The quartet of adventurers stumbled through the dark alleys of wintery Mullhaven, the snow banks lighting their way. There was a curfew in effect, but so far they hadn’t run into any patrols, as those seemed to focus on the broad streets where they would not risk being ambushed by some kind of insurgency.
Terrence was panting loudly, his eyes zipping from shadow to shadow. The enemy would catch up to them any moment now, he knew it. They’d left a trail in the snow. It could be followed. His cheeks burned slightly from the cold air, and small clouds erupted from his mouth in a steady rhythm.
“We didn’t even stand a chance”, he muttered as Lenona led them through a broken door into a partially collapsed house. She snuck forward to make sure there weren’t any other squatters, while the others dug through the rubble, scrounging the area for anything they could wrap their bodies in to stay warm. The paladin had to stop to blow into his icy fingers, only to wince when sensation briefly returned to them, consisting only of pain. He looked at the others and repeated: “We had no chance. The orc wasn’t even here, but without her they walked all over us.”
“Thanks, I could tell”, Pike responded slowly. His voice did tremble, but it might be from the cold. None of them had been able to take their outdoor clothes with them as they’d fled. “We’re relatively safe right now. We need to make sure we’re not going to freeze to death tonight, and then we’ll decide what our next move is.” He was taking extreme caution to hold the stump of his severed hands inside his shirt. It seemed that despite the wound having been healed by Ulias, it was very sensitive.
The lawyer used his boot to brush some snow aside, and discovered an old, tattered blanket. He’d have to beat it against a wall, but it could work as a makeshift cloak. Lenona returned to the main room with the others, giving them a thumbs up before setting to block the doors with broken furniture.
“Guys, in case something happens… this is important”, the gnome spoke, his voice sounding timid. It was a rare sound on him. “Right before the attack happened, Arnam thought of something… something big. He thought of Areth, the son of Bahamut who once allied with Ahriman against the world. Him and his allies, they… how did it go?” He hesitated, his stumpy hand twitching. “They’ve been together for seven years, ever since they met Areth.”
“He’s their leader?” Ter asked, feeling numb on the inside as well as the outside, now. Was this another threat to the whole world, like the one that Mennas had stopped twenty years ago?
Pike made an uncertain sound, and pulled up some curtains from under a collapsed bookcase. “I don’t know. Obviously this is all Arnam’s own perspective and his internal monologue, but he thought of Areth by name. He thinks of most of them by nicknames. Chess pieces, actually.” He gave a dry chuckle. “King, Queen, Bishop, Pawn, Knight… The elf is Bishop, the orc is Pawn, and Arnam is Knight. I don’t know which one the Akeshafian is. I assume there’s a Rook too, but he didn’t give me a strong answer on that. But he thought of Areth by his real name. I don’t know what that means.” He shrugged and threw up his arms, probably as lost as Ter felt, only to bring them back down to shield them from the cold.
The paladin opened his mouth to say something, only to be cut off by a clear, ringing voice going off inside his head. It wasn’t his first time receiving a Sending, but due to the circumstances, he gave a somewhat unmanly yelp, mist emerging from his mouth, and started strongly enough to drop the blanket in his hands.
To Terrence Kingsgrace, from Emperor Garrel: Your friends are unharmed. I bear no ill will. Report to the West Wall Barracks. I want to talk.
Almost as if an afterthought, a second Sending arrived, after a brief pause.
We both wish to know the truth.
“Who was it?” Pike asked, breaking the silence. Ter realised everyone was staring at him.
“Uhm… Prince Garrel himself”, he said slowly. “Or one of his magi, rather. He wants us to come visit. There was a… not-quite-a-veiled-threat against TumTum and Robin.” He thought of the kobold. He’d gone through so much trouble to break her out of one form of imprisonment, but now she was in another.
“We have to go get them”, Lenona said immediately. She would walk into any danger to get her fiancé out, of course. Ter could hardly blame her, considering what he’d just been thinking.
Pike seemed to agree, but an unexpected voice protested: “Are you sure about that?” It was Ulias. The dwarf hadn’t spoken up once since their flight from the bakery. He seemed nervous about going against the grain, but didn’t cower as they all turned toward him. “I know they’re important to you, and I know you want them back, but… this Areth was an ally of Ahriman. It’s possible that the whole world is under threat. Can we risk throwing it all away? If we get imprisoned, or killed…” He drifted off, shaking his head.
Ter felt a budding anger at the other’s seeming willingness to abandon their allies, even though he knew Ulias had a point. Before he could say something, though, Pike piped up. “You’re right, it’s not the optimal choice, but it’s the one we have to take.” He leaned up against a wall and began to explain: “If we had a Sending to access, we would share the newest revelations with someone, but we don’t. No magic shop is available at this hour anymore. The city has teleportation tracking, so if we leave here tonight with one of your Plane Shifts, Garrel will send people after us, and we’ll have incriminated ourselves.” He had clearly thought this through, while Ter had been focused on the immediate dangers around them.
The gnome continued: “Secondarily, I don’t think we can do this without our allies. TumTum’s contacts and savvy, and Robin’s magic and transformation have been invaluable. We’d be toast many times over without them. If we leave them behind, Arnam and the Chess Crew are going to come after them in their imprisonment and use them against us, if they don’t just outright kill them.” He stepped forward, his back clearly having gotten cold from resting against the icy wooden structure, but he passed it off as him approaching Ulias while his speech built up. “But most importantly, I don’t think leaving our friends in danger due to the possibility that something might go wrong is what heroes do."
"And what’s the point of saving the world, if we don’t act like we deserve it? Uh, the world, that is.” Ter added helpfully from the side.
That left Ulias quiet for a little bit, before he nodded in agreement. “Fair enough. Let’s go.”
As they started gathering their things, Ter studied Pike. Did this gnome do it on purpose, he wondered, or did it just come natural to him, to lead people? Something occurred to the paladin, and he cleared his throat: “Before we go… do you still have Arnam’s possessions with you?” He nodded at the gnome’s bag of holding.
“Oh… I guess I do.” Pike seemed to have forgotten.
“I say we look through that, first. Maybe we’ll find something to convince Garrel with. Or hell, might be there’s some valuable we can use as a bribe to woo the bastard.” He chuckled as the gnome handed him the bag, and they started going through what their one-eyed prisoner had had on him, trying to be thorough despite the cold.
Ulias felt much like an outsider. All he knew about this city, this land, the people on it, and the foreign conqueror who ruled them, was from the bits and pieces he’d gathered from his companions and others. Though his Common get getting better by the day from interacting with these people, sometimes he would miss a part of a phrase.
He had come here to retrieve holy idols from Gnomeland, and yet now he was thousands of miles away (as far as he could tell), apparently helping to save the world. His beloved Turnia was part of the world, for sure, but he wondered when things had gone so wrong.
At least in the barracks, it was warm.
The Raven Prince looked older than his twenty-three years let on. Every year spent under the tutelage of a madman counted for two, perhaps. His face had a haggard quality to it, and the way he carried himself told very much the same story. Every movement he made appeared considered and precise, carefully staying away from doors and windows, reflecting a constant concern about his personal safety. His tone was very formal and polite on the surface, but something about the way Garrel spoke made Ulias feel like there were insults being filtered out of his speech.
“Your friends remain safe, and I have chosen not to harm them for their infiltration. Lucky for them that my lady wife’s hapless cousin is untouched.” He mused, pacing around a little as he looked over at Ulias, Ter, Pike and Lenona, who stood under close guard. They appeared restless without their weapons. Robin and TumTum were nowhere to be seen (though through Lenona and Robin’s connection, the two parties knew each other were alive, at least). “I’m inclined to believe the story they gave me. It doesn't hurt that one of them is an Altosian Atarite - Robin, is it? In any case. They passed all our lie-detection spells, and though convoluted, their story is not impossible…”
“Your Grace, if I may”, Pike interjected, in his most formal tone. They couldn’t fit shackles on him due to his missing hand, so he’d agreed to hold his arms behind his back, under the threat of being hit swiftly if he moved them to the front. The resulting pose made him look like someone reciting poems: arms behind, waving back and forth on his feet. “We meant no insult to yourself or your consort’s family. If it had been true that you were tied to assassination of King Mennas, it would have been too dangerous to approach you in the open. And as it seems we are being actively hunted by unknown parties who somehow knew we are in the city, I am certainly glad we didn’t come forth, banners flying.”
Garrel stopped his pacing for a moment, looking over the maps and chess figures spread over his desk. As he did so, he asked: “And what convinced you I’m not associated with these men?”
“We’re still alive, for a start”, Pike answered plainly. “These people were clearly out to kill us with no force spared. There’s no point in keeping any of us alive if you’re working with them or they’re working for you. There are a thousand excuses to get rid of us without revealing your complicity to the world, too. And also, when our pursuer was tracking us down in this city, he seemed to be avoiding drawing the attention of yourself or any of your troops.”
This made Garrel crack a smile at last, hollow as it might seem. “That's a good start. I take it you have dismissed the accusations levelled against me as utterly ridiculous, then. If I truly had the Pillar of Light, I would be in Orsad by now.”
“The Pillar of Light…” Pike hesitated, obviously unsure how much the prince knew. “The reports of Mennastur do match the effects of that item…”
“We’ll return to this in a second”, Garrel spoke in the tone of a man postponing a burden. He nodded at one of his soldiers, and they moved into a side room. They soon returned with TumTum and Robin, bound up but unharmed. Ulias was surprised by the rush of warmth he felt at seeing them safe with his own eyes. Robin and Lenona could hardly keep their hands off each other, embracing one another despite the audience, a voiceless exchange going on between them, no doubt. After all six were reunited, they stood shoulder to shoulder, letting the would-be emperor inspect them all together.
“A motley group, if I’ve ever seen one”, he said in a droll tone, before it turned to one of anger and frustration: “As for the Pillar of Light, I have been told that this Silver Protocol thinks I have it, and that I am working with Outsiders. As I said, patently untrue.”
"They overthrew Richard Cipher, accusing him of the same." TumTum cut in for the first time, her voice surprisingly bitter about it.
"That does not surprise me." Garrel stated, though his raised eyebrow as he regarded the kobold betrayed that it was not entirely true. "Because this accusation against me came from none other than TomTom, who they hold captive. They think I colluded with him, and claim he was somehow involved in founding the Altosian faith! Ridiculous! So as you can see, I would very much like to help you get to the bottom of this, so that I can get back to my war with the Empire. I refuse to end up like Chairman Richard over this nonsense. Gnomeland and Mennas mean nothing to me."
Ulias hesitated then, unsure if they should throw all their cards on the table and trust the Raven Prince. If he really wanted to find out the truth, then perhaps he could help them. Now, their only clue was the paper they had found in Arnam's possessions. As if guessing his thoughts, Pike glanced at him, his eyes hardening. Ulias nodded.
"The ones chasing us, they attacked us today. We barely got out alive." Pike said, raising the stump of his arm. "We managed to take one prisoner. Briefly. We got his name - Arnam - a mercenary hired by Ahriman, once. Somebody Mennas had made an enemy of. There was another name, though."
Pike stopped short of saying it, but there was no going back now. So Ulias stepped in and finished the statement for him. Turnia had been allied to King Mennas, had fought his battles against the Clockworks, and many Turnian lives had been lost in the Final Battle. In the end, many had fallen to this very creature.
"Areth." Ulias spat the name, speaking it as a curse. "Half-dragon son of Bahamut."
"I see." Garrel narrowed his eyes, his pacing coming to an end. The mood in the room finally shifted, growing as cold as the streets of Mullhaven. "That would begin to explain things. A mercenary with a grudge. And one of Ahriman's lieutenants, amidst all this talk of the Pillar of Light. And yet, it is I who stands accused by the Silver Protocol! By TomTom!"
"TomTom turned himself in, to clear Richard's name." TumTum said, a distant look in her eyes. "I told him to do it, to clear Richard's name. The Silver Protocol helped overthrow Richard, because of his connection to TomTom. It could be, Your Grace, that you factored into TomTom's plans without ever even knowing about it. But truth be told, given everything I've heard, I don't think the Pillar of Light killed Mennas at all."
Garrel's lips pursed up. "Go on."
"As I told you when you interrogated me. I smuggled gunpowder into Gnomeland. When we went to investigate the rest of the gunpowder in Tannhäuser, that's when we ran into these mercenaries again. What if nobody has the Pillar of Light, and this is all a ruse? Outsiders cause chaos, don't they? Well, things seem pretty chaotic right about now."
"That would be most unexpected. It would, however, give us something to work with." Garrel took a seat, and began to gently massage his temple, as if the accusations against him were finally beginning to sink in. "Is there anything else? Anything at all?"
Ulias remembered the knickknacks they had pilfered from Arnam, and figured there was nothing worth holding back now. He gently took the leather backpack they had looted, and lifted it for Garrel to see. "We found a list of names amongst Arnam's possessions. They're alliterative, but we don't recognise any of them. Lenona thinks they're Tallish. I will read them out."
As Garrel did not object, Ulias cleared his throat and began to read. It was Robin who interjected excitedly once Ulias was finished.
"Those are Tallish names and surnames, yes! What's more, I think I recognise one of them. Denis Dishenham. A blacksmith, from my time spent stationed near Sesbritch."
So, their next lead was in Talland. It seemed like Ulias would be seeing more of the world than he had anticipated, even had he remained focused on searching for divine relics for his God. Garrel, meanwhile, had just whispered to one of his guards, who had abruptly left the room. With his hands planted firmly on the table, Garrel rose and announced:
"I think I will be letting the lot of you go. As you've realised, I have nothing to hide, and I wish for the truth to come out. I will be conducting my own investigations, and will share what information I find, if you promise to do the same. To start with, I have summoned my very Chancellor to scry these names on your list. Then you may tell me where it is you wish to go. Perhaps to this friend of yours."
Moments later, a red-skinned gnome entered the room, his hair tinged and shining like fire. His fine robes betrayed his high station in Garrel's retinue. After a bow to his Emperor, the gnome gestured to Ulias to hand over the list. Catching reluctant approval from his friends, Ulias passed over the note to the stern looking gnome, who looked it up and down quickly, before smacking it on the table and weaving his arms through the air.
After a few seconds, Terrence Kingsgrace piped up: "It's a good idea, Your Grace, to scry them. But if you don't mind, that will take a few hours, and after the fight we've just been through, we wouldn't mind-"
For the first time, Garrel chuckled. Like everything else about the Raven Prince, it was not friendly. "Galien Guilamier is no hedge wizard. He is a sorcerer who has been watching over me since I was a child. His Greater Scrying spells will only take a few minutes."
Surely enough, one by one, windows opened up in the air above the desk. Three of them showed nothing but static, as the subjects had succeeded at subconsciously resisting the divination, or were in a scry-free zone.
The rest of them showed people in bed for the most part, which made sense considering the time of day. There was one exception which belonged in neither of the groups.
A woman was sitting on a horse, riding down a road at night, lantern held aloft. She carried weapons on her, a shield hanging from her saddle. Around her was a lightly wooded plain, drab with no snow on it yet. The wizard moved his finger to rotate the scrying sensor around the unaware rider. For a while the device on her shield was hidden, the light of her lantern blocked from reaching it. But soon she changed hands, thus revealing it to her audience.
"Well I'll be damned." Lenona's voice trembled. "Three moons around a lock. That’s the emblem of the Brotherhood."
“The blacksmith, Diesenham, was a member as well”, Robin spoke gravely. “They are targeting the guardians of the Drujjail.”
Another teleport, another new land. Or an old land, in Lenona’s case. It had been almost a full year since she’d been in Sesbritch. What she hadn’t expected was to recognise the familiar scent of the city, of all things. Her family being from Underfall, she hadn’t grown up in the capital, but she had been trained there. Even by night, the smell of sea, refuse, spices and forges lingered in a pungent mixture which brought her back to those years.
What Underfall smelled like, she didn’t remember anymore, and she never intended to find out. What she did remember were the looks from the people, the whispers about Uncle Lennard, and about who else in the family may have been in cahoots with him. Her mother had been a nervous wreck by the time they moved to Sesbritch.
Passing familiar sights, taverns and landmarks, Lenona passed under the shadow of Shorttown, a quarter built on one of the city's two great hills. Having an address there had once distinguished the rich from the poor, but the person she was going to visit had chosen to instead live by the port with the rest of the rabble. When she saw the Altosian Atarite temple, which had once been a notorious orphanage, Lenona knew she’d at last arrived at her destination. She knocked on a familiar oaken door across the street from the temple and checked her surroundings. She was unaccustomed to being alone, since she had teamed up with the others. Even Robin was quiet right now, busy as he was with his own task. The others had spread around the city to look into the various people listed on Arnam’s mysterious list; a presumed kill list. Lenona was the only one who had been given another task.
She was looking for backup.
“Do you have any idea what hour it is?” A deep voice complained on the other side of the door. “This had better be pretty damned impor-”
“Brokk, it’s me, Lenona”, she called out urgently, cutting him off. “Let me in, this is more than important.”
She prepared herself for an incoming bear hug, and her old mentor did not disappoint her. Closing the door, he ushered her in before looking her up and down. “It has to be pretty desperate if you’re here for me. What do you need?” He asked, sounding disappointed by her urgency.
When she had started training under him, Brokk had been in the peak of his years. To this day, she rarely saw anyone more physically imposing than him, even among the big sorts of folk. With a shorter lifespan than a human, the aged gladiator had by now turned wrinkly, his skin growing dry spots here and there. Still as hairless as an egg, she imagined that if he did let hair grow on himself, it would be ashy grey by now. Yet, despite all of that, he had lost almost none of his impressive musculature, and his hands had been steady and firm when he’d held her.
Lenona looked around the modest-sized house, trying to determine if Irisi was home. “Get geared up and call any powerful allies you can get right this moment. We have reason to think someone’s making a move on the Drujjail. They’re targeting Brotherhood people as we speak.” She barged past him to help start laying out his gear, so as to speed up the process.
“The Drujjail?” Brokk sounded mildly dubious as she rummaged through his wardrobe, but nonetheless followed her into the small armory at the back of the hallway. “Is it some new cult? Are they trying to see Ahriman’s plan through? Who else have you called for? Did you send word to Voytek?”
“We don’t know who to trust yet. The Silver Protocol... “ Lenona cut herself off. Better not go into all that. “We came with a few allies. The only reason I came to you is because we’re already in Sesbritch. We figured it’s better to just bring you to Voytek than inform him out of the blue. I haven’t seen him since I was eleven, he wouldn’t know me.” She only faintly recalled the half-elf gladiator who had once taught her own master the secrets of arms and combat. Burly for one of his kind, but with an unremarkable face, he had been appointed as leader of the Brotherhood after the Rising Fire rebellion, and had remained busy in that role ever since.
“And who’s we, anyway?” Brokk asked while starting to assemble his armour from the various bits. Lenona rushed over to help him put it on. She’d been a page, once.
“Me and a few buddies. Robin and four others. You know the type: weirdos of all kinds, all with their own quirks.” Despite the urgent situation, it felt comforting to talk with Brokk. “There’s some kind of big plot going on. Mennas’ death was the first big event, and I suspect this is going to be the second.”
Brokk muttered a hasty thank-you for her assistance. In a few minutes they had him in full armour. Acting as his squire, Lenona had helped him into his gear many times before. Adjusting the familiar straps took her straight back to simpler times. Lenona snatched the nightcap off his head as he leaned back against the wall, activating a hidden switch which popped open a compartment containing an elaborately carved wooden spear.
“Angvicide”, Lenona said in a hushed tone. “I thought you’d have returned it by now.” Brokk took the weapon, testing its weight before giving a pleased nod. He said nothing, but started for the front door.
"Never thought I'd have to use it again." Brokk's brow furrowed with concern. "But there's always another monster, isn't there. Human or otherwise."
"And Irisi?" Lenona wondered aloud as they headed for the door - the Shae would be another legendary addition to the team right now.
"Off on another mission. Trying to break some ancient royal Keshanite curse linked to the Shadow Realm. Unlike me, she hasn't really aged a day." Brokk said without even trying to hide the sadness in his voice. No doubt sadness for Irisi, rather than for himself. Lenona lived in fear of the day that Brokk passed from old age, and Irisi no doubt lived with the same dread. Yet Time was one enemy that no ranseur could do anything about.
"The others are waiting by the statue of Redwind." Lenona said as they shut the door behind them. They had taken hooded cloaks, to hide their faces. Sometimes the simplest things made a great deal of difference. The faint sound of drizzling rain was starting around them, making the cloaks all the more useful. She smiled up as Brokk as they set off. "I still have that doll of you, you know. The one you gave me in Underfall when we first met."
“You do?” He sounded delighted. “Did you make it into the Silver Protocol yet?”
She cringed a little. “I’m out of tries for that. I’m better off freelance anyway.” He frowned. This is why she didn’t visit often. “I don’t mean for good. I’m sure I’ll figure something out eventually. And if there’s any luck, Robin can join me at it, whatever it is.”
His frown merely deepened, but he dropped the topic.
Where are you? Robin suddenly called across their telepathic connection. This is getting serious. The names on the list. The ones in Sesbritch are all turning up dead. As soon as Arnam lost the list, it looks like they really did get to work.
We'll be at the statue in ten minutes, Lenona answered, hoping he could not sense her panic. They knew each other well enough by now that Robin would probably notice no matter how much she tried to hide it.
When Brokk and Lenona finally arrived at the main square, they spotted a dwarf, a kobold and a human who were worryingly unmistakable even under their own set of cloaks. They were standing beneath the granite statue of Redwind, whose arm pointed west towards Gnomeland in eternal warning. Many a Lord Protector had been elected thanks to speeches made before Redwind's unblinking gaze. When Lenona had first come to Sesbritch, the statue had been worn and faded, but Brokk had restored it during his one-term stint as Lord Protector. He’d even had Redwind's haircut changed. The Mayor hadn’t much liked Brokk overstepping his jurisdiction.
By now, the rain was getting stronger. The others were huddled underneath Redwind’s stony cloak to stay dry. When they reached the group, Brokk bellowed in a voice that likely woke the people in the nearest buildings. “Robin, good to see you!” The mul reached and ruffled the wererat’s hair, before noticing TumTum beside Ulias. “A kobold! Though a rather large one I must say. Useful in any party, whatever the size."
She gave him a tense smile before looking down an alley and explaining: “We’re still waiting for Pike, Ter and the Atarites.” They’d all been quite surprised when the Raven Prince sent the sorcerer and two of his finest paladins with them. The sorcerer was invaluable since he could teleport them close to the Drujjail from Sesbritch. They had come to Sesbritch because Brokk was here, and a few names on the list happened to be located in the capital.
“Of the names on the list, Helzena Highfont was dead in her bed when we got there. Poor lass was a bard. Looks like they broke her lute to taunt her before they did the deed.” Ulias remarked, shaking his head, eyes grave with concern.
“Oh no”, Lenona felt her stomach plummet. “It really is a hit list, then?”
“Yes”, Robin said, his voice trembling slightly. “Helzena was still alive when Scried just over an hour ago, so the Chess Club are currently in the active duty of taking them out. This priest Armen was likewise missing from the rectory when we checked there.”
“The Drujjail key… what happened to it, Brokk?” TumTum asked urgently. “Where is it?”
Brokk hesitated, looking around at the empty, lantern lit nighttime streets around them. “It… we let the Brotherhood take care of it at first.” He hastened to continue when he saw the panic on their faces: “But later on, when Hechin founded the Silver Protocol, they agreed to take care of it, to distance it from Talland. And considering the resources they have...”
Robin was looking at his feet. Lenona could guess why. Unlike Robin, she was no member of the Protocol. Yet she knew that at this point, the rest of the party didn’t have much faith in the Protocol after it overthrew Richard and kidnapped TomTom. Those who claimed to be the most Holy usually had their own agenda. She couldn’t really blame her companions for feeling that way, and hoped they could discuss it later. Unfortunately, the matter was already relevant again. “It’s better to be safe than sorry”, she said before anyone else could start anything. “Let’s not take the safety of that key for granted. And, for all we know, these people have some other way of bypassing the jail.”
Her fiancé was about to say something defensive, only to be cut off by TumTum, who seemed to be looking the mul up and down. "We've met before, Brokk."
Brokk furrowed his brow characteristically, water dripping down his hood as his memory worked overtime to recognise the human-sized kobold. "I am sorry if I forgot your name. There are so many to keep up with these days."
"I'm Richard's daughter." There was a hint of accusation in her words, as if she blamed what the Silver Protocol had done on the whole Rising Fire. Maybe she even blamed Mennas for getting himself killed, and kicking this whole series of events into motion. “I suppose I was much smaller when he adopted me, during your travels.”
"I heard what happened." Brokk said. Despite appearances his brow could furrow no farther, but his face still managed to communicate the effect. "I'm sorry. I don't believe that Richard or TomTom killed Mennas, despite what everyone is saying. Despite TomTom's confession."
TumTum looked somehow surprised. "Good." she replied, shakily. "It's a setup. It has to be."
"We'll have to talk about that later." Lenona cut through the tension, to bring their attention towards the group approaching them from the other end of the square, their hoods up to try to stay dry. It was the remainder of the party. Pike was at the lead, testily flicking his newly grown right hand back and forth, probably unused to the sensation of it. The Raven Prince had offered him a regeneration spell in Mullhaven before teleporting here.
Flanking Pike, Ter Kingsgrace was accompanied by the most recent additions to the group - the two Atarite paladins and the Raven Prince's own chancellor, the sorcerer Galien Guilamier. The paladins, of course, looked like no such thing thanks to their own disguises. Yet even from afar, they radiated authority and purpose. Brokk nodded at the newcomers and gave them a hearty salute, a fist over chest, grunting in greeting.
“It seems that Sir Michél had tripped and broken his neck while getting out of his bed”, Pike rasped, his voice full of tension which the joking tone failed to hide. “It’s definitely a kill list.” The proclamation was barely audible over the sound of rain on the roof tiles up above.
“We came to the same conclusion”, TumTum agreed dryly. “We need to get going. For all we know, the prison is already under attack.” She turned to Galien Guilamier, Garrel’s Ifrit sorcerer. “If you will, please, Chancellor.”
The red-skinned gnome nodded his head wordlessly. “One of our Scry targets from earlier was outside this prison facility when we saw her, yes? That’ll let me use lower spell slots, thankfully. I’ve got a bad feeling about this trip. Gather up, everyone.”
Yet even as they gathered together, the two paladins exchanged looks before focusing their eyes on Brokk.
"You are one of us, are you not?" One of them asked.
"I keep the Faith. I knew Altos and Charlie well." Brokk confirmed, a sorrow entering his voice when he added: “Before one died and the other one lost himself.”
"It is an honour, my lord." the other paladin stated with evident pride, ignoring the last part. "To stand in the city of the First Temple, with one of the first converts to the Faith Reborn, and one who was a friend to Altos, the Father."
"The First Temple?" Brokk's forehead collapsed into a crease of thoughtful wrinkles. "Oh, the orphanage..." Then he looked to Lenona with concern on his face as the last of the group stood within sufficient distance of the chancellor.
Lenona met Brokk's concerned gaze as they huddled closer to the mage. “I’m sorry we had to meet again under these conditions. I wish we had more time to catch up.”
The former gladiator hoisted his long spear over his shoulder and gave her a tight little smile. “That’s all right, Lenona. This almost feels just like old times.” The droplets from each of their hoods fell down at a steady pace, like two veils made of pearls, suspended between their faces.
Yet even as he talked with some nostalgia of the past, Lenona saw the haunted look behind those gentle eyes. Whatever had happened at that last battle, beyond the edge of the world - those who had fought Ahriman had never talked about what they had seen. They had been unable to put it into words - but it was visible nonetheless. Some things one could bury, but could never be forgotten.
The Drujjail had been nothing more than a dank cave twenty years ago - an archaeological site at best, lost off the beaten path, known only to occultists and the notorious daemon cult that had nearly hijacked Talland. Though it had been Ahriman, not Druj, to challenge the Rising Fire in the end, it had all started here, in a way. It had become well known enough that Terrence Kingsgrace felt like he had been here before, even though he had never visited the site. Along with the rest of the companions and their allies, he arrived with a flash. He did not see any sign of the Drujjail itself, however.
It was late at night, maybe some four hours until sunrise, and the rain here in the countryside was downright pouring. There was no moonlight, and no sight of the stars. Only the light of their hooded lanterns, and the casters’ spells, provided any illumination of their surroundings.
"The jail is shielded, of course." Guilamier remarked as he turned to peer at the dark moors around them. Terrence felt distinctly uncomfortable around the Ifrit. He doubted that his companions, with the exception of Pike, had heard of Guilamier; but Terrence had reason to know. Mennas had kept a paranoid list of every current and former Warden left alive, and this so-called "Chancellor" had his beginnings as a sorcerer of Mindforge in Gnomeland. As a member of the Wardens, he had laid an ambush for Mennas and had attempted to take his life, twenty long years ago. The plot foiled, and with nowhere left to go, Guilamier had evidently found escape and a new beginning through the messianic promises of freedom and anarchy sung by Charlie Blackbird. With a wry smile, Terrence could not help but take note of Guilamier's extravagant silken robes, now pledged in service to a would-be Emperor. There was little hint of humility in him now, had there ever been any.
Finding themselves upon a battered road at night, looking ahead offered few clues that they were headed in the right direction. The increasingly sodden path wound its way between the rolling hills, out of sight. The paladins by his side exchanged glances. Chancellor Guilamier sniffed proudly. "This is the best I could do: our scrying showed a woman on patrol on this road, so it provides a location I have seen, and can teleport to. The facility itself is shielded, of course.”
It was Brokk who dropped one knee into the mud, grabbing a fistful of grass. He kneaded the grass in his hand and sniffed it. Then he looked to Lenona and smiled broadly. There was a look of relief on her face. "You found the way?"
"No." Brokk stated, forehead creasing, as if surprised. "But the scent is refreshing. It's good to be in the countryside again. Nature. Freedom. The sound of rain. Anyway, the Drujjail is that way. Everybody knows that. No need to sniff like a hound to find out."
After a very brief awkward silence, Brokk hefted his ranseur over his shoulder and set off down the road, tailed by the rest of the party. Their footsteps made wet plopping sounds on the path, and occasionally someone would almost slip. Once or twice, Ter heard the distant rumble of thunder. Thankfully far away.
“See that inn in the distance?” Brokk suddenly called out over the rainfall. He was pointing to the side, at some distant, yet bright lights, in the opposite direction than their destination. “That’s where we first met Conrad Colorado. It was the night before we arrived in Sesbritch. We were slaves on the run, and only managed to sneak in with the help of Thorton Weiss. Atar bless, it feels like…” He drifted off, catching all the impatient glares from the others. In the dark of the late night, it was impossible to tell if he was blushing.
Terrence Kingsgrace had respect for his adoptive father’s former allies, but the sight of the formidable Brokk of Braveport filled him with a slight discomfort. With Richard Cipher, he knew where he stood. But what about this Brokk? In Ter’s childhood, when he’d first met the Rising Fire as a street urchin in Keshan, Brokk had been quiet and withdrawn. He had dedicated his attention to winning fights and keeping peace in the party, rarely seeming to take initiative in group decisions. Ter had always been left with the impression that the huge man was little more than muscle, and yet over the years he’d heard stories about the passion with which Brokk had acted during the rebellion in Talland. These two images had never really fit together in his mind.
The Drujjail appeared a few hundred yards up ahead, barely visible in the rain. The hills under which the gate had once been located had been quarried open, and a stone fort built around it instead. Some of the lights behind windows were visible from this distance, though little more than faint squares against the pitch-black sky. Several large signs were posted on the side of the path, warning people that the property was magically protected, and that the Brotherhood was legally empowered by the Republic of Talland to detain any trespassers. An alarm had probably already gone off inside the Gate Keep to notify the Brotherhood about the party approaching from the front. It was a good thing that they had come as friends, rather than foes.
As the dark shape of the building began to loom ahead of them, a magically enhanced voice called out: “Stop! Stand in place and identify yourselves!”
Robin stepped forward, holding forth a gleaming silver insignia. “My name is Robin of Orsad, I work for the Silver Protocol! I was posted in this facility once. Me and my allies have reason to believe the Drujjail is under threat!” It felt strange to hear him raise his voice so much, with how quiet he usually was. He was probably eager to be indoors, away from the storm.
Brokk lumbered past Robin, his voice booming even louder: “I am Brokk of Braveport. You should know that I am one of the founders of the Brotherhood. And Voytek was my teacher. What the kid said is true: Let us in.”
“Stay in place”, the voice of the guard on duty responded, sounding uncertain.
A full minute, perhaps two, passed. The group shuffled around impatiently, but no one stepped closer. Ter couldn’t help but offer: “At least this means the gate isn’t in imminent danger.”
Pike (who’d been rubbing his wrist testily) opened his mouth for some witty retort, only to be cut off by the sound of the guard’s voice booming at them: “Lord Brokk, please come closer so we can identify you.”
The old man strode ahead. He was twisting his ankle a little when he walked, Ter now noticed. It seemed he had joint pains. As gnomes tended to say: age does not come alone.
A small hatch was opened for someone to talk to the mul, though he had to crouch down as it was only chest-height for him. Pike sensed a faint tingle of a spell being cast. The hatch closed, Brokk stepped back, and the smaller entrance in the gate opened up to let him in. He gestured for the others to come as well. They were more than eager to comply.
Brokk was embracing a man who matched all the descriptions from the stories, and was therefore undoubtedly his old mentor, Voytek. The half-elf looked weathered and just as worn out as the mul did, but his eyes were just as sharp, and he looked at ease in his mithral armour. Around them was a wide entrance hall, carved in simple, straight stone angles and with no ornaments in view. There were simple pinewood carvings of the Four Gods, Atar, and Solarin, at the left side wall, and a passage from the logbook of the Gnomish captain who had written down about the folly of the native Tallishmen and their profane ritual was carved opposite of those. The floor had simple brown carpets and the doors were made of oak. Aside from that, everything was plain stone. No doubt Voytek’s own choice, when he’d had the fort constructed.
A group of five brethren stood in wait at the entrance, between the newcomers and their leader. They looked at Ter and the others with some suspicion. Ter made sure to not hide his sword as he closed the door behind himself, kicking mud off his boots, hoping his socks weren’t as drenched as they felt.
“The names on the list. They were your brethren. All of them. A whole bunch of names. My friends here checked on some of them in Sesbritch, and many of them have gone missing or were found dead.” Brokk sounded more than a bit confused himself as he was explaining it to Voytek. He looked over at the others for help, causing Pike and TumTum to move closer to tag in.
Ter turned over to the ones looking at him: “Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary about today?” He asked them urgently, shaking mud off his cloak.
A woman with the slit nose of a former convict shared a look briefly with a particularly tall halfling standing beside her, and hesitantly responded: “We caught people lurking up in the hills behind the castle about half an hour ago. They got taken in.”
Ter's stomach felt queasy. “I’m glad we got here as soon as we did, even though sooner might have been better”, he muttered. The woman gave him a look which indicated she was done talking, so everyone fell quiet again. The storm was still raging outside, and none of the visitors were particularly comfortable in their wet clothes.
After about five minutes of talks between Brokk, TumTum, Pike and Voytek, an accord was reached. “We welcome your assistance, though you’ll have to give a full debriefing of how you came across this intel after the alarm has passed”, the commander spoke to the lot of them. “I am Voytek, son of Vimtek, Captain Commander of the Brotherhood. Since Brokk vouches for you, you are welcome in the Gate Keep.”
A brief round of introductions followed. The three agents of the Raven Prince used their real names, but their leader merely described them as having gotten involved in the situation because “things got out of hand in our city, and we could not let such evil go unopposed when we heard the full story”.
Not wanting them to go down that rabbit hole, Ter hastily asked: “Can we get a look at these prisoners you’ve taken? In case we recognise our enemies among them.”
“I doubt you will. They were local rabble, starting adventurers by their own word”, the captain said dismissively. “We’ll turn them in tomo-”
“Captain!” A voice spoke from a doorway. “Thorander returned from his patrol. No signs of more enemies lurking about.”
“Het took his damned time”, the half-elf acknowledged the report, and dismissed that subordinate with a nod before turning back to Ter: “I’ll take you there myself. I didn’t get to see these people either, yet. But mind yourselves. It’ll be cramped if everyone piles in!”
After a brief negotiation Ter, Brokk and TumTum went along with the captain, to make sure they’d recognise these people if possible. The other visitors stayed behind and eagerly accepted the offer of towels and a hearth to warm themselves at. No one had been asked to relinquish their weapons. “I’ve worked with apprentice adventurers in Sesbritch”, Brokk explained, while ducking his head under a door frame behind the others. “If they truly are that type, I might know them.”
“Do you think that the Chess Club would let themselves get captured on purpose?” TumTum asked with some anxiety, glancing at Ter over her shoulder.
“I don’t know them any more than you do. But it’s better safe than sorry”, he muttered. “If it’s Arnam, or the orc, or a black-haired elf, be ready to run for help.” Voytek gave them a glance as well, and touched the long mace on his belt consciously.
“Wait, Arnam?” Brokk asked. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”
“Yes”, TumTum said bitterly. “It seems that after the humiliation Mennas and Dakara gave him, he’s turned to vengeance. We don’t know who his allies are, but, well, it doesn’t seem he’s the brains of the operation.”
A slight pause while the captain opened the door leading to the dungeons, lighting a lantern before mounting the stairs beyond. Suddenly, Brokk sighed. “I pity him.”
“Pity? He’s an accomplice to the deaths of thousands!” Ter said, taken aback by the statement.
“He… he was a pathetic man. A man driven by a sense of worthlessness and a desperate need to leave some kind of mark in this world.” Brokk’s boots thumped loudly on the stairs as they descended, drowning out any sounds the others were making. “Or maybe I’m just imagining it, because that’s the thing I see in most of the young people who abandon their livelihoods and come to me, wanting to make a name for themselves. Slay beasts, save people, and maybe find a place out there, where they’ll be accepted and celebrated.” He sighed.
TumTum and Ter’s eyes met behind the mul’s back. Each of them had a suspicion about who Brokk was really thinking about. Voytek called out: “They’re right behind this door.” He stood with the keys in his hand, “Are you sure you want to see them, if they might be dangerous?”
Ter loosened his sword in its scabbard, and saw the other two feeling the weights of their polearms. The man nodded before opening the door, leading them into the dungeon.
“Please! We didn’t mean to intrude! They told us there’s hobgoblins in the hills!” The voice was coming from a young man in mud-stained leather armour, who was pressed against the bars of the jail cell. Behind him were four others: one more human, one gnome, an elf and a dwarfess. Ter blinked his eyes as Voytek lifted a lantern to cast its light at the group, who recoiled from the brightness.
None of them looked in the least bit familiar.
“Were they searched for magic items and dispelled?” TumTum asked the half-elf, walking around the cell, just out of arm’s reach, inspecting the prisoners.
“Yes. That’s basic protocol. They surrendered as soon as my people turned up, and were more than eager to give up their weapons. Suspiciously eager, in fact. My men assure they were triple-checked to make sure they weren’t changelings, or some kind of mules bringing in danger. With the missing brethren, we can’t afford the teleports to take them into a town right now”, Voytek explained.
The dwarf stepped forward from among the prisoners, blinking her bloodshot eyes. “We got hired just two days ago, out of Faespring. This is just our second quest ever! The woman told us that there’s hobbos in the hills above the keep, trying to tunnel their way in and steal things! We were supposed to go there tomorrow evening. But then, earlier tonight, the woman came to our tavern room, in the tavern just down the road, and said that they’re up there right now - the hobgoblins - and we need to go up to the hills immediately! We thought she worked for the Brotherhood! We didn’t know!”
It sounded like a genuine plea. Before anyone else could say anything, Brokk announced: “They’re genuine.” The others looked at him, surprised. “I’ve never met them, but I… I can tell. It’s just a diversion. They were just hired to draw the Brotherhood’s attention away.”
“From what?” Asked his wizened mentor, lifting the lantern to get yet another suspicion look in. “So far they’ve been little more than a nuisance, nothing else has happened.”
A sharp, high-pitched curse word in Orcish shot through the space, startling Ter. “That means the diversion’s worked”, TumTum hissed and turned around, dashing for the door. Brokk was the first to follow up behind her, his long legs helping him keep up as they vanished up the stairs. Ter and Voytek hastened after them at a slower pace, shouting for them to wait up.
When they caught up, TumTum and Brokk were standing in the corridor at the top of the stairs, waiting impatiently. Brokk had his hand on the woman’s shoulder, probably to ease her anxiety.
“Which way is the-” She started, only to be cut off by a sharp, loud siren, which emanated through the whole keep. Without a word, Voytek started down the corridor, toward the sound, proving to be very fast for his age.
Later on, Ter would remember very little about the frantic minute spent dashing through the uniform grey tunnels toward that sound. Turns left and right, hurried steps, loud panting. The constant blare of that siren, growing closer and closer.
Then they reached a decorated door, with a gilded lock on it. It was wide open, revealing a chamber beyond. Had he had more time to appreciate it, Ter could have reflected on the sudden amount of ornamentation at this point, but instead he and the others ran past the ostentatious doorway, which kept letting out the blare of the alarm.
It was the only entrance into the chamber where the Gate stood, and the door had been enchanted to let out the sound any time it was opened, so that no one could access this place without everyone in the keep knowing.
There was someone standing by the Gate. They were holding a round object in their hand, holding it up to a slot in the ancient stone. They were saying something. Others were rushing at them, weapons drawn. Ter couldn’t hear any of it, the siren drowning all sound.
The key - an amulet - found its way into the slot.
A blinding light shot out, and Ter felt a force hit him from the front, strong enough to stop his advance. He brought up his shield to protect himself, but it felt as if something was pushing into the flat surface, an invisible stream.
“CLOSE IT!” Voytek shouted amongst the din, just barely audible.
There was a loud crack. Ter raised his eyes, and he saw one half of the ancient stone gateway break in two, the stone slab folding outward as a deep, dark fissure appeared in the middle. A dark silhouette had reached the person by the gate, weapon sinking into their body, but both of them were hit by the halved stone, sent flying across the light-flooded room.
And just like that, the blinding light vanished. The blare of the siren still filled the air, briefly cut up by the huge boom of the immensely heavy pieces of stone hitting the walls and floor.
A creature moved through the entrance created by the wrecked doorway. It stood at least nine feet tall, each of its three horns looking like they might scrape the ceiling of the hall as it moved. A long mane of tangled, bone-white hair hung behind it, tufts falling off when it moved, like cobwebs shaking off a disturbed relic. From twenty strides away Ter could not see its face properly, but he could feel its eyes scanning through the room. In a move as swift as a viper biting its prey, the entity snapped a hand up. A beam fired from its palm, striking the thick, painted oak doors of the chamber, disintegrating one. The siren went out.
“TALLISHMEN, I HAVE HEARD YOUR SUMMONS”, it blared in a voice that was as smooth as it was heavy with the weight of a thousand legends. "THE PRICE SHALL AT LAST BE PAID!"
The priest sat up, startled. He could tell from the voice that had spoken who it was, but even so, the sight of the creature looming over the bed, its luminous wings behind it, was breathtaking.
“M-whuh? I didn’t expect”, Armen mumbled tiredly, the sentence cut off by a yawn, all the while he hastened to stand up.
The Angel spoke: “It’s time.” It lifted up its golden hand, skin shining like warm velvet, and its fingers uncurled to reveal a familiar amulet.
The priest gave out a gasp.
It was starting to rain. Armen shivered a little in place, feeling exposed out in the hills on his own. He struggled to suppress the spectre of doubt that chilled him more than any weather. He could not let his weakness stop him this time. For once in his life, he had to see through his promises until the end. No matter the cost. He squeezed the pendant in his hand, looking down. He could feel the magic inside. An ancient magic, wrought thousands of years ago, for unjust reasons. An injustice that he had been chosen to set right!
“Here is your horse”, the familiar voice spoke from the darkness. The Angel’s wings lit up like glass in the sun as it approached, holding the reins of a trained mount in full gear. “The Gate Fort lies a short distance in that direction. Identify yourself as Thorander at the side gate, and tell them that you found no one on your patrol.” It reached one of its hands over, laying it over his head. Armen saw the sight of his body ripple, enveloped in an illusion in the likeness of whoever this Thorander was.
The emerald eyes of the divine messenger met the priest’s. “The atonement of Talland depends on your actions tonight. The Four Gods are watching, and judging.”
The young man nodded nervously. “Their will be done”, he promised, before clumsily mounting the horse.
Armen’s hands shook as he pulled on the keyring hanging from the belt of the soldier he’d slain. He kept looking around himself, nervous about being walked on. When he finally managed to pull the keys free, his hand moved to his pocket to make sure the amulet was there.
He inserted the heavy iron key into the lock, and pulled on the doors. Immediately, a loud noise rang out, making the priest whimper before he dashed in through the opening he had made.
He found himself in a dimly lit chamber. The floor had partial tilework from ancient times, and there were some stone pillars and mostly collapsed walls around. The Brotherhood had left this space untouched, like an archaeological dig site. Armen did not stop for long, instead moving through the space, toward the great doors up ahead.
“WHO IS IN THERE?” A loud voice demanded behind him, mostly drowned out by the ringing. The priest sped up. He was almost there!
A sudden shattering pain erupted in his lower back. He stumbled to the floor, hearing a clattering around. A crossbow bolt was sticking from him. From the corner of his eye, he saw a guard standing at the doorway.
Managing to push himself back to his feet, he narrowly avoided being hit by another projectile. This was his one chance to matter; to do the will of Heaven. His blood-slick hand moved to his pocket and he stumbled toward the door. More people were coming!
He was there! The slot was right in front of him! It looked the exact right shape for the thing in his hand. He looked over at the guards, and they froze on their places when he held the amulet up to the slot. A few more figures appeared in the doorway, gaping.
“Talland has to face its punishment”, he said, his voice slurred. The men rushed toward him. They couldn’t hear him over the siren, he knew, but he had to say it. Lips trembling, fighting back tears of pain and regret, he tried to shout, but instead only whimpered. “We have to atone to please the Gods.” He turned around and pushed the amulet into the slot.
There was a light so bright that even after he closed his eyelids, Armen could see it. He could feel the creature on the other side. “The Four Gods have called you to punish the world”, he began, only to see a shape rushing at him from behind.
Another sharp pain, this time through his abdomen. He could see the long sword sink into his body, and the furious face before himself. He was about to scream, but there was a crack of stone breaking, and movement at his side.
And just like that, Armen ceased to be.
Chapter 24 Reckoning Part 1
Lenona was running down the corridor, her heart pounding with a mixture of concern and excitement. She dragged to a halt when she saw the great wooden door up ahead break apart, spiralling outwards in smoking splinters. The blaring of the siren noise was replaced by a loud, otherworldly voice, which made a fell proclamation.
She looked over her shoulder. Robin, Pike, Ulias, and their Atarite allies were behind her. They faltered as well, at the shared understanding that this keep had failed at its purpose.
“Do you have Sendings?” Pike demanded from Galien Guilamier. When the ifrit hesitated, he grabbed him by the front of his jerkin urgently. “Speak!” The paladins around them stiffened, but didn’t interfere.
“It’ll take ten minutes to get out a Sending”, the sorcerer sputtered. “But a teleport can-” He was cut off by the sounds of violence erupting from the gate room. Someone’s horrified scream was the very first sound, before it was cut short by a noise as if the air itself had been torn asunder.
Lenona made eye contact with Robin, hesitating only for a moment. The look on his face told her all she needed to know: he was afraid they were going to lose. She slapped him across the shoulder and said: “Stay back and take care of the wounded!” With that she turned around and rushed for the doorway, unsheathing her swords even as Pike was shouting for Galien Guilamier to summon reinforcements.
No! Wait! Robin sent behind her. She ignored it, focusing her mind on the upcoming fight. Brokk would be out there, fighting Druj. The great battle that the Rising Fire had been denied in their glory days. And now, Lenona would be able to take part in it! She had never fought alongside her mentor in a real, life-or-death battle.
Brimming with excitement, she passed through the ruined doorway, and beheld bedlam.
The Three-Horned Daemon was striding through the room, holding one hand out at a Brotherhood knight hiding behind a pillar. The stonework gave the man no cover, as some kind of profane power beamed right through him. In a split second his muscles gave out and he collapsed, hacking and coughing. Little black tendrils that squirmed escaped from his mouth. When the towering creature arrived beside him, it reached down and effortlessly plucked his shield arm off his body. More black things came out of the stump.
The others were retaliating. Three crossbow bolts hit Druj’s back, each one’s tip glimmering with the telltale shine of silvered steel. Despite this, a palpable black glow appeared on impact, and they went flying ineffectually. A high-powered spell struck it as well, in the form of a beam comprised of a rainbow. Though it brimmed with power, it slid off the creature ineffectually.. Brokk rushed from behind a pillar, thrusting his polearm into the monster’s side before hastily retreating once more. His was the only attack that left an immediate wound, the blade of his ranseur pushing past that barrier, only slightly hampered.
Lenona expected the creature to laugh. It might as well have laughed. Instead, it quietly spun around and flung the guard’s severed arm at Brokk , knocking him off balance. The look on its twisted face was a kind of cocky, confident grin. The smile of someone employing a skill they’d been denied the use of for a long time. The smile of someone doing what they loved.
The wound on its side was already closing as it moved after its assailant.
“Brokk!” Lenona grunted, rushing forward headlong. She didn’t think, acting purely on instinct. Despite the horrifying, icy terror seizing her, she felt rage building up now.
Brokk looked the creature up and down, assessing his chances. He had saved the world before, so Lenona was hoping he could take on the beast, even in his old age. Brokk stepped back, and his ranseur held up before him to ward off the threat. His foot caught on something, and he stumbled. Lenona nearly choked on her own breath, torn between rushing to him and striking at the daemon.
An unexpected battlecry drew Druj's attention away from Brokk. Voytek, TumTum and Ter were rushing forward from their hiding place behind a pillar, ready to flank the monster. The kobold was using the long shaft of her axe to strike from a distance, while Ter smote the monster in the shin from behind his shield. TumTum’s weapon was repelled the same as all the others, a dark glow wreathing the blade when it struck. The paladin’s strike landed true, however, a rune made up of hexagonal patterns guiding him into the fiend’s flesh.
Druj briefly showed surprise on its wicked face, fangs bared. Voytek seized the moment, his charge taking him between Druj's bent legs. Flailing a mace marked with shining golden runes, Voytek smashed Druj in each knee as he passed under it. Lenona continued her approach. She was so close…
Druj swung its arms to the sides, as if trying to chase away a cloud of gnats. A pale blue explosion of magic shot out in all directions. Lenona felt the force impact her from the front. It felt like she had run into a wall. She flew backwards but landed on her feet. While dizzily shuffling to the side to avoid any potential attacks blindsiding her, she shook her head and gathered her bearings.
The others, having been closer, had suffered more. TumTum was crawling across the floor some ten paces away, retrieving her weapon, and Ter was slumped against a wall, clearly in pain as he cradled his bloody head with desperate fingers.
Voytek had taken the worst of it. He was lying on his face only a few strides from the fiend, his wrist painfully twisted as he tried to push himself on his feet. Before Druj could go in for the kill, Brokk rushed to catch its attention with another swift series of strikes, yelling "The Rising Fire!"
Lenona found herself on one side of the daemon with Brokk on the other. Their eyes briefly met, before Brokk looked up at Druj. “Talland isn’t yours to pester! Go back! I defeated Ahriman of the Div! Use your freedom in Abaddon and leave the mortal realm alone, or spend another eternity helpless when we strike you down!”
The monster’s head tilted the smallest bit. Suddenly, it struck the floor with its foot, letting out a fierce snarl. A dark purple haze appeared around the impact, followed by a glowing blue line running across the floor of the room and further beyond. Intricate arcane glyphs shimmered around the edges of the blue band.
“Are you looking to wreck the Thanessan runestone that keeps this island afloat?” Brokk asked tauntingly. “You’re out of luck. Half a dozen archmages spent months warding it, creating defences. Our home’s here to stay.” The glowing band - the ley line which powered the runestone - began to fade out of view once more. Lenona smiled tensely. No easy win for the daemon.
“Nothing built by mortals lasts long before me. Once you are dead, I will rip apart these barriers. I am born of entropy, and your enchantments are just as finite as your lives”, Druj spoke with contempt, its tone failing to conceal a rage at having been.
“Then why am I still standing?” Brokk asked plainly.
Another volley of crossbow bolts struck Druj from the other side of the room, where the Brotherhood guardsmen were standing. It turned its blazing eyes toward the attack. The wall behind the crossbowmen trembled and gave out, collapsing on top of them. The Brotherhood mage, standing nearby, barely avoided the same fate directly, only to be caught on the head by stonework falling down from the ceiling. The far corner of the room was starting to collapse.
Lenona and Brokk used the distraction to attack in unison, pushing Druj further back towards the shattered entrance of its prison. Brokk dealt a series of strikes from the front. His ranseur flicked like the bites of a cobra, puncturing the daemon’s torso one blow after the other. With a roar, Brokk lunged, lodging his ranseur in Druj's belly. Druj howled back at him, taking one step back and leaving the ranseur stuck in its gut. It snapped the shaft with its claws, leaving the blade lodged inside itself. Lenona took the chance to get in her own flurry, hoping to cut the tendons of Druj’s legs. She quickly noted with horror and shame that her blades left no imprint on the beast.
Bronze claws caught her over the shoulder and upper back. For its size, Druj moved faster than it had any right to. Her body exploded in pain as she staggered backward, narrowly avoiding another similar blow. She saw that cocky, fiendish smile from the corner of her eye, inviting her to try again. For the first time, her eager focus was broken by fear.
Suddenly, Druj’s smile faltered. A wooden shaft was poking into its neck. Brokk had switched to wielding Angvicide, the Dragon-Killer, and had thrust it through the daemon’s unnatural skin, just below its jawline. Lenona allowed herself to hope that maybe it would all be over.
That hope was immediately dashed. With a horrifying screech, Druj turned its attention toward the former gladiator, sending forth a wave of frost that hit him hard even as it continued its advance.
Lenona was uncertainly shuffling in place as Robin caught up to her at last, immediately extending healing on her. “We have to get out! Call for more help! We’re no use here!” Pike cast a defensive spell on them collectively. The Atarite paladins had stepped in and were moving forward to join Brokk in the attack, apparently not sharing Robin’s intentions.
Lenona looked toward the embattled Brokk. She was not about to leave him. “No”, she tried to say to Robin. “You need to-”
Then, Druj thrust its hands down. The collapsed portion of the ceiling in the far corner of the room began to spread. Heavy rumbling filled the space, and the very earth underneath everyone’s feet was shaking violently. It was bringing down the whole castle! Robin grabbed Lenona and started for the doorway, her shoulder still burning even after his magic had sealed the wounds. Though hesitantly running along, Lenona turned to look for Brokk. As they passed out of the chamber, falling rubble obscured her view. The only sound audible above collapsing stonework was the piercing laughter of the fiend, as it watched the mortals scatter.
Lenona and Robin’s flight among the earthquake was chaotic. As the cracks grew, passageways of the castle started blending together. Occasionally, they would race against deep rends opening in the stonework of the walls, or there’d be the deafening crash of a portion of wall or a ceiling collapsing somewhere. Lenona and Robin would sometimes see another person in the distance, but whether their friends and allies were alive or dead right now, they had no idea. Whatever had happened to Pike, Lenona had no idea. He had been right behind them when they started running.
The full implications of what had happened were pounding onto her as they ran. They had lost the battle. The thought felt alien to Lenona. Not because she hadn’t lost before, but because that meant that Brokk had lost too. She’d always assumed that if Druj had been freed twenty years ago, the Rising Fire would have defeated it anyway. For all she knew, her mentor was dead.
Robin had been right. This battle was too much for them. They needed to get out of here. Raise the alarm. Warn the people. Get them on boats, in case all of Talland sinks.
Right now, only survival mattered.
When they reached the entry hall of the keep, both of them were panting and frantic. Lenona had lost one of her swords somewhere, and she saw to her horror that Robin had transformed to his wererat form, the fur across his face matted with blood splatters of unknown origin. She had no idea when it had taken place. The only time he changed was under extreme emotional duress, finding that part of himself to be deeply humiliating.
“We need… we need to…” She thoughtlessly verbalised, with no idea of what she meant to say. A faint memory came to her: “Help. Got to find help.” The earth was still trembling now and then, though less so than before.
“The ifrit”, Robin panted. “Galien, he-”
Whatever he’d meant to say, he was cut off by the loudest crash yet. The entire castle shook, and one of the pillars in the entry room collapsed, deep cracks appearing everywhere. The source of the impact seemed to have come not too far away.
“Out!” Lenona yelled, pulling on Robin’s hand as they dashed for the front doors of the keep. As they pushed the heavy portal open, Lenona realised it was still raining outside. Rushing forward with Robin, she felt the heavy shower on herself. In the far distance to the south, she saw a flash of lightning. The center of the storm had moved toward Sesbritch.
By now, the earthquake Druj had summoned was all but over.
“Wait!” Robin yanked on her shoulder. The dark, indistinct silhouette of the castle behind them was visibly altered, parts of it toppled and torn down. “We have to… we have to help them!”
Lenona stopped. The muddy ground squelched underneath her boots. “We’re too weak! We need to regroup! Get help! We’re no use-” Her words were cut off by the rumbling of thunder, and the collapse of more stones.
“LEN!” Robin suddenly struck her as lightning illuminated the courtyard. His lengthened claws stung her wet cheek. It was a weak slap, but still the first he’d ever dealt her. “They’re in there! All of them! TumTum, Pike, Ter, Ulias… Brokk! We need to get them out!”
“I…” She hesitated, her hand rubbing over the hilt of her remaining sword anxiously. Her mind returned to Mullhaven, earlier tonight, and yet a hundred years ago. The flight from their enemies attacking them in their hideout under the bakery. She remembered her allies cooped up in Xhas’Wlef, besieged in a cellar room and forced to yield. She remembered the orc and Arnam on the streets of Tannhäuser, who’d only let them go thanks to falling for Pike’s illusion. I thought that with Brokk on our side, we would win this one.
Robin stepped forward, his transformed face hard to read. Brokk didn’t win every time either. Just because we can’t kill Druj doesn’t mean we can’t do any good here anymore.
A moment passed before he turned around to return into the partially demolished keep. Lenona stumbled after him. “I’m sorry”, she stuttered.
Robin kept onward. “Be sorry later.” Water was dripping down into the entry room now through wide cracks in the roof.
Let’s try to stay quiet. That thing’s still in here, Robin sent her when she caught up to him.
The earthquake had left deep rends all over the stonework of the floor, with water pooling in them. Many of the walls which had not collapsed were crooked and twisted.
Do you have any more stone or earth altering spells left tonight?
Just one more.
I guess that's better than nothing.
They wandered the malformed hallways, cringing at the distant sounds of shouting and collapsing stonework. If the castle started coming down on them, Robin would open an exit with his spell, Lenona trusted.
Coming across a pile of rubble, they saw a leg sticking out and began to quickly dig through it. It turned out to be one of their Atarite paladin allies, unfortunately dead already. She’d brought her shield up to protect her head, but the weight of the stones falling on her had crushed her skull underneath the thing she’d hoped would save her life. Lenona felt a deep sorrow coming off Robin, and she wasn’t really happy herself, but she pushed him on. There was no time to rescue corpses.
Just as they crossed the rubble, though, a heavy set of footsteps appeared around the corner ahead. Lenona had just enough time to tense up and draw her remaining sword, before she recognised the accompanied panting. “Brokk!” She cried out loud before catching herself.
He came around the corner, a tight smile on his lips. There was a dark stain on the side of his bald head, as one of his earlobes seemed to have torn off. He was holding on to his weapon, but he didn’t look to be in much of a fighting condition. “Glad to see you guys. Do you know where the others are? I got split.”
“No, we just came here from the front entrance”, Lenona spoke in what she hoped wasn’t too loud of a voice. “We’re trying to find everyone and… and regroup.” She swallowed, trying to remember some bit of strategy Brokk would have taught her that she could cite in this situation. Nothing came to her.
“It’s alright, Len”, Brokk said, placing his free hand on her shoulder. He looked over at Robin. “You okay?”
“Y-yes.” The wererat answered. He was avoiding eye contact.
“The dungeon is right around here”, Brokk said. “We need to go check on the prisoners. To see if they got buried.”
Lenona felt blank. “The prisoners?” Then she remembered. “The adventuring party that got captured!”
“Yeah. They were nothing but patsies, sent to distract the Brotherhood. They don’t deserve to die”, Brokk said gravely while passing the two of them, heading down another corridor. Len and Robin hastened to follow.
They soon came to a wing of the castle much worse damaged by the earthquake than where they’d just left. Heavy spouts of water were coming down through holes in the roof, and the hills surrounding the castle were visible through collapsed portions of the exterior wall. The rain outside seemed to be weakening, but that made little difference right now.
“There it is”, Brokk cried out, pointing at what looked like a hole in the ground. The stonework had come down, blocking the way, but the remnants of a shattered rock stairway marked it as having formerly been a way into the cellar. The floor around it was heavily cracked, the muddy soil exposed in most places. A crooked portion of wall was redirecting water from the upper floors here, and most of it seemed to be draining past the rubble into the hole. The mul tossed his spear aside and moved to try to pull at the huge boulders to get them out of the way. “Help me! They’re in there! I can hear them!”
True enough, distant, frenzied screaming was audible through the gaps in the blockade. “Step aside, Brokk!” Lenona shouted, pulling at him from behind. “Robin, do it!”
He stepped forward and pressed his hands against the rubble, druidic magic blossoming from his palms. The collapsed stonework before their eyes began to melt and move aside, creating a single, unbroken arc that covered the entire downward passageway into the dungeon.
Lenona almost slipped on the wet stones under her feet. They had been standing ankle-deep in muddy water, draining past the rocks gradually. Now, though, there was a steady stream of water flowing down the steps. “It’s going to flood!” She said in alarm, and hastened down the stairs, one hand on the wall to help stay upright. The others came after her.
At the bottom of the stairs, the water was already hip-deep. It had been streaming down here for a while, through the ruined staircase and cracks in the ceiling. “WE’RE HERE!” A voice shouted from the back of the space. A small group of people were behind a set of bars, woefully still imprisoned, even as the water had been rising around them. A gnome was sitting on the shoulders of a human to stay above water, and the dwarf among them would soon need to likewise elevate her position.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here”, Brokk assured them, moving closer. He had to shout out to be heard. The sounds of the splashing water were too loud in the enclosed, echoey space. “I don’t have a key, but…” Wading to the bars, he unceremoniously grabbed two of them and began to pull at them in opposite directions. The prisoners shouted in surprise, and even Lenona was about to tell him to try something else, but then she heard the sound of the metal bending.
“AAAAAAAAAA”, Brokk groaned, muscles bulging, as he struggled to widen the gap. Inch by inch, it was spreading. The water had risen by a good inch or two already, Lenona realised. They didn’t have too much time left. The human in armour on the other side of the bars moved over to try and help Brokk. Unfortunately there was no space for her to assist as well.
“I think that’s enough”, the former gladiator said at last, leaning back. The water was halfway up his stomach by now, and the dwarf had to swim. Even Robin, short as he was, couldn’t wade around comfortably anymore, having to aid his movements with his arms.
The prisoners began to squeeze themselves past the gap one at a time. Most of them made it out fine, the dwarf proving to be surprisingly slim underneath her voluminous hide robes weighing her down. Only the human fighter struggled, with his armour holding him back, and had to hastily discard his leather breastplate before he could squeeze through.
Finally the group began to collectively move through the space back to the staircase. By now everyone’s movements were hampered. The dwarf had to be supported by her friends, and Lenona was holding Robin under the arm to help him move too. The streams of water coming down from the ceiling hadn’t died down any, so maybe the rain hadn’t stopped after all.
Climbing up the staircase turned out to be its own challenge. The stream of water pushed them back, and the stairs underneath were slippery and cracked, with many places to stumble. Everyone was climbing up on all fours, trying to help one another. Getting the gnome up was turning to be trouble; she ended up riding her ally like a pony, apologising the whole way through.
When they were halfway up the path Brokk, who was at the front, suddenly stopped. “Quiet!” He hissed over his shoulder. “Something’s moving up there!”
Lenona perked her head up to listen, but she didn’t need to. A horrendous voice spoke up from outside the makeshift tunnel Robin had created. “What do we have here? Vermin trying to scurry away?”
The magic-wrought stonework around them shook, some force pressing onto it from the outside. A deep crack appeared on the right side of the tunnel. “MOVE!” Lenona shouted, struggling to scamper up. They only had six to seven steps left! “GET UP! GET UP!”
She’d only made it up a few stairs when the wall on her right began to collapse, folding inward with a horrifying crashing sound.
With a deafening shout, Brokk threw himself against the stonework, pushing it with both hands while his feet connected with the opposite wall. Miraculously, he held the heavy slab of stone, his body straining. “CLIMB!” He shouted, his voice rich with pain. “I CAN’T HOLD IT FOR LONG!”
The others moved up, passing underneath Brokk’s taut, diagonal body, as he pushed against the wall with all his might. When Lenona made it to the top and turned to help pull the others, she saw that her mentor had transformed into a werebear, but even so he was losing ground inch by inch.
One after another, the people trapped in the tunnel emerged, scampering free past Lenona as she pulled on their arms or grabbed their clothes to hurry them along. All five adventurers, and her own Robin. Behind them, Brokk howled in exertion.
When they were all out, Lenona gestured down. “Brokk! Get up! Climb! We’re ready!”
His ursine visage looked up at her. His whole body was compressed, sprung up under the weight of the stone. “Len! Take Angvicide! It's meant for you. I need you to-”
Then the stone came down. It all happened instantly. One moment Brokk was right there, just a few paces down the cramped tunnel. The next instant, all she saw was rock, and her ears were filled with a resounding crash.
Hands pulled her back from the crashing stones. She knew she was screaming, but she couldn’t hear her own voice.
Druj was standing on top of the rubble. The daemon had been weighing it down all this time by standing above. It gave a few contemptuous stomps of its foot, and spoke something before turning around. Lenona still couldn’t hear. Maybe she’d lost her hearing. Maybe she had lost her mind.
“ROBIN, GO!” She shouted, barely able to hear herself. Turning around, she shoved him away. He seemed to understand, moving to help the prisoners away across the rubble. Lenona rushed past him toward a long wooden shaft poking out of a mud puddle up ahead. Blood coursed through her body faster than she ever remembered.
She needed the weapon. She needed Brokk’s weapon.
When she grabbed the polearm, it felt slick and slippery in her hands, so she gripped twice as hard for it. When she turned around, she found that Druj wasn’t even looking at her. It had already turned around and once again summoned the blue band of the ley line through which it could sink Talland. The monster was plucking at the protective runes with its bronze claws, working through the defensive enchantments.
How long did Lenona have? She didn’t know. It was all down to her. When she made her attack, Druj would retaliate, and probably kill her in one attack. She needed to make this count.
As she moved forward, Druj was striding across the rubble of the castle’s collapsed outer wall, following the ley line and looking for a weak spot. With its long legs, it was moving faster than she was. A part of Lenona wanted to shout at it, and taunt it. Instead, she did her best to stay quiet, slinking across the slippery rocks, waiting for the fiend to stop.
Then, suddenly, she lost her footing. A wet stone surface under her boot had betrayed her, sending her tumbling into the rubble beneath, pain shooting through her with the impact. She dropped Angvicide.
In the midst of her murderous intent, shame blossomed. She had tripped. While trying to avenge her mentor and save Talland, she’d tripped and fallen over. Even while she hastily picked herself up and grabbed the spear once more, she felt her face heat up. Surely none of the Rising Fire had ever tripped and fell during their adventures.
When she climbed back on top of the wall, though, Druj was gone. The ley line was still there, but unattended and fading back out of view. Lenona’s eyes frantically scanned the area for the daemon.
Then she saw it, and realised it wasn’t alone.
In the clear ground outside the collapsed castle wall, the daemon was fighting someone. A multitude of people, in fact. Spells were flying through the air, and melee combatants were rushing in and retreating out of the fiend’s reach. A dusky, white-haired man in angelic armour was gliding through the air around the daemon, blades of fire and light spinning from his palms and at his foe. It took her a moment, but Lenona recognised him then - it was Hechin of the Silver Protocol. Druj pointed at him, a line of sickly green energy blotting out reality itself as it headed straight for the famous cleric. Lenona was no mage, but she recognised a Disintegrate, the bane of many adventurers.
However, the spell fizzled out in the middle of the air, as Sother himself flew above the crowd, great dragonic wings spread behind his humanoid form. He had counterspelled the attack, and now yelled something indistinct at the monster. A small crowd of agents, bearing the standard of the Protocol, stood firing their own spells at the Archdaemon. Lenona glimpsed the Raven Prince's ifrit court wizard, Galien Guilamier, alive and well, in their midst. So he had called the cavalry, then.
Lenona began to clumsily climb over the torn stonework to join the fray, her body aching from her fall, only to halt as a portal opened between her and the battle. A gateway to some other place widened up, and new fighters were streaming through it urgently. She saw the Gnomish coat of arms on their armour as they ran to engage. After the vanguard, Dakara herself strode forward, fully geared for war, her hammer at the ready, though she did not rush to engage yet. Beside her stood the vainglorious Marley Merniso, hand on the pommel of his sword, none the worse after his duel with Ter Kingsgrace at Tomtomgrad.
And good that she did not, for the fiend was growing ever more desperate. Shrieking with unholy frustration, it raised its arms, and through sudden, black cracks in the ground, lesser daemons manifested in the field, peppered among the mortal warriors, turning the battle that much more chaotic. Dakara commanded her troops to contain these foes, and save those who’d been ambushed by their sudden appearance.
A group of combatants teleported in on the opposite end of the battleground. One of them bore the banner of the Empire of Atar. The group spread up as soon as they’d arrived, and a leading figure among them started barking orders. Independent of the group, a middle-aged man in finely embroidered livery moved backward, clapping his hand together, which caused a panoply of summoned elementals to burst forth, flying high and then advancing on the center of fighting. From his white hair and tall stature, Lenona recognised him as Dorathion Ash, the chancellor of the Empire.
Lenona had served as Brokk’s attendant and squire for several years, and like Ash’s, the faces of many of the people fighting were familiar from that time. Others she recognised despite seeing them for the first time, based on their individual notoriety. The elven Marshal of Talland, Byrnes, took up a vantage point beside a cadre of magical archers, sending volley after volley into Druj with perfect precision. Rex, the dwarven commander of the Brotherhood's Daemonslayers, used the cover fire to charge alongside Gery Hawksteeth, axe in hand. Together, they chopped at Druj's legs as if they were tree trunks.
Realising she’d been sitting on the collapsed stone wall without advancing, Lenona uncertainly climbed down, still holding on to her mentor’s famous spear. She needed to contribute. She started to circle around the gateway the Silver Protocol fighters had emerged from, her legs feeling unsteady. She was using the spear to support her weight.
The battle against Druj had moved almost eighty feet away from her. Eighty feet of muddy ground, with people running this way and that, spells being slung. It was all too much. By now Druj’s reinforcements had been swept away, and the archfiend itself fought with stubborn desperation.
Leaning on Brokk’s mighty weapon, she just stood there and watched, swaying left and right, as the combined forces of Sa’Vard swarmed over Druj and killed it at long last.