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


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