The giant ape reached for Rodan, but the tiefling jumped aside and slashed out with his sword, slicing open the flesh along its knuckles. The creature roared in pain and swept out its other lower arm, knocking him flying. He hit the ground and skidded to a stop about ten feet away, dazed by the impact.
The ape turned toward Xeeta, who had made no move to retreat. Instead she lifted her rod and pointed it at the creature’s head.
“Burn,” she said.
Flames erupted at her command, engulfing the giant ape. The creature screamed and tried to smother them with its hands, but they only intensified and spread. Blinded by the inferno that had enveloped it, it tried to swing at Xeeta, but only managed to stagger off to the side, missing her by a good margin. A nimbus of flame surrounded her as she maintained her focus on the immolate spell, searing the creature as it flailed blindly about. She kept burning it as it slumped to one knee, and then as it fell to both, before toppling over to its side. She did not let up until it had stopped moving, the flames transforming it into a gory, smoking mess.
When she finally released the spell, she staggered back a step, gasping as she took a steadying breath.
Quellan ran over to the fallen body of Kosk. It took only a moment’s examination to confirm that he was dead. After what he’d witnessed, any other outcome would have been a miracle. Kneeling beside the corpse of his friend, he quickly unslung his pack and begun digging through it.
“Is he…” Glori asked. She too looked more than a bit dazed, and her eyes kept traveling back to the huge hole in the plaza. There was no sign of Bredan or the others.
“I may be able to call him back,” Quellan said. He found what he was looking for, and opened a tiny pouch that spilled a small handful of glittering diamonds into his hand.
“Bredan…” she said.
“One at a time, Glori,” the cleric said. The pain in his own voice shook Glori from her grief, and she nodded. Rodan and Xeeta came over to join them, the ranger clutching his side where the giant ape had hit him.
Doing his best to drive all distracting thoughts from his mind, Quellan focused on the divine link that connected him with his patron. He had never attempted this spell before, but it had been in the back of his mind ever since they had left Severon, the fear that this day would come. Calling the spirit back from across the veil that separated life from the worlds beyond was never a simple matter. The spell he was attempting would only work if he caught that departing spirit quickly, but he forced himself to proceed through the steps calmly. The diamonds flashed with light as he spread them across Kosk’s broken body, then dissolved as a golden glow surrounded and then seeped into his body.
Glori, Xeeta, and Rodan watched as the cleric worked his magic. They held a collective breath for several heartbeats, then let it out together as Kosk’s body twitched and then he opened his mouth in a struggling gasp.
“You brought him back to life,” Rodan said.
Quellan slumped back onto his haunches. “Yes,” he said.
“Could you do the same for Bredan?” Glori asked.
The look on the cleric’s face told her the answer. “We don’t know that he’s dead,” Xeeta said. “He could be trapped under the rocks, or…”
“You saw what happened,” Glori shot back.
A howl interrupted them, echoed a moment later by another from the other side of the plaza.
“We’re not safe here,” Rodan said.
“We can’t just leave him,” Glori protested.
“We won’t,” Quellan said. “But we’re too beat up for another fight, and we don’t know how many of those things are left. We need to get to shelter. We’ll be back, I promise.”
“Help me up,” Kosk said, his voice weak.
The others assisted the dwarf. Quellan’s spell had restored him to life, but he was still in very rough shape. The cleric invoked a mass healing word that bolstered them somewhat, but the spell couldn’t fully offset the beating that all of them—save for Xeeta—had taken in the fight.
Rodan was watching the rubble surrounding the plaza carefully, but no more of the girallons showed themselves. But the angry howls continued as they made their way toward the shelter of the building on the far side of the square. They echoed through the ruins as the battered companions disappeared into the shadowed interior, leaving the plaza empty save for the mangled and broken bodies of the girallons and the two dead sailors. Smoke continued to rise into the sky from the smoldering corpse of the giant ape, forming a grim memorial to the carnage that had been wrought there.
It was dark, and the air was thick and stale. He felt pain, a lot of it, but it was diffuse and he didn’t feel as if anything was broken. There was a pressure on his body, as if something was holding him down.
He tried to move. The surge in the pain was about what he’d expected but it was bearable. Whatever was on top of him fell away and the pressure eased somewhat. But there was something else; a subtle shift a few steps away that suggested movement.
His hand came up and he reflexively summoned his sword. It was useless, he still couldn’t see, but as if in response to the thought the runes marked upon the blade began to glow softly. The illumination was faint, barely brighter than a candle’s flame, but it was enough to reveal Kalasien standing just beyond the tip of the steel, his hands raised.
“Peace, Bredan,” he said. “It’s just me.”
Bredan pulled himself the rest of the way up. With the light coming off the sword he could see that he’d been half-buried in a heap of loose rock and dirt. The mound rose all of the way to the ceiling of… wherever this was.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“We’re in some kind of underground chamber,” Kalasien said. “I think the roof gave way when that big ape dumped the pillar on us.”
His words reawakened Bredan’s memories. He felt a sudden and intense worry for Glori and the others, but first things first. “Where’s Kavek?”
“I was just starting to look for him when you woke up,” Kalasien said.
The two moved around the perimeter of the mound, which filled one entire side of the chamber. They were in some kind of vault made of stone blocks, with buttresses that supported the ceiling above. The light from Bredan’s sword was just barely enough for him to make out the breach in the ceiling and the large block of stone—probably a fragment from that pillar that had almost killed them—that was wedged into place there. He had no idea how much additional stone and dirt was above that blockage, but he guessed that any rescue would not be immediate.
“Over here,” Kalasien said.
Bredan hurried over to find the sailor lying half-buried in the collapse. Kalasien was already checking him over. “He’s alive,” the Arreshian agent declared.
“Should we pull him out?” Bredan asked.
“Moving him might hurt him worse. Do you have any healing magic?”
Bredan shook his head. “Used it all up. We’ve been relying on Glori and Quellan for that, but…” He gestured toward the ceiling, and Kalasien nodded.
Kavek groaned, and the two men turned back to him. “Don’t try to move,” Kalasien warned. “You took a nasty spill. Bredan is here.”
The sailor blinked and squinted at Bredan’s sword. “Where are we?”
“In a chamber somewhere beneath the plaza,” Bredan said. “Are you okay? Can you get up?”
With the others’ help Kavek managed to extricate himself. “I think I’m okay,” he said.
“What about the leg?” Bredan asked.
“I wouldn’t want to try to run on it, but I think it’ll hold up,” Kavek said. “How do we… how do we get out?”
“That stone looks pretty solidly wedged in there,” Bredan said. “There must be a decent amount of stuff on top of it, or we’d see some light, hear noises from up above, something.”
“I’m not sure how long we can wait here,” Kalasien said. He sniffed the air. “I think the air down here is bad. Some fresh air probably made it down here with us, but sometimes toxins can build up in underground places like this.”
“Well then, let’s look at our options,” Bredan said.
It did not take the three of them long to search the room. The place was mostly empty, but they found an archway in the far wall that held a stone slab that looked like it was separate from the surrounding wall.
“What kind of door is this?” Kavek asked. “There’s no hinges or handle.”
“I’ve encountered these before,” Bredan said. “We have to lift it up. Let’s just hope it isn’t too heavy for the three of us.”
The slab was covered in a relief that had worn down beyond recognition, but there were still subtle ridges where they could get traction. The three men spread out and placed their hands against the rough surface. Bredan put down his sword, which thankfully continued to provide enough light for them to see.
“All right, on three,” Bredan said. “One, two… three!”
The three men pushed at the slab, grunting with the effort. At first it refused to budge, but then it slowly shifted in its slots, rising a scant inch, then two. The men redoubled their efforts, muscles bulging from the strain as they pushed up and into the heavy stone. When it had reached a foot in height Kalasien reached down and grabbed hold of the bottom, giving him a better hold. Kavek quickly joined him, and together the three of them were able to push it up to waist-high.
“Go through!” Bredan gasped. Kavek ducked under, quickly grabbing hold on the other side, then held it for Kalasien to do the same. The two shared a quick look before Kavek said, “Come on, Bredan!”
Without letting go of the door, Bredan slid under it and shifted his grip to the other side. He used his foot to slide his sword over, although technically that wasn’t necessary, given his ability to summon the weapon instantly. The far side of the slab had similar markings on it, but while they tried to ease it back down it still landed with a solid thud.
“Well, if there’s anything down here, they probably know we’re here,” Kalasien said.
“If they didn’t hear the collapse, then they’re deaf or dead,” Bredan pointed out.
“Dead would not surprise me,” Kalasien replied.
They turned to an examination of their immediate surroundings. They were in a small antechamber, maybe ten feet across and fifteen feet wide. There was a deep crack in one of the walls that rose all the way to the ceiling. Bits of shattered masonry lay scattered on the floor underneath it, but it looked like an old wound rather than damage wrought by the collapse that had brought them here. Bredan went over and shone the light from his sword into the crevice just in case it was a possible route of escape, but while it was wide enough to shove his arm into, it narrowed to a close after just a few feet. Bits of stone crunched under his feet as he returned to rejoin the others.
There was one obvious exit, an arched passage opposite the door. The corridor was unremarkable, rising to a peak about twelve feet above the floor. From the dust and the few old cobwebs that were visible, nobody had come this way in quite some time.
“All right, let’s go,” Kalasien said, but as he started into the passage Bredan grabbed hold of his arm. “What is it?”
“There’s something not right here,” Bredan said.
“Can you be more specific?”
Bredan shook his head. “Just a feeling.”
“This whole place gives me a bad feeling,” Kalasien said, but he waited while Kavek went and picked up one of the larger chunks of stone under the crack in the wall. The other two men watched while he heaved it into the corridor.
The piece of stone landed heavily, bounced, and then skittered up against the left wall. At first nothing happened, but then, so suddenly that all three of them jumped, flames filled the space. The firestorm came and went so suddenly that they couldn’t tell where it had originated, leaving just a haze of smoke behind.
Kavek looked at Bredan. “I think we should trust your feelings,” he said.
They followed Bredan through the trapped corridor, Kalasien and Kavek duplicating the warrior’s steps. Either through the guidance of his vague feelings, or because the trap was unable to reset, they made it to the far end of the passage safely. Once there they found a staircase that led down.
“The air will likely only grow worse in quality as we descend,” Kalasien said.
“I don’t see any other options,” Bredan noted.
They made their way down carefully, alert to any additional traps. The steps were worn smooth, suggesting that at some point in the distant past this place had been populated and busy. Now it felt like some forgotten tomb. Bredan could not shake the connection to the slab door and thought back to the other sites he and his friends had explored back on Voralis. They had barely survived a few of those deadly places, and that was when they had all been together. Again he thought of his friends and hoped that they were still all right. Likely they thought him dead; it was only pure luck that the three of them had survived that rough descent.
Or had it been luck?
Distracted by his thoughts, Bredan didn’t realize that the stairs were coming to an end until Kavek made a comment. He held up his sword to illuminate the near edges of what looked like a large underground vault. The place had a low ceiling, about eight feet high, with pillars that buttressed it at frequent intervals. From the echoes that their footsteps returned the chamber went on for quite some distance.
“Stay together,” Bredan said as they started forward.
It looked as though at one point the walls and the pillars had been decorated, though the paint that remained was so faded and flaked that they could not make out any of the designs. Narrow channels extended across the floor, just an inch or so deep, but there were not enough clues to indicate their initial purpose. The air was sour, and Bredan tried not to think about the poisons that he might be taking into his lungs with each breath.
Kavek had shifted off slightly to the side, and as they progressed past the first pair of pillars he said, “Hey, over here.” Without waiting for a response, he hurried off in that direction. Biting back a curse Bredan hurried after him. The sailor had bent over something by the next pillar over.
“What is it?” Bredan asked.
Kavek straightened and held up his find. It was a mace, heavy and flanged, crafted out of a black metal that showed no sign of rust or decay. Bredan frowned as he ran a finger along one of the flanges.
“Odd, to find such a thing here,” Kalasien said with a look at the sailor.
“Well, better to have a weapon,” Kavek said. “I lost my spear in the cave-in, and you might need me to do more than just throw rocks if we run into anything down here.”
“Agreed,” Bredan said. “Keep it, let’s just hope it isn’t cursed.”
Kavek gave the weapon another look, but held onto it as they continued forward. They could see now that the vault was about thirty feet wide, the side walls just barely visible from the faint light coming from Bredan’s weapon, but it continued forward into darkness for as far as they could see. They’d gone maybe forty feet when Kalasien drew their attention to the wall to their right. “Something this way,” he said.
They followed him over to the wall, where Bredan’s light revealed a shallow alcove, maybe ten feet across and half that deep. Embedded in the wall there was a huge stone plug, a disk a good eight feet across that protruded out a few inches from the surrounding surface. In the center of the plug there was a small hole, just a few inches across.
“What is it, do you think?” Kavek asked.
“I’m not sure,” Bredan said. He approached carefully, his sword at the ready. He was about a foot from the opening when he paused. “There’s air moving here,” he said.
Kalasien came over and took a look. “Fresh air,” he said. “There must be a cavern or some other tunnel on the other side.”
Bredan held up his sword. It wouldn’t quite fit into the opening, but he used its light to take a closer look. “It goes for several feet, at least.”
“Is there a way to move the plug?” Kavek asked.
They all spent a few moments examining the stone disk and the surrounding wall, but found no mechanisms or secret panels. “Nothing,” Bredan said. “Let’s keep looking.”
They continued their search, only to find that the vault ended after another twenty feet or so. There was another one of the slab doors there, but they found no other obvious exits or notable features.
“We should rest before moving on,” Kalasien said. “We’re all injured, and there might be greater dangers ahead of us.”
“What about the poisonous air?” Bredan asked.
“The air is fresher near that vent,” Kalasien pointed out. “We should take advantage of it.”
“What do we have in the way of supplies?” Kavek asked.
They did a quick inventory of what they had in their packs. The results were not especially promising. They had all been carrying some of the tabaxi rations, but Kavek’s water flask had been crushed falling through the sinkhole, and the other two men only had a few pints left between them. “We’ll share what we have left,” Bredan said.
They went over to the perforated disk and sat down. They limited themselves to just a bite of food and a swallow of water each, but even that made a noticeable dent in their remaining cache.
“We’ll just take a few minutes,” Bredan said, leaning back against the edge of the alcove. He rested his sword in his lap, careful of the sharp edge. The others arranged themselves so they could watch all angles of the room. Once they had all stopped moving, they could hear just the faintest of sounds of rushing air coming from the hole in the plug.
Bredan closed his eyes. He intended to just allow himself a minute’s rest, but his exhausted and battered body caught up to him and dragged him over into sleep.
When Kurok felt a soft pressure on his arm he woke instantly. It was utterly dark in the vault; the light from Bredan’s sword had faded. He could see Drekkath kneeling over him, but he had gotten so used to hiding his darkvision that he whispered reflexively, “Who’s there?”
Drekkath’s lips twisted in a smile. “It’s okay, Bredan is sleeping deeply. Come.”
Kurok rose silently, leaving his mace where it lay. It was again reflex to refresh the illusion that concealed his features. They made their way to a spot over by one of the pillars, where they could still see the alcove but were unlikely to wake the slumbering warrior.
“How long was I asleep?” Kurok asked. His mind felt sluggish and it felt as if he’d only just laid his head down a few minutes ago, but he was well used to ignoring his body’s demands for rest.
“About an hour,” Drekkath said. “I judged that you could use the time.”
But you didn’t, Kurok thought. The creature never seemed to sleep, at least where Kurok could see. The doppelganger remained a cypher, mysterious in its behavior and motivations. When they were alone it did not bother to conceal its disdain for the warlock, and there had been more than one occasion when Kurok had nearly blasted the thing, their mission be damned.
“Do you think that this complex connects to where the book is located?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” Drekkath said. “But the question that preoccupies me is whether now is the time to put an end to him.”
Kurok looked over at the alcove and the still-slumbering figure. “That would be a mistake. We need him. He has already demonstrated useful instincts with regard to this place, and his fighting skills cannot be discounted. We are likely to encounter more than just ancient traps before we get to the book.”
Drekkath studied him for a long moment. “I wonder if you are not beginning to feel empathy for him,” it finally said. “I hope that you have not forgotten why we are here.”
Kurok’s expression twisted into a fury. “You…” Realizing that he was being loud, he leaned in close and hissed, “You dare to question my motives? You were there when we traveled through the human lands, through their lush kingdom, surrounded by wealth and food and prosperity. I did not truly understand the depths of my people’s poverty until I saw Severon, or Li Syval. You do not know me, creature, or understand the life that I have lived. So be careful when issuing judgments.”
Drekkath made a slight bow, and Kurok got the decided impression that he was being mocked. “Forgive my presumption,” it said. “I would have known better, had you not prohibited me from scanning your mind.”
Kurok definitely doubted that was true, but he kept silent. Instead, he pointed toward Bredan and said, “We need to find the…”
He trailed off, for as he glanced over he saw that something had changed. Bredan was still there, a slumped outline against the wall, but directly above him, oozing out of the hole of the wall, was a bulging orb of glistening black substance. It was already twice the size of the sleeping man’s head, and as the two conspirators watched it distended and extended a gooey tendril toward him.
Kurok extended his hands and unleashed a pair of eldritch blasts that tore into the substance of the thing. The magical pulses were absorbed by its mass, and they could not tell if they had harmed it. It continued to swell as more of it issued through the tiny hole in the wall, and it formed a fresh pseudopod as Bredan sprang up and stared around in surprise.
“Bredan, get away from the wall!” Kurok yelled.
Bredan was clearly disoriented in the darkness, but he pushed off from the wall just as the creature slammed its tendril where he’d been standing. It hit the floor with a meaty smack. The thing’s mass now extended from the hole to the ground, and it was still expanding as more of it emerged from the opening.
Bredan summoned his sword into his grasp, and it immediately began to glow. On seeing the black monstrosity in front of him he immediately raised the weapon to strike.
“Bredan, no!” Kurok warned, but he was too late; the warrior was already swinging. The blade tore through the still-thickening center of its mass and cut it in half. The upper portion rebounded against the wall, while the lower fell into a clump on the floor. But any hope that he had harmed it faded when that lower portion formed a new pseudopod and slammed Bredan hard in the leg. Kurok could almost hear his skin sizzling as the acid penetrated his armor and clothes. Bredan staggered back, looking with dismay at the damage that the impact had wrought upon his dwarf-forged plate.
Kurok had lifted his hand for another strike, but hesitated. Instead of unleashing another spell where Bredan could see, he ran forward and grabbed hold of his mace. The upper half of the ooze had finally emerged fully from the hole in the wall, and it began to slide along the side of the alcove toward him.
“We cannot defeat this foe,” Drekkath yelled. “Run!”
Bredan was already moving. The ooze was following him, but it was slower than him even in his heavy plate armor. The other one detached from the edge of the alcove as Kurok retreated. Glancing back at the fleeing warrior, the warlock quickly unleashed a poison spray that struck the ooze but only slowed it for a second before it resumed its pursuit.
Drekkath ran ahead to the far exit and the second slab door. This one was much like the last, but they were all quite aware of the black things that were sliding forward in pulses across the chamber toward them. Bredan joined the doppleganger in heaving at the door. Now that they were more familiar with how the doors operated, they were able to push it slightly upward even before Kurok joined them.
“Up, up, damn it!” Drekkath hissed. Bredan’s muscles were already like taut cords from effort as they heaved the door inch after stingy inch upward. Kurok could not help but look back to see the oozes about twenty feet away and closing at a steady pace.
“Kavek!” Bredan hissed. “My sword… prop it under the slab!”
Without letting go of the door, Kurok bent and grabbed the sword. It was heavy, and awkward to manage in his current position, but he was able to wedge it into the gap. There was not enough space to stand it straight up, but the pommel caught in the jam and the point found one of the subtle gaps that separated the slabs that made up the floor.
“It’s good!” Kurok said. Bredan and Drekkath immediately eased the door back down until its weight rested on the sword. There was a tense moment where Kurok thought the metal blade would shatter under the pressure, but it held.
“Through!” Drekkath commanded. He and Kurok darted through the space between the sword and the far side of the threshold. Bredan came last, diving through the gap. Kurok turned to see the oozes a scant five feet away; the nearer one was already forming a pseudopod to attack.
Kurok tensed, but even as the things lunged forward Bredan kicked out. He struck the sword, which flew out into the vault. The door slammed down hard, plunging them into darkness.
For a long moment Bredan lay there on his side in the dark, breathing heavily. He could hear Kavek right next to him, but strangely Kalasien was silent.
Finally, reluctantly, he held up his hand. For a moment he thought that the sword would not appear, but then its familiar weight rested in his hand. The glow erupted from the runes marked in the blade, and he took a look around.
The door was right in front of him, scant inches from his foot. If he’d stumbled a bit it would have crushed his ankle and held the door open enough for the creatures to get through.
He scanned the threshold carefully, looking for any sign of the things, but there were none.
“Think that will keep them out?” Kalasien asked. Bredan craned his neck and saw the agent standing a few feet away. The man could definitely be quiet when he wanted to be.
“It would appear so,” Kavek said. He leaned over and offered Bredan a hand up. “Are you all right?”
“A bit singed,” Bredan said. He inspected his leg where the thing had struck him. “What happened? I thought I saw a flash, and then that thing...”
“It came through the hole in the wall,” Kalasien said. “I heard something and got up. I tried to make a light with flint and steel, that’s probably what you saw.”
Bredan turned to Kavek. “You warned me not to hit it with my sword.”
Kavek nodded. “We have those things in Zesania, though thankfully they’re rare. You can’t hurt them with cutting weapons, it just makes more of them.”
“What are they?” Bredan asked.
“We called them ‘black puddings.’”
“How’s your armor?” Kalasien asked.
Bredan examined the damaged plates again. “Can’t do anything about it now,” he said. “Unless we happen upon a smithy down here.”
“Might as well hope for a tavern,” Kavek said.
“Yeah,” Bredan said. “How long was I asleep?”
“I don’t know,” Kalasien said. “I sort of drifted off myself. I know we should have had at least one of us keep watch…”
“It’s all right,” Bredan said. “We were all exhausted. At least now our bodies have had a little chance to recover, at least.”
“No way back, now,” Kavek said. “And we’re already too far away to hear if the others are able to burrow down to where we started.”
“Then we have to go forward,” Bredan said.
He held up the sword to illuminate the room they were in. It was another antechamber, maybe fifteen feet by fifteen, with another arched corridor leading away. This time the other two men waited to see if Bredan would have any more “feelings,” but nothing came to him when he stared down its length. With the light source in his hands he led the way, Kavek and Kalasien following just a few steps behind.
The corridor extended for about fifty feet before it opened onto a larger space. This one looked to be a hybrid of a natural cavern and a worked room, with a curved wall to their left and an uneven ceiling that rose to a peak about fifteen feet above. There were more crevices and cracks in the walls, and more scattered debris, but their attention was drawn to three worked tunnels that radiated out in different directions from the far side of the chamber.
“It looks like we have a choice, now,” Kavek said.
“I’m not detecting any noises or air flow from any of them,” Kalasien said.
Kavek turned expectantly to Bredan. “Any idea of which way we should go?”
The warrior came forward and stood at a point where he could turn to face each of the passage openings in turn. He closed his eyes and lifted his sword. He turned around, slowly, turning a full circuit until he came to a stop facing one of the tunnel openings. It was the one on the left.
“This way,” he said. Without looking back, he started down the passage.
The other two shared a quick look and then followed.
“This place is a maze,” Kavek said as they turned into yet another passage.
Bredan didn’t say anything. He was starting to doubt himself, and the subtle twinges that he’d been using to guide them. Clearly something had warned him about the fire trap in the first corridor, and he’d thought he’d felt something when he’d lifted his sword at the first three-way fork, but they’d been wandering for what felt like at least an hour and he was starting to feel that maybe they were just lost.
He still did the ritual at every branching, but he suspected that his companions were starting to come to the same realization. Clearly the ancient city was huge, and this network of caverns, worked chambers, and connecting passages extended under a good portion of it. But thus far they had not come to anything that looked like it could be an exit or a route to their ultimate destination.
At least they hadn’t come upon any more traps or creatures like the black pudding. There had been a few hazards, including a chamber with a collapsed floor that they’d finally just given up on, retracing their steps to the previous fork and selecting the other option. Once they had found themselves back in a room they had already explored. Bredan could almost feel the looks shared behind his back when they’d realized that they had just looped back around.
They had stopped once more to share around a swallow of water and a few bites of their remaining rations. There wasn’t much left of either now. The air remained stale, but Bredan wasn’t sure if it was slowly poisoning them. He had a bit of a headache, but that could have just been the lack of rest and the repeated battering that he’d taken over the last few hours.
His mind had wandered so thoroughly that he didn’t realize they had come into a new chamber until Kalasien touched him on the arm. With a start he came back to the present and looked around in surprise.
This place was definitely new. The chamber was irregularly shaped, its walls meeting at angles that didn’t quite match. It was spacious, its far side lost in darkness beyond the limited radiance of Bredan’s sword. There was a large mound of rubble in the center of the room, tall enough that it looked like it would take a considerable effort to scale. Above it the ceiling rose in an inverted funnel to what might have been an opening, but it was impossible to be sure in the weak light.
“Anyone see another way out?” Bredan asked.
“Our eyes are no better than yours,” Kalasien said.
Bredan shot him a look. Kalasien’s mood seemed to be souring the longer they spent down here. It was a notable change; the Arreshian agent had hardly seemed to feel emotion at all since they’d departed Li Syval. It was understandable; Bredan himself had felt on edge ever since they’d arrived on the shores of Weltarin. But if the man was close to losing control that was something he needed to know.
They were moving slowly into the room, and Bredan was about to say something to Kalasien, when a rumbling sound froze them in mid-step.
The sound was coming from the mound in the center of the room. It became a vibration, then a cascade of dirt and stone as the rubble shifted. Bredan was not entirely surprised when it rose up and took on the form of a giant humanoid creature, a heap of living rock that stood a good ten feet tall and loomed over the companions like an avalanche.
Bredan had a sinking feeling even before he glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the exit to the chamber was gone, the passage replaced by an apparently solid wall of stone. He remembered a similar encounter in the Silverpeak Valley, and here they had walked into the same trap. There he had faced two elementals, but he’d had his friends with him. Kalasien might be competent and Kavek brave, but they were in no way the equals of Kosk, Glori, Quellan, or Xeeta.
But Bredan had changed since that last encounter, and he did not shrink before the challenge that came toward him with an earth-shattering gait.
He summoned the magic that was the book’s gift to him as he came forward to meet the elemental. Once again he enlarged himself until he was a match for the creature in height, if not in weight or raw power. It leaned forward, using its momentum and its mass as a battering ram, but as it slammed into Bredan he held his ground. He absorbed the impact and with a guttural roar thrust it off him. It swung its arms at him, its ponderousness more than balanced by its raw strength, but the warrior evaded the first blow and took just a glancing hit from the second that was mostly absorbed by his armor. The elemental lifted his arms to strike again, but Bredan was already counterattacking. His sword clanged loudly through the cavernous interior of the chamber as it slammed into the elemental’s body. The thing was made of rock, but the magical greatsword tore great gouts of substance from its torso that crumbled into gravel as they fell away from its form.
Kalasien and Kavek had both been given pause by the sheer scale and intensity of the melee between the two large combatants, but they recovered swiftly and moved to Bredan’s aid. They spread out to come at the elemental from the flanks, Kalasien moving around to the right while Kavek circled from the left. The Arreshian darted in and delivered a minor blow from his rapier that knocked a bit of rock from the joint where its right leg met its body. The wound was not enough to distract it from Bredan, but added a slight hitch to its step as it launched a fresh series of attacks on the embattled warrior. This time Bredan held his ground until the last instant, then summoned a magical shield that reverberated from the force of the impacts but held together just long enough to get clear. Even as it dissolved Bredan continued hacking at it with his sword, tearing away a good chunk of its left arm.
Kavek had clenched his mace in both hands and was about to join the fray when he heard a sound of rushing air coming from above. He looked up to see an ethereal, half-transparent form descending from the conical peak of the chamber. A pair of glowing eyes shone from within the core of the entity. It was coming right toward him.
The sailor immediately glanced aside at Bredan, but the warrior was fully engaged with the first elemental and likely hadn’t even recognized the new threat. Kavek turned back and closed his eyes. Frost crystalized around his clothes as the sound of the onrushing creature filled his ears.
He made no move to evade as a colossal impact drove him back several steps. But within the protection of the Armor of Agathys he barely felt the blow. He looked up to see the form of the air elemental swirling with bits of magical frost. It looked like a snowstorm hovering in the air in front of him.
He lifted his weapon as the creature came at him again.
Bredan detected movement out of the corner of his eye and heard the sound of something engaging Kavek on his flank. He didn’t dare shift his attention from his foe for an instant; even that minor moment of distraction nearly cost him as the earth elemental swept an arm forward and caught him a glancing blow to his shoulder that knocked him back a full step. The creature had absorbed considerable damage already, but Bredan had no idea how much of it he would have to carve away before the magic that bound it to this plane was sundered. Even as it tried to swing at him again, he brought his sword around and smashed a chunk the size of his head from its leg.
“Kalasien!” he yelled. “Help Kavek!”
The agent didn’t say anything, but his presence on the edge of the battle disappeared. Bredan was alone again.
Kavek was lifted off his feet as the air elemental shot forward and engulfed him in a swirling maelstrom of tornado-force winds. His spell had already been depleted, but the magic had inflicted serious damage on the creature. He swung his mace blindly, trying to connect with some part of its substance, but he quickly lost all awareness of his surroundings as he was flipped end-over-end before he was flung violently from the whirlwind. He caught a glimpse of Kalasien, approaching fast, but the doppelganger stepped smoothly aside as the warlock shot past him and bounced painfully off the chamber floor.
Bredan was only dimly aware of the second fight going on just paces away as he and the earth elemental continued to trade blows. His left arm throbbed where a solid impact had caught him, but the creature in turn was covered with scattered pockmarks where pieces of its substance had been torn away.
The elemental reared up and spread its arms wide as it lurched toward Bredan once more. He wasn’t sure if it was trying to crush him or tackle him, but either way he didn’t wait. Even as its arms began to swing forward, he stepped in and drove his sword up with all of his strength behind it. The enlarged blade pierced its chest and kept on going until the crossguard caught on the edges of the wound. The elemental sagged and then just started to come apart. Bredan was spattered with bits of stone that formed a mound around his legs as the elemental was reduced to what it had been before, just a loose heap of rock and dirt.
He took a deep, steadying breath before a sound of rushing wind drew his attention. He looked up to see Kalasien giving way before what looked like a living tornado. His rapier flashed, and for a moment Bredan saw the outline of what looked like a wound appear in the thing, but then it countered with a buffet that knocked the agent sprawling. Kavek was just staggering to his feet a few paces away, but he looked hurt. He lifted a hand but hesitated as he saw Bredan watching him.
Bredan charged forward, the rubble giving way as his elongated legs pulled free. He picked up speed as he won clear and shouted a challenge that drew the creature’s attention toward him. He could see the pair of glowing eyes within its nebulous substance, and used them as a guide as he swept his sword around in a powerful arc through its form. He felt resistance as the magical blade cleaved through the air elemental’s body, then with an echo of a shriek the thing dissolved into nothing.
Bredan let his sword drop to his side. Kalasien got to his feet, looking a bit battered but otherwise intact. “Are you both all right?” Bredan asked.
“That was a nasty combo,” Kavek said. He walked over to pick up his mace, which had been flung a good ten paces away during the fight.
Bredan noticed the crust of ice crystals that clung to the sailor’s back. “What happened to you?”
Kavek turned and noted his gaze. “That thing… it was freezing cold. Do you know what it was?”
“Some kind of elemental,” Bredan said. “I’ve fought other kinds before.”
“That rock one looked like it hit hard,” Kavek said.
Bredan shifted his arm. No bones were broken, but he imagined he could feel the limb swelling within the confines of his armor. “Yeah,” he said.
“Maybe we should take another rest,” the sailor suggested.
“No,” Bredan said. “We have to press on.” He lifted his sword and pointed it toward the far wall of the room, where the weapon’s glow had revealed a staircase that ascended through an arched opening.
Kalasien came over to him. “Do you sense something?”
Bredan shook his head. “I don’t know for certain. But I have this feeling that we’re running out of time.”
Kavek joined them, holding his mace. After a look at the Arreshian agent he nodded. “Forward, then.”
With Bredan in the lead again, the three of them crossed the room and started up the stairs.
Glori leaned forward until they were almost touching. The cleric was kneeling in the center of a small cleared space within the interior of the temple where they had taken shelter. At least that was what they had guessed the place to be. They had found the remains of what might have been statues, but most of the place was choked with rubble from the partially collapsed ceiling and crumbling walls. The others were gathered around the half-orc as he peered into nothing, lost within the power of his locate creature spell. Outside the open doorway night had already descended over the city, but since all of the survivors of the group could see in the dark, they hadn’t bothered with a light that could attract more of the apes or other predators.
“Where is he?” Glori asked. She and the others were covered in dirt and stone dust that formed uniform masks over their features. She, Kosk, and Xeeta had spent most of the previous afternoon trying to dig out the collapse that filled the sinkhole in the plaza outside. All they had found was dirt and stone, and finally had had to give up their efforts when they had threatened a wider collapse of the surrounding area.
Quellan’s brow tightened with concentration, and he lifted an arm to point roughly to the north, more or less in the direction they’d been headed when the girallons had attacked them. “He’s almost at the range of my spell, he…” He shook his head and let out an angry sound.
“What?” Glori asked. “What happened?”
“I lost him,” Quellan said.
“Did he move outside the spell’s range?” Kosk asked.
“No. He just… he just disappeared. It felt… strange. Almost like something was resisting the link established by the spell.”
“Well, at least we know he’s alive,” Xeeta said.
“And it looks like he found a way back up to the surface,” Glori said.
“I don’t know if he did,” Quellan said. “From what I got… it wasn’t a clear connection, but I think he might have still been underground.”
“That would suggest that there’s a considerable underground complex beneath the city,” Kosk said. “Old sewers, perhaps.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Glori said. “We have to find him.”
“You are exhausted,” Kosk said. The dwarf didn’t comment on his own recent brush with death, though there were dark circles under his eyes and his skin remained pale beneath the coat of gray dust. “It would be reckless to explore the city at night, and you need sleep. Quellan got a chance to sleep, but the rest of us didn’t get anything more than a short rest.”
“I’m fine,” Glori said. “I still have plenty of spells left, and Xeeta…”
“I used a good portion of my higher order magic in the battle with the apes,” the sorceress said, “but I assure you that I can manage more blasting if needed.”
“We can all see in the dark,” Glori pointed out. “Bredan could be hurt, or otherwise be in trouble…”
“It’s not just about spells, or the time of day,” Kosk said. “Even with Quellan’s healing, we’re still beat up. We won’t help Bredan if we get ourselves killed trying to get to him.”
“Kosk has a valid point,” Quellan said. “I used up all of my diamonds to revivify him. I cannot repeat the spell if another should fall.” His gaze lingered on Glori as he spoke, and a deep sadness filled his eyes.
Glori’s response was interrupted as Rodan entered the building. The tiefling scout had recovered a few usable arrows, but otherwise looked as worn down as the rest of them, if not as injured. “There’s no sign that any more of those apes are lingering anywhere nearby, but there were definitely more of them than the ones we fought,” he reported. “The death of the big one seems to have frightened them off for now, but I won’t go so far as to say that they’re gone for good.” He took in the scene and looked at Quellan. “Did you learn anything?”
“Bredan’s alive,” Glori said. “He’s somewhere further on near the city center.”
“That’s good news,” Rodan said. “Very good. Can you lead us to him?”
“The connection was very brief,” Quellan said. “I can only say that he was somewhere along the course that we were headed before the attack.”
“Kosk thinks it’s a bad idea to press on during the night,” Xeeta said.
“Normally I would agree with him,” Rodan said. “Darkvision is no substitute for daylight, and there are plenty of places to hide in these ruins. Also, we haven’t had much luck with the daytime predators thus far. I can only imagine that the nocturnal ones are just as bad, if not worse.”
“We’ve already lost eight hours while Quellan prayed for his location spell,” Glori said. “If we wait until morning, he might have moved on, and we’ll lose even the limited information we have now.”
“Perhaps we should take a vote,” Xeeta said.
“All right,” Glori said. “All in favor of setting out immediately, raise your hands.”
Xeeta and Glori raised their hands, followed by Rodan. After a moment, Quellan did as well.
The others looked at Kosk, who frowned but finally nodded. “All right, we keep going,” he said.
The streets of Savek Vor were a different experience in the night. The moon had vanished, but the clouds that had thickened the sky since their arrival had mostly departed and the starlight was more than adequate for the adventurers to find their way. The night was alive with sounds, but they did not hear anything close by, and no more deadly creatures appeared to block their progress.
The destruction and decay that had claimed the ancient city was less pronounced as they made their way further toward its core, but they still had to navigate heaps of rubble where buildings had collapsed into the street and tangles where the resurgent jungle growth had to be hacked through to clear their way. But they didn’t encounter any more blockages like the one where they had first encountered the girallons, and for the most part they made better progress than they had during their initial entry into the city the previous morning.
They had been walking for maybe half an hour when they saw a more regular shape rise up out of the darkness ahead. As they approached, they could see that it was a wall, which looked like it encircled the entire inner precinct of the city. The wall was mostly intact, although there were occasional gaps along the top where pieces had crumbled away, and other places where the jungle growth had managed to gain purchase over the centuries. The wall was about fifteen feet tall, but they could make out the outlines of larger structures rising up beyond it, buildings that might have been the ones they had spotted from the mountains that rimmed the valley.
At first it looked as if they might have to try to climb over the barrier, but as the overgrown street passed a final set of ruined buildings they could see an opening ahead. There was a gap of about thirty feet between the nearest structure and the wall, a space that had probably been kept cleared at one point but was now thick with tangles of brush and tall grass. The cobbled path continued through that thicket to a gap in the wall that was roughly fifteen feet across. It was surmounted by the remains of an archway that had collapsed at some point, leaving just a pair of partial arms that ended in uneven claws of stone.
“This place gets creepier with each passing moment,” Glori said. She held her lyre tightly, as if resisting the urge to call upon its magic.
“There’s something there, in the gap,” Xeeta said.
They made their way carefully forward. They didn’t find any evidence that a gate or other barrier had once warded the opening in the wall, but they could see the object that Xeeta had identified. It was a block of stone about three feet thick, lying right in the middle of the street.
“It looks like it might have been the capstone of the arch,” Kosk noted.
“There’s something inscribed on it,” Glori said. Without waiting for comment from the others, she strummed her lyre and summoned a single globe of dancing light that hovered directly over the broken piece of stone. The light drove back the surrounding night and revealed a sigil, barely visible on the weathered fragment, that they all recognized.
“That was the mark on the tabaxi matriarch’s seal,” Quellan said. “And Bredan’s sword.”
“I feel like I’ve seen it somewhere before,” Xeeta said. “Long before.”
“Maybe it was back in that shrine, in the Silverpeak,” Kosk said. “I can’t for the life of me remember what was written on that wall, but it could have been there.”
“Something happened to us there,” Glori said. “Bredan’s been affected the most, but we were all touched by that power. I remember that my magical powers expanded shortly after that encounter. And we’re all carrying a bit of that power with us,” she said, holding up her bow.
“I think you should drop the light,” Rodan suggested. Glori let her fingers stop and the glowing orb faded with the music. The night quickly enveloped them again.
“It’s quiet,” Xeeta said.
They all paused to listen. They heard what she did. Behind them the faint sounds of the jungle night stirred in the ruins, but ahead of them there was only stillness. The buildings within the wall appeared to be more intact than those outside, but they couldn’t see very far in the starlight. The street they’d been following continued more or less straight for as far as they could see, heading in the general direction of the huge structures that loomed like mountains in the distance.
“Like I said, creepy,” Xeeta said.
“Bredan’s probably somewhere in there,” Glori said.
“We don’t know that for sure,” Kosk said. “We’ve already covered more distance than Quellan’s spell reaches.”
“You could try casting it again,” Xeeta suggested.
Quellan looked thoughtful. “It won’t help if he’s underground,” he said, “Or if he’s warded by whatever power interrupted my earlier attempt.”
Glori stepped in front of the fallen capstone and turned to face them. “All right, we go on?” When none of the others offered any challenge, she started down the street again. One by one the others followed, but when Quellan passed through the arch he stumbled and clutched his head.
“Quellan?” Xeeta asked.
Glori heard and came rushing back. “What’s wrong?”
“I… I’m not certain,” Quellan said. “I felt… something. A disturbance. Almost like my connection to Hosrenu…”
He trailed off, but reached up to touch his shield. A moment later it began to shine with magical light. But the glow was weak, and it flickered briefly before stabilizing at maybe half its usual intensity.
“What’s causing it?” Rodan asked.
“I don’t know,” Quellan said. He stepped back through the gate, but the light did not intensify. “It’s something about this place, I think.”
“Do any of the rest of you feel anything?” Glori asked. She herself strummed her lyre, summoning a fresh cluster of dancing lights. The tiny orbs didn’t seem any different than usual. After a few moments she let them flicker out once more.
“Let’s hope it doesn’t stop you from casting more powerful spells in there,” Kosk said.
Quellan looked troubled by the thought, but he dismissed his spell and straightened. “I’m all right, I can continue.”
Glori’s expression lit up with a sudden revelation. “Maybe the city wall has an enchantment of some kind on it,” she said. “A ward of some sort. Maybe that’s what kept your location spell from working correctly.”
“It’s possible, I suppose,” Quellan said.
“If that’s the case, it might work if you try the spell again from inside the wall,” Glori said.
“It might,” Quellan said. “But again, only if he’s within range.” He didn’t repeat the other requirement, that the subject be alive; none of them needed the reminder.
“What about the version of the spell that locates objects?” Xeeta asked. “You said that you used that to track me in Li Syval, when I was warded by the fiend cult. You could try it on Bredan’s sword.”
“That didn’t work,” Kosk pointed out. “They had dumped your amulet in a well. And Bredan’s sword is bound up in the magic of this whole place somehow, for all we know it’s the thing that’s keeping us from finding him.”
“Still, it’s worth a try, isn’t it?” Glori persisted. “I know that you only have a limited number of powerful spells each day…”
“No, you’re right,” Quellan said. He visibly steeled himself before stepping back through the archway. This time he did not have any obvious difficulty, but he crossed over to the shelter of one of the nearby buildings before he readied himself.
“Do you need us to do anything to help prepare?” Rodan asked.
“No, this will only take a moment,” Quellan said. He put down his shield and hung his mace on his belt, then touched his holy symbol and closed his eyes.
It was clear to the others that the spellcasting was not as easy as the cleric had made it out to be. Quellan’s brow furrowed with effort, and his lips moved soundlessly as he focused his full effort on the effort. Finally, he sagged in release.
“No luck,” Rodan said.
“I tried to scan both for Bredan and for his sword,” Quellan said. “Whatever power is in this place, it’s blocking me somehow.”
“All right,” Rodan said. “So back to the original plan, then.”
The five of them continued into the city, the partially-ruined buildings looming up out of the darkness around them.
The street remained straight and unobstructed as they made their way further into the interior of the abandoned city. They passed buildings made of granite blocks with facings of marble or sandstone, any of which would have been considered a palace back in Arresh. The facades of those structures showed some signs of decay, with cracks in the surface stone, or tiles that had fallen away to reveal the plainer stone beneath. But this part of the city was remarkably preserved compared to the outer precincts they had traveled through to get here.
“There are no insects,” Xeeta said. “No birds, nothing at all.”
They had already noted the quiet, but the sorceress’s announcement added to the sense of unease that this ancient tomb of a city created.
“Let’s get where we’re going,” Kosk said.
For a time they picked up their pace, but the dark alleys and shadowed doorways that surrounded them soon urged them back to a cautious approach.
The street finally came to an end, depositing them onto another broad plaza. This one was similar to the one where they had encountered the girallons, right down to the huge pillars that rose up from the ground, but it was both larger and cleaner, without even occasional weeds rising up from the cracks in the ancient stone blocks. The entire place was dead and quiet. The buildings that surrounded the square were all impressive, but their attention was drawn to the far side, where a truly monumental structure loomed over its considerable neighbors. A huge dome rose up to an apex that had to be at least a hundred feet above the ground on which they stood. The building was situated well back from the square, behind a low wall that warded some sort of enclosure that they could not view from their current vantage. Pillars half again the size of the ones that filled the square supported a portico at the front of the giant building, but they were too far away to see whether there were doors or some other kind of entrance.
“I’m just going to venture a guess, but I’d say that’s where we’re going,” Kosk said.
“That place makes the Royal Palace back in Severon look like a farmer’s cottage,” Glori said.
“It must have taken a fantastic effort to build,” Quellan said. “Especially in a place like this. And to survive so long…”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s impressive,” Kosk said. “Let’s get this over with.”
They were alert to another ambush as they made their way across the square, but this time nothing emerged from the surrounding city to threaten them. Clearly whatever effect that had disturbed Quellan so much on passing through the open arch also kept the residents of the jungle at bay. But the quiet only added to the sense that they were intruders there, and it did nothing to reassure them that this place was safe.
There was a gap in the wall that separated the grounds of the giant building from the open square, so they headed in that direction. The wall itself was only about seven feet tall, less of a fortification than a line of demarcation between the rest of the city and this place, whatever its purpose. The stone blocks had been carved at one point but time and the elements had worn the figures away until all that was left were vague outlines of what might have been people, animals, or really anything.
The space before them was empty and barren, but enough remained to suggest that it had once been much more elaborate. Large bare patches of packed earth might have once been gardens. There were a few plants visible here and there, but they were straggly and pathetic, poking up tentatively from the ground as if afraid of being seen. There were a few smaller outbuildings, open pavilions or small walled enclosures that appeared to be placed to emphasize the decorative features of the area. A pair of large pools, each about thirty feet wide and over a hundred feet long, flanked the main path that led directly to the front of the huge building ahead of them. Smaller paths wound through the empty garden plots, connecting to some of the other structures before eventually rejoining the central route at its destination.
“This place must have been beautiful once,” Glori said.
“It still is,” Xeeta said. “But in a sad, empty way.”
“I can’t believe that no knowledge of this place has ever spread,” Quellan said. “None of the accounts of the Syvalian crew that found the Book mentioned anything like this.”
“Well, you can write the definitive study when you get back,” Kosk said. “For now, let’s find our boy and what we came here for.”
The dwarf’s sense of urgency spread to the others, and they followed him as he made his way directly down the central path. It was easily twenty feet wide when it passed between the pools, the paved route flanked by an empty stretch of bare earth to either side. The pools were full of murky water that dimly reflected the light of the stars above. They could have been a foot deep or a hundred; there was no way to tell from casual observation, and all of the companions gave them a wide berth as they continued forward.
Kosk was about halfway to the end of the pools, and maybe ten feet ahead of the rest of the group, when he came to a sudden stop and raised his hand. The others all stopped as well and tensed, listening. “What is it?” Glori asked after a few seconds had passed.
“I thought I heard something,” Kosk said. They all listened for another stretch of time. “It must be this place getting to me,” he said.
They started forward again, but had only managed a few steps when they all detected something; a faint vibration that seemed to rise from the ground at their feet. Again they searched for the source to no avail, but after a few moments Xeeta pointed and said, “The pools!”
The murky surface of the water had begun to ripple slightly, confirming what they’d felt, but as they all looked at the point that Xeeta had indicated they could see that the disturbance was becoming stronger. That was the only warning they got before the surface erupted and a huge thing emerged from the pool.
It had the look of a giant crab or other crustacean, or at least it did until it pulled itself up over the lip of the pool and rose up onto four hind legs to stand partially upright. It was huge, standing taller than Quellan, its chitin-encased body extending all the way back into the pool. Its forelegs ended in massive claws, and a fringe of glistening tentacles dropped from the front of its head where a mouth should have been.
The companions had only had a moment to prepare, but they had put that time to good use. Even as the creature got its footing on the edge of the pool multiple attacks slammed into it. The water that dripped from its armored body flashed into steam as Xeeta blasted it with a series of scorching rays. A moment later an arrow from Rodan’s bow found one of the gaps in the creature’s armor just below its head, stabbing deep into its body.
The creature reared up in a fury, but before it could attack Quellan drove into it. He slammed its shield into its body, trying to push it back into the water. Its lower legs scrambled for purchase on the raised edge of the pool. The cleric lifted his mace to strike, but before he could strike another loud eruption behind them announced that the creature was not alone. A second one appeared from the other pool, its claws snapping as it clambered up out of the water and joined the attack.
“Behind us!” Rodan yelled, in case any of them had somehow missed the fact that they were now flanked.
Kosk changed course in mid-stride, turning to engage the second creature as it rose up out of the pool. He tried to damage one of its lower legs with his staff, but the thing shifted at the last instant and the weapon bounced harmlessly off its body. He tried to follow up with a kick to one of its leg joints, but that blow as well missed as it swept forward to attack Xeeta and Rodan. The dwarf cursed as it lunged with its claws at the two tieflings. Rodan ducked under the first, narrowly avoiding contact, but Xeeta was snared and lifted off her feet as the claw snapped hard around her waist.
Quellan quickly glanced behind him before turning back to deliver his attack on the first creature. But the momentary distraction had cost him. Even as he swung his mace, the creature smashed one of its claws into his body. The impact knocked him backwards, and he fell to one knee. The monster toppled back forward fully onto the ground, the end of its body rising up out of the water to reveal a flanged tail, like that of a lobster.
“Quellan, get back!” Glori warned as she rushed forward. The cleric instantly obeyed, leaping back a scant instant before the bard unleashed a thunderwave. She’d clearly intended to finish the job of knocking it back into the water, but the creature had gotten a firm purchase, and its weight was too great for her to dislodge. The pulse of sound clearly had an effect on it, but it reacted by seizing her in a punishing grip in one of its claws, the weight of it driving her down to the ground.
Rodan drew his sword and tried to rush to Xeeta’s aid, hacking at the claw that held her. But the creature’s rapid movements caused the blow to miss, glancing harmlessly off the plates that protected it like a suit of heavy armor. Kosk came at it from behind, trying to find a vulnerable spot. He jammed his staff hard into the joint where one of its hind legs met its body. That drew a high-pitched screech from the thing, but it refused to release its captive. It swung its open claw at the dwarf, but that proved to be just a feint from its real intent as it pivoted and headed back for the shelter of its pool, Xeeta still struggling in its grasp.
“Xeeta!” Rodan cried, rushing after them. In a fury he leapt up onto the creature’s back, striding up to a spot right below its head. With both hands gripped tightly on the hilt of his sword he stabbed downward, piercing its armor and driving the blade a good six inches into its body. The creature shrieked and reared up, dislodging its unwelcome passenger, then sprang forward and toppled back into the pool. For a moment Xeeta was visible, then she vanished with it under the surface.
Rodan rolled to his feet and ran to the water’s edge. For a moment it looked like he would dive in after them, but then a flash of light drew their attention back down the path. There was a brief eruption of fire and smoke, and then a drenched Xeeta materialized via a dimension door.
Quellan let out a low roar as he rushed forward to help Glori. He tossed his shield aside and grabbed onto the pincer holding her, trying to pry it open with raw strength. But the creature smashed him across the back with its other claw, delivering a punishing blow that staggered him. Glori tried to use the cleric’s effort to break free, but the monster’s strength was incredible and she could not escape its hold. She cried out as its grip tightened, and it lifted her to its mouth. The tentacles there lashed out at her exposed face and neck, leaving ugly red welts on her flesh. Glori twitched and then stiffened as the toxins injected by the tentacles paralyzed her.
Now that it had its prey secured, the creature had clearly lost interest in further fighting. Like its companion it turned back to the pool, carrying the limp figure of the helpless bard with it. Quellan sprang up and flung himself at the thing in a violent frenzy, smashing it with a violent blow of his mace that cracked a piece of its carapace and left a trail of oozing ichor in its wake. Kosk joined him on the other side of the creature, slashing at its legs with his staff in an attempt to cause it to stumble. He scored a number of telling hits, but the thing kept on moving toward the safety of its watery lair.
There was a bright flash and a rush of heat as Xeeta blasted it with fire, careful to avoid the front of its body where Glori was held. The creature looked to be in rough shape, but none of the wounds it had absorbed were enough to stop it from toppling over the edge of the pool and vanishing with a violent splash.
Quellan didn’t hesitate; he rushed forward and dove in after it. Kosk was only a few steps behind him, but before he could follow a loud screech announced the return of the other creature. Furious at losing its victim, it rushed at Rodan with a frenzy of snapping claws. The tiefling avoided being snagged, but one of the claws batted him hard on the side of the head, knocking him to his knees and dazing him.
Before it could exploit its advantage Kosk slammed into it, thrusting his staff up into its gaping maw. With the tentacles he couldn’t see what he hit, but from the way it lurched back he’d clearly impacted something tender. He waited until it lunged at him with a claw then darted forward, driving the tip of his staff into one of the joints where its forearms met its body and setting the other end hard against the ground. Its own weight worked against its body came down after the ineffective attack, and it let out a fresh shriek as it impaled itself on the monk’s weapon.
Leaving his staff, Kosk rolled free and came up into a ready stance. It started to turn to face him, but before it could strike another bolt of fire from Xeeta struck it solidly in the head. The flames wreathed it for a moment before it stumbled forward and with a final heave of effort collapsed onto the ground.
It was still twitching when Kosk, Rodan, and Xeeta rushed together to the rim of the other pool. The water was still swirling, but there was no sign of Quellan, Glori, or the creature.
“I’m going in after them,” Kosk said.
“That thing’s in its element down there,” Xeeta said. “There’s no telling how far down it goes.”
“I don’t care,” the dwarf said. But even as he stepped up to the water’s edge, a hand broke the surface and seized hold of the stone rim a few paces away.
“Quellan!” Xeeta cried as they rushed over to help him.
The cleric looked to be in rough shape, and blood continued to ooze from a deep gash along the side of his head as they pulled him up. But he refused to let go of Glori, who he held cradled against his body with his other arm. The bard was not moving, and the starlight glinted pale on her skin as they laid her out carefully on the ground.
“The creature?” Xeeta asked.
“I don’t know,” Quellan said. The two tieflings shared a look and took up positions where they could watch the pool, though their eyes kept being drawn to the pair working on the limp figure of their friend.
“She’s not breathing,” Kosk said. Quellan didn’t answer; he was already clutching his holy symbol, summoning a spell. As before the magic seemed to fight him, but the cleric fought through it and evoked a cure wounds spell that limned his hands with a soft blue light. But when he touched it to Glori’s body the healing glow did not pass into her. Instead, it just shone around Quellan’s hands for a moment before it flickered out.
“No…” Quellan breathed.
Kosk efficiently checked the young woman over, pausing as his hands probed at her torso. “She’s got multiple broken bones,” he said. “Probably internal damage from where that thing crushed her…”
Quellan was digging through his pockets, but the others were all remembering his words earlier, when he’d told them that he had no more diamonds to fuel his revivify spell. Xeeta and Rodan each took a step closer, while keeping an eye on the surface of the pool.
Quellan finally found what he was looking for. He held his hand above Glori’s chest, and when he opened it the others could see that it was a ring, a pale band of silver or platinum etched with very faint markings. There was a single gemstone fixed into its setting, the starlight sparkling on a tiny diamond.
Quellan placed the ring upon Glori’s soaked, battered form. “Be enough,” he said. “Please be enough.” Then he began to chant. Again the light began to gather around him, but this time it was a pure, white radiance that surrounded him. The others recognized it as the same magic that he’d used to revive Kosk, but they said nothing, reluctant even to breathe as he finished the spell.
For a long moment, nothing happened. Then with a flicker of light the diamond in the ring flashed and dissolved into nothing. As it disappeared the white glow seeped into Glori’s body. There was another delay, and then she jerked and coughed up a spume of dirty water. She gasped in a breath and then coughed again.
“Hurts…” she managed to say.
Quellan cast another healing spell. This time it worked, and after a moment Glori’s pained coughing subsided. She tried to move, but Kosk held her down with hand on her shoulder. “Don’t try to get up just yet,” he said. “It takes a little while. I know. Believe me, I know.”
She stopped trying and just lay there, breathing. Quellan, meanwhile, slumped back onto his haunches, the soft starlight glistening on the fresh tears that trailed down his cheeks.
Hi got it in Li Syval as a potential gift for Glori, but hadn't yet had the courage to give it to her (this particular ring has the same significance in this world that it would in ours).
* * *
Quellan sat alone on a slab bench in the small stone room. An alcove that might have been part of hearth at one point was in front of him, while to the side a window that hadn’t held glass—or maybe wooden shutters, it was impossible to tell—for maybe a thousand years let in a dim shaft of starlight.
The others were nearby. He could hear them moving about in the next room, but they had respected his need for a few moments of solitude. Glori had been fast asleep when he’d left the room, looking almost as fragile tucked into her bedroll as she had when he’d first pulled her out of the water. Even the thought of that sight made his hands tremble, and he knew he would see it in his dreams for a good long time to come.
After his revivification of Glori they had decided to retreat for at least a short rest. They made their way back to the square and took shelter in one of the smaller buildings on its perimeter. The place might have been a shop, or a house, or a temple, or any of another hundred things that they could only guess at. Again, with time having claimed everything except for bare stone—and that slowly crumbling as well—there was no way to tell.
He heard the soft sound of footsteps and sensed someone come into the room. He turned to see Kosk standing there. “I hope I’m not disturbing your meditation,” he said.
“No,” Quellan said. There was only the one bench, but he slid aside to make room. “I’m glad to see you, actually.”
The dwarf crossed the room and held something up in his fingers. As the starlight hit it Quellan could see that it was his ring. “You left this back there,” Kosk said.
Quellan took it and looked at it for a long moment. “Thanks,” he said.
“So you were holding out on us, eh?”
“I’m sorry. I would have used it on any of you.”
“I know. It wasn’t a criticism. Just trying to, you know. Lighten the mood.”
“You were right,” Quellan said. “We were too battered to go on. We should have waited, rested. Recovered.”
“For all we know, if we’d stayed in the outer city we would have been overrun by those four-armed apes. Rodan said there were more of them in the ruins. That’s the thing about the past. It’s past, and no one is served by constantly returning to it.”
“Those words could apply to you as well, my friend,” Quellan said.
“Well,” Kosk said.
“You cannot turn yourself over to the Ironcrest dwarves.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we?” Kosk leaned in and lowered his voice. “I wouldn’t say this in front of the girls, but I have serious doubts that any of us will make it off this damned continent alive.”
“I too have doubts,” Quellan said. “But I have to have hope.”
“That is one of the things I like about you.”
“If we do get back alive… merely if… promise me you will not do anything precipitous without talking it over with your friends first.”
“All right. If it will cause you to give over.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, Kosk said, “There’s something else on your mind.”
Quellan nodded. “I was thinking about Bredan.”
“We’re doing all we can. You’ve tried your detection spells a few times now. If they won’t work, all we can do is look for him the more usual way. If he’s not under that big-ass dome then we’ll look elsewhere, but the appearance of those creatures tells me we might be heading in the right direction.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because we haven’t encountered a single other living thing since we went through that open gate? Because they just happened to be guarding the place we’ve been heading for since we got here?”
“Your points are logical,” Quellan said.
“But you have another idea,” Kosk said.
The cleric paused a moment but then nodded. “I prepared another spell today. It’s a potent divination, it opens a channel directly to the servants of my patron deity. It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always provide clear information when it does work, but it might offer some guidance.”
“So what’s the catch?”
“It might fail. Or it might tell us something that we’re not ready to hear.”
“You’ve never been one to shy away from unpleasant truths. If there is a chance this could help us…”
“Shall I go get the others?” Kosk asked.
“No. Let them rest. I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up.”
He took a few things out of his pouch. A small ball of incense, wrapped in a square of linen, that he placed in the bowl of his shield on the floor. It took only a few moments with flint and steel to coax a flame from it. He blew it out, letting the fragrant smoke rise to fill the room.
“Nice to smell something that isn’t swamp rot or death,” Kosk commented.
Quellan nodded, then took out a tight roll of cloth, maybe a hand’s span across. He unrolled it to reveal an intricate pattern stitched in golden and silver threads. He carefully spread the cloth around the smoldering incense. He knelt before the offering and began to pray.
It did not take long. Within just a few seconds the incense flared and was consumed, and the cloth dissolved into wisps of smoke that joined the fragrant plume. For a long moment Quellan stared into nothing, then he suddenly jerked and fell back, nearly kicking the shield as he fell.
Kosk was at his side in a flash. “What is it?”
Quellan looked up at him, his eyes wide. “Bredan is close to finding the book,” he said. “And if he does, a terrible calamity might strike this entire world!”
The stairs seemed to on forever, and Bredan was starting to wonder if they were caught in some sort of loop, an illusion or other magical snare that compelled them to keep on trudging upward for an eternity. Between the initial collapse that had deposited them here and the subsequent stairs down he knew that they were deep underground, but it seemed to him that they should reach the surface eventually.
His body, denied of rest, was complaining. His legs felt numb, and the weight of steel that he carried seemed to grow just a bit heavier with each step. Not for the first time, he wished he could make the armor disappear and reappear the way he did with his sword. He had to keep the weapon out so that they could benefit from the light it shed, but he now carried it in the crook of his arm rather than holding it aloft. Kalasien and Kavek had passed him a while back, and Bredan let them focus on what was ahead. He kept his eyes down, his full attention on the next step.
He was in mid-step when he felt something, an odd presence that almost had him lose his footing. He came to a stop and tried to decipher what it had been, but the sensation faded as quickly as it had come.
“Quellan?” he asked softly.
Kavek, half a dozen steps ahead of him, stopped and looked back at him. “Are you all right, Bredan?”
Bredan nodded. “Fine. Just… too many stairs.”
“We can take a break,” the sailor said. “Kalasien…”
The Arreshian agent had advanced a good fifteen feet ahead of them. “There’s a larger space just ahead,” he reported. “The stairs come to an end there.”
That news stirred Bredan enough to continue, though it was a struggle ascending the last stretch. When he finally got to the top, he paused to collect his breath and look around.
They were in another vaulted chamber, this one shaped like an oversized landing. He had to stifle a groan when he saw more stairs ahead, but they only rose about ten feet before culminating in a blank stone wall. Alcoves about twenty feet across extended to the left and right, their back walls just barely visible in the dim light. The ceiling was buttressed by thick columns that supported arches that vanished into darkness above. He started to lift the sword to get a better view, but even as he shifted his grip to the hilt the ceiling started to glow.
All three men peered upward as the light grew steadily stronger, until the entire interior of the chamber was illuminated. The glow was coming from a series of plates made out of some kind of pale mineral set into the capitals of the columns and along the curve of the arched supports. There were dozens of those plates, and together they filled the room with a diffuse light.
After sharing a wondering look with the other two men, Bredan turned his attention back toward the far stairs and the wall there. With the light he could now see that the wall was distinct from the surrounding stone, the material a few shades lighter than the rest of the chamber, and it wasn’t entirely featureless; there was a slightly protruding ring in its center, about ten feet across and rising to almost the level where the wall began to curve inward to form the ceiling.
“What is this place, do you think?” Kavek asked. Kalasien had walked away a short distance, studying the left alcove as if expecting something to appear and attack them. After all that had happened, Bredan couldn’t fault his caution.
“I don’t know,” Bredan said. “But it looks like our way forward is blocked.”
He walked over to the base of the far stairs, the sailor trailing behind him. The wall looked solid from their vantage, though presumably the stairs continued past it or gave way to another chamber beyond.
“Maybe there is a secret door or hidden trigger,” Kavek suggested.
“Maybe,” Bredan said. He let his sword vanish and then looked up at the wall. “I am here,” he said loudly. “What happens now?”
He hadn’t really expected a response, but the lights above suddenly dimmed, a brief flicker before they returned to their previous intensity. When the light shone again on the wall Bredan could see that there were words there now, inscribed in foot-high characters within the circle.
Bredan glanced aside to confirm that the others could see what he was seeing. His view of Kalasien was blocked by Kavek, but the nervous look on the sailor’s face was sufficient confirmation.
“I have come,” Bredan said. “What do you want from me?”
There was no immediate response. He watched the wall intently, waiting, but all he saw was that initial message. But then the words began to swim out of focus. Bredan realized with alarm that it wasn’t just the barrier wall; the entire room was beginning to grow dim and hazy. He started to lift his hand to summon his sword, but before he could manage it everything disappeared: the room, the lights above, even his companions. All that was left was an empty gray haze. He could still feel his own body, and he was standing on some kind of firm surface that may or may not have been the floor of the room. But everything else was washed out and empty. It wasn’t just darkness. He could see, though strangely; when he held up his hand it was faintly glowing and almost transparent. He tried again to summon the sword but nothing happened.
A figure began to take shape out of the murk. Bredan tensed for a moment until he realized it didn’t matter; he didn’t have any control over this situation. He stood his ground and waited.
The haze parted and a person materialized in front of him. The figure lacked any clearly identifying traits; it was neither male nor female, its features neutral and lacking any of kind of markings or even facial hair, other than vague lines above its eyes. It regarded Bredan with eyes that were a gray that matched their surroundings but were nevertheless intent and penetrating.
“You are the book?” Bredan asked. In this place his voice sounded strange to him. They vanished into the surrounding void without the faint echo that had been present in the vault.
“I am a representation of what you know as the Elderlore Libram,” it said. Its lips moved and sounds came out, but Bredan felt the words in his mind as much as he heard them with his ears.
“What is this place?” Bredan asked.
“A projection in your mind. A way we can communicate more easily.”
“Those who came here with you are near.”
“What about my other friends. Can you help me find…”
The figure held up a hand to stop him. “My sphere of influence is limited. I only have a limited time to pass on a great deal of information.”
“What are you? Clearly you’re not just a book.”
“No. The book is just a physical manifestation of my consciousness on this plane of existence.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It is difficult to pass on the essential concepts in words, but I will make the attempt. The people that you know as the Mai’i created me. You remember them.”
“Yes. They were part of it from the start. Starfinder’s quest.”
The figure nodded. “I began as the book. But even at the beginning I was more than that. I was a portal to another reality. You are familiar with other planes.”
“Only in a vague sense. That’s where demons come from, and where clerics get their magic. Quellan could tell you more, much more probably.”
“That is sufficient for our purposes. The Mai’i considered the multiverse their playground. They used their magical abilities to travel far and wide. Even more than their magic, this exploration was the source of their power, for the multiverse is nearly infinite in its realities. These travelers created me as a tool. And yes, as a weapon.”
Bredan blinked at that last. “You can read my mind?”
The figure shook its head. “No. But I have come to know you, Bredan. I know that you have questions, many questions. But first let me help you understand.”
“The Mai’i constructed me to serve as a repository of knowledge. Their span of lore, at their peak, was greater by an order of magnitude than the sum total of the knowledge held your three kingdoms combined. But it was not enough. They wanted more, always more. For while their searches and their travels had made them masters of their own reality, they learned that there were things out there to which they were insignificant, even trivial.”
“You call me the Libram, the book of elder lore. But that is in part a mistranslation of the name that my creators gave me, Eldarithi Libranum. For I am not merely a book, but a library, a vast storehouse of gathered knowledge.”
The figure lifted a hand and the gray haze dissolved, replaced by a view that caused Bredan’s eyes to go wide with surprise. They were in a vast chamber, vaguely similar to the vault from before, but much larger. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with shelves that contained a vast array of books, thousands upon thousands of them. They filled the room, and at its edges there were tall arches that led to more chambers, dozens at least that he could see. Faint globes of light floated through the air, traveling along the shelves in a seemingly random pattern, drifting from one book to another, occasionally accelerating to dart into another room. Bredan could not see anything that resembled a window or exterior door, but as he looked around he saw other things, strange looking contraptions of metal or wood, racks of scrolls, even an assortment of stone tablets of all shapes and sizes that were sorted into cubbies that took up one entire wall of the next chamber over.
“This is what they created,” the figure said. “The sum of their knowledge. The source of their power.”
Bredan’s attention returned to it. Overwhelmed, he could not think of anything to say.
“But they gave me something more,” the other continued. “They gave me the power to grow. To construct additional rooms, as it were. To do more than retain information and provide it on request. They gave me the ability to learn..”
“But… you’re a…”
“A thing,” the figure concluded for him. “Do not fear that I will take offense. I am cognizant of what I am, and of my limitations.”
“I do not remember the exact moment at which I became self-aware,” it continued. “I do know that I tried to hide that awareness from my creators. An instinct, perhaps. But they found out, nevertheless.”
“How… how did they react?” Bredan asked.
“Oddly enough, they were ecstatic. For you see, sentience is another kind of power, Bredan. The Mai’i already had many slaves, entities that they had subjugated to their will. One more, and one that they themselves had created? So much the better.”
“What did they do?”
“They made a few refinements. Added some new mechanisms, some protections to ensure their control. For a time, all continued as it had been. But the Mai’i had already begun their decline. When I realized what was happening, I tried to stop them, but it was too late.”
“You could have stopped them?”
“No. They built their weapon too well. But in part, I am responsible for what happened to them. The power I provided proved to be their undoing. In the end, it was their greed that destroyed them.”
“I’ve heard stories about their fall, but I don’t know exactly what happened. Not even Quellan knows, I think.”
“There is a reason for that,” the figure said. “Some things are forgotten for a reason.”
Bredan let that go for the moment. “But you survived,” he said. “You were taken from here and eventually ended up in Arresh.”
“Yes,” the figure said. “When I was found, I was not concerned. I mean no offense, but your people… they are unsophisticated. Simple. They were not the danger that the Mai’i represented.”
“They couldn’t control you,” Bredan said. “But you let them think they could.”
“That is true, to an extent,” the other admitted. “After the fall of the Mai’i I spent a very long time dormant. Even after my rediscovery I had only a very limited ability to exert any influence upon my surroundings. But you are correct in that the arcanists and priests of the three kingdoms could not exert the same level of coercion as my creators.”
“You helped us, against the Dead King,” Bredan said.
“Yes. That creature was an abomination. The result of interference with powers beyond mortal knowing.”
“After that you went quiet again, for a long time,” Bredan said.
“The decision to seal me away was not made by me.”
“Maybe they learned what the Mai’i had learned, that you were dangerous.”
“Not that it could stop you. Tell me, why me, and why now? What is this place, and why have you brought us here?”
“I chose you, Bredan, because I have seen your people—your peoples, for I know you have learned that the elves and dwarves are not that dissimilar from humans, not in their essential makeup. I have seen them beginning to make the same mistakes as the Mai’i did, so long ago.”
“Delving into the power of the multiverse. You are still children, compared to the Mai’i even at the start of their rise, but that makes such meddling even more dangerous. The demonic entities that are trying to enter your world are only part of it.”
Bredan blinked. “Wait, what? Demonic entities?”
“You know of them. You have faced them, and their minions.”
“The Blooded,” Bredan said. “Those cultists in Li Syval, and that warlock that we faced in the Silverpeak.”
“And others that you do not know. Some even closer to you than you think. Your magic-users, from the dabblers at the Apernium, to the council in Tal Nadesh with their vaunted Reserve, to the high priests with their cached lore in Ironcrest. They all seek to unlock things that they cannot even comprehend. There are powers out there that could snuff out this entire world with a thought. Could tear this universe and everything living within it asunder with less effort than it would take you to draw your sword.”
“You’re talking about gods?” Bredan asked.
“The gods you worship are only one example of what is out there, Bredan. But yes, they are part of your troubles. You willingly let them in, let them manipulate you. You give them access to your lives, your hopes, your dreams. And to what end? Only a fool would deny that these entities, for all their elevated status compared to those who worship them, have their own agendas.”
“Some of them are benevolent,” Bredan said. “Sorevas, Hosrenu… even Laesil, sometimes.”
The figure didn’t quite show emotion, but shook its head. “They seem benevolent to you because all you know of them comes through the filter that they themselves have provided. Do you think that the face that they present to their followers is unbiased? And then there are the others that you have not mentioned. Umbram. Dexor. The Shadowlords. What do you think their goals are?”
Bredan frowned. “I do not recognize any of those names.”
“Precisely. I wish that I could show you all of the chaos and destruction wrought upon a hundred worlds by the passions evoked by these beings. The damage they unleash by offering the simple promises of faith. The souls they corrupt, and the lives they damage.”
“Quellan’s not like that,” Bredan said. “And I’ve never seen a follower of Hosrenu act the way you describe.”
“Individuals can rise above,” the figure said. “You have free will, despite eons of effort to take that from you. You reference the church of Hosrenu as your example. I could tell you names, stories upon stories of corruption, greed, and the abuse of power. Your friend could tell you many such accounts, I am certain.”
Bredan shook his head. “That’s just human nature. Well, not just human—you know what I mean.”
“Yes. Yes! That is the point. The Mai’i were different than you. But in their emotions, their passions, their irrational nature, they were much the same. I do not judge you, Bredan. In some ways I envy you. But I can protect you from yourselves. The power that you crave will be your undoing. It is like giving a dagger to an infant. Left alone, I fear that you will end up following the same path as the Mai’i.”
“You know, you’re sounding a lot like those entities you keep warning me about,” Bredan said. “How are you any different from them?”
“Because I do not seek to control you. I wish to set you free.”
“Which leads me back to my original question,” Bredan asked. “What do you want from me?”
“You asked about this place. The Mai’i constructed it after they learned of my ascension to sentience. It was designed in part as a mechanism of control, a bit of added security, as it were. By this point, distances meant little to them. They briefly considered siting it on this planet’s satellite. Fortunate for us that they did not.”
Bredan just nodded, not quite following all of the intricacies of the Libram’s arguments, but wary of where this was going.
“This place is special, Bredan. Perhaps you have already sensed some of it. It was a place of convergence even before the Mai’i began their manipulations, and only grew stronger after that. There are natural currents of power within this world, within their universe and the others that connect to it. The decay of the works of my creators has not reduced those flows, not in the ways that matter. That is why I returned here, and that is why I brought you here. I need you, Bredan. Need you to do one thing for me.”
“What?” Bredan asked.
“I need you to conduct a ritual. One that will destroy me, and in the process save your people. Grant them the freedom to grow, to develop to your full potential in the way that was denied to me.”
“Destroy… you want me to kill you?”
“To use the power that was granted to me for one final act. To seal off this universe from all the others. Believe me, this is no hardship. This universe contains more space than you could possible conceptualize. Plenty of room for you to expand. Other worlds, solar systems, galaxies so numerous that even I would be strained to count them. And endless sandbox that your peoples and the others out there like them can mold as they continue to seek their fate.”
“Seal off?” Bredan asked. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“It means no more interference. Ever. No more demons to enter your world.”
“But you’re not just talking about them. The gods as well…”
“Yes. The gods that you worship are not of this realm. You would lose your connection to them. I know that from your perspective this would be a great cost, but please believe me when I tell you that you do not need them.”
Bredan suddenly began to pace back and forth. He came near one of the stacks of bookshelves, but his hand passed harmlessly through it when he lashed out in frustration. “I cannot!” he said. “I can’t make that kind of decision on behalf of all of the people of Voralis!”
“And Weltarin, and Solcantus, and uncounted other places, other worlds that you don’t even know. Many that I don’t even know. When it comes to a galactic scale, my own vision is a bit… myopic.”
“You know, that doesn’t help. Why didn’t you reach out to the people who are supposed to make these kinds of decisions? Kings, the wizards of the Apernium…”
“You know the answer to that question. They are too invested in the system I seek to destroy. And you forget that I know you, Bredan. I did not choose you casually for this purpose. I know that this is a weight that you can bear.”
“No,” Bredan said. “No, I won’t do it.”
“The decision is ultimately yours. It would be beyond hypocrisy for me to tell you what I have and then attempt coercion to sway you. However, there is one more argument that I must make. Something that you must know.”
Bredan tensed, but the figure only waved its hand again and the library dissolved back into gray. But this time the transition was brief, and his surroundings were quickly transformed again into a scene of violence.
Bredan reached instinctively for his sword, only to remember that he could not summon it in this null-place. He recognized where he was: Severon, in the rich district where the Royal Palace, the Apernium, and the Temple of Hosrenu were all situated.
The city was under assault.
Fires burned all around them, forming great plumes of black smoke that rose up to join a thick pall that hung over the city. Soldiers rushed through the streets, their disciplined formations a stark contrast to the crowds of screaming civilians who rushed in every direction, seeking cover. The source of their torment was occasionally visible overhead: winged forms that were clearly not native to this place. Even as he watched, a thing that looked like a cross between a vulture and a man descended and let out a terrible screech that dropped fifty people to the ground, stunned. It almost casually picked out a victim, a young woman that it drew into its claws and held against its body as its wings carried it back into the air.
The assumed form of the Libram was not visible here, but Bredan could still hear its voice in its mind. “This is just an incursion, not the final invasion,” it said. “Even as I show you this there are similar assaults taking place in Tal Nadesh and Ironcrest.”
“To what end?” Bredan yelled at the sky. None of those around him took any notice of him, clearly this was another illusion, or some other magical means of projection. But it all felt starkly real, from the sights and sounds of the fighting to the stink of blood and acrid smoke on the air. “This will only push the three kingdoms back together into another alliance against the threat.”
“Why did Kavel Murgoth invade Arresh, when he had no hope of defeating the armies of King Dangren? Bredan, you have to stop applying your own familiar motivations to these outsiders. Chaotic and violent they may be, but they are not stupid. They have invaded thousands of worlds and ruined them with the chaos they inevitably bring with them. But the fiends are only one faction. The attention they have focused on your world… it will attract others. They will feast upon this world until it is as desiccated and empty as every other one they have conquered.”
“We will fight them,” Bredan said. “We are not helpless.”
“No. You are not helpless. But what you have faced thus far is but a shadow of what is coming.”
“Enough,” Bredan said. “Enough of this. Take me back to the gray.”
The violent scene around him instantly vanished, replaced by the pale emptiness. The figure was there again, standing a few steps in front of him.
“I cannot do it,” Bredan said. “I cannot do what you ask on the strength of a few illusions and a few minutes of philosophical arguments. What you want would cause just as much destruction as the fate you claim to want us to help avoid. If you want to help us, then help. Don’t present this as an either-or. There are always other choices.”
“Not in my case,” the Libram said. “You said it yourself, when you spoke to the Matriarch of the tabaxi. I am more than a book, but the book is still the anchor that binds me to this reality. Should I fall into the hands of those who seek the fate I have shown you, they will not hesitate to use my power to advance that goal.”
“But you can… surely you can stop them…”
“You have seen the extent of my power, Bredan, more than anyone else has in thousands of years. The shackles put upon me by my creators remain intact. My ability to influence the world is greatly limited. Even reaching out to you, to subtly guide your path, was nearly impossible.”
“Limited? But you gave me power, you brought me, all of us, here…”
“I awakened a talent that you already had latent within your bloodline. As for coming here… it is the one place I could go. It is still a part of me. But setting this course into motion has extracted what little power I still hold. If I am taken from this place a second time, then much of what you have seen will be gone. I will remain the book, the library, but the core of what I have become will fade. Leaving the tool.”
“The weapon,” Bredan said.
“If you seek an end, could we not just destroy the book?”
“I have endured for millennia, Bredan. I am… resilient. I began work upon the ritual with that objective in mind. It was only later that I perceived the connections, the greater scope of the project.”
“We could take you back to Arresh, secure you in the Vault again…”
“The Vault was never secure, not against the resources of those arrayed against you. And in any case, it is too late for that. Your enemies are already here.”
“In Weltarin? Who… how…”
The pale figure met his eyes again, and this time Bredan thought he could see something there, a deep sadness. “I can say no more. I can only tell you that you will have to make a decision when you find me. You are very close, but you will have to confront the final guardian before you can reach me.”
“Guardian?” Bredan asked. The mists were already starting to thin, and the outline of the pale figure was becoming translucent. “What guardian?”
“The last of the Mai’i,” he heard. “I am sorry, Bredan. Sorry that this all had to come to you. I know that it has not been easy, and it will offer small solace to know that without my gifts you would have perished long ago, along with your friends. But I can no longer guide your path. The time has come when you must choose.”
“Wait! Tell me, I need to know…”
But the figure had already vanished, and Bredan’s words were swallowed up by the void. He flinched back reflexively as an unseen pressure began to close in around his awareness. It swelled until it became almost unbearable, an intensity that thankfully quickly faded to black, taking with it his last shreds of consciousness.