Part the sixth: Wherein the party discovers that dead men can indeed tell talesThey rode for the rest of the day without incident and set up camp early in the evening to recover properly from the battle of that morning. Shadow Flame took the first watch after arguing with Unagi who was adamant about taking the first and third watch, and a couple of hours into his watch he noticed small ball of bright white/orange light off in the distance in the direction of the Sunset Mountains. He quickly woke the rest of the party and pointed the light out to them. It was difficult to be sure since the light was a good 200 or 300 meters from where they were sitting but it appeared to be light cast by a lantern as it moved in a rhythm as if carried by someone. They decided to see what it was, and Shadow Flame would use his skills to move silently and remain hidden in shadows ahead of the party who would follow 50 or so feet behind him.
They grabbed their gear and moved out, quickly closing the gap between them and the light. As they got closer it was clear the light was moving in a southerly direction, but at the speed of a walking human, so it was easy for them to keep up. After they had followed for almost a mile they came upon a steep ridge - they were standing at the bottom with the ridge rising about 60 feet above them. The light continued traveling south, apparently following the foot of the ridge, so they continued to follow. As short distance further they saw the light clearly round a corner - the ridge had ended at a more gentle gradient that moved to its top. Shadow Flame moved ahead and followed the light up a slight slope that ended up evening out at the top of the ridge on a large plateau. At the top of the ridge the light disappeared, simply blinking out of existence. Shadow Flame cautiously moved up to where the light had disappeared and found himself looking upon an old ruined building surrounded by a broken and crumbling wall. The building was long with a large round attachment on it's eastern end, it was clear that the roof of the building had collapsed in upon itself at some point. He looked around at the building for a moment, seeing if he could detect any heat patterns that would indicate the presence of other creatures, and seeing none, he returned to the party and filled them in on what he had found.
The party moved forward together and approached the ruined building. A large fire gutted building stood in the south eastern end of the walled area - there was clearly nothing in there, the roof had collapsed and piles of charred wood sat inside. The wall surrounding the building was easily bypassed - it was a crumbling ruin as well and had several large gaps in it. The party moved past the wall and headed towards the end with the large circular building. The roof had long since collapsed, and the walls had also collapsed onto the ground. It was impossible to determine what height it once was, but now it was little more than 2 stories high. To the immediate right of the circular attachment an entryway into the building sat broken and crumbling. Once it held twin doors but now one of them sat fallen on the ground outside and the other hung half open holding on only by a single hinge. The party moved inside. To their right was a large pile of broken stonework, and a little further on an entrance into the circular building. Rumble and charred wood was strewn about the floor, the building had clearly been burnt out. To their left was an entry into the rest of the building, both doors having long been burnt into charred remains, and a small room stood next to this entryway, its walls broken and knocked down.
The party decided to move into the circular tower through the doorway. Inside piles of rubble and charred wood were stacked around, and in the centre of the room, resting slightly askew, was an enormous iron bell buried a couple of feet in rubble that had fallen from the ceiling. Unagi and Shadow Flame set about studying the bell looking for inscriptions or markings that might give some clue as the where they were or the purpose of this building, but the bells surface was smooth and marked only with small dents and chips that were probably created when the roof collapsed. Each member of the party began searching through the various piles of rubble strewn about the floor while Unagi studied a long spiral staircase that wound its way around the inside of the wall before ending about 20 feet in the air just below the level where the wall remained standing.
After a brief search Silvara discovered some bones amid the rubble and cleared them away to reveal a body, it bones cracked and crushed under the weight of the rubble that has fallen from he ceiling. Lying nearby to the hand bone of this skeleton was a large warhammer apparently made of iron or steel. Silvara picked it up, it was finely crafted but heavy, and almost unnaturally cold to the touch. Unagi inspected the hammer, and with his years of experience in the arena with many different weapons made of different and often exotic materials, told the party that the weapon was crafted of cold wrought iron. He explained that through a special technique known only to exceptionally skilled blacksmiths, the iron of a weapon could be made to feel cold as a by product of its forging, whose main objective is to harden the iron making the weapon more durable.
Unagi turned his attention back to the staircase and decided it was a worthy endeavour to climb the stairs, even thought they lead nowhere. The staircase was unstable after the collapse of the towers roof, but still strong enough to support Unagi's considerable weight. It took only a minute or so for Unagi to reach the top of the remains of the stairs. As he stepped on to the last step they gave way - the top several steps collapsed out from under Unagi, although he was quick enough to grab hold of the now top step. He hung there for a second, looking at the ground 20 feet below him, and then the step he had hold of broke off and fell to the ground as well. With nothing else to grab on Unagi dropped the 20 feet to the ground, landing with a loud crash. After he had lay there for a second Shadow Flame walked up to him.
"Um, what did you do that for?" he asked.
Unagi looked up from the ground he was lying face first on, "To see what would happen?"
"To see what would happen on the broken stairs that didn't lead anywhere?"
"Uh, seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Well, I guess, if nothing else, the comedy value was worth the price of admission."
Unagi stood up and brushed himself off a little sheepishly, and with little else to investigate in the bell tower the party walked out the way they came in.
The air around the party darkened drowning out the starlight. In front of them 2 ghostly figures appeared dressed in heavy robes with the cowls pulled over their heads. There were no markings on the robes of the apparitions who were carrying a ghostly body between them, its throat cleanly cut, each having hold of a shoulder. Unagi drew his weapon in anticipation but the figures walked straight through the party and into the bell tower. The party followed them in to the bell tower to watch what they did. The ghostly figures set the body they had been dragging in the centre of the room, under the fallen bell. Once that was done one of the figures began walking up the staircase while the other began to arrange the body into a spread-eagle position on its back. The ghost climbing the stairs continued up to the top, past the top of the fallen stairway, and continued up until it was about 60' above the ground. It pulled a large hammer from it's voluminous robes and struck inward toward the tower where the bell would most likely have hung when it was intact, causing a loud ringing to echo through the area. The distant cawing of many crows began to filter into the tower and grew louder over several seconds. Crows began to alight on the window sills and fly into the room. The ghost that had rung the bell descended the stairs where it was met by the other, and they both left the bell tower as the ghostly crows flew down to the corpse and began stripping the flesh from it eating it. The party followed the ghosts from the bell tower, and after a few steps they both dissipated into nothingness.
The party returned back to the room they had first come through and approached the broken double doors in the western wall. As they neared the doorway several more ghostly figures began materializing in front of them. Dressed in the clothing of farmers, blacksmiths, merchants and other common folk, they walked out in pairs, husbands comforting wives, mothers holding children, or alone, grief apparent in all their faces. Some of them turned to the left where ghostly men with heavy robes handed them cloaks or other traveling gear. Some approached the bell tower building; a small ghostly kitchen had appeared and several commoners took bowls of food from robed figures. The ghosts continued to walk from the doorway for several seconds, before they all disappeared in wisps of glowing blue-white light.
The party continued forward past the large broken doorway into a large room beyond. The rubble was lighter in this area as the roof was wooden, but it had clearly been burnt out at some time in the past as the rafters had partially fallen in and the thatching was all but gone. Starlight shone in through the roof illuminating the floor; broken pews lined an aisle with burnt carpeting and large windows had been broken - small pools of molten glass lay on the floor amid the shards of broken glass. At the end of the room was a large raised pulpit. Stairs at either end of the pulpit gave access to it's raised altar, and large rusted iron candelabra sat at the top of each set of stairs. As the party continued further into the room it took on the ghostly glow they had seen before.
Symbol of Jergal
“Brother Kallis! Where are you off to in such a hurry?” The ghostly figure of the gaunt man stopped and looked at his feet with an expression of defeat upon his face. The party turned toward the voice and saw that another ghost had appeared standing behind the altar. It was dressed in long thick robes as well with a symbol emblazoned upon them: a skull with no lower jaw resting upon a stylus and parchment. The first figure turned to look at the other;
“I was going to Harlen’s Edge, to tutor the mayor’s son.”
“Admirable. Your dedication is remarkable brother”, an edge of sarcasm evident in his voice. He paused for a moment before asking, “Pray tell brother Kallis, what are you carrying?”
“Books of learning master, to aid in teaching” spoke the first with just a slight hint of fear in his voice. The other stood silent for a moment staring intently at the other for several seconds before relaxing and continuing, “well, do not tarry here bending an old man’s ear. See to your tutoring young Kallis, there will be time to speak upon your return.”
“Yes master, thank you master”
As the young man turned to leave the older spoke to his back, “remember Kallis, there is nothing that occurs in this Home of the Dead that Old Grave does not know about”, his voice ending in a barely noticeable tone of malice.
The younger man paused briefly before continuing to walk down the churches aisle.
The ghostly light and figures then slowly faded into wisps of blue-white light before disappearing altogether.
"Home of the Dead?" Shadow Flame asked no one in particular. "Have any of you heard of this place?"
The party all looked at each other briefly before collectively shaking their heads.
"This place is definitely a temple of some sort though," said Unagi. "We should check out the altar."
The party walked up to the altar and split up, 2 going up each stairway. The altar was quite tall, about 3 or so feet. At either end of the altar, at the back, was a stairway descending deeper under the floor of the temple altar room. As the party moved toward the altar the room suddenly grew light as the blue-white light of the ghostly apparitions filled the room. Ghostly pews and windows shone with the pallid glow of a wraith, the whole room lit up as richly decorated stained glass windows filled the walls and lengths of cloth hung from the ceiling. Many ghostly figures started fading in through the room, sitting upon the pews. Simple townsfolk for the most part, dressed as labourers and fisherman, small children and their parents sitting together, comforting each other. Some sobbed gently and others offered comfort with an arm around a shoulder or a hug. A ghostly body slowly appeared lying on the altar, draped in a funeral shroud. The ghostly figure of the old man appeared again and seemed to be speaking the end of a funeral rite.
“And so we gather here today to say our final farewells to Salin Greenmarsh, beloved father of Anwin, grandfather to Castor and Emily and husband to Sarrah. We commend his body the earth. Jergal will watch over him, guard him in his rest. Do not feel sorrow, for Salin goes on to eternal death, eternal peace, his place in the afterlife watched over by Jergal.” As the rites came to an end the ghostly figures began to fade, the light of the room dimmed, and the party once again found themselves standing in the empty, burnt out church staring over the fire devastated room.
The party decided they would continue down the stairways that lead under the church.
"Watch the mist when these things die," Unagi called a warning to the party, "it's made out of acid or something!"
The party fought on but the creatures keep swarming up the stairs, for each one they killed another took it's place. The one saving grace was that the creatures were not immune to the acid vapour from others of their kind. More than once the creatures set off a chain reaction that saw an extra 1 or 2 creatures die as the result of having the acidic mist spray on them when one of their kind was killed nearby.
The party lost count of how many of them they killed, but eventually the last of them burst into that stinging green cloud of acid. They looked around at each other - they were all still standing but it was clear that they had suffered some fairly bad injuries. Silvara called on the power of Selune to heal some of the wounds suffered during the combat, and Jean and Shadow Flame had potions of healing they had obtained previously. A few minutes later they were in better shape but were still a little worse for wear.
Ashen Heart floated in the void. The darkness was complete but she was used to it now in this place between worlds. Each minute that passed stretched into hours, and those hours into days - time was meaningless in those places where the gates were closed in both directions, but trying to measure time was a small distraction from the enveloping nothingness. Then she felt it. It was the one thing that was not denied to her; feeling. She could reach out into the world, feel what was there, but until now she had found nothing. She thought of those things as nothing now, but there was a time when they played in her mind, excited her with their potential. But this was something different, something real - life had returned to this side of the void. Mortals had entered whatever damnable place her prison led to, she could feel their warmth, hear the blood rushing through their veins, she could smell their flesh. Some spark, unfamiliar yet exciting, entered her hollow heart. Was it hope? Hope! A feeling that did not often find a place within those of her kind. She seethed with momentary rage, the previously unknown, human emotion was unwelcome, a sign of weakness, of mortality and she hated herself for feeling it, for being exhilarated by it. They would pay for their frailty, she would see to that, but first, the ground work had to be laid...
The party walked down the stairway, descending for about 20 feet before the stairs leveled out into a corridor which turned to the right after a few feet. Following the corridor for a while the party came across a corridor branching off to the left while the corridor they were in continued on. Suspecting that the corridor that continued straight would simply meet up with the stairs on the other side of the altar, Unagi moved quickly head, and after confirming his suspicions he returned to the party to let them know.
They continued down the left branching corridor. As they did 2 ghostly figures appeared before them, dressed in the heavy robes of the clergy of Jergal they dragged a raggedly dressed man in between them.
"Please, let me go," the man being dragged begged. "I won't tell anyone..."
The 2 figures laughed quietly to themselves and continued to drag him down the corridor for several more feet before disappearing in the now familiar wisps of blue-white light.
The party shared a look once the apparitions had vanished.
"Something happened down here. Something terrible," said Silvara.
"No doubt," replied Shadow Flame. "We should find out what is happening."
"Agreed," said Unagi, "there'll probably more things to kill."
The corridor they were following branched at a T-intersection ahead of them. In the grand tradition of adventurers everywhere they followed the left corridor. It turned to the right before expanding into another T-intersection, this one branching back to the right. On their left stood a row of 3 doors and they stopped at the first door. Shadow Flame moved forward to open the door, it looked pretty beaten up and was slightly charred as well. Unagi decided to take matters into his own hands and stepped forward, pushing Shadow Flame out of the way.
"We've got no time for your listening and lock picking, I'll handle the doors."
He took a step back and shoulder charged the door. Considering its age and slightly charred appearance the door was surprisingly resilient, and Unagi rebounded off it, stumbled once and, not for the first time, fell on his arse. Shadow Flame stepped forward and grabbed the knob on the door, turned it gently and the door swung inward. Jean and Silvara stepped over Unagi as he picked himself up and followed him into the room beyond. It was a small room, the stone was blackened by smoke and the charred remains of pieces of furniture lay scattered around. A ruined bed marked the room as a bedroom. As the party entered the room it began to glow with that soft blue-white light that heralded the appearance of the past.
At the end of the room a small bed appeared, and a large desk with several tomes resting upon it sat beside it. Seated at the desk was a woman with long hair and a thin elven face, dressed in a night-gown. She was writing upon a parchment with a feathered quill; a letter explaining that something terrible is happening at the Home of the Dead. It describes that changes that have come over Old Grave, head priest of the temple and how the other acolytes also fell under the foul influence as well. As she began to sign her name – Pascha Elion, the door to the room opened behind her. She jumped, startled, and looked around. Standing in the doorway was a heavily robed figure, a powerfully built man with short-cropped hair and sadistic look in his eyes.
“Oh Stid, it’s just you” she breathed with a sigh of relief. “What do you want, it’s past midnight”
“Pascha. my dear Pascha. What are you writing?” asked Stid.
“Err…it’s a letter. A letter to my family, I write them often, they live so far away”
“I do not believe you my dear. Let me see” he replied, holding out his hand.
Pascha grabbed the scroll she had been writing on and stood up. “No, it’s personal. Please leave, I’m going to bed”
Stid grabbed Pascha’s arm and said “so sorry Pascha, I always liked you”
“What do you mean Sti…”, Pascha gasped and looked down at the long blade protruding from her chest. A look of fear crossed her face before she slumped quietly to the floor.
Stid looked down upon her body and wiped his blade upon her gown before sheathing it. He then bent down and picked her up, carrying her from the room.
As the light washed from the room there was a quiet scuffling noise behind the party, from the direction of the doorway. They quickly turned to see a heavily robed figure shuffle awkwardly into the door frame. It raised it's right arm exposing a grey skinned and deformed hand and spoke, "you are not here", any inflection in it's voice impossible to discern. As it finished speaking a searing gout of flame burst from it's hand enveloping the party.
"Undead!" cried Silvara. "I will turn it to dust!" She held forth the holy symbol of Selune that she wore around her neck and called on her goddess to smite the foul creature before her. Nothing happened. The creature simply turned its attacks upon Shadow Flame and landed heavy blows on the tiefling. The creature moaned in pain as its fists struck Shadow Flame, leaving smeared blood on his leather armor. Shadow Flame struck with his own weapons and pierced the creatures flesh with his dagger. It screamed in pain, and Shadow Flame knew what was needed.
"It can only be harmed by enchanted weapons," he called to the party. Unagi cursed.
"Let me in Unagi," said Silvara, "my mace can hurt it."
Shadow Flame held the creature while the gladiator and priestess swapped positions. From the there battle quickly turned against the creature, but it had more than a simple fire burst up it's sleeve. It turned to Shadow Flame and made a shoving motion with it's arms; he went flying across the room and landed heavily against the wall and dropped to the floor with a thud. As Silvara counter attacked, several of the small, bloated creatures they had fought at the altar popped into the room with a pale flash of red light and a the dull thud sound of air being displaced. Unagi and Jean immediately set to work on the small creatures, slicing them apart in bursts of acidic green vapour. Shadow Flame leapt back across to help Silvara finish off the foul deformed creature, and in short time they stood over its body, limbs skewing off at odd angles as it lay dead on the ground.
Unagi and Jean walked over and stood by Silvara and Shadow Flame after the acid vapour of the last mindless gremlin creature was settling on the ground. Shadow Flame pulled back the cowl of the creatures robes exposing an grossly disfigured face, now contorted in the last grimace of pain it would feel. Shadow Flame turned to Ixxizigut and questioned it on it's knowledge of these creatures, after all, the Imp was born of the 9 Hells, it might have some knowledge of their adversaries.
"Do you know what these things are?"
"Filthy manes the little ones," answered Ixxizigut, "petitioners of the Abyss."
"Petitioners?" asked Shadow Flame, unfamiliar with the term.
Ixxizigut smiled, he was now the one with all the knowledge. "When mortals die their souls are transported to the plane that most closely matches their thoughts and actions while they were alive, unless they followed a Power. Then they are transported to their gods realm, to take on forms most pleasing to their god. Evil mortals with no god often end up in the Abyss, as manes. Lowly beasts, they are the food of the Tanar'ri, so pathetic they are not even considered to be worthy of the name."
"And this...thing?" asked Shadow Flame motioning to the malformed beast that lay at their feet.
"Rutterkin," answered Ixxizigut. "Hateful creatures, so deformed that movement itself causes them pain."
There were more questions that needed answering but this was not the place to conduct an investigation into the creatures of the Abyss.
"If it is OK with master, Ixxizigut is hurt from fighting with manes, can he rest away from battle?"
"Fine," stated Shadow Flame, "remain invisible but close enough that you will hear if I call upon you."
"Thanks you master."
"We should continue on," said Unagi.
They have some power Ashen Heart thought. Exactly what was needed. It had been so long since she had made the mistake of opening the crystal on the Grey Wastes and stepping into this prison of void. Such things were not common but it was known that these gate crystals could be used by Tanar'ri and other fiends to enter the Prime, even allowing entrance to those who could not normally enter it under their own power. Her mind drifted back. Events had turned sour that day. What should have been a great victory over the Baatezu had turned into a crushing defeat and what had remained of Fraj'Maldruuz' forces had been routed when the Yugoloth mercenaries had turned on their Tanar'ri employer. Once that was done there was nothing to do but flee, there was no need to stay and die, there is no honour in defeat, in death. The Babau would come, there was no doubt of that, and when they did it was better to be elsewhere. And so it was, doomed to walk the Gloom of Oinos, the land without a heart. So this was fear, real fear, oh how the hate grew strong for those who made her feel fear. Jumping at shadows, unable to rest, she would not let them take her back, she was tired of their war, but she was tired also of running. Then the crystal, glowing in the tree. Surely it was a trick; who would leave such a thing resting in the bough of a dead tree, waiting to be found by any pitiless soul? The answer was the shadows; shadows that grew to impossible heights, and brought with them the stench of disease, the sweet scent of sweat and decay. It was close and it was coming closer, the thing the crystal belonged to. It was not something that would entertain reason. There was no choice, it was either use the crystal or face oblivion. She stepped through. The rush of warmth, the smells of the Prime, like a summers breeze, tantalizing and full of promise; for that one small instant there was no regret, just the elation of the potential before her. But something was wrong, the entrance closed behind her, the exit ripped violently from her path as the void sank in around her, marking the beginning of this decades long blank existence. Something had happened on the other side, something had closed the door, and she was denied her place in the multiverse. But now, with fresh blood, the first blood since her arrival she smelled the scent of the Prime once again, all she needed was that extra pulse of power from the Rutterkin, perhaps powered by their deaths...
The party agreed and decided to try the next door along, about 20 feet down the corridor. This time Shadow Flame opened the door without any interference from Unagi, and they walked into a room the same size as the previous one. This room was likewise charred with scorch marks on the stone walls and no discernible furniture amoung the remains. They spread out and started searching through the room. After a few moments Shadow Flame found a small compartment carved into the wall. It was likely once hidden behind a small sliding door or loose stone, but the destruction in the room had exposed it making it easy to find behind the rubble piled around the wall. Inside was a small chest, slightly charred from its proximity to fire but otherwise intact. After checking for traps Shadow Flame opened it and found several intact potion bottles and a scroll.
They moved back out into the corridor and returned the way they had come so as to move down the corridor that branched from this one. A doorway sat in the right wall 15 or so feet down the corridor. On their left was a balcony; the wall rose only 3 feet from the ground and opened up into a pit of sorts. A roiling black smoky mist churned in the middle of the pit obscuring any floor that it might have. Unagi took a copper piece from his pack and tossed it into the shadow mist. The sound of it hitting the floor came almost immediately and it was clear that the pit was only 15 or 20 feet deep. Not wanting to test the pit straight away they moved to the door. Shadow Flame pressed his ear to the door, but hearing no sounds come from the other side he slowly opened it. The room beyond was quite large; charred remains of furniture lay scattered about the floor, and several badly damaged book cases still stood against the west wall.
The large room took on a dull glow as several pieces of furniture light up in ghostly, wispy light. Several plush seats appeared in ghostly white light, with a heavy table in the middle of the room. Several bookshelves lined the walls and a large desk sat against the south wall. A robed human sat at the desk – it was Kallis, the man from the churches main room. Sitting beside him was a woman, dressed in an elegant flowing gown, she had long hair and a long beautiful elven face, but was clearly human.
“Something is…wrong with Old Grave. He has changed”
“Yes Pascha, I have felt it to. Something has come to this place, something old, something evil, and it has taken the others…even Old Grave is lost” replied Kallis.
“The townsfolk do not come here anymore and our crops whither. We are the only 2 left, we must warn the town. We must get help”
“I know, I know. You should go Pascha, someone has to stay behind and watch over the temple. I’ll try and talk to Old Grave, try and break the hold that has taken him”
“Kallis no! You’ll be killed. Whatever has come here is strong, too strong” Pascha pleaded.
“I have to try Pascha, I cannot give up on Old Gra…”
"Ssshhh, someone’s coming….” Pascha whispered as she stood and walked toward the door, fading into nothingness along with the room.
After a brief search of the rubble in the room they moved on; following the corridor to it's end they turned left as the right corridor simply doubled back to the entry corridor. The left wall was absent in this corridor as well, it was bounded by a lower wall that also overlooked the rolling black shadows below. Half way down the corridor they came upon another door. After listening to check whether something waited for them inside Shadow Flame slowly opened the door and the party followed him inside the room beyond.
Several beds took shape and glowed with the dull wispy light of the other ghostly encounters. Small desks rested in between the beds. 3 ghostly figures, dressed in the heavy robes seen on the other apparitions in this forsaken place appeared standing over a bed at the eastern end of the room. A ghostly figure sat upon the bed, it’s arms raised defensively; it was a young man, also dressed in heavy robes, his eyes open wide in fear. One of the other ghosts spoke to him;
“Anseth, you have forsaken the teachings of the master”
“No, no!” cried Anseth. “The master has lost his way. He serves another now. Please, do you not see it? Jergal does not answer our prayers any more. This place has become host to….something else”
“Anseth, you know the laws; the new laws,” was the menacing reply. The 3 figures grabbed the ghostly form of Anseth and began dragging him from the room. “As you well know my friend, the punishment for your continued defiance is death” said the first figure.
Anseth let out an anguished cry as he was dragged from the room. At the entrance to the room stood the figure of the old man from the Church room, his cowl folded back and a look of sadness in his eyes.
The party began searching the room which was comparatively intact. The beds could still be seen, and although broken, the remains of cupboards and chests stood amid the rubble. Lying in the corner was a small black leather book; Shadow Flame saw it and picked it up. It was well worn but the pages were clean and untouched by the flames that had clearly ravaged this place. The title of the small book was "Prayers and Laws for the Keeping of the Dead" and had the same symbol of the jawless skull resting upon a parchment and writing stylus as was emblazoned upon the robes of the old man from the Church. Shadow Flame flicked through the book, pausing to read some passages to himself, and after several minutes told the party what he had found.
"It is a prayer book dedicated to Jergal," he began. "It describes Jergal as the Lord of the End of Everything, and says that he is the god responsible for keeping records of all the spirits of the dead. It calls him the fatalistic undertaker who strives for order in death, anticipating the ever-encroaching termination of all living things. He is said to strive for an orderly accounting of the fate of the world as it slowly sinks into death."
"Lovely," replied Unagi.
"Well, not the kind of god I would worship," said Silvara, " but he is clearly not an evil god, he has a more neutral outlook, a god of entropy perhaps?"
"It agrees with the ghosts that inhabit this place," said Shadow Flame, "Jergal is not an evil faith, so something has perverted this place. It seems their leader, Old Grave?, was the first to fall, and took his clergy with him."
"If we can help these people we should," said Silvara.
"As long as there is something to kill...", began Unagi.
"...or something good to find," interrupted Shadow Flame with a wink.
They left the room and continued down the corridor. As they walked they looked into the roiling black mist at their side; as the shadows rose and fell like a tide thin arcs of purple energy could be seen underneath. They stopped and watched the shadows for a while, trying to discern any pattern to the purple energy, and soon it became clear that there were 5 beams of the purple electricity arranged in the shape of a pentagon. The beams were deep within the shadows and were mostly obscured by them but there was no mistaking that shape.
The Rutterkin, filthy, slothful dogs. Ashen Heart had no use for them normally, but circumstances leant to them a decided usefulness. Time did not pass in any noticeable way in this blank prison but it also did not possess any walls; at least no walls for the mind or the senses. The Prime called to her, teased her as it invited her to reach out and touch it only to step back as she got close. But its teasing had opened the way for discovery, so blind it was in its innocence. The circle of power radiated its energy even into this prison; it was created to pierce the veil between worlds, no doubt by some petty mage hoping to obtain power without suffering. Ashen Heart knew there was no such thing. True power required suffering, it required sacrifice, and it did not come easily. Mortals learnt this lesson only when it was too late and this time a mortals greed had become a gift for her. Although it was not her way out she could focus her Abyss granted gifts and bring forth her kin from that damned rift. Yes they were weak, the pitiful forms of the least of her kind, but their will could be used, their souls, such as they were, harnessed, and, under the right circumstances, used to destroy her prison and set her free. All that was needed was the carrot that these interlopers would follow...
As the corridor ended it turned to the left, and on their right was a doorway. They stepped into a small landing and saw that there were stairs leading down.
"I think we should finish looking up here first," said Shadow Flame, "make sure that there isn't something waiting to follow us down."
Silvara and Jean nodded their agreement but Unagi was growing bored, "no let's go down. There's nothing left up here, the fight is down those stairs."
"I'd say we have a majority vote to finish searching up here before heading down," said Shadow Flame.
"I don't care," replied Unagi, "I'm heading down," as he turned and began descending the stairs.
Shadow Flame cursed under his breath and began following Unagi down the stairs. After descending a short distance a ghostly figured appeared in front of them. It was the man called Kallis. He was dressed in the heavy robes of his order and clutched a large tome to his chest. As he ascended the stairs he paused to look fearfully back over his shoulder before hurrying forward straight through the party to the top of the stairs.
Unagi was a bit more conciliatory on the idea of exploring the top level before descending to the depths after the encounter with the manes, and the party set off to see what waited for them up there. Leaving the stairway they continued straight, the roiling mass of flowing shadow visible below over the railing on their left. The corridor continued straight along for 30 or 40 feet; a doorway mirroring the one with the stairs they had just come from was set in the wall and also lead to a set of descending stairs. They turned to the left to ensure that the corridor they had entered did meet up with the corridor they first entered as the layout of the level suggested it would.
They continued along the corridor which did indeed lead back to their starting point. Along the way the party stopped at the only unexplored door on the level, and they cautiously entered. Like the other rooms they had found this one was also destroyed both by fire and by violence; the broken and charred remains of furniture littered the room. They began looking through the room, and in short order came upon another compartment containing a small chest very similar to the one in the room that was next door. This chest however had been badly damaged in the fire, and in addition to what appeared to be two more potions there were also two broken bottles. They took the intact bottles and prepared to descend into the shadowy lower level.
Returning to the second stairway they had discovered the party moved cautiously down listening closely to signs of attacks from more manes. They reached the bottom of the stairs without incident, a descent of around 20 feet. They came out into what was likely a large room with a doorway set into the wall at their right and a large square stone column around 15 feet to their right. The large cloud of shifting shadow rolled around the floor and filled the room, obscuring the far side.
"I think we should skirt the walls and get the lay of the land before we think about what we are going to do with those shadows," said Unagi.
The party agreed with his plan and set about moving around the edge of the room. As they stepped forward from the staircase the dark shadows seemed to recede inwards, and the room began to take on the blue-white glow of the visions they had been seeing in the Home of the Dead.
A large pentagram began to glow with a wispy blue-white light in the centre of the room. The room was indeed very big, the other walls visible as the apparition overlaid the shadowy mist. The pentagram was laid into the ground at the centre of four large stone columns, the same as the one the party saw when they first came down the stairway, and sitting in the centre of it, holding a large gem in front of his chest was the priest known as Old Grave. Standing at each point of the Pentagram was a man in the heavy robes of the priesthood of Jergal and they each had their head bowed in prayer. Old Grave was chanting into the gem as swirling tendrils of energy began slowly leaking out from the gem in increasingly violent bursts. The sounds of battle could be heard from overhead; sword upon sword, the loud crashing of magic, and the cries of the wounded.
Sitting at the far end of the chamber was a small girl. She had long hair and was dressed in the garb of a simple farmers daughter. Her leg had a splint running its length, reinforced on both sides; she was clearly lame, and leant upon a long shepherds crook. Her eyes were wide - excited, expectant, eager, as if she was relishing the sights before her. She looked up and over at the party, directly at them and her expression turned to one of curiosity.
The chanting of Old Grave grew louder, and the clanking of armoured men could now be heard coming down the stairwells. As several men wearing heavy plate armour emblazoned with tunics bearing the Berduskan coat of arms rushed the room, the chanting of Old Grave stopped and the acolytes staggered back a step or two. The energy swirling through the room from the gem appeared to almost dive into the open mouth of Old Grave who began screaming, his head filling with the energy as pieces of flesh start to peel from his face and drop into his lap. Within moments he collapsed. After a minute or so Old Grave looked up from the gem and his eyes were but pinpoints of white light, set deep into his sockets. The acolytes shuffled forward, putrid husks of their former selves, their skin withered, their faces rotting. The soldiers burst into action, attacking the acolytes, cutting them down quickly and without pause. The battle was over quickly, and as the last acolyte dropped to the ground Old Grave stood. A thin finger of energy swirled around his head and began digging into his eye sockets, his mouth, his ears. An expression of shock passed over his face and he turned to see the ribbon of energy extended from the hand of a young woman standing behind him. She was dressed in the robes of a priestess of Mystra, and as Old Grave met her gaze she closed her hand into a fist, and the energy that had forced its way into the old mans head exploded out in a burst of bright white energy. As the energy faded the sound of a heavy object hitting the ground could be heard, and they could see, embedded in the middle of the pentagram, the gem that was held by Old Grave.
The ghostly light faded leaving the party standing in front of the black shadows once again. The appearance of the small girl gave them pause, but there was nothing to do about it then so they continued on. Skirting the shadows they moved left and entered the doorway they spotted from the foot of the stairs. Inside was a small room with another exit 20 feet down the wall that led back into the main hall. The walls were lined with books, all a uniform dark grey leather with unfamiliar runic markings upon them. The party each pulled a book from the shelves and began flipping through the pages. Each book was filled with names, listed down each page, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of names taking in the dozens of tomes lining the shelves.
"Are the books you looked at just lists of names?" asked Unagi.
"Yes," replied Jean,"just hundreds of names."
"Thousands, maybe millions," said Shadow Flame. "Do any of you have books with anything else? Any identifying information?"
They all shook their heads.
"The names of those who were sacrificed to whatever went on here?" guess Unagi.
"I think this is more in keeping with Jergal's role," replied Shadow Flame, " as the keeper of the dead. Recording the names of the dead."
"Makes sense," said Unagi. "There's nothing here though, let's keep moving."
They left the room via the other door and moved back into the main hall being careful to stay away from the Shadows.
"I think we should get the lay of this place," suggested Shadow Flame, "Skirt around the entire room and see what we're dealing with."
The rest of them agreed it was a good idea so they continued on, noting any doors or other features they passed. The main room was large, at least 100 feet by 60 feet, and as they moved they came across a number of doors, 2 on the south wall, and one each on the west and north walls.
"I say the door on the west wall first," said Shadow Flame. Again the party was in agreement so they approached the door, again with caution. Shadow Flame leant down and listened at the door, and hearing nothing, turned the handle and opened it. As with the other rooms this one was touched by fire and charred remains of desk, bookshelves and many books lay littered around the floor. The party moved into have a look around, the room darkening momentarily and then ghostly light fading in.
The room filled with the now familiar wispy glow of the previous ghostly visions; bookcases line the room, filled to brimming with carefully ordered tomes. Desks were placed at orderly intervals through the room, and it was clear that this was once a study hall of some kind. Sitting at a desk at the front of the room was the robed figure of Old Grave, pouring over the contents of a large open tome in front of him, with several others stacked up around the table. Leaning next to him was a small child, her leg bound in a splint-like frame, the kind used to aid someone with a lame leg in walking, and she was leaning on a small shepherd’s crook for support. Her long hair flowed over her face as she leant forward and whispered into the ear of Old Grave. As she whispered Old Grave paused in his reading but did not give any indication that he was aware of her presence. As she finished whispering he stood and walked straight through her as if she was not there. As the old man walked past her she turned and look at the party, an expression of curiosity passing over her face.
“You are not here” she spoke, her voice soft and sweet as that of a child. As she spoke again however, her voice was doubled by a deeper,older voice, its pitch shifting up and down, but remaining low and menacing. “How can you see this? Curious.” Her eyes shifted towards the staff carried by Jean. “I see. Interesting. We will see each other again I am sure”
The ghostly images gently fade and the party once again found themselves standing in the demolished remains of the room. Nothing of interest was found in the room (nothing of interest that was still usefully intact at least) so the party continued to scout the doorways and rooms running from the main area. They returned to the south wall and the first door they had passed on their lap of the main room. Shadow Flame cautiously opened the door and lead the party into a long corridor that opened up into a large square room at least 30 feet on a side. A huge circle of power was etched into the stone of the floor; it was about 20 feet in diameter and still intact - most likely usable by someone with the skill at magic and the knowledge to do so. They moved slowly into the room which began to slowly light up with the ghostly light they had encountered many times already in these catacomb like rooms.
Shadow Flame walked across the room to see if the smaller circle of power Old Grave had been sitting within in the vision they just witnessed, but no trace of it could be seen upon the floor at the place he had sat. With nothing else in the room the party turned and began to leave.
Ashen Heart focused her will as she had in the past to bring forth the denizens of the abyss. They had kept their distance so far, they feared the shadows, and rightfully so she smiled. She smelt their blood, heard it as it rushed through their veins, they were close. The circle of power hummed in her head as waves of energy rolled out from it, the connection to the lower planes as strong as it had ever been. They had stayed, curiosity was a strong motivator, and the fear had begun to recede with each minute they remained. They would try to work the gem, or simply try and take it for themselves. Once the lock was opened they would know the fear that had embraced her. But it would be easier if the manes were to wear them down, diminish their power. It was the nature of the Abyss to drain it's victims strength, diminish their will before striking. The rush of magic as it was channeled through the gateway was exhilarating. Ashen Heart focused that energy upon the circle of power and brought forth more manes to work her will...
As they moved into the corridor the party heard the dull pops from behind them, the same as those heard when the Rutterkin had brought forth the manes on the upper level. Unagi was the first to react, swiftly drawing his blade and turning to see the manes rip through the fabric that separated worlds with the dull pop and pale light of the gate magic. The party reacted quickly, much quicker than the manes who stood looking around the room, momentarily disoriented from their journey. Without any magic to call upon Jean leapt into the fray with both Shadow Flame and Silvara running in with Unagi. The manes were no match for them, and even with the little pests exploding into acidic clouds upon their deaths the party cleaned them up in short order, suffering little harm themselves in the battle.
Still not ready to find out what was waiting for them within the rolling Shadows in the middle of the large room, the party again skirted the walls, passing the library where the young girl had spoken to them and over to the other side of the room. They were now on the same side of the room as they had entered from down the stairs. They approached the solitary door on this wall, about 40 or 50 feet from the stairwell they had come down to this room from. Shadow Flame listened at the door, but with no discernible sound he simply turned the handle and opened it. A long corridor stretched before them, perhaps as long as 100 feet, with 3 doors placed along the eastern wall at their left. They briefly discussed which order to approach the doors, Unagi being in favour of starting at the furthest door and working their way forward, but he was out voted by the rest of the party.
They approached the first door and again Shadow Flame listened cautiously to see if there was any sound coming from the other side. Not hearing anything he again opened the door and the party moved through.
The room again took on the unworldly glow of the ghostly visions and the figure of Old Grave faded in to view. He sat at a large desk, several large tomes open before him as he hunched over holding a needle thin dagger in his hand. He seemed to be using it to write upon something, and every now and then he would look up and study one of the tomes before returning to his writing. It soon became clear that he was inscribing runes and diagrammatic markings upon a large diamond, about the size of a human eye.
After several moments he stood and held the gem up to the light, smiling to himself. He moved over to the north wall and leant over, pushing a small stone in the wall. He walked across and repeated this same ritual on south and east walls. As he pressed the stone in the eastern wall a small compartment opened about shoulder height in the middle of that wall. He reached in and could be heard whispering to himself before he placed the diamond into the compartment and closed it.
The ghostly images faded and once again the party was standing in the room, rubble strewn about with the charred remains of furniture and bedding. Shadow Flame quickly moved and tried to repeat the sequence of stones that Old Grave had used to open the compartment in the vision. He accomplished easily and the hidden opening slid open revealing an empty compartment. He reached in and felt around for a second, but feeling nothing out of the ordinary simply informed the party that the compartment was empty. They spent a few minutes sifting through the room to see if there was anything of note to be found, but after several minutes they decided to try the next room.
Once again Shadow Flame took the time to listen at the door before turning the handle into the silence. The now familiar glow of ghostly objects faded in as the party entered the room.
A large table rested upon the north wall, a naked human male strapped down on it, spread-eagle on his back. Next to the table was a smaller one with several instruments of torture laid out upon it. On the east wall sat another table, this one smaller, and several human headed maggot creatures were locked in a small cage in the south east corner of the room.
Old Grave faded in in front of the party and walked over to the cage. He opened it and pulled out one of the maggot creatures which began to struggle and try and bite the old man, but he simply cracked it across the cage like a whip, dazing it and calming it down. He walked across and put it on the table on the south wall and trapped it down. He drew a long knife from his robes and stabbed it into the creature, slicing it from throat to tail. His face took on an expression of disgust as he sat down at the table. Leaning forward he reached into the still living maggot’s body and pulled a slimy, malformed organ from the creature. After pausing and taking a deep breath he began to eat it. With each bite he took he gagged, almost uncontrollably, and on the third bite he leant over and vomited violently.
Fading in behind him was a small girl; she had the appearance of a simple farmer’s daughter, with long hair and beautiful face. Her leg had a splint around it and she leant heavily upon a small Shepherd’s crook as she limped over to the hunched over form of Old Grave. She leant over and whispered into his ear. While not giving any sign that he was aware of her presence the old man sat up and began eating from the body of the maggot once again.
The ghostly scene began to fade out, however the ghost of the little girl did not. She turned to the party and regarded them with curiosity.
"You again” she said, seemingly unsurprised by their presence. Her voice was both that of a sweet child and the tortured moan of an ancient voice of deep aspect. “I imagine you have learnt much here. I find myself wondering to myself about your practical uses, and can only guess as to your thoughts about me. Never to mind, there are answers, but none now. It is our way to weave wheels within wheels, I wonder did you know. I do not think we will meet again soon, but I will keep my ears, such as they are, open”.
"That much is true," replied Shadow Flame.
"It seems the staff has something to do with it as well," said Jean.
"Damn thing has been nothing but trouble," Unagi added. "It might be the key to the shadows in the other room."
"Wheels within wheels, isn't that the phrase you said the aspect of Anthraxus used?" asked Silvara.
"Yes, it is," replied Shadow Flame. "How could they be related? Ixxizigut!" he called.
The imp appeared after several seconds, "Yes master?" it asked.
"What do you know of this girl?"
"She is clearly not what she appears to be master," it said, "but it is an uncommon form for one of such obvious power to take. I cannot say what or who it is, but you could find out if you ask in the right places."
"How could it see us? If it is part of the past, part of these ghostly visions?" Shadow Flame asked.
"I do not know master. Ixxizigut knows much, but he is just an imp, a strong and powerful imp yes, but those with knowledge do not share it with me," he explained, clearly agitated by having some of his ignorance exposed.
"And these maggots? What are they?"
"They are larvae master, evil petitioners, found in infinite numbers on the lower planes. They are the currency of those planes, and are bought and sold like chattel." Ixxizigut explained.
"What can you do with them?" asked Shadow Flame, clearly intrigued.
"They can be food for fiends, or some fiendish races transform them into lower castes of their kind. Liches need them to maintain the dark energies that power their transformations and undeath..." he trailed off. "The Night Hags trade them for secrets, dark secrets and dark magics."
The party digested this new information for a couple of minutes.
"OK Ixxizigut, you may return to the form of you choosing," Shadow Flame told the imp, who simply disappeared without further word.
"What does the staff have to do with this?" Jean wondered out loud.
"As Unagi said, maybe we can use it to dispel the shadows in the other room," suggested Silvara.
The other party members thought about it for a second, and since no one seemed to have a better idea they agreed to try it.
"We should check out that last door," said Unagi.
"It might have some information we can use," Shadow Flame said, hoping for something he didn't really expect.
They took a few minutes to search the room, but apart from turning up several small knives, hooks, saws and other rusted tools of torture they did not find anything of note. They approached the final door in the corridor and again Shadow Flame leant down to listen. This time he did hear what sounded like a low moaning sound, as if there was someone behind the door in pain. He whispered this to the party and slowly opened the door. A short corridor lead off about 30 feet with 3 doorways along each side. As they entered further they saw a robed figure hunched over at the end of the corridor, and as they neared it looked up at them. The party saw it's face, the detestable, deformed face of a Rutterkin, and as recognition registered in both sides the creature stood and stretched its arm out in front of it.
Yes! Kill it! Kill them all! Come to me my new friends, end this cruel imprisonment, kill them all and set me free! Ashen Heart was shaking with anticipation. Oh how she would reward them for breaking down her prison walls...
Shadow Flame and Silvara leapt to the side as they approached and managed to avoid most of the flames that burst forth from the creatures hand. It was hard to hit, it's skin very tough, and the heavy robes also providing some protection; Shadow Flame and Silvara found it difficult to hurt. Silvara was flung across the room by the creature with magical force and landed heavily at the entrance to the area. The fight was almost a stalemate with neither side really making much impact on the other. Unagi was silently fuming that he lacked a weapon that could inflict damage on the creature, until several minutes into the fight he had a bit of a revelation. He took the cold wrought iron hammer from Silvara, who was not using it, and stepped up the the Rutterkin. He swung the hammer with all his strength, and though the weapon was unfamiliar to him, his training as a gladiator paid off as it slammed into the creatures head, busting it open. The Rutterkin dropped to the ground dead. Unagi looked around to his comrades looking pretty damn happy with himself, and they smiled and nodded at his good thinking.
They moved through the adjoining rooms and found that each was lined with shelves - empty shelves, there was nothing stored in these rooms at all. They began searching along the walls looking for hidden doors or compartments, but again found nothing. They had reached the end, there was nowhere else to go except out into the main room and see what they could do.
The party began discussing what they were going to do. The general feeling was that the Staff of Knowledge was somehow involved with this place, with what had happened, and that it would somehow open the door, unlock that last mystery. After discussing how they would proceed the party came upon a plan. Jean and Silvara would take the staff into the rolling shadows and see what happened. Shadow Flame and Unagi would wait outside the shadows ready to hold off any creatures that appeared in response to the staff. Given the number of creatures that had appeared seemingly from thin air during their stay in these halls under the Home of the Dead, they felt it was a prudent move. So with the plan decided they returned to the main room and set about business.
Closer, yes come closer! Nothing had changed - the void remained, as strong as ever. Ashen Heart felt the Rutterkin fall, almost tasted its blood as it leaked from its body. All that was required was the Rutterkin holding the energy around the prison, Rutterkin that she had summoned and empowered with the energy that pierced the voids edges, should die. She felt the rightness of this plan - their deaths, their final throes, would push the barriers, pierce the veil, and then she would be free! Come closer, my new friends, you have come this far...
Jean and Silvara stepped through the borders of the shadows. Shadow Flame and Unagi watched them enter and disappear into the depths. As they entered the shadows they passed the forms of the Rutterkin; heavy robes obscured their features, but their hands, malformed and grotesquely twisted ,held out to channel the ribbons of purple energy that stretched between them gave them away.
"More of those disfigured creatures are here," Jean called out to Shadow Flame and Unagi, "one at each corner of the energy beams, probably one at each point of the pentagon."
They walked past the Rutterkin, deeper into the mists. A piercing blue-white light seeped up from the floor, hidden amongst the shadows. Jean and Silvara both recognized it - another circle of power, and scribed within it; a pentagram, etched with runes and symbols of power. Neither of them were skilled enough in the art to understand the meanings of individual runes or symbols, but there was no mistaking the purpose of the circle; it was designed to summon power from beyond the Realms. They stepped into the circle, into the pentagram, and there at its centre, resting in the heart of the shadows was the gem that Old Grave had been using during the ceremony. It had embedded itself in the floor so that only half of it was above ground. It sat there, black as the shadows that surrounded it, pulsing with red and purple flashes of light.
Jean walked up to the gem and placed the staff on it, then they both braced themselves, waiting for...nothing. Nothing changed, nothing happened. They waited. Still nothing. They called out to Unagi and Shadow Flame, "Nothing is happening."
"Try smashing the gem," Shadow Flame called out.
Jean raised the staff, and brought it sharply down upon the gem. Again, nothing happened, the gem was unmarked.
The void trembled. That should not be possible! Once again Ashen Heart tasted the metallic taste of fear. Doubt grew in her mind; had she misjudged? These mortals had power, the power to shake the nothingness of her prison - perhaps they possessed power over her? The trembling subsided, the prison remained. It had been moved by them, but was not broken. Ashen Heart hesitated, then grew certain once again - they could not break in! Nothing had changed. Once more her anticipation grew, and her desire to make them pay for their unknown crimes, crimes against her very being, against her mind...
"See if you can dig that gem out of the ground," suggested Unagi.
'Well,' thought Jean, 'no one had any better ideas.' She knelt down and drew a long knife from her robes and began prying at the edges of the flagstone where the gem was embedded. "I can't get in there!" she called out. "Damn thing is wedged in there tight!"
Unagi grew impatient. Nothing was happening, they were wrong, the staff did nothing here, he thought. No doubt this problem could be solved just like every other problem he had ever encountered. Unagi took the cold wrought iron warhammer from his back and stepped into the shadows.
He quickly found one of the robed Rutterkin. He stepped forward, swung the hammer back, and then brought it down hard on the creatures head. The Rutterkin skull shattered and its head caved in under the weight of the warhammer. It slumped forward to its knees and then dropped to the ground, not moving. The beams of purple energy pulsing from its hands flickered once and then disappeared.
The veil shifted. Ashen Heart could hear the Prime, it's sounds, it called to her. They had started! Her elation was palpable! That is one down my friends...
Surprised with the ease that the creature was dispatched, Unagi smiled and walked across the the next one in the ring. He thought the shadows had receded slightly, thinned maybe, as it was easy to see his next target. Again he swung the hammer back and brought it down hard, and again the Rutterkin's head burst in a shower of blood and brains before it slumped dead to the ground. The purple energy flickered from its hand and disappeared.
Ashen Heart sensed another Rutterkin die. Two! The veil was parted slightly - she could see into the Prime! It was hazy and undefined but she could see the purple beams of the remaining Rutterkin and the form of a mortal creature digging at the floor. She cried out in joy, the time was at hand. Time to prepare for those first steps...
Unagi swung the hammer back once again, and brought it down upon the skull of the third Rutterkin. As the creature fell dead to the ground, the energy flickered and died as it left its hand. Unagi looked up at Shadow Flame and smiled. He paused - he could see Shadow Flame, the shadows had lifted. Shadow Flame drew his swords in response. Unagi was momentarily puzzled until he saw the remaining two Rutterkin had moved and began shambling over to attack him. He burst into action and charged at them. Silvara also ran across and joined battle with them while Jean continued to try and pry the gem from the ground.
The veil had been lifted! Ashen Heart looked into the world that had been denied her for so long. Her plan had succeeded, all that remained was for these creatures to die and she would be able to leave the prison and enter the Prime. It did not matter which of them died, and the how nor the why of it did not matter. What mattered was the when. Her mind lurched as the void pulsed, pulsed with bright energy. The walls were coming down! It was time...
The Rutterkin had been badly weakened by their years of absorbing, recycling and reabsorbing the energy that had been used to slowly weaken the magic of the gem. They offered little resistance to the weapons of the party and died quickly, seemingly grateful to finally be free of their own enforced imprisonment. As the first one dropped dead to the ground a blinding pulse of light burst from the gem, and in the gloom of this dungeon it brightness was painful. The party staggered back as if they had stared at the sun for too long. Unagi and Shadow Flame continued to fight the final Rutterkin, using sound more than sight to continue the skirmish. Silvara ran over to Jean who had fallen back after the flash from the gem; she was blinded but otherwise unhurt.
The last of the Rutterkin fell at Unagi's feet, its head nothing more than a blackened paste on his hammer. The shadows were completed lifted and the light emanating from the gem lit the entire room. Again it pulsed with a brilliant radiance, but this time the party was less affected as they were prepared for it. Jean and Silvara scrabbled back from the gem, but too late. It exploded in a shower of needle thin shards that dug into the exposed flesh of all party members. They staggered under the brilliance the light that escaped from within, their eyes filled with the lingering imprint of the radiance. They looked at the hole in the ground that was all that remained of the gem. A small blue-grey cloud had appeared above the hole, swelling with each passing second. They readied themselves, not knowing what to expect, but they were determined to be prepared for it.
The cloud burst in forceful puff of wind as a figure appeared before them. Her face was slim and delicate, like that of an elf; her body lithe and slim, encased in tight fitting leather armour that left little to the imagination. The woman in front of them snapped the long feathery wings extending from her shoulders once, and flew up into the air, hovering above the party.
The party looked up at her but she did not give them the opportunity to respond.
"Never mind," she continued, "it is neither here nor there. Too long have I been trapped, trapped within that path between worlds." She drew a dark bladed short sword from a sheath at her belt in one hand, and the other hand reached for what appeared to be a pommel with no blade. She smiled menacingly down at the party, a hint of insanity in her eyes, "it has been far too long since I have tasted flesh, and I have to thank you double now. For not only did you clear my way, you also brought me food!"
She threw her head back and laughed maniacally, then swooped down upon the party.
Jean was the first target of Ashen Hearts attack; she swooped across the mage and swung with her sword, but missing. Jean used the wand of magic missiles but with little effect. The party watched as Ashen Heart calmly ignored the missiles, a little confused before Silvara pointed out the she most likely had a strong resistance to magic, and while she was not immune it would be difficult to affect her with magic.
As they had no way of joining the hovering demoness in melee the party produced their missile weapons and began firing them at Ashen Heart, missing wildly on all accounts.
"Silvara, give me that potion of flying, I'll go and take her on directly," said Shadow Flame. Silvara threw him the potion and he drank it down.
Unagi continued firing arrows at Ashen Heart, but it was not his forte and he missed all his shots. Ashen heart swooped down at Silvara and swung the empty pommel at her. As it came swinging toward her Silvara saw a shadowy whip appear, and it bit deeply into her shoulder. After the initial shock of the whip Silvara's body shuddered under the effect of some dark, negatively charged aftershock from the whip and dropped to one knee.
Shadow Flame flew up to Ashen Heart, blades swinging in deadly arcs. He managed to get one nice blow in on the winged demon before it disappeared.
Ashen Heart had called upon her innate ability to teleport at will as she flew from the void. Something about this place negated the magic, perhaps built into the fabric of the stone, perhaps the lingering after affects of magic from the past. It did not matter why, it only mattered that it stopped her, strongly inhibiting her most powerful magic. Still, it was not her only trick, she was nothing if not adaptable...
The party stopped for a moment - had their foe fled? They looked about with uncertainty, and then Shadow Flame saw her. "Jean behind you!" he called out to warn her, but Jean was not quick enough; Ashen Hearts blade bit deeply into the sorceress' flesh, and Jean screamed in pain. It was not a bad wound, but it would interfere with her ability to fight. Shadow Flame flew across the room to engage Ashen Heart, and as she had come down to ground level to attack Jean, Unagi and Silvara were able to charge across and join melee with her. Ashen Heart was quick though, and with a wave of her hand she sent Unagi flying back across the room as if thumped by the hand of a giant. Silvara and Shadow Flame were skilled enough to each get a solid hit on the demoness before she again disappeared from in front of them. They scanned the room, and could see no sign of her. Silvara took the opportunity to call upon the power of Selune and heal the wound that Jean had just taken at Ashen Hearts hand.
Her re-emergence was signaled by a scream of pain from Unagi who had received a heavy attack as the fiend appeared behind him and attacked him unaware. He was skilled enough to quickly turn and return the blow, catching Ashen heart with a heavy blow from the warhammer. Shadow Flame flew across the room again and managed to land a series of blows from his blades before she again took to the air out of range of the rest of the party. Jean continued to assault the demoness with missiles from the wand, but was unable to penetrate the magical resistance that was innate to her kind. Shadow Flame followed the fiend into the air to press his attack.
This cursed tiefling was becoming a real annoyance, it was time to turn him around. Ashen Heart knew that mortals were often easily swayed into service by enchantment magics, and she possessed some potents spells to help make new friends...
"Tiefling, I am seriously outnumbered here. I suggest that, for a fair fight, you should help me out by attacking that large armoured human," she said to Shadow Flame, pointing to Unagi as she spoke. Shadow Flame stopped and gave her a slightly confused look; he was unable to resist the enchantment the fiend had just placed and him, and with a look of anger upon his face he sped down and began swinging at Unagi with a fury normally reserved their foes.
Unagi recognised that Shadow Flame had been charmed by the demoness so he went into damage control, parrying the tieflings blows where he could.
Ashen Heart smiled, things were looking up! It was time to bring some new allies into the fray; manes were little more than fodder but they were distracting and could overwhelm their enemies in numbers. She concentrated and opened a gate to the Abyss through which four manes stepped, slavering and ready to kill...
With the two strongest fighters otherwise occupied, Ashen Heart flew down and folded her wings behind her, joining Jean and Silvara in hand to hand combat. The manes also rushed across to claw at the priestess and mage.
Jean was finally able to get one missile from the wand to penetrate the magical resistance of the fiend and she screamed at the pain of the little missile. Silvara was also able to bring a swing of her mace to bear upon Ashen Heart, although it was a glancing blow. Ashen Heart responded by pushing at Jean, and like Unagi before her, she went flying across the room at the hand of that invisible force.
Unagi decided to trust to his armour against the persistent attacks of Shadow Flame, and turned and went to Silvara's aid, engaging the manes that had made it across from their gate. Shadow Flame continued to attack at Unagi with all his skill, but between the fighters dodging in battle, his heavy armour and the parrying of his attacks, he was not making much inroad on him.
Jean stood up from her flight across the room, a little worse for wear, in time to catch the incoming manes. They had broken off from their kin to attack the mage who was now separated from the rest of the party. She brandished the Staff of Knowledge and stepped up to pop the bloated little bags of gas like the balloons they were.
Silvara and Ashen Heart stood toe to toe, each pressing any advantage presented, but neither gaining it completely. Both of them managed to get in a number of hits on the other, but nothing strong enough to cause the other serious injury.
Jean swung the staff at one of the manes attacking her, it was a potent weapon in addition to its other magical abilities, and she caved in the head of her target - it swayed briefly on its feet before bursting into the cloud of vapour the sprayed across Jean and it's ally. Jean was able to shrug off the affects of the acid cloud and turned quickly to the other manes and swung at it.
Unagi had a tough time fighting two manes while dodging Shadow Flames attacks, but he managed to carve one of them in two with his katana, showering all three of them with a burst of acidic vapour. Shadow Flame took advantage of Unagi's attack on the manes to get through his armour and deliver two precise attacks. The fighter was momentarily staggered but managed to orient himself at the other manes which had fairly poorly at the hands of its companions death throe.
Silvara had pressed the attack upon Ashen Heart and managed to land a strong blow with her mace, gifted with blessings of Selune to affect the magically resistant fiend. For her part Ashen Heart had not stood idle, and Silvara bore several wounds from the blade and whip of the demoness. Both of them were badly injured, and their fight was almost decided.
Unagi sliced the remaining manes, killing it in an explosion of acid. He was not able to avoid the splash of the manes death and was burnt badly by the acidic cloud of the little fiend. This was Shadow Flames opening and he took it; seeing the big fighter stumble under the acidic burns he pushed his long sword deep into Unagi's chest. The gladiator stood and looked down at the blade that had burst through his chest. He turned and looked at Shadow Flame, and opened his mouth to speak before dropping to the ground, apparently dead.
Jean had managed to kill the final manes and saw Unagi drop to the ground. She cried out, in hate, in anguish and charged at Ashen Heart, her staff held ready to strike. Ashen Heart turned to the mage as she ran toward her and again, with a wave of her hand, sent Jean flying back across the room to land heavily in a heap on the ground. It was opening enough for Silvara however, and the priestess did not waste opportunity landing a crushing blow on the demoness who staggered back under its weight; not enough to kill her but she was clearly badly injured by the blow.
Shadow Flame leapt across the room at Silvara, compelled by the enchantment magic to provide aid for the demoness. Silvara was not prepared for the attack and took its full brunt, but her chainmail absorbed most of the damage. She did not turn to Shadow Flame instead choosing to press her advantage against Ashen Heart; she knew that if she could at least knock the fiend unconscious that the spell that had charmed the tiefling would be broken.
Jean staggered to her feet, badly hurt by the last spell from the demoness, aimed her wand at Ashen Heart and spoke the word of command. Silvara stepped under one of Shadow Flames blades and brought her mace down hard on the forehead of Ashen Heart; the demoness staggered back, viscous blood flowing freely from the wound. She spread her wings in an attempt to fly up out of reach of the priestess, but as she swept them back and began to ascend two streaks of magical light crashed into her chest. She was sent hurtling back and crashed hard against one of the stone columns holding up the upper floors balcony. She crashed down to the ground and did not move.
Shadow Flame stepped back from Silvara mid strike and quickly sheathed his weapons, the cloud of the enchantment magic had gone and he was himself once again. Jean rushed over to Unagi to check on him.
"He's alive," she called out, the relief in her voice clear. Silvara and Shadow Flame both breathed sighs of relief as well, and Silvara rushed over to tend to his wounds. She was a skilled healer and confident that she could stabilize the fighter for the night. She was out of healing magic having used the last available spell for that day healing Jean, and the party did not have any potions left either. Shadow Flame walked over to Ashen Heart who was still slumped on the floor at the base of the column. He drew his long sword and pushed it deeply into her chest, making sure she was dead before leaning down and taking her weapons.
"We need to rest," was all he said to the party as he walked back across to where they were tending to Unagi's wounds.
Once Silvara was satisfied that Unagi's wounds had been properly tended to they set about resting for the rest of the night. A makeshift watch was set up and they fell into an uneasy rest.