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  1. #401
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    Well, that's quite the choice!

  2. #402
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    Chapter 304

    Rodan leaned over and peered through the open gate into the broad courtyard where they had fought the chuuls the night before. The sky beyond the vast domed building had just begun to brighten, leaving the open space in a shadowed gloom. But there was enough light to reveal the corpse of the creature they had slain, a lonely mound lying on the path between the two silent pools.

    The scout waved his companions forward, but he waited for Quellan before he continued into the barren outer garden. “So there’s nothing more that you can tell us about the nature of this pending calamity?” he asked.

    “No,” Quellan said. “I’ve told you everything that was passed to me through the divination.”

    “It’s not much to go on,” Rodan said.

    This time they took a different approach, giving the pools in the center of the area a very wide berth. Quellan said that he’d had to hit the creature hard to get it to release Glori and that it might be dead, but they were not going to take anything for granted in this strange and deadly place.

    “Contacting planar entities is a difficult prospect,” Xeeta explained. “Even when one can get a response, they are often vague and misleading.”

    “You seem to know a lot about it,” Kosk said.

    “I overheard the leaders of the cult complaining about it on several occasions,” she said.

    “But we know that Bredan’s alive,” Glori said. “We wouldn’t have been warned of the danger of finding the book if he wasn’t still alive.”

    “That is a logical inference,” Quellan said. “But we could still be too late.”

    The true scale of the building became clear as they drew closer to it. It made even the great structures of Severon seem humble by comparison. A thousand people could have stood upon the flight of steps that led to the covered portico that ran along the front of the structure. The pillars that supported it were each a good fifteen feet thick. The place was clearly very old, but they saw few overt signs of the decay that had affected the rest of the city.

    They paused at the base of those steps. Each one was a little more than a foot high, just tall enough to be awkward for Kosk and the women. “We don’t even know he’s here,” Rodan said.

    “Those lobsters were guarding something,” Kosk said. “And as long as Quellan’s detection spells aren’t working, we don’t have any better targets than this place.”

    “This place is approximately at the center of the warding effect bounded by the city’s inner walls,” Quellan said.

    “How can you know that?” Xeeta asked.

    “Mathematics?” the cleric replied.

    “Come on,” Kosk said. “While we’re here we might as well take a look.”

    They made their way up the steps. There were enough of them that Kosk wasn’t the only one having some trouble by the time they reached the top. The light of the impending dawn did not reach into the interior of the portico, but with their darkvision they could see an opening in the center, an arch a full twenty feet across that led into the interior. The faint outlines of what must have been impressive carvings decorated the outer façade, and they could see that the arch itself was made up of stones that might have once been brightly colored but were now faded with time. Nothing stirred at their approach, and the only footsteps they could see in the accumulated dust of the entry were their own.

    “Bredan didn’t come this way,” Glori noted.

    “Quellan said he was still underground when he scried him,” Rodan noted. “Maybe there’s another way in.”

    “Well, let’s get this over with,” Kosk said.

    The arch gave way to a broad foyer that was a good thirty feet across and which extended well into the interior of the building. Another large arch led to an even larger space ahead, while to each side smaller openings led to several anterooms. The companions glanced into those to confirm that they were empty before pressing on to the far arch. A faint light shone from within, allowing them to see the place in all of its impressive majesty.

    Time had inflicted its wounds here as well, but that did nothing to steal from the sheer impact of the chamber. The core of the building was a single vast hall centered until the massive dome that they had seen throughout their approach through the inner city. That dome was impossibly large, at least a hundred and fifty feet across, somehow intact after all this time. Eight huge pillars with elaborate capitals supported the impressively thick arches and pendentives needed to withstand that incredible weight. A gallery with a narrow walkway ran around the base of the dome, but they couldn’t see any obvious way to get up to it.

    The light they had seen came from a round opening at the peak of the dome, which let in the pale radiance of the approaching dawn. It was just bright enough for them to see a massive mural that stretched across the floor of the huge chamber. Ringed in a circle of black stone that was a good three paces across, the scene depicted in the mural was faded and cracked in places, but still clear enough to identify.

    “A map,” Glori said, her voice hushed in awe. “A map of the world.”

    “I wish…” Quellan said. “I could spend a great deal of time here.”

    “First things first,” Kosk said. He advanced to the spot where the nearest two support pillars rose to the ceiling and looked around. To the left and right were shallow wings that appeared to lead to other parts of the building. Ahead, across the expanse of the space covered by the dome, they could just make out another large archway. That one was completely dark, as if the light from above was reluctant to brighten what lay in that direction. “Let’s check over there,” the dwarf suggested.

    “Wait,” Quellan said. His voice sounded tight, strangled.

    “What is it?” Glori asked. She started walking over to him with a look of concern on her face.

    “There’s something here,” the cleric said. He raised his shield and invoked a daylight spell.

    The light arrived tentatively, a flicker high in the air between the pillars on the far side of the dome. For a moment it remained such, like a lantern viewed through a thick fog. But Quellan kept his will and his faith focused upon the spell and finally the blazing energy of the spell erupted in its full glory. The size of the place was such that even that powerful light could not fully illuminate the entirety of the vast chamber, but it revealed the shadowed corners and the far arch that Kosk had indicated. The space within remained dim, though it obviously extended back for a considerable distance. But the cleric’s spell did prompt a response. A sound issued from beyond the arch, a sibilant whisper that was followed by a more assertive clacking noise.

    “Oh, man,” Glori said.

    “Here we go,” Kosk said, spinning his staff in his hands before falling back into a martial stance. Rodan and Xeeta each moved off a bit to the side to make them less vulnerable to area attacks. Glori had given Rodan the last few arrows in her quiver, since she had her magic and he could put them to better use. Xeeta cast mage armor, the protective barrier flaring slightly before it faded into invisibility.

    The clacking noise grew louder, and then the source of it came into the light of Quellan’s spell. It shone on pale bones unencumbered by flesh or other tissues, animated by dark magic to serve on in death. But even as skeletons the companions could immediately identify what the creatures had been in life.

    “It’s not enough that we had to face living versions of those bloody things?” Kosk said.

    “Look at it this way, at least it’s not the big one,” Glori said.

    The four skeletal girallons spread out as they filed out through the arch, forming a line facing the intruders.

    “There’s something else,” Xeeta said, pointing past the skeletons toward the darkness.

    As the skeletons stopped moving, the companions could hear a repeat of what they’d heard earlier, a soft hissing sound. Its origin was revealed as it came into the light. At first it looked like a giant serpent, its scales glowing with a metallic sheen as the daylight rippled across its body. But when the head finally came into view the companions sucked in a collective breath of surprise and disgust. For the head of the serpent-creature was not that of a snake, but it possessed a sinister humanoid visage. Its eyes flashed with malevolence as it stared at the companions.

    “What the bloody hell is that?” Kosk asked.

    “It’s a naga,” Quellan said. He clutched his mace tightly.

    “Come again?” Kosk asked, but he shook his head before the cleric could respond. “Never mind. Let’s just start with the blasting.”

    “It’s too far away,” Xeeta said.

    “Not for me,” Rodan said. He drew his bowstring to his cheek and released an arrow that rose up over the open space covered by the mural before it plummeted down toward the awful creature. It looked for a moment like a perfect shot, but at the last instant the thing slithered forward behind the cover offered by one of its skeletal minions. The arrow sliced through the spot it had occupied and shattered on the hard marble floor in front of the arch.

    “Let them come to us,” Quellan said. “We have cover here.” He moved toward one of the thirty-foot pillars that supported the dome above.

    The naga lifted its head until it could peer over the shoulders of its skeletal minions at the companions. It seemed unconcerned as it opened its jaws and hissed something at them. They could not understand its words, but the intent was obvious even before the skeletons all leaned forward and charged across the open interior of the chamber toward them.

  3. #403
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    Chapter 305

    The five adventurers were well accustomed to facing horrible creatures and none of them so much as flinched as the skeletal apes rushed toward them. For all that they were lacking muscles they were fast, and they reached the edge of the map mural within seconds of receiving the command to attack from their serpentine master.

    But the companions were ready for them, and even as they crossed over the black border and trod onto the representation of Voralis’s eastern shores they were greeted by a fireball that pulsed from Xeeta’s rod. Flames shone in her eyes and briefly wreathed her form as the explosion engulfed all four of the undead creatures.

    The blast persisted for only an instant, and none of the companions were particularly surprised as all four of the skeletons, scorched and blackened but otherwise intact, emerged from the dying flames and kept on coming. But Xeeta noticed something else that was potentially of greater concern.

    “The snake thing’s vanished!” she warned her companions.

    “Keep an eye out… I’ll see if I can slow these things down!” Quellan called back. He lifted his shield and rushed forward to the near edge of the mural to confront the four skeletons. They all spread their many arms, opened their jaws, and rushed forward to meet him, almost as if they still had been the living apes they now only barely resembled.

    Glori strummed her lyre and conjured a wall of fire that extended across the center of the room, bisecting the map from one pole to the other. The skeletons, lacking any survival instinct, came rushing through the flaming barrier without hesitation. One faltered, staggering as the surging flames burned through its already damaged bones, but the other three kept on coming, closing upon the waiting cleric.

    “Quellan needs our help!” Glori said. She turned to Xeeta, who was already preparing another spell, the flames surging again around her as she lifted her rod.

    But before she could unleash her magic for a second time, a flash of energy came streaking down from above them. The lightning bolt slammed solidly into Xeeta, surrounding her with a glowing halo for an instant before it continued on to sear Glori and finally discharged into the floor and the nearby pillar. The bard, grimacing in pain even though she had only caught the edge of the bolt, looked up just in time to see the body of the snake-creature slither up out of view behind one of the elaborate capitals that topped the giant pillars. An arrow bounced off the stone as she watched, just a fraction of a second too late.

    “It’s above us!” she yelled. “It’s near the base of the dome!”

    Quellan heard Glori’s warning, but his focus was of necessity on the multiple nine-foot skeletons closing on his position. He waited until all of them were within thirty feet, including the damaged straggler, before he raised his shield and invoked the power of his patron.

    He could feel the divinity coursing through him, potent and familiar, but he also felt the expected resistance, as if the energy were flowing through a tiny hole rather than the expected gusher. He channeled that diminished flow toward the skeletons, but was not surprised when it failed to affect any of them.

    “So be it, then,” he said, lifting his mace. But before he could get within reach to strike, one of the ape-skeletons laid into him, using its superior reach to pummel him with multiple clawed arms. He took the first few impacts on his shield, but one strike got past his defense and swept across his face, stunning him for a moment.

    The second skeleton circled around to take him from the flank, but before it could strike something small and sharp passed through one of its eye sockets and began rattling around inside its skull. It turned just as Kosk rushed it, sweeping out with his staff. The impact struck its left knee with enough force to jar out the smaller bone that resided there, but not enough to knock the thing down. It immediately lunged at him, forcing him to quickly evade to avoid being torn apart.

    Xeeta called her magic again as she focused on the ceiling and the gallery that ringed the dome. There were plenty of places where the naga could have hidden, but she saw Rodan take another shot and trusted in his instincts enough to follow his example. She couldn’t tell if his arrow scored a hit, but the fireball that blasted the target clearly hurt it, judging from the furious hiss that echoed down from above. Her powers were waning, even with the additional reservoir that her recent embrace of the Demon had given her. She needed rest, needed it desperately, but the need to find Bredan was greater and continued to drive her on.

    She started to circle around to get a better vantage, but was interrupted by Glori, who offered another warning. “Remember, it can teleport,” she said, just loud enough for Xeeta and Rodan to hear.

    Xeeta stopped and scanned the gallery above. With the size of the dome and the intricacy of the stonework there were plenty of places where the naga could have hidden. She didn’t see anything, but then she looked over at Glori as a thought came to her. The creature had carefully chosen its position so that it could hit both of them with one blast…

    Even as that awareness struck her, she drew a mental line between her and Glori and continued it forward, looking up to exact spot where that line intersected the gallery above. Her eyes settled on one of the decorative features that connected the top of the pillar to the adjoining arch just as the serpentine head rose into view.

    “There!” Xeeta cried, lifting her rod. But the naga was just a step ahead, and as it spoke a word of power a second lightning bolt blasted down from above. The warning was just enough to save Glori, who threw herself aside in time to avoid all but a few sharp but manageable jolts as the bolt shot past.

    Unfortunately, Xeeta was not able to do the same. The lightning bolt slammed solidly into her chest, lifting her off her feet before it slammed her down into the ground. There was a bright flash as the electrical energy was discharged into the floor, leaving the smoking form of the tiefling sorceress lying motionless on the tiles.

  4. #404
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    No way! It's not even a Friday, yikes!

  5. #405
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    This whole week is Cliffhanger Week.

    * * *

    Chapter 306

    Glori thought she could hear a mocking laugh from the naga as it darted back into cover, another arrow from Rodan’s bow shattering on the stone as it came just an instant too late. The tiefling scout rushed forward toward the fallen sorceress, reaching her just a second before the bard. Glori strummed her lyre frantically to cast a healing spell to stabilize her, sighing with relief when the glow of the magic seeped into her. Her eyes fluttered and she let out a groan as she was drawn back to consciousness.

    “We need to get her to cover,” Rodan said. Without waiting for a response, he grabbed hold of her shoulders and pulled her to the shelter of the nearest pillar. Glori snatched up her rod and followed, scanning the rim of the dome. She didn’t see the naga, but a loud crash drew her attention back to the battle raging on the edge of the mosaic map less than a dozen paces away. The crash had come from one of the skeletons as it toppled to the floor in pieces. Quellan was already engaging the second, while a few steps behind him Kosk was battering the third. The last one, the one that had been so heavily damaged in passing through the fiery ordeals conjured by Xeeta and Glori, was already lying broken on the floor. The two were taking hits, but between Quellan’s heavy armor and Kosk’s speed they seemed to have the matter well in hand.

    But even as the thought formed, Glori caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye. She started to shout a warning, but it was too late as a third lightning bolt streaked out and slammed into Quellan from behind. He staggered forward into his opponent, nearly knocking it over. The bolt continued in the general direction of Kosk, but this time the naga didn’t have the angle and it dissipated harmlessly a few feet from the monk. Kosk looked up as the last tendrils of electricity dissipated and met Glori’s eyes.

    “It’s above us!” she yelled. She got up and started running toward Quellan, but the cleric recovered first and delivered a powerful blow from his mace that shattered one of the skeleton’s lower arms and knocked it flying in pieces from its body.

    Kosk’s opponent tried to take advantage of its foe’s distraction, but even as it swept out its lower arms the dwarf ducked and swept in under its reach. He thrust up with his staff, jamming it into its hips and using it as a fulcrum to topple the creature forward. Already off-balance from its abortive attack, the skeleton was unable to resist being flung down onto the hard tiles. One claw happened to dislodge the piece of the mosaic that represented the general part of Weltarin where the Gull had landed, but it couldn’t get purchase before Kosk leapt onto its back and thrust his staff forward, snapping its pelvis and separating its upper body and legs into three separate pieces. Those component parts continued to move for another second before they came apart in a clatter of bones on the floor.

    Kosk staggered clear of the shattered ruins of the ape skeleton and took a quick look around to see how the battle was progressing. Quellan was still battling the last skeleton, and he nearly moved that way out of reflex before he saw Glori already heading toward the embattled cleric. He’d only caught a glimpse of Rodan dragging Xeeta off the field of battle, but knew they had taken cover behind one of the pillars. He knew there was a more dangerous foe nearby, a fact that was confirmed a moment later when he saw Glori come to a sudden stop. She stood there for a moment, staring ahead vacantly, then reached down and drew her sword. He could tell that something was wrong as she started haltingly forward toward Quellan.

    Kosk ran toward her. He glanced up at the gallery that ran around the base of the dome but only caught a hint of movement. The snake-creature apparently knew this place well, well enough to take advantage of the many potential places to hide. A flash of fire told him that Xeeta was still fighting, but the fire bolt lacked the blasting power of her greater magics. After hurling fireballs and scorching rays around all day yesterday, last night, and just now, she had to be running low.

    Glori turned as the monk ran up to her. He barely slowed as she swung her sword at him, ducking under the stroke before he snapped his leg around and took her legs out from under her. As she landed on her back, rapping her head solidly on the hard floor, he knocked the sword out of her grasp.

    “Sorry,” he said, before delivering a blow that smacked her head back once more, stunning her.

    He didn’t wait, knowing that the two of them together presented a tempting target for the naga. He started sprinting forward again, picking up speed as he headed right for one of the pillars that supported the ceiling. He could feel his ki surging within him, coursing through his body with every step he took. He let everything else fall into the background as he focused upon it, focused upon the pillar that was rapidly coming closer as he threw everything he had into running faster and faster.

    From the cover of the other pillar Rodan watched in amazement as Kosk shot across the room in a blur. The dwarf hit the pillar and kept on running, dashing up its side as if had been solid ground. He lost momentum as he neared the top, a good thirty feet above the floor, but at the last moment he leapt up and seized hold of the decorative scrollwork that surrounded the top of the pillar, using it to fling himself up onto the gallery that ringed the base of the dome.

    “What’s happening?” Xeeta asked from beside him. Glori’s healing spell had revived her, but she was still in awful shape, her usually bright skin charred black from the multiple blasts of lightning that she’d absorbed. Her clothes, already ragged from their long trip through the jungle, were in equally bad condition.

    The creature had moved back further along the rim of the dome, and they could no longer see it clearly from their current position. Hopefully that meant that it also could not see them, but Rodan was not going to make any assumptions after what they’d already seen of its tricks. “Kosk is distracting it,” he told the sorceress. “Stay here.”

    “No, we have to help Glori and Quellan.”

    “I’ll go,” he said, pressing her hand in his. “You can’t take another hit. Stay here, but be ready to blast it if it shows itself.”

    She reluctantly nodded as he grabbed his bow and ran back out into the room.

    As soon as he gained the high ground, Kosk could see the naga. It had taken shelter amongst the stonework that supported one of the massive arches that absorbed the incredible weight of the dome. Quellan had placed his daylight spell high enough so that it cast a distinct shadow, clearly revealing the creature’s outline against the darker stone.

    There was also no doubt that it had seen him. Even as he landed onto the narrow walkway—one that lacked any kind of railing or other safety features, he noted—the head of the naga turned toward him. It issued a hiss that the dwarf interpreted as an expression of anger.

    He started to rise, but staggered as he felt a massive assault upon his consciousness. It took all of his effort just to keep from stumbling over the edge, yielding his hard-won position in a face-first plummet to the marble floor below. All of his training and focus were barely enough to keep him from succumbing to that intense external pressure. He knew that if he faltered it would seize control of him, turning him into the creature’s slave.

    With a deep growl he drove the intruder from his mind and charged. One false step would have led to disaster, but every single step was placed flawlessly, covering the precarious distance as smoothly as he’d run across the floor earlier. The serpent-thing saw him coming and reared up, its jaws snapping open to reveal fangs that dripped with gobs of ready venom. It hissed at him again and Kosk found himself responding with a guttural, visceral yell. It waited until he sprang forward then lunged, its head snapping forward like the end of a whip. But Kosk had been ready for that, and he twisted his body in mid-air, narrowly avoiding those deadly fangs. He came down on the hood that spread out from the sides of its head and snapped his legs around its neck, seizing hold of it.

    The naga reared back violently. It snapped its head back and forth, slamming its unwelcome passenger against the surrounding stone. Kosk’s staff was knocked from his grasp and tumbled end-over-end before hitting the floor below. The creature drove him up against the nearby arch with enough force to knock the air from his lungs. But still he held on, and wouldn’t yield his hold. Even without his weapon he kept attacking it, driving his fists into the base of its skull repeatedly until its angry hisses were punctuated with gasps of pain.

    The naga suddenly rose up again, and Kosk tensed, expecting a renewed assault. But instead the creature spoke a word that seeped magical potency, and in its wake the dwarf felt a fiery agony explode through his body. He could feel his skin crinkling as the blight spell took hold, and blood began to course from his nostrils and ears as the tender flesh there dried and parted. For a moment he couldn’t see as the spell sucked moisture from inside his eyeballs. But still, he held on.

    He heard a sound of metal hitting stone close by, and knew that his companions were trying to help him. But the angle was bad, and they would have to hold back out of fear of hitting him. As his vision cleared, he caught a glimpse of them below.

    “Kosk!” Quellan yelled. “Get out of there!”

    The dwarf’s eyes met the cleric’s, and in that instant of contact a silent communication passed between them. Quellan’s expression twisted with grief, and his lips formed a single soundless word.

    The naga reared again, but Kosk noted that even in their deadly melee it was careful not to expose itself too much to fire from below. That realization let him guess where it would try to take him next, and as it lunged again toward the exposed arch he made his move.

    As the creature struck, he abruptly released his legs. Their shared momentum carried both of them into the arch, but he spun and absorbed the impact, while at the same time coming up under its head and delivering a bone crushing blow with his right fist. The naga convulsed in agony, its hold on the surrounding stone loosening as it briefly lost control of its body. Kosk didn’t give it a chance to recover. He seized hold of it again and with a final growl of effort pulled it away from its perch. For a last moment the two of them hung there, then gravity exerted itself and both of them plummeted to the floor of the chamber thirty-five feet below.

    For a moment the flat, hard surface seemed to be rushing up to greet him. He was heading for a face-first meeting, the weight of the struggling creature thrusting him down. With a final reflexive lung Kosk reached out and grabbed hold of the creature’s flailing body, spinning so that the monster hit first.

    They hit the floor with a massive thud. A terrible sound issued from the naga, and both ends of it lashed out wildly, its tail snapping hard against the nearby pillar with enough force to leave a mark upon the stone. Its body coiled and uncoiled as shattered bones tore open its flesh from inside, and it let out a truly awful wail.

    Kosk, dazed and battered, rose unsteadily to his feet. He looked up and saw the others running over toward him. They were shouting something, but he couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. But he could see when their faces changed, and the warning as they pointed and lifted weapons.

    He started to turn around. He knew there was danger, but his body wouldn’t quite work the way he wanted. He had only gotten about halfway around when pain exploded in his body. He could feel something sharp piercing him through the back of his neck. White fire seemed to pour into his body, and he opened his mouth to cry out in pain. But before anything could come out the pain faded. He felt only a calm lassitude creep over him as all of his senses grew vague. His last thought was that he had forgotten something, but it no longer seemed important as blackness enfolded him.

  6. #406
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    We're coming up fast on the end of the story (10 more posts after this one). This arc will be concluded, but I couldn't resist ending on a cliffhanger. I could have easily continued into Book 12, but it's been over two years already since I started writing this story and it's time to move on to other stuff.

    But first, another cliffhanger...

    * * *

    Chapter 307

    When Bredan first stirred back into consciousness he didn’t remember where he was or how he’d come to be lying on the floor. But then memory of his encounter with the intelligence that resided within the Libram came crashing back in with the force of a physical blow. He tried to ignore the stabbing pains that shot through his head as he pushed himself up to look around.

    The light was different, dimmer than before, but it was still enough to clearly make out the familiar outlines of the chamber. But he immediately noticed that something else had changed. The slab that had blocked the exit at the top of the stairs was gone, replaced by a shimmering field of energy that gave off a very faint glow. It hurt his eyes to look at it too long, so he quickly turned away to look for his companions.

    He immediately saw Kavek, lying unconscious just a few paces away to his right. There was something odd that he couldn’t quite place at first. The way the sailor had fallen he was facing toward the wall, but there was something strange about the shape of his head, and the skin that was just visible between his hair and the collar of his coat was distinctly reddish in the dull light, as if he’d experienced a sudden and intense sunburn.

    Bredan began to pull himself up to take a closer look, but was interrupted by Kalasien’s voice behind him. “Bredan. Are you all right?”

    There was a strange tension in the man’s voice that drew Bredan’s attention to him. The Arreshian agent had already gotten back to his feet, but as their eyes met Bredan thought he saw something in the other man’s stare. It might have been anger, an intensity that seemed so incongruous that he blinked and shook his head to clear it. When he looked up again the other man’s face was back to its usual neutral, controlled expression.

    Kavek groaned and Bredan turned back to him. Kalasien was further away, but he moved so quickly that he beat the warrior to the fallen sailor. “Kavek,” he said, bending over him so that Bredan couldn’t see either man’s face. “Kavek, you were unconscious.” As the other man groaned, Kalasien helped him up.

    By the time that the agent had gotten the sailor to his feet he was more or less awake. He looked like he felt about the same as Bredan, but there was nothing unusual about his appearance, and his skin color had returned to the same dusky tan they’d all earned over the course of the sea voyage and their stay thus far under the hot sun of Weltarin. Bredan dismissed what he’d seen earlier as a trick of the light or his own addled senses, but he couldn’t shake that initial look that he’d caught from Kalasien.

    “What…” Kavek said. “What happened?”

    “Take it easy,” Bredan told him. “Whatever that was, it took something out of us.”

    “I saw,” Kavek said. “I saw… all of it.” He stared at Bredan as if he’d never seen him before.

    “Something’s coming,” Kalasien said.

    The three men separated—Kavek wavered for a moment, but he was able to remain upright—and faced the gap at the top of the stairs. Bredan felt a moment’s twinge at Kalasien being behind him—what had that look been about?—but his attention was quickly focused on the figure coming down the steps toward them.

    They couldn’t see it clearly through the glowing barrier, just a vague man-shaped shadow that slowly descended the ancient stairs. When it reached the field, it passed through with just a slight frisson of distorted light. Some instinct told Bredan that the barrier would not let them pass so easily. He remembered the book’s last words to him and assumed that this was the guardian it had referenced.

    His first clear look at the thing caused his heart to leap in his chest. One glance was enough to tell that whatever it was, it was no longer one of the living. It was tall, almost seven feet from the bottom of its feet to the top of its head, but its flesh was desiccated and brown, stretched tight over bones that were occasionally visible where the leathery skin had parted. Its eyes were black sunken sockets within which tiny red points were visible, like flickers of torchlight reflected within a deep pool. It was clad in what might have once been finery, but which now hung in tattered scraps from its body. Bredan’s gaze was drawn to its chest, where it wore a broad pectoral of silvery metal that was clearly imprinted with the sigil that the tabaxi matriarch had shown them, the same sigil he bore upon his blade.

    He summoned his sword back into his grasp.

    The undead entity spoke. Its lips did not move, and whatever husks it had left for lungs clearly could no longer manipulate air, but each of them heard it as a soft whisper hissed directly into their minds.

    I am the last of the Mai’i, it said. “I accepted the charge to be bound to this place and serve beyond death. To guard the Eldarithi Libranum, both to keep it safe and to keep the world safe from it.”

    “You didn’t do such a good job of it,” Kalasien said.

    Bredan shot the agent a warning look before turning his attention back to the guardian. Careful to keep his sword low, he said, “We’re not here to fight.”

    The entity shifted its empty stare toward Kalasien. “I failed once before. The Libranum escaped my grasp. But now it has returned, and I have once more been awakened from my eternal slumber to stand vigil.”

    “I was invited here,” Bredan said. “The book called me here.”

    “I do not serve the book,” the guardian said. “My charge is from those who created it, those who bear responsibility for the power it contains.”

    “There’s no disagreement,” Bredan said. “I too want to keep the book protected. It reached out to me, not the other way around. I didn’t want to be chosen. But there is a real threat. There are those who seek to use its power for evil ends.”

    “Good, evil, those are words without meaning to one such as I. I know what the book has asked of you. It cannot be permitted.”

    “I haven’t agreed to what it wants,” Bredan said. “The book is somewhere above, I assume? I just want to get out of here. Let me pass, or show me another way to the surface. I have friends above, let me rejoin them. You can accompany me, ensure that I do not mess with the book along the way.”

    “Your friends already face the upper guardian. Even if they survive, they cannot be allowed to leave this place. Knowledge of the book must die with you.”

    “If you kill us, others will come!” Bredan said. “Damn it, just listen to me! This doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t want to fight you.”

    “What you want is irrelevant,” the guardian said. It took another step down, dust falling from its withered body as it shifted its weight on the stairs.

    Bredan stepped forward to meet it, but before he could reach the stairs the guardian’s eyes flashed and the warrior felt a surge of necromantic power erupt through his body. He screamed as the full potency of its harm spell tore through him, pulverizing bits of flesh and tissue to ash that fell in flecks from him as he stumbled back and dropped to one knee, as if in supplication to the ancient being that stood over them, implacable in its judgment.

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