16 Mirtul, The Year of the Trusted Covenant (1479 DR)
Committed to a battle to the death with the drakes – once pets of the Mintarn garrison but now transformed into savage plaguechanged creatures – each hero moves forward into the melee: Rok Alim, Bohdan, Paelias and Mani’s bear spirit trade blows with claw and gobbed acid spit, while Malus weaves a web of eldritch fire and Talak alternates between rousing his comrades and loosing stinging shots from his bow.
Indeed, the heat of the fight, the pulsing blue light licking around the edges of his vision and the morale-sapping nightmares of the night before appears to have forged a hardness within the bard’s soul, as his attitude towards his longbow takes a more deadly turn. No longer is it an instrument of beguiling grace in Talak’s hands, but one of cold martial power – on a good day.
* * *
It does not seem a good day to Danforth. Already suffering the creeping sores of filth fever which suppurate over his nether regions, he also has to endure the intrusion of visions unbidden into his dreamworld.
He is in a steaming kitchen, stripped to the waist, stinking of cabbage and sweating with the labour of peeling spud upon spud – after which task he meekly walks the corridors and stairwells of the vast mansion, cleaning every toilet – and there are many toilets – with his bare hands. There is no rest, and he eats only slops from the bins after the lords, ladies, children, servants and dogs have had their fill. No one greets him or encourages him or congratulates him on his work. Most particularly he is ignored by the master of the house – Ranwick – Danforth’s brother.
Left to sleep in at the Moonstone Mask by his comrades, Danforth awakes, determined to escape the weight of his family issues. Pursuing the heroes is not the hardest trail he has ever had to follow, needing only to walk from one incredulous conversation between townspeople to another as they gasp as one – “Those mad bugger mates of yours have gone to the chasm.”
Danforth soon counts himself one of the mad, as he finds his way to a dark tunnel entrance guarded by the same saw-toothed harpy that had earlier raked the party. But there were six of them, while Danforth stands alone, and not feeling too chipper.
* * *
The drakes continue to fight in a coordinated defence of the cavern and the pool. The tactics they use raise Mani’s suspicions, the shaman’s knowledge of the animal kingdom revealing these creatures are fighting far too intelligently – even trained drakes could not behave in such a disciplined fashion. This fear is more than justified when the largest of them advances forward into the fray, its leathery skin striated with glowing blue veins as he snarls, “More,”clearly in the human tongue of Faerun.
A talking drake, a bit of a surprise, and one which shows little concern for the vicious warning shots from Talak’s bow that fly over its head or the fire flashes from the warlock’s hands that writhe around it as it lunges forward, jaws and claws working together in its search for exposed flesh and fresh blood.
* * *
Unlike the fevered Danforth, Kierke has a different sort of affliction to explain his sleep-in.
From admiring his biceps to admiring various other parts of his anatomy, Liset Cheldar reveals a predilection for strong-armed barbarians. It is not long before Kierke decides to sacrifice a night of recuperation in favour of justifying the name of his clan – Thunderbeast – and its hard-won reputation for breeding gentle and sensitive lovers . . . hard won amongst the orcs, at least.
Yet even the considerable charms and prowess of the half-elf cannot save Kierke from the fate of the night as he too, eventually, falls into the same troubled dreamworld as his companions.
He stands united with his clan at Morgur’s Mound, the sacred site of his ancestors and the tribe’s spiritual home. All is well until suddenly the ancient hill begins to bleed. Gallons of heartblood gush from the earth while the elders of his tribe scream madness at this vile desecration. After what seems an agony of time the mound, drained of power, collapses in on itself in a mess of muck and blood while Kierke’s brothers and sisters are savaged by a pack of ravenous wolves that spring from the darkness. The vicious creatures fall upon the defenceless, who seem so resigned to their fate they put up no fight, their spirit spent, leaving Kierke cold and alone in a black-charred and cold-dead wood.
Exhausted, Kierke awakes. His soul heavy with dream-grief he refuses a further dalliance with Cheldar and follows the same path as Danforth, spying him from atop a rubble rise as the ranger nimbly sneaks past the harpy and into the sinkhole unnoticed. At first, Kierke tries to emulate his fleet-footed companion, but eventually settles for a more Uthgardti approach as he charges as fast as he can to the hole before the harpy has a chance to realise that lunch has passed it by, again.
* * *
Strange deep booms echo in the chamber, sometimes faint, sometimes loud, with no discernible rhythm. The sound is coming from behind the pool still defended by the drakes, several of which now lie dead, valuable residuum leaking from their blistering wounds. Mani spots another tunnel behind the elevated area guarded by the beasts, leading away from the cave in the direction of the chasm. Above the din of the fight when the occasional pause occurs a faint scratching can still be heard from above the ceiling of the cavern. Combined with the swirling light from the sunrod grasped by Rok Alim the scene resembles the Dance of the Endless Drum, without the smiling.
Although depleted, the drakes remain a threat, gaining power from where other drakes had fallen. The pool is also a danger, as it spears the occasional spout of foul fluid at the party, powerful enough to dump Bodahn on his tail.
Danforth soon wishes he stayed in bed when he arrives with blades in hand, only to take a searing blow from the leading drake that puts him down. But the ranger continues to prove he is at his best when at his most vulnerable as some rousing words from Talak and Mani raise him from the floor and launch him into a deadly strike against the most dangerous of the lizards, slicing it in half before it has a chance to let forth again with its obscene and disturbing voice.
Somewhat spent, Kierke finally arrives as the encounter comes to a close, leaving only the strange scratching to decipher, the tunnel to be explored and the dripping residuum to harvest.
The odd sounds soon reveal themselves, as a portion of the cavern roof collapses in a cloud of dust while a legion of giant ants crawl out of the hole they have made, flanked by bloodsucking stirges that hover over the heroes, looking for a mark.
Abandoning the effort to recover the residuum, the party make a line for the newly discovered tunnel, drawn on by the strange echoing sounds and preferring not to engage another set of weird blue-warped creatures. Only Rok Alim seems reluctant to leave. His whole essence is drawn to the pool of spellplague in the corner. He stares into the shallow puddle as if it had some fathomless depth that might hold an answer to his questing spirit. But giant ants is giant ants whatever way you slice them, and he too follows the party down the tunnel.
The lava tube twists and turns for a few hundred yards, sloping down and heading towards the echoes that reverberate around the companions. An end is reached. The tunnel is blocked by lumps of stone placed with some deliberation to seal the way from the chasm to the outside world. The top stones can be moved, however, and with a bit of grunt work the party are soon through to descend upon a wide ledge that looks out over the chasm, now bathed in the daylight of the Neverwinter afternoon.
Before approaching the edge of the plateau to look down into the chasm’s maw, first the party discover the reason a few of the blocks were loose. A human figure lies face down, dead, probably for months, preserved by the dessicative heat of the chasm. His skull caved in by some clubbing blow, it seems the victim had been trying to get through to the tunnel before he met his end. It’s not long before Danforth has the boots off him – a nice pair of climbing shoes that obviously were not quite fast enough for their previous owner.
But for Talak there is a discovery more profound than mere loot. As the body is turned over for further rifling, the tattered shirt falls open to reveal a tattoo on his chest, applied with some artistry. Three triangles, apex to apex, contained within a fourth such shape. While the sign is a mystery to most of the heroes, Talak can do little to hide his shock at the sign of the one who has cursed him and his race, the one who many ignorant farmhands would believe the bard in league with, the one whose blood makes up a part of all tieflings since the fall of their kind in the desperate conjoining with devils in ages past. Asmodeus, Lord of the Nine Hells, whose thirst for power is so strong that even becoming a god does not quench it, and which leave his numerous followers, the Ashmadai, a powerful and evil force in the mortal world.
For the rest of the party the shock is delayed until their journey to the lip of the plateau. Overhead, squadrons of Harpies weave and whirl in the thermal updraughts from the chasm, while below the source of the booming crashes is identified. Earthmotes, all travelling at different speeds, banging around the chasm sides like speared boars in the sticking ring. Also below, to the northeast, the party can just about detect a glow of blue light coming from what must be the base of the chasm, hundreds of feet down. Finally, bursts of crackling energy occasionally pulse up from those same depths, forming into balls of blue fire before exploding against the chasm walls.
Looking across the chasm to the opposite wall, the party see such a globe, and more besides. Within the crackling orb is a humanoid figure. Rising up, up and up, until the bubble explodes against the chasm side, leaving the figure clinging to the cliff. It is still at first, but then begins to climb to a plateau similar to the one upon which the party crouch, some 300 yards distant. The figure stops, stands tall and still, and waits.