• Welcome to this new upgrade of the site. We are now on a totally different software platform. Many things will be different, and bugs are expected. Certain areas (like downloads and reviews) will take longer to import. As always, please use the Meta Forum for site queries or bug reports. Note that we (the mods and admins) are also learning the new software.
  • The RSS feed for the news page has changed. Use this link. The old one displays the forums, not the news.

Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
I finished my NaNoWriMo story (The Graves Crew and the Magical Forest came in just over 55,000 words), so I'll resume posting Forgotten Lore next week. Need to go back and reread some to get back into the flow of the story. :)
 

Lazybones

Explorer
No, this is a series of novella-length stories about a crew of gravediggers who get into all kinds of unexpected trouble. This year's NNWM book was the fifth in the series.

The first one is a free download if anyone is interested: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/693637.

I did turn the first part of my Rappan Athuk story into a novel, but I never published it. Even with all the changes I made it was too dependent on the IP of the former Necromancer Games. But I occasionally hear feedback that suggests that folks are still reading it, and it's still on the front page of the Story Hour forum. I've written tons since then but it remains one of my favorite stories.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Yeah, it was the first one of yours I read. Took me a few weeks and helped me through many train journeys :)

Graves Crew, Dungeon of Graves...got the two mixed up a bit
 

Lazybones

Explorer
And we're back!

* * *

Chapter 227

The Arreshian caravel Wavefarer carved through modest seas, its sails filled with a strong following breeze. Ahead of the ship was a green island, its features taking on definition as the vessel drew nearer. A solitary peak rose up from the center of the island, and two juts of land extended from around an enclosed harbor as if to welcome the new arrivals. A city of considerable size rose from the inner edge of that harbor, its clean while buildings ascending onto the sides and summits of the hills that surrounded the bay.

Xeeta stood alone on the raised foredeck of the Wavefarer, staring at that slowly-approaching cityscape. She was resolved, and did not feel any doubts about her decision as the familiar landmarks became visible, but that did not ease the roiling uncertainty in her gut or the grim scenarios that constantly played out in the back of her mind.

A creak of wood alerted her to the presence of others behind her. She didn’t need to look back; she could already distinguish the feel of her friends from others, either the disinterested ambivalence of the crew or the wary deference from Kalasien and his men. Their presence felt like a balm that eased some of the turmoil she felt. That alone was enough of a confirmation of her decision to return.

She didn’t turn around until they came to stand at the rail beside her. Bredan remained back a step, twining his arm around one of the lines that supported the foremast. Glori, on the other hand, fearlessly joined Xeeta at the very front of the ship, leaning out so that the spray that the bow tore from the waves flashed over her features. “I know a few individuals who will be quite happy to see this part of the voyage come to an end,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Xeeta nodded. “I never thought I’d be back here again,” she said.

“We’ll only be here long enough to make contact with Kalasien’s friends, and find a Syvalian ship and crew willing to take us to Weltarin.”

“I wish we could stay with the Wavefarer,” Bredan said. “No offense, Xeeta…”

“Arienne,” Glori interjected.

“Right. Anyway, after all you’ve told us about Syvalian society, and its sailors in particular, it seems like a long shot to find a captain we can trust.”

“Your caution is wise,” Xeeta said. “Most Syvalian captains aren’t far off from pirates. In some cases, literally; many do a bit of piracy on the side. In Li Syval it’s seen as a patriotic duty, to help ensure Syvalian dominance of the seas.”

Bredan frowned. “That proves my point, then…”

“That’s all true, but they know the Deep, Bredan. No non-Syvalian ship has ever made the Weltarin crossing, as far as I am aware. Though few captains are willing to attempt the journey these days.”

“They gave up most of their colonies on the other continent, didn’t they?” Glori asked.

Xeeta nodded. “Yes. During the initial decades of exploration and discovery, there was a lot of talk of riches and new lands, even some who talked about a new Syvalian Empire to rival the Mai’i. But that ran up against the hard reality. Weltarin is halfway around the world, and even Syvalian ships make the journey only with great difficulty. The islands where they initially landed were sparsely populated and had few resources. The mainland had more riches, but also harsh terrain, dense jungles and arid deserts that were both hostile to colonists. That’s not even considering the creatures that lived there, monsters worse than anything we have back home.”

“And there were intelligent races there as well, yes?” Glori prodded.

“Yes. Strange beings, creatures that we would consider a mixture of animal and man. All barbarians by our standards, but no less dangerous for it.”

“I take it the initial contacts were not friendly,” Glori said.

“How would you feel, if armed strangers came to your land and started carving out its resources to ship halfway around the world?” Bredan asked.

“I’ve read histories that said there was plenty of blame to go around,” Xeeta said. “But you’re not wrong. Most of the Syvalian colonists ended up returning home, but they left behind a lot of blood in their wake.”

Another creak, this one significantly louder, drew their attention to another pair of new arrivals. This time it was Quellan and Kosk. The half-orc looked relaxed in a loose shirt. No amount of preparedness was enough to justify wearing heavy armor at sea, so he’d taken the captain’s suggestion and left it in his quarters. Kosk wore simple traveler’s clothes, but he looked a little green, and he remained close to the foremast, well back from the ship’s rails.

“Ah, Kosk!” Glori said. “Finally decided to come up and take in the fine salt air?”

The dwarf muttered something that was probably better left unheard.

“Sea sickness is a common affliction, and plays no favorites by race or gender,” Quellan said. The half-orc had also had some difficulties adjusting to sea travel, but his innate hardiness had ultimately won out. Now he looked almost hale as he stepped up to the forward rail to catch his first glimpse of Li Syval. “Impressive,” he said.

“It’s called the Gem of the Deep,” Xeeta said. “Lady of the Seas.”

“It looks almost as large as Severon,” Bredan said.

“It’s only about half as large, just going by population,” Quellan said. At Xeeta’s look he added, “I sought out a few books before we left.”

“Of course you did,” Kosk said.

“The only question is whether we’ll find what we’re looking for there,” Bredan said.

“If a ship heading to Weltarin can be found anywhere, it will be there,” Xeeta said.

“Assuming that Kalasien’s contacts play out,” Kosk said.

“We have no reason to believe they won’t,” Glori said.

“We’ll want to keep a low profile, either way,” Xeeta said. “You don’t want to attract the attention of the Ruling Council.”

“The city’s set up like the dwarves of Ironcrest, isn’t it?” Bredan asked. “Merchant guilds in charge of things.”

“Sort of,” Xeeta said. “The Council consists of the fifty leading families of the city. The number is set, but the exact participants frequently shift. As a result, there’s a constant game of houses going on, with plenty of plotting, backstabbing, and the occasional murder. About half of the population is caught up in it in one way or another, and the rest mostly just try to stay out of their way.”

“We’ll only be here a few days, hopefully,” Quellan said. “Not enough time to get into trouble with the locals.”

Kosk snorted at that. “You disagree?” Glori asked.

“When has it ever taken us any time at all to find trouble?” the dwarf asked.

“Well, maybe this time we can avoid it,” Glori said. She tapped Quellan’s chest, and the sigil there. “You know, you’ll have to play covert as well.” Her tone was teasing, but there was a warmth in her eyes when they met his.

“I know,” Quellan said with a sigh. “I have already prepared a canvas wrap for my shield.

“I have never gone to a place where any of the Triad gods were not worshipped,” Kosk said.

“Laesil is venerated, and worship of Sorevas is tolerated,” Xeeta said. “But the Syvalians have viewed the church of Hosrenu as a foreign import, ever since an incident related to some missionaries almost a millennium ago.”

“Long memories,” Glori noted.

“You said there aren’t many dwarves here,” Kosk said. “I’m not wearing a bloody canvas cover.”

“There aren’t many,” Xeeta said, “but Kalasien’s cover should hold, at least for a few days. As long as we all play our assigned roles.”

“I said I’d wear the bloody clothes,” Kosk said. “I just hope that bloody fop knows what he’s about.”

“We have no choice but to trust him,” Bredan said. “Other than… Arienne, he’s the only one of us who has spent time in Li Syval. And she needs to stay out of sight.”

“But surely no one will recognize her, wearing the amulet,” Glori said.

“No, he’s right,” Xeeta said, reaching up to touch the gemstone at her throat. “While I can appear as almost anyone using this, it’s an active spell, and radiates magic. While spellcasting is not forbidden in Li Syval, spellcasters must register with the city authorities. The law was put into effect after the cult that created me was exposed. I don’t know if the edict is still in effect, but it would be a needless risk for me to travel in the city. Don’t worry, I’ve seen enough of Li Syval for a lifetime; I have no desire to go sightseeing.”

“None of us are here to sightsee,” Bredan said. “Let’s just find Kalasien’s ship and get out of here.”

“Speak of the devil,” Kosk said. “Here comes one of his dogs now.”

Another man ascended the stairs to the now-crowded foredeck. He too was clad in simple sailor’s garb, a billowing shirt over loose trousers, but there was no disguising what he was. Like all of Kalasien’s men, he was a soldier through and through, and growing out their hair and changing their clothes would not conceal that.

“Ho, Haverd,” Quellan said in greeting. “Come to get a view of our destination? We’re coming up on the harbor fast.”

The soldier’s expression remained as blank as if it had been chiseled from stone. “Kalasien says you should all get below before the harbor pilot arrives,” he said. “We’re to avoid notice by the local authorities when possible.”

Bredan looked out and saw the small vessel that was approaching from one of the towers that flanked the harbor mouth. He’d missed it earlier, but Kalasien struck him as the sort of man who missed very little. He lingered for a moment while the others descended from the forward deck. He gave the approaching city one more look. He hoped that Kosk was wrong, and that this time they would avoid trouble, and their visit to Li Syval would be uneventful and brief.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 228

The section of docks where the Wavefarer was berthed had ten times the level of activity as the wharf in Colverston, with twenty times the stench. As Bredan and his companions came up onto the deck of the caravel they were greeted by a wall of noise that rocked them back on their heels for a moment. From their vantage they could see dozens of ships, most of them only visible as part of a sea of masts that rose up out of the clutter. People were everywhere: fishermen, merchants, teamsters, stevedores, guards, and hundreds of others whose professions were not immediately discernable. Palanquins with interiors concealed by hanging curtains wove through the crowd on the backs of muscled bearers, while carts and wagons ventured the apparently impossible task of pushing through the crowd.

Bredan turned to see a massive ship that dwarfed the Wavefarer tied up at the next dock over. He now understood what Xeeta was getting at earlier; the giant galley made the Arreshian caravel seem like a toy by comparison.

Kalasien grabbed Bredan’s sleeve and pulled him back a moment before a sailor bearing a bolt of cloth would have collided into him. The warrior sheepishly joined the rest of the group in a temporarily sheltered space in the lee of the aft deck. “Remember,” Kalasien told them. “Stay close, don’t wander off, don’t engage with the locals, and above all, don’t talk about our mission where anyone could possibly hear.”

“Who could hear anything over all this?” Glori asked.

“There are people who can read lips,” Kalasien said. At first the adventurers just looked at him, thinking maybe he was teasing them, but then they noticed that he had deliberately placed himself where no one on the dock could see his face.

“The inn is not far,” he said. “Rooms have already been arranged, we have a whole wing to ourselves.”

“Won’t that draw notice?” Kosk asked. The dwarf looked uncomfortable, clad in the plain garb of a common servant. He was carrying a large chest that supposedly held the samples that the “merchant,” played by Kalasien, had brought to Li Syval to trade. The Arreshian agent wore a rich doublet with a silk shirt peeking out at the cuffs and collar, and a fur-lined cloak that was gratuitous in the heat slung over one shoulder. As he made his way to the gangplank, preceded by Haverd, he looked exactly like one of the wealthy merchants Bredan had seen in Severon.

The company made its way slowly into the press of humanity. Haverd, Elias, and Kavin, playing the part of merchant guards, opened a path for the others to follow. Though perhaps it was more Quellan’s presence. The cleric did not push anyone, but people tended to get out of the way when they saw the armored half-orc approaching.

Bredan realized that he should probably join them; he too was supposed to be a guard as part of their cover. He had put together a scabbard for his sword on the ship, and now wore the heavy weapon slung across his back. Here there was no need to keep weapons hidden; in fact, it looked like it was better to be obvious. Many of the people in the crowd were armed, and most of the men who were dressed in finery had at least a few guards close around them, glaring at anyone who got too close to their charges.

Such glares were probably futile; it was impossible to make it through this crowd without being jostled. Bredan abandoned any thoughts of joining the soldiers and instead focused on two things: keeping up, and keeping his purse. He remained close to Xeeta and Glori, who were walking in the shadow of the “merchant,” their eyes lowered from the gazes of the men in the crowd. Kalasien had briefed them all about how to behave in Li Syval, and no one seemed to be paying them any particular attention, but Bredan still felt self-conscious as he made his way through the press of humanity that was the city’s docks district.

Fortunately, the inn was as close as Kalasien had promised. They had only gone a few streets back from the docks, the din still clearly audible behind them, when they came to a sprawling two-story structure that appeared to take up most of a city block. The weathered sign showed a disconsolate sailor sitting atop a barrel, with the legend under it stating that this was The Seaman’s Lament.

The interior of the inn was comfortable and welcoming. Twelve long tables dominated the common space, while a row of booths with curtains that could be drawn for privacy stood along the wall to the right. Directly ahead of them was a curving bar that shone with polish. Most of the patrons were gathered there. It was still a bit early for the evening rush, although there were enough customers to keep the two bartenders busy.

“Wait here,” Kalasien said before heading over to greet a stout, balding man who had to be the innkeeper. He greeted the Arreshian agent like an old friend, though Bredan did not miss the subtle gesture by which a purse changed hands. The others waited near the door. A bouncer clad in a leather jerkin stretched tight over his expansive soldiers watched them intently, giving Bredan’s sword an evaluative look.

After a moment Kalasien called them over. “Our rooms are ready,” he said, leading them toward a staircase near the back of the room. Apparently, the innkeeper’s effusive welcomes did not extend to the hired help; after giving them a quick look he returned to his regular customers. Or maybe the coins in the purse had bought them their privacy, Bredan thought.

They made their way up to the topmost floor. Kosk grunted with the weight of the chest, but none of them offered to help him; they’d agreed they would stay in character whenever they were anywhere someone could see or hear them.

Three hallways extended out from the landing at the top of the stairs; Kalasien led them down one without a pause. The hall led all the way to the end of the inn, where a small window let in a bright shaft of afternoon sunlight. Multiple doors led off the hall; Kalasien selected one and led them into a small sitting room. Several doors led off the room, which was crowded with a small hearth, two couches, and a spacious wardrobe. Kalasien gestured them all in and then stepped into one of the side-rooms with Elias.

“Cozy,” Bredan said.

“Yeah, apparently Arreshian coin buys only the finest lodgings,” Kosk said as he threw the chest down onto one of the couches.

“Careful,” Haverd said. He’d closed the hallway door, but stood next to it, his ear pressed close against the wood.

“We all understand the need for caution,” Glori said. “But how could anyone know who we are, or why we’re here?”

“You’d be surprised what information changes hands in a place like this,” Kalasien said as he stepped back into the room. The others looked at him in surprise. Gone was the expensive clock and fancy doublet; now he wore a plain coat in the local style with dark trousers and scuffed boots. A soft leather cap hung rakishly across his brow, and a pair of daggers jutted out from his belt, the hilts within easy reach. Even his manner had changed, his stance and bearing altered to match his new attire.

“Get cleaned up, rest, have a meal downstairs, just don’t leave the inn,” Kalasien said. “I won’t be long.”

“You’re going out?” Bredan asked.

“Of course. I have to make the initial contact with our friends in the city. Get comfortable, it may take a day or two before I can set up a meet with a viable captain. If anyone asks, ‘Master Silas’ is taking his rest after the arduous voyage. He’ll make an appearance in the common room later tonight.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if we all stayed together?” Glori asked.

“The people I’m meeting get nervous with large groups,” Kalasien said. “And to be honest, you lot sort of stand out. Don’t worry, I have done this sort of thing before. And if something does happen to me, there is information hidden in our luggage that can help you; Haverd knows where it is.”

“While I find preparedness admirable, I do not find that entirely reassuring,” Quellan said.

“Can’t do anything about that,” Kalasien said with a shrug. “Haverd and Kavin will stay here and help keep an eye out.” With a nod toward Elias he headed to the outer door, the soldier following.

For a moment the five adventurers just stood there looking at each other, then Glori shrugged. “Well,” she said. “Anyone hungry?”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 229

Galendra Sond was not content as she sipped her tea and studied the clouds swirling through her window.

The tea was hot, and spiced just the way she liked it. The room was comfortable and well-furnished. It was twice the size of her cabin on the Gull, with fancier decorations including a pair of gilded lamp-stands and a large brass-bound chest. A fire burned in the hearth, keeping the chill at bay. Even without looking outside she could tell that a good blow was coming. She could feel it. If she was on the Gull she’d be ordering the crew to secure the ship, even in harbor.

That was it, she supposed. She missed her ship. It was less than a mile away, as the crow flew, but she still missed it. She’d already visited half a dozen times over the last week. Any further visits would send the message that she lacked confidence in Corgan’s crew at the drydock. She might have dropped in again despite that, but there was also the possibility that Corgan might ask questions about her debts, and the outstanding lien on the Gull.

A knock on the door shook her from those thoughts. She put the teacup down and took a deep breath to steady herself. “Enter.”

The door opened and Trev came in. Her second loomed over her like a giant, but then again, most folks did. Galendra stood barely three feet tall even in her boots. That was average for a halfling, but she was the only ship captain in Li Syval of that race. She was proud of the fact that her diminutive size had never been an issue with any of her crews, at least not after they could see what she could do.

Trev knuckled his forehead in salute. “They’re here,” he said.

“How do they look?” Galendra asked.

“Suspicious, I’d say. They have a half-orc and a dwarf that both look like they’ve knocked a few heads in their time, along with a couple of soldiers pretending to be hired men.”

“And the merchant?”

“He has the look, and says the right things, but if he’s not a spy I’ll eat my hat.”

“Of course he’s a spy. But a fat purse is a fat purse, and doesn’t care what country the coins in it come from.”

“The Ruling Council might not see things that way.”

“The Council doesn’t need to stick its nose into every bit of business that comes before a licensed ship and its crew. We pay our taxes, and our documents are current. Or was there something more that gave you pause?”

“I just… Are you sure this is a good idea, Captain?”

“”It’s not like we have a lot of choices right now, Trev. I can’t even afford to get the Gull out of drydock, let alone pay off our creditors.”

“There are plenty of local contracts…”

“You know as well as I do that any short-term bids I could pull down would only leave us in the same position again once our debts came due. Then we’d be right back where we are now, only with fewer options.”

Trev looked chagrined. There were times when she almost forgot how young he was, Galendra thought. “I’m sorry, Trev. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s nobody’s fault… just ill luck. Laesil’s been having her fun with us, this last year.”

Trev reflexively made the gesture that warded away the baleful gaze of Ilia Fortuna. If only it was so easy, Galendra thought.

“Show our potential customers in,” she said.

Her first impressions confirmed Trev’s evaluation. The half-orc was impressive, especially clad in a suit of heavy mail, but there was something about him that didn’t quite square with the martial impression he presented. The same could be said about the dwarf; he certainly had the look of a brawler, but at the same time there was a quiet calm to him that was unique among the various dwarves she had encountered in her travels. The soldiers were as her second had pegged them, easily marked as what they were. The merchant might have been convincing, but she doubted that most had those old callouses on their sword-hands.

There weren’t enough chairs at the table for all of them and she didn’t bother to offer any of them to her guests. If the merchant was put off by the cool welcome he didn’t let it show. “Captain Sond, a pleasure to finally meet you,” he said, offering a polite bow. “Dalser Pon had nothing but good things to say about you and your crew.”

“Dalser Pon would praise his worst rival if there was a coin in it,” Galendra said. “On the other hand, I know nothing about you, Master Silas. Your name is not known in Li Syval.”

“I have not had the pleasure of being able to visit the islands thus far in my humble career,” Silas said.

“From what I understand, your first visit will be brief,” Galendra said.

“Sadly, yes. Urgent business compels me to seek passage immediately. We require a vessel that can manage the Weltarin Crossing.”

Galendra had been prepared, but she still had to carefully school her expression to keep from revealing a reaction to the name of the distant continent. Trev, however, betrayed a more immediate reaction. “The Crossing is no casual journey, especially for foreigners. What exactly is that business?” he asked.

Silas kept his attention on Galendra, who waved a hand in acknowledgment. “It is a valid question,” she said.

Silas did not appear to be concerned. “Syvalian captains have a reputation for discretion,” he said. “I understand that my request is… significant, and that such a request commands a premium rate.”

“You ask us to place our ship at considerable risk,” Trev said. “The Crossing is dangerous, even for a veteran crew.”

Galendra made a subtle nod in his direction. “It is my second’s job to look out for the safety of my crew,” she said.

“And the captain’s job to look out for their business interest,” Silas said without hesitation. “I understand your concerns. These are difficult times, right now, what with the recent downturn in the commodities markets. There is so much uncertainty in the long-distance trade sector at the moment… challenging times for the owner of a free galley.”

“We Syvalians have a saying,” Galendra said. “Uncertain times make for business opportunities.”

“We have a similar saying where I am from,” Silas said.

“Where is that, if you don’t mind me asking?” Trev asked.

Silas didn’t bother acknowledging the question; he just held Galendra’s eyes with his. “What’s the cargo?” she finally asked.

“Nine passengers, with luggage.”

Trev looked like he was about to ask a question, but he saw Galendra’s face and held his tongue.

“How long?” she asked.

“A few months,” Silas said.

“That would take us up to the edge of storm season,” Galendra said. “I don’t want to be stuck at Fort Promise all winter.”

“We can afford to be somewhat flexible,” Silas said.

Galendra’s eyes flicked over to the left. One of Silas’s men had come further into the room and was examining the map that hung from the wall opposite the window. It was a quality map, expensive, and while it focused on Voralis it did include the eastern edge of Weltarin as well. Large parts of the latter portion were blank, especially the inland areas, but at least what was there was accurate, with none of the illustrations of dragons and sea monsters that the general public enjoyed.

For some reason, the young man studying the map drew her attention. She’d almost missed him earlier, standing in the back of the small company, but there was something about him that alerted her more than any of the others. He wore an almost comically large sword slung across his back, but she guessed him to be younger even than Trev by a good five or six years.

At the lull in the conversation the young swordsman reached up and pointed to a portion of the map that showed Weltarin. “What is this place?” he asked.

Galendra’s eyes were sharp; she didn’t need to look closer to see what he was indicating. There was little more on the map than the squiggle of the coastline; the interior beyond was all blank. “That is the Black Coast,” she said. “Not much there except for rocky shores and dense jungle. The whole continent is unfriendly, but the Black Coast is deadly. You won’t find any Syvalian captains willing to journey there.”

“One did,” the young man said quietly.

Galendra frowned at that, but Silas quickly stepped in to bring the conversation back to the main point. “Let’s just focus on getting to Fort Promise, shall we? You are now familiar with our needs, Captain Sond. Can the Golden Gull accommodate them?”

Galendra glanced over at Trev; his feelings on the matter were obvious. She regarded Silas again, but she already knew that she wasn’t going to get anything more out of him. No doubt he had a list of other captains to meet with. Most would probably share her reluctance, but then again, most would have more options than she did. A fact that Silas, or whoever he was, no doubt knew quite well.

“Twenty-five thousand,” she said. “Twenty percent in advance.”

She had to stifle a grin at Trev’s audible gasp. Silas and his people betrayed their own reactions, though the merchant himself merely nodded.

“We could almost buy our own ship for that,” the dwarf said.

“Yes,” Galendra said. “But you would still need a crew. No doubt you already know that the number of crews that have made the Crossing is small and shrinking. The Gull is one of only a handful of vessels now in Li Syval that has made the journey.” Once, she thought, but she left that unsaid. The memories were still fresh, even five years old as they were. On her return she’d sworn an oath and made an offering at the Temple of the Lady, but the priests of Ilia Fortuna were always happy to accept a second donation if and when one’s circumstances changed. Business was business, after all, and it wasn’t as though her luck could get much worse.

Silas pretended to consider, but she could see the truth in his eyes. Still, he said, “Five thousand is a lot for an advance.”

“I’ll need to hire on more crew,” Galendra said. “And stock in a full store of provisions. The Crossing is a five-week journey if we’re lucky, up to twice that if we’re not. This is the quiet season, but the Deep is fickle even in summer.”

“You won’t find a ship faster than the Gull with Captain Sond at the helm,” Trev said, reasserting his loyalty.

“Indeed,” Silas said. He produced a small, tightly wound scroll from a pocket of his coat, and handed it over to Trev. “That should cover the advance,” he said. “The rest will be transferred to your accounts upon our return.”

“Agreed,” Galendra said. There would be more paperwork before their departure, documents that had to be prepared, bribes that had to be recorded, but the hard part was over. She had saved her ship, but instead of relief all she felt was a vague sense of unease.

“How long until you are ready to sail?” Silas asked.

“We’re finishing up a few minor repairs in dry dock,” Galendra said. “Between that and the other preparations I mentioned, four days. Will that work for you?”

“It will,” Silas said. He kissed his fingertips and extended the hand toward her, and after a moment Galendra repeated the gesture, shaking his hand. “I look forward to a safe and swift crossing,” he said.

It took a minute for the merchant and his company to file out. When the door was shut and the sounds of them making their way down the steps had faded, Trev turned to her with a look of amazement on his face. “Twenty-five thousand! They must really be desperate!”

“Yes. And desperate people can be counted on to do almost anything, Trev.” Like I just did, she thought. “Remember that.”

“Still,” he said. “That will cover all our debts, and then some.”

“Yes, and all we have to do is sail the Crossing, one more time.”

“I wasn’t with you the last time, but I heard about it from a few of the old hands.”

The ones that made it, she thought. “They aren’t exaggerating.”

“Well, as you said, we don’t exactly have a lot of options right now.”

“It’s a risk,” she acknowledged. “You were right about the Ruling Council, earlier. We will have to be very careful when we file our itinerary, and generous with the filing fee. But even so, there are no guarantees. Tobias in particular would be quite happy to see any deal fall through, if it meant he could collect on our lien.”

“We could take the five thousand and sail,” Trev said.

There was a long pause. Finally, Galendra said, “I will pretend that I did not hear that.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

She got up from her chair, dropping lightly onto her feet from the comparatively high perch. Another reason to miss her cabin; the furniture here was always too big for her to be comfortable. “We’ve got a lot to do,” she said. “I’ll go cash the writ, and make sure that Corgan gets his payment in full.” She held out her hand, taking the scroll from Trev. “You take what’s left of the petty cash and begin looking for new crew. You know what we need. We’re not likely to find a lot of Crossing vets these days, but make sure they know what they’re in for. I don’t want any mutinies on this voyage.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll see it done.”

“I know you will, Trev.”

She went to get her coat while he left. She glanced out the window again. The clouds had thickened and darkened noticeably; it would likely rain before morning. She paused and considered the scroll in her hand. It was only a down payment, and it wouldn’t help at all if the Gull ended up shipwrecked on some distant shore or lost within under the vastness of the Blue Deep. But it represented a future for her and her crew, a future that had seemed nearly impossible scant minutes before.

Yet she couldn’t escape the sudden feeling of dread. Her eyes traveled up to the map, to the vague lines where the young warrior’s finger had rested a few minutes before.

Breaking an oath to herself, weighed against the loss of her ship. There was only one decision she could make.

Shaking her head, she tucked the scroll into an inner pocket of her coat and headed downstairs.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 230

Glori sat alone in the common room of The Seaman’s Lament and sipped her wine. Majerion’s tutelage had included instruction on how to appreciate wine. This was a fine Siccarian vintage, crisp and fruity, but she was too distracted to give it its due.

She turned her head and scanned the room. The inn was even quieter than it had been when they’d first arrived in town two days ago. She was starting to get a feel for the place, and knew it would get busy once the afternoon shift at the docks let out and a small army of clerks, journeymen, and others with the coin to afford the Lament’s prices would descend upon the inn.

For the moment, the dozen or so patrons enjoyed their drinks in peace. The feel of a quiet common room grated on Glori’s sensibilities, and she was tempted to go up and fetch her lyre, to fill the chamber with music. But while the gilded instrument fit with her cover as the private player of the “rich foreign merchant,” such a person wouldn’t be playing tunes in a common room.

She turned back to the window and looked out into the street, but couldn’t see much through the streaks of rain that covered the glass. She was starting to feel stir-crazy from being cooped up here. She understood why it wouldn’t have been consistent for her to accompany Bredan and the others to meet with the Syvalian captain, and someone needed to stay here with Xeeta, but the forced inactivity was still difficult to deal with.

She’d asked Xeeta to join her for a drink, but the tiefling had refused. She was likely still distracted by the feelings wrought by her return to her homeland. Kavin had also turned down her offer. She suspected that the soldier had orders to make sure that the tiefling did not leave the inn.

She raised her glass to take another sip of her wine, but paused as she heard a sound. It wasn’t much, just a soft thump that could have been anything, but it still had her rising from the booth. No one else in the common room had paid it any heed, and the bartender was polishing bottles, unaware or unconcerned.

Telling herself that it was probably nothing—one of the maids had probably dropped something—she headed toward the back of the inn. She paused to peek into the kitchen. It was strangely quiet. The lunch press was well past, and it was hours still until supper, but there still should have been at least someone there. She could see a large pot atop the stove, where the evening soup was simmering. It was possible that the cook had just stepped out for a moment, but she could not shake a feeling of unease as she made her way toward the back stairs.

She found Kavin on the landing halfway up between the second and third floors of the inn. One look at the angle that his head was lying told her that he was dead. His sword was halfway out of its scabbard, which suggested that his attacker had managed to catch him by surprise.

Glori drew her own sword as she made her way up the stairs. She now regretted leaving her lyre in her room, but she hummed a few notes under her breath, summoning her magic.

The landing at the top of the stairs was empty. She made her way carefully to the hallway that led to their rooms. The door leading to Xeeta’s room was slightly ajar. The room they shared, where she’d left her lyre when she’d come downstairs.

She continued cautiously ahead, sliding her feet forward to minimize the chance of making any sound. She reached the door and reached out slowly with her sword, using its tip to push it open further.

The room was empty.

A soft creak from behind caught her attention. She spun around, but had no time to react as a huge form hurtled down the hallway toward her. She tried to bring her sword up but before she could get into the stance that Bredan had drilled into her the figure slammed into her. She was flung backwards. Noise and light exploded around her as she hit the window. She felt the jarring cold and the patter of raindrops on her skin before a solid impact blasted away all other conscious thought.

“Miss, are you all right? Miss? Miss!”

Glori jolted back to consciousness as abruptly as she’d left it. She was cold and wet, and lying on her back in what she realized was the side yard of the inn. There were several people around her, staring at her with looks of concern on their faces. Her gaze traveled past them, up to the shattered remnants of the window high above from which she’d fallen.

“Xeeta,” she said, and tried to get up. That proved to be a mistake as her head exploded and her vision swam. As she tried to refocus her senses she could hear the voices of the bystanders.

“What happened, did she jump?”

“Get the Watch, someone call the Watch!”

“She’s hurt, better get a cleric…”

“I’m fine,” she said. This time she didn’t try to get up, but focused her thoughts and hummed a melody to summon her magic. She let out a gasp as the energies of a cure wounds spell poured into her. Her perceptions cleared, but that brought with it a fresh wave of pain as her remaining injuries reasserted themselves in her awareness. But it was enough for her to pull herself up.

Bits of wood and fabric clung to her, and she realized she’d landed in a pile of crates. That had probably saved her life. If she’d hit the cobblestones just a few steps to the left she probably would have broken her neck. The bystanders drew back, a few making a reflexive gesture against evil. Great, she thought, remembering Xeeta’s comments about the restrictions on spellcasting in Li Syval. Well, she would worry about that when the immediate emergency was over.

The innkeeper came rushing out from the side door of the inn. As his feet crunched on bits of broken glass, he glanced up at the broken window high above the courtyard. “What happened?” he asked.

“There’s been an attack, someone’s been murdered,” Glori said. “Better get the Watch.” She started back toward the inn. She looked around for her sword, but didn’t see it; it must not have made it through the window with her.

The innkeeper stared at her, a look of horror on his face. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Glori hesitated in the doorway. “I have to check on a friend,” she said.

The common room was astir as she made her way back inside. Someone in the kitchen called out to her as she passed, but she ignored them and once again ascended the stairs. She summoned her magic again as she hurried up the first flight, further easing her wounds. Their foe had handled her easily, and now she didn’t even have her sword. But she couldn’t leave Xeeta if there was even a small chance that she might still be there. She paused at Kavin’s body and drew his sword from its scabbard. Thus fortified, she returned to the hall. The floor there was already damp from the rain that had blown in through the broken window, but there was no one there.

She checked all of the rooms this time. There was no sign of Xeeta, or of their attacker. She hadn’t gotten a good look at his face, just a vague impression of size and bulk.

Her lyre was sitting where she had left it. She cradled it in her lap as she slumped onto her bed. She knew that she was going to have to talk fast very shortly, but for now she just sat on the end of the bed and took a deep, steadying breath.

A man was dead, and one of her friends was gone, taken. And for the moment, there was nothing she could do about it.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 231

“It wasn’t your fault,” Quellan said.

“You were lucky that you weren’t killed by the fall,” Kosk said.

“Yeah, lucky,” Glori said.

The reunited companions were in the small private dining room at the back of the inn. A small fire had been started in the hearth, but it hadn’t yet taken the chill out of the room. Voices could be heard in the common room, where the officers of the Watch were taking statements from the witnesses who had been present.

Bredan was pacing back and forth. “You’re sure you didn’t see anything?”

“I’m sorry,” Glori said. “It all happened too fast. He was big, and quick.”

The hall door swung open and Kalasien came in. He didn’t speak until he had closed the door behind him and came over to where the others were gathered. “I think we have things covered with the Watch, though it took a considerable bribe to convince them to hand over Kavin’s body to us. I told him that it was a matter of religious ritual.”

“Did you learn anything from him?” Bredan asked Quellan.

“I only had a minute to examine him,” the cleric said. “But he bore several unusual wounds. There were two stab wounds, one of which was poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” Glori asked.

“I didn’t have enough time to determine the nature of the toxin,” Quellan said. “The other wound was deep. I found this.”

He held up a small object, which the others crowded around to examine. It was a small steel blade, lacking a handle but with a thick flange at the base for gripping.

“That looks like a throwing knife,” Kosk said. “Though I’ve not seen its like before.”

“That’s called a wedge,” Kalasien said. “A popular weapon of Syvalian assassins. You have to get fairly close to use it, however.”

“I thought his neck had been broken,” Bredan said.

“That was what ultimately killed him,” Quellan said. “But that was strange as well. All around the throat there were these black marks. As if the skin had been… killed, somehow.”

“Kavin was an experienced veteran,” Kalasien said. “It would not have been easy to sneak up on him.”

“The guy who pushed me out the window, he was quiet for his size,” Glori said. “He hid in Quellan and Kosk’s room and came at me from behind. I wouldn’t have heard him coming at all if the door hadn’t squeaked slightly.”

“We are fortunate that they did not linger to make certain of you,” Quellan said. He put his hand on her shoulder, and after a moment she reached up to squeeze it.

“Yeah, they didn’t even take my lyre, and it was sitting right there by my bed.”

“They were only interested in Xeeta,” Bredan said. “We have to find her.”

“We have a mission,” Kalasien said.

“We’re not leaving without her,” Bredan said.

“It’s a big city,” Kalasien said.

Bredan turned to Quellan and Glori. “You found me in Severon, which is even bigger than Li Syval. Can you do the same for Xeeta?”

Quellan nodded. “I have my locating spell, but I will need to rest and pray before I can use it. And its range is limited.”

“We’ll do our best,” Glori said.

“Do we have any idea who took her?” Kosk asked.

“It was the cult,” Bredan said. “It has to be the tiefling cult.”

“Didn’t Xeeta and Rodan say they were destroyed?” Glori asked.

“Maybe some of the leaders escaped,” Kosk said. “As Kalasien said, it’s a big city, plenty of places to hide.”

“We’ll finish the job,” Bredan said.

“If you’re intent on this,” Kalasien said, “I can help. I have some contacts among the city’s less… savory quarters. But be careful. If this draws the attention of the Ruling Council, it could draw trouble down on us that I would be powerless to stop. In that case the only option would be to run.”

“I understand,” Bredan said.

“Where are Haverd and Elias?” Glori asked.

“They’re getting our things together,” Kalasien said.

“We’re not staying here?” Quellan asked. “Do you think that the cult will try something else, now that they’ve gotten what they wanted?”

“We should welcome another attempt,” Kosk said. “Maybe we could catch one of them and make them talk.”

“It’s not the cult I’m worried about,” Kalasien said. “I’ve paid off the Watch, but there are plenty of other factions who would be interested in what happened here. Better if we just slip away and not be here in case someone comes around asking questions. I’ve got another place lined up, one where folks don’t ask strangers with gold any questions.”

“Let’s hope that purse of yours doesn’t run dry,” Kosk said.

“Yes,” Kalasien said, meeting the dwarf’s gaze squarely. “Let’s hope it doesn’t.”

“We should be looking for her,” Bredan said. “The longer we wait, the longer the trail has to grow cold.”

“There’s nothing we can do until Quellan prepares his spells,” Glori said. “We won’t save her by rushing off blindly into a city that we don’t know.” She rose and put a hand on his arm. “We’ll find her, Bredan. I don’t like waiting any more than you. But we’ll find her.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 232

Xeeta woke in a dank stone chamber. A foul odor assaulted her nostrils, but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by a sharp spike of pain as she tried to lift her head. She groaned and tried to get a better look at her surroundings without moving.

It was dark, but her tiefling heritage allowed her to make out details of the chamber. Not that there was much to see. There was one exit, a narrow opening in one wall that was warded by a heavy iron gate. An iron pipe as thick around as her waist emerged from one wall and exited via the opposite. It was heavily flaked with rust but looked no less solid for it.

She tried again to get up, slowly shifting her hands to support her. That was when she realized that she was restrained. That recognition overcame her pain, and she scrambled up, ignoring the angry pulses of protest inside her skull. She was secured by shackles that linked to a chain that circled around the pipe. A second chain attached to an iron cuff wrapped tight around her neck.

A guttural sound came from her throat as she yanked hard on the chains. Panic gave her strength, but the chains were so thick that even Quellan would not have been able to part them with raw strength alone. The thought of her friends allowed some hint of clarity to slip back into her mind. She released the chains and turned to her magic. For a moment she feared that her captors had done something to restrict her powers, but then she felt a surge of relief as the Demon stirred within her.

Her first effort was an alter self spell. She shifted her form to become taller and leaner. With an effort she was able to slip the shackles off her wrists, ignoring the fresh pains as the metal edges scraped her skin. She turned to the band around her neck, but while it had loosened there was no way she could get it over her head. She pushed the spell as far as she could, until she could feel the bones grinding in her head, but it was no use. Defeated, she slumped back to the floor, resuming her normal form.

She had no idea how long she sat there like that, but eventually a sound drew her attention up. It had come from the direction of the gate. She shuffled as far as the chain would allow her in that direction, but the sound was not repeated.

She slid the loose chain from around the pipe. The manacles at the ends gave them decent weight, but they would be useless as a weapon if she could not get free of the neck shackle. She considered pulling the chain taut and striking it with one of the manacles, but realized that the sound of metal striking metal would echo throughout this place. She suspected that she was somewhere in the sewers under Li Syval. She had spent some time in those foul tunnels while working for the cult, but she did not recognize this particular location. With luck, she’d be able to get her bearings once she was out of this cell.

She pulled on the chain and held it tight against the pipe. She summoned her magic and unleashed a stream of fire against it. The flames surged against the iron, searing away flakes of rust, filling the room with heat. Smoke swirled around her but she kept on, sharpening her focus until the fire roared like an angry beast. The chain and the surrounding pipe began to glow, and she could feel the heat swelling in the hand holding the chain. She let it go, using just the tension of the manacle around her neck to keep the chain taut. It was becoming difficult to breathe. Still she kept up the flame. She poured everything she had from her reservoir into the assault, until the band around her neck began to sear against her flesh. She yanked back, trying to part the heated chain, but it held. She lifted the loose chain to strike, but she hesitated as she felt something else stirring within her. It was the Demon, called by the swelling of her magic, eager to be set free.

Sudden panic filled her and she released the flames. She fell to the floor, coughing, trying to ignore the pain of her burned neck.

“Impressive,” came a voice from the grate. “Truly, you have grown.”

She spun reflexively and hurled a fire bolt that streaked toward the exit. Her cast had been accurate, but as the burning streak approached the iron bars it suddenly dissolved into nothing.

“Kalev,” she breathed. “I thought you were dead.”

“I survived,” he said. “No thanks to you and your friends.”

“I dreamed of your death,” she said. “I pictured a hundred scenarios where you met the fate you have earned.”

“The circle was broken,” he said, “But I held on, lived on through the long aftermath unleashed by your betrayal. I knew, you see. Knew you or one of your escaped kin would return here one day. You are part of us, and we are part of you. When I felt you start to draw close, I knew that our hour of rebirth was upon us.”

She recoiled from his words, but forced herself to remain alert, to look for any opening that might present itself. She could vaguely sense the protective aura that surrounded him, the field that had disrupted her spell. That was potent magic indeed, and beyond what she remembered from before. That meant that she could not rely upon her memory of the arcanist’s capabilities.

“The one who hit me,” she said. “That was Toros, wasn’t it? He’s still here, with you?”

“Toros, yes, and Vesca as well. They remained loyal. They were not ungrateful.”

“Ungrateful?” she asked. “How you can use that word without choking on it is a mystery to me. You tortured us, trained us to be your tools, your weapons. That was all we were to you.”

“Such a narrow view,” he told her. “I remember you as always being incapable of comprehending the greater truth, Xeeta. We birthed you, we brought you into this world. It was our guidance that helped you to reach your full potential. Surely you have learned this truth in your time in the world outside Li Syval. You are superior to the so-called civilized folk of Voralis. You are Blooded, destined to be rulers of these lands.”

“You call us rulers, I call us slaves. You cared about us only insofar as we increased your power.”

“You still do not understand, but I see that you will not believe me. But it does not matter. Your coming here, it means so much. Your return will allow the project to be reborn. I have learned much since the day you left us. You will help us reach new heights.”

“I will never help you,” she said.

“Why, my dear… you’ve helped so much already, just by coming here. As for the rest, well, your active cooperation is not necessary.”

Xeeta surged up and pulled hard on her chains, but they still refused to give. She extended a hand toward the gate, summoning her magic in a vague hope that she could somehow overcome Kalev’s ward. But he was already spellcasting, and as he held his hand out she could see sand sifting out from between his fingers. She tried to resist, tried to overcome the magic of his spell, but there was no escape as she slowly slumped to the hard floor and drifted into the cold embrace of sleep.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 233

It was an awful neighborhood, far from the docks and the fresh breeze that came in off the bay. The houses on the surrounding hills were nicer, far nicer, but those same hills kept the air in the slums hot and stale with an assortment of foul stinks.

There was no one in view as the four companions made their way down a narrow, twisting street, but they could all feel the presence of the hidden eyes that marked their progress. They hadn’t seen a member of the Watch since they’d entered this maze of sagging buildings and close alleyways. But they all felt a sense of urgency, alarmed by Kalasien’s elaborate precautions designed to ensure that they remained out of view of the powerful factions in Li Syval. That was why the Arreshian agent and his men were not with them at the moment; they were making a scene elsewhere, hoping to draw any watching eyes away from the searchers.

Bredan, Glori, Quellan, and Kosk were all armed and fully equipped. The dwarf again looked uncomfortable in his unaccustomed garb, this time the boiled leather breastplate and dirty tunic of a mercenary warrior on hard times. A sword hung from his hip, though he had not as much as touched it since he’d put it on. Bredan considered him as they made their way deeper into the warren of the slum. Was this how the dwarf had looked back in the days when he’d still been a criminal and bandit? Was this the true nature of his friend?

“Hey, you with us?” Glori asked.

Bredan flushed and nodded. She gave him a stern look but then turned away, her own hand resting obviously on the hilt of her sword. They’d finally found the weapon lying on the bit of roof that jutted out from the bottom story of the inn. Bredan accepted his admonishment—she was right, this was no place to let one’s mind wander.

Quellan was leading them, moving at a brisk pace. It would have been more prudent to be cautious, but his spell only lasted ten minutes, not much time to search even part of one of Li Syval’s sprawling neighborhoods. Many of the streets and alleys in this part of the city twisted back on themselves or came to abrupt dead-ends, a design that might have been deliberate or just the result of centuries of slow but continual growth. The cleric was already on his third casting. The first two had failed completely, but this time he had finally gotten a hit, after they’d relocated to the next district on Kalasien’s list of potential locations. The spell guided the half-orc unerringly toward his goal, but he had no way of knowing how far away the target was.

They turned down a narrow street that could barely accommodate the cleric’s broad shoulders. That led them to an alley that in turn deposited them into a small courtyard. The surrounding buildings rose only two stories, but they all seemed to lean slightly into the open space as if considering giving up and collapsing. All of the doorways and windows that faced into the courtyard were boarded up, and the only distinctive feature was a small well, partially covered by a thick slab of wood, that looked as though it hadn’t seen any use in some time.

Quellan began to circle around, but his attention was quickly drawn to the well.

“There?” Glori asked with a dismal look. Quellan nodded, his own features equally grim.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean she’s dead,” Kosk pointed out. “There could be a secret door or something.”

Quellan unslung his shield and mace and handed them to Kosk. “I should be the one,” Glori said. “You’ll barely fit down there.”

“I am the one with the spell,” Quellan said. “I only have another minute or two left, so I must hurry.”

Bredan had already taken a length of rope out of his pack. He and Kosk quickly rigged it to a post on the edge of the courtyard that looked like it could take the cleric’s weight. Quellan pulled the lid of the well aside and peered down into it. A nasty odor rose from inside, but he didn’t hesitate as he clambered up over the lip and dropped into the shaft.

The others gathered around, careful of the taut rope. They could hear a splash as the cleric reached the bottom of the well. “You okay?” Glori called down.

“It’s not deep,” Quellan said. “It’s a bit of a mess. Give me a moment.”

The others shared a look as they listened to the cleric probing through the cistern. A minute passed, and then two. Finally, Quellan called, “Pull me up.”

With Bredan and Kosk pulling on the rope it only took a few moments for Quellan to rejoin them at the top. He was covered in slime, and the foul odor of the well surrounded him. “Well, we don’t have to worry about any locals bothering us now,” Kosk said.

“Anything?” Bredan asked, as Glori helped Quellan up over the rim of the well.

In response, the cleric held up his hand. A small object caught the light and gleamed in his hand.

“Xeeta’s amulet,” Glori said.

“She’s not down there,” Quellan said.

Bredan sagged against the edge of the well. “Now what do we do?” he asked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Oooh, tricky! Naughty, naughty kidnappers!
Oh, it gets worse...

* * *

Chapter 234

When Xeeta woke she was being carried down a dark corridor. She was facing the floor, her arms held behind her back and a gag drawn tight over her mouth. She instinctively started to struggle, but the hands gripping her might as well have been steel bands for all the good that did.

A moment later a face dropped into her line of sight. She recognized instantly the mousy features of Vesca. “Aware, are we?” he chortled. “You might have preferred it had you remained unconscious.”

She tried to respond, but the gag only allowed a muffled groan.

The twins—for it had to be Toros carrying her—took her through an arch into a broad chamber. The place had obviously once been a sewer interchange. Gaping and empty pipes were still visible around the perimeter of the hexagonally-shaped room. A faint distant tapping sound was audible, but the place was otherwise quiet.

Kalev was waiting for them upon a raised platform in the center of the room, surrounded by a shallow trench that connected to several of the pipes. Toros lifted her over it easily, while Vesca leapt up onto a protruding pipe and used it as a springboard to hop over.

The surface of the platform was discolored, with faint outlines that suggested that there had once been machinery of some other large object present. Now the space had been cleared except for a softly glowing circle marked in silver runes upon the floor. On seeing those Xeeta began to struggle again, desperate to avoid being placed inside that circle, but Toros only shifted and plopped her unceremoniously to the ground a pace from its outer edge. The giant’s hand remained on her shoulder, anchoring her in place.

Kalev came around the circle toward them. He had covered his usual rags with a faded robe that still bore hints of its past finery. Over that he had put on a stole that bore markings similar to the ones that formed the magic circle on the floor.

“Child, the time has come to begin our rebirth,” Kalev said.

As he started to bend toward her, she started to struggle again. The old arcanist clicked his tongue impatiently and said, “Hold her.”

Hands gripped her head, holding her in place. Her eyes grew wide as Kalev produced a small knife and a bowl from under his robe. Held and gagged as she was there was nothing she could do as he leaned in and cut her skin just below her right ear. She could feel the blood that trickled down over her jaw to be caught in the bowl. To her it felt like her strength was draining out of her.

Finally, Kalev drew back. Xeeta could see that the bowl was nearly full, glistening with her blood. He made a gesture and she could feel a rag or something similar pressed roughly against the side of her head. Vesca tied it off and then drew back, wagging his thin fingers at her as he stepped to the side.

Kalev returned to the other side of the circle and placed the bowl upon the floor next to it. He knelt and spread his arms wide, the sleeves of his robe sliding back to reveal long, emaciated arms. He stared up at the ceiling and began an incantation. The guttural syllables echoed back weirdly through the mouths of all of the empty pipes, adding to the cacophony. Xeeta could feel the power building, an echo of what she carried inside her, though the Demon remained quiescent as the ritual built to a crescendo. Toros had loosened his grip on her, but she found that she could not look away.

Kalev finished his grim chant. He reached down and flung the contents of the bowl into the circle. The blood was caught in mid-air, spinning into a spiraling vortex, though the air inside the chamber remained utterly still. The crimson tornado continued to tighten around the center of the circle until there was a loud flash that briefly blinded Xeeta. Blinking, she tried to clear the pulsing afterimages from her vision.

When she could see again, the circle was no longer empty. A muscled, naked figure lay upon the bare stone. The blood was gone, and the runes of the circle were now barely visible. The figure groaned and slowly pushed himself up. As he did, Xeeta recognized him and a sense of horror clutched at her gut.

He turned around and looked at her. She could see the feelings she held echoed in his eyes as he realized what had happened, where he was.

“What… what have you done…” he said.

Xeeta couldn’t speak, but in her eyes she tried to send the message, I’m sorry!

“Xeeta…” he said. He turned and for the first time saw Kalev. The old man had sagged back, obviously exhausted by the strain of the ritual, but there was a hint of triumph in his eyes as well. “Welcome back to Li Syval, Rodan.”

“No…”

Kalev made a gesture and Toros lumbered forward into the circle. Xeeta tried to get up, to somehow intervene, but she felt drained as well, and Vesca was easily able to intercept her and hold her down. Rodan also tried to escape, but his legs collapsed under him when he tried to get up. He swung at Toros as the big tiefling reached for him, but the brute merely took the blow and pulled the prisoner up into a pinning embrace.

Kalev hobbled slowly over to them. “We will let you children recover your strength a bit,” he said. “Then we can truly begin.”

Xeeta tried to scream, but all that made it past the gag was a gurgling hiss.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Hmmm, I'll need to go back and re-read her story. That's her...brother?
Rodan was the tiefling ranger they allied with in the Silverpeak Valley, and yes, both were siblings raised by the cult in Li Syval.

* * *

Chapter 235

Spectral lights floated forward through the air, shedding light on the empty chambers of the long-abandoned complex. The somber sounds of Glori strumming on her lyre, maintaining the dancing lights, seemed a fitting accompaniment in this forbidding place.

“This place is empty,” Kosk said, kicking a piece of loose debris. “No one’s been here in years.”

Glori sent her magical globes further ahead, brightening the next pair of hallways ahead. “Kalasien paid another hefty bribe to get us access to this place,” she said. “We might as well give it a thorough look while we’re here.”

“You really think that the cult left behind a clue that the local authorities would have missed?” Kosk asked.

“It won’t take long to confirm,” Quellan said, with a sidelong look at Bredan. He didn’t need to voice the subtext that they all understood. We don’t have any other options.

But Kosk’s statement seemed borne out as they continued their exploration of the chambers that had once served as the headquarters of the infernal cult that had once clung to the underbelly of Li Syval. The entrance that Kalasien’s bribe had unsealed had been within a stone’s throw of some of the finer properties of the city’s elite. Several of the leading families had been implicated in the activities of the cult, drawn by promises of wealth, secrets, and power. Those families had been cast down and replaced by up-and-comers as part of the never-ending churn that shaped the ruling class of the trading city.

Everything of value had been taken from the complex when the cult had finally been exposed years ago, but there was plenty of detritus that remained. Signs of the violence that had consumed the place in its last days were everywhere: old stains on the walls and floor, scraps of torn cloth, fragments from shattered furniture.

The companions spread out, careful to remain within visual or hailing distance. They didn’t find anything worth sharing, but each faced their own moments of revelation during the search. Quellan bent to pick up a child’s doll, little more than a collection of stitched-together rags, and stared at it for over a minute before he tucked it into his pouch. Kosk likewise lingered in a brick vault that had a dozen rusty iron cages built into the walls. Glori found a hole in the floor that she explored with one of her dancing lights, but recoiled when the glowing orb revealed that it was full of tiny bones.

Bredan made his way through a narrow doorway that appeared to lead into a larger chamber, but which dead-ended at a curving alcove. There were marks on the walls to suggest that objects had once rested there, but the place was now empty. The walls of the alcove were covered with markings in a strange script, marks that glinted faintly as the warrior lifted his lamp to examine them.

The language was not familiar, but there was something that tickled at the edges of his understanding. It looked as though there had been more writing at one point, but someone had taken a chisel to part of the wall, hacking away the marks. There was no way of knowing why he had stopped part-way, or what the remaining writing signified.

He was about to turn away and depart when he thought he saw a slight shift of movement out of the corner of his eye. But when he turned back, nothing had changed.

“I don’t know if you can hear me,” he said. He kept his voice low so that it would not travel beyond the alcove. “I’m not leaving Li Syval without her. Do you understand? I know you have something planned for me. But I’m not leaving without Xeeta, so if you can help me in any way, you’d better do so.”

The only response he got was a sound of footsteps in the passage outside. A moment later Quellan stuck his head into the space. “Bredan? Who are you talking to?”

“No one,” Bredan said. “Myself.”

Quellan squeezed into the alcove and stared at the writing. “This is written in the Infernal script,” he said.

“Can you understand it?”

“No.” Quellan looked at him strangely. “Can you?”

“It’s gibberish to me,” Bredan said. But he did not look away from the writing.

“None of the others have found anything,” Quellan said. He watched Bredan, a look of unease growing on his features.

“Hello?” came Glori’s voice from the corridor.

“We’re in here,” Quellan said.

The bard appeared, though there was hardly enough room for her to join them in the tight confines of the alcove. “We shouldn’t get separated. Kosk found what looks like it might have once been a tunnel into the sewers, but it’s been thoroughly sealed. Nothing there but years of dust.”

“That’s probably how they got around without being detected,” Quellan said.

Glori nodded toward Bredan, mouthing a silent question. Quellan shook his head.

“We won’t find anything here,” Bredan said.

“So this was a dead-end,” Glori said.

“Perhaps not,” Bredan replied. “I have a hunch.”

“A hunch?” Quellan asked.

“Call it intuition,” the warrior said. “Get Kosk. We may not have much time.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Happy holidays to my readers, I hope that the season is fun and stress-free for you all.

* * *

Chapter 236

Xeeta had no idea how much time had passed since her last visit to the ritual chamber. Her captors had force-fed her, and whatever they’d given her had obviously been drugged. She had a vague idea that she’d been there for a few days at least. The hope that her friends would find her was fading under a crushing weight of despair. It was the memory of Rodan’s face that wore most heavily upon her. She hadn’t seen him since that brief initial contact, and had no idea where Kalev was keeping him. During one of the more lucid moments she’d screamed herself hoarse within her cell, but no one had heard, or at least no one who cared.

This time, as she stirred to the sensation of being carried once more, she did not struggle. Instead she pretended to be unconscious and saved her strength for whatever desperate chance her captors might give her.

The contents of the ritual chamber had been revised during the interval since her last visit. The circle on the floor had been inscribed again, larger this time, almost a full ten paces across. She tried not to dwell on what that might mean. The faint light coming from the runes was augmented by a few dozen small candles scattered around the edges of the central platform and elsewhere within the chamber, some resting on pipes or niches in the stone walls. The burning wax filled the place with a cloying scent that made Xeeta’s head start to swim within moments.

They were not the first to arrive. Kalev was there, standing in the shadows, draped in his elaborate costume. A limp form lay slumped on the far side of the circle. Xeeta resisted the instinct to call out to him.

Toros carried her to a spot opposite the unconscious Rodan. As they drew close Xeeta could see that there had been another addition: an iron eyelet bolted to the floor. A set of manacles was attached to it. Vesca scurried ahead of it and gathered up the chain.

On seeing that, Xeeta made her move. She shifted and with all her strength jammed her elbow into Toros’s face. The impact sent a hard jolt of pain up her arm, and the hulking tiefling grunted. His grip loosened only slightly, but she was able to get her other arm up enough to loosen her gag. She sucked in a breath and prepared to unleash a spell, but before she could manage to summon her magic Toros lifted her and slammed her bodily to the floor. The impact knocked the air from her lungs and likely cracked a few ribs. She tried to fight through the pain, to do something, but even as flames began to flicker around her fingertips a hard jolt blasted through her head and she lost the spell.

Still dazed, she was barely able to register Vesca’s leering face above her own. “Naughty, naughty,” he said.

“Don’t do this,” she said. “You don’t have to do this, he’s just using you…”

Vesca only sneered, and yanked her gag back over her mouth.

“Bind her,” Kalev said. Working efficiently together, the twins secured her wrists with the manacles. When Xeeta finally recovered enough to move all she could do was yank helplessly on the chain holding her. It was just long enough to keep her from reaching the edge of the circle, she noted.

Vesca went over to Kalev, and then went around the circle, placing a small bowl at each of the four cardinal directions. Xeeta didn’t realize what the other two were for until the twins took up spots opposite each other, perpendicular to the axis formed by herself and Rodan. Even then she could not quite believe it, not until Kalev drew his small knife and walked over to Toros.

“Through blood we offer sacrifice, and seek intercession for the greater mandate,” the old man said. The big tiefling meekly tilted his head to the side and offered no resistance as Kalev cut him and filled the bowl. He placed it on the floor on the very edge of the circle of silver runes.

The same process was repeated with Rodan and Vesca. Rodan appeared to be either drugged or unconscious, for he did not react to the procedure. Xeeta tensed, ready to fight as soon as Kalev was within reach, but the arcanist paused with the final bowl. Holding her with his eyes, he spoke a word of magic. Xeeta blinked… and realized that the bowl was in front of her, presumably filled with her blood. She could feel the fresh pain on the side of her head but had no memory of the incision being made or the blood being collected. Kalev was already halfway back around the circle. She lashed out with her foot, trying to knock the bowl over, but again her captors’ preparations proved effective; it was just out of her reach.

Kalev selected a spot halfway between Rodan and Vesca and began to chant. Again Xeeta felt the potency in the otherwise meaningless syllables, and the eerie reverberations as they echoed back through the pipes. Again she felt the power likewise stir inside of her, touching the Demon. She recoiled from that touch, though there was nothing she could do; with her arms bound behind her she could not loosen her gag, and without her voice and her hands she could not summon her magic.

The ritual continued, longer this time, building to some dread purpose. Xeeta could only stare helplessly at the circle and its master. The blood in the bowls began to bubble, and vapors rose from each, a visible tendril that swirled in the air as if dancing to the cadence of the chant. Vesca and Toros knelt passively, watching.

After an interminable stretch of time Xeeta became aware of something else, a flapping of wings like those of a bat. She looked around but saw nothing. Kalev apparently heard it too, for he paused in his chant and looked up with irritation on his face. The tendrils of blood-vapor ceased their motion, and the power already gathered in the circle froze.

“I told you, no interruptions,” Kalev hissed.

A figure materialized in mid-air, the source of the sound Xeeta had heard. She recognized it: an imp, the size of a small dog, its features hideous. It appeared to be missing one leg.

“Intruders, Master. Four of them, bearing magic. They come this way.”

Kalev’s gaze shifted to meet Xeeta’s eyes, and she tried to hide the look of triumph she suddenly felt. But the old wizard quickly recovered. “Take Vesca and Toros. Delay them. I need several more minutes to complete the ritual.”

The imp bowed and disappeared again. The twins rose silently and departed. Xeeta turned as much as her bonds allowed her, but they quickly left her view.

When she turned back, Kalev was watching her again. “Your friends will arrive only to find that death awaits them,” he said.

He resumed his chant, the power surging again to meet his call. Xeeta could only clutch the chain and hope with all her might. Hurry! she thought.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Happy Christmas, Lazybones!
Thanks!

* * *

Chapter 237

The sewers under Li Syval were hardly a pleasant place to explore, especially when traveling through them in a hurry, Glori thought. Her nose furrowed as she stepped in something that squelched unpleasantly under her boot. At least they weren’t having to wade through raw sewage anymore. This part of the sewers seemed to see less common use. She wasn’t exactly sure where they were, as they’d also left behind the manholes and access grates that had allowed brief flickers of light and fresher air to filter down from the city above.

She didn’t have any time to shake her boot clear of the clinging foulness. Bredan continued to lead them forward at a brisk pace. He was obviously being drawn by something, for he hardly paused at the intersections they came to. Glori was barely able to keep her dancing lights ahead of him to brighten the way, but she doubted he would stop even if they did fall behind.

He hadn’t explained fully how he knew where to go. None of them had been down here before, and Glori hoped with all her being that this would be their last visit. Quellan had seemed particularly disturbed when Bredan had first revealed his special insight in the abandoned cult safehold. Obviously, he’d discovered a new power, but with Xeeta in jeopardy all they could do was trust him.

That trust was not blind, however. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” Kosk growled. The dwarf had not been happy about entering the sewers, but he was having an easier time of it than Quellan, who had barely fit into some of the passages they’d had to navigate earlier.

“She’s here,” Bredan said, his voice barely reaching them as he pressed forward. “I know she’s here. There’s not much time.”

“At this pace, we won’t see an ambush or any traps until we’ve already sprung them,” the dwarf pointed out quietly as they hurried after the warrior.

“We have to have faith,” Quellan said.

“You know I’d do anything for her, but I’d feel better if we had Kalasien and his men with us,” Kosk said.

“Whatever’s guiding him, it may be limited, like my spell,” the cleric suggested.

“Or it’s telling him that Xeeta’s time is running out,” Glori said.

Bredan had paused just ahead, and the others hurried to catch up with him. Where he was standing the narrow passage they’d been following opened onto a larger chamber. There were multiple exits, including some slits near the ceiling that might have been wide enough to crawl through, if one could get up there. There was also a shaft in the center of the floor, an opening about six feet across that dropped into darkness beyond the range of Glori’s magical lights.

“Which way?” Quellan asked.

“Listen,” Bredan said.

They all held themselves still, and a moment later a faint sound reached their ears.

“Chanting,” Kosk said. “Damn it, I knew there would be another wizard at the end of all this.”

“There’s something else,” Quellan said. “There’s something here… a shadow, a power of darkness.”

“Xeeta’s in trouble,” Bredan said. He headed into the chamber, giving the hole in the floor a wide berth as he headed toward one of the other passages. Quellan was just a few steps behind, followed by Kosk and Glori.

But they’d barely started moving again when Glori felt a sharp pain explode in her back. She cried out and staggered, her dancing lights flickering out. The others turned toward her, Quellan summoning light that shone brightly from his shield. As the glow pushed back the resurgent darkness it revealed a small form that fluttered up into one of the dark openings near the ceiling. They couldn’t clearly make out what it was, but a sinister chuckle issued from that direction.

A moment later, Quellan grimaced in pain, his back arching. His companions could see a small blade buried in his neck, perfectly embedded in one of the gaps between the heavy plates that made up his armor. He tried to pull the knife out but could not reach it.

Even as Kosk and Bredan looked for the source of that attack, a third enemy materialized out of the darkness of the passage they’d been heading for. Bredan sensed something and spun to face it, his sword appearing in his hands. But the figure that rushed forward was incredibly fast for its size, lunging inside of the reach of the swordsman before he could bring his weapon to bear. With a powerful chop of one hand he cracked Bredan in the wrists, knocking the sword from his grasp. He didn’t stop there, seizing the warrior and pulling him into a neck-lock from behind. Bredan was strong, his physical prowess having only grown since his days as a blacksmith, but the tiefling handled him as he if he was a child. Bredan snarled as the grip around his neck tightened, the flesh under his helm darkening and cracking as Toros’s divine fury was unleashed into him.

Kosk quickly moved to help his friend, but the tiefling was not yet done. As the dwarf rushed toward him he took two steps to the side and spun Bredan out of his grasp. The warrior tried to seize hold of something but the momentum of his fall launched him into the pit, which quickly swallowed him up. The tiefling dropped back into a ready stance that echoed Kosk’s.

“Bredan!” Glori cried.

“Time to die,” came a thin voice from above, its source muffled by the echoes off the ancient stonework.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 238

Kosk launched himself at the huge tiefling, spinning in mid-air to deliver a powerful kick. But Toros pivoted smoothly out of the way, chopping out with a meaty fist to catch the dwarf in the back. Somehow Kosk intercepted the blow, deflecting the strike with his own hand, then using the momentum of the impact to pivot to another kick as he landed. Again Toros dodged, and took only a glancing hit to the meat of his thigh instead of the bone-snapping strike that the monk had planned.

Respectful now of each other’s talents, the two foes circled each other for a moment before they simultaneously launched another series of attacks.

“Quellan, lean down!” Glori yelled, strumming her lyre to summon her magic as she rushed forward. The cleric obeyed, dropping to one knee while he raised his shield toward the dark niche where he assumed the attack that had wounded him had originated. Glori yanked the knife out and dropped it to the floor, where it bounced with a loud clank. Even as blood spurted out from the nasty wound, she pressed her hand against it and poured the healing energy of a potent cure wounds spell into him.

But before they could search out Quellan’s attacker, they were engulfed in a globe of magical darkness.

Toros was clearly expecting that development, for as the light vanished he sprang forward, arms sweeping out toward his foe. One beefy hand closed on Kosk’s arm, and he grunted in pain as jolts of searing necrotic energy shot up the limb. But as Toros tried to pull him into a grapple the monk twisted his body and drove a powerful punch into his opponent’s gut. The tiefling released his grip and staggered back.

Wary of the nearby pit and careful of blundering into the adjacent melee, Glori and Quellan remained where they were. “Can you dispel this?” Glori asked.

“I could, but I did not prepare the necessary spells today,” Quellan returned. “Hold a moment, and I will heal your injury.” A moment later she felt his touch, and the reassuring potency of another cure wounds.

“We have to help Kosk and Bredan,” she said.

“We won’t help them by getting ourselves…”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his statement. The cleric cried out in pain.

“Quellan!” Glori cried.

The darkness abruptly vanished, leaving behind a more normal darkness that both Glori and Quellan could defeat with the special vision granted by their racial heritage. But neither had time to look around before Quellan was hit again, this time by another blade that found the gap in his armor under his shield arm and plunged deep into his side. He staggered and dropped to one knee, only the relentless endurance of his orcish blood keeping him upright at all.

Glori immediately turned to his aid, but as she came around him she saw a repulsive, bulbous spider clinging to the side of his helmet. She let out a reflexive shriek but quickly slashed out with her sword, knocking the creature clear. It dropped heavily to the floor a foot away. She tried to stab it again, but it managed to dodge and skitter awkwardly away, even though it seemed to be missing a few limbs.

A hiss of steel on leather drew her attention around. She turned to see a second tiefling, a bent, wiry figure of a man whose grin revealed a mess of uneven yellow teeth. “Your friend, he no look so good,” he hissed, as he lifted a slender shortsword with a curved blade.

While his companions battled Vesca and Zuvox, Kosk was having his own troubles against Toros. Their fight continued as the darkness lifted, the dwarf’s staff proving to be little advantage against his foe’s raw strength and stamina. The hulking bruiser absorbed blows that would have crippled a normal man, while his own counters had left the monk’s skin blackened and oozing. Thus far Kosk had avoided being caught in a bear-hug that might have snapped even his sturdy bones, but he knew that even one misstep might be enough to cost him this battle.

Finally, Kosk ducked under another powerful swing and jammed his staff hard into his adversary’s solar plexus. Toros grunted in pain, but his eyes flashed red and a moment later the monk was engulfed in the searing flames of a hellish rebuke. The unholy fire overcame his already ravaged body, and he slumped to the ground, dazed.

Glori, battling Vesca on the other side of the chamber, was finding out that the smaller tiefling had tricks of his own. He rushed at her, moving in an odd, halting motion that had the sharp edge of his steel darting at her from unexpected angles. She took a glancing hit to her shoulder that drew blood through her mail shirt. She gave ground, retreating almost to the edge of the pit in the center of the room.

The tiefling sprang at her, intent on pushing her over, but she met his rush with a sharp parry that had the ring of steel on steel bouncing off the walls. With her free hand she suddenly lashed at her lyre, unleashing a thunderwave that drove her foe back several steps. It was clear then that her retreat had not been an accident, but had allowed her to get clear of the still-dazed Quellan. Vesca drew back his teeth to reveal his awful smile. “Tricksy, tricksy,” he said. He reached behind his back with his free hand to draw a slender blade from a hidden scabbard, while waving his sword to draw his opponent’s eye.

But even as the assassin unleashed his surprise attack, a beam of radiant energy slashed into him. Quellan’s guiding bolt did not hurt the tiefling seriously, but the sparkling motes of holy light threw off his aim, and his knife flashed harmlessly past Glori’s head. Vesca’s eyes flashed red as he fixed his stare upon the cleric. Quellan could tell what was coming and raised his shield, but even magically enhanced wood and steel could not protect him from the tiefling’s hellish rebuke. Much as his brother had taken out Kosk with that fiery pulse, the flames overwhelmed Quellan and drove him to the ground, unconscious and dying.

The odds had shifted back to the tieflings’ favor, but Quellan’s distraction had left an opening that Glori was quick to exploit. As the cleric fell, she lunged and drove her sword deep into Vesca’s body. The tiefling hissed and retreated, pulling himself off her blade, but before he could get clear she followed with a sharp slice that blurred through the air. It looked as though she had missed, and for a moment the two adversaries faced off. Then Vesca reached up to his throat, where a torrent of fresh red suddenly poured down over his coat.

Even as Glori turned the tables on her foe, Toros was stepping forward to finish his. Kosk tried to get up, but only managed to stagger and fall back to his knees. But even as the tiefling’s massive hands came up a figure erupted out of the pit. Bredan’s magically-enhanced jump barely cleared the edge of the pit, but he grabbed hold of the edge and pulled himself over the rim. As he rolled into a crouch, he extended his hand and summoned his sword into his grasp.

“We have unfinished business, you and I,” he said to Toros.

The tiefling turned from his fallen foe and rushed him, intent on driving him back into the pit through sheer strength. But this time Bredan was ready, and summoned a magical shield that absorbed the force of the tiefling’s strike. Toros quickly darted back, but the barrier dissolved as Bredan swept through it, his sword carving the air between them. The steel clove through the giant’s torso, laying out a slash of blood and viscera that formed a six-foot arc upon the stone floor. For a moment it looked as though even that would not stop the barbarian warrior, but then he suddenly wavered and then collapsed.

Bredan quickly knelt at Kosk’s side. He kept an eye on the fallen tiefling, but Toros did not stir as his blood poured out from the terrible wound in his side. On the other side of the room, Glori was already helping Quellan with a healing spell.

Bredan did not have any magical healing, but he felt a surge of relief as he saw that the dwarf was still breathing. He turned toward Glori, but before he could say anything a terrible and familiar scream sounded through the same passageway that Toros had emerged from.

“Take care of them,” Bredan said to Glori as he started toward the passage.

“Bredan, wait,” she said. Quellan groaned as her cure wounds spell took effect, drawing him slowly back to consciousness. “Wait!”

But he was already gone. Biting back a curse, she hurried over to Kosk, preparing another spell to pull the dwarf back from death’s door.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Happy New Year!

I will be traveling for the rest of this week. I will bring my flash drive, but if I am unable to find a computer I may not be able to post until Monday.

Today's post marks the end of Book 9 of the story. Book 10 is entitled, "Adventures on the High Seas." The story will conclude with Book 11, "A New World."

* * * * *

Chapter 239

Xeeta screamed as the intensity of the ritual shredded her senses. She could feel the Demon twisting inside her, both attracted to and fleeing from that raw energy. But bound and gagged as she was there was nothing she could do.

The blood from the bowls had risen again, forming columns of mist that were now coalescing within the circle. But instead of collapsing into a point, as it had with the ritual that had brought Rodan here, it was spiraling out into a circle. That circle was rotating, faster now as Kalev’s chant intensified. Sparks of lightning flashed within it, and for a moment Xeeta’s vision blurred. There was something beyond that circle, something that she knew and feared.

Then everything snapped back to clarity and a figure stepped through the circle into the chamber.

It was huge, standing twice the height of a man, looming over both the prisoners and the wizard. The link of heritage that it shared with the captives was obvious in the massive horns that jutted from its head, the sharp teeth that filled its jaws, the fiery cast to its mottled flesh. But other than those similarities in form was utterly alien in form and demeanor. Vast wings spread out from its back as it emerged from the portal, and a tail tipped with a vicious stinger curled up over its shoulder. Its legs were backwards-jointed, and ended in gnarled pads tipped with twin claws.

It brought with it a massive fork with tines that glowed cherry-red. A scent of brimstone swirled around it as it looked down at the man who had summoned it.

The devil spoke. Xeeta could hear its voice not as sound but as a reverberation within her skull. She looked over at Rodan, but he still had not stirred.

You step above yourself, mortal, it said.

“Mighty Calaxthes, I have summoned you to fulfill our compact and restore our alliance,” Kalev said. He looked a little ragged around the edges, Xeeta thought, but his eyes burned with fevered intensity as he stared up at the huge fiend.

You have supremely bad timing, foolish wizard. You threaten a precarious equilibrium with your actions.

Kalev blinked. He seemed a bit taken aback, but he quickly rallied and said, “I have prepared an offering…” He gestured toward Xeeta, who felt a sudden cold chill pierce to the core of her being.

That cold was replaced by an intense wave of heat as the devil shifted its attention to peer down at her. The creature barked an audible laugh. The fate of worlds hangs in the balance, and you have brought me here to rut?

A flutter of wings drew Xeeta’s attention up in time to see the wizard’s imp materialize out of thin air. “Master!” the noxious thing screeched. As it noticed the devil it stopped suddenly and prostrated itself in mid-air. “Great One! Apologies for interrupting! The twins are defeated, and the enemy approaches!”

“You must protect me!” Kalev said.

Calaxthes fixed the full might of his presence upon the wizard. Must?

“You must complete a service before you return to your home plane!” the wizard said. His voice sounded tinny and weak against the sheer might of the devil, but Xeeta could feel the power that radiated from his diminutive form. That power, augmented by the circle, was clearly holding the fiend in check. Bound to the ritual, she felt like she was witnessing a silent but no less violent battle being fought.

With that context, she didn’t immediately notice the other new arrival, not until a familiar voice called out, “Xeeta!”

A few minutes ago, that shout would have unleashed a flood of relief, but now she only felt terror on his behalf. She twisted her head as far as her bonds permitted, but could only catch a glimpse of Bredan out of the corner of her eye, partially obstructed by the shimmering outline of the circle and its massive occupant. But there was no mistaking him, not with that shimmering sword that seemed to glow in the wan light of the ritual chamber. She tried to move, to warn him, but the chains barely let her shift her limbs, and her gag only allowed a sad sound that she doubted was even enough to let him know she was there. Inwardly she was shouting, You cannot defeat this foe! Stay back, don’t enter the circle!”

But she knew her friend, and was not surprised when he lifted his sword and charged.

What did surprise her was when the devil retreated against that rush, recoiling against the far side of the circle. At first, she though it was just luring him in, giving him room to seal his fate, but when Bredan swung his sword it actually tore a shallow gash in the infernal monstrosity’s leg. A thin trickle of black ichor fell from the wound to sizzle and hiss against the floor of the chamber.

Bredan lifted his sword to strike again, but the devil caught his swing on its fork, trapping the steel between the thick tines. It spoke to him, and again Xeeta could hear its words in her mind. I do not seek war with your master, mortal.

Bredan snarled. “I am my own master!” He tried to free his trapped blade but could not overcome the leverage granted by the fiend’s size and strength.

The devil’s expression changed. So be it, it said. It reared up, knocking Bredan’s sword from his grasp. It flew across the room, clattering into one of the open pipes. The devil bent low, its tail flicking up toward the warrior’s face. But Bredan merely lifted a hand and summoned a shield that intercepted the deadly spike.

Calaxthes didn’t give him a chance to recover, sweeping his fork back around to come under his guard. Bredan tried to dodge, but the devil’s weapon caught him a solid blow to the side, one of the tines penetrating through his armor to savage his flesh. The sheer force of the impact drove him back several paces.

Flee while you can, mortal, the devil’s voice intoned.

In that moment, Bredan’s gaze shifted. He met Xeeta’s eyes. She’d been wrong; he’d known she was there all along. She shook her head, tried to send a message, but he only nodded. He understood, but he wasn’t going to stop.

He extended his hand, and his sword appeared once more in his grasp. “This isn’t your realm,” he said to the devil. “You flee, and you may yet live.”

Xeeta didn’t get a chance to see Calaxthes’s response. As she shifted in her bonds again, she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. At first, she thought it was Rodan, but when she turned her head she saw that it was Kalev. The wizard, staying to the shadows around the edge of the room, was circling around for a more advantageous angle toward Bredan. His hand came up, and his mouth began to move.

Trapped by her bonds, Xeeta could do nothing to stop him. Gagged as she was, her wrists manacled tightly together, she could not even summon a cantrip. But she could feel the Demon within her, awakened by the ritual. Held at bay, a prisoner just like her.

Or perhaps…

For once she didn’t stop to think. Bredan had seconds at best; if the devil didn’t kill him, then the wizard would. She cast her awareness inward, and embraced the Demon.

All of sudden her perceptions changed. She could still make out the outlines of the devil, the wizard, and her friend, but they were all vague and indistinct. A bright mist surrounded her, filling her vision with diffuse light.

She rose to her feet, the belatedly realized that this should not be possible. She looked down at her hands. They seemed solid enough, but the manacles that had held her now seemed hazy, as if they weren’t really there. She quickly reached up and tore the gag from her mouth.

Xeeta did not get a chance to explore this strange new reality, for just as suddenly as she’d been cast into it, she was thrust back into her own world. Her surroundings took on solidity again, and she looked over just as Calaxthes hurled a bolt of fire at Bredan. The warrior met it with his sword and it shattered, spraying him with tongues of flame. But as he swung the sword the fire clung to it, forming a blazing arc as he swept it toward the devil.

Xeeta did not hesitate. She was free, and her magic surged at her command. She didn’t try anything fancy, just unleashed a stream of flames at the wizard. It was obvious that Kalev’s focus on the ritual did not give him the luxury of maintaining his ward against magic, for the burning hands scorched his robes and seared his flesh. The wizard let out a scream but disappeared in a flash of silver light before Xeeta could follow up with a second attack. She looked up at the devil. Calaxthes was turned away from her, but she instinctively knew that her fire would have no effect against it. Instead she ran toward the limp form of Rodan.

Glori, Quellan, and Kosk reached the ritual chamber to see a scene of utter chaos before them. Bredan was standing on a raised platform in the center of the floor, battling a huge horned fiend that looked like it had been conjured out of a nightmare. They could just make out a smaller figure moving around the far side of the platform, and then, appearing to their right in a silver flash, a gaunt figure in a blackened robe.

“Wizard!” Glori warned.

“Help Bredan, I’ll deal with him!” Kosk said.

Xeeta collapsed next to the limp form of Rodan. She pulled hard on his shackles, but if anything, the chains were thicker than the ones they’d used to confine her. She did not know how she had managed her own escape, and doubted that she could use that power on another person in any case. She had her magic back, but anything that might have a chance of weakening the shackles would likely also kill the imprisoned tiefling.

She’d thought that he was unconscious, but when she looked down at his face, she saw him looking back up at her.

“Get out of here,” he said.

“Without you, never,” she said.

Kosk moved quickly, but the wizard saw him coming. The dwarf had covered only half of the distance that separated them when Kalev took a step to the side and lifted his hand. There was a flash, and then pain as a lightning bolt lanced out toward him. Kosk managed to avoid the worst of it, but even the glancing impact he absorbed was enough to overcome his battered body, and he once more collapsed to the floor. The full strategy of the wizard’s maneuver became clear as the bolt, continuing on its path, slammed into Quellan. The half-orc, too, fell, his armored body making a loud clatter as it tumbled into the shallow trench that circled the outer perimeter of the room.

Glori had been rushing to help Bredan, but on seeing her two companions taken out she turned and rushed back to aid the fallen cleric.

Bredan was finding himself hard pressed. Thus far the devil seemed to be toying with him, though he’d managed to inflict two more wounds that dripped long trails of ichor down its body. But its attacks in turn were devastating, the massive fork battering him through his armor. He could feel blood trickling out from the puncture in his side and knew that he could not stand up against this foe for much longer. He’d heard his friends come in behind him, but saw the flash of the wizard’s spell and the loud clatter that said that whatever it was, it had found a target. He tried to look past the devil to where he’d seen Xeeta earlier, but she was gone.

He looked up to meet the fiend’s awful gaze again, and saw the truth of how this would end in its eyes. It held its fork at the ready, waiting for him to make his decision.

There was a time when he would have been paralyzed with terror, facing such a thing. But the events of the last year had changed him, beyond whatever effects the Libram had stirred with its magic.

He raised his sword again and charged.

The blazing flare of the lightning bolt tore Xeeta’s attention back to the battle taking place in front of her. She saw the wizard, but also saw both Kosk and Quellan go down. A slight form that had to be Glori rushed toward the stricken cleric. Bredan was somehow still on his feet, but the devil looked to be hardly fazed by the scratches he’d managed to inflict upon it.

Kalev cackled at the successful effect of his spell.

The sight of that awoke a fresh fury within Xeeta. Thrusting herself up, she reached deep down once more, where her anger was answered by a blazing surge of raw power. Flames exploded from her hands, flames that she channeled into a series of scorching rays that she used to pummel the wizard. Empowered by the intensity of her rage, the beams washed over the already charred wizard, driving him back against the wall of the chamber. He threw up his hands and screamed as one, two, three surges of fire tore into him.

But he did not go down.

However, the glowing remnants of the rune circle in the center of the room, along with all of the candles that were still alight, abruptly winked out.

Suddenly cast into darkness, Bredan lashed out blindly at his foe. But his swing met only air. Badly off-balance, he felt an impact that launched him flying off the platform. He landed with a solid thud that knocked the air from his lungs and sent his sword clattering across the floor. He looked up into the darkness, expecting the thrust that would end his life.

That attack, however, never came. Xeeta could see what happened next clearly with her darkvision. She saw Calaxthes almost casually avoid Bredan’s swing and then kick him across the room. The devil then turned and made its way toward Kalev. The charred wizard didn’t see the fiend until it was almost on top of him, then he lifted his hands and screamed, “I only wish to serve!”

For the first time the devil spoke aloud. “And so you shall.” With a sweep of its fork it snapped up the wizard, his body pinned between the long tines. Kalev was still screaming as the devil returned to the center of the chamber, where a portal similar to the one that had conjured him suddenly swirled once more into being.

Calaxthes cast a final look around the chamber. His gaze lingered for a moment on Bredan. “Until we meet again,” he said. He started to enter the portal with his unwilling passenger, but his head pivoted one more time, looking down at Xeeta. She tensed, but the creature only inclined its head in a slight nod toward her.

Then Calaxthes stepped through the portal, and both the devil and the opening disappeared.
 

Advertisement

Top