others bested
Four then endangered by hands once pure
Endless assault must be broken, for them to endure.

If trials survived and champions enriched
Winter will help guide the Son to the witch
Returned to earth heroes must, with hasty decision
Fight against the evil, and stop its eldritch vision

Any enemy desperate and without affection
Seeking its salvation in mournful reflection
The Son must takes arms and together with friends
Become Winter’s Bow, and bring threat to an end"

Sage clears her throat upon finishing, and takes a long drink from a flask. She then hands Marwyn a newer sheet if parchment, saying “I copied it this morning in anticipation of your arrival. I’m sure you would like the exact wording.”
“That didn’t sound like what I heard at all,” Marwyn protests, remembering the prophecy wall, “Some of these lines kinda sound similar, but it’s all out of order.”
“That is why you don’t trust your prophecy decryption to an amateur,” Sage replies, pride obvious in her voice, “Things will get distorted, words change, and that’s if you receive it in the proper tongue. But you got what you needed, that’s all that matters. You see now, why I name you Son of the Sea.”
“Yeah…” Marwyn says, feeling his back starting to itch again at the mere mention of the mark, “I guess I use a bow a lot too. But, what exactly is Winter’s Bow.”

Sage glances at the dragonshard oddly, and Marwyn gets the feeling he was missing something. But the moment passes, and Sage quickly continues, “An odd title, I’ve only ever seen it here, in this prophecy. I’d say it was based on my nickname of Winter here, but I only started calling him that after I’d read the prophecy. He already knew his part instinctually, but apparently not even being named ‘Winter’ in the prophecy will turn this stubborn spirit’s head.”
“It is more of a metaphor rather than…” Winter begins, but then stops and gets back on point, “Marwyn, I know what you’re thinking. ‘If I knew ahead of time what to do, then I know what’s going to happen next.’” Marwyn wasn’t actually thinking that, but he let Winter continue anyway. “That is not true. I am restricted to Siberys and even then I am not all powerful. My glimpse into the future was granted through the same prophecy that you now just read, along with my connection to the Sea. But I am cut off from Eberron save for especially weak spots. And now, you. I’m not sure exactly how or where it will happen, but I know that at some point in the near future, you will need my aid desperately. At that point, we will be joined again, and at that moment become ‘Winter’s Bow’. What you do then will decide a great many things.”
“You couldn’t have explained that on the way here?” Marwyn protests.
“No,” Winter replies, “For I needed… ‘Sage’ to deliver the prophecy beforehand. But that has now been fulfilled. Did you prepare the ritual?” Winter addresses the last question towards Sage.
“Of course I did,” Sage answers, “Did you really think I’d forget something?”

“Winte… er, I mean, could I ask another question?” Marwyn asks sheepishly, slightly embarrassed for using Sage’s nickname for his guide again.
“What is it?” Winter asks, while Sage pulls several reagents.
“What exactly can I do when you’re in my dragonshard? I think I understand the trick with the arrows, somewhat, but is there anything else I should know?”
“I suppose I could tell you now. It will save time later,” Winter agrees. “Sage, I suggest you start with the ritual. We’re running low on time.”
“Oh my, that we are,” Sage jumps, glancing again at one of her knickknacks, “You’d best jump over to him.”
“Right,” Winter says, and the dragonshard on the desk fades. Marwyn could sense the one on his back drawing in the power, as Sage began an incantation.

“That spell will teleport you to Irian, where your friends will be,” Winter explains, “But as for my powers, I am a spirit derived from one of the three dragons of creation. Granted, my powers largely involve elemental cold, which I may use to add devastating power to your arrows. But I can also attempt to influence the world, and make circumstances more… favorable to you. That power is somewhat hit or miss. Oh, and if you wish to say goodbye to Sage, I would do it now.”
“Sage! I’m sorry I didn’t think about,” Marwyn blusters. The woman eyes him with a knowing smile, and nods gently while still incanting. “Thank you for helping me. I can’t promise much but… I’ll try my best. I will!” A few moments later, Sage stops the incantation. Runes painted onto the floor below Marwyn’s feet, which he had been standing on this entire time, lit up. Magic surged through them, and suddenly it all went dark.

Irian, Present
“So I woke up here, thinking it was all a strange dream until Winter spoke to me again,” Marwyn says, finishing his story to the rest assembled. He had decided to use Sage’s shorthand. The spirit grumbled a little, but ultimately ignored it. “He had said you’d be here, so I tried you on my sending stone. An arrow later, and here we are.”
“Why can’t we touch the shard?” Vargard asks, noticing that the bard was still defensively clutching his bow.
“Winter says it’ll be a bad idea,” Marwyn responds ominously, “At least while he’s still here.”
“Why can we not hear him?” Lesani asks, still suspicious of everything.
“Uh…” Marwyn pauses, seemingly in conversation, “Winter says that he can only talk to those needed to see the prophecy through.”
“Are we not a part of this prophecy?” Lesani pushes, referencing the sheet Marwyn had handed her earlier.
Marwyn consults the dragonshard again, and then simply answers, “It’s complicated.”
“Var?” Lesani asks.
“Les, until we get our feet back on Khorvaire, I don’t think we’re in the position to question it,” Vargard decides, after thinking for a few moments, “Do you have any insights on it?”
“No,” Lesani admits, “Just that it is immensely powerful. I just think we should be careful.”

“Can we focus on getting out of here Les, and talk about Marwyn’s new ice pal later?” Jorduna butts in, anxiously, “We still have the problem of low food.”
“Oh, they should be here soon,” Marwyn says, to the general confusion of everyone else.
“Who, Marwyn?” Vargard asks quickly.
“Right, you can’t hear him,” Marwyn replies, feeling embarrassed, “Winter says, ‘Those who saved you before are coming to help us back to Eberron.’ They should be here soon. Could, could you tell me how we got Cletus back in the meantime?” he asks, still not fully believing the dwarf was fully there. He wasn’t questioning the presence of the eladrin, he figured if Vargard wasn’t worried about her, he shouldn’t be.
“Cletus, Jor, why don’t you tell ‘em,” Vargard says, figuring that between the two they should cover everything, “I need to talk with Les.”
“Sure Boss,” Jor acknowledges, and Cletus nods. The three part off, leaving Vargard, Il’yena, and Lesani alone.
“Need me to leave?” Il’yena asks awkwardly, gleeful at the prospect of arriving aid, but overwhelmed by the bard’s story.
“If you want,” Vargard replies, and the eladrin takes the opportunity to process the situation alone.

“What is it, Var?” Lesani asks, not sure where this was going.
“The moment you saw the dragonshard, you lit up. Almost like you recognized it,” Vargard says.
“Not exactly, Var,” Lesani sighs, “I merely jumped to a conclusion I should not have. Marwyn’s separation from us originally made me believe he had been taken by the shades. Logically, his presence before us could only be explained by some deal he had made with the masters within Mabar. I could never have imagined… this,” she says simply.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Vargard agrees, “I thought we were just going on a damn camping expedition at the start of this, but now… This prophecy business? End of the world nonsense? Spirits descended from damn Siberys? I’m just a mercenary Les, not a hero.”
“But what if it is true?” Lesani asks, “What if the danger is real?”
“What the hell could punch a whole between Eberron and Siberys anyways?” Vargard challenges.
“Var… Marwyn said this ‘Winter’ told him that the foe had done it before. Only one such instance comes to mind.”
“What, the things that killed off the goblin kingdom?” Vargard asks.
“Yes,” Lesani nods, “And if they are what is coming, then I must return home as soon as I can.”
“To Aundair?”
“No,” Lesani answers fiercely, a hard look in her eyes, “Home. To the Reaches. By any means possible. Even if it means leaving the Falchion.”
“Var, this is a matter of the utmost importance. Even if it is just a sliver of a chance, I must check in with the Gatekeepers. If you would come, though, I would be grateful.”
“Let’s get back to Eberron first,” Vargard compromises, “We’ll make our next move then.”

Half an Hour Later
Marwyn had just been regaled of the full tale of Mabar and the shades, when he suddenly perks up. “They’re almost here!” he yells to the group in general, assumedly relaying a message from Winter. “Uh, Winter says to ‘not mention him, they don’t know about his presence. Act like this dragonshard has just been augmented.’”
Seconds after his warning, Jorduna saw movement in the horizon. Her face turned white when she saw exactly what it was, and it took Vargard shaking her to get the information out of her. “Angels,” she replies blankly, “Freakin’ angels.”
Her report was accurate. 6 beings of angelic glory were bearing down on them, the largest of the flight leading them. All were resplendent in the symbol of Dol Arrah, God of Light and Honor. Each of the mortals cowed from them as they landed out of instinct, their divine radiance inspiring both fear and awe. Jorduna was the one hit hardest, and were she capable of squeezing herself into a pocket dimension, she would have done so. The presence of the angels seemed to force her into feeling shame for all she had done to wrong others. Everyone else was feeling the same way, but she the most of all. But even when not considering their divine presence, their mere physical presence was intimidating. The largest rose well above some of the trees in the forest.
Finally, after what had seemed an eternity, the lead angel spoke. “I am Solar Mag’Arrah, servant of Dol Arrah. His humble servant once known as Vaertrouse Indlefeld sacrificed his very being to assure your safe return to the mortal realm. For this act of self-sacrifice and show of faith, we will honor his dying wish. Praise be to Dol Arrah!” the angel shouts majestically, and all assembled echoed the cry, either out of faith or sudden compulsion.

“Gather before us, and prepare for the journey back,” Mag’Arrah continues, and Marwyn and the rest comply without thought. The other five angels form a circle around the mortals, and begin chanting while Mag’Arrah begins a sermon to his master. It probably wasn’t crucial to the spell which was obviously powering up, but no one dared question it.
It ends with a moral to remember the fallen and respect that which they martyred themselves for. The spell was near completion when the Solar calls for a temporary halt.

“Bard,” it calls out, shifting it’s gaze towards Marwyn, “Tell me of the stone your bow bears.”
The half-elf feels compelled to tell the truth, that “It is a dragonshard which has been empowered by arcane magics.” He experiences a brief moment of terror as the lie is told, but somehow doesn’t show any outward signs of it. Not to worry, I can handle this, he hears a voice inside of his head. Winter, Marwyn thinks.
“Treasure it, and guard it well, for I sense great power within that vessel,” Mag’Arrah orders. The angel had the slightest frown on its face, as if that wasn’t the answer it had been expecting. However, it was confident that what was spoken was the truth. “Go now, and spread news of the faith of your comrade, and the actions of Dol Arrah!”
With this, the other angels continued their chanting. As the spell neared its completion, Marwyn hears Winter speak with him again. “I must be going now. I can’t follow you to Eberron, not until the time is right. Call upon my power when the fate of the world rests in your hands, and only then. Goodbye, Son of the Sea, we will meet again.”

Then, there was a discharge of great magical power, capable of traversing the barrier between the dragon above and the dragon between. The experience was probably the nicest plane shift Marwyn had experienced thus far. It felt not unlike the sensation of feather fall, and soon enough he and the others landed gently in the middle of a forest clearing.

“Are… are we back?” Jorduna asks, looking around wildly.
“Be it true ‘r I’ll nev’r drink again,” Cletus replies, his eyes actually tearing up, “It’s tha’ King’s Forest. We’re home.”
“Gods, we did it!” Il’yena cries out, going down to her knees and grabbing handfuls of earth, “Eberron, it really is… after all this time…”
“Boss, what should we do?” Jor asks, looking to Vargard.
The warrior smiles, and replies, “I think Cletus may have an idea.”
The dwarf returns the smile and cries, “Lads! Let’s set a drinkin’ record that’ll last a century!”

Continued in Part 33. The Eldeen Reaches – A Fade to Green

Darkness Unbroken
Hope All But Lost

Part 31 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Vargard Garodin, The Twilight Forest
The flash of light almost blinded the warrior, and when the spots were gone from his eyes, he found himself still in the center of the odd temple. Perin was nowhere in sight, however. Equally disturbing were the new surroundings, trees that seemed to reach endlessly upwards, to a sky amber with twilight. The dark beasts were still circling as well, and darker shapes loomed in the distance. Their masters, Vargard realized.
“We… we just plane shifted,” Lesani said, breathlessly.
“To where?” Vargard yells, brandishing his sword menacingly, trying to keep the beasts from advancing.
“No idea,” Lesani replies.
“How the hell are we getting out of this?” Jorduna asks, covering another of the entrances to the temple’s platform.
“Marwyn, cast invisibility on us, if you can,” Lesani suggests, “Make sure to save yourself for last or yours will wear off. Common beginner’s mistake.”

There is a pause, but no sudden surge of magical activity one would expect from a bard casting multiple spells.
“Marwyn!” Vargard yells, thinking the half-elf had been paralyzed with fear. Turning, however, he finds only two others with him, and no sight of Marwyn. “Where the hell…”
Further explicative would have followed if what happened next hadn’t stunned the warrior completely. A portal appeared at the center of the temple, on the other side someone he’d never thought he’d see again.
“Get in!” yelled Cletus, beckoning them inside the portal.
“Cletus?! How?” Jorduna yells.
“No time,” the dwarf says, urging them.
“There is… no illusion…” Lesani says, almost speechless, “It really is him.”
“Canna hold the portal forever!” Cletus yells looking off to the side, “They’re almost on ya’!”
Vargard follows the dwarf’s outstretched hand, and notices the dark beasts were circling closer still, sensing the distress. Horrid, dark humanoid figures were also beginning to leech out of the tree line, and towards the temple.
Left with few options, the three entered the portal without delay.

Coming out the other side, they find themselves in what appears to be a moderate library. Certainly different from where they had just came, but they weren’t out of danger yet. Three others stood behind Cletus, and the two groups sized each other up in the seconds following The Split Falchion’s arrival.
“That all of ‘em?” the half-orc asks.
“No… where’s Marwyn, Var?” Cletus asks, looking for the bard.
“Gone, when we got here at… what the hell is going on, Cletus?” Vargard asks, the full weight of the past minute hitting him, “You died! I saw you, there was no way you could’ve…”
“Please, just let us explain,” an eladrin interrupts, “But we mean you no harm. We’re as stuck here as you, actually.”
“Alright,” Vargard says, yielding the initiative for now, “Start explaining.”

Il’yena brought the three up to speed on their current situation. Once Cletus had joined them, and upon realizing that they were in one of the most dangerous planes in all of existence, they had fervently begun searching for a way to anywhere else. Lesani had challenged the existence of Marvor, until they had moved the conversation to his room.
It was during that research when Cletus heard the voice of his friends, from the ritual circle in the library. A portal was quickly activated by Marvor, through which the three had been saved.
“Yordrik is still… recuperating,” Vaertrouse says, looking reluctantly towards the bedsheet, “I check on him once a day. Or at least, I try to. His form is slowly… regenerating? But he has yet to gain any semblance of consciousness.”
“We’ve put Carver in a room for now,” Dorian continues, “Still incensed by The Mourning. Can’t believe it’s all gone.”
“You were the one who figured out the Mabar bit?” said Vargard, a little skeptical.
“Why? ‘cause I’m half orc?” Dorian bites back.
“No, because it seems like you handle your sword the same way a farmer handles his plow,” Vargard points out.
“Fair,” Dorian concedes, “But you’d become a bit of a bookworm yourself if you were trapped in a shadow dimension with only a wizard’s chambers and his library.”
“It could be worse,” Marvor adds, “We’re lucky the library came with us.”

“But how did we get here?” Jorduna asks, so far not trusting anything the Cyrians had said, “We’re not dead.”
“That temple…” Lesani begins, thinking, “It was right where your portal was,” she addresses Marvor. “I doubt that was a coincidence.”
“When I was reaching out, trying to find some other semblance of a material world, I found a soft spot,” Marvor explains, “Where planar boundaries were weak. I thought nothing of it at the time, just some luck finally. But now, perhaps others were using it for their own gain.”
“Cletus said the junction was devoid of life,” Il’yena replies, “If what you say is true, perhaps that structure is used to ferry hunters between the planes. To find fresh victims…”
“We can use it to get back!” Vaertrouse exclaims suddenly, “We have to wait a little, of course, I didn’t like the look of what was beyond that portal, but…”
“That doesn’t explain what happened to Marwyn,” Vargard cuts the cleric off, “Where the hell is our fifth man?”
“Maybe he wasn’t transported?” the cleric answers, taken aback by the ferocity of the question, “He’d certainly be better off than us.”
“I’m not sure if the temple will phase again for some time,” Lesani cuts in, dashing the cleric’s hopes, “From the limited time I was in contact with it, I got the feeling that the temple worked off of charged power. I have no idea when it will be active again, though to gain the power to plane shift twice… we would die of starvation or thirst before then.”

“Good point,” Jorduna nods, “What’s food like here?”
“It isn’t,” Dorian replies grimly, “Or rather, it’s whatever you have. We don’t get hungry.”
“Damn,” the hobgoblin curses, “We’ve got to get out of here. Stupid prophecy.”
“Prophecy?” Marvor asks, picking up on the word.
The rogue looks abashed, angry at herself for spilling the secret. Vargard relieves her of this though, when he takes the chance to relate the knowledge to the Cletus, and indirectly, the rest of the group. For good measure, he briefly explains how they had gotten to the temple as well.
“So, to summarize,” Il’yena says, after some silence, “We’re stuck in what may be one of the hells that people go to when they die, some of us here aren’t actually dead but will be soon, and our only option of escape is covered by things that did that to the first sentient thing they saw,” she continues, while pointing to the bedsheet. The reference to it was discomforting, as most had been trying to avoid glancing to that corner of the room. Lesani had briefly considered taking a look herself, but had soon killed the thought. “And now there’s some prophecy, which is vague as hell by the way, probably doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
“And my bard is still missing,” Vargard adds at the end.

“So… we’re screwed,” Jorduna says.
“Perhaps not,” Marvor cuts in, who had dismissed his humanoid form whilst he concentrated. “The prophecy essentially foretells a new linkage between Siberys and somewhere else, hopefully Eberron. The line cautioning against good intent is troubling, though at this moment we really have no choice. I must think, and by the looks of it, you must rest,” Marvor observes, noticing that those living assembled were starting to wear their fatigue, “One of my rooms is taken up by Carver, though any of the others would do. How long can your supplies last?”
“A week? Maybe two?” Vargard says, making some mental calculations. His thoughts again turn to Marwyn. The bard hadn’t been carrying much food at all, he might not even last a few days. If he hadn’t been killed already. He wished he could take everyone here and storm the portal, try and find any trace of him. But this was uncharted territory, containing opponents they knew nothing about. All he could do was hope, and it was driving him mad.

Lesani and Jorduna had already entered one of the rooms, uneasily setting down for rest. Vargard, however, had remained outside, and talked quietly with Cletus. It was the first chance he had alone with his former compatriot.
“Damn,” Vargard says simply.
“Damn,” Cletus nods, returning the sentiment.
“Why’d you do it? Jor made the call,” Vargard asks suddenly, looking straight into the dwarf’s face.
“Dunno,” Cletus shrugs, doing his best to hide any tells, “’m older. Thought I should be the on ta’ go.”
“Cletus,” Vargard sighs, and stops himself from reprimanding the Dwarf when he detected the lie. He thinks for a moment, trying to figure out how to proceed. “I’m not even sure who’s in charge any more. We lost our client, and now we’re lost in damned Marab.”
“Mabar,” Cletus grunts, and says, “Far’s I’m concerned, you’re the boss. Dunno how the hell we’re gettin’ outta this one though.”
“Les and Jor are taking it well, at least,” Vargard says, “Damn Cletus, I really never thought I’d see you again.”
“’s fate, I guess. Prophecy ‘n all that,” the dwarf responds, trying to feign optimism, “Death canna even take us down. ‘ll look good on a flier.”
“Heh,” Vargard chuckles, “We get out of here and we might just have to start putting up some.” He lowers his voice even further, and asks, “That flame thing. You trust it?”
“Don’ see any reason not to,” Cletus responds, “Even if t’s a damn wizard.”
“Well, if it really can punch a hole through planes, we may have a chance,” Vargard says. “We let Lesani loose in the library, maybe we can really make something happen.”
“Probably tha only one of us who’ll enjoy it,” Cletus agrees.

Vargard stares back at the open passageway to Marvor’s chamber, and to the darkness beyond it. “Ever try seeing what’s out there?”
“Both sides,” Cletus nods, “Darkness. Just darkness.”
“Damn,” Vargard curses. With little else to say, he retreats from the conversation to get some rest.

The Next Day?
Unable to do much else, the 4 members of The Split Falchion assisted the Cyrians in pillaging Marvor’s library. A brief conversation between the mage and Lesani revealed that it wasn’t actually his library, per se, but rather the royal Cyrian library that his chambers were adjacent to. After a brief moment of celebration that the knowledge trove survived the Mourning, somewhat, she got to work. There were two problems, however.
First was that Marvor had no idea how the library was organized, and the second was the constant distraction of their impending doom. The Cyrians had somehow survived life (or rather, death?) in Mabar for two years without an incursion from any of the other denizens. Yet even if demons didn’t kill the three, hunger would. Death on Eberron was already somewhat of a mystery, no one wanted to find out what would happen if you died in Mabar.
Vargard, completely out of his depth, decided to check on the only other Cyrian he hadn’t encountered yet. He nearly got a sword to the gut as Carver lunged out of the door at the first opportunity. The man was almost gibbering, swearing all kinds of death threats and blood vendettas. A quick shield bash knocked him back into his prison, and the warrior readjusted the piled up furniture that was serving as the lock. The man inside started throwing his entire weight against the door, to little avail.

“Didn’t think he’d be this far gone,” Dorian observes, from behind Vargard, “Probably should’ve let me do that.”
“Was he always like that?” Vargard asks, grateful that there was at least one other person here who he could talk to. The rest of his team was helping with the research, a topic he wasn’t too helpful with. Marvor was an option, but he still didn’t trust the flaming wizard. The breach in his wall was also disquieting, to say nothing of the broken man lying beneath the bedsheet.
The half-orc, however, seemed simple. Maybe he was palace guard, or simply just a soldier caught in whatever spell hurled Marvor and company to Siberys. Whatever the case, it was someone he felt a strange kinship towards.
“Carver? Man was close to retirement,” Dorian sighs, “Then it all went to hell. At least he had the thought of the rest of the kingdom going strong without us, until that dwarf showed up. Not sayin’ it was his fault,” the half-orc reassures hurriedly, not wanting to offend, “Just that the news he gave us broke the last thing holding Carver together.”
“What’ll you do with him?” Vargard asks, flinching slightly as the slamming noises coming from the door started to take on a different noise. Carver must be tearing himself up trying to get out.
“No idea,” Dorian shrugs, “Long as that door holds, keep him there I guess. If it gets too out of hand… we might have to just let him go.”
“Where? Out there?” Vargard asks, glancing again towards the darkness, “Any of you ever try going out there?”
“Never,” Dorian shakes his head firmly, “Don’t have a lot of rope, and we weren’t sure if gravity would hold up too far out. Might’ve tried eventually if you hadn’t showed up.” The Cyrian pauses for a moment, not sure if he should ask the question. He gets over the feeling though, and continues, “What’ll you do when you run out of food? Assuming we don’t have an answer by then?”
“Honestly,” Vargard sighs, “I don’t know. I’m sure as hell not going to starve to death. Maybe I’ll go through that portal, try and get a good death out of it. You… haven’t heard any half-elves through it, have you?”
“No,” the half-orc replies heavily, “Just some snarling, not from anything I’d want to fight. Let you know if I do though.”

Vargard looks around, sensing the conversation coming to an end. There wasn’t much else to do at this point, it wasn’t like he could help in the library. He wasn’t even needed when they were deciphering the prophecy wall, despite being in charge of at least half of the people chosen to relay it. Instead of forcing himself to ignore the hunger pangs rationing was inflicting on him, Vargard thought it’d be better to try and hone what skills he did have. So, he challenged Dorian to a sparring match. The warrior needed work on his dual wielding anyways. The half-orc heartily agreed, having not had a true sparring partner for quite a while.

The half-orc was skilled, no doubt. It was also somewhat jarring to face an opponent who had no concern for their own safety, as the dead half-orc surely didn’t. Vargard could tell Dorian was trying to keep proper form, but the half-orc’s stance was far more aggressive than normal. Both ended up collecting a few wounds, Dorian more so, and they were midway into the match when there was a scream from Marvor’s chambers. It wasn’t the wizard, however, and it certainly human.
By the time they had gotten to the chamber, it was already over. Tendrils of fire were suspending what had been Yordrik, incinerating the thing. Vargard was taken aback when he recognized it, it was one of the humanoid figures that had led the dark beasts. Going from what Cletus had said, it was also the same type of demon which had tortured Yordrik.
The flame had almost consumed it when the rest arrived, and with its last gasp it uttered words which chilled all assembled. “Hidden from us no longer. The light fade as shadow grow stronger. We come for the bright and the light and the life. We come for you now, hidden from us no longer…” it finishes, with a wicked grin on its face.

“What… what happened?” Il’yena asks, distraught.
“Apparently, ugh, they turned Yordrik,” Marvor says, pain now evident in his voice. His normal humanoid figure wasn’t present. It appeared the wizard was pouring everything into his speech, “The conversion was… hidden… under the sheet… Didn’t notice until… too late…”
“Marvor, are you ok?” Dorian asks.
“No,” the wizard replies, “Whatever that thing was… hurt me. I wasn’t sure I could even kill it, it took all my strength. Apparently, we were hidden in a far corner of their realm. But they know where we are now.”
“What do we do?” Lesani asks, looking between Vargard and Marvor for answers.
“My life force is draining,” Marvor says, “It was tied to this flame ever since we set foot here. And that beast seemed to drain it like nothing…” There was a pause, and then, after gathering more strength, Marvor continues, “Go, fortify the library. Collapse both hallways if you can. The breach here makes this room less defendable, and in this state it appears they will finish me quite easily. Warlock, you seem skilled enough to activate the portal. If all else fails, you may try to escape through the junction.”
“You’ll be defenseless,” Vargard points out, “If one almost killed you…”
“My life is forfeit. Or my soul, I should say,” Marvor corrects himself, “My experiment may have saved some from the Mourning, yet what is happening to you now is still my fault. There is nothing you can do for me, besides try your hardest to survive.”
“What about Carver?” Vaertrouse asks.
“He’s too far gone,” Dorian answers, “May be helpful to release him on whatever tries to approach the library, but not much else.”
“Hell no,” Vaertrouse answers sharply, “I’m not throwing him to the wolves because life dealt him a bad hand.”
“Fine, we’ll get to library then. But we’re not taking him with us. Marvor, anything els?e”
“No, but you should hurry. I have no idea when they shall arrive,” Marvor says. Remembering the beast that had been Yordrik, they all leave without further word.

The bookshelves within the library were fortunately of good quality, sturdy. Most of the books themselves were thrown about and trampled amidst the struggle, unfortunately, but that was no of concern right now. The hastily-decided upon plan was to barricade the two entrances, and use any remaining supplies to build cover. The room wasn’t big enough to establish fall back positions, though they were fortunate that the ritual circle had been established in the center of the room.
“Honestly, it won’t matter at all if they just break through the ceiling,” Vaertrouse observes mournfully, “Or the floor. Or the sides. Or just teleport in.”
“That’s not helping Vaertrouse,” Il’yena chides him, “If you want to go through the portal now, go ahead. Secure that side for us if you want.”
“I…” the cleric falters, and resumes helping the rest. They soon finish, leaving Dorian and Vargard as the front line on either side, while the rest stood in the center. They had no idea what they’d be facing, or if they could even kill it. All they knew, was that it was coming for them, and that the best fate they could receive from their enemy was a quick death.

Then, there was only silence, save for a few coughs from all the dust thrown up by the moved shelves. Carter was also relentlessly banging away at his door, though this sound was muffled.
“Les, how quickly can you activate the portal?” Vargard asks.
“Marvor’s spell is in a state of stasis,” the elf answers, "It took an immense amount of power to cast.”
“He’d been working on it ever since he found the soft spot,” Il’yena replies, “Will it… go out if he does?”
“No,” Lesani answers, “It’s a form of enchantment. It’ll stay until the spell ends, which won’t be for a while.”
“Anyone hear that?” Dorian asks suddenly.
“What?” Jorduna replies, she too had been keeping her senses alert.
“Pounding’s stopped,” Dorian says, “Think Carver finally got out.”
“Poor bastard,” Vaertrouse sighs, “We should try to…”
“I’m not taking down this barricade,” Dorian retorts, “If he wants to get in here, he’ll have to damn well force his way like the rest of the demons coming for us.” As confident as his words were, the half-orc would find that he would soon come to regret them.

The barricade which led straight to the darkness jolted suddenly, and Vargard, who was closest to it, readied his weapon. He still held a shield in his off-hand, not quite comfortable with his newer techniques to employ them against the oncoming horrors.
“Shit!” Vaetrouse yells, startled by the noise. “Are we sure they can’t open the portal?”
“The breach can only be opened from this end,” Lesani reports back, “Which I will only do in case of emergency.”

It was quickly appearing as if such a fallback plan would be needed. Whatever was throwing its weight against the barricade wasn’t quite strong enough to push it down, yet. There was no reason to believe the horrors wouldn’t increase in numbers as time grew on, and it was becoming increasing clear that little, if any hope for survival remained.
Overwhelmed by the scenario, Vaertrouse collapses in prayer as everyone else rotates to cover the besieged entrance. Dorian, Vargard, and Cletus were attempting to support the barricade with their strength, while the rest readied an attack against anything that managed to break through.
“Why aren’t they coming from the other side?” Jorduna wonders aloud.
“Marvor,” Il’yena guesses, “Buying us whatever time he can.”
“Think that cleric’ll actually do something?” the hobgoblin asks her, in a low enough voice as to not carry to where Vaertrouse was praying.
“His powers have been extremely limited since our arrival here,” Il’yena answers despondently, “He hasn’t sensed the divine at all. I…I’m afraid he may be losing it, like Carter.”
“Just what we needed,” Jorduna sighs, and then redoubles her focus on the barricade.
“We should just… leave him,” Il’yena says, “He wouldn’t be of much help anyways, without his spells. I’ll worry about him if we have to pull back.”

“Hits are getting harder!” Dorian shouts to the rest, drawing the attention of everyone, “Don’t know how long we can hold.”
“Les, I want you to open the portal as soon as they overwhelm us,” Vargard orders, “We’ll try to make it, but don’t let more of them through than you can handle.”
“I am not just going to abandon you to…” Lesani starts.
“That’s an order!” Vargard yells back, grunting from the force of an especially heavy assault on the barricade. The warlock takes this in stride, defaulting to her loyalty to the mercenary captain. She’d do anything he told to her to, even if it meant stranding him in hell.

Eventually, Vargard and Dorian exchange looks, and then report that they won’t be able to hold the barricade for much longer. Dorian volunteered to hold last, while Cletus and Vargard got into a stronger position. Finally, the half-orc bolted from the near-shattered wooden bulwark, taking a position beside the two others prepared for melee.
The bookshelves splintered finally, as a massive shadowy figure steps out. Most of its form appeared fluid, the dark shape writhing with a black miasma. The face however, was stable, and holding a sickening grin. Smaller shades slipped through the rift in the barricade, advancing slowly towards clustered defenders. They showed no signs of fatigue after breaking through, only a fiendish determination to assault those who had trespassed in their realm.
They were all carrying cruel blades, though fortunately only that carried by the largest seemed to have any magical enchantment. Ten in total poured through, then at last the wave of darkness ceased. What was attacking them seemed to be merely a scouting force, and they had already breached through the first line of defenses.
Torches which lined the library began flickering, suppressed by the mere presence of the shades. The leader seemed to drink in the fear that its opponents were helpless to stop. It was especially pleased with the state of the only apparent divine threat, Vaertrouse, whose prayers were now almost incoherent. With an inhuman laugh, it ordered the other shades forward with its sword.

The nine lower shades rush forward. Instead of attempting to dodge any hindering obstructions, their forms simply changed to accommodate them. This tactic was less adept at dodging aimed projectiles, however.
Cletus let loose a small volley before the shades could get a chance to close, while Jorduna went to work with her knives. Lesani and Il’yena, for their part, loosed several spells. Their targeting was wild and disorganized, however, and nearly all shots missed. The few that did hit were scattered amongst the group, and appeared to have little to no effect.
“Focus fire!” Vargard yells, and his authoritative tone in spite of all that was happening did bolster the groups resolve somewhat. The three at the front positioned themselves to receive the shades, Cletus hurriedly pulling out his short swords.

The shade’s primary form of attack seemed to be the swords they carried in their hands, thankfully. There were too many of them to immediately attack the front line, though the blades that did act furiously cleaved at the defenders. Vargard, spearheading the formation, took the brunt of the assault. A shallow cut on his arm was the only real damage, thankfully, as his absorbed most of the abuse. The shades attacks were savage, but not skilled.
The defender’s push back was even less effective. Vargard himself was occupied with keeping his shield up, while Dorian and Cletus were struggling to hit the shifting demons. Their leader remained at the barricade, however, enjoying what appeared to be an entirely one-sided fight. Its focus was so drawn to the melee, that it completely missed what happened in the back line.
Vargard himself was just as surprised when twin knives carved horrible gashes into the form of the shade directly opposite of him. They vanished just as quickly as they appeared, and while the shade survived, it was clear that the knives had injured it.
“Jor, what the hell?” Vargard asks to the open air, not seeing the rogue anywhere. Both confusion and relief were clearing evident in his voice.
“One of my projects,” Lesani answers for the rogue, “Improved invisibility! Cannot cast again, make it count!”
The new development had surprised the larger shade as well, who had arrogantly assumed the group before it wasn’t capable of such tricks. With a snarl, it moves to engage, but not before the hobgoblin finishes the shade she had attacked previously. With another dual stroke of her daggers, the rogue causes the dark figure to completely dissociate. It simply melts into the ground, and as a result the surrounding torches grow a little brighter. Jorduna keeps her silence, however, trying to keep the other shades guessing.

Vargard, however, had no such limitations. “They can be killed!” he shouts, which further bolsters the defender’s morale. Before, they had no idea if the enemy they faced were mortal. Now, it was clear. They had a chance.

As the leader moved to engage in melee, the other shades continued their assault. They now had a murderous, invisible hobgoblin to worry about, but it didn’t appear as though they contained any morale to break. Most of their blows were still directed at the warriors up front, but every so often one would throw out a strike where they believed Jorduna was. This split in their attention took away some of the pressure on the front, and with fervent spell support from Lesani and Il’yean, the fight was evening.
Two problems faced the defenders. The first was that the leader had finally joined the melee, battering through Vargard’s defenses and giving him a nasty cut than ran half the way across his torso. The wound bled fervently, more so than a normal flesh wound should have. It was only the quick use of a healing potion that stopped the bleeding before anything serious had happened, that blade was lethal.
This brought up the second problem: no one present was capable of mending wounds. Vaertrouse was the closest thing they had, and by now he was practically in a coma. Realizing this, Dorian pushes Vargard aside and takes the punishment from the greater shade himself. The half-orc earns a terrible rend to his left shoulder for his troubles, a blow that would have killed an ordinary man. Yet the fighter stood his ground, now at the head of the formation.

“I can take it!” Dorian shouts, voice altered slightly as the blade had cut throw one of his lungs. Vargard nods to the half-orc in thanks as he blocks two simultaneous sword thrusts from the other shades.
They had taken down three more shades when the invisibility spell ended, and Jorduna became visible once more. Her return to the visual also heralded a return to the audible, as she let out a curse. Without the assistance of invisibility it was harder for her to deal the devastating strikes which had almost singlehandedly turned the fight.
She took several cuts whilst retreating back to cover, though fortunately none were from the lead shade. Everyone was accumulating small injuries, even the back line as they were all forced inexorably backwards by the sheer brutality of the attackers. Had the shades any ranged support of their own, the battle would be near impossible, and now that Jorduna was stuck at range again, the tide of battle was once again against them.
Eventually, Dorian fell. The half-orc still tried everything in his power to fight, but his frame had sustained so much that it was simply impossible for him to move. It had taken the combined focus of every remaining shade, the leader and now two others, but the defender’s front was now breaking.
To make matters even direr, sounds of an assault from behind were beginning to be heard. The other barricade, supported by no one, lasted even shorter than the first had. The first enemy to spill through, however, wasn’t a shade. At least, not yet.
It was Carver, and he was mostly uninjured. Mentally, though, the man appeared all but gone. There was little besides murderous intent behind his eyes. The space behind him was completely dark, and probably filled with shades. Marvor, it seems, had also fallen.

“Shit!” Jorduna yells, and tosses a quick knife at Carver. He doesn’t even try to dodge it, however, even as it sails cleaning into his left eye. Vaertrouse was still mumbling to himself in the center, and, more importantly, Lesani and Il’yena were now exposed. The hobgoblin sighs when she realizes she was the closest thing to a buffer between them and the shades, at least until the other side got under control. It was with a growing sense of dread that she withdrew two of her longer knives and braced herself.

Vargard, meanwhile, had abandoned his shield and was now hacking away at the giant shade with both swords in hand, incensed at the incapacitation of Dorian. Cletus knew better than to try and correct his actions now, and instead focused on the remaining two lesser shades. They could do so easily, if not for the encroaching shades from the other side, led by Carver. There were easily twice as many as had breached through the other side, and many more of their number were of the larger variety.
And even as Vargard’s immediate opponent fell to a lucky strike, more shades began to pour in from the doorway he faced. The torches which lined the walls were nearly extinguished, and it was already hard to tell the darkness from the shades. “We need to go, now!” he cries, backpedaling towards the portal.
“No time!” Lesani yells, “There is too many!”
“I’ll hold them off, just go!” Vargard shouts back, resolving to buy as much time for his remaining allies as possible. It was fruitless, though. He couldn’t see. With a fizzle, the last torch dies, and total darkness falls.

Vargard swings out wildly, trying to take as many down before they did. But he didn’t seem to hit anything. Either the shades were taking their time, or, he didn’t know. He couldn’t see, and he couldn’t hear anything. Except that damned cleric’s praying it was still… audible. It was growing louder, in fact, though not because Vaertrouse was crying out in pain. In fact, the voice sounded confident. There was no other way to put it. “What the…” Vargard tries to say, before all heaven breaks loose.

Pure light started radiating from where Vaertrouse had been kneeling. The cleric was there no longer, however. Instead, was a radiant knight, adorned with armor that shined so bright it almost hurt to look at. The shades which had been ready to end those gathered now cowered at the edge of the light cast. All except Carver, who madly rushed the figure, and was smote out of existence for his trouble.
“I am a champion of Dol Arrah,” the figure proclaims, voice strangely echoing throughout the library, “Your cleric’s prayers have been heard, and his sacrifice has secured your escape. Go, now,” it cries, activating the portal with a wave of its hand, “My light will not hold them for long. Go! And remember.”
“Come on!” Il’yena says, closest to the portal. She had tried to look for Vaertrouse, but the cleric seemed to have disappeared. Realizing the full weight of the knight’s words, a sadness touches her heart as she realizes she was the last Cyrian standing. That was quickly forgotten as the escape portal opened. She wasn’t sure what was on the other side, but it had to be better than here. The four of The Split Falchion quickly followed.
Vargard was last out. In the final moments before the portal closed, the knight stared directly at him and shouted, “Go! And Remember!” Just before the portal closed, the warrior could see some of the shades begin to assault the knight, despite its holy aura.

Outer Heaven
Vargard turns around to find himself in both the last and the first place he’d expect. It was a forest, but not that twilight realm filled to the brim with shadow monsters. Instead, he was in a brightly lit clearing, surrounding by gleaming trees. They shone so brightly, in fact, that it was impossible they were real. Entranced, he inspects one to find it made entirely of hard crystal. He turns to remark on this to find Jorduna trying to saw off a branch with one of her knives. Nothing shakes her, he thinks to himself.
He gathers the rest of the party together. All were relieved to find themselves in a remarkably better situation, though none were entirely sure how or why they were there.
“Vaertrouse… he finally got through,” Il’yena says breathlessly, taking in the landscape. It truly was inspiring. The sky was alive with colors, all of which radiated down into forests of crystal and mountains of gemstones, spreading the radiant patterns across the landscape. Rivers dotted the landscape as well, though what flowed appeared to be small shards of glass rather than water. Admittedly, this feature was also ridiculously lethal, and Vargard made a mental note to avoid any sounds of running water.
“Boss,” Jorduna says, joining back up with the group after finally freeing the crystal branch, “We go to work on this place for a few days, and we’ll never have to take a job again!”
“We should focus on getting out of her Jor,” Vargard reminds the excited hobgoblin, “We still don’t have enough food to last a we… I gotcha!” Vargard cries, catching a suddenly faint Il’yena. Jorduna and Lesani were also holding Cletus up, who had also collapsed.

Jorduna fumbles at the neck of Cletus’ jerkin out of instinct, and replies, “Var, his pulse is weak!” She wonders why the warrior looks at her as if she’s crazy, before she herself realizes the weight of her words.
“Healing potions, now!” Vargard bellows, pouring one of his own into Il’yena. Both coughed after it was administered, and they weakly came back into consciousness.
“Ugh… so, sore,” Il’yena complains, “And… hungry…”
“Var, I think they have regained vitality somehow,” Lesani reports, “I, I cannot believe it.”
“That champion guy probably did it,” Jorduna suggests noncommittedly, verbally shrugging, “Or something. Does it matter?”
“Not right now it doesn’t,” Vargard exclaims, as he drops his pack to withdraw rations. Unfortunately, the brief view of the landscape didn’t reveal any kind of wildlife, and Vargard wasn’t sure he would want to eat anything that drank out of a glass stream. The good news was that his friend was alive again. The bad news was that there were now two more mouths to feed and no way to replenish supplies.

Cletus and Il’yena were laid out on the grass while they recovered. The grass too was made of crystal, but fortunately it was of a softer variety. Walking on shattered grass would probably be a bad idea, but intact sections were safe to lay on. The rest tried to make sense of the situation.
“Dol Arrah,” Lesani says pensively, without prompt.
“Hm?” Vargard grunts.
“That was the deity named by the champion,” Lesani explains, “Patron of light, as well as a few other aspects. A fitting choice by Vaertrouse. I admit I underestimated him.”
“Shit, if all clerics can do that I’m never robbing a church again,” Jorduna banters, “Not that I’ve done that recently, Var.”
“The act seemed to have completely consumed him. Certainly not a feat performed twice,” Lesani observes, “It appears we owe that cleric our lives. If we manage to return to Eberron, it would be fitting to alert the church of his deeds.”
“Getting out of here is our first priority, but I’ll be the first one through the chapel doors once we do,” Vargard reminds everyone, “And another thing, we still need to find Marwyn.”
“Var…” Jorduna begins hesitantly, “Are we, I mean, are we sure he’s still alive?”
“We act as if he is unless proven otherwise,” Vargard says decisively, “Though honestly, I’m not sure what we should do about it. This situation is still pretty desperate, despite the change in scenery.”
“So what do we do besides consider worshiping this Dol Arrah guy?” the rogue asks, with a good helping of sarcasm towards the end.
“Get high,” Vargard answers.

Several Hours Later
Cletus and Il’yena had recovered fairly quickly after a second application of healing potions. The party was running low on them, but Vargard didn’t want to risk the delay. Once they fully regained their wits, both were extremely surprised to be alive again, and commiserated with the rest of the group as to their still-precarious situation.
Not seeing anything helpful from their vantage point, Vargard decided to try and scale one of the nearby mountains to get a better view. It was more of a hill really, and they were shortly above most of the crystalline trees. While Jorduna tried to pry a ruby the size of an egg from the ground, the rest looked for any sign of life.

“It is very beautiful,” Lesani remarks, “But just as deadly as before if we cannot find any food.”
“What’s the point of this place if there’s no one around to enjoy it?” Il’yena asks, “Why did the paladin send us here just to starve?”
“Good point,” Vargard replies, “Gotta be something here. I get the feeling it was a one way trip for the champion as well. Les, anything in the prophecy you think could be related?”
“’Once pure hands’ may have referred to those shades,” Lesani ponders, “I guess that makes us the Broken after all. Which means… mournful reflection is our salvation?”
“It’s out of order though,” Jorduna points out, having about half-freed the ruby. The tip of one of her knives had been destroyed so far, but it was worth ruining half of them if she could just get the gem, “Wasn’t the sea supposed to split or something?”
“She is right,” Lesani agrees, “As with all Draconic prophecy, nothing is certain. Though ‘dying of the light’ definitely sounds like an event that has occurred. Perhaps the ‘good intention’ was obscuring Yordrik under the sheet, preventing you from discovering his metamorphosis until too late. Or that he was rescued at all.”
“Marvor…” Il’yena sighs, “He was really the only one who kept us going. We really believed he would get us out of there.”
“He got you out,” Vargard comforts her, “And now it’s up to us to make sure his sacrifice was worth it.”

“Got it!” Jorduna exclaims, holding the ruby up with glee. “Damn Var, think this’ll get us at least what Perin promised us.”
“That’s great Jor, but I…” Vargard begins to say, but stops in his tracks when he feels a vibration on his belt. All except Il’yena feel it too. Their sending stones were lighting up with activity.
“Var!” a voice comes through, “Var, anyone, can you hear me?”
“Marwyn!?” they all exclaim, certainly not expecting to hear the bard calling them.
“Marwyn, where the hell are you?” Vargard asks, taking over.
“I dunno, some kind of crystal forest? He says you should be here too,” the bard replies.
“Where exactly?” Vargard questions.
“Hold on,” Marwyn says, and the connection ends.

Moments later, a brilliant burst of blue explodes west of their position. Assuming that north was where they had been facing, of course.
“Got it, on our way,” Vargard says, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, kinda,” Marwyn replies reluctantly.
“What’s wrong?”
“It, it’s best if I just show you,” Marwyn returns.

It was a quick walk to where the flare had gone off. Vargard wasn’t exactly sure how the bard had pulled it off, but he really wasn’t questioning anything today. Even if there was a chance that the voice on the line was faked, and they were heading into a trap, he still had to try.
His fears were proven false, however, when he saw Marwyn nervously leaning against one of the crystal trees. The bard ran to Vargard the moment he saw him with a relieved laugh.
“Marwyn, where the hell have you been?” Vargard asks, after Marwyn had greeted the rest of the party. He was a little unsure about Il’yena, but trusted that the rest wouldn’t have traveled freely with her if she was a danger. He was absolutely ecstatic that they had found Cletus somehow, but Vargard had gotten in the first question.
“What is on your bow?” Lesani questions, overriding Vargard as she reaches out for Marwyn’s bow.
“Don’t touch it!” Marwyn exclaims, leaping back to prevent this. He brings his tone back down and tries to calmly explain, “It’s… a long story, but, you really shouldn’t touch it.” He carefully removes the bow from his back and brings it into view. To Vargard’s eye it was the same as it always had been, until he saw the dragonshard hanging off one of the sides. It glowed fiercely with power, evident even to his untrained eye.
“Marwyn, what in Khyber have you done?” Lesani asks, looking at the stone with a mix of fear and uncertainty.
“He’s not dangerous, at least, well, he kinda is,” Marwyn fumbles, “Look, just let me start from the beginning.”
“Marwyn, what happened?” Vargard explained, unnerved by Lesani’s reaction to the stone. It certainly looked powerful to him, but he didn’t see any immediate cause for alarm.
“Var, I think… I think I’m Winter’s Bow,” Marwyn answers.

Continued in Part 32, Winter Unleashed – A Song of Ice

Lost in Twilight Woods
A Ranger's Elegy

Part 30 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Two Weeks Ago, The Great Thrane Robbery
Cletus was manning his controls within the train when the decision was made.
“No way. Var, the moment they started pulling on us we went down. We can’t jump a damned river like that. I’ll hop out and make my own way back,” Jorduna had said, in a voice the dwarf had never heard before. The rogue was resigning herself to a sacrifice play. Cletus would’ve never thought she’d have it in her. And he couldn’t let her do it.
He cut his connection and moved as fast as he could towards the aft of the car. He knew Jorduna, she’d never back down from something like this. He found her, hand clenching a heavy lever on the console, ready to trade away her life. Instead, Cletus gave her a punch to the back of the head. Combat experience is one thing, but it doesn’t let you ignore catastrophic blows. The dwarf quickly supports the clutched lever, and then shoulders the hobgoblin.
“Jor, don’t do it!” Vargard’s voice comes through the rogue’s sending stone. Var, Cletus sighs to himself, he won’t understand why. None of them will, but he’d made up his mind. He sets her down against her former panel, slipping her a dose of healing potion. She’d come to soon, but not before he’d separated the cars. He seals the dividing door, though, just in case.

“Jorduna, answer me!” Vargard cries through the stone, which Cletus had just reactivated.
“He… the bastard,” she replies weakly, “Cletus sucker punched me, threw me into his car and barred the door behind him.”
“Sorry… boss,” Cletus says softly, barely able to get the words out, “’t’s ta’ only way.” The dwarf forces out a fake laugh, and says, “Couldn’t let Jor have all the fun.” He solemnly pulls down on the lever Jorduna had been standing over, and catches himself as the car rapidly decelerates.
“Damnit Cletus, you shouldn’t have…” Vargard begins
“Var, you’ve gotta’ jump,” he cuts him off, “I made my choice. Save ‘urselves.”
““Everyone… get ready to jump on my count,” Vargard orders through the stone, and Cletus’ heart lifts. He knew Vargard would make the right decision, in the end. He just wished he didn’t had to have put his friend in that position. He hears the count off, and feels the energy of the jump as the cars ahead begin their flight.
River must be coming up soon, he thinks. Still moving way too fast. Should be quick, at least that’s what he hoped. Always wondered… what was after…

And then, the train cabin made contact with the river bed. The metal, designed to be lighter than the standard alloy used, crumpled before the force of impact. Survival inside, without any form of protection, was impossible. Those in the latter cars were more fortunate, the car ahead providing a buffer against the impact.
When the authorities finally managed to clear the wreck to the point where they could salvage the last car of the jumper train, they found what could only be described as a bloody mess. Nothing survived either the crash, or the further decomposition, well enough to be identified. Frustrated, Thrane would give up its last hope at finding any definitive identification on those which had stolen their newest development. They’d be forced to accept backroom settlements over a justified declaration of war against those they knew were responsible. Eventually, it would be as if the jumper train had never existed.

Location Unbound, Time Unwound
Cletus awakes suddenly, rasping as he drew in breath. It was painful, but only because he’d inhaled dirt along with the air. He coughs it out, looking around, surprised to be alive. The first thing he felt was an immediate sense of comfort, he was home. Surrounding him were trees, great beings of vibrant nature. Nowhere else in his life had he felt better than under a canopy.
“But…” whispered a voice in his head, “Remember… remember…”

And then, it all came roaring back. His last mission, his decision, and then sudden stop that had…
All existential thoughts were suddenly pushed to the side, senses coming to full alert. It was then that he noticed the silence. The natural symphony that normally echoed throughout a daytime forest was gone. This was beyond an early winter’s hibernation, there was nothing around Cletus at all besides trees that seemed to reach endlessly upwards.
He was exposed. Completely vulnerable.

Without thought he finds his bow in hand, and looks to it with some surprise. He hadn’t remembered drawing it, hadn’t even thought that it would stay with him… here. Think later, move now, he tells himself, turning the advice into a mantra. He couldn’t sense any predators around him, but that is exactly the moment you can be sure one is tracking you.
None could match him in stealth, at least no one he had ever met. This had come to the great surprise of Jorduna, when they had first met. The part of Cletus not focused on survival smiles inwardly, fond of the memory. He ends up nestled far above the forest floor, finding a nook in one of the massive tree trunks.
“This ain’t a forest,” Cletus murmurs to himself, trying to get comfortable. He feels his rucksack press against his back, and hurriedly leans forward to access it. Adrenaline lowering, it was now time to assess the situation, to try and figure out this mess. Double checking his gear, he finds everything as he had had it just before the train crash. His focus was the on the sending stone, which he quickly activated.
“Var. Var! Can ya’ hear me!?” Silence was the only response. Alright, he thinks to himself, some twisted mockery of an afterlife this is. Alone in a dead forest, probably being hunted… What do I do?
Wait for night, was the eventual decision. The light was already low, maybe an hour before dusk. He settled down, watching for any sign of approaching night.

The dwarf gasps when he is awoken by an ear-splitting roar that shakes the trunk he was sequestered in. Cletus didn’t remember falling asleep. He wasn’t sure if he needed to anymore, but that wasn’t important right now. He hesitantly glances out, and sees that it’s still close to nightfall. Either he’d slept an entire day, or… damn, I don’t know, Cletus admits to himself. The situation was overwhelming the normally composed ranger. At the very least, whatever had created that roar didn’t seem to be close by.
Something had changed, however. Whereas before the land had been flat, the almost uniform trunks spreading out as far as the horizon, there was now a plateau. It was perhaps a half a mile away, and, impossibly, about that far up in the air as well. The dwarf takes a sip out of his flask, and finds with great relief that the drink inside was still his favorite. He didn’t have much left, and judging by the building hunger, he’d have to find food as well. Cletus would’ve found the thought of hunting comforting, if he had any idea what he’d be hunting. Or if something would be hunting him as well.

Everything else being featureless forest floor, dotted with infinitely tall trees, Cletus decides to make for the plateau. It takes him what seems hours to reach, but he does so eventually. Climbing the sheer rock face would’ve been impossible, but fortunately there was a tree fairly close that he could use to scale. It was strange, even considering his circumstances. The land seemed to have risen straight up, and from what he could tell the region was circular. The ranger wondered if this had anything to do with the roar that had awoken him.
He checks his supplies before committing to the climb. Fortunately, the dwarf had always carried a few days of supplies with him, even on missions. Should be enough for the climb. If not… could he die again? Would he just return to where he had begun? Would he even remember… hell, had he done all this before? “Gotta’ keep movin’,” Cletus says to himself, driving the thoughts away before fear and doubt consumed him.

A Few Days Later
Having finally reached the plateau, it is with some surprise that Cleuts finds he recognizes the scene before him. It was The King’s Forest, from Breland! A part of it, at least. Cletus couldn’t really estimate the distance, but the part that was here was far smaller than the whole of the forest.
There was life here, too. From the branch he was perched on, he could already see wildlife ahead. The climb had worn him out, but once recovered he’d be able to hunt. Something to help feel normal, at least.

It’d taken him some time stalking to bring down the deer. The dim light had remained as it was, making it impossible to definitively tell how much time had passed. The game here were unusually skittish, bolting at even random noise. Cletus took this as a good sign, though, it meant they were real. He made a small fire to cook the meet, careful not to make too much smoke. He’d remained close to the edge of the plateau, feeling it best to remain on the outskirts for now.
He was finishing the first hot food he had had in some time when he heard the cry. It wasn’t the intense bellow that had beckoned in the plateau a few days ago. It was human, or something close to it, and it was a cry of pain. In an instant, he had taken shelter in the branches of a nearby tree. But he couldn’t ignore what he had heard either. If there was someone else here, maybe they’d know what’s going on.
If they were still alive to tell him.

Cletus was making his way carefully through the woods towards the sound of the noise when the figure went bursting past him. Whoever it was hadn’t noticed him, but people rarely do when the dwarf was trying to remain hidden. He was about to move after them when the pursuers past him. Two of them, running after the first. What he saw chilled him, the hunters were humanoid, but twisted and suffused with a deep darkness. It made it hard to determine exactly what they were, but Cletus didn’t exactly want to either. Their weapons were more mundane, simple bows and sheathed swords.
Steeling himself, he carefully removed himself from his hiding place. The runner was heading straight for the edge of the cliff. He stops at the last tree before the clearing, and sees a female eladrin trapped between the two dark hunters and the edge of the cliff. The two were making wild slashes with their blades, though none were aimed at the woman. Instead, they seemed intent on making her slip over the edge.
Instead, it was one of they who went over, the force of Cletus’ arrow catching it by surprise and pushing it off the edge. The other is able to resist the next arrow, but the next seals its fate too. Warped screams echo, eventually fading.

The eladrin screams something at Cletus in elvish, but he can’t quite catch it. He was rusty with the language as it was, and he wasn’t in the best condition to try and pick apart what was thrown at him. “Stay back!” the woman screams in common, seeing the slight confusion on his face. “Just, just stay back!”
Cletus calmly drops his bow arm, and tries to speak. His throat catches for a moment, but he’s eventually able to force out, “Anymore?”
“You’re, are you…?” the eladrin asks, the end of her sentence trailing off.
“Sane,” she finishes, hesitant relief evident in her face. “No, none. At least, I think not. How have you survived so long here?”
“Havn’t. Dunno wha’ here is,” Cletus answers, “Hoped you did.”
“No, not entirely. But I fear I will become far more acclimated than I would like if we don’t act fast.”
“What do ya’ mean?”
The eladrin’s face falls. The relief from her rescue was fading, and revealing a hidden grief. “I came with someone, and they… Look,” she says, gathering herself, “Our way out of here is on his body.”
“Where’s that?”
“Those bastards’ camp,” the eladrin replies.

Some Time Later
The dark hunter’s camp was easy to find, black smoke billowing out of the trees. The two had remained silent thus far, just in case. Cletus wasn’t sure how much he could trust the eladrin, she hadn’t even given him his name. Though on the other hand, neither had he, and she was far more trustworthy than the other sentient life here.
They looked on the camp from the shelter of a tree several hundred feet away. Several of the dark hunters moved about, around a central fire. Nothing much else was clearly visible from that distance.
“What’re they?” Cletus asks.
“No idea,” the woman whispers back, “Probably servants of one of the Six.”
“Still haven’ said where here is,” Cletus comments.
The eladrin sighs, and replies, “I didn’t know exactly how to start, but… you know you’re dead, right?”
“Don’ feel like it, but yeah. Guessed ‘s much,” Cletus admits, “You too?”
“For a few years, yes,” the eladrin admits, “And if we get out of here I’ll be sure to tell you my story.”
“m’kay,” Cletus grunts ambigiously.
“Well,” she continues, “we need to get to them we need Yordrik’s pack.”
“I can get it,” Cletus says, “Where’s he?”
“When we… arrived here,” the eladrin says carefully, “Yodrik and I were ambushed. I got away, but he…”
“Dead?” Cletus asks, when she pauses.
“No,” the eladrin responds, “I, I ran, when those things attacked. But he can’t die, he already has. I’m more afraid of…”

The eladrin is interrupted by a loud scream of pain, the same one Cletus had heard earlier. “It’s him!” she whispers fiercely, and Cletus has to restrain her before she gave away their position.
“Chargin’ in won’ help ‘em,” Cletus admonishes.
“What? We need to save him, he’s still…”
“Ya said we need ta’ get somethin’ from ‘is pack to escape,” Cletus explains, cutting over the eladrin “Ya can cause a distraction, I get him an’ ‘is pack.”
“How can I trust you won’t just leave me?”
Cletus sighs. He wished Vargard and the others were here. Tactical discussions were always shorter, and he could use the backup. He answers, “I dunno what ya need from the pack. How much time d’ya need once I get it to ya’?”
“Not long,” the eladrin replies, “A few moments, no more. But if I draw the attention of all those beings…”
“Ya can run, I’ve seen ya’. Circle back around ta’ tha camp. Ya have a better idea?”
“Give me a few minutes ta’ get close,” Cletus says, moving out.

There were six hunters in total at the camp, and they were all dancing around a man tied to the trunk of a tree. Cletus grimaces when he sees the state of the man, long and deep cuts were scattered around his body. Some should have been fatal, yet life persisted in the tortured frame. Those that weren’t cutting were using the nearby fire to heat their blades. Further away, in a neglected portion of the camp, lay the mutilated corpses of several game, as well as what appeared to be the possessions of the man. A tattered pack was among those thrown in the pile.
Entranced as they were in their torture, the dark hunters didn’t notice when Cletus crept up behind the tree Yordrik was lashed to. After a few moments, he hears a feminine scream come from somewhere out in the distance. It sounded genuine, and Cletus wonders if the eladrin had caught sight of her companion. The hunters all turn their heads, registering their new prey. They all set out, forgetting their former victim at the thought of a new one.

Cletus swiftly cuts the ropes tied around the tree, and Yordrik falls to the ground heavily. Cletus grimaces again when he reaches to pick up the man, his body was practically shredded into ribbons. If he was capable of death, it would have come for him long ago. Making a decision, Cletus dashes over to the bag and grabs it. “Ready!” he shouts, returning to Yordrik.
The man raises what little he had of a hand, trying to reach for Cletus. Air whistles through his throat, but nothing was comprehensible. The dwarf senses what he was trying to warn him of, however. One of the hunters hadn’t ventured far from the camp, and returned after hearing Cletus. It takes several arrows to the chest as it tries to reach him, not even trying to dodge them.
Cletus’ aim grows wider with nervousness as his arrows do little more than slow the approaching dark figure. It was nearly upon him when the eladrin comes sliding towards him, desperately clutching the pack. She quickly withdraws a scroll, saying to Cletus, “By all that’s holy keep them off of me!”
Cletus grunts, seeing the rest of the dark hunters rapidly approaching. He was about to resort to his swords when the eladrin yells, “Grab my hand!”, stretching out a hand to the dwarf. She also had a palm pressed against Yodrik’s chest. The scroll she had been reading from lay glowing in the air, hovering before her.
The dwarf quickly grabs the hand, feeling an immense surge of magical power flow through him as he does so. He initially resists it out of instinct, but then allows it free reign. The closest hunter opens its maw as it bears down on him, twisted fangs showing most of the way down its maw. But they would never reach the dwarf, as the spell completes, and he is whisked away.

End of the Line
In an instant, Cletus is transported away from the ever-dim forest. It felt more intense then the teleportation he’d experienced before, the sheer sense of velocity overwhelming him. It ceased just as quickly, and the dwarf is blinded by the intense light of the room he now found himself in.
“Il’yena, Yordrik, back so… Help! Help!” a deep voice cries out. Cletus feels a blade against his throat, and the voice threatens, “Don’t you move.”
“Dorian, he’s with me! He’s with me!” the eladrin, who Cletus guessed was Il’yena, cries. He feels the blade withdraw.
“What in Siberys happened…” Dorian sighs, looking at the broken form of Yordrik.
“No time,” Il’yena says, “Help me get him to Marvor.”
“Right,” Dorian nods. Cletus had just turned to assess the new person, and finds a burly orc in heavy armor. Two others stood at the threshold of this small room, both looking agape at Yordrik. A sheet from a nearby bed, for this appeared to be a bedchamber of sorts, was guided underneath the man, and then all assembled hoisted the cloth.

By his nature Cletus merely followed suit, not questioning their actions. Neither did they question him, focused as they were on helping their friend. Rather, he focused on absorbing his surroundings. They had exited the small room into a hallway, one with odd stonework. It was unlike any he had seen before, but it appeared mortal. Wherever he was now, it definitely wasn’t the home of some deity.
As for the men who surrounded him, Cletus noticed that they all wore similar clothing. It seemed worn, though, and had the classic marks of thread hold solely together by near constant application of mending. Magical repair can only go so far.
Eventually they come to a large chamber at the end of the hall. It was shaped like a dome, a large crack in the back exposing utter darkness behind. In the foreground, however, was a roiling bluish flame. A voice emanates from its approximate center, booming across the hall.
“What has happened? And who is this?” it says. A figure forms from the fire, and kneels down to inspect Yordrik as he is placed in front of the flame.
“The scouting mission went to Khyber,” Il’yena cries, “We would have both suffered this fate were it not for this dwarf.”
“His soul is in great turmoil,” the being known as Marvor reports, returning its figure to a standing posture. “Vaertrouse may mend his body, though I fear what damage his spirit may have sustained.”
“The Sovereigns have not heard our prayers thus far,” one of those who had been silent thus far comments mournfully, “Though I fear we may need their strength now more than ever.” Cletus noticed the man finger a small pendant worn around his neck, and figured it was a holy symbol. The man goes to tend to Yordrik, grimacing as he does so.

“What about him?” the only one who hadn’t spoken yet asked, staring at Cletus. He was a half-elf, old even by their standards. It was a hard look, a distrusting look. “Who are you?”
“Wait Carver,” Il’yena says hurriedly, “He’s a friend.”
“He’s no Cyrian,” Carver says, spitting. Cletus remains impassive, however, undaunted by the aggression.
“Everyone calm down,” the voice from the flame bellows. After a moment of silence, it continues, “Dwarf, who are you?”
The ranger looks down, unsure where to begin or if he should. He coughs, eventually, and mumbles, “Cletus.”
“And you brought him here?” the man called Carver accuses Il’yena, taking offense at Cletus’ reticence.
“Now is not the time for arguing,” the flaming figure intercedes once more, and it was clear that the others deferred to him. Even Carver, who reluctantly backed down and glanced away from the fire.

“It is obvious you are not Cyrian,” Marvor continues, “Though that matters little now. You are dead, as I have no doubt you have surmised, as are we.”
“How long ‘ave ya’ been ‘ere?” Cletus asks, hoping the one before him could answer what few other questions he had.
“No long,” Marvor replies despondently, “Two years, give or take. We have begun to lose count, and I cannot fathom what an eternity here will do to us.”
“Two… two years?” Cletus questions hurriedly, realization dawning on him, “Ya’ were in tha’ Mournin’!?”
“What the hell is the Mourning?” Carver replies in a similar tone, worry now entering his voice.
“Ya’ don’ know…” A heaviness fills the dwarf. He knew what he’d have to tell them, and that he probably knew more than they did.

“Cyre… gone?” Vaertrouse, the cleric, gasps to himself after Cletus had explained. At first they didn’t believe the dwarf, but soon realized he had little reason to lie.
“We couldn’t have… No, impossible,” Marvor states firmly, resolve that had so far stood firm breaking slightly, “My experiment couldn’t have done that. But it may explain our presence here.”
“How can you be so sure?” Carver shouts, radiating anger at both Cletus and Marvor, “How the hell can you… gone, just like that? That’s what this is, you bastard! You damned our people Marvor, and this is our judgment!”
“My work was pyromancy! It is impossible for…” Marvor stops himself, noticing that both Cletus’ and Carver’s hands were reaching for weapons. The latter was heavily considering an offense, and the former a response to such. “Carver, you were with me the whole time. You all were, nothing I did was different from my previous attempts at pyrogenesis!”
“Carver just… just calm down,” Vaertrouse tries to reason, fear present in the cleric’s voice, “Even if you want to kill Marvor you couldn’t! For so many reasons!”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t want to… ugh,” the man grunts, as Cletus’ fist knocks him down. He looks at the other Cyrians awkwardly.
“Sorry,” he grunts.
“No,” Marvor sighs, causing small wisps of flame to ascend at the edges of the flame pit, “It was Carver who was at fault. I fear this place has taken its toll most on him… not counting Yordrik,” Marvor grimaces, the outline of his head glancing over to the broken man. Vaertrouse had covered him with the bedsheet after doing whatever he could, but the grim outline which it cast was still disturbing. “Perhaps now, I owe you an explanation.”

“Thrane had been our enemy for quite some time,” Marvor begins to explain, “And the one thing that held them together the most was the church. I thought, if we could create another phenomenon like the voice in the flame, we could use that propaganda to weaken their resolve. It didn’t even have to be completely true, just enough to give us an edge. I’d happened upon an ancient writ of some sort which described the act, copied from an original held deep in Thrane. An incantation was of particular note, and within a year I was making progress. Until…”
“Perhaps what happened to Cyre, The… Mourning?” Vaertrouse looks to Cletus for confirmation, and he nods, “Was divine retribution for your studies? Could Carver actually… is this why the Host won’t answer me?”
“No,” Cletus shakes his head, “What’vr tha’ Mournin’ was, wasn’t good.”
“My studies admittedly hadn’t made enough progress to threaten Thrane at that point either,” Marvor counters, uneasy at the growing criticism, “At least until… this,” Marvor gestures sweepingly, traces of flame echoing the movement of his hand. “If The Mourning created creatures of darkness as you described, then perhaps it interfered with my spell in a way to cause this. How we travelled to this… place, wherever we are, is beyond me.”
“This is Marvor’s spell chamber,” Il’yena quickly adds, noting that this fact had gone unspoken.
“Ok,” Cletus says, not fully understanding, “But how’d ya’ end up inna forest?”

“Forest?” Marvor glances over to Il’yena, who quickly explains what had happened both preceding to finding Cletus, and afterwards.
“The forest… sounds somewhat like tales of Lamannia…” Marvor muses, “But those beasts, definitely servants of the Shadow. What of the wildlife?”
“None,” Cletus answers decisively, “Least not till I found tha’ plateau.”
“That… was not Lamannia then,” Marvor sighs, “When it became clear that it was all but darkness surrounding us, I began attempting to open planar rifts. Though I am stuck here, if the others could escape this place…” Marvor explains, “It took me a month of concentration just to open this first portal, and craft the return scroll. Now that I have it will be easier to return, though I doubt any would be willing to do so.”
“Lamannia. That’s Siberys,” Dorian chips in, and his face turns pale, “The Shadow…”
“What is it, Dorian?” Marvor asks the orc.
“Been readin’ in the library,” he responds, blank-faced, “Dragonborn treatise on Siberys. How close planar realms can sometimes bleed together and create… junctions, I think the word was. Places were elements of both planes mix together. Lamannia explains the forest.”
“What explains those beasts, then?” Il’yena asks, not liking where this was going.
“Answer’s the same as the one we’ve been wondering,” Dorian answers, staring out of the breach in the ritual chamber and out into the blackness. “Where we are. It’s Mabar. The Endless Night.”

Continued in Part 31, Darkness Unbroken – Hope All But Lost

Hunting Heaven
A Foretold Path

Part 29 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Crimson Eagle, Two Days Later
It was just after midday, the barroom below doing its normal roaring business. Vargard had expected Marwyn to join the rest an hour ago. When there was no sign of the bard, he excused himself and walked to their room. He knocks on the door gently, and waits for a reply.
“Just a minute!” Marwyn yells through. The bard opens the door shortly after, and the warrior noticed he was wearing his ring.
“Yeah,” Marwyn nods, “She was leaving Fairhaven and we were catching up.”
“Leaving Fairhaven? What’s wrong?” Vargard asks, entering the room and closing the door behind him.
“They got snow again,” Marwyn answers, “The guard’s worried about too many people coming in from the fields to shelter in the city. Grain reserves and… well, I didn’t catch all of it.”
“Still sure you want to stay with us Marwyn?”
“Yeah, Var. Thanks for keeping quiet about… all this, by the way.”
“No problem, it’s your own business,” the warrior responds. “I got a runner from the university this morning. Perin’s finally got permission for his little expedition, so we’re a go in a few days.”
“That’s, that’s good,” Marwyn replies, somewhat distractedly.
“What is it?”
“I’ve almost got it, Var,” the bard says, reaching for an auburn tome, “I’m so close. I’m just not quite there yet.”
“We’re going to a forest, Marwyn. You shouldn’t…” Vargard begins, but stops himself when he remembers why Marwyn was studying Feather Fall. “I’m glad you were able overcome the mine shaft back in the Cogs,” he switches topics.
“Barely,” Marwyn grimly confirms.
“How’re Les and Jor doing?” the bard asks, he too eager to change the topic.
“Well enough. You should join us before the food gets cold.”
“Yeah, sure,” Marwyn replies, grabbing his pack and following Vargard out.

Meanwhile, Langhorn’s Study
“Sure you don’t want to join us, Langhorn?” Perin asks, standing by the Aundairian professor’s desk. Shakris had gone to the library to find research material, leaving the two elves alone.
“I think I have better use for my time than traipsing through a forest, Perin,” Langhorn answers dryly.
“How many times do I have to apologize for that… incident?”
“Only once. But now that I have ‘earned my keep’, I have my own research to consider. I’m not getting any younger.”
“Shame. I have a really good feeling about this, Langhorn,” Perin replies, “Crown must as well. Our liaison with Wroat said she’d never seen an approval return so fast.”
“Are they interested in the prophecy?” Langhorn questions, finally showing some interest.
“Well… it’s more the Manifest Zone really,” Perin admits, “I mean, look at what Shaarn’s done with the one here. Who knows what this one can do?”
“Or if it’s even there,” Langhorn counters.
“I apologize if this bores you Langhorn, but I really do think I’m on to something,” Perin says, wounded, “I hope you find your work to be just as fruitful.”
“Thank you,” Langhorn replies graciously, realizing he was being more confrontational than he rightfully should, “I wish you well on your journey.”
“Not that I’ll need it with those friends of yours,” Perin responds, picking right back up with his cheerful spirit, “Considering what they chewed through, I’m really starting to think fate is on our side.”
“We can only hope,” Langhorn agrees, “Safe journeys.”
“I’ll be sure to stop by when I get back, tell you how it went,” Perin says, in farewell.

The Crimson Eagle
Marwyn had joined his compatriots in dining on the noonday meal, a healthy selection of fresh meats and breads. Despite the dire state of Fairhaven Mevalyn had reported, Shaarn seemed to be doing well in terms of winter supplies. Breland had always been a titan of agriculture, the sheer size of the nation allowing it to dwarf the fields of even Aundair in sheer quantity. Even from just the week he had been in Shaarn, Marwyn could tell this.
“So, ‘a few days’,” Jorduna starts the conversation, after all had finished their meals, “Exactly when are we leaving with the mad professor?”
“They weren’t specific,” Vargard answers, “Probably at the end of the week.”
“Any others accompanying us?” Lesani chimes in.
“Probably not,” Vargard replies, “By the sound of it, the university’s much more interested in exploring the rest of those ruins. Probably have the same opinion I have on the matter, it’s a fool’s errand.”
“At least we’re getting paid,” Marwyn reasons, “I’ll take the woods over those ruins any day.”

One of the servants comes by to take their plates, dropping off a fresh tankard for each of the four. When they leave, the conversation resumes.
“Yeah,” Vargard sighs, “Just can’t shake the feeling that Cletus would’ve loved this one.”
“He’d probably do it for free,” Jorduna chuckles, “Probably would’ve hated that prophecy nonsense though…”
“I’m still not convinced of anything,” Vargard responds stubbornly, “It’s too much to believe.”
“You doubt the veracity of the prophecy?” Lesani asks.
“Not that. Just that whatever happens involves us,” the warrior clarifies, “Though I suppose we aren’t exactly trying to avoid it.”
“Jor and I were talking about this earlier,” the elf replies, “What we have seen thus far could match with what the prophecy has said.”
“Yeah, only if you want it to,” the hobgoblin argues, “The first part, ‘dying of the light’. That could mean anything!”
“Granted, but the appearance of a Siberys Manifest Zone would definitely fulfill the next part of the prophecy.”
“And then what? Siberys gets destroyed? Is that really what you’re saying Les?”
“What?” Marwyn asks, confused.
“The prophecy mentions ‘The Broken’ being endangered,” Lesani explains, “Given the reference to it in the previous line, I believe the prophecy foretells a threat against Siberys itself.”
“Bullshit,” Jorduna counters, bringing a hand down on the table, “Said yourself the prophecy can mean anything, Les. That could easily mean anything.”
“Right, but…”
“Les, Jor, let’s just drop it for now,” Vargard cuts the bickering mercenaries off, “We’ll worry about the prophecy if we come across it. Will you be ready to move out by then?”
“Yeah, Var,” they respond together. While forceful, their debate hadn’t been mean spirited. Marwyn, who had taken the sideline for most of the conversation, nods as well.

“Good. I’ll contact you when I know the day we’re leaving,” Vargard says, standing up.
“Where are you going?” Lesani asks.
“Pay from the ruins was good. I’m thinking about getting another sword,” the warrior answers thoughtfully.
“Never wanted to dual wield before,” Jorduna points out, “What changed?”
“Nothing. Just thought I’d get a backup, give myself the option,” Vargard explains.
“I should get back to studying,” Marwyn says, rising as well.
“Are you making progress?” Lesani asks, watching Vargard leave out of the corner of her eye.
“Yeah, I’m almost there,” Marwyn nods, “I’ll tell you when I got it.”
“Good luck, Marwyn,” Lesani responds, as he too leaves.

The Next Day, 100 Feet West of the Middle City
Marwyn had finally succeeded in casting feather fall, first in the comfort of his room, and then from the roof of the tavern. The spectacle had attracted some onlookers, and after he had harmlessly landed the guard warned him of the consequences of a repeat performance.
So instead, he had hired one of the sky coaches, having it take him far above the Dagger River.
“Here?” the driver asks, looking at the bard with some skepticism.
“Yeah, thanks,” Marwyn replies, handing the driver the standard fare.
“Uh… kid, I don’t know if you noticed, but… wait!” the driver exclaims, reaching out but unable to stop the bard from leaping off the side of the cab. He stares at the rapidly falling figure in shock, but then lets out a curse when he sees the descent suddenly slow. “Told the university I wasn’t doing this no more,” he mutters to himself, “Damn kids gonna give me a heart attack.”
Marwyn, meanwhile, was enjoying the rush of adrenaline from his jump. The spell slowed his fall, but the descent was still exhilarating. I wonder if I could glide like this, Marwyn thinks to himself, that would be amazing. After a minute, however, he realizes his mistake. He’d told the driver to go over the river on the off chance that his spell failed. Now, he realized that even with the spell succeeding, he’d land there anyway. While his landing was gentle, Marwyn gasps with the cold as he lands in the Dagger. The swim to shore was easy, even for him, but the cold still stuck with him all the way back to The Crimson Eagle.

“What did you do?” Lesani asks, seeing the sodden bard enter the tavern.
“Tried… higher,” Marwyn says through chattering teeth, “Overshot and… hit the river.”
“By Siberys, Marwyn! You could have been killed!”
“Spell… worked…” he argues, as Lesani draped her jerkin around him. They both move closer to the fire. “Thanks.”
“Just because you can do something does not mean you should,” the warlock chides, “I hope you have learned something from this.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn replies, warmth returning to him, “If I can find some way to pin my cloak to my arms, I could fly with this spell.”
“You would need the strength of several men to generate enough lift to fly, at best you would glide,” Lesani says, then shakes her head, “But you should not try either!”
“At least, I mean, I think I’m over my fear of heights,” Marwyn says.
“That is true,” Lesani compromises, “But I still advise caution Marwyn. That spell should be for emergencies only.”
“Ok, ok, Les,” Marwyn replies, thoroughly chastised, “I should probably work on those other spells now anyways. Var find out anything?”
“Not yet,” Lesani replies, “Perin is still gathering supplies. It should be soon.” She looks to her stone in slight surprise as it chimes. Marwyn’s does as well. “Speak of a devil….”
“Perin’s sent another runner,” Vargard says, once everyone had connected, “We’re leaving tomorrow at noon. Meeting him at the university gates.”
“Got it,” Jorduna acknowledges, disconnecting.
“Understood Var,” Lesani replies, closing the connection as well. Marwyn does the same, and hands Lesani back her coat. “I would get those clothes fully dried.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn agrees, “Back into a forest. Why do we keep going back into forests?”
“We go where the jobs are, Marwyn. That is all I can say,” Lesani answers. Unsatisfied, but unable to challenge the statement, Marwyn returns to his room to change.

Afternoon, The Next Day
The mercenaries had met Perin at the gates of Morgrave University as they had been instructed. From there, they take a skycoach to the lightning rail station which they had arrived from. Though Marwyn didn’t know the coach driver, she seemed to know him, as she gave him nervous glances throughout the trip. The bard tried to ignore it.
“Unfortunately we’ll have to disembark at First Tower,” Perin explains as he buys their tickets, “I’d like to minimize travel through the woods, but the damned manifest zone is right in the middle of the King’s Forest. Closest stop and all that.”
“Not a problem,” Vargard acknowledges, “Just as long as you know where we’re going.”
“Of course I do, don’t worry Mr. Garodin,” Perin reassures, as they board the rail, “I’ve triple checked the mural, and I’ve brought along this,” he says, tapping a scroll tube.
“What is it?”
“A map which centers itself on us. Updates itself in real time, I’m surprised they let me have it,” Perin says, “Though I imagine Wynarn isn’t too keen on us getting lost.”

It was a short ride on the rail, only an hour to the first tower. Getting off, the group is faced with the vastness of the King’s Forest.
The woods to the east expanded as far as Marwyn could see. It wasn’t the largest forest on Khorvaire, that honor went to the Towering Woods of the Eldeen Reaches of course. But it was still massive to one used to the wide plains of Aundair, which were broken only by small swathes of trees.
“Right!” Perin says, pulling a long wooden staff from its spot on his back and holding it as a walking stick, “Let’s be off!”
“Gotta ask Perin, are you any good in a fight?” Vargard questions, as they depart from the station. The swagger with which the professor was walking was drawing some attention, but otherwise they were undisturbed.
“S..somewhat,” the professor answers, the question tamping down on his excitement a little, “I’m not entirely defenseless.”
“We’ll hope it doesn’t come to it then,” Vargard sighs, stepping out of the way of a cart, “You have a tent?”
“Of course!” Perin answers, sails billowing once more with confidence, “I am always prepared! Anything one might need to survive in the woods can be found right here,” he pats the rucksack hanging from his back affectionately. “Or, well, almost anything. I wanted to bring a portable range, but couldn’t justify the weight.”
“Fire’ll do better anyways,” Jorduna cuts in, as they pass the last line of buildings which make up the town surrounding the First Tower. There’s a clearing between them and the King’s Forest, but past that, it’s practically jungle.
“I suppose,” Perin laments, “I’ve just always wanted to go on an expedition like this! Explore the vast wilderness of Breland. The air is… bracing!” he proclaims, taking in a deep breath. Jorduna and Vargard exchange looks, but don’t say anything.

When they reach the trees, Perin eagerly pulls out a machete, ready to hack away at the obstructing jungle ahead. It is with disappointment that he puts it back in its sheath, a clear trail through the woods had already been cut. There was evidence of foot traffic, though not much. While the locals most definitely hunted in the woods in spite of Brelish law, they’d be suicidal to do it openly or often.
After the first hour of travel, however, signs of previous travel grew faint. Perin delightfully employed his machete against branches that dared encroach onto the forest trail. Vargard had initially thought to stop him, thinking it would draw unwanted attention, but figured that the professor was already loud enough for it not to matter. The four hung back slightly, not wanting to get caught in an errant swing.

After a few more hours of walking, Perin decides to call it for the day, and make camp near a small lake. For most on Khorvaire it would not be night for another couple hours, but the forest canopy was concealing the sun as it moved towards the horizon. Jorduna withdrew some wire from her pack, along with a few other odds and ends, and moved around the exterior of the camp.
“Don’t go too far out,” she says, returning to the campfire Marwyn had started with a flaming arrow.
“Why?” Perin asks.
“Just… don’t worry about it,” the hobgoblin replies, “Any fish in that lake?”
“Perhaps,” Perin answers, grinning as he pulls a slender rod out of his rucksack, “Shall we find out?”
“Sure,” Jorduna shrugs. Perin moves to the lakeside, and is surprised when Jorduna joins him with a fishing rod of her own.
“Where did you get that?” the elf asks, looking over at the hobgoblin’s pack and noticing that it was too short to have held the pole.
“Figure it out for yourself, Professor,” Jorduna challenges, as she tosses a line away from where Perin had.

“Isn’t that illegal?” Marwyn asks Vargard, as they watch the two fish. Lesani had turned to her journal, isolating herself from the rest.
“Maybe,” Vargard shrugs, “Not like Breland’s King is waiting behind every tree to stop poachers. Hardly imagine any wandering forester’ll give us trouble with Perin’s writ anyways.”
“You know, I didn’t really think about it before, but Jor seems to really enjoy fishing,” Marwyn says with some surprise. He’d seen her at it once before, but the events of that day had… taken his mind off that.
Vargard grunts to himself, and answers, “Lot of things I don’t know about Jor. Ever tell you how I met her?”
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, interested, “I don’t know how you met Les either. Or… Cletus.”
“It was after I’d quit the Royal Eyes, for the first time,” Vargard explains, eager to switch the topic, “Got the idea in my head to start my own team of operatives. People I could trust. I knew the Eyes would toss me a mission from time to time, but…”
“Why’d you quit the first time?” Marwyn interrupts.
“That’s… not something I can tell you, Marwyn,” Vargard answers reluctantly, “It was a personal decision, and it affected more than myself.”
“Sorry,” Marwyn apologizes.
“Can’t fault you for being curious,” Vargard replies softly, “I just can’t tell you, is all. Anyway, Jor, she was born in Darguun, you know that,” Vargard says, while watching the hobgoblin reel in what could be the first catch of the evening, “Ended up in Aundair a few years ago. Reason for that is her’s alone to tell. Anyways, it was a few weeks after I’d quit the Royal Eyes, and I saw her stealing from a food stall.”
“Did you turn her into the guard?” Marwyn asks.
“No,” Vargard shakes his head, “It was only a few bits of bread. Seemed like she’d been starving. Thought I’d test her, see if she was interested in joining my outfit. Cletus and Les were already with me at that point, but I felt like I needed a few more. Not like some teams, who hire as many people who can carry a sword. She’d already had a good collection of knives at that time, seemed capable of handling them.”
“Yeah, I think she told me about this,” Marwyn says, reaching far back into his memory, “I think you had her steal some stuff?”
“What?” Vargard furrows his brow, “No, that’s not how it happened at all. What did she tell you?”
“Nothing,” Marwyn answers quickly, “What happened?”
“Had her cut my purse,” Vargard smiles, remembering a fond memory, “I knew how to make myself appear an easy mark. Of course, all she found inside was a job offer. Poor girl wasn’t sure if it was a trap or honest opportunity when she handed it in. She was… less confident back then. It was a strange kingdom to her though, can’t really blame her.”

“Another thing I’ve been wondering,” Marwyn says, questions forming in his head that he’d never thought of before, “Why’d you name us The Split Falchion?”
“Hmm? Oh, that,” Vargard replies, momentarily caught by the sudden tangent, “In honor of my first sabre. We didn’t start with that name, can’t really remember what we called ourselves back then,” Vargard says, scratching his head.
“Steadfast Allies,” Lesani responds, over from her journal.
“Right, thanks Les,” Vargard says, “Honestly I’ve never been one for naming things. Anyway, I’d fought with a falchion during the war, and hadn’t bothered to use anything else when I went mercenary. Blasted thing was so worn that the blade got severed in two during one of our first jobs. Employer nicknamed us The Split Falchion as a laugh, and it kinda… stuck.”
“Why’d you switch to a longsword? Do you think I should?” Marwyn asks.
“No, I’d keep with what you’re familiar with,” Vargard replies, “I switched to a longsword because that’s what I pried off my opponent. Liked fighting with it better, it flows well with a shield.”

“What’re you talking about?” Jorduna asks, as she and Perin return, several fish in tow.
“History,” Vargard answers, “That’s a good haul.”
“It is!” Perin exclaims, who had in fact caught a couple of the fish, “I’m surprised the King is so restrictive of these woods. The natural resources are practically boundless!”
“Exactly why people aren’t normally allowed here, I wager,” Vargard answers, “How far have we to go?”
“Judging by my map,” Perin answers, pulling it out, “We have… two, maybe three days of hiking? Once there I’ll begin studying the land. If the mural was to scale, then the zone shouldn’t be more than a few hundred feet in diameter.”
“If it’s there,” Vargard counters, the smell of roasting fish permeating the air as Jorduna cooked them on a spit. “What’ll we do if it’s just more forest?”
“I’ll study the land just the same,” Perin answers, gaze wandering towards the campfire, “We can worry about that when we get there.”

Marwyn, meanwhile, had taken a seat next to Lesani. “What do you keep doing with that journal?” he asks, looking at the pages over her shoulder. The script was in Elvish. His mother had taught him her tongue, but it had been a while since Marwyn had tried to read the flowing letters. Combined with the warlock’s tight writing, he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“My studies,” the elf answers, keeping her gaze centered on the pages, “You have not attempted to cast your modified unseen servant ritual again, correct?”
“No, no no no,” Marwyn reassures, “Haven’t really done any rituals lately.”
“Good,” Lesani says, turning the pages to the latter portion of the journal, “Though I have been theorizing on a possible method to make it safe to use.”
“Really? How does it work?”
Lesani sighs, and answers, “Right now, it does not. I had hopes of using your mark as a conduit to safeguard the portion of your soul the spell uses, but it is rather hard to experiment without one myself.”
“The… the mark?” Marwyn replies, taken aback, “I thought it couldn’t be used for anything after the wand was destroyed.”
“Magic is a versatile art,” Lesani says, “Though given the difficulty I have faced attempting to modify the mark, that may be true.”
“If you need me to help you, I could try casting…”
“No, Marwyn, that will not be necessary,” Lesani interrupts, “My theories should not put your life in danger. When I am more certain of this method’s safety, I will let you know.”
“Thanks, Les. Anything else you’re working on?”
“A few things,” the warlock smiles mischievously, “Maybe you’ll see one or two of them soon.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Marwyn says, and then looks to the fish which had finished cooking.

Perin roused the others at the crack of dawn, the next day. Such awakening might have been met with grumbling, had the canopy also not delayed the dawn. They resumed hiking after finishing the remains of last night’s meal. All had provisions, of course, but fresh food always tastes better.
The woods grew thicker the deeper they moved into them. At one point, the group is forced off the trail as it bends sharply southwards, their target to the north and east. It was several hours after they had made this correction, the sunlight once again dimming close to nightfall, that a mix of arrows and bolts rain down on the travelling five. Perin, leading the group, takes the brunt of two of the projectiles. Vargard manages to block the rest from injuring himself or his friends, and moves to cover the felled elf. “Ambush!” he yells, drawing his sword.
Marwyn struggles to string his bow, leaning down in attempt to dodge anymore shots. Lesani and Jorduna stand backs facing each other, covering the other two angles. No one had seen where the shots had come from, though the general assumption was that they were surrounded.
“I don’t see anything!” Jorduna yells.
“How is Perin?” Lesani asks.
“Still alive,” Vargard answers, placing the professor against a tree. He then lays his shield against Perin’s front, blocking most of him from archer fire. “Huh,” he grunts to himself, as he draws his second longsword.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Marwyn says, scanning the trees for any movement.
“Could be repositioning,” Jorduna speculates, “Or they’re just running away like cowards! Hit and run tactics.”
“Plenty of bandits in these woods. Marwyn, help me with Perin,” Vargard orders, and then follows up with a whisper, “Make Jor invisible. Jor, see if you can find any.”
“Got it boss,” the hobgoblin answers softly, a grin spreading across her face.

“Uh… my head hurts…” Perin says weakly, trying to get up.
“Stay down!” Vargard commands firmly, pushing the elf back against the tree.
“Boss,” a whisper comes through his sending stone.
“What is it Jor?” Vargard whispers back, palming the stone.
“Found a half-elf bastard retreating. Should I take him out?”
“No, Jor, that’ll reveal you. Follow him back, but be careful.”
“Got it,” the rogue murmurs back, cutting the connection.
“My arm hurts too,” Perin groans, pulling at the arrow lodged in it.
“Stop doing that! Marwyn…”
“On it Var,” Marwyn responds. Healing magic was definitely an improvement over allowing the body to fix itself, though after a direct hit from a bow, the arrow still needed to be removed first.
“What happened?” Perin asks, as the haze from his injuries lifts.
“Ambush,” Vargard breathes into his ear, “Our attackers fled after firing on us. We’re tracking them back to their base.”
“What?!” Perin shouts, “We should get out of here!”
“We do that, and they’ll just come back for us,” Vargard argues, “If we can take them, then we’ll ambush them right back.”
“What if they’re too many?”
“Then we’ll have to get clever,” Vargard answers.

The bandit camp turned out to be a clearing only a few minutes’ walk from where they had been ambushed. Tattered tents were home to almost two dozen in equally disheveled clothes. What weapons they had were in slightly better condition, though certainly no army quartermaster would allow them to pass muster. Most had bows, their strengths allying more with attacking at range. In fact, not counting what were essentially long knives, only one carried a sword.
Something was cooking in a pot near the center of the camp, and the bandits were taking liberal drinks alongside it from several kegs. The barrels bore the mark of a popular and expensive brand, and it wasn’t likely that the men had paid for them.
“Found five Aundairian bastards just wandering abouts,” a bandit, who had recently returned, reported to the one with a sword.
“What did ya do?” the other asks, looking up from his bowl.
“Shot at ‘em. Pretty sure we got one. Others hunkered down.”
“I’m sure you idiots didn’t lead them back to the camp, right? Otherwise I might have to give you a reminder about…”
“No one followed us, jeez,” the first replies defensively, “Had Toval watch our backs to check. Those guys looked like they had some good gear, I’m thinking we take the rest of the boys and finish ‘em off.”
“We do what I say we do. Which is that,” the second orders, “Men, finish your grog, then suit up. We’ve got a…”
“Fire!” someone yells suddenly, flames sparking to life around the camp. “Fire!”

A Few Minutes Earlier, Jorduna
“Var, we’ve got at least 20 here,” the hobgoblin reports, “Big camp. Most are carrying bows, though they don’t look like they can hit shit with them.”
“They hit Perin pretty well,” Vargard’s voice comes through her stone, “20 bows is a veritable volley. And they’re way too close to avoid.”
“What should I do, Var?”
“Think you can disable some of their weapons?”
“Maybe,” Jorduna responds, taking another look at the camp. The five who had just returned had their bows firmly in grasp, but the others taking lunch had them either propped up nearby, or just in sight. Her eyes catch the barrels of alcohol, and she says, “Think I’ve got a better idea.”
“I’m gonna set fires around them. I can smell the alcohol from here, must be strong stuff. Figure I can spread some around.”
“Do the best you can. I doubt they’re going to wait for us to regroup. Perin’s mobile, and we’re moving to regroup with you. We’ll give you as much time as we can, but as soon as they go on alert we’re moving,” Vargard replies.
“Got it,” Jorduna acknowledges.
“Good luck, Jor.”

Invisible, it was a matter of ease for the rogue to slip amongst the ranks of the bandits. Most were sitting, and focused on their meals. She took the opportunity to sever the bowstrings of four bows that were lying in the tent closest to her, taking care to support the stave of each as the tension was released. She was briefly worried that doing so would reveal her, but after the first time it became clear such maneuvers wouldn’t break her veil. She begrudgingly thanked Marwyn mentally for the assist, the spell was immensely helpful.
The other weapons she could see were too close to their respective owners to sabotage. So instead, she walked to one of kegs that hadn’t been tapped yet. She cut a thin hole in a side facing away from the mass of bandits, and collected the liquid that flowed from it in a large flask she had picked up earlier. A little on each tent, a few other opportune places, and finally, the keg itself, would make for an impressive distraction.
She finished applying the volatile liquid shortly before the scout had begun giving his report. “Var, something’s happening,” she says, taking out some flint and steel, “You ready?”
“Ready,” the warrior replies, “We can see the camp.”
“I’m going to start setting fires. I couldn’t get all of their bows, but honestly some are already drunk halfway to unconsciousness.”
“Do it,” Vargard says, and she strikes up a fire.

Her first target had been the leaking keg. She’d stuffed a rag drenched in alcohol into the hole she had cut, and then lit the end of the rag on fire. The rogue wasn’t sure if the barrel would catch fire, or explode, but she wasn’t going to be close by when it did.
The fire quickly reaches the innards of the barrel, barely giving Jorduna enough time to get away. The high quality ale made excellent accelerant, and the barrel provided enough pressure to make the brew detonate. Flaming chunks of wood rain down amidst the camp, lighting everything Jorduna had touched on fire. Recovering from the blast, Jorduna quickly chokes one of the more isolated bandits, forcing him into unconsciousness. Doing so dismissed the enchantment which kept her ethereal, but the rest of the combatants would soon have bigger problems.
The hobgoblin’s three companions rushed into the clearing, capitalizing on the confusion. Marwyn picks a target at random and fires off a shot. He wasn’t aiming to kill, but didn’t hold back either. Numbers were the only advantage the bandits had, and the inexperienced brigand goes down screaming, clutching the arrow in his shoulder.
Vargard had left his shield with Perin, so he charged with both longswords out. The presumed leader shouts, “For Khyber’s sake there’s only four of them! Stand and fight or I’ll hunt you down myself,” as he draws his sword. Jorduna was at the other end of the camp, so he was forced to engage the rushing warrior. The five scouts around him nervously look between the two approaching swords, and the one that was being drawn feet from their necks. Coming to a mutual decision, they fall back behind their leader and reach for arrows.
The rest, facing both the spreading fire and the rogue that had appeared out of nowhere, starting running off. A few tried to rescue something from the burning wrecks that were their tents, but it ultimately proved pointless.

Without his shield, Vargard was more exposed to the archer fire he was running into. Sometimes, however, it’s best to charge straight into the teeth of a beast. It’s the last thing it’d expect you to do. The archers rushed their shots, trying to halt the warrior’s charge. Only one arrow struck the warrior, grazing him across the forearm. One that went wide almost hit Marwyn, but he was able to step out of the way. He and Lesani focus their efforts on the remaining six bandits, supporting Vargard in his attack. Jorduna was still chasing off the rest of the bandits, so for now it was 2:1 odds.
The swordsman tries lashing out just as Vargard comes into range, but a quick shot from Marwyn fumbles his strike. One of the archers behind him cries out in pain as dark energy connects, the warlock aiming true as well. Vargard, meanwhile, tried to break the defenses of his opponent. He hadn’t had the opportunity to train with two swords to the point of mastery of the technique, but he knew the basics.
Fighting with two swords provided unique advantages and disadvantages. At face value, it suggested one was able to double the threat to one’s enemy. However, it was also more to mentally keep track of. With a shield, one needed only point it in the direction of a block. Using the same hand to direct stabs and slashes took a great deal more concentration. So, instead of staggering his attacks, Vargard mirrored his left hand to follow his right. It was more predictable, but also easier to keep up.
The bandit bowman started to back up, both to give themselves more space to fire, and also to distance themselves in case they had to run. One nervously steps around the bandit Marwyn had downed, who was weakly asking for help. Doing so also brought them closer to the fire, which had almost consumed all of the structures in the camp. Fortunately, the bandits had cleared the ground below of any underbrush when they had made the camp, so there was little risk of it spreading to the rest of the wood.

The bandit leader, meanwhile, was holding his own with Vargard. He seemed to have had at least some former training before turning to a life of thievery, and was exploiting the warrior’s unfamiliarity with dual wielding. The concentrated fire from the archers was also not doing the mercenary any favors, forcing him to be more defensive.
Lesani notices the bandit archers were using anything not burning as cover, and that she and Marwyn’s attacks were hardly able to damage them. “Marwyn, you must assist Var!”
“I am!” Marwyn shouts back, the frustration from his missed shots getting to him.
“He is struggling without his shield,” she replies, momentarily stepping behind a tree to dodge incoming arrows, “I fear he may not hold out until Jor returns, I will cover you!”
“Alright, fine!” Marwyn yields, steeling himself before charging in to engage the swordsman. The two in melee were focused on each other, so the sudden lunge from Marwyn’s rapier caught the bandit leader off guard. He’d expected to hear something upon connection, but the song that rang out wasn’t one he recognized. No time to think on it now, he reminds himself.

“What are you doing?” Vargard asks, while exploiting his opponent’s surprise with a quick cut to the torso.
“Helping!” Marwyn answers.
Vargard grunts, unable to keep up the conversation and focus on the battle at the same time.

With three blades assaulting instead of two, the bandit started giving ground, retreating towards his archers. He was about halfway to where they had taken cover, all three in melee having collected their own collection of wounds, that the archer fire ceased. “Keep firing you bastards!” the bandit yells, looking behind him nervously.
“Outta arrows. Sorry, but you’re on your own,” one of the scouts reports, who then turns in runs. The others debate internally for a second, but then they spot a hobgoblin charging their position, and quickly follow.
“Cowards!” he yells after them, “I’ll… I’ll surrender,” he says, throwing down his sword. “What now? Turn me in to the guard? Cut my throat?”
Vargard thinks for a moment, looking around at the smoldering camp. All but two of the other bandits had fled, their injuries preventing them from doing so. “You attacked us,” Vargard says, “We’re not here to flush out your kind. Leave us alone, and we’ll do the same.”
“What… that’s it?” the bandit replies incredulously, “You torch my camp, scatter my men, and that’s it?”
“Yeah,” Vargard nods, Jorduna returning to his side, “A word of caution, we don’t kill if we don’t have to. Trouble us again, and that’ll change. Spread the word.”
“O…ok,” the bandit says, grabbing his sword and backing off.
Vargard, for his part, turns and leaves the clearing. The rest follow.

“How far did the rest run?” Vargard asks, when they were a suitable distance away.
“Kept running as far as I could tell,” Jorduna replies, smiling, “Didn’t think booze could be that explosive.”
“I thought you’d been hiding bombs in that pack of yours for a moment,” Vargard jests.

Perin was where they had left him, clutching Vargard’s shield in front of him. He sighs in relief when he sees the mercenaries return. “Is it over? Are they dead?”
“Yes, and no,” Vargard replies.
“What?! What if they come back?”
“I highly doubt that. The ones that didn’t run for the hills were pretty beat up.”
“You didn’t kill any of them?” Perin says, astounded.
“You paid us to protect you, not kill people,” Vargard answers, “And we don’t kill unless we don’t have to.”
“Well, I…”
“And I’ll need my shield back,” Vargard continues, prying the metal frame from the professor’s hands. Placing it on his back, he asks, “You ready to keep moving?”
“Y…Yes,” Perin answers eventually, feeling it would be best not to stress the point.

Camp, That Night
The group had walked about an hour away from the ambush, trying to get enough distance between them and the bandit camp before making their own. They had the remnants of the fish from the night before for supper. The mercenaries went to rest early, the exhaustion from the prior skirmish getting to them.

Perin, however, remained conscious for a little while longer. He kept rubbing the spots where the arrows had hit absentmindedly. The wounds had been healed, of course, but in a way he could still feel them protruding outwards.
“I did well for myself,” he whispers to himself, staring at the sky, “Didn’t I? Took two arrows and kept on going. If only I hadn’t… before…” he trails off, feeling the back of his head, “Maybe I should invest in some armor once I get back. Perhaps a good sword…”
The professor jumps when he hears a branch snap somewhere in the woods. He settles down soon after, though, when his eyes pick out antlers in the distance. “Or maybe I’ll just sit at a desk for a while,” he ponders, allowing himself to slip into unconsciousness.

The Next Day
The following day’s travel was mostly uneventful. The five were guarded after their encounters of yesterday, but no trouble found them. They did notice, eventually, a subtle downward slope. It was close to dusk when Vargard, leading the party, called for a stop.
“Woah,” he exclaims, looking ahead. “Les, tell me that’s natural.”
“Perhaps, but not likely,” Lesani answers, matching his gaze. Ahead of them, the land’s falling had sharply culminated in a valley, the tops of the trees well below their current position. All vegetation in the sunken land seemed to have grown wildly, despite the season, greatly obscuring vision of anything which may hide below.
“This must be it!” Perin exclaims, “There can be no doubt.”
“Wait,” Marwyn says, “I thought the circle would make things colder.”
“There are more aspects of Siberys than just the Sea, my body,” Perin answers, trying to gauge the valley’s diameter, “In fact, there is a region of Khyber that has more in common with the Sea than, say, Shavarath.”
“Never mind,” Perin waves the bard away, “About… half a mile. This is definitely the place. A new, active Manifest Zone! Ah, this really takes the sting out of losing the prophecy.”
“Is it safe to go inside?” Jorduna asks reprehensively.
“Were you not safe in Shaarn?” Perin asks rhetorically, then quickly adds, “Aside from the ruins, of course. Yes, it should be safe.”
“Should be?” Vargard questions, sharing his rogue’s skepticism.
“Well, y..yes,” Perin sputters, “It is likely that the Zone doesn’t even encompass the entire valley. But… I will want to reach the center, if possible. Confirm my suspicions of where this links to Siberys, and who knows? Maybe we’ll find something interesting.”
“We should make camp now,” Lesani suggests, cutting through Perin’s enthusiasm, “It would not do well to be caught there during nightfall.”
“What? But it is perfectly safe!”
“Do not pretend to understand the natural world better than I, Perin,” Lesani cautions, “I do not know for certain what it is, but I sense some danger to these woods. We should be careful.”
“Might as well make camp,” Vargard agrees, “Perin, it’s already getting dark.”
“Fine,” the professor concedes, “But we move out at dawn.”

The Next Morning
“’effin nature,” Jorduna curses, cutting a creeping vine off of her jerkin. She and her companions had made their way down the steep slope that had ringed the valley, and had just entered the outer ring of the forest.
“This is more jungle than wood,” Vargard remarks, trying to avoid a fate similar to the hobgoblin’s. It was difficult, the vines were almost everywhere. It lay across most of the ground, and spiraled up the trees which blocked most of the sunlight. There was an odd absence of any animal life, and that, combined with the darkness, made the surroundings incredibly eerie.
“I’m beginning to agree with not coming here until now,” Perin says, viciously employing his machete at anything close to him, “We should be careful not to get turned around.”
“Can’t we just use the sun… oh,” Marwyn sighs, realizing it was impossible to tell where exactly the daylight was coming from.
“Ground’s still going down,” Jorduna points out, “Make’s sense that the lowest point would be in the center.”
“Maybe, but then again, maybe not,” Perin argues, “Stop thinking of the mundane! Come, you must be starting to feel it now! The Zone… it’s actually somewhat intoxicating.”

At those words, Marwyn realizes what he had been subconsciously sensing for the past hour. There was a… heightening sensation in the air. It felt almost as if the bard were looking out from the peak of some great mountain, and the feeling was growing stronger with every step. “Woah,” the bard says to himself.
“We can follow this to the center,” Perin explains, “And then use the slope to get back out.”
“That’s good thinking Perin,” Vargard compliments.
“I’m not as good as you in a fight, Mr. Garodin,” the professor bristles, “But I’m still a professor of Morgrave University. Don’t act that surprised.”
“My apologies. By your lead, professor,” Vargard says, gesturing forwards. He couldn’t sense the Zone’s effect as well as the others, he usually relied on Lesani for such readings, but even he could get a sense of the gradient.
“Right… this way!” Perin exclaims, pointing forwards with the tip of his machete.

The path through the overgrown woods wasn’t straightforward. To make what was already a subjective measure of direction worse, Perin, Marwyn, and Lesani often found themselves disagreeing on the best direction forwards. They often yielded to the professor, though several times it became clear the one of the other was correct. Travelling deeper led to yet thicker woods, choking them in lush greenery. Rips and tears were collected where vines had claimed parts of their clothing, and minor injuries where greater offence was taken. Marwyn soon found it impossible to tell from where they had originally come, and the undergrowth on the forest floor had all but obscured the incline of the land. Or, perhaps, it had evened out.
A few hours after they had come across their journey, around midday, the group comes across the corpse of a deer. Only it was clear that it had not died a natural death.
“I don’t like the look of that,” Vargard was the first one to speak. He eyed the carcass with caution. It posed no immediate danger, but whatever had slain it may. The creature’s stomach seemed to have burst outwards, its interior exposed to the air. No insect life or other decomposers had touched it, further evidence of the valley’s absence of non-plant life.
“Looks gutted. Hunter might’ve come through,” Jorduna offers.
“Wouldn’t leave his kill behind,” Vargard counters, “Perin, do you really need to reach the center of this place? What are you hoping to find that you can’t at the edge of this thing?”
“While this sight is… disturbing, I’ll grant you,” Perin says, looking away from the corpse, “We should press on. We need to reach the center. Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Garodin?”
“Not at the moment,” Vargard denies, “But we turn around at the first sign of whatever killed the deer.”
“If we run into any danger then I will lead the retreat, you have my word,” Perin answers, “Now let’s move on.”

The magical aura surrounding the valley was becoming so strong that it was beginning to be hard to think clearly. Not enough that Vargard felt they needed to turn back, but he was worried about the growing soporific effect. At the same time, the vegetation had begun to curiously recede. Shrubs were more modest with the fruit they bore, and the barbs of the ever present vines seemed to be blunter.
Further, still, they trekked. The air became hazy, and the five walked as if in a daze. Now would be the time for the fighter to call retreat, if not for the thoughts that came to him. You’ve come this far, they said, why turn back now? What could lie at the center of this place, this enchanted woods? He was filled with a need to know, now. The same drive that had taken Perin when the elf had first entered had them all now, pushing them further and further.
It seemed like an age when they reached the first clearing they had ever come across. The air was obviously brimming with power, Lesani felt it the most. She’d experienced this before, such Zones weren’t uncommon in the Eldeen Reaches, but never with this magnitude. In the center of the clearing was a stone structure, a temple it seemed, which burned with what seemed pure natural power.
Vargard was the only one not engrossed with it, and he cursed as he looked up. “It’s nearly nightfall, we’ve been walking for the entire day!”
“What?” Lesani exclaims, looking up as well, “We could not have been walking for that long! We would have come to the other end of the valley.”
“Unless we’d been walking in circles,” Jorduna accuses, looking warily at Perin.
“Look, we all felt like we were going the right way,” the professor defends himself, “I’m sure we’ll be fine. There’s nothing even here!”
“’cept what killed that deer,” Jorduna argues, “No way we’ll get back out before nightfall.”
“We don’t need to! I know about your reservations but all this gives us is the night to study that structure.”
“Var…” Marwyn says, fear evident in his voice, “There’s something moving in the woods.”
“What?” the warrior asks, turning around. His eyes catch movement, but he was unable to see what was causing it. “Everyone. To that building. Now.”
“Var, we do not know if this is a tra…” Lesani begins to argue, but is interrupted when something charges out of the tree line. It wasn’t unlike a wolf, but far larger than even a dire. Dark energy, which had thus far kept the beast concealed, now coursed across its exterior. More followed, yet none of the travelers saw them, as they were already running towards the building in the center of the clearing.
Jorduna turns to loose a knife, trying to slow down the leading beast. As she does, she sees Perin get run down, fangs puncturing deep into the elf’s chest. Saying nothing, she redoubles her efforts towards sprinting. The remaining four reach the stairs, which lead to an open, elevated platform above the forest floor. Besides the stairways leading out in four directions, the structure was barren.

Vargard reached the building first. He turns, shield out, to protect the ones following. “Where’s Perin?” he shouts, not seeing the elf.
“They got him,” Jorduna answers, gasping for air.
“And you just left him?!”
“His fault we’re here anyway!” she fires back.
“Why are they stopping?” Marwyn cuts in, noticing that the beasts outside the building, save one, had started circling them about 30 feet away from the stairs.
“Good thing they are, no way we can take all of them,” Jorduna says.
“We don’t just leave people behind, Jor!” Vargard exclaims, facing the stalking creatures.
“Nothing I could have done, Var! What are we going to do?”
“I could make us all invisible…” Marwyn speculates, trying to stay as close to the center as possible.
“This… feels like a hunt,” Vargard says, “That’s what Cletus would say, this place is a lure.”
“Then if these are just the hounds, where are their masters?” Lesani asks, scanning the horizon. As she opens her senses, however, she finds something more troubling where they stood. “Var! There is something building up below us!”
“What is it?”
“I… I think it’s a teleportation spell of some kind,” she answers, desperation growing in her voice, “We need to move off this platform before…”

A brilliant flash of dark light emanates from the platform, blinding all within it. The light spread outwards, encompassing the entirety of the clearing. It continues, filling the entire valley with a shifting shadow, before just as quickly disappearing altogether. In place of the sunken earth was now an even section of forest, practically indistinguishable from the rest of the King’s Wood. No trace of those who had entered the alien valley now remained on the face of Eberron.

Continued in Part 30, Lost in Twilight Woods – A Ranger’s Elegy

Lore of the Dragons
An Ancient Warning

Part 28 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The door to the next room had been all but obliterated by the spell. Urged on by Jorduna’s strange countenance, all rushed through the new opening. The doorway led into a relatively small room, but what it held was by no means unimportant.
Through the door was simply an exposed rock face, scrawlings carved into the stone in a language Marwyn didn’t recognize.
“It’s just more carvings, Jor,” Vargard says, unimpressed by the sight.
Perin, however, was astounded. “That’s… by Siberys,” he cries, “I never imagined…”
“Var,” Lesani says, equally in awe, “These writings aren’t in goblin. They’re in high draconic.”
“Why would the hobgoblins write something in draconic?” Vargard asks the warlock.
“They wouldn’t,” Langhorn answers for her, the professor taking out his reading glasses, “Mr. Garodin… I honestly can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is an original fragment of the draconic prophecy. A prophecy mark. Such sites are… almost unheard of. I never thought I would see one for myself.”
“What does it say?” Shakris asks, pulling out her journal.
“I… deciphering this will be a challenge, no doubt,” Langhorn answers, “A mark of this size… days, if not weeks.”

“How’d you know what it was, Jor?” Marwyn asks Jorduna, aside.
“Story for another time, kid,” she answers, staring at the prophecy mark, “But the last one I saw wasn’t this big.”
“Needless to say… this expedition was worth every sacrifice thus far,” Perin comments, unable to tear himself away from the prophecy wall, “The ritual chamber in and of itself is a notable find but this… this will make history!”
“What now?” Vargard asks, begrudgingly admiring the importance of what he saw before him.
“Now? Now? I probably spend the night here just getting a handle on… this,” he gestures broadly, “No doubt you’ve done fine work so far, Mr. Garodin. I have no doubt the university will shower us all in gold and respect for such a find. Take the day off, hell, tomorrow too. There’s still half of this section left to explore, but I’m not too picky about when you get to it.”
“Not worried about any of the wights?”
“Sir, you would need a battalion to take this room from me,” Perin reassures.
“We’ll take our leave then,” Vargard says. Lesani gives him a look, and he adds, “Though would you mind if I leave Les behind just in case?”
“No, no, not at all!” the professor cries, “The more the merrier! What about you, Langhorn?”
“How could I leave something like this? I imagine you’ll need my and Shakris’ help in deciphering this,” he answers.
“Of course, who knows what it could say?” Perin asks rhetorically, “What insight into the future it may give. It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn agrees, enjoying the general air of exuberance.
“We’ll be back at camp, Les,” Vargard says, “Send if something happens.”
“Will do, Var,” Lesani says, while running a gentle hand across one of the symbols.

Nightfall, Split Falchion Camp
Vargard, sensing that it would be better to be close in case of emergency, had set their camp in the empty room adjacent to the banquet hall. From there, they could reach the prophecy mark room in a minute at running pace, as opposed to 10 from the worker camp. Unfortunately, the enclosed space prevented them from lighting a fire, and they ate their dinner cold.

“So, how did you know about the marks, Jor. Prophecy marks?” Marwyn clarifies, feeling his back itch slightly as he does so.
“Back when I was… in Darguun,” Jorduna answers, in between bites of a chicken leg, “There’s a famous one in the Seven Caves, near where I grew up.”
“Seven Caves?” Marwyn asks.
“Yeah, seven huge caverns, they extend all the way down into the bowels of Khyber,” Jorduna explains, “They served as a shelter for my people in ages past, back around when the daelkyr invaded.”
“Da…” Marwyn starts to ask.
“Demons. Not exactly, but there is little distinction when you get down to it,” Jorduna cuts him off, sensing the question.
“Haven’t bothered us in ages though,” Vargard contributes, “Pretty much got driven off by the Dhakaani.”
“As well as others,” Jorduna agreed, “But our empire was pretty much wrecked by it. Civil wars, other races taking the chance to get the jump on us. Those who didn’t want to fight sought shelter in those caves. Legend is, right as the inhabitants were being overrun by soldiers who had found them, the rocks sang. The prophecy was carved in front of all across the walls of the caverns. In awe of this, the soldiers laid down their arms, and swore to protect the sanctity of the Seven Caves. Those who gathered there formed what would be the first goblin clan to come into existence after the fall of the empire, the Kech Volaar,” she finishes, distant look in her eyes.
“I didn’t know you were so eloquent, Jor,” Vargard says, “You’ve never told me that story before.”
“Never came up,” the rogue shrugs.
“What did that prophecy say?” Marwyn asks.
“Hell if I know,” Jorduna answers simply, “I can just recognize the script, not like I can read it. Probably said a lot of things.”
“Why’d you leave Darguun? It sounds like you liked it there.”
“Not something I’m willing to say, kid,” Jorduna says, with less force than her usual rebuke. Marwyn got the sense that she was… sad. He looks to Vargard, and the warrior simply shakes his head.
The bard lets the matter drop, and silence falls over the camp.

“Hey, Jor,” Marwyn says, after finishing his food, “I… I learned the rest of that song. Do you want me to…”
“Fine,” she answers woodenly, hiding all emotion. Marwyn hesitantly pulls out his lute, unsure if she was sarcastic or serious.
The tune was simple, almost sweetly so, and as he plays it, the bard tries not to think of how he had acquired it. There may be more fighting tomorrow, but for now, he wanted to feel safe. The song was a good choice, its melody seemed to almost soften the stone around them. It must have been his imagination, but Marwyn could swear the torches lighting the room almost danced with music, flickering side to side along with the beat. Jorduna leaned back against the wall, eyes closed, letting the music wash over her.
Vargard, for his part, enjoyed the tune as well, but wasn’t as enthralled by it as the other two. When the stone on his hip chimes softly, he steps out of the room carefully, trying not to disturb the bard and the rogue.
“What is it Les?” he asks, a suitable distance away from the camp.
“Var, what are you doing right now?” Lesani asks hurriedly.
“Talking to you?”
“Is anyone else doing anything?”
“Les, what is going on?”
“The words, Var, they are shifting!” Lesani yells, urgency in her voice, “We cannot figure out why.”
“We’re just at camp, Les. Marwyn’s even playing a campfire song. Not that we have a campfire,” he adds regrettably.
“What is Jor doing? Are you sure she is there?”
“Yeah, Les, everything is fine over here. She’s just listening to the music.”
“Jor? Listen to Marwyn?” Lesani asks skeptically.
“Yeah, Les, seems he learned the rest of that song Jorduna knew. She was a bit troubled by all this,” he says, looking out at his surroundings, “We both know how painful mention of Darguun can be for her. I think it’s a good think, closest I’ve ever seen the two.”
“He’s playing the song that rapier taught him?”
“I guess?”
“That could be it! Keep him playing, that song could be the key to the mark!”
“Les… what?” Vargard says, confused, “It’s just a song.”
“If you were here, you would not think that. Music is a magic of its own, Var. Keep him playing!” she repeats, cutting the connection.

Marwyn had just finished the song when Vargard returned. “Marwyn, keep playing that song.”
“You like it?” Marwyn asks, pleased. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play it perfectly, but this rapier…”
“Marwyn, keep playing the song,” Vargard repeats, “I don’t exactly understand, but Les says it’s doing something to the prophecy mark.”
Both Marwyn and Jorduna look to him with surprise and confusion, but Marwyn obliges the warrior. “What’s it doing?” Jorduna asks.
“I won’t pretend to know,” Vargard answers over Marwyn’s playing, “But she was adamant I keep Marwyn playing. Come on.”
“Where to?” Jorduna asks.
“Prophecy room. I want to see this for myself,” Vargard explains. “You too Marwyn.”
“O…k…,” he says, while standing and continuing the music at the same time. He was just as confused as everyone else, but felt it best to just follow Vargard’s orders without question.

The three arrive to find the others enthralled by the prophecy mark. The twisting marks on the wall were shifting slowly, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
“Woah,” Vargard says, seeing this, “Les, you weren’t kidding.”
“My song’s doing this?” Jorduna asks, awestruck.
“Perhaps,” Lesani replies, “Where exactly did you first hear it.”
“My… my mother,” Jorduna responds hesitantly, “It’s something than ran in our family. Dunno where it came from.”
“It’s curious,” Perin remarks, “But as the symbols shift I… almost get the sense this is how they are supposed to be read. It’s completely nonsensical, but I can almost make out… How long can your man keep playing?”
“Marwyn?” Vargard asks, looking to the bard.
“An hour?” the bard guesses, never having to sustain a melody for so long before, “How long do you need me to?”
“As long as possible,” Perin answers, “We’re on the verge of something here. Knowledge hidden behind a song, of all things. This is unheard of!”

“Dying!” Shakris suddenly says.
“What?” her mentor turns to her, concentration broken.
“Here,” she says, pointing out several glyphs which had momentarily joined together in their travels across the rock face, “Just… look at it. It’s almost as if I have to strain both physical and arcane senses, but there’s a phrase that’s just…”
“I see it too,” Lesani confirms, “The glyphs are spelling out something. The song is the key!”
“It makes me wonder if other melodies will elicit other prophecies. Perhaps this is true of all prophecy marks. This is astounding! But we should focus on the task at hand,” Perin wonders aloud, as everyone besides Marwyn gathers around Shakris.
More glyphs joined what was becoming a stationary mass amount the floating runes. Together, they formed one large pattern, a swirl of lines that somehow projected words into the mind of those who read them.

“’With the dying’, there it is,” Shakris reads off the forming phrase, “’Dying of the light,’”
“’Good intention brings… great calamity,” Perin continues, eyes drawn to another portion of the pattern.
“The Sea of Siberys shall be brought by force to new harbor,” Lesani says, inspiration leading her to speak next.
“The Broken endangered by once pure hands,” Langhorn picks up, the majority of the pattern having been formed.
“Salvation… salvation found only in mournful reflection,” Jorduna states, startled to find the words coming to her as well.
“Winter’s Bow to bring to an end,” Marwyn finishes, to the surprise of all.

“Is that it?” Perin asks the group in general, “Anyone else see anything?”
“No,” was the general response, and the pattern of symbols on the wall seemed to support this. It glowed, faintly, amid the background of sliding glyphs. No others seemed to gain purchase on its body.
“Should I keep playing?” Marwyn asks, holding the lute up.
“For a few minutes, perhaps, just in case we do not miss anything,” Lesani replies.

After a few more repetitions of the song, it became clear that the prophecy mark had said all it meant to. Marwyn sets the lute down, fingers slightly sore.
“Let me see if I got this right,” Shakris says, referencing her journal,
“’With the dying of the light,
Good intention brings great calamity.
The Sea of Siberys will be brought by force to new harbor,
The Broken endangered by once pure hands.
Salvation will be found only in mournful reflection,
Winter’s Bow to bring about an end.’”
“Yeah, that’s what I remembered,” Jorduna confirms, watching the symbols on the wall fall apart, dissolving into the enigmatic soup that it once was.
“I think… I think I need to sleep on this,” Perin comments, exhaustion suddenly in his voice.
“We set up camp a few rooms back. Plenty of room for everyone,” Vargard mentions. He wasn’t sure how to feel about what just happened, or that he was the only one that a part of the prophecy didn’t come to.
“Thanks,” Perin says, “I… wasn’t sure what I expected, but this prophecy seems a bit…”
“Dire,” Lesani says, supplying the words when Perin falters, “Draconic prophecy is always duplicitous in nature. I would not pretend to fully understand it after a first reading. Let us do as Professor Perin suggests, and sleep on it.”
There was general agreement, and the seven started walking out of the room, back to the tents that had been set up earlier.

“It’s gone! It’s gone!” cried a voice in the middle of the night, rousing Marwyn from his sleep. His rest had been troubled, though he couldn’t exactly say why. That, combined with the stress of yesterday, makes his exit from the tent last among his peers.
A very agitated Professor Perin was facing the rest of the weary inhabitants of the goblin ruins. “What’s gone?” Vargard asks, rubbing his eyes.
“The mark! The prophecy mark!” Perin exclaims, “I had arisen from my trance, and wanted another look, and the wall is barren!”
“Calm down,” Vargard cautions, noting the man was near raving.
“Calm down!? Calm down!? One of the biggest discoveries of my life just disappeared to Khyber knows where! What am I supposed to do?”
“Let us rest,” the warrior answers, “We’ll explore the rest of this place in the morning, see if there’s anything that’s suppressing the mark.”
“Var,” Lesani sighs, “That is not how prophecy marks work. They do not just… disappear.”
“Yes!” Perin exclaims, “And now no one will believe I’ve found. This is a disaster!”
“We still have the ritual chamber to explore, Perin,” Langhorn reminds, “That alone is worthy of research.”
“Yes, yes, but a prophecy mark! A new, unheard of prophecy mark, that reacts to music of all things! To just slip through my fingers…”
“I’ve got the translation,” Shakris reminds, from beside Langhorn, “Even if the mark’s gone. We could compare it to literature on the prophecy, see if it matches other known prophecies.”
“Perin, look,” Vargard cuts in, “My team needs to rest. Can you take this to another room?”
“I can accompany you to the prophecy room, to check for any lingering auras,” Lesani reasons, having had completed her trance just before Perin interrupted her compatriots’ rest.
“I… I suppose…” Perin says, calming down slightly, “The workers will be coming back at under-dawn in two hours, I doubt you’ll be able to sleep through that.”
“We’ll be ready,” Vargard replies, already halfway back to his tent.

Bereft of the sun, those who work in the Cogs for days on end often find themselves regulated by an artificial sun, whose movements across the skies are dictated not by nature, but by their overseer. Under-dawn, as was the common word for it, marked the beginning of such a work day. For those above ground, however, it would still be some time before the sun would rise.
This mattered little to Marwyn, as he was woken by the tramping of feet outside of his tent. When they had set up their camp, they had left the center aisle free in anticipation of such travel. Unfortunately, they could do nothing about the noise. Vargard was talking to the foreman when he exited his tent, and Jorduna was strapping on her armor.
“Your name is Marcus, right?” Vargard asks, having pulled the foreman to the side.
“Yeah, ‘s right,” he nods, “Look, I’ve gotta…”
“I’ll be brief,” Vargard replies, “We’ll be looking down that way over there,” he says, gesturing towards the hallway that had been left unsearched yesterday. Jorduna had placed a few tripwires along the passage, just in case something had tried to sneak up on them through the unsecured doorway. “My warlock accompanied Perin to the room you uncovered yesterday. Can you tell her to rejoin us?”
“Yeah, sure,” the foreman agrees, “Just keep a lookout for traps, ok? I could’ve been in that explosion if I hadn’t checked on you.”
“We will,” Vargard reassures, and the man rejoins the throng of Cogs workers moving to resecure the fountain room.

“So Les, any idea what’s going on?” Vargard asks, when Lesani rejoins them.
“No, Var,” Lesani replies, shaking her head, “Langhorn, Perin and I combined couldn’t figure it out. The mark seems to have just… gone.”
“Is that not normal?” Marwyn asks. “I mean, the one in Jor’s story just appeared…”
“Jor’s story?” Lesani says, an eyebrow raised.
“Tell you about it later,” Vargard answers, carefully monitoring Jor out of the corner of his eye for any signs of protest. He doubted she’d mind, but it never pays to insult the rogue.
“These marks… no, they do not just disappear,” Lesani explains, “Though they also do not just react to any random song that floats on the breeze. It…” she pauses, unsure of what she was about to say, “It almost seems as if there is a force at work that is manipulating the prophecy.”
“What could do that?”
“Nothing! Well, unless you consider the source of the prophecy…”
“Siberys?” Marwyn questions, “But I thought it was dead.”
“No one truly knows what Siberys is, and whether it can really be dead,” Lesani says, “It is an uneasy mystery, especially given the content of the prophecy.”
“What does it mean, anyways?” Jorduna cuts in, “’Dying of the light’? ‘Winter’s Bow’?”
“The prophecy is well-known for being ambiguous in nature. If Professor Langhorn is to be believed, then we are perhaps already facing the first of the prophecy’s predictions,” Lesani explains, “Though it may also simply refer to the coming of winter. Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, after all.”
“I don’t like the sound of that last part, though,” Marwyn responds, remembering that it had been he himself who had uttered the words, “An ‘end’. Maybe all this is about a weapon that can destroy the world?!”
“Maybe, but it could also be a bow, like how someone does at the end of a play,” Jorduna reasons, “So we’ve got until the end of winter to figure this out.”
“We can discuss this later,” Vargard cuts in, “We have more rooms to clear, and we need to be focused. Les, maybe we’ll find something else that’ll get us a better understanding, but right now we have a job to do.”
“Of course, Var,” Lesani agrees, brought back down to earth.

The dark stone hallway ahead grounded the awe Marwyn had felt ever since seeing the prophecy mark, feeling the ominous foreboding growing with each careful step forward. That progress is stopped suddenly when Jorduna grabs the back of Vargard’s jerkin, the unexpected pull causing both to topple backwards.
“Pressure plate,” she whispers, pinned under the warrior. He gets back up, carefully avoiding stepping on the stone Jorduna indicated.
“Good eye,” he compliments, stepping aside to allow her past.
“We have not seen any traps of this nature before,” Lesani observes, “Why here?”
“There probably were a few, age did ‘em in,” Jorduna explains, “Old goblin traps like these use compressed air to hold the stone up, when a foot applies pressure….” she flourishes a knife as she finishes disabling the plate, “Though if you wait long enough the air’ll leak out.”
“But why did this one not?”
“Dunno Les, must have used better mechanisms for this one. I should lead from here, Var.”
“Go ahead,” Vargard obliges, not enjoying the idea of being hobgoblin-handled again.

Not only were there three more pressure plates along the hall, but also two eye-level tripwires so thin, even Jorduna almost ran into the first. “Ok,” she grunts, clipping the severed ends of the last tripwire to the wall to prevent it from triggering, “Now this is getting a little ridiculous.”
“What would that have triggered?” Lesani asks, keeping her distance from the newly discovered trap.
“Another poison dart trap by the looks of it,” Jorduna answers thoughtfully, “I’d harvest the poison if I thought I could get to it without setting the trap off.”
“At least we’re getting close to another doorway,” Marwyn notes, seeing the frame of one at the edge of his vision.
“Just hope that’s the end of those damn traps,” Jorduna says, “I’m getting a little jumpy.”
“Hopefully this overabundance of traps suggests that there are no active defenders ahead,” Lesani reasons.
“That’d be nice,” Vargard replies, skeptically.

It was not to be, however. As soon as Jorduna crosses the threshold, torches spring to life inside the next room. It is a large room, the majority taken up by crumbling tables. Fading scraps of parchment lie on top of some, and on others were spiderwebs of cracks which foretold approaching collapse. There were no other exits, but this wasn’t what drew everyone’s attention. On the far wall was an enormous mural, dye still vibrant. The artistry was immaculate, and it was obvious that it was a map of Shaarn, and the immediate area. Only, the title emblazoned at the top of the map boldly proclaimed it to be Ja’shaarat, the goblin city which had first occupied the land. The city whose ruins in which they now stood.
The breathless adventurers would have studied it in more detail, but a voice rings out in the hall, in the goblin tongue.
“I am Jai’drik Khan,” Jorduna translates, needing no prompting from Vargard, “The Navigator. Long have I awaited challengers to my home. Prove your worth, in honor of the Dhakaani.”
“Jor, what is this?” Vargard asks, hurriedly pulling out his sword and shield.
“Same thing as the armory. Honor guards, but this looks like something else entirely.”
“Where are they?” Vargard says, looking out to the empty hall, “Les, they aren’t invisible are they?”
“I detect nothing of the sort,” Lesani answers, straining her arcane sight.
“Wait, he’s saying something else,” Jorduna says, mouthing the words which the booming voice spoke, translated them in her head. “Var, we didn’t walk into an ambush!”
“Then what did we walk into?” the warrior asks hurriedly, not sensing relief in the hobgoblin’s words.
“A trap!”

Meanwhile, Ritual Chamber
Unable to bear the loss of his prize any longer, Perin had decided to return to the ritual chamber a few minutes after Lesani had left. Langhorn and Shakris had also accompanied him, having found nothing to do in the empty room. Now back at what was his defacto operations center, Perin stared mournfully at the excited notations he had made on his map from the night before.
“Perin, you should see this!” Langhorn yells, interrupting the elf’s self-pity.
“What?” Perin asks, looking up. He gasps when he sees the crystals surrounding the ritual slab glow brightly, far too brightly, suddenly containing massive power. The passage back to the surface was also blocked with crackling purple energy, foreboding doom to whoever tried to pass. “What did you do!?”
“Nothing!” Langhorn yells back, “We haven’t had the time to do anything.”
“Stay back!” Shakris cries, pulling Langhorn away from one of the crystals as pure magical energy begins arcing between them, “We’ve got to shut these down before they kill us all!”
“How!?” Perin asks hopelessly.
“Dispel magic!” Langhorn shouts, as he completed the spell he had been concentrating on. While the light coming from the crystals flickers momentarily, nothing changes. “Damnit!”
“Are you mad? You could destroy the enchantments surrounding the table!” Perin protests.
“Better than us going down with them!” Langhorn argues back, “Now help me suppress this buildup!”
“I… I can’t!” Perin admits, barely able to hear himself over the loud hum that was growing alongside the magical energy, “I don’t know the spell.”
“Good intentions…” Shakris mumbles to herself, seeing her mentor prepare another spell, “Wait!” she cries, pulling down his arm. Unable to complete the hand signs which accompany the spell, Langhorn watches it fizzle.
“What are you doing Ms. Valderis? We have to stop…” he starts to protest.
“The prophecy!” Shakris yells, realization dawning on her, “The light of the prophecy mark died! Now we’re on the next part, you can’t dispel the ritual crystals!”
“This is lunacy!” Perin shouts, “Utter lunacy!”
Langhorn, however, was looking at Shakris with surprise. Seeing what he could only describe as calm assurance in her eyes, he stops resisting her iron grip on his arm. “I believe her, Perin! We need to get out of here!”
“To where?” Perin says, looking again at the barrier guarding the way out.
“The mercenaries must have triggered something,” Langhorn reasons, “We have to stop whatever they’ve started!”
“Fine, stay here then,” Shakris yells, “We’re going off to save everyone!” She leads Langhorn by the arm she still clutched, leaving Perin alone.
He jumps as a bolt of power cracks off from one of the crystals, hitting a pillar near him. “Wait for me!” he shouts, grabbing his map and running after them.

Meanwhile, Mural Hall
“What do you mean a trap?!” Vargard asks Jorduna.
“’Find me before your end.’ Those were his last words,” Jorduna explains, “I think we triggered something when we entered.”
“There does not appear to be anywhere to hide in this room,” Lesani notes, seeing no recesses in the walls or other obvious hiding places.
“He wouldn’t be hiding, Les,” Jorduna counters, “My bet is that this guy’s back in that sparring room.”
“Why not just fight here? There’s plenty of room,” Vargard argues.
“This isn’t a place for fighting. I told you, it’s about honor, a fight on even battle ground,” the rogue explains, “A sparring room, for example.”
“Uh…” Marwyn coughs, trying to get everyone’s attention.
“Or it could be another trick,” Lesani counters, “Though I defer to your judgement, Jor.”

“What have you done!?” a voice yells from the hallway. Langhorn and Shakris were running towards them, Perin not far behind. The latter yells, “Stop, whatever you’re doing, stop it now?”
“Professor Langhorn, what is it?” Lesani asks, noting the urgency in the aged elf.
“The ritual table, something is happening to the crystals,” he answers, his tone far more calm than Perin’s, though still worried, “We’re cut off from the surface, and magic is building up within. Whatever you have done, if it isn’t stopped…”
“Jor said that the master of this place is challenging us for it,” Marwyn tries to explain, “We have to hurry!”
“Yes! Hurry! Do it now!” Perin yells.
“Not here,” Vargard tells him, not liking the look of the professor’s panic, “There’s a room on the other side of the complex we have to get to. Stay here, this room isn’t dangerous.”
“But…” Perin tries to protest, as the mercenaries rush past him, “Langhorn, what… what is that?” he asks, momentarily distracted by the mural he sees across the hall.
“Something we will have to study later, Perin. I am going to help the mercenaries,” Langhorn replies.
“Professor, you can’t be serious,” Shakris complains.
“I am not just some ivory tower study bore. A warrior’s arms grow weaker with age, a wizard’s mind grows stronger. Stay here, Shakris, you are not skilled enough in combative magic to risk.”
“But…” she tries to protest.
“Stay. Here,” Langhorn replies firmly, “Make sure Perin doesn’t get hysterical. Can I trust you with that?”
“Yes, Professor,” Shakris nods, yielding to his authority.

Sparring Room, A Few Minutes Later
The four of The Split Falchion make it to the sparring room with haste. An ominous purple glow was coming from the ritual chamber as they passed it, spurring them on. There was no sign on the workers, and Marwyn reasons that they were unaware of the impending danger.
Running through the long hallway, and around the bend within, it became clear that torches were lighting the room ahead. They’d never gotten around to installing some yesterday, this was a good sign that they were on the right track.
When they finally entered the sparring room, there was a lone figure in the center. It was practically featureless, cloaked as it was in a faded hood. For a moment, Marwyn flashes back to the Blue Cloak, but it soon became clear that this was a different entity.
“Your… tongue is strange,” a voice from within the cloak says slowly. It turns to reveal a decayed face, flesh sunken in in some places, and missing entirely in others. The eyes, though, were pristine, and intelligence burned behind them. In the undead hobgoblin’s left hand was a book, and in the right was a wand. “Though learning it is but a trifle. I greet you, in the ways of my people. May only the strongest survive.”
Lesani tries to speak, but it raises a wand and casts a quick spell before she is able to. Dark energy flows out, and fills the bodies of the wights they had defeated early. The damage they had taken seemed healed, but only to a degree. Vargard instantly regrets not having stripped them of their gear yesterday.
Langhorn arrives at this moment, seeing the tableau from behind the rest of his allies. “I’m with you, Mr. Garodin.”
“Langhorn, get back,” Vargard growls, posturing to take the front, “We can’t protect you and fight at the same time.”
“I require no protection,” the professor responds confidentially, building up a great magical force throughout his body, “For I am Langhorn Sunbringer, battlemage of Aundair!” he yells, bringing the spell to completion. Stone from the chamber floor seems to flow to him, covering the mage’s exterior with a rocky shell. Despite Vargard’s attempts to stop him, he charges at the throng of freshly-reanimated wights, yelling, “Let their swords break on me, let their spirits fall! The sons of Aundair conquer all!”
“Les, did you know…” Vargard tries to ask.
“I am as… shocked as you,” the warlock says breathlessly, completely unaware that Langhorn was capable of such power, “We need to help him!”
“Right,” Vargard says, snapping back into action. Jorduna had already flew at one of the two archers that had revived, trying to shut down the enemy’s range. Vargard runs next to Langhorn, who was shooting off spells with impunity in the center of the undead throng. Their swords were useless, clattering off the stone armor that the wizard bore.
Marwyn, distracted by the awe-inspiring display of the elderly elf, almost doesn’t dodge the arrow that comes hurtling towards him. The archer on the far side of the room had retrieved its bow, and had apparently remembered its last encounter with the bard.

Lesani, the most separated from the battle, notes with some concern that the mage, Jai’drik Khan, was merely observing the melee. It wasn’t building up arcane power in preparation for a spell, that she was sure off. It seemed almost that this was but a prelude, a test to prove they were worthy to truly face it.
With Langhorn’s magic, the revived undead proved almost no challenge at all. The enchanted armor that one had formerly bore seemed rendered mundane by their last encounter. Marwyn was struggling to bring down the far archer by himself, until a bolt from the professor’s fingertips culls it. The 8 undead having fallen, all turn to the emotionless mage in the center.
“Thus the first trial is complete,” it says, “I will not be as easy a prey.”
“You are no match for us all!” taunts Langhorn, the rush of battle making him glib.
“Do not be so… hasty,” the mage warns, suddenly showering itself with an amber field. The air seemed to bend around it, and the undead mage’s actions became faster. Unable to react in time, and slowed by the armor that surrounded him, Langhorn was unable to dodge a thin green beam that the mage quickly shot at him. His armor melts immediately, but even so, the majority of the force is carried over to Langhorn’s frame. The blast was so impactful that it throws the elf clear to the other side of the hall, landing with a heavy thud beside Marwyn.
“Haste into… cough disintegrate. What a… cheat,” Langhorn says, alive, but barely able to speak. He crumples into unconsciousness, the professor’s aged body betraying him. Marwyn was about to aid the downed professor, when black writhing masses spring from the ground around him and Lesani. They tug and pull at the two, preventing them from moving or helping their friends.
“Such arrogance, have you not faced a greater enemy than foot soldiers?” the mage asks, its words warped by the aura around him.
“Jor, focus on the mage!” Var orders, seeing Jorduna’s gaze shift between it and her allies. They move to flank the mage, who laughs as they do.
“Pitiful,” Jai’drik scoffs, “I had hoped you would be strong enough to deliver me rest. I see now I was mistaken.” The figure, still wreathed in the amber field of light, easily manages to dodge all attacks directed at him by the two in melee.

Marwyn and Lesani, meanwhile, were struggling to break free of the appendages which bound them. “It is toying with us!” Lesani yells, straining against her binds, “These binds could easily be crushing us.”
“Would you prefer that, elf?” Jai’drik taunts, from the center of the room, “But you are incorrect, as wrong as you were in coming here.”
“Les, we can’t put a hit on him!” Vargard yells over the mage, “Any suggestions?”
“I have a suggestion,” Jai’drik interrupts, using the binds around Lesani to prevent the elf from speaking, “Cease this, and embrace whatever awaits you beyond the pale. Or continue this… struggle, if honor compels you. It makes no difference.”
“Hrah!” Marwyn grunts, managing to force his way out of the entangling ground. Jai’drik’s spell had been centered on Lesani, which had left Marwyn less resistance to fight through. He strafes away from the grasping mass, and fires a shot at the hobgoblin mage. It deflects the arrow with ease, however.
“Some fight in you, yes! But I would prefer only having to deal with two of you,” Jai’drik says, having only just barely dodged one of Jorduna’s daggers. It was the closest one had come to injuring it, though the damage was still negligible.

Marwyn tries to nock another arrow, but he’s thrown backward by a sudden wave of pure force. The impact with the stone wall knocks the wind out of him, leaving the bard gasping for air.
“Var!” Jorduna shouts, pointing behind the warrior, “That doesn’t look good!” A purple glow had just become visible in the darkened hallway behind Vargard, foretelling approaching doom.
“Your time is running out,” Jai’drik sighs, “I hope your people send better warriors, the next time.”
“Shut up, and fight!” Vargard shouts, putting all his strength into his blows.
“Oh, but you don’t want me to do that,” Jai’drik warns, floating around each attempted strike, “Believe it or not, but I am being rather merciful. Your deaths will be painless, a far better fate than I could grant you.”
Jorduna screams with frustration as, even with its back to her, the mage nimbly dodges a stab. “Boss, if we can’t beat him…” Jorduna says, starting to see flickers of lightning in the corridor as the energy grew closer.
“We have to! There is no retreat!” Vargard replies.
“Oh, there is, of a sort,” Jai’drik corrects, “You could cower in the chambers farther ahead, like the others. It will delay your deaths somewhat, perhaps give you enough time to gain solace from your deities. I would not stop you, if that is what you wish.”
“What the hell do you want with us?” Jorduna asks, momentarily ceasing her attacks. Her arms were growing tired, and she had been entirely ineffective.
“With you? Nothing, but your bodies will be needed to replace those you… destroyed,” Jai’drik answers, gesturing to the other fallen undead, “Unfortunately my other stock rotted before I thought to make use of it. As I said, I am being merciful. Should I wish, I could bind your souls in their undead husks for all eternity, rob you of any comfort of an afterlife. A shame my once great power should be left to waste here, but I knew the costs of taking up these arts. Perhaps I shall reanimate your warlock,” it pauses, looking the still-gagged Lesani up and down, “A knowledgeable companion for the ages would be welcome.”

Vargard, turning to see the lightning about halfway through the corridor, determines it was time for a desperation play. “My men are here under my orders. I ask you to spare them.”
“No,” Jai’drik denies heavily, “Their deaths are on your head, swordsman. And even if I wanted to, I could not. The Khyberian crystals will continue their purge of all living beings in these halls until either they have completed their work, or I have fallen. And,” it laughs, “As you have so effectively proven, it will be the former. I suppose I should release your warlock, to give her a chance to say goodby…” Jai’drik stops suddenly, the skeletal face behind the robe turning blank.
“For all that is holy, do not attack him!” Langhorn’s faltering voice calls out, in desperation. He was rising unsteadily to his feet, Marwyn helping him up. With the mage’s attention drawn elsewhere, Marwyn had helped the professor back into consciousness. The writhing mass around Lesani retreats, and she picks herself up as well.
“You…” she tries to say, finding it difficult to catch her breath after being squeezed for so logn.
“Dominated it,” Langhorn finishes, quickly continuing “But it will only hold so long as the mage remains unharmed, so I implore you to put away those weapons.”
“That magic’s still coming for us!” Jorduna notes with alarm, she the only person in position to see the encroaching lightning, now coming full force down the hall.
“It must be destroyed to stop the magic, but do not strike yet!” Langhorn warns, “It will defend itself after the first blow. We must strike at the same time, and pray we finish it.”
“So we get one shot…” Vargard says, throwing down his shield and gripping his longsword with two hands.
“Yes! And we are running out of time. Shakris, she will be closer to this, with nowhere to run. We have to do it now!” Langhorn replies, “Are we ready?”
“Yes,” was the group’s response, though Lesani still had some trouble speaking.

The five face the skeletal mage. Though outwardly it seemed passive, it inwardly raged against the enchantment that kept it mentally bound. It was helpless to stop them, however, as each prepared their most devastating attack. As the life-sucking energy from the ritual chamber just crossed the threshold, each released their strike.
Alone, none of the five could have done it. But together, two spells, an arrow, a sword, and a dagger, ripped through the frame of the mage. Released from the bonds of the domination, but dealt mortal damage, Jai’drik Khan unleashed a primal scream as its form dissolves into pure blackness. After a few seconds, nothing was left of the terror which almost brought total destruction to all assembled.
Looking behind them, they all saw the threatening arcane lightning flicker, faster and faster, before starting to recede backwards.

“We did it!” Marwyn exclaims, “We… Professor!” he cries, seeing the elf collapse.
“I’ll… I’ll be fine…” Langhorn weakly reassures, “I just… haven’t used magic of that… caliber in quite some time.”
“Battlemage of Aundair?” Lesani questions, remembering his battle cry at the start of the melee.
“A lifetime ago,” Langhorn answers, “And… don’t tell Shakris, please. I thought I’d left that part of my life behind, and I’d rather not she try and ferret out the story.”
“Secret’s safe with us,” Vargard says, gently patting the elf on the back, “We owe you at least that much.”
“What the hell did you do?” Jorduna asks, “That thing had us dead to rights.”
“Domination,” Langhorn answers, “A spell that can turn the tide of battle if used correctly. Very hit or miss, it was a miracle it worked.”
“I’ll take a miracle any day,” Vargard says, “Now let’s get back to Perin. I’m thinking he owes us a little more than standard rate for today.”

Map Room, A Few Minutes Later
“Professor!” Shakris shouts, running to embrace Langhorn as he comes into sight.
“Ms. Valderis! You are ok,” Langhorn says, returning the hug. “I must profusely apologize, Shakris, I would never have put you in mortal danger if I had…”
“You couldn’t have known about this,” she cuts him off.
“What happened to Perin?” Vargard asks, noting the other professor was unconscious and lying on one of the tables.
“He, uh… He knocked himself out,” Shakris answers awkwardly. “Well, you said to make sure he didn’t get hysterical!” she defends herself, as they look at her with skepticism.
“Marwyn, see if you can wake him up,” Vargard orders, “Though I’ve got half a mind to throw him down the mine shaft.”
“How bad was it?” Shakris asks.
“We only just defeated it,” Langhorn answers, “But that doesn’t matter now.”

“Uh… what… what happened?” Perin asks, regaining consciousness. “My head… really hurts.”
“You… fainted,” Shakris answers, trying not to look at the length of wood she had hit him over the head with.
“I… but, is it over?” the professor asks.
“Yes, but it was a near miss,” Langhorn answers, “I trust you will expect no more service from us in return for saving your life?”
“O..of course!” Perin sputters, “You have my deepest apologies that this happened. Morgrave will have my report first thing tomorrow. All things considered, I’ll take my life over… whatever happened with the prophecy mark.”
“Might as well check out that map,” Vargard comments, glancing over at the mural at the end of the hall, “Bastard was guarding it, after all.”
“Yes, and you will of course receive ample… no, generous payment for your services,” Perin reassures. He reaches for his sending stone, and talks into it briefly. “Marcus and the others are fine. Lucky man didn’t even know anything was wrong. I… think it may be best not to tell them,” Perin reports, thinking of the extra gold he would already have to pay The Split Falchion.

All assembled then walk to the mural, observing it. As the title blazoned above stated, it was a map of the goblin city that predicated Sharn, as well as the land around it. A bright blue circle was drawn around the center of the city, and goblin writing was carved near the top of it. There were other circles drawn around the city, colored in either blue, green, or red, though none were as large as that one.
“What’s it say, Jor?” Vargard asks.
“Dunno. Old script,” the rogue answers, “Can’t piece it together.”
“I can,” Perin says confidentially, “Though… it’s a little high up.”
“We can stack a few of these tables,” Vargard muses, “Some should be sturdy enough.”
“I suppose,” Perin hesitantly agrees, not liking the mental image of the tables collapsing below him.

There were ample tables sturdy enough to support the elf, however. When the stack was high enough, Perin carefully climbed the makeshift pile to read the small inscription. “Amazing,” he finally says, writing down something in his journal.
“Care to share?” Vargard asks.
“Not yet, not yet,” Perin waves him away. He starts looking at the other circles, flipping through the pages of his notebook as he does so. Eventually, he works his way down.

“What does this mural depict?” Lesani asks.
“My notes aren’t perfect,” Perin begins, “But I believe this to be a map of the Manifest Zones surrounding Sharn. A rather comprehensive list, I must say.”
“That’s what we nearly got killed over?” Jorduna complains, “What the hell do we care about… whatever you just said.”
“Well, perhaps it is of little interest to you,” Perin bristles, “But this knowledge is certainly worth dying over. “
“You just happened to have a list of nearby Manifest Zones on you to reference, did you Perin?” Lesani asks suspiciously.
“Y…yes,” Perin answers unconvincingly. He sees that no one is deceived, and answers truthfully, “I found reference to this place in an ancient scroll everyone had seemed to have forgotten. I minored in the ancient Dhakaani civilization, and I had perused it during my studies. It made reference to this… place,” he gestures around him, “Though I assure you it made no mention of any guardians,” he adds hurriedly.
“Or the prophecy mark?” Lesani asks.
“Or that, which is why I was so surprised,” Perin answers, “But this place, it is of immense historical value. We already knew that the Dhakaani had attempted to replicate the gatekeeper magics when the daelkyr brought war to them, but now it is clear that they extended research into connections between planes other than Xoriat as well…”
“Is that all, Perin?” Langhorn asks, interested as well, but not liking what was proving to be the beginning of a lecture.
“No! I checked three time, but this zone,” he points to a circle near the center of the King’s Forest, “This zone doesn’t currently exist. And it never has! There are zones on here that existed during the Dhaakani Empire which exist no more. But more interesting, there are zones here which did not come into existence until well after the empire fell. Those crafty goblins somehow found a way to predict where Manifest Zones would come to be, and we have a direct line on one that will come into existence!”
“So?” Vargard grunts, unimpressed.
“The color, man, the color of the zone! It is blue,” Perin explains, “Which, according to the legend, means it connects to Siberys. I wouldn’t think anything of that distinction, this map doesn’t say when the zones appear. Except, think of the prophecy that we just heard. The prophecy, which disappeared upon rediscovery of this place! I believe,” Perin says, conspiratorially lowering his tone, “That whatever the prophecy foretells, is happening now. And that this zone is part of it!”
“Professor, this is good and all, but why bother tell us?” Vargard asks.
“Well…” Perin pauses, trying to think of how best to broach the topic, “The King’s Forest is somewhat notorious for the unsavory characters that lie in wait for unwary travelers. The university can handle the rest of the excavations here, I want to investigate this zone!”
“You want to hire us, to accompany you to the King’s Forest, just after you nearly get us killed?” Vargard questions incredulously.
“Yes! You’ve certainly proven yourselves capable of handling any random highwayman.”
“Give us a moment,” Vargard sighs. He ushers his team to the other side of the hall.

“No way we’re doing this, right Var?” Jorduna asks, “This guy’s going to get us killed. It’s Royal Eyes all over again.”
“I’m pretty sure we could name our price, though,” Vargard counters, playing devil’s advocate.
“I admit some curiosity in his research, though I do not deny the clear danger,” Lesani comments.
“Is the King’s Forest really that bad? I’d think the King would take care of it,” Marwyn says.
Vargard gives him a pained look, and then clarifies, “It’s just named the King’s Forest. Ideally only Breland’s King and his entourage would be allowed, but it’s too damned big to patrol. Honestly, we can take bandits.”
“Var… if you want to do it, I’ll back you,” Jorduna says, “But do we really need the gold?”
“Thing is, Jor,” Vargard argues, “If we refuse this job, I’m concerned Perin or Morgrave might blacklist us in Shaarn. He doesn’t seem the retributive type, but the university is something else entirely.”
“So we’re doing it?”
“I’ll have to talk terms, but it seems like we’re going hunting,” Vargard affirms, grimly.

Later That Day, Morgrave University
“I’d never thought I’d miss this,” Shakris says, as she rests heavily in a chair in Langhorn’s study, “But I’ll take boring old men over deadly goblin magic.”
“Indeed,” Langhorn agrees, “And we can now focus on our primary objective.”
“Where do we even begin, professor?” Shakris asks.
“I’m not sure, Ms. Valderis,” the professor answers, “Though, given the week we’ve just had… perhaps a long night’s rest is in order.”
“I like that idea, Professor,” Shakris sighs, and continues, “But…”
“Something troubling you?” Langhorn asks, when his assistant lets the sentence hang.
“That prophecy. If it really is tied to what’s happening right now, with the sun… shouldn’t we be going with Perin and the mercenaries? What else are we going to do, besides sit in the library?”
“Would you rather go into a brigands-infested woods in search of a Manifest Zone which may or may not exist?” Langhorn asks rhetorically, “Shakris, while my faith in the prophecy may have been improved over these short few days, it is important to remember that it is never certain. Besides, even if you are correct, we will need more than ourselves. This has always been about convincing people that this winter isn’t normal, that something is manipulating the weather.”
“So we just sit here and hope that our research turns enough heads?”
“We have to,” Langhorn says grimly, “And we have to hope that we won’t be too late.”

Continued in Part 29, Hunting Heaven – A Foretold Path

Khybersef, the Fated Day
Echoes of the Past

Part 27 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Crimson Eagle, Next Morning
Marwyn stirred from his rest, returning to consciousness peacefully. From the window he could see it was still dark out, he must have awoken early. It was strange, he had worried about sleeping too much because of the late night, but his respite must have been more restful than usual. To his continued surprise, Vargard had already risen and left from the bed across the room from him. The warrior must not get more than six hours of sleep each night at best, but he seemed no worse the wear for it.
From the silence downstairs, he guessed he was too early for breakfast, so he simply took a seat by the room’s window and gazed outside. It admittedly wasn’t a good view, the opening looking over solely the street below, and the adjacent building.
“Marwyn, are you awake?” a voice asks him.
“Yes?” he answers aloud. There was no response. Eventually, he realizes that the voice had contacted him mentally, and that his ring was slightly warm. “Yes,” he replies, this time directing the thought mentally into the gold band.
“Forget about me so soon?” the voice teases.
“No, I just forgot about the ring.”
“Mind elsewhere, Marwyn? I’d hate to think I’d interrupted something interesting.”
“No Mev, of course not,” Marwyn reassures hastily, “I was just a little groggy.”
“Make it to Sharn ok?” Mevalyn asks, voice becoming more serious.
“Yeah, a few days ago. Already had our first job too.”
“Anything interesting?”
“Found a necromancer in ancient goblin ruins,” Marwyn reports proudly, “And I got a pretty nice rapier out of the deal.”
“What’s it do?”
“Dunno,” Marwyn answers honestly, “Haven’t had the chance to find out. Something weird happened before I got it though. Hey,” he says, in realization, “You might actually be able to help me with that.”
“Oh?” Mevalyn’s voice asks.
“I was playing my lute, healing someone,” he explains, “When I got this sudden clarity. Never happened before, but I was able to pull off one hell of a shot afterwards.”
“Sounds like you were in quite a scuffle,” Mevalyn observes, “But Marwyn, surely you’ve… no,” she cuts herself off, “No you wouldn’t. Sometimes I forget just how self-taught you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“All bards can do that, Marwyn,” the elf says, “Usually it’s one of the first things taught. At least that’s how we did it in Cyre. We… used to do it.”
“What is it?” Marwyn asks hurriedly, trying to change topic.
“It’s an ability tied to your music. There are others like them, though I haven’t mastered any yet. Basically, your music inspires you, or others,” she adds, “which improves further performance. In either combat or… other pursuits. It doesn’t last long, but as you no doubt felt, it’s potent.”
“You can do this?”
“Easily, as you should be able to do, with practice. Eventually, you can inspire multiple people with one performance.”
“Oh!” Marwyn cuts in, remembering, “I have been practicing. I learned invisibility on the way here.”
“That’s good!” Mevalyn compliments, “To be honest, I have been lax lately in my studies. It snowed again yesterday, can you believe that?”
“How bad was it?” Marwyn asks, worried.
“Not too bad. It’s all gone now, but I hate the cold. I’m thinking of wintering in the south if it gets too bad. Maybe I’ll visit you in Sharn?”
“Is it safe for you to come back to Breland?”
“It should be,” Mevalyn acknowledges, “Though I’ll be safe. Promise me you will be too.”
“I promise, Mev,” Marwyn says, “Sun’s coming up. I was going to try start learning another spell today.”
“Well, good luck Marwyn. I… should warn you that we can’t retain infinite spells. I’d be careful with your choice.”
“I’ll try to be. I’m glad you contacted me Mev, but I should go.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Mevalyn asks ambiguously.
“I’m… not sure?” Marwyn responds, unsure.
“I love you, husband,” Mevalyn prods.
“Oh! You too Mev,” Marwyn says quickly, embarrassed. She doesn’t say anything else, and he feels it best to leave it at that.

After checking in with Vargard below, Marwyn finds another day free to himself. Returning to the Everbright district, he resolves to ignore any distractions and find a spell he could work with. After an hour’s wandering and asking directions, he finally enters the store of one Cel’jarek Mungst.
The store was of moderate size, the entryway placed strategically along one of Everbright’s main thoroughfares. Such was it that the store had a modest crowd of all kinds, and a queue before the clerk. Ignoring the wands and enchanted artifacts that lined the shelves towards the front, Marwyn turned instead to a series of bookcases. Tomes of all sizes and languages were shelved, in no apparent order. Occasionally, the line of book spines was broken by a glass display case, containing what must be extremely valuable magical secrets. Finally, the bard finds a slim book wrapped in auburn leather, a long, stylized white feather adorning the spine. The front cover, in both common and runic, state boldly that it contains instructions that will enable a competent caster to wield the feather fall spell.
A tight leather band forces the book closed, preventing a casual read before purchase. Still, the store seemed reputable, and Marwyn doubted he was buying an empty book.
“Feather Fall: a Primer,” the clerk reads aloud, taking the book from Marwyn, “Is that all?”
“Yes,” Marwyn nods.
“Are you interested in purchasing any primers on cantrips, first? You can return any tome so long as the seal hasn’t been broken,” the clerk bargains, noting with some concern Marwyn’s age.
“Here,” the clerk says, placing the feather fall book further down the counter, “Take a look, and let me know when you’re ready.” She then returns to her station, to help the next customer.

The clerk had cleverly placed Marwyn’s purchase next to a catalogue on cantrips. Unfamiliar with the term, he reads the first page. Cantrips, according to the manual, were the simplest of functional spells, and everyone who called themselves a mage should have a few at their disposal. Skipping the sales pitch, Marwyn looks for the section for casters of his breed.
He was surprised to find a few attack spells among the list, but he disregarded them. He felt he had enough already, and none really grabbed his attention. A few of the utility spells did, but checking his purse, Marwyn realized he was running low on funds. Forcing himself to pick the two he liked the most, Marwyn returned to the queue and waited to return to the front of the line.

Morgrave University, That Afternoon
Shakris sighs heavily, collapsing into one of the seats of Langhorn’s new office. The professor, for his part, looked exhausted as well, leaning his head on one hand at his desk. The woman was about to speak when there was a knock on the just closed door.
“For Sovereign’s Sake, if they want us to sit in on another class…” Shakris starts.
“Ms. Valderis, please,” Langhorn groans, “I know it’s trying but we should try and maintain composure.”
“I came here to study alongside you Professor, not to exchange countless pleasantries with arrogant snobs content on resting on their academic laurels.”
“Shakris, just let me handle this first,” the professor asks, heading to the door. He opens it to find a young looking elf, dressed in workman’s clothing. “How can I help you?”
“Professor Perin,” the man answers, extending a hand, “I heard you were recent arrivals from Aundair. I know the council likes to send people on whirlwind tours when they first arrived, I imagine you’ve had quite the day.”
“Oh yes,” Langhorn replies, “You could say that. I must say you are rather different than most we have met today, however.”
“I’m a more practical elf,” Perin answers proudly, “My area of research requires more… down to earth attire than what is normally seen in a classroom,” he says, and, upon seeing Shakris, adds, “I admire your protégé’s choice of garb, not something I wouldn’t wear in the field, with appropriate adjustments, of course.”
“Shakris Valderis,” Shakris replies, nodding respectfully at Perin.
“What can we do for you?” Langhorn asks.
“It’s more what I can do for you,” Perin answers enigmatically. “I’m sure you have your own research to get to, but your initiation into Morgrave isn’t entirely over yet, I’m afraid.”
“What else do we have to do?” Shakris asks indignantly.
“Not to worry, Ms. Valderis,” Perin says calmly, knowing her disrespect wasn’t meant towards him, “While such trials normally last a few weeks. Typically, you’d be expected to assist another with their research before being given full access to the university’s resources. My project, for example, is in need of a couple clear heads. However, I can promise it’ll be far more interesting than arcane theory. Shouldn’t be more than a week before this phase is complete, and you’ll be on your way to your own studies.”
“It certainly sounds interesting,” Langhorn comments, “Though I of course could not accept without some inkling as to what we would be doing.”
“Ah yes, of course!” Perin says, slapping his forehead, “I have led an archeological dig into the Cogs, which has just unearthed an ancient ruins. We’re still in the process of exploring it, but what we’ve found so far is very promising!”
“Is it safe?” Langhorn asks.
“The parts we have explored,” Perin nods, “Had some problems, a few workers unfortunately perished, but those areas you will be working with are safe. Others… not so much. We’re considering our options for those, but you will not have to worry. I will, of course, be close by while you are down there.”
“Well, that certainly sounds like a break from the monotony,” Langhorn says, warming to the idea. “What do you think, Shakris?”
“So long as we actually get to do something, I’m fine with anything Professor,” Shakris agrees, relieved. “When do we start?”
“A few days. I’ll tell the council you’ve started immediately, of course,” Perin reassures, “But you look as if you need a break.”
“That we may do,” Langhorn chuckles, “I’ll await further word from you then.”
“Good to meet you, Professor Langhorn,” Perin says in parting, “I can certainly say that it will be a pleasure to work with you.”
“As with you,” Langhorn replies, closing the door behind the departing elf.

The Crimson Eagle, Next Day
Marwyn had spent the rest of yesterday, and most of today focused on the feather fall spell. He had initially thumbed through the other spells which he had purchased, prestidigitation and dancing lights, but decided to try and finish his study on the first. He was finding it more difficult than his time with invisibility, however. The primer was separated into multiple steps, and though he had progressed through the first few with ease, the latter were causing the most difficulty.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t muster the strength required for the spell, nor that the incantations were too complex. It was hard to describe, a barrier that he had never run into before. He’d never really understood where his arcane talent came from, not instinctively, and this was making it hard to diagnose the issue. He was running into some limit on his power, and pushing the boundaries was proving harder than he’d imagined.
Frustrated from repeated failure, he sends for Lesani.

“Marwyn?” she responds.
“I can’t do it, Les,” Marwyn responds, “I haven’t managed to cast it once ever since I started.”
“Cast what, Marwyn?”
“Feather fall,” he answers, “I bought it yesterday.”
“Some patience may be required, Marwyn,” Lesani cautions, “All casters are limited in their repertoire. You may need to become more experienced before you can handle another spell.”
“Ok,” Marwyn responds, chastised. “Have you heard from Var?”
“Not since this morning, no.”
“Oh,” Marwyn acknowledges. They had eaten breakfast together, but after that Marwyn had sequestered himself in his room. “So, no job?”
“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Lesani says, “I know Jor is ready and willing, as am I.”
“Yeah, me too,” Marwyn agrees, “But having a break’s nice too.”

“Yes it is,” Vargard says, entering the room suddenly, “Talking to Les?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn nods, surprised at the warrior’s sudden entrance, “He’s here, Les.”
“Ah, tell him I will be away until late tonight,” she replies, and Marwyn echoes the message.
“Any luck?” Vargard asks while Marwyn cuts the connection, noting the spell book lying open on Marwyn’s bed.
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head solemnly, “Les said I need to get better first.”
“That’s a shame. I got another offer today,” Vargard says, switching topics, “It’s… the same employer as last time, Marwyn. We’ll be going back to those ruins. Think you can handle that?”
“I… y..yes, Var,” Marwyn answers shakily, trying to put on a brave face.
“Good. They’ve told me they secured the shaft so it’ll be less precarious. They’ve apparently run into more of those hobgoblin wights, and want to be their vanguard while they explore the rest of the place.”
“We start tomorrow?” Marwyn asks.
“Yeah, and depending how big the damn place is we could be there a while. They’re providing tents, so bring all your gear.”
“Should I tell Les or…”
“I’ve got it Marwyn,” Vargard says, “Just make sure you’re ready.”
“Sure Var.”

Khybersef is the shortest day on Eberron, heralding the true beginning of winter. There are those who believe this day to be cursed, the bounds between the middle dragon and the dragon below at their weakest. Many folk tales abound of dark happenings on this day, though most outside of the church of the Silver Flame believe it to have no significance beyond the cosmological.
It was on this day that Marwyn, and the rest of The Split Falchion, descended into the Cogs once more. They had left early, or so it had seemed due to the late rising of the sun. The commute was similar to the one they had encountered before, though there were fewer workers on the elevator when it descended. The underbelly of Sharn was as hot as ever, though, despite the encroaching winter.

The worker camp was still up when they arrived, though it was practically a ghost town. “I guess we’re just supposed to… go to the ruins?” Jorduna thinks aloud.
“Hey!” Vargard yells. A few weary heads poke out of tent flaps, glaring at the newcomers. Someone in workman’s clothes, an elf, comes running out of the tunnel to Shaft B.
“So… huh, so sorry,” the elf pants, catching his breath, “Eh, step out for a moment… I’m Professor Perin.”
“Professor?” Jorduna asks, eyebrow raised.
“Yes, I’m a bit more… down to earth than most of my… peers,” he answers, taking in deep breaths, “That was a joke,” he adds, seeing no reaction to the pun.
“Courier said you needed help exploring the ruins,” Vargard says dryly.
“Yes!” Perin answers enthusiastically, “But we should discuss this in the ritual chamber. Follow me.”

The elf led them into the tunnel, and to the top of Shaft B. With some relief, Marwyn sees that the railing had been reinforced since he had last been there. The passages had also been generously lit with torches, though the light still did not reach the bottom of the shaft. Not that the bard was intent on seeing that, of course.
Entering the breach in the ruins, it’s clear that workmen had also cleared the ash from the halls. With some surprise, Vargard sees the Way Ward he had placed just inside the breach still active. “I though these burned out after a day,” he says, “Didn’t see any of the others on the way here.”
“A day?” Perin says, confused, “No. We removed the ones before here, of course. Not entirely sure why you felt it was necessary to map the route here.”
“Map?” Vargard asks.
“Yes… that is what the Way Wards are for,” the professor explains, “This should have been explained to you before.”
“I thought there was something suspicious about them,” Lesani comments, “We were told they were merely a means to mark the path back to the camp.”
“Oh,” Perin says in understanding, “I’m afraid the reputation of others might have made my man less trusting of you. He must have thought it’d be simpler to deceive you.”
“Well that’s just great. Where is the guy?” Jorduna asks, annoyed.
“He’s… dead, unfortunately,” Perin answers softly, “One of those we lost to the undead after you cleaned up. Part of why we’re hiring you again.”
“What’s the other part?” Vargard asks, the group coming to the ritual chamber.
“You didn’t attempt to pillage this artifact. Though its purpose is rather dark, I admit, it is of great value,” Perin explains, indicating the four purple crystals and the table centered between them. Several people were milling about in the chamber. Two, Marwyn recognized.

“Professor Langhorn?” Lesani asks, surprised to see a familiar face.
“These are the mercenaries you hired, Perin?” Langhorn asks, mirroring Lesani’s expression. Shakris too was surprised, but she didn’t show it as much, focused as she was with one of the crystals.
“Yes. You know each other?” Perin replies.
“They accompanied us on our journey here,” Langhorn explains, “Pleasant travel companions, at least. I am pleasantly startled to see you four again. Well, best get back to it,” he says, turning back to the crystal Shakris was examining, “I’m sure Perin will want to show you the ropes.”
“Seems fate may be at work here, today of all days,” Perin comments wryly, addressing The Split Falchion, “Yes, as I was saying, the Way Wards allow us to map these ruins in real time. They do also serve as a guide back to the hub,” he adds, “Though that isn’t why we use them. Do you still have some from your last time down here?”
“A few,” Vargard nods. He’d given several sheets to Lesani per her request, though he still had almost a ream.
“Good. Here is the master map,” Perin says, walking over to a collapsible table. On top was a mostly blank parchment, several rectangular outlines the only writing which adorns it. An X was marked on the furthest room out.

“We ran into trouble here,” Perin continues, tapping the room with the X, “A pressure plate caused several hobgoblin defenders to rise and attack us.”
“What were you looking for?” Lesani asks.
“Nothing specific, really,” Perin admits, “This find is already monumental, worth years of study. Just imagine what else could be down here.”
“What if we find anything we’d want to use?” Jorduna asks.
“You mean… well, your contract is somewhat lenient in that regard,” Perin says carefully, “Though within reason. You are also expected to turn in any artifacts of historical value, regardless of monetary worth.”
“Like this?” Vargard asks, withdrawing the amulet they had recovered from their last delving.
“Y..Yes!” Perin exclaims, excitedly taking it, “Where… where did you find this?”
“Down the other way,” Vargard answers, “Hidden in a wall.”
“Do you recognize this symbol?”
“No?” Vargard says.
“Neither do I!” Perin exclaims, “And I’m well versed in Dhakaani symbology. An excellent start for today. If you don’t mind, I’m going to catalogue this. You can get started.”
“Do you know how many undead are ahead?”
“Four attacked the group,” Perin answers distractedly, “They didn’t seem to want to leave the room, so we’re safe here. Oh, I almost forgot,” he says, running back to the map, “Place the Way Wards at intersections and new rooms. If you get into trouble, you can signal though one, and we’ll see it here. Any other questions?”
“Not that I can think of,” Vargard answers. Neither did his companions.
“Good. When you clear that room, make sure to remove the alert from the ward so we know it’s safe again.” Perin leaves, laying the amulet out on another table.

“Var, are we certain we trust that… odd elf?” Lesani whispers, “Morgrave does have a somewhat infamous reputation for ancient artifacts going missing.”
“Not our problem, Les,” Vargard answers, “Though it sounds like we’re in for a fight already. Everyone ready?”
The rest answer positively, and they check the weapons before heading out.

From the map in the ritual chamber, Marwyn saw that they’d have to cross through two rooms before reaching the dangerous one. The first had a large stone table in the center, with only one other doorway to move through. The next was practically barren, two other paths branching from it. Vargard had called stealth maneuvers the moment they entered, and in the quiet, the four could hear sounds coming from the next room.
“Hey, think the kid can hit me up with invisibility?” Jorduna whispers, “I could scout the room pretty easily.”
“Good idea,” Vargard returns, “You up for it Marwyn?”
“Yeah, sure,” the bard answers, “But you can’t attack without revealing yourself Jor.”
“I know how invisibility works, kid,” she shoots back, “Don’t you worry.”

Marwyn was briefly worried he would be unable to cast the spell, given his recent failures with feather fall. It came effortlessly, however, and he inwardly sighted with relief. It was disconcerting, seeing the hobgoblin disappear. She was good enough not to make too much noise, and Marwyn’s ears weren’t sharp enough to track her.
There were a few minutes of silence before the hobgoblin’s voice reappears. To her credit, Jorduna had returned to the same position she had left from, lessening the surprise of her sudden return. “Perin was right, four of them. Same heavy-armored bastards we ran into before. You know Var,” she says conspiratorially, “I’m pretty sure I could take one out before you engage. How many times can you do this, kid? This is kinda fun.”
“Dunno,” Marwyn answers, “I don’t really want to find out either.”
“Sounds good, Jor,” Vargard agrees, “The rest of us will wait just outside, and move in on your go.”
“Got it,” Jorduna answers, and assumedly moves to get into position. The rest move slowly to the doorway of the target room. Marwyn sees four dark shapes milling around, the poor lighting not allowing for a better view of them. They were of similar build to the warriors he had faced earlier.
A red triangle was flashing on one of the walls, assumedly the Way Ward. In the bursts of light, Marwyn could also make out several shapes on the ground. They weren’t moving.

“Les, Marwyn, try and focus down one at a time,” Vargard says, voice barely audible, “Hopefully Jor is careful in her choice. I’m going to toss a sunrod as soon as she opens up.”

There was a pause which seemed to stretch on forever, before finally, there was a loud shout. “Now, Var!” Jorduna yells, as she all but decapitates one of the hobgoblins with a wicked blade.
The warrior quickly cracks a sunrod, and throws it in the middle of the room. The new light seems to blind the undead, in addition to revealing the now decloaked Jorduna. He quickly assesses the situation, and charges at one of the remaining wights.
Marwyn too read the room, as he steps through the door. Jorduna had taken out the hobgoblin farthest from them, leaving three between her and her companions. He didn’t like the look of that, but trusted her decision. He briefly acknowledged that the sunrod only illuminated the center of the room, and didn’t cover the sides, but this wasn’t his primary concern.
He launches an arrow at the one Vargard was directly engaging, the middle of the three undead. Lesani, too, focuses her magics on the same one. Separated from its allies, the defenses of his target seemed compromised, and Marwyn’s arrow finds good purchase.

Marwyn’s mental celebrations were cut short, however, when a new enemy charges from the darkness of one of the room’s corners. He, the closest of The Split Falchion, was its target. The sword leaves a long gash on one of his arms, the bard unable to defend himself in surprise. “Var, I’ve got one here!” Marwyn yells.
“Can’t help you!” the warrior shouts back, the three other wights closing together to improve their defenses. Jorduna’s flanking position was allowing her to deal terrible damage to the exposed back, but neither could disengage. “Les, you’ll have to help him!”
“On it!” the warlock answers, shooting off a brightly colored bolt, “Marwyn, it is momentarily stunned,” she says quickly, “Your rapier!”

Marwyn’s opponent is dazed as the bolt hits it, and the bard takes the chance to sling the bow over his shoulder, and unsheathe his rapier. Thinking quickly, he also takes out a crossbow to occupy his other hand. The wight resumes its assault shortly after, lashing out again at Marwyn. Hampered by its shield, Marwyn was able to side step the blow. He fires his loaded crossbow first, trying to catch it off guard. It works, the offhand crossbow forcing the hobgoblin to shift its shield to the left to block the bolt. As it does, Marwyn sticks the rapier into an opening, striking true.

The moment he does, he hears something unexpected. A stanza from a tune he didn’t recognized seemed to fill the air briefly. In the heat of the battle, however, Marwyn ignores it, not wanting to be distracted.
Not having mastered reloading a crossbow one-handed, the weapon now lies useless in his hand. Having not practiced in melee in quite some time either, his parries were clumsy. He takes another gash, this time taking it to the chest. Fortunately, he was able to divert enough of the blow so that it didn’t hit anything vital, but he still gasped with the pain.

Marwyn drops the crossbow, awkwardly wielding the rapier with both hands. “Jump back!” Lesani yells, and Marwyn sensed a surge of magic behind him. He quickly backpedals, at the same time evading a thrust from the hobgoblin.
A red bolt hits the enemy dead center, and the magic splashes where it makes contact. The ancient flesh of the undead catches fire where it lands, casting a flickering shadow behind the wight. “Woah!” Marwyn shouts.
“You are not the only one who has improved their talents!” Lesani yells back, satisfied with the spell’s successful casting. While it was on fire, the wight seemed to ignore the pain as it renewed its assault on Marwyn. He was fortunate enough to deflect another blow, but couldn’t get an opening to push back.

Even with Lesani’s help, the melee was still one-sided. The ancient hobgoblin’s experience proved better than the bard’s, and Marwyn takes several more injuries. The most critical was a deep cut to his left shoulder, which made his arm go almost limp. The strength in his dominant hand was about to wane, when Vargard suddenly tackles the hobgoblin from the side. With him pinning the wight down, Jorduna swiftly finishes the last opponent.
“You said there was four, Jor,” Vargard says, rushing to support Marwyn as the bard nearly collapses from his injuries.
“There was!” she protests, “It must have come from somewhere else!” she hands the warrior a healing potion, which Vargard administers to Marwyn.
His more serious injuries repair slightly, giving him enough fortitude to bear his own weight. “Thanks,” he says weakly.
“Need another?” Vargard asks.
“No, I can… take it from here,” the bard says, sitting against a wall and taking out his lute. “Anyone else…”
“Take care of yourself first,” Vargard orders. He then addresses Lesani, “That was a new trick.”
“One I have been working on for some time,” Lesani replies, “It is usually more effective against groups, but I felt the situation warranted it.”
“That it did,” Vargard agrees. He walks over to the flashing red Way Ward. “Uh… let’s see…” he mumbles to himself, trying to figure it out. “Ah, here we go,” he says, after disabling the alert on the ward. “Jor, anything on the bodies?”
“Just rusted gear, nothing special,” the rogue, who had been searching the felled undead, responds.
All turn when they hear noise coming from the way they came in. Weapons are prepared, safe for Marwyn, who was still singing his flesh back into shape.
“Who goes there?” Vargard challenges.
“Woah woah! Just us!” a man in working clothes answers, slowly moving into the doorframe with arms raised. “Saw you clear the alert.”
“Perin didn’t tell us about this,” Vargard argues.
“Probably forgot. Look, we’re just here to get torches up and to… to uh… remove the bodies,” the man, now flanked by others in similar garb, says, looking at the fallen workers.
“Alright, just try not to set anything else off,” Vargard warns.

“Think they came from here,” Jorduna reports, from one of the sides, “Hidden passage, I’ll need some help.”
“Where?” Vargard asks, moving over.
“There’s a seam right… here,” she says, “I think we can force it.”
“Hey, you guys should be ready to run if something comes out of here,” Vargard warns, and the workers look nervously as the two open the passage. The stone wall resists their efforts at first, but eventually the two are able to move a section aside to reveal a narrow passage. Fortunately, nothing comes through. A level was on the other side, presumably used to open the passage.

Marwyn had recovered by this point, thin scars the only marks that remained. They would be gone soon as well, though it would take a little more time.
“We’ll explore down here for a little,” Vargard says to the workers, “Marwyn, you good to go?”
“Yeah,” the bard nods, picking up the crossbow he had cast aside earlier.
“Stay close,” Vargard orders, stepping through the threshold. The other three followed, Marwyn taking up the back.

The path proved to be short, leading to a small chamber. Five alcoves, similar to the ones from the armory, were built into the walls. A weapon rack was placed next to each, though all were empty. No other paths seemed to branch off from this point, so Vargard merely placed a Way Ward, and started walking back to the other room.
Now that they weren’t in battle, the four took a moment to observe the room the skirmish had occurred in more closely. Statues lined the sides, each in different poses of battle. These would probably be objects of study for Perin and his associates, but they were of little value concern for the mercenaries. There were two doorways in the room, not counting the secret passage, leaving one pathway forwards.
“Think we should backtrack, or keep going?” Vargard asks the group in general.
“Might as well press on,” Jorduna argues, “If they’ve set up defenses here, there probably won’t be anything for the next few rooms. Or this whole section could be booby trapped,” she adds, backpedaling slightly.
“We should be wary of such hidden rooms throughout our exploration,” Lesani points out, “I would imagine there are others like them scattered about.”

“I can’t imagine spending centuries in that small room,” Marwyn comments, as they head for the next doorway, “Must have been boring.”
“I imagine they spent most of the time resting, Marwyn,” Lesani says, “Intelligent undead are a common sight to run into, though I imagine they have a state similar to our sleep.”
“It was supposedly a great honor to be chosen as an honor guard,” Jorduna says, “Though anyone who tried something like that with me wouldn’t be left with enough to raise.”
“Let’s cut the chatter,” Vargard cautions, as they enter the next hallway. It was dark, but he had retrieved his sunrod.
“Might it be best for Jorduna and I to lead, with that extinguished?” Lesani suggests. The suggestion confused Marwyn, until he remembered that they could see in the dark, to an extent.
“I’d rather not be blind, Les,” Vargard responds softly, as they walk down the hall, “And I’m not too keen on sending one of you ahead anyways.”

“I hear water,” Jorduna whispers, ears perking up.
“How much?” Vargard asks, unable to pick up the sounds.
“Small stream, maybe a hundred feet ahead. Probably coming from the next room. Fountain maybe?”
“Should I invisible Jor so she can scout?” Marwyn asks.
“I’d rather save that for when we know there are enemies,” Vargard answers, “We’ll rely on normal stealth.”

Crouching in two stacks of two by the next door, the only entrance they had seen in this hallways, The Split Falchion glances into the next room. Vargard had temporarily sheathed the sunrod to allow Jorduna and Lesani the chance to glance in without alerting anyone inside. With the report of no hostiles, Vargard brings the sunrod back out. He places a Way Ward on the inside wall of the room, and then turns to inspect the rest of the space.

A large fountain sits in the middle, water still trickling down from an upper spout. The pool of water inside was dirty, however, marred by dirt and infested with what looked like a bloodfly nest. The remains of several stone tables were scattered about, age having broken some of them. The walls were adorned with carvings, remains of paint still present in small patches. Two other doors branches off, though it appears one of the passageways had collapsed, stone blocking the hallway.

“Let’s wait for the workers to catch up,” Vargard says, resting on one of the more stable stone benches.
“No traps at least,” Jorduna says, having taken a precursory look around for pressure plates or trip wires.
Marwyn joined Vargard, sitting across from him. He pulled out his lute, and just as he was about to strike the first chord, a strange melody fills his head. It takes him a moment to place it, halfway into playing it.
“Something wrong?” Vargard asks, as Marwyn stops playing after the first stanza.
“No, I just don’t know anymore,” Marwyn replies. “Les, I think I found out what this rapier does.”
“Oh?” the elf responds, over from inspecting the carvings.
“It sings,” Marwyn says, “I put a hit on that hobgoblin, and I only just remembered… I heard something when it happened.”
“Play that again,” Jorduna says suddenly, listening intently.
“O..ok,” Marwyn replies, unnerved by Jorduna’s sudden interest in his playing. He repeats the stanza again, and this time the hobgoblin hums along, after a few beats. Everyone stares at her, such… tenderness from the hobgoblin was unheard of. She keeps it up after he finished playing, continuing the song. “You know it?” he asks, when she finished.
“Haven’t heard that in a long time, kid,” Jorduna responds softly, “Nice to see you’re learning good music for a change.”
“What’s it called?”
“I don’t know. It was… something I heard when I was a kid,” the rogue reminisces, “Old lullaby,” she adds.
“I can learn the rest if you…” Marwyn starts, but cuts himself off when he sees the workers from the previous room arrive.
“All clear?” the leader asks, and Vargard nods. “Ack, bloodflies,” he complains, seeing the fountain, “We’ll have to drain it.”
“We’re moving on,” Vargard says, “There’s a blocked passage over there, we’re heading down the other path.”
“Gotcha,” the lead worker acknowledges. His men had begun placing torches around the room, while he looked distastefully at the pool. “Switch the alert on and off if you find something interesting, otherwise we’ll look at unblocking it.”
“I assume you have a way of contacting Perin?” Vargard asks, remembering that he had the map.
“Yeah,” the worker nods, “University got real invested in this place once we found it. Gotta stone.” He holds up a sending stone to the warrior.
“Good. Send a runner if he needs anything,” Vargard suggests.
“Will do,” the workman says, and adds “Never thanked you for taking out those bastards. Had a friend that was killed.”
“Don’t mention it,” Vargard says, leading his group out.

“I can see a door ahead,” Jorduna says, as they continue on, “No other passages.” Soon, the sunrod illuminated the indicated door, the only other one they had seen to survive the passages of time since the reinforced door guarding the armory. “Let me have a look at it.”
“Go ahead, Jor,” Vargard agrees. He steps to the side to allow the hobgoblin though, and she inspects the handle carefully.
“Not locked,” she whispers, “I don’t hear anything behind it. Wood’s barely holding itself together, I doubt there’s any trap mechanisms in it that I couldn’t see.”
“Open it carefully,” Vargard orders, unsheathing his sword. She does so, allowing those behind to see into the room.

Bunks were placed throughout the room in regular, barracks like fashion. Doors were placed on either end of the long walkway between the two sets of bunks. Scraps of delicate cloth were all that remained of what once must have been beds, and with general surprise, the group notices ancient corpses in most of the beds. It was clear that these were not of the same caliber as those that had attacked them recently, most were naught but bone.
“Leaving behind guardians is one matter,” Lesani comments, after this had been made clear, “But this is… something else. These people died in their beds, I wonder why no one took care of the bodies.”
“That’s for Perin to find out,” Vargard says, applying a Way Ward to one of the inner walls. “I… don’t think we need search the bodies.”
“Yeah…” Jorduna agrees, for once not liking the thought of looting something.
“See any other secret passages, Jor?”
“What?” Jorduna asks, startled, “Oh, I’ll get looking.”

The hobgoblin does a careful search of the room, though she avoids getting too close to one of the beds. Eventually, she reports, “Nothing boss, it’s just a bunkroom.”
“Guess we move on,” Vargard says, moving to the next door. The rest follow, also trying to keep their distance from the corpses to each side. They were sure that none would try to attack them, but the scene was slightly disturbing even so. It was with mutual relief that they opened the far door, and continued further into the complex.

The next hallway bent to the left slightly, turning them back towards the direction of the ritual chamber. It appeared that this region of the ruins was compact, for as they turned, there was again only one, large doorway leading to another room. “Var!” Jorduna whispers sharply, “More of them ahead.”
“How many?” he asks, stopping and shielding the sunrod.
“Can’t tell from here, too dark,” she says, peering into the empty space, “Gonna need another hit of invisibility.”
“Just make sure you don’t miss one,” Marwyn gripes, casting the spell with a low monotone.
“Lightning doesn’t strike twice, kid,” the stealthed hobgoblin replies, before moving into the room.

“Actually, it can,” Lesani converses, as the others waited a good distance from the room ahead.
“We’ll be more careful, Marwyn,” Vargard reassures, “I’d never have left you purposely exposed like that.”
“I know,” Marwyn says. He stops for a moment, and then continues, “You know, when it first charged at me, I really though Cletus would help. I don’t know why, I mean, I know he’s gone, but I…”
“It’s ok, Marwyn,” Vargard says, “I sometimes expect to find the bastard sitting next to me in the inn.”
“He think he prided himself in getting the drop on you,” Lesani says, with a bittersweet smile on her face, “We all still miss him, Marwyn.”
“Think we’ll ever find someone to replace him?” Marwyn asks.
“Replace? Never,” Vargard replies, but sighs and says, “Though another man might be needed. It’s hard to find someone to trust in a business like this. Hell, I wouldn’t hire me.”
“But you hired me pretty quickly,” Marwyn protests.
“Marwyn,” Vargard says, thinking about his next words carefully, “You… didn’t look like the kind who would readily deceive people.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Jorduna suddenly enters the conversation, startling the others.
“Jor! How long were you there?” Vargard asks roughly.
“Just got back,” she says, no hint of teasing in her voice, “We’re in for a rough one.”
“How many?”
“8, Var, and some have bows. Thankfully there wasn’t any casters that I could see, and I looked closely,” she reassures, “Six swordsmen and two archers in total. They’re still in those wall-things, so we’ll have surprise with us. I don’t think I can mess with their weapons without awakening them though.”
“What kind of room is this?” Vargard says, more to himself in frustration.
“Training room, looks like,” the hobgoblin answers, “Large open space in the center, weapon racks along the walls. All ruined, of course, besides the undead’s weapons.”
“Should we perhaps try coming back later, with reinforcements?” Lesani asks.
“No,” Vargard shakes his head, “We can take them, so long as we’re careful. Jor, where are the archers posted?”
“One on either end. I could take out the far one while you focus down the closer.”
“I don’t like where that puts you, Jor,” Vargard says.
“I can get back to you before they fully awaken,” she argues, “And I’d rather not have to deal with arrows to my back.”
“Fair,” Vargard compromises, “Though we should try and stop them from joining ranks, they seem more effective like that. Marwyn, Les, anything you can do?”
“Not really,” Marwyn says.
“How close would you say the alcoves are?” Lesani asks the space where Jorduna presumably was.
“Dunno. 20 or 30 feet?”
“Hmm.” Lesani ponders for a moment, everyone else looking at her, “There’s another spell I have been working on.”
“You holding out on us, Les?” Vargard asks, surprised.
“Not exactly, Var, we never had opportunity to make use of it,” the warlock replies, “I can stun multiple of the warriors as the move to engage us, though we cannot in turn engage them without breaking the enchantment. The alcoves are too far away to hit them from surprise, so it will have to wait until after we begin.”
“Taking half the enemies out of the fight sounds like something we could have used before, Les.”
“I…” she splutters, then admits, “I have not fully mastered the spell. It will be hit or miss, Var. I cannot guarantee all of them will be stunned. I… did not want to bring it up before because…”
“I don’t care Les,” Vargard says forcefully, though he still keeps the volume low, “If we have an option, I want to know about it.”
“I… apologize Var,” Lesani replies, surprised by the warrior’s sudden anger.
“Jor, take out the far archer and rejoin with us. We’ll take out the other on your go,” Vargard orders, “Les… just do it when you get the chance.”

They moved out, taking great care to not prematurely awake the defenders. The room was indeed open, as Jorduna had reported, with a high ceiling. Several occupied recesses lined the side walls, a bow hanging alongside the closest one to the right. There was about 20 feet separating the center of the room from the group, and Marwyn was grateful for the space. He couldn’t see all the way down the hall, neither could Lesani, but he could see to the second enemy.
Vargard stood ahead of Lesani and Marwyn, as they prepared an attack against the resting archer. Thinking ahead, he also places a Way Ward next to the doorway, and triggers the alert.
There was a short click on Vargard’s sending stone, indication that the hobgoblin was ready. He sends another through, and whispers to the others, “Now.”
Marwyn’s first arrow was off, clattering off the back of the recess harmlessly, waking the sleeping wight. The second arrow, better aimed, stunned the defender. Unable to reach its weapons in time, it folds under the combined might of Marwyn and Lesani. As it falls, they see Jorduna running back across the hall. The other defenders were also awaking, reaching for shields and longswords that had been placed beside them in their long rest. The rogue tosses a knife or two at each as she ran, but they were largely ineffective.
“Les,” Vargard says out of the corner of his mouth, as the six remaining wights closed behind Jorduna, “Now might be a good time.”
“They need to be closer,” she protests, “Almost… almost…”

Marwyn was raining arrows on the closest one when the elf released the built up energy, focused on the five that had come from the latter part of the room. The bard has to look away when a sudden, bright ball of light surrounds the undead, different color patterns radiating beguilingly from it. When it disappears, it leaves four of the opponents dazed, stopped in their tracks.
“Do not target them!” Lesani yells, “They will reawaken!”
“How long does it last?” Vargard asks, moving to engage the one that had resisted the spell.
“A minute, no more,” Lesani replies, directing a spell at the other active opponent. With its shield, the hobgoblin wight was resisting Marwyn’s arrows to a degree, and was quickly closing on the four. Jorduna, now visible, stands in its way with knives in either hand.

“Hyah!” a triumphant yell from Vargard emanates throughout the room, as his blade cleaves almost entirely through his opponent. The wight had decayed more than its fellows, and wasn’t able to raise its shield in time to block a massive, overhanded strike from Vargard. Undeath was still keeping it alive from the normally mortal wound, but it would soon fall from repeated attacks.
The other was proving to be tougher, matching Jorduna and ignoring the majority of Marwyn and Lesani’s attacks. “Need some help here!” she yells, as she just barely ducks away from a longsword cut.
“Shift left!” Vargard yells, as he approaches from her right. Working in tandem, they quickly flank the opponent. The wight makes the mistake of turning to face Vargard, leaving its back open to the knives of the rogue.
Still it held on. As Marwyn gets a better look at his target, and as combat clears dust from the armor, he realizes that it was different from the others. Briefly focusing on the armor, he senses some kind of enchantment, tying it to its master’s companions.
Lesani, quicker on the draw, shouts, “Var, we cannot defeat it without first destroying the others!”
“What?!” he yells, blocking a sword stroke with his shield.
“The armor! It is receiving power from the others, greatly boosting its defenses.”
“Take them down one at a time!” he orders, “Jor, go with them, I’ll keep it busy.” His opponent, not understanding the tongue with which Vargard spoke, but acknowledging the realization, taunts him in the goblin tongue.
“Var, he said…” Jorduna starts.
“I don’t need to know!” Vargard yells, “Get moving!”
“Yeah boss!” she obeys, running over to the four stunned wights, “Wait for me to hit one!”

Marwyn barely manages to catch his bowstring as Jorduna warns him off. Lesani too holds the arcane charge she had been building up, allowing the rogue first strike. Helpless though the enemy was, Jorduna doesn’t manage to instantly fell it. The strike shakes the wight from its stupor, but follow up attacks from all three send it to eternal rest. Another is dispatched similarly, divine power living its shell. However, the other two wights suddenly strike out at Jorduna’s exposed back, spell binding them ending.
“Jor!” Marwyn yells, seeing the hobgoblin forced to one knee under the twin blows. He quickly fires off another shot, and then charges in with his rapier, picking up a shield from one of the fallen. The bard was unexperienced with its use, though the concept was simple enough. Lesani, meanwhile, had dragged the unconscious rogue away, and was forcing a healing potion down her throat.
Forced to focus solely on parrying and blocking, Marwyn danced with his two opponents, trying to prevent them from flanking him. He quickly glances over at Vargard, and sees that the warrior had been keeping even with his opponent.
One of the wights opposing him gets stuck suddenly, foot caught in a crack in the floor. Marwyn takes the opportunity to strike out, landing a blow on the wight. The other quickly covers for its ally, but in the moment, Marwyn again hears music surround him again. It was a continuation of the lullaby Jorduna had hummed earlier, but he ignored it.
Jorduna returns to the melee, still bleeding from two gashes on her back, but capable of fighting. Together, she and Marwyn were able to match the two undead, and Lesani pushed the tide of battle in their favor. Though his actions were meant more to enable the rogue’s critical attacks, he still manages to land enough strikes to hear the rest of the song, as well as the beginning of another he didn’t recognize.
Working in tandem, the three bring down most of the remaining defenders. Marwyn senses the arcane binds to the last undead hobgoblin fade, the enchantment on its armor breaking.
“Vargard, it is now vulnerable!” Lesani yells, “We are coming to assist.”
“No need,” the warrior shouts back, “This bastard’s mine!” He savagely bashes his opponent with his shield, in a display of raw force that stunned the wight, completely unprepared for the show of force. In a series of short strokes, Vargard quickly shreds the shield arm of his opponent. From there, it is a matter of ease to finish the remaining opponent.

Jorduna collapses with it, the adrenaline that had kept her going wearing out. Marwyn quickly brings out his lute, attending to her without prompt.
“She going to be ok?” Vargard asks, walking over. He had wounds of his own, but none that needed immediate attention.
“’Course I am,” Jorduna says weakly, “Cheap bastards…”
“Les, how did we not see that enchantment before?” he asks, turning to the warlock.
“It is a… curious enchantment, Var,” she explains, crouching down besides the fallen foe, “It did not activate until provoked. Before then, it was… yes, divinely powered. I would surmise that the armor was created at the same time this warrior was immortalized, along with its compatriots.”
“Nasty trick,” Vargard comments, “All for a sparring room?”
“It appears so,” Lesani agrees.

“Sure you’re ok Jor?” Vargard asks, as he helps the hobgoblin to her feet.
“Yeah boss,” she nods, wounds mostly healed, “All in a day’s work.”
Vargard sighs, and says, “I’d almost call it a day if it didn’t look like we were circling back around. Oh, almost forgot,” he says to himself, as he disables the alert on the Way Ward. “They’ll probably send a runner, best wait for a few minutes.” The others, exhausted from the battle, agree wholeheartedly.

Slow footsteps become audible from the hallway outside, one person approaching. The newly-appointed foreman walks in, clothes caked in sweat. “Heard the alert was disabled. Had some trouble?” he asks, noting light wounds on most of the mercenaries.
“Taken care of,” Vargard nods, “How goes the blocked passage?”
“We’ve got spades going at it,” the foreman confirms, “Doesn’t look like a major obstruction, we were about through when I got word to check in with… *boom*” a loud noise suddenly cuts him off, and the ground shakes from what appears to have been a distant explosion that knocked everyone onto their feet. Fortunately, the room they were in didn’t seem to suffer any damage, structure holding.

“What was that?” Vargard asks, as the five pick themselves up off the floor.
“I have to get back! Something’s gone wrong, the complex may be destabilizing. Get back to Perin!”
“Let’s go!” Vargard yells, leading his men through the far door, which should take them back to the ritual chamber. “If any come at us, just ignore them,” he adds, passing through the doorway.
His words were pointless, however, as all that stood in their way was a hallway, leading back to the room just before their first encounter. Turning right, they ran back to the ritual chamber.

“What was that?” Professor Perin asks worriedly, “I saw your alert.”
“That was something different,” Vargard answers, “There was an explosion in the fountain room.”
“How…” Perin starts, but is cut off by his sending stone. “What!?”
“Perin,” the voice of the foreman comes through, “Two men are down. My workers made it through the rubble, but there was a blasted explosive rune covering the door behind it.”
“Any injured?”
“No,” the foreman answers, “Everyone caught in the blast died. Fortunately it didn’t damage the walls, though we aren’t going any further.”
“Understandable. Withdraw, we’re done for the day.”
“Roger,” the foreman says.

Langhorn and his apprentice were still in the room as well, though before they are able to speak, Perin continues, “Well, let’s get a move on.”
“What?” Langhorn asks, “I thought this area was safe.”
“It is,” Perin reassures, “We’re going to that room they just unearthed.”
“What?!” Langhorn protests, “And walk into another explosive rune?”
“_The Split Falchion_ will clear it first, of course,” Perin clarifies, “I’m certain you are more capable of disabling traps.”
“Yeah,” Vargard agrees, “But why the rush?”
“Whatever was through that door was valuable enough to protect with an extremely volatile spell. I want to see this for myself. Come on!” he prods, ushering everyone deeper into the ruins. They passed the departing workmen, who were carrying their fallen along with their tools. The foreman raised an eyebrow at Vargard, but didn’t comment.

“Bloodflies,” Perin curses, as they enter the fountain room. The insects had been disturbed by the presence of the workers, and then again by the explosion, and were flying around the room. “I thought Marcus was going to drain that.”
“I’d imagine the explosion interrupted him,” Vargard points out, swatting one away.
“Yes. If you’d be so kind as to clear the room, Mr. Garodin,” Perin asks anxiously, clearly itching to explore himself.
“Doubt there are any enemies,” Vargard comments, “Jor, take a look, and be careful.”
“On it,” the hobgoblin says, and carefully steps over piles of rubble that hadn’t fully been cleared from the hallway. After a few minutes, she returns, an odd look on her face.
“What is it?” Vargard asks, noting this.
“Var… you won’t believe it,” Jorduna replies.
“Is it safe?” Perin questions.
“Yeah… it’s…”
“You’ll have to see for yourself,” Jorduna answers, gesturing to the dark room ahead.

Continued in Part 28, Lore of the Dragons – An Ancient Warning


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