Part 26 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion
Morgrave University, Professor Langhorn’s Study, The Next Day
Shakris had finished moving into her room amongst the towers of Morgrave University. Used she was to those of the University of Wynarn, she adapted better than most outsiders would. When she enters the space allocated to her mentor for his studies, she finds him wrapped up in a dusty tome.
“What are you reading?” she asks, failing to decipher the title of the book.
“Oh, this?” Langhorn says self-conciously, “It’s a book on Siberys, somewhat. The Talash Siberys, as it’s called.”
“Draconic prophecy?” Shakris responds, surprised, “Don’t tell me we are expected to study another topic here as well.
“No, no,” Langhorn shakes his head, “We will remain focused on our task here. I was just… thinking. That bard gave me an idea on the journey here, though this… drivel is harder to get through than anything I’ve seen before,” the professor complains, “How many problems could be solved if this ‘prophecy’ would clearly state what it meant. Given, of course, that one assumes it is true to begin with. But no matter, onto real work.”
“Yes, what will we be doing today?” Shakris asks.
“Meet and greets, mostly. Best to know our colleagues, after all. I’d also like the both of us to get a good head for their library here, it uses quite different categorization than our old home.”
“So… tomorrow we will resume our work,” Shakris says.
“Oh yes, I am quite hopeful we will,” Langhorn says, unconvincingly, “But Morgrave University expects a certain amount of… parading from us. They do want to revel in poaching a learned professor, and his excellent assistant,” he adds hesitantly, trying to embellish his words with a compliment, “From Aundair’s finest institution.”
“Professor, why didn’t you mention any of this before?” Shakris says.
“I…I…I didn’t know myself,” the professor answers, “But Morgrave knows they’re our last chance. A little give at first, so we can take later,” Langhorn continues, almost as if he was trying to convince himself more than her.
Shakris sighs heavily, and says, “Well I won’t be dressing up for them. If they wanted a professor and his apprentice, then that’s what they’re getting. If so much as a bolt of cloth gets close to me…”
“Shakris, Shakris, what you have on now will be fine,” Langhorn says, trying to calm her, “I promise it will be business as usual in at least a few days. Just… bear with me until then. I find it taxing as well.”
“A few days, then,” Shakris compromises, “Though I’m not sure we were worse of faking it at Wynarn.”
“Time will tell,” the professor comments, not necessarily disagreeing, “Though I hope we have made the right choice.”
The Crimson Eagle, The Same Day
Marwyn sat in the barroom of The Crimson Eagle, the inn which Vargard had tracked down in the Middle City. All of the local inns in the Upper City were far too expensive for their tastes, especially considering Marwyn’s investment in Fairhaven. The Eagle, despite being a tier lower than Morgrave University, was a good fit for the mercenary team. The barmaid, an imposing orc by the name of Grunhilda, was surprisingly reasonable about long-term rates. The food wasn’t half bad as well, Marwyn thinks, despite the foreign seasonings.
He was the only one of his friends there. Vargard had gone out early in the morning in search of work, and Lesani had retired to her room to focus on her magical studies. Jorduna… Marwyn didn’t want to think about. His arm still hurt with phantom pain where her knife had stabbed him, though with the passing time he realized she wasn’t entirely to blame.
He’d started the morning with more invisibility practice, finding the spell becoming easier and easier with each cast. The bard was reaching a success rate of almost 50%, soon he would master the spell. Faced with an open afternoon, Marwyn decided to try and track down a new spell to work on. He returns his plate to the bar, nodding briefly in thanks to the busy Grunhilda.
Fortunately for the bard, Middle Menthis Plateau was the perfect place to search for such a thing. Everbright district was lined with shops of all kinds, offering artifacts, spells, reagents, rituals, the diversity of arcane power seemed limitless. The thought that this was just one of many regions of Sharn boggled Marwyn’s mind, the impossibly huge size of the towered city incomprehensible to him.
It was after many hours of just taking in the scenery that he realized it was getting dark. Not having seen anything he definitely wanted (or could afford), Marwyn makes the journey back to The Crimson Eagle. Vargard was apparently waiting for him, as he stands once he sees the bard entering.
“Marwyn, good,” Vargard greets him, “Just about to send for you.”
“You have news?” Marwyn asks, sensing the warrior had something to tell him.
“Yes, but not here,” Vargard responds, directing a glance upwards.
“You found a job already?” Jorduna asks, having returned to the Eagle while Marwyn was out, “You didn’t…”
“No, we’re done with Aundair,” Vargard answers quickly, “The city is well organized, it seems. I was directed to a post board with local listings, picked out something our speed.”
“What is it?” Lesani questions.
“S&R in the Cogs. Seems a foreman went missing the day before we arrived. Search parties went looking but ran into… resistance.”
“Cogs?” Marwyn asks, imagining trying to search for someone on giant turning wheels.
“The undercity of Sharn,” Vargard explains, “It’s where most of the foundries of the city are. Kinda… mixes in with the ruins that were here before the city.”
“What resistance?” Jorduna asks, Marwyn having beaten her to the first question.
“Undead, it sounds like,” Vargard answers, “Nothing powerful, but nothing they’re willing to lose workers to. We’re to look for any sign of the missing, and report in. Job pays more if we bring them back alive.”
“This will be the first time I have encountered undead in quite a while,” Lesani comments, “If we do not count the Blue Cloak.”
“Can we fight undead?” Marwyn asks, remembering the trouble they had gone through dispatching that monstrosity.
“Like anything else, Marwyn,” Vargard nods, “It’s usually best to have a cleric alongside, but I’m not in the mood to go searching for one. If we run into too much trouble, we can always retreat. Perks of being rescuers for a change. We start tomorrow.”
The Next Day
The elevator down to the Cogs was massive, a construction of both metal and magic. Gears turned to raise and lower the platform, but it would never stay stable without key enchantments. The descent was loud, but not ear-splittingly so. It was rather like a drum beat, constant in the background with the regular grinding of gears.
When the platform finally reaches a halt, however, the sudden lack of the sound startles Marwyn. The temperature change was also immediate and oppressive, heat radiating from below. The bard tries not to think of what would happen if a crevice were to open up below him, leading to the massive lava pools below. He clutches the shaft of his bow, unsuccessfully trying to use its cold powers to cool himself.
“4th lateral…subsection 3b… damnit this place is a maze,” Vargard says, looking at a posted map and referencing the notice he had acquired the other day.
“Let me see,” Lesani suggests, to which Vargard begrudgingly surrenders the parchment. After studying the board for a minute, Lesani says, “Ah, here it is.”
“How the hell did you do that?” Jorduna asks, struggling to even read the miniscule text which marked each region of the Cogs.
“It is organized, after a fashion,” the elf explains, “Once you understand the underlying pattern, it is utter simplicity."
“Lead the way then, Les,” Vargard says, gesturing forward.
“It’s actually… that way,” Lesani corrects, gesturing in a different direction.
“Right…” Vargard sighs.
The walk to their destination was arduous, heat sapping the party’s resolve. There was an almost constant stream of workers of all kinds, each in their own state of exhaustion. They also passed machinery of all kinds. Some were built into the walls, pipes snaking from hubs protruding from the rock. Others were great machines constructed in large caverns, though their purpose eluded Marwyn. After what seemed like hours, the group walks into a small cave, with tents propped up alongside what looked like a mess hall.
One man stood out from the rest of the general throng, merely by his measured breaths and relatively unsoiled clothing. “That’s him,” Vargard nods.
The four take seats by the man, who was eating what must be his lunch. ”Mercenaries?” he asks after swallowing his most recent bite, “Here ‘bout the kruthik?”
“The what?” Vargard asks, confused. He hands the flier to the man.
“Oh, this lark,” the man shouts, throwing a hand to his forehead in sudden understanding. “Sorry ‘bout that. So many damn bugs that it’s a good bet half o’ your kind’s hired to take ‘em out.”
“Bugs?” Marwyn asks, confused.
“Oh yeah, great big bugs,” the man answers, holding up hands for emphasis, “Typically nabs a worker or two a day. Big nuisance, though usually not around here.”
“Notice mentioned undead were sighted,” Vargard comments.
“Yeah, you get a few o’ those too,” the man answers, a little too quickly, causing some beer to dribble out the side of his mouth, “Some half-cocked necromancer who thinks he can raise any army, only ta’ end up gettin’ torn apart by his new minions. Look,” he says, leaning forward, “I’m not expecting miracles, ok? Foreman Jacobs’ probably dead, and I wouldn’t even bother with this if the guild didn’t fine me for every official I mark ‘M-I-effin’-A’. Just find some kinda proof o’ death, maybe the body if somethin’ hasn’t gotten to it first, and we’ll call it even.”
“Understood,” Vargard says, trying not to get in the way of the debris coming from the client’s poor manners, “What did Jacobs look like? If the body’s mutilated I’ll need some way to tell it’s him.”
“Corpse’ll have ID on ‘em,” the man answers, “Learned to make ‘em toxic ‘s Khyber so scavengers’ll leave ‘em be. So don’t go stickin’ it in ‘ur mouth,” he warns.
“Any idea where to start looking?”
“Jacobs’ was investigating somethin’ down shaft B when we lost track ‘o him.” Vargard waits for further details, but none came.
“Best get to it, then,” the warrior says, to which the man holds up a hand.
“Mff,” he grunts, while hastily swallowing, “Almost forgot. You’ll need your Way Wards.”
“Yeah, see that ‘alfing over there,” he says, pointing to a female halfing sitting on a barrel, surrounded by other workers, “she’ll explain.”
“Right…” Vargard says, standing. He starts walking away slowly, unsure if there was anything else the man forgot. Eventually, he picks up his pace, the rest following.
“What do you want?” the halfing asks, turning away from the conversation in front of her, “Can’t you see I’m on break?”
“Here to get ‘Way Wards’?” Vargard answers.
“Oh, you’re the ones going after Jacobs,” the halfing says, forgetting the annoyed tone from before, “Follow me.”
She leads them to several chests which were shoved to one of the cave’s corners. Most were unlocked, but the halfing went to one with a visible lock barring access. She withdrew a key from… somewhere, Marwyn couldn’t tell, and disabled the lock. Within the chest was a variety of equipment, the halfing selecting a sheaf of parchment. “Way Wards,” she says, presenting them.
“Thank… you…?” Vargard says, taking what appeared to be blank pages.
“New to the Cogs?” the halfing asks, noting his confusion.
“New to Sharn,” Vargard nods.
“Stick ‘em on a wall, and the charm’ll activate,” she explains, “And if you touch one glyph, you’ll know how to get to the next. Space them out evenly, and you’ll never get lost. Boss thought it best that we not have two missing person situations on our hands.”
“I see,” Vargard says, detecting faint magical energy coming from the pages, “How long does it last?”
“A day,” the halfing explains, “Fairly stable enchantment too. Has to be down here, what with the magical background noise.”
“I have not noticed any great magical leylines, or similar, in the area,” Lesani interrupts.
“Well, it’s not noticeable really,” the halfing backpedals, “But sometimes you run into areas corrupted by dark magic, or ancient goblin ruins, and its best to have your lifeline resistant to dark magic.”
“Sensible,” Lesani compliments.
“Well, I have a break to get back to,” the halfing says, excusing herself, “Hope you find Jacobs.”
“So… Shaft B?” Vargard looks to Lesani.
“I do not know,” Lesani says, shaking her head, “It is likely a designation only local workers use. I highly doubt it is the second shaft dug in the history of the cogs.”
Indeed, she was right, as one of the workers milling about pointed her in the direction of a tunnel, leading away from the one they had come from.
The tunnel seemed like it hadn’t seen much foot traffic in a while, despite the presence of the worker camp a few hundred paces back. With the light from the camp fading, Vargard struck a sunrod he had brought in preparation for the darkness of the caves, and hangs it from his belt.
“What do you think they’re doing down here?” Marwyn asks, bow held in his off hand in case any giant bugs or undead jumped out at him.
“Probably a whole host of things,” Vargard says, stopping to place a piece of parchment on the wall. Unsure exactly how to do so, he gingerly presses the parchment against the rock with a palm. Having guessed correctly, Vargard sees the page melt into the wall. An orange glyph in the shape of a triangle glowed faintly from where his hand had touched the wall.
“Var, if we could save one or two of those wards, I would like to study them,” Lesani says, watching the utilization of the Way Ward.
“If I have any to spare, they’re yours,” Vargard says. He pauses, thinking, “Anyone hear that?”
“What?” Jorduna asks, startled by the question, “I don’t hear anything.”
“Yeah,” Vargard nods, “The camp should be within audible range. Why don’t we hear anything?”
Everyone stops, straining their ears for any sound. But it was quiet, dead quiet.
“The stone nearby is likely absorbing the sound,” Lesani reasons, “If they were operating heavy equipment, I would imagine we would hear it.”
“I guess,” Vargard shrugs, “But keep quiet. If something tries sneaking up on us, I want to know. Without Cletus…”
“We will be vigilant,” Lesani assures, not wanting him to finish the thought.
It had been a while since Marwyn had been forced to stay stealthy for an extended amount of time. He had almost forgotten that his cloak, aside from being stylish, helped conceal his movements. They’re precautions paid off when Jorduna, leading the group, holds up a hand. Severely out of practice with his hand signs, Marwyn doesn’t recognize the sequence of gestures she throws out. However, he can see for himself what she was reporting. Milling around in the tunnel ahead were several skeletons, walking under their own power.
Their odd movements creeped Marwyn out. They didn’t remind him of Blue Cloak, that was a monster cut from different cloth, but they were unnatural all the same. Vargard gives one of the few signs he recognizes, attack, and prepares a shot for the closest one. Looking more closely, there appeared to be eight, though all were unarmed and unarmored. This comforted Marwyn slightly, as he knew Vargard and Jorduna would be standing between him and the undead. The lack of ranged weaponry in their enemy’s armament made him all but untouchable.
“Now!” Vargard gestures, having moved in front of the rest. The tunnel was wide enough for three men to easily stand abreast, so Marwyn was able to place a shot around the warrior towards one of the skeletons. His arrow impacts it in one of the femurs, shattering the bone. With the impact, the divine power flowing through the dusty bones fades, and the skeleton collapses into a pile of bones.
Jorduna’s knife was aimed for the same target, but the additional damaged seemed to do nothing further. Lesani, however, had predicted her companions’ attacks, and had aimed a dark blast towards one in the center. It shatters as well, unable to withstand the arcane power. The rest, sensing life, rush towards the warrior.
Vargard, seeing how easily the two skeletons had fallen, smiles and drops his shield. With a mighty two-handed swing, he cleaves through several of the skeletons, severing all at the spinal cord. The remaining claw at his armor ineffectively, a few quick sword strokes all that is needed to finish them.
“That was… easy,” Marwyn comments, surprised.
“Uh… boss,” Jorduna comments, looking through the bones, “How can we be sure one of these wasn’t the target?”
“These remains are fully decomposed,” Lesani comments, examining another, “These are aged skeletons, it is no wonder they fell so quickly.”
“Jacobs went missing a few days ago,” Vargard confirms, “Can’t be him. Though it might suggest what happened to him.” He thinks for a moment, and places another Way Ward on the wall. He then places a hand against the resulting glyph, pausing for a moment.
“Does it work?” Lesani asks, watching him.
“Somewhat,” Vargard says slowly, gauging a response, “It gives mental direction straight to the other glyph, but it doesn’t say ‘take this tunnel’ or otherwise. Should do.”
“So where did they come from?” Marwyn asks, still looking at the skeleton remains for signs of movement.
“Further down the tunnel?” Vargard thinks aloud, “Either we were unlucky enough to run into the only undead for miles, or we should expect more ahead.”
“How much are we getting paid for this, again?” Jorduna asks, noting with distaste a bend in her thrown knife.
“Enough,” Vargard answers, “This is more about building reputation in any case. If we do stay in Sharn, I don’t want to be taking every odd job in the Cogs.”
“Almost makes me miss Aundair,” Jorduna complains.
No one wanted to address the sentiment, and after a pause in the conversation, Vargard says, “Come one, we should get moving.”
The group soon comes to the end of the tunnel, through which lies a chamber. In the center of the chamber, a great chasm opens up. Great gashes in the stone around the edge suggested that large machines once stood here, no doubt meticulously constructed from individual parts brought from the tunnel before. Why someone would make such a shaft here was unclear, but that wasn’t a matter for the Falchion to worry about. A staircase built from rope and hardy timber was constructed into the side of the shaft, allowing passage downwards.
All but Marwyn started towards it. The bard, however, stood frozen.
“Marwyn, come on,” Vargard orders, gesturing to him.
“Uh…” Marwyn eeks out, unable to tear his eyes away from the shaft.
“What?” Vargard asks, wondering if the bard had sensed something.
“How… how deep is…” Marwyn tries to say.
“Are you scared of heights? Since when?” Jorduna asks, sensing the obvious fear.
“Eldritch… woods…” Marwyn answers slowly, trying to gather the courage to move forward.
“The stairs are sturdy,” Vargard says, heavily planting a foot down on the wood to emphasize the point, “If anyone’s falling it’ll be me. Come on, we have a job to do.”
“Yeah…” Marwyn says, taking a careful step forward. His nerves calm slightly as he sees Vargard start walking down.
“It might be best to study feather fall once we are finished here,” Lesani comments, walking just in front of Marwyn. “That, I imagine, would greatly improve any hesitation you may have. It is of similar skill requirement to invisibility, you should find it quite easy to master.”
“Uhhuh,” Marwyn groans, trying to keep his stomach in check as he carefully descends. Focusing on his foray into the markets of Sharn yesterday helped, as he tried fervently to remember if any sold a spell book on such a spell.
The stairs seemed to descend indefinitely at first, and eventually the rope that edged the inner stairs ended, leaving nothing but air between the four and the center drop. After what seemed like ages to Marwyn, but was in reality half an hour, the stairs stop suddenly. To the previous delver’s credit, there was a railing at the bottom, preventing one from blindly walking off the side. The blackness of the shaft continued further down. When he wasn’t thinking about not falling, Marwyn wondered why they didn’t see the soft glow of lava, for surely the shaft would have reached such a pool.
Fortunately, there was a tunnel that had been dug into the shaft wall at this point, allowing refuge from the sharp drop. The cuts looked of similar age to the ones from the tunnel of before, though significant dust lined the tunnel. It was unlike any dust Marwyn had seen before, most likely due to the alien environment of the lower Cogs. Vargard was about to place another Way Ward at the start of the tunnel, when scratching noises began emanating from the cave within.
The warrior narrowly gets out of the way before a charging skeleton tumbles over the railing of the balcony. The bones clatter against the walls of the shaft, the noise eventually dwindling away.
“Any more?!” Lesani shouts, readying a spell.
“Doesn’t seem like it,” Vargard comments, waving his sunrod down the hall. He finished applying the glyph, and unsheathes his sword, ready for more undead. None come.
Marwyn unsticks himself from the side of the shaft, scared almost senseless by the combination of heights and sudden attacker. He edges into the tunnel, after the other three had entered.
The tunnel proved to be short, for after a short time they breached what appeared to be ruins, ancient stone constructing a pathway that extended both left and right. They seemed to be alone.
“Anyone else starting to think we’ve been lied to?” Jorduna asks, taking in the surroundings.
“They had to know we would find this place,” Lesani comments, running a hand against the old stone. “This is goblin workmanship.”
“Hobgoblin,” Jorduna corrects, with a hint of pride, “Looks like the old empire’s bones haven’t rotted away yet. Anyone want to be whatever’s making these skeletons is probably what those workers were looking for?”
“Not our problem,” Vargard says, “As for Jacobs, I think our job just got easier.”
“Oh?” Lesani asks, distracted.
“Footprints,” the warrior points out, “One set from the bastard that nearly knocked me over. Several sets beside, look like ones from the eight we encountered earlier. Another set leading the other way. Good thing it’s dusty as hell here.”
“It looks like he came alone,” Lesani says, looking at where Vargard was pointing. “I wonder why, given the obvious danger we encountered.”
“Might find out when we find him,” Vargard says again, “Let’s move.”
The architecture of the hallway was impressive, especially for its age. The ceiling reached high, almost out of the range of Vargard’s sunrod. Murals lined the walls, faded beyond recognition. Freed from the oppressive fear of the shaft, Marwyn tried extending his senses for magic. In ruins that were this old, he reasoned, there might just be something time had forgotten.
He turned out to be correct, but not in the way he had imagined.
“Got a body,” Vargard announces, kneeling down beside a corpse, “Old… probably as old as this place.”
“Anything on it?” Lesani asks.
“No, must have all rotted away,” Vargard says, shaking his head.
“Let me have a look,” Jorduna comments. Vargard backs away, letting the hobgoblin through. “A priest of Ashurta!” she says, breathlessly, after a time.
“Who?” Vargard questions.
“Hero of the old empire,” Jorduna explains, performing some sort of salute to the corpse, “I don’t know too much about him, other than that he was a damn good warrior. His most ardent followers would carve his symbol into their flesh and bone. Must have hurt like hell, even with magic.”
“You… know a lot about this,” Marwyn comments.
“Hey, this is my history, kid,” she fires back, “Wasn’t always humans and elves as far as the eye could see.”
“Then this is a temple of sorts?” Lesani asks.
“I guess. Could be a military compound. Could be anything. Like I said, I don’t know too much about this… stuff. Just stories I was… nevermind,” she says, returning to her usual, taciturn self. “There’s nothing on her anyway. We should move on.”
“Right,” Vargard agrees.
“What the?” Vargard says suddenly, as they were walking. They had just come to a branching path, two hallways intersecting, when the warrior had stopped to kneel to the ground.
“Did you lose the trail?” Lesani asks, noticing Vargard stoop down close to the ground.
“No, Les, there’s just more now,” he says, “One set of footprints down each hallway.”
Marwyn looks to each of the three hallways. As far as the sunrod could illuminate, each looked similar.
“Var,” Jorduna says, “This guy probably wanted to find treasure down here, right?”
“I guess,” Vargard says, “What does that matter, Jor?”
“Signs for an armory that way,” she says, pointing down the left hallway.
“How can you possibly tell?” Lesani asks, puzzled by the rogue’s statement.
“Look at the floor,” she explains, “There’s faint arrow patterns in the stone. I admit I could barely see it, but it’s there. My home… it had the same markings.”
“You lived in an armory?” Marwyn says, astonished.
“The ruins of one,” Jorduna nods, “Darguun’s an old place.”
“But how would Jacobs know this?” Lesani questions.
“Have a better choice Les?” Jorduna challenges, abruptly. She seemed unusually sensitive about the subject.
When the elf doesn’t responds, Vargard says, “Armory it is.” He places a Way Ward just before the hallway they had come from meets the others, then starts down the left path.
Despite their best attempts, the Falchion’s footfalls still echo throughout the old ruins. Still, they attract not trouble. Either they had dispatched of any skeletons in the area, or the dead were not easily disturbed. Eventually, the hallway ends at a heavy stone door.
“Let me at it, boss,” Jorduna says, almost chomping at the bit.
Her eagerness surprised even Vargard, who raised an eyebrow quizzically.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had the chance to pick a lock like this?” she asks.
“How can you tell…” Lesani begins, but cuts herself off, “Right, right, hobgoblin knowledge, never mind.”
“Rogue’s, actually,” Jorduna corrects, withdrawing her lockpicks.
“Wait,” Vargard cautions, “Les, any magic on the door?”
“Not that I can see,” Lesani replies, straining her mind momentarily.
The hobgoblin, getting the go ahead from Vargard, goes to work on the door. She crouches next to one of the handles, inserting slim metal instruments into a keyhole. After a few moments, there is a soft click, barely audible, and Jorduna gives a thumbs up.
The next moment, the doors are forced open from the inside, sending Jorduna flying back. Two warriors clad in heavy armor stand at either side. Speech booms, not from the new arrivals, but from where they had just entered from. Marwyn didn’t recognize the tongue.
“Khyber! They’re honor guard!” Jorduna yells, readying weapons, “Undead that protect Dhakaani ruins! We’ve awoken them.”
“You did!” Lesani yells back, as the two warriors slowly advance. Marwyn sends an arrow at one, but it merely bounces off the armor.
“There weren’t any traps on the door!” Jorduna argues.
“Enough! Fight now, talk later,” Vargard orders, moving to cover Jorduna as she steadied herself. The closest enemy swings a strange, curved blade at Vargard, though it seemed hampered by seized joints. A follow up blow suggests that the guard was quickly overcoming this.
Between the armor and the shields born by the two warriors, Marwyn didn’t have a lot of space to target. The two seemed to combine their defenses while adjacent, one covering for the other as they attacked. His next arrow was deflected easily as well, the two almost ignoring his archery.
Lesani was having better luck, her magic unimpaired by the metal plate. One snarls as a dark bolt impacts it, hurling what sounded like a threat in the goblin tongue. Jorduna, back on her feet, stands beside Vargard with a knife in each hand. Unable to get around the formation, she wasn’t able to target the soldiers’ vulnerable backs. Her blades were able to find purchase, however, slicing into flesh that wasn’t heavily covered. The wounds she did cause didn’t bleed, however, and it was gray, decaying flesh that stuck to her knives.
Vargard focused on absorbing the blunt of the attacks, striking out with his longsword when he saw the chance. The warrior begrudgingly acknowledged the skill of his opponents. They seemed sentient despite their undeath, definitely retaining more of their combat skills than the skeletons they had fought before.
After his fifth shot found no weak point, Marwyn yells in frustration. Seeing Vargard take a blow to his side which drew blood, he switches to his lute, quickly restoring a portion of Vargard’s health. He also poured his frustration into the music, angry at his failure. While it did nothing for his mood, Marwyn began to realize that the more he played, the more clear his senses seemed to become. He gained… insight, for lack of a better word, an intuitive feeling as to just how to…
Withdrawing his bow again, he sent off another arrow, charged with arcane energy. As before, the guard raised a shield in preparation for this. But this time, Marwyn had aimed for the shield arm’s elbow, which was just barely exposed by the movement. It strikes true, and the wounded undead shouts a curse directed specifically at Marwyn.
With his exuberance, however, Marwyn feels the clarity recede. Whatever enhancement his music had made, it was gone now.
“What was that?” Lesani asks, who had noticed a surge of unexpected magic from the bard. She had been perhaps the most effective fighter thus far, her spells mostly bypassing the heavy armor of their opponents.
“Dunno!” Marwyn quickly shouts back, nocking another arrow. His next shot was less effective, though it found a patch of armor that had nearly rusted away. Vargard and Jorduna, meanwhile, had been able thus far to hold their own. While mostly ineffective against their armor, the rogue’s blades had forced the undead to take a more defensive stance, which allowed Vargard’s longsword to be brought fully into play. Eventually, the combination of long-ranged fire, along with Jorduna’s interference, allows him a clean stroke at the neck of one. The head severs cleanly, the rest of the body slumping over.
The other soldier utters an echoing laugh, and voice booming in an indecipherable language. It drops its sword, and at this the mercenaries pause their assault.
“What did it say, Jor?” Vargard asks, keeping his blade at the ready.
“I think…” she says, focusing, “It’s in old goblin, but I think he wants you to finish him.”
“He wants me to execute him?” the warrior asks, eyebrow raised.
Jorduna speaks to the kneeling opponent in its guttural tongue, voice stumbling somewhat over some of the words. It responds in kind, nodding for emphasis.
“These two were meant to guard this armory until a worthy opponent challenged them,” Jorduna translates, “They’ve been here for ages… I think you’ll be doing it a favor Var.”
“If it’s what it wants,” Vargard shrugs, delivering a quick overhand blow to the remaining hobgoblin. “Doubt Jacobs would be here if they were guarding the place,” Vargard comments, looking to the bodies of fallen hobgoblins, “Though we might as well check it out.”
“Shouldn’t have to worry about traps,” Jorduna mentions, stepping through the doorway.
The next room was small, with no paths leading from it. The footprint trail they had been following had been lost in the melee, but it was clear that this path was a feint. Two empty alcoves, large enough for a statue, were built into the wall on either side of the entrance. Weapon racks lined the walls, though most of the equipment that lined them was in serious disrepair.
“Rusted, all of them,” Vargard says, searching the racks for any valuables.
“I have something magical here,” Lesani reports, near one of the far corners, “Behind this wall.”
“Hidden compartment?” Vargard wonders aloud.
“It appears so,” Lesani agrees, tapping on the indicated stone to produce a hollow sound. Vargard bashes one of the stones with the hilt of his sword, loosening it from the wall. He, with the help of the rest of his team, pry away the other stones until a hidden recess was revealed.
“Several… magical signatures,” Lesani says breathlessly.
“Any seem like traps?” Vargard asks.
“Lemme through,” Jorduna says, brushing the warlock aside. She carefully steps partway into the threshold, crouching to inspect the floor. “No pressure plates… tripwires… like I said, there shouldn’t be any more traps. It wouldn’t be… honorable,” she finishes, pausing before the last word.
“So long as we don’t get blown up taking these,” Vargard says, stepping in after Jorduna.
The two drag out the spoils of the armory, placing them in the center of the main chamber. There were six objects which seemed worthy of plunder, which Lesani examined closely. “I think we may have just made our fee up three-fold, Var,” she comments, “Were there any stipulations regarding recovered artifacts?”
“They didn’t mention this place, Les, so I think it’s fair if we don’t mention this,” Vargard reasons, “What have we got?”
“This seems to be a ceremonial amulet,” she says, holding up a necklace with a symbol Marwyn didn’t recognize, “Warded against decay. Might be valuable to a collector.”
“Recognize it, Jor?” Vargard asks the rogue.
“No, I don’t,” she answers, shaking her head, “Doesn’t look like the symbol of Ashurta at least.”
“You will appreciate this one, Var,” Lesani says, holding up a shield.
“Thought I might, what’s it do?” the warrior replies, intrigued.
“It carries an enchantment which bolsters defense. Simple, but effective,” she hands him the shield, “As for these knives…”
“Mine,” Jorduna says, claiming them.
“But I did not even tell you what they…”
“Don’t care,” the hobgoblin responds abruptly, taking a set of two knives from the pile.
Lesani holds back a rebuke, and forges on when she sees Vargard ignore Jorduna’s brashness as well. “This tome seems to contain some interesting treatises on Dakhaani-era goblin magic. If no one objects, I will claim it,” she says, pausing for an appropriate moment before placing the aged book in her pack.
“What about the rapier?” Marwyn asks, being left out so far from the loot.
“I am… not sure,” Lesani says hesitantly, “There is a symbol here, close to the hilt, but I don’t recognize either it or the enchantment the blade carries. It does bolster combat effectiveness, but there seems to be another function.”
“Let me see,” Marwyn says, grabbing the blade. He inspects it himself, and then says, “Les, you don’t know what this is?”
“As I said,” Lesani repeats.
“It’s from musical notation,” Marwyn explains, “A little different than what I’ve seen, but yeah, I recognize it.”
“Fitting then,” Lesani replies, contented, “Though I would be wary of using it until we fully understand its powers.”
“Not like I like getting up close and personal anyways,” Marwyn says, more to himself.
“Let’s get a move on, then,” Vargard says, seeing no more treasure to allocate.
While they were walking back to the previous junction, Lesani slows down to walk beside Marwyn. “What was that spell you cast with your lute during the battle?”
“I healed Var,” Marwyn responds.
“No,” Lesani shakes her head, “After that. It appeared to improve your aim.”
“It wasn’t a spell,” Marwyn corrects, “I… I don’t know what it was. I was just so frustrated that I couldn’t hit anything that I… I don’t know.”
“It appears your abilities are improving rapidly as of late,” Lesani notes, “It may be that your learning of invisibility has pushed the boundaries of your arcane talent. If you can repeat that feat, it would certainly be effect in combat.”
“I’ll have to try… whatever that was again,” Marwyn agrees, “Though honestly, I’d like to try learning feather fall first. Just thinking of the climb back up…”
“Indeed,” Lesani says, breaking away from the conversation.
“So, where to now?” Vargard muses, having returned to the junction. He notes with slight relief that the Way Ward he had placed earlier still marked the way out. Two trails of dusty footprints marked hallways they had yet to explore.
“I’ve got a coin,” Jorduna says, pulling out a silver piece.
“We might as well,” Lesani complains, “Those two paths are virtually indistinguishable. Unless you have any more insights, Jor.”
“Fresh out,” she replies, “Just because I’m a hobgoblin doesn’t mean I automatically know everything about some dusty as Khyber ruins that have been down here for centuries.”
“It just doesn’t feel right,” Vargard says, oblivious to the chatter behind him. “Les, could you make several branching paths of footprints without any obvious magical trace?”
“No,” the warlock replies, “But I don’t doubt such a way exists. It would be a lot of trouble to go to though, especially for a Cogs foreman.”
“Why even bother anyways,” Vargard continues, “Someone had to dig that tunnel, it’s not as if this place is a secret. To hell with it, I say we go back the other way.”
“Back to the camp?” Lesani asks, surprised.
“No, the way those skeletons came from. It seems a little too convenient that we found a trail leading the other direction.”
“Can’t be any more dangerous than over here,” Jorduna pipes in, twirling one of her new knives in one hand, “Though I can’t argue with the profits.”
“Come on, let’s go,” Vargard orders, leading the group back the way they had come.
The Way Ward Vargard had placed at the bottom of the shaft illuminated the tunnel faintly as they reached it, broadcasting that it was still active. The four were focused on the third pathway, however, where the scuffled ground suggested a large group had moved by recently.
“Sure about this Var?” Marwyn asks, not liking the ominous darkness ahead.
“Feels like we’re being led the other direction,” the warrior answers, “When you get that feeling, it’s usually best to go in the worst-looking direction possible.”
“That can’t be good advice,” Marwyn argues.
“Not always,” Vargard admits, “But I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
“I am not sure your confidence is well placed,” Lesani says, “We have met fierce opponents, if we were to encounter more than two…”
“Then we can always run for it,” Vargard argues, “But we’ll definitely get ambushed if we just stand here talking.”
Their approach down the hallway was muffled by an increasing thick layer of dust.
“Ash,” Lesani comments softly, bending down to examine the particles when they began sticking to the top of her shoes. The deposits had become thicker in some places, especially towards the center.
“Sense anything that could torch us?” Vargard asks.
“No,” Lesani and Jorduna respond, at the same time.
“Then where the hell did this ash come from?”
“I do not know,” Lesani replies, “But this ash is not magical in any way. I cannot tell what burned, but it must have been large.”
“It must have been several, at least a dozen, to create this much.”
“Well,” Vargard sighs, “Keep a lookout. I really hope Jacobs wasn’t caught in whatever this was.” He resumes walking, and the rest follow.
The hall began to narrow at this point, such that the team was forced to single file. When Jorduna saw a light ahead, she signaled to Vargard, who sheathed his sunrod in opaque cloth. In darkness the four approached what the light suggested was a large room, though it was too far to make out any details.
Eventually, though, they heard the chanting. It was one voice, a nasal tint to it. Marwyn couldn’t recognize the words, but after a short time he recognized the sounds as those the undead had uttered, almost an hour before.
Vargard had as well, and he whispers to Jor, “Can you tell what it is, Jor?”
“Some kind of spell?” she guesses, “I don’t know, ask Les.”
“Necromancy of some kind,” the elf answers, “But not intense magic. The power is but a candle compared to fire of a normal spell. I think we have found the source of those skeletons from earlier.”
“I can only hear the one,” Vargard says, “Think there could be other casters?”
“If they are, they are not participating,” Lesani answers.
“Well yeah, I can tell that,” Jorduna quips, “How much do you wanna bet its Jacobs?”
“Now’s not really the time for…” Lesani begins.
“It has been a while,” Vargard thinks, “What, you’re saying the caster is Jacobs?”
“Yeah,” Jorduna nods, “Probably using his disappearance to lure people down here. 5 gold it’s him.”
“Cogs foreman a necromancer? I’ll gladly pay just to see that,” Vargard says, shaking her hand.
“If you are quite done, I believe we should stop the caster before their spell completes, which will be soon,” Lesani cautions.
“Right, Les. Weapons ready, let’s go.”
The light the group saw was cast from torches, which ringed the ritual chamber. In the center was a stone table, ringed by four large purple crystals by each corner. They were floating within vestibules, magic obviously radiating from them. In front of them, facing away, was a figure in dark robes. There were several fresh bodies lined against the walls, and one on the table in the center. Dark energy was pouring from the crystals and into the corpse.
Jorduna quickly sneaks up behind the mage, but she isn’t quick enough to stop the mage, who speaks the last word triumphantly before nearly choking on one of the rogue’s knives.
“Not another word,” she shouts, blade at the wizard’s throat.
“M..minion, destroy the… ack!” he sputters, as Jorduna cuts off his air with the crook of her arm.
The zombie in the center of the room rises, clumsily grabbing at a blade which was placed near it. Something was wrong, however. The flesh was glowing, burning, as energy overwhelmed the frame.
“It is decaying,” Lesani notes, “Too much power sloppily wielded.” They watch as it ignites with dark flame, flesh falling off and turning to ash. The skeleton drops the sword, unable to bear the weight, and instead charges at the being holding its master. Marwyn’s arrow drops it easily, and the Falchion gain full control of the situation.
“Alright Jor, let’s see his face,” Vargard says, sword still out.
“Damn!” she curses, as she pulls down the mage’s hood to reveal the face, “It’s not him.”
“Who the hell are you?” Vargard asks the man, who was struggling to regain his breath. It was a human, middle aged, though there was a certain look in his eyes. If he had to, Marwyn would call it deranged.
“You! You cobble-wretched backsnickseys!” the man cries out nonsensically, “You interrupt the great work of Magus Rufalio?”
“Ok, he’s crazy,” Jorduna comments, from behind the man, as she finishes tying his binds.
“Crazy!?” the so-called Magus Rufalio shouts, “Crazy!? They called me crazy, but I showed them! Said I’d never master the art of undeath, but I did! Here! And now you traitorous wimplecratches will feel the wrath of the mppph!” he shouts, as Jorduna gags him.
“Hardly a master of undeath,” Lesani comments, running a hand over one of the crystals. They were about a meter in length, the width of a fist near the center, “I believe this may be where the goblins of old created their eternal warriors,” she speculates, “The crystals seem to improve necromantic magics. Certainly a valuable find, both historically and arcanically. This… fool,” she says with distaste, noting the raving sorcerer, “Tried to make up for raw power what he lacked in skill. I believe we saw the results of this.”
“Bit too big to lug out of here,” Jorduna comments.
“I would not dare remove these,” Lesani warns, “There may be defensive wards in place, not to mention the possibility of destroying the enchantments if we misalign the crystals.”
“Not what we’re here for anyways,” Vargard says, smiling as Jorduna places a few coin on his open palm. “We should search the bodies, see if we can find Jacobs.”
The four do so, the mage properly restrained and gagged. Most appeared to be simple workers of mixed races, probably the team that broke into the ruins. One, the freshest corpse, bore an identification marking him as Foreman Jacobs Inix, as well as a charter from Morgrave University and the city of Sharn which permitted excavations of ancient Dhakaani ruins.
“Dead,” Vargard, who had found him, says. “Oh well, it’s not like we should have expected anything else.”
“Is that a writ from Morgrave University?” Lesani asks, recognizing the emblem on the charter Vargard had taken from the body.
“Yeah,” Vargard nods, “Seems they’re behind the expeditions here.”
“Small world,” Lesani comments, “So, I do think we are finished. As regrettable as it is, we have found the remains of Jacobs, and his slayer. That should fulfill the contract.”
“Indeed,” Vargard agrees.
“What about… them?” Marwyn asks hesitantly, looking at the workers.
“Not our problem,” Vargard answers, forcing the dark mage to his feet, “I’m sure their friends will give them proper burial once it is safe to return here.”
“Ok,” Marwyn says, satisfied. His face falls, however, when he realizes how they would have to return to the camp.
Worker’s Camp, One Hour Later
“Back so soon?” their employer asks, seeing the mercenaries return. Most of the workers were in their tents, the work day being over, “But, that is not Jacobs.”
“One who killed him,” Vargard says, tossing Jacobs’ badge over to the acting-foreman, and then handing him the more fragile charter. “Some kind of… I don’t know, he’s insane. And your problem.”
“I’d be more comfortable if you take ‘em to the guard,” the man argues, not liking the look in the mage’s eyes “Maybe if I just pay you the full bounty now?”
“Fine,” Vargard agrees.
“It is… safe down there now, right?”
“Not what you paid us for,” Vargard reminds.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” he admits, handing over the Split Falchion’s pay, “What about the Way Wards?”
“What about them?”
“Not like we needed to,” Vargard says, “But we used several.”
“Good, that’ll save some time.”
“What do you mean?” Vargard asks suspiciously.
“Nothing you gotta worry about,” he answers evasively, “Now I’d get that bastard to the guard before ‘e goes killing anyone else.”
Vargard wanted to press the issue, but having already been paid, decided to pass. He wasn’t exactly sure of the time, but if the Cogs workers were laying down to rest, it must be getting late.
“Let’s go,” he says eventually, nudging the necromancer forward.
Later that Night, The Crimson Eagle
The group eventually reached the Eagle after turning in the madman to the guard. The guardsmen had been skeptical at first, but it only took the removal of the man’s gag to convince them of his insanity.
Night had already fallen when they had returned to the middle city, but fortunately Grunhilda had enough left over for them to have a late dinner. The ate amongst the hard-drinking crowd, those with either the coin or motivation to remain at a barstool long into the dark hours.
“That was certainly an interesting welcome to Sharn,” Lesani says, a time after she and her companions had finished most of their meal, “I am somewhat saddened that we had not explored those ruins further.”
“Careful what you wish for, Les,” Vargard warns, “Could have found something really nasty if we’d gone too far.”
“Speaking of which,” Jorduna says, “What was with those footprints back near the armory?”
“That man probably had his skeletons look for more bodies,” Lesani speculates, “If I had to guess, we would have found the skeleton which made those trails eventually, had we gone down the other paths.”
“He was… odd,” Marwyn comments, “Just, crazy.”
“Magic can do that,” Vargard says, “Though I’d bet he was always a little unhinged. Speaking of which, Les tells me you’ve discovered a new talent today.”
“Maybe,” Marwyn answers equivocally, “I don’t know what it was though.”
“Pulled off a hell of a shot with it, though,” Vargard recollects, “Though you had just gotten lucky when it happened.”
“You know, I actually wouldn’t mind having to listen to that caterwauling if it’s that useful,” Jorduna adds, in her own way of showing support.
“I guess I’ll see if I can pull it off again,” Marwyn says, reaching for his lute.
“Not sure if it’ll help now,” Vargard points out, looking around to the general crowd to see if any might be offended by the sudden music. It wasn’t a major concern, in fact Grunhilda had tried to bargain for the bard’s services in exchange for lower rent. He had declined for Marwyn, feeling it would be a little abusive to expect that of him. In the back of his mind, he’d also remembered Marwyn’s reputation with the barmen of Lathleer.
“Can’t hurt,” Marwyn responds, tuning a flat string, “And I’ll know if it’s working. It’s… well, I can’t explain it,” the bard falters, unable to describe the feeling. He strums a chord awkwardly, which draws the attention of those still sober enough to hear it. Fingering another few random notes, he decides on a battle ballad, hoping the subject would inspire whatever had happened before.
But by the third stanza, it was clear he wasn’t pulling it off. He finishes, and sets down his lute, to the displeasure of some of the inngoers. “Nothing.”
“Might need to rush of battle to bring it out,” Vargard suggests, “Or maybe we’re all just tired from a hard day’s work. I’m going up.”
“Might as well,” Jorduna says, gathering her dining ware.
“I am sure you will get it eventually,” Lesani encourages, as she too stands to leave. Marwyn decides to call it a night as well. The fighting hadn’t really tired him out too much, but the fear of having to descend, and then climb up the excavation shaft had put him on edge. Glad I don’t have to go back there, he thinks to himself. He gathers his thinks, and leaves the table as well.
One at the bar, who had been all but comatose during the bard’s performance, rouses after Marwyn had gone to bed. He thinks to himself for a moment, then turns to his companion suddenly. “Greg… hey Greg. Greg!” he yells, rousing the man aside him.
“Wha’?” the other man says drunkenly, having passed out minutes before.
“Let’s hit the tables,” the first says, voice slurring.
“No, I’m hic, I’m jusht feelin’ really lucky right now,” the man says, standing. He didn’t know why, but there was a stirring in his chest. A feeling that tonight, of all nights, was his chance to shine. He wasn’t sure where it came from, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to waste it.
Continued in Part 27, Kybersef, the Fated Day – Echoes of the Past