Rodan leaned over and peered through the open gate into the broad courtyard where they had fought the chuuls the night before. The sky beyond the vast domed building had just begun to brighten, leaving the open space in a shadowed gloom. But there was enough light to reveal the corpse of the creature they had slain, a lonely mound lying on the path between the two silent pools.
The scout waved his companions forward, but he waited for Quellan before he continued into the barren outer garden. “So there’s nothing more that you can tell us about the nature of this pending calamity?” he asked.
“No,” Quellan said. “I’ve told you everything that was passed to me through the divination.”
“It’s not much to go on,” Rodan said.
This time they took a different approach, giving the pools in the center of the area a very wide berth. Quellan said that he’d had to hit the creature hard to get it to release Glori and that it might be dead, but they were not going to take anything for granted in this strange and deadly place.
“Contacting planar entities is a difficult prospect,” Xeeta explained. “Even when one can get a response, they are often vague and misleading.”
“You seem to know a lot about it,” Kosk said.
“I overheard the leaders of the cult complaining about it on several occasions,” she said.
“But we know that Bredan’s alive,” Glori said. “We wouldn’t have been warned of the danger of finding the book if he wasn’t still alive.”
“That is a logical inference,” Quellan said. “But we could still be too late.”
The true scale of the building became clear as they drew closer to it. It made even the great structures of Severon seem humble by comparison. A thousand people could have stood upon the flight of steps that led to the covered portico that ran along the front of the structure. The pillars that supported it were each a good fifteen feet thick. The place was clearly very old, but they saw few overt signs of the decay that had affected the rest of the city.
They paused at the base of those steps. Each one was a little more than a foot high, just tall enough to be awkward for Kosk and the women. “We don’t even know he’s here,” Rodan said.
“Those lobsters were guarding something,” Kosk said. “And as long as Quellan’s detection spells aren’t working, we don’t have any better targets than this place.”
“This place is approximately at the center of the warding effect bounded by the city’s inner walls,” Quellan said.
“How can you know that?” Xeeta asked.
“Mathematics?” the cleric replied.
“Come on,” Kosk said. “While we’re here we might as well take a look.”
They made their way up the steps. There were enough of them that Kosk wasn’t the only one having some trouble by the time they reached the top. The light of the impending dawn did not reach into the interior of the portico, but with their darkvision they could see an opening in the center, an arch a full twenty feet across that led into the interior. The faint outlines of what must have been impressive carvings decorated the outer façade, and they could see that the arch itself was made up of stones that might have once been brightly colored but were now faded with time. Nothing stirred at their approach, and the only footsteps they could see in the accumulated dust of the entry were their own.
“Bredan didn’t come this way,” Glori noted.
“Quellan said he was still underground when he scried him,” Rodan noted. “Maybe there’s another way in.”
“Well, let’s get this over with,” Kosk said.
The arch gave way to a broad foyer that was a good thirty feet across and which extended well into the interior of the building. Another large arch led to an even larger space ahead, while to each side smaller openings led to several anterooms. The companions glanced into those to confirm that they were empty before pressing on to the far arch. A faint light shone from within, allowing them to see the place in all of its impressive majesty.
Time had inflicted its wounds here as well, but that did nothing to steal from the sheer impact of the chamber. The core of the building was a single vast hall centered until the massive dome that they had seen throughout their approach through the inner city. That dome was impossibly large, at least a hundred and fifty feet across, somehow intact after all this time. Eight huge pillars with elaborate capitals supported the impressively thick arches and pendentives needed to withstand that incredible weight. A gallery with a narrow walkway ran around the base of the dome, but they couldn’t see any obvious way to get up to it.
The light they had seen came from a round opening at the peak of the dome, which let in the pale radiance of the approaching dawn. It was just bright enough for them to see a massive mural that stretched across the floor of the huge chamber. Ringed in a circle of black stone that was a good three paces across, the scene depicted in the mural was faded and cracked in places, but still clear enough to identify.
“A map,” Glori said, her voice hushed in awe. “A map of the world.”
“I wish…” Quellan said. “I could spend a great deal of time here.”
“First things first,” Kosk said. He advanced to the spot where the nearest two support pillars rose to the ceiling and looked around. To the left and right were shallow wings that appeared to lead to other parts of the building. Ahead, across the expanse of the space covered by the dome, they could just make out another large archway. That one was completely dark, as if the light from above was reluctant to brighten what lay in that direction. “Let’s check over there,” the dwarf suggested.
“Wait,” Quellan said. His voice sounded tight, strangled.
“What is it?” Glori asked. She started walking over to him with a look of concern on her face.
“There’s something here,” the cleric said. He raised his shield and invoked a daylight spell.
The light arrived tentatively, a flicker high in the air between the pillars on the far side of the dome. For a moment it remained such, like a lantern viewed through a thick fog. But Quellan kept his will and his faith focused upon the spell and finally the blazing energy of the spell erupted in its full glory. The size of the place was such that even that powerful light could not fully illuminate the entirety of the vast chamber, but it revealed the shadowed corners and the far arch that Kosk had indicated. The space within remained dim, though it obviously extended back for a considerable distance. But the cleric’s spell did prompt a response. A sound issued from beyond the arch, a sibilant whisper that was followed by a more assertive clacking noise.
“Oh, man,” Glori said.
“Here we go,” Kosk said, spinning his staff in his hands before falling back into a martial stance. Rodan and Xeeta each moved off a bit to the side to make them less vulnerable to area attacks. Glori had given Rodan the last few arrows in her quiver, since she had her magic and he could put them to better use. Xeeta cast mage armor, the protective barrier flaring slightly before it faded into invisibility.
The clacking noise grew louder, and then the source of it came into the light of Quellan’s spell. It shone on pale bones unencumbered by flesh or other tissues, animated by dark magic to serve on in death. But even as skeletons the companions could immediately identify what the creatures had been in life.
“It’s not enough that we had to face living versions of those bloody things?” Kosk said.
“Look at it this way, at least it’s not the big one,” Glori said.
The four skeletal girallons spread out as they filed out through the arch, forming a line facing the intruders.
“There’s something else,” Xeeta said, pointing past the skeletons toward the darkness.
As the skeletons stopped moving, the companions could hear a repeat of what they’d heard earlier, a soft hissing sound. Its origin was revealed as it came into the light. At first it looked like a giant serpent, its scales glowing with a metallic sheen as the daylight rippled across its body. But when the head finally came into view the companions sucked in a collective breath of surprise and disgust. For the head of the serpent-creature was not that of a snake, but it possessed a sinister humanoid visage. Its eyes flashed with malevolence as it stared at the companions.
“What the bloody hell is that?” Kosk asked.
“It’s a naga,” Quellan said. He clutched his mace tightly.
“Come again?” Kosk asked, but he shook his head before the cleric could respond. “Never mind. Let’s just start with the blasting.”
“It’s too far away,” Xeeta said.
“Not for me,” Rodan said. He drew his bowstring to his cheek and released an arrow that rose up over the open space covered by the mural before it plummeted down toward the awful creature. It looked for a moment like a perfect shot, but at the last instant the thing slithered forward behind the cover offered by one of its skeletal minions. The arrow sliced through the spot it had occupied and shattered on the hard marble floor in front of the arch.
“Let them come to us,” Quellan said. “We have cover here.” He moved toward one of the thirty-foot pillars that supported the dome above.
The naga lifted its head until it could peer over the shoulders of its skeletal minions at the companions. It seemed unconcerned as it opened its jaws and hissed something at them. They could not understand its words, but the intent was obvious even before the skeletons all leaned forward and charged across the open interior of the chamber toward them.
The five adventurers were well accustomed to facing horrible creatures and none of them so much as flinched as the skeletal apes rushed toward them. For all that they were lacking muscles they were fast, and they reached the edge of the map mural within seconds of receiving the command to attack from their serpentine master.
But the companions were ready for them, and even as they crossed over the black border and trod onto the representation of Voralis’s eastern shores they were greeted by a fireball that pulsed from Xeeta’s rod. Flames shone in her eyes and briefly wreathed her form as the explosion engulfed all four of the undead creatures.
The blast persisted for only an instant, and none of the companions were particularly surprised as all four of the skeletons, scorched and blackened but otherwise intact, emerged from the dying flames and kept on coming. But Xeeta noticed something else that was potentially of greater concern.
“The snake thing’s vanished!” she warned her companions.
“Keep an eye out… I’ll see if I can slow these things down!” Quellan called back. He lifted his shield and rushed forward to the near edge of the mural to confront the four skeletons. They all spread their many arms, opened their jaws, and rushed forward to meet him, almost as if they still had been the living apes they now only barely resembled.
Glori strummed her lyre and conjured a wall of fire that extended across the center of the room, bisecting the map from one pole to the other. The skeletons, lacking any survival instinct, came rushing through the flaming barrier without hesitation. One faltered, staggering as the surging flames burned through its already damaged bones, but the other three kept on coming, closing upon the waiting cleric.
“Quellan needs our help!” Glori said. She turned to Xeeta, who was already preparing another spell, the flames surging again around her as she lifted her rod.
But before she could unleash her magic for a second time, a flash of energy came streaking down from above them. The lightning bolt slammed solidly into Xeeta, surrounding her with a glowing halo for an instant before it continued on to sear Glori and finally discharged into the floor and the nearby pillar. The bard, grimacing in pain even though she had only caught the edge of the bolt, looked up just in time to see the body of the snake-creature slither up out of view behind one of the elaborate capitals that topped the giant pillars. An arrow bounced off the stone as she watched, just a fraction of a second too late.
“It’s above us!” she yelled. “It’s near the base of the dome!”
Quellan heard Glori’s warning, but his focus was of necessity on the multiple nine-foot skeletons closing on his position. He waited until all of them were within thirty feet, including the damaged straggler, before he raised his shield and invoked the power of his patron.
He could feel the divinity coursing through him, potent and familiar, but he also felt the expected resistance, as if the energy were flowing through a tiny hole rather than the expected gusher. He channeled that diminished flow toward the skeletons, but was not surprised when it failed to affect any of them.
“So be it, then,” he said, lifting his mace. But before he could get within reach to strike, one of the ape-skeletons laid into him, using its superior reach to pummel him with multiple clawed arms. He took the first few impacts on his shield, but one strike got past his defense and swept across his face, stunning him for a moment.
The second skeleton circled around to take him from the flank, but before it could strike something small and sharp passed through one of its eye sockets and began rattling around inside its skull. It turned just as Kosk rushed it, sweeping out with his staff. The impact struck its left knee with enough force to jar out the smaller bone that resided there, but not enough to knock the thing down. It immediately lunged at him, forcing him to quickly evade to avoid being torn apart.
Xeeta called her magic again as she focused on the ceiling and the gallery that ringed the dome. There were plenty of places where the naga could have hidden, but she saw Rodan take another shot and trusted in his instincts enough to follow his example. She couldn’t tell if his arrow scored a hit, but the fireball that blasted the target clearly hurt it, judging from the furious hiss that echoed down from above. Her powers were waning, even with the additional reservoir that her recent embrace of the Demon had given her. She needed rest, needed it desperately, but the need to find Bredan was greater and continued to drive her on.
She started to circle around to get a better vantage, but was interrupted by Glori, who offered another warning. “Remember, it can teleport,” she said, just loud enough for Xeeta and Rodan to hear.
Xeeta stopped and scanned the gallery above. With the size of the dome and the intricacy of the stonework there were plenty of places where the naga could have hidden. She didn’t see anything, but then she looked over at Glori as a thought came to her. The creature had carefully chosen its position so that it could hit both of them with one blast…
Even as that awareness struck her, she drew a mental line between her and Glori and continued it forward, looking up to exact spot where that line intersected the gallery above. Her eyes settled on one of the decorative features that connected the top of the pillar to the adjoining arch just as the serpentine head rose into view.
“There!” Xeeta cried, lifting her rod. But the naga was just a step ahead, and as it spoke a word of power a second lightning bolt blasted down from above. The warning was just enough to save Glori, who threw herself aside in time to avoid all but a few sharp but manageable jolts as the bolt shot past.
Unfortunately, Xeeta was not able to do the same. The lightning bolt slammed solidly into her chest, lifting her off her feet before it slammed her down into the ground. There was a bright flash as the electrical energy was discharged into the floor, leaving the smoking form of the tiefling sorceress lying motionless on the tiles.
Glori thought she could hear a mocking laugh from the naga as it darted back into cover, another arrow from Rodan’s bow shattering on the stone as it came just an instant too late. The tiefling scout rushed forward toward the fallen sorceress, reaching her just a second before the bard. Glori strummed her lyre frantically to cast a healing spell to stabilize her, sighing with relief when the glow of the magic seeped into her. Her eyes fluttered and she let out a groan as she was drawn back to consciousness.
“We need to get her to cover,” Rodan said. Without waiting for a response, he grabbed hold of her shoulders and pulled her to the shelter of the nearest pillar. Glori snatched up her rod and followed, scanning the rim of the dome. She didn’t see the naga, but a loud crash drew her attention back to the battle raging on the edge of the mosaic map less than a dozen paces away. The crash had come from one of the skeletons as it toppled to the floor in pieces. Quellan was already engaging the second, while a few steps behind him Kosk was battering the third. The last one, the one that had been so heavily damaged in passing through the fiery ordeals conjured by Xeeta and Glori, was already lying broken on the floor. The two were taking hits, but between Quellan’s heavy armor and Kosk’s speed they seemed to have the matter well in hand.
But even as the thought formed, Glori caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye. She started to shout a warning, but it was too late as a third lightning bolt streaked out and slammed into Quellan from behind. He staggered forward into his opponent, nearly knocking it over. The bolt continued in the general direction of Kosk, but this time the naga didn’t have the angle and it dissipated harmlessly a few feet from the monk. Kosk looked up as the last tendrils of electricity dissipated and met Glori’s eyes.
“It’s above us!” she yelled. She got up and started running toward Quellan, but the cleric recovered first and delivered a powerful blow from his mace that shattered one of the skeleton’s lower arms and knocked it flying in pieces from its body.
Kosk’s opponent tried to take advantage of its foe’s distraction, but even as it swept out its lower arms the dwarf ducked and swept in under its reach. He thrust up with his staff, jamming it into its hips and using it as a fulcrum to topple the creature forward. Already off-balance from its abortive attack, the skeleton was unable to resist being flung down onto the hard tiles. One claw happened to dislodge the piece of the mosaic that represented the general part of Weltarin where the Gull had landed, but it couldn’t get purchase before Kosk leapt onto its back and thrust his staff forward, snapping its pelvis and separating its upper body and legs into three separate pieces. Those component parts continued to move for another second before they came apart in a clatter of bones on the floor.
Kosk staggered clear of the shattered ruins of the ape skeleton and took a quick look around to see how the battle was progressing. Quellan was still battling the last skeleton, and he nearly moved that way out of reflex before he saw Glori already heading toward the embattled cleric. He’d only caught a glimpse of Rodan dragging Xeeta off the field of battle, but knew they had taken cover behind one of the pillars. He knew there was a more dangerous foe nearby, a fact that was confirmed a moment later when he saw Glori come to a sudden stop. She stood there for a moment, staring ahead vacantly, then reached down and drew her sword. He could tell that something was wrong as she started haltingly forward toward Quellan.
Kosk ran toward her. He glanced up at the gallery that ran around the base of the dome but only caught a hint of movement. The snake-creature apparently knew this place well, well enough to take advantage of the many potential places to hide. A flash of fire told him that Xeeta was still fighting, but the fire bolt lacked the blasting power of her greater magics. After hurling fireballs and scorching rays around all day yesterday, last night, and just now, she had to be running low.
Glori turned as the monk ran up to her. He barely slowed as she swung her sword at him, ducking under the stroke before he snapped his leg around and took her legs out from under her. As she landed on her back, rapping her head solidly on the hard floor, he knocked the sword out of her grasp.
“Sorry,” he said, before delivering a blow that smacked her head back once more, stunning her.
He didn’t wait, knowing that the two of them together presented a tempting target for the naga. He started sprinting forward again, picking up speed as he headed right for one of the pillars that supported the ceiling. He could feel his ki surging within him, coursing through his body with every step he took. He let everything else fall into the background as he focused upon it, focused upon the pillar that was rapidly coming closer as he threw everything he had into running faster and faster.
From the cover of the other pillar Rodan watched in amazement as Kosk shot across the room in a blur. The dwarf hit the pillar and kept on running, dashing up its side as if had been solid ground. He lost momentum as he neared the top, a good thirty feet above the floor, but at the last moment he leapt up and seized hold of the decorative scrollwork that surrounded the top of the pillar, using it to fling himself up onto the gallery that ringed the base of the dome.
“What’s happening?” Xeeta asked from beside him. Glori’s healing spell had revived her, but she was still in awful shape, her usually bright skin charred black from the multiple blasts of lightning that she’d absorbed. Her clothes, already ragged from their long trip through the jungle, were in equally bad condition.
The creature had moved back further along the rim of the dome, and they could no longer see it clearly from their current position. Hopefully that meant that it also could not see them, but Rodan was not going to make any assumptions after what they’d already seen of its tricks. “Kosk is distracting it,” he told the sorceress. “Stay here.”
“No, we have to help Glori and Quellan.”
“I’ll go,” he said, pressing her hand in his. “You can’t take another hit. Stay here, but be ready to blast it if it shows itself.”
She reluctantly nodded as he grabbed his bow and ran back out into the room.
As soon as he gained the high ground, Kosk could see the naga. It had taken shelter amongst the stonework that supported one of the massive arches that absorbed the incredible weight of the dome. Quellan had placed his daylight spell high enough so that it cast a distinct shadow, clearly revealing the creature’s outline against the darker stone.
There was also no doubt that it had seen him. Even as he landed onto the narrow walkway—one that lacked any kind of railing or other safety features, he noted—the head of the naga turned toward him. It issued a hiss that the dwarf interpreted as an expression of anger.
He started to rise, but staggered as he felt a massive assault upon his consciousness. It took all of his effort just to keep from stumbling over the edge, yielding his hard-won position in a face-first plummet to the marble floor below. All of his training and focus were barely enough to keep him from succumbing to that intense external pressure. He knew that if he faltered it would seize control of him, turning him into the creature’s slave.
With a deep growl he drove the intruder from his mind and charged. One false step would have led to disaster, but every single step was placed flawlessly, covering the precarious distance as smoothly as he’d run across the floor earlier. The serpent-thing saw him coming and reared up, its jaws snapping open to reveal fangs that dripped with gobs of ready venom. It hissed at him again and Kosk found himself responding with a guttural, visceral yell. It waited until he sprang forward then lunged, its head snapping forward like the end of a whip. But Kosk had been ready for that, and he twisted his body in mid-air, narrowly avoiding those deadly fangs. He came down on the hood that spread out from the sides of its head and snapped his legs around its neck, seizing hold of it.
The naga reared back violently. It snapped its head back and forth, slamming its unwelcome passenger against the surrounding stone. Kosk’s staff was knocked from his grasp and tumbled end-over-end before hitting the floor below. The creature drove him up against the nearby arch with enough force to knock the air from his lungs. But still he held on, and wouldn’t yield his hold. Even without his weapon he kept attacking it, driving his fists into the base of its skull repeatedly until its angry hisses were punctuated with gasps of pain.
The naga suddenly rose up again, and Kosk tensed, expecting a renewed assault. But instead the creature spoke a word that seeped magical potency, and in its wake the dwarf felt a fiery agony explode through his body. He could feel his skin crinkling as the blight spell took hold, and blood began to course from his nostrils and ears as the tender flesh there dried and parted. For a moment he couldn’t see as the spell sucked moisture from inside his eyeballs. But still, he held on.
He heard a sound of metal hitting stone close by, and knew that his companions were trying to help him. But the angle was bad, and they would have to hold back out of fear of hitting him. As his vision cleared, he caught a glimpse of them below.
“Kosk!” Quellan yelled. “Get out of there!”
The dwarf’s eyes met the cleric’s, and in that instant of contact a silent communication passed between them. Quellan’s expression twisted with grief, and his lips formed a single soundless word.
The naga reared again, but Kosk noted that even in their deadly melee it was careful not to expose itself too much to fire from below. That realization let him guess where it would try to take him next, and as it lunged again toward the exposed arch he made his move.
As the creature struck, he abruptly released his legs. Their shared momentum carried both of them into the arch, but he spun and absorbed the impact, while at the same time coming up under its head and delivering a bone crushing blow with his right fist. The naga convulsed in agony, its hold on the surrounding stone loosening as it briefly lost control of its body. Kosk didn’t give it a chance to recover. He seized hold of it again and with a final growl of effort pulled it away from its perch. For a last moment the two of them hung there, then gravity exerted itself and both of them plummeted to the floor of the chamber thirty-five feet below.
For a moment the flat, hard surface seemed to be rushing up to greet him. He was heading for a face-first meeting, the weight of the struggling creature thrusting him down. With a final reflexive lung Kosk reached out and grabbed hold of the creature’s flailing body, spinning so that the monster hit first.
They hit the floor with a massive thud. A terrible sound issued from the naga, and both ends of it lashed out wildly, its tail snapping hard against the nearby pillar with enough force to leave a mark upon the stone. Its body coiled and uncoiled as shattered bones tore open its flesh from inside, and it let out a truly awful wail.
Kosk, dazed and battered, rose unsteadily to his feet. He looked up and saw the others running over toward him. They were shouting something, but he couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. But he could see when their faces changed, and the warning as they pointed and lifted weapons.
He started to turn around. He knew there was danger, but his body wouldn’t quite work the way he wanted. He had only gotten about halfway around when pain exploded in his body. He could feel something sharp piercing him through the back of his neck. White fire seemed to pour into his body, and he opened his mouth to cry out in pain. But before anything could come out the pain faded. He felt only a calm lassitude creep over him as all of his senses grew vague. His last thought was that he had forgotten something, but it no longer seemed important as blackness enfolded him.
We're coming up fast on the end of the story (10 more posts after this one). This arc will be concluded, but I couldn't resist ending on a cliffhanger. I could have easily continued into Book 12, but it's been over two years already since I started writing this story and it's time to move on to other stuff.
But first, another cliffhanger...
* * *
When Bredan first stirred back into consciousness he didn’t remember where he was or how he’d come to be lying on the floor. But then memory of his encounter with the intelligence that resided within the Libram came crashing back in with the force of a physical blow. He tried to ignore the stabbing pains that shot through his head as he pushed himself up to look around.
The light was different, dimmer than before, but it was still enough to clearly make out the familiar outlines of the chamber. But he immediately noticed that something else had changed. The slab that had blocked the exit at the top of the stairs was gone, replaced by a shimmering field of energy that gave off a very faint glow. It hurt his eyes to look at it too long, so he quickly turned away to look for his companions.
He immediately saw Kavek, lying unconscious just a few paces away to his right. There was something odd that he couldn’t quite place at first. The way the sailor had fallen he was facing toward the wall, but there was something strange about the shape of his head, and the skin that was just visible between his hair and the collar of his coat was distinctly reddish in the dull light, as if he’d experienced a sudden and intense sunburn.
Bredan began to pull himself up to take a closer look, but was interrupted by Kalasien’s voice behind him. “Bredan. Are you all right?”
There was a strange tension in the man’s voice that drew Bredan’s attention to him. The Arreshian agent had already gotten back to his feet, but as their eyes met Bredan thought he saw something in the other man’s stare. It might have been anger, an intensity that seemed so incongruous that he blinked and shook his head to clear it. When he looked up again the other man’s face was back to its usual neutral, controlled expression.
Kavek groaned and Bredan turned back to him. Kalasien was further away, but he moved so quickly that he beat the warrior to the fallen sailor. “Kavek,” he said, bending over him so that Bredan couldn’t see either man’s face. “Kavek, you were unconscious.” As the other man groaned, Kalasien helped him up.
By the time that the agent had gotten the sailor to his feet he was more or less awake. He looked like he felt about the same as Bredan, but there was nothing unusual about his appearance, and his skin color had returned to the same dusky tan they’d all earned over the course of the sea voyage and their stay thus far under the hot sun of Weltarin. Bredan dismissed what he’d seen earlier as a trick of the light or his own addled senses, but he couldn’t shake that initial look that he’d caught from Kalasien.
“What…” Kavek said. “What happened?”
“Take it easy,” Bredan told him. “Whatever that was, it took something out of us.”
“I saw,” Kavek said. “I saw… all of it.” He stared at Bredan as if he’d never seen him before.
“Something’s coming,” Kalasien said.
The three men separated—Kavek wavered for a moment, but he was able to remain upright—and faced the gap at the top of the stairs. Bredan felt a moment’s twinge at Kalasien being behind him—what had that look been about?—but his attention was quickly focused on the figure coming down the steps toward them.
They couldn’t see it clearly through the glowing barrier, just a vague man-shaped shadow that slowly descended the ancient stairs. When it reached the field, it passed through with just a slight frisson of distorted light. Some instinct told Bredan that the barrier would not let them pass so easily. He remembered the book’s last words to him and assumed that this was the guardian it had referenced.
His first clear look at the thing caused his heart to leap in his chest. One glance was enough to tell that whatever it was, it was no longer one of the living. It was tall, almost seven feet from the bottom of its feet to the top of its head, but its flesh was desiccated and brown, stretched tight over bones that were occasionally visible where the leathery skin had parted. Its eyes were black sunken sockets within which tiny red points were visible, like flickers of torchlight reflected within a deep pool. It was clad in what might have once been finery, but which now hung in tattered scraps from its body. Bredan’s gaze was drawn to its chest, where it wore a broad pectoral of silvery metal that was clearly imprinted with the sigil that the tabaxi matriarch had shown them, the same sigil he bore upon his blade.
He summoned his sword back into his grasp.
The undead entity spoke. Its lips did not move, and whatever husks it had left for lungs clearly could no longer manipulate air, but each of them heard it as a soft whisper hissed directly into their minds.
I am the last of the Mai’i, it said. “I accepted the charge to be bound to this place and serve beyond death. To guard the Eldarithi Libranum, both to keep it safe and to keep the world safe from it.”
“You didn’t do such a good job of it,” Kalasien said.
Bredan shot the agent a warning look before turning his attention back to the guardian. Careful to keep his sword low, he said, “We’re not here to fight.”
The entity shifted its empty stare toward Kalasien. “I failed once before. The Libranum escaped my grasp. But now it has returned, and I have once more been awakened from my eternal slumber to stand vigil.”
“I was invited here,” Bredan said. “The book called me here.”
“I do not serve the book,” the guardian said. “My charge is from those who created it, those who bear responsibility for the power it contains.”
“There’s no disagreement,” Bredan said. “I too want to keep the book protected. It reached out to me, not the other way around. I didn’t want to be chosen. But there is a real threat. There are those who seek to use its power for evil ends.”
“Good, evil, those are words without meaning to one such as I. I know what the book has asked of you. It cannot be permitted.”
“I haven’t agreed to what it wants,” Bredan said. “The book is somewhere above, I assume? I just want to get out of here. Let me pass, or show me another way to the surface. I have friends above, let me rejoin them. You can accompany me, ensure that I do not mess with the book along the way.”
“Your friends already face the upper guardian. Even if they survive, they cannot be allowed to leave this place. Knowledge of the book must die with you.”
“If you kill us, others will come!” Bredan said. “Damn it, just listen to me! This doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t want to fight you.”
“What you want is irrelevant,” the guardian said. It took another step down, dust falling from its withered body as it shifted its weight on the stairs.
Bredan stepped forward to meet it, but before he could reach the stairs the guardian’s eyes flashed and the warrior felt a surge of necromantic power erupt through his body. He screamed as the full potency of its harm spell tore through him, pulverizing bits of flesh and tissue to ash that fell in flecks from him as he stumbled back and dropped to one knee, as if in supplication to the ancient being that stood over them, implacable in its judgment.
There was no time to react as the naga seized Kosk from behind, its long fangs driving deep into his body. The others could see the dwarf’s face twist in pain as its jaws locked onto his chest, lifting him off his feet to dangle helplessly in the air.
“No!” Glori yelled, but the naga just flicked its head almost casually to the side, hurling the limp form of Kosk to the floor of the chamber.
Quellan let out a roar of raw fury. He raised his shield and invoked a nimbus of sacred flame that coalesced around the head and upper body of the creature. But before the spell concluded the naga lunged forward, slashing through the gathering magic and sundering it into nothing.
The cleric’s companions unleashed a full barrage of attacks at the creature, but they likewise had little effect. Rodan fired the last arrow from his quiver, but the naga continued to shift rapidly back and forth and the shot narrowly missed. Similarly, Xeeta’s fire bolt streaked harmlessly past it. Glori strummed her lyre, trying to affect the creature’s mind with one of her few remaining spells, but that effort too failed.
Quellan lifted his mace and started to rush forward, but he’d gotten barely five steps into his charge when the creature opened its jaws wide and hissed at him. He could see the white flicker of magic gathering as it prepared a spell, and dodged to the side.
A pale beam of energy shot past him, but he heard a cry of pain and glanced back in time to see Xeeta fall to the floor, clutching her chest. Rodan started to go to her aid, but Glori beat him to it, gesturing for him to help the cleric. But before the tiefling could reach him Quellan heard the slithering approach of the naga and turned back to see it bearing down upon him. It was already so close that he could see the hate in its eyes and the tiny droplets of poison that trickled down its fangs.
Quellan raised his shield again. He could just see the still-unmoving form of Kosk underneath it. The sight awakened a violent rage in him, but even as he drew back his mace he cast his awareness outward, to the place where his connection with his patron god resided. He called out to Hosrenu, and the god answered.
A wild eruption of divine fire came cascading down out of the domed vastness of the chamber. The naga hesitated and looked up, but its speed and agility were of no avail against this assault. The flame strike slammed into it, driving it to the floor and unleashing a wash of fire so intense that Quellan’s companions were driven back a step. For a moment the cleric disappeared within that conflagration, but when it cleared a moment later he was standing there on the edge of a blackened circle upon the marble tiles, within which lay the smoking wreckage of the naga.
Quellan gave it one look, then hurried over to where Kosk had fallen. Glori and Rodan watched him, even as the bard expended the last of her magic to heal Xeeta and bring her once more back to consciousness.
Xeeta groaned and blinked as her attention focused on Glori. “Kosk,” she said.
“Quellan’s tending to him. We’re safe for the moment, just rest for a second.”
“No. Help me up. Rodan.”
Glori and Rodan helped her slowly to her feet. The sorceress was a mess, her clothes both scorched from the naga’s lightning bolt and crusted with ice crystals from the ray of frost that it had blasted her with just before its death. But none of them were much better off, and it wasn’t entirely sure who was leaning on whom as the three crossed the room to where Quellan was kneeling over Kosk’s fallen form.
One look was enough to confirm his fate. Kosk’s robes had been torn wide open, revealing a dark web of black lines running through his skin where the naga’s poison had wrought its deadly work. The muscles of his face and neck were clenched in a grim rictus, a death mask that had denied him even the peace of his end.
“If you hadn’t had to save me, you could have brought him back again,” Glori said.
“No,” Quellan said. He looked up at them, the tears falling unashamed from his eyes. “He sacrificed himself willingly, for us. We will grieve, but the only blame here is lying dead over yonder.”
He tried to get up, but his legs buckled under him and he crashed heavily back to the floor. Glori rushed over to him. “I think we’re done, at least for now,” Rodan said.
Quellan nodded. “We can take a short rest. I can bolster us, at least a little bit.” His eyes turned toward the dark opening where the naga and its skeletal guardians had appeared. “But Bredan needs us. And I don’t know how I know this, but somehow I know that our time is growing short.”
Bredan could not remember ever feeling a pain like that which the mummy guardian had inflicted upon him. Every bit of his body felt like it was dying, and every muscle and organ and bit of skin was telling him that it was over, that he could do nothing more than collapse and accept the inevitable.
But Bredan had never been one to meekly accept his fate.
A strangled, almost feral sound issued from his ragged throat as he surged up to his feet. He swung his sword in a wild arc that had more power than precision behind it. The blade smashed into the side of the creature, but somehow its withered and feeble-looking body not only absorbed the blow but rebuffed it. Ash puffed out from its flesh where the sword had carved a narrow gash from which bits of pale bone were visible.
Bredan didn’t hesitate, lifting his sword for another strike. But this time the mummy was ready for him, and it caught the descending blade in its bare hand, arresting its motion as if it had been a bit of wood rather than a long shaft of forged steel.
The mummy’s lips twitched, and it uttered a single word of power.
The creature’s disembodied voice echoed through Bredan’s skull like the tolling of some vast bell. It pounded at his awareness like a sledgehammer, and it took everything he had to cling to the moment. He was dimly aware of Kavek and Kalasien both stumbling back from the reverberations of the mummy’s power.
Through the haze that had crept over his senses, he caught a hint of movement.
Reflex caused him to defend himself, and his own power, the gift of the book, surged at his call. He had used up most of that gift just surviving to this point, but there was enough left for him to throw up a shield between himself and his adversary. That proved to be just barely in time as the mummy’s fist smashed into the magical barrier with the force of a battering ram. The backlash of that impact seared Bredan’s already-raw senses, but the spell held.
Bredan struggled to get his sword up again, but before he could launch another attack his eyes met the gaze of the mummy. The twin points of fire seemed to draw him in, until there seemed to be nothing else in the world except for those sinister points of light. Against that dreadful glare his armor and his will were equally useless, and his muscles froze into immobility. All he could do was stare at the mummy as it stepped forward and lifted a bony fist to put an end to him.
Darkness enfolded Bredan, so suddenly that for a moment he thought that the mummy’s strike must have connected and knocked him senseless. But then he realized that he was still aware, could still feel his body. He could hear movement around him and smell the stale rot that emanated from the creature. But he was still frozen in place, helpless to do anything but wait for the blow to fall.
When he was finally struck, he nearly lost his mind to panic, but instead of being hit from ahead the impact came from the side. Instead of the bone-crushing intensity he’d expected the blow was almost gentle, pushing him over. In his current state he could do nothing to soften the impact with the hard floor, but his armor protected him from anything worse than another bruise to add to his already significant tally.
He could hear fighting taking place what sounded like a bare stride away from where he lay helpless. He still couldn’t see anything, but he heard a solid thump of impact that suggested that maybe Kavek had recovered and brought his mace into play. He didn’t know how the mummy had managed to blind him, but it sounded like the sailor was scoring hits. But he already knew that its apparent frailty disguised a considerable strength.
Just as he was starting to feel the grip on his muscles loosen, the mummy unleashed another word of power that once more knocked Bredan’s awareness reeling. There was a moment of silence in the aftermath that suggested that Kavek had succumbed as well, but then there was a sizzling hiss, followed by a pair of explosive blasts that sounded so close that Bredan would have reflexively covered his head with his arms, if he’d been capable of moving at all. His sense of helplessness grew, followed by a growing fury at being unable to affect the battle taking place an arm’s reach from where he lay.
His hands clenched reflexively on the hilt of his father’s sword. Suddenly his strength rushed back in, and he was free of the unnatural paralysis that had gripped him. He immediately surged back up to his feet, but realized that without being able to see he was as likely to kill Kavek as strike the guardian.
And then, as if dispelled by the thought, the darkness vanished. The mummy was right in front of him. It had been looking at Kavek, who stood a step to the right, but as Bredan rose it turned to look at him with a look that might have been surprise, had its husk of a face been capable of showing emotion.
Bredan knew better now than to meet its stare. Instead he lowered his head and unleashed a punishing series of attacks.
Pain, exhaustion, and weakness were all forgotten as he hacked at the creature. He hit it again where he’d struck it earlier, widening the gash he’d opened previously. He smashed it in the side of its head, carving away the tight skin and cracking its skull. It swung at him, but in a flush of rage he met it with his sword, hewing the limb off at the elbow. The mummy recoiled from him as the arm fell to the floor, but Bredan wasn’t finished. Bringing the sword up over his head, he screamed and drove it down in a stroke that hit it in the shoulder next to its neck and carved down until the blade emerged from under its opposite armpit. The blade kept descending until it clanged loudly off the floor.
The light in the mummy’s eyes seemed to flicker for a moment as it looked at him. Then the thing started to come apart. Its body crumbled to a fine powder that swirled in the air for a moment before the whole mess swept across the room in a sudden gust and whipped around once in a tight circle before it darted into the far passage—where they’d first entered the room—and disappeared.
Bredan just stared after it for a moment. He looked down at the withered hand and forearm he’d cut from the undead guardian. After a few seconds it too dissolved into dust, which dissipated as quickly as the rest of the thing had. The barrier that had blocked the steps ahead of them was gone, leaving just an ascent that rose into pure darkness beyond the feeble light of the chamber.
He looked over at Kavek, who seemed just as surprised as he. “Thanks,” he said.
Kavek started to nod, but his eyes suddenly widened and he yelled, “Look out!”
Bredan started to turn, which meant that the blow that caught him from behind scored a glancing hit rather than the skull-cracking impact that had been intended. Already battered to within an inch of his life by the mummy, Bredan toppled forward and again landed awkwardly on the floor. He was dimly aware of his sword clattering out of his grasp and bouncing off the steps to land just out of reach a few feet away.
Dazed from the hit, Bredan managed to roll over in time to see Kalasien standing over him. This time the agent didn’t bother to hide the murderous intent in his eyes. He hadn’t drawn his sword, but as he lifted his hand Bredan saw that his fist had swollen into a bulky mass shaped roughly like a hammer’s head.
His adversary gave him no chance to react as he lunged forward and brought the strange limb down toward his face.
Bredan reached for his sword, but in his dazed state he couldn’t quite concentrate enough to summon it to his grasp.
There was another hiss, familiar even to his addled senses, then an eruption of light and sound that momentarily blinded him. He blinked furiously as he struggled to get up, aware that death still stalked him, but his battered limbs still failed to obey his commands.
As the afterimages of the flash cleared, he saw that Kalasien had been the target of the explosions. Two dark marks had been seared into his coat, but while he looked injured, there was fury rather than pain in his eyes as he stared at a point just behind the prone warrior. “What are you doing, you fool!” he shouted in a voice that sounded little like the even-keeled agent that Bredan knew.
“I am doing what I should have done some time ago,” Kavek said.
“Then you can die with him, traitor!” Kalasien said. He lunged forward again, but Bredan had taken advantage of the seconds that the distraction had given him. As the odd club-hand came smashing down again his sword leaped into his hand, and Bredan used the stairs beside him as leverage to plant the hilt down firmly upon the floor while he propped the blade up before him. Kalasien’s eyes widened in surprise as his own momentum impaled him on the sharp shaft of steel. Dark blood welled from the wound, running down the length of the blade before it spattered down onto Bredan’s chest.
Kalasien lifted his hand; the hammer-growth dissolved back into slender fingers. But even they were strange; they were too long and topped with wedge-shaped claws, the skin gray and leathery.
Bredan looked from the hand up to Kalasien’s face, which was beginning to shift subtly, as if there was something under his skin trying to get out. “What are you?” he asked.
“Your death, and that of your friends, is inevitable,” the other said. “You… you may have escaped me… but others will come. Your victory… is merely… temporary…”
He slumped down to the floor, easing to the side as Bredan pushed on the sword. The young warrior got to his feet, staring down at the figure that continued to shift and change as death took him. Within just a few moments the features of the Arreshian agent had been replaced by a hideous gray-skinned visage that looked incomplete, like a sculptor’s work that had been abandoned unfinished. It had lidless red-tinted eyes that were just slightly too large, and a narrow slash of a mouth beneath two slits where its nose should have been.
Bredan stumbled back and looked at Kavek, who had been watching silently during the exchange. He was no longer holding his mace, but something had changed in him too, a subtle shift in demeanor, a difference in the way that he held himself.
“What was that?” Bredan asked.
“It was a doppelganger,” Kavek said. “A shapeshifter. That particular one was named Drekkath.”
“It knew you,” Bredan said. “You were working with it.”
“Yes. We were sent here to infiltrate your group and steal the book, once you had managed to locate it.”
“You admit it? Just like that?”
“There’s no reason to hide it now.”
Bredan lifted his sword, hating that he couldn’t conceal the effort it cost him. “Why?”
“Because I saw what you saw. The book spoke to me as well. I see now that what that thing and its masters want is just another form of slavery for my people.”
“Your people?” Bredan asked.
Kavek closed his eyes for a moment, and his features began to shift as well. In his case, however, it was just a faint shimmering before the illusion that had been concealing his true identity faded.
“You’re a hobgoblin!”
Bredan blinked and looked again. “Wait a minute… were you…”
“I was there in the Silverpeak Valley, yes.”
“You tried to kill us.”
“Yes. And you tried to kill me. You came closer to success than I did.”
“How long? How long have you been…”
“Since Li Syval. Drekkath replaced the ship’s mate and hired me on as part of the crew.”
“He murdered the original.”
“Then… the real Kalasien…”
“Yes. It killed him as well. I was not present at the… event, so I do not have the details, but it happened during the sea journey, shortly before Trev was ‘washed overboard.’”
“Killed as well.”
“Why… why are you telling me all this now?”
“As I said. I am tired of being a slave. My people hate yours, with good reason. But this sins you have committed against us are nothing compared to what will happen if those I serve get their hands on that book.”
“Sins… but Kavel Murgoth invaded us! Your people pillaged villages, murdered people!”
“We can get into an argument over imperialism and the historical justifications for it later, if we survive the next few minutes.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want you to do what the book wants you to do. To put an end to it. To seal our world away from those outside who seek to use us for their own ends.”
“I never agreed…”
“I know. I heard you address the mummy lord. But I have information that may affect your decision. I know the nature of the foe that you have been struggling against, the force behind Kavel Murgoth, the cult in Severon, and schemes of which you don’t even have the slightest awareness. I don’t know if the visions that the book revealed are true, but I can tell you that those outsiders want access to this world. They want to come here, and their goals are not benign. They wish to kill, to enslave, to rule. My people have aided them in exchange for power. I have seen their true nature, and believe me, you do not want them to get their hands on that book.”
“How can I possibly trust you? You’re an admitted killer, and you came halfway around the world to steal the book for yourself!”
“You shouldn’t trust me. But know this; I could have done nothing just now, and you would be dead instead of Drekkath. I could kill you now.” He lifted a hand, and a soft pulse of energy flickered in his grasp. “As battered as you are, one eldritch blast would do it.”
“Did you arrange for us to be separated? For you and Kalasien to be alone with me in the ruins?”
The warlock snorted. “That was luck, or fate, or whatever you want to call it.”
“Your power, your magic, it comes from these ‘masters’ of yours? What are they?”
“You would call them fiends, demons, or devils. You know more of how this works than you know. You have a few of their progeny as companions.”
“Xeeta and Rodan. You’re like them?”
“The Blooded. I knew nothing of the cult in Li Syval until you spoke of it on the ship, and I know not if the outsiders there are of the same breed that infused their bloodline into my tribe, but it seems we are all fruits from the same tree.”
The tension thickened. Bredan was clearly still too overwhelmed to decide on a specific course of action. The sword waved a bit, but did not come down from its ready position.
Finally, Kavek said, “Can we at least agree to a truce until we find the way out of here? You heard the guardian speak of your friends, and the danger they are in. There appears to be only one way out of here, and there may be further threats between here and the surface.”
Bredan finally let the sword drop, but he kept it in his grasp. “What do I call you?” he asked.
“My real name is Kurok.”
“Kurok. Pretty close.”
“That was another of Drekkath’s ideas. The thing was an expert at duplicity, I will give it that.”
Bredan’s eyes flicked down to the hideous form of the doppelganger. “If you try anything…”
“Yes, yes. We can stipulate that we do not trust each other and skip the various mutual threats. It is in times like these that the differences between your kind and mine do not seem so significant.”
“Would you do anything different, in my position?”
Kurok shook his head. “I have never been in your position. That is why I am here, and why I am doing this.”
“Your magic. It was you who intervened in my fight with the dragonborn chief, wasn’t it?”
“You could have just let me die there. No,” he added before the warlock could respond. “You still needed me alive, didn’t you? To lead you to the book.”
“And I still need you now,” Kurok said.
“And if I refuse to do what the book wants?”
“I suppose that depends on what we find up there.”
“If I find that you did anything to endanger any of my friends, I’ll kill you.”
“I would expect nothing less.”
Standing as far apart as the breadth of the stairs would permit, the two of them began the ascent.
Glori let out a sigh of relief as Quellan completed his prayer of healing. She’d suspected that she’d had a minor concussion from having her head slammed to the marble floor. Kosk had managed to save her from herself; she knew that she never would have forgiven herself if she’d stabbed Quellan. Even though she’d been under the mental control of the naga at the time, she always would have wondered if she could have resisted the creature’s spell if she’d possessed more focus or will.
Her eyes traveled over to the niche where they’d left the dwarf’s body. They’d made a shroud for him out of a few blankets that were so ragged that they were hardly any use as bedding any more. They’d agreed to take a short rest here before moving on, but there was nothing here that they could use to build a cairn, no place they could inter their fallen friend short of going back outside and digging him a grave.
Xeeta noted her attention. “I feel bad just leaving him here,” she said. She looked over at Quellan. “You’re sure there’s nothing…”
“My powers have grown sufficiently for me to be able to raise the dead,” Quellan said. “But the diamonds that the spell consumes are not merely symbolic. They are needed to channel the power of the spell.”
“Who knows, maybe we’ll find some,” Rodan said. “From all we know, the Mai’i were crazy rich. There could be a hidden treasure chamber somewhere around here.”
“Still,” Xeeta said. “What if some creature comes along after we leave, and eats him?”
“I don’t think there are any animals here,” Rodan said. “I haven’t even seen any bugs since we entered the inner city, and the carcass of that crab-thing we killed was clean and untouched even after several hours. The gods only know what they ate.”
“Maybe they were in some kind of stasis until we got here,” Quellan suggested. “Or they were summoned by some kind of spell left by the Mai’i to deter intruders.”
“There’s no way of knowing,” Rodan said. He knelt beside his pack. “We’re almost out of supplies. Can you create some more of that magical food?”
“Once I’ve had a full night’s rest,” Quellan said. “For now, I can create some more water, but that will just about deplete my powers.”
The cleric had been using his magic to augment their supplies for some time now, and they had the procedure down. The spell made about ten gallons, more than enough to refill all of their containers. They kept the excess in one of their more intact rain covers until they had all drunk as much as they could and topped off their waterskins, then used what was left to wash off the sweat and dirt and blood from the multiple battles they had fought to get here.
“Gods, I stink,” Xeeta said as she used a cloth to wipe her neck and face.
“We all stink,” Rodan said.
“I’m not fastidious,” Xeeta said. “But I’m tired of this, you know?”
“Yeah,” Glori said. “I’ve been fantasizing about some of the nicer inns I’ve visited lately, in the quiet moments when I haven’t been fighting for my life.”
Rodan shared out a few strips of root stalk he’d foraged in the forest. The supplies that the tabaxi had given them were all completely gone, and the magical food that Quellan created never lasted for more than a day before it spoiled.
“Ugh, are you sure this stuff is edible?” Xeeta asked as she bit off a piece of the root with some effort.
“It’ll keep you alive,” Rodan said.
“I wonder what this place was like, when there were people here,” Glori said, looking up at the vast dome above them.
“It must have taken an incredible effort to build this,” Rodan said. “There’s nothing even close to this in Li Syval.”
“Or anywhere I’ve been,” Glori said. “The Mai’i must have been exceptional engineers.”
“Magic,” Xeeta said. “This was built with magic.”
“Sure, but it had to remain standing after they were done,” Rodan said.
Glori looked over at Quellan, who hadn’t really engaged in their conversation once he had used his magic to create the water. She leaned over to touch him on the arm. “Are you all right?”
He met her eyes and nodded. “I will be. It just…”
Glori didn’t hear the rest of what he was going to say, as her senses suddenly blurred. Colors and light flashed in her head, accompanied by a high-pitched sound that drowned out everything else. For a moment she thought she could see an image within that surge of conflicting inputs, then she was thrust back to reality, so quickly that she felt dizzy and nearly slumped over.
Looking around, she saw that she wasn’t the only one to have been affected.
“What was that?” Rodan asked.
“Not a good sign, whatever it was,” Xeeta groaned.
“It’s Bredan, Bredan and the book,” Quellan said.
“Are you sure?” Glori asked, but even as she said the words, she felt something, an echo of the feeling she’d gotten during the episode. “I think… you may be right,” she said.
“I think we’ve gotten enough rest,” Xeeta said. She wavered visibly when she stood, but there was nothing but determination in her features.
Glori checked the fit of her sword in her scabbard as she got up, a gesture that she’d seen Bredan make many times before he’d learned the trick of making his weapon disappear and reappear at will. She adjusted her lyre on her opposite hip, even though there was little she could do with it, with her reservoir of magic as depleted as the rest of them. But they’d proven that it would take more than that to stop them. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Bredan and Kurok made their way slowly up the stairs. Bredan was having some difficulty. He was exhausted and battered, his stamina flagging, but he tried not to let it show to his dubious companion. The other merely adjusted his pace to match Bredan’s. The hobgoblin was a cipher. He failed to live up to any of the stereotypes that Bredan had heard about his race, or the other goblinoids that he had clashed with since leaving Crosspath. Kurok was obviously intelligent; he had managed to conceal his true identity for months while in close proximity to races that would have probably stabbed him on sight, had they known what he was. Bredan had to admit that he’d been completely fooled, and could not deny that he would almost certainly be dead right now if the warlock hadn’t interrupted the doppelganger’s attack. But there was no way that he could trust him, not with what he now knew.
“A glow up ahead,” Kurok said suddenly, drawing Bredan’s attention back to the stairs. He cursed himself for not paying attention; the pale blue light was clearly visible, brightening what looked like another large chamber at the top of the stairs.
It took another painful minute for them to reach that destination. The room was another spacious vault, its ceiling supported by half a dozen pillars as thick through as he was tall. The pillars left the sides of the room hidden in deep shadow, but he could see that the stairs continued their ascent on the far side of the room from where they had entered.
The light was coming from a broad arch off to their left. After sparing another wary glance at Kurok, Bredan made his way in that direction. When he finally got close enough to peer through the open arch, he just stared in stunned surprise.
The chamber on the far side of the arch was familiar to him. His mind was catapulted back to the first time he had seen it, back in the Vault underneath Severon. That was where he received the mandate to come here, to find the book that was at the heart of everything that had happened to him since he’d left Crosspath all those months ago.
The low pedestal in the center of the room had been empty then, but the one here was not. Bredan had never seen the Elderlore Libram before, not even in his dreams, but he recognized it instantly. It was not that impressive, just a big, thick book bound between rigid covers trimmed in what looked like brass. It sat open, and the glow was coming from the pages, filling the room with a pale radiance. Bredan could just make out slowly shifting letters on the walls illuminated by that light, another evocation of the last time he’d been in a place like this one. But there was no need for another hidden message. The thing that he’d crossed half the world to find was right there, just a stone’s throw from where he stood.
He looked over at Kurok, who was keeping his reaction hidden behind a neutral mask. The hobgoblin sensed his attention and turned to look at him. “This is what you came here for,” Kurok said. “Take the book, leave it, or destroy it. The choice is yours.”
“What are you going to do?” Bredan asked.
“I will wait for the others.” He reached up and made a gesture, and his features returned to those of the human sailor.
“If you harm any of them, I’ll kill you.”
“I have nothing to gain by doing so. I made my decision when I saved you from Drekkath. Now all I can do is see how my choice plays out.”
Bredan stared at him for a long moment before he stepped forward. As he passed through the arch he felt something, a brief tingle that traveled along his skin before dissipating. He continued forward for several more steps before he paused and looked back.
A translucent blue field had appeared within the archway. Through it he could just make out the outline of Kurok’s form, but even as he watched the hobgoblin turned and walked away.
“Bloody hell,” Bredan said, wondering if he’d just made another big mistake.
He considered the barrier for another moment before he finally sighed and walked over to the platform that supported the book. The pale glow enfolded him, and he let the light shining from his sword fade. He kept the sword itself in his hands. His arms were tired and the weight was awkward, but he wasn’t about to let himself go unarmed, here, not even for a few moments.
He carefully circled around the platform until he could see the exposed pages of the book. They were covered with a dense scrawl of complex script. He took a step closer to examine the writing. He did not recognize the language, but the words were still somehow familiar.
As he stared at the writing the words began to swell. Bredan started to draw back in alarm, but the glow coming from the book intensified until he could see nothing else. He covered his face with his left arm and tried to get away, but the brilliant radiance engulfed him until he could see nothing else.
The bright glow shining from Quellan’s shield drove back the shadows as the companions made their way down from the stairs into the underground vault.
“Over there,” Glori said, gesturing toward the glowing arch off to the side of the room. They could all see it clearly, as it was full of a shimmering field of wavering light that appeared to completely block further passage.
“There are stairs continuing further down over there,” Rodan said.
“He’s here,” Glori insisted. “I can feel him.”
“Careful,” Quellan said as she hurried over toward the arch. The others hastened to keep up, the half-orc clanking a bit in his heavy armor. But Glori was still a good fifteen feet from the arch when a figure stepped out from one of the huge pillars to their left.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the new arrival said.
Glori started in surprise, and reached for her sword before the light from Quellan’s shield revealed the newcomer. “Kavek!” she said. “Where’s Bredan?”
“Inside,” the sailor said, nodding toward the arch. “With the Book.”
“What about Kalasien?” Xeeta asked. “Is he with you?”
“He didn’t make it,” Kavek said. “There was a guardian, a powerful magical creature.”
“Yeah, we ran into one of those as well,” Rodan said. He’d circled a bit around to the left, clearing the spaces beyond the other pillars, but he kept one eye on the sailor as he approached.
“This barrier, is there no way past it?” Glori asked.
“I don’t know,” Kavek said.
Glori started forward again, but Kavek took a step toward her to block her. “Stop. He needs to do this alone. We cannot interfere.”
“What are you talking about?” Glori asked.
“Do what?” Xeeta added.
“The book, it spoke to us,” Kavek said. “It needs Bredan to help it. That’s why he’s here.”
“Help it do what?” Glori asked.
“To destroy it. The book is self-aware, it’s intelligent. It knows that it was created to serve as a weapon. The Mai’i, they created this whole place to serve as a kind of prison for it. To keep it under their control. It brought Bredan here so he could set it free. There’s something special about this place, something about the magic, so it had to be here.”
“What happens when the book is destroyed?” Xeeta asked.
“I don’t know,” Kavek said again. “But not doing it would be a disaster.”
“A calamity,” Quellan said.
Kavek looked at him and nodded.
“This all sounds rather strange to me,” Glori said. “I’m going ahead.”
“No, don’t,” Kavek said. “There’s more at stake here than you know. If you just wait, I’ll try my best to make you understand.”
“You’re not really from Zesania, are you?” Quellan asked.
“What?” Kavek said.
“Your accent,” Quellan said. “It’s changed. I never really could place it before, except that there was something familiar about it, something that bothered me even when we were back on the ship.”
“You never really fit in on the Golden Gull,” Xeeta said.
“I was new. You were there when I was hired on.”
“It’s more than that,” the sorceress said. “You’re hiding something.”
“I never wanted to come here,” Kavek said.
“Nevertheless, you are here now,” Quellan said.
“I’m going to see Bredan,” Glori said.
Kavek shifted again to block the bard’s progress. Behind her, her companions tensed. “Kavek, I’ve had a really crappy couple of days,” Glori said. “Don’t make me move you.”
Kavek looked at her, then at the others. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He flicked one hand up, so quickly that they might have missed it if their full attention hadn’t been on him. Something flickered for a moment in the bright light radiating from Quellan’s shield, and then Glori stumbled back, clutching her throat. She turned and tried to say something, but all she could do was gasp for air as she stumbled and fell to the ground.
“Glori!” Quellan yelled, rushing toward her.
Kavek took advantage of the distraction to dart back for the cover of the pillar. Xeeta flung a fire bolt at him, but he ducked and it narrowly missed him. Rodan drew his sword and circled around the pillar from the far side, while Xeeta went the other way in an attempt to keep him in view and pen him in between them.
Quellan let out a growl of frustration as he tried to help Glori. With his magic depleted all he could do was hold her and try to clear her airway as she struggled for breath. He got his waterskin out and tried to force some of its contents into her swollen airway, but she convulsed and most of it sprayed back out onto him.
“Damn it, don’t you leave me, do you hear me!” he shouted at her.
Xeeta heard a loud clatter of steel on steel and rounded the pillar to see Kavek holding off Rodan with a heavy mace that she swore he hadn’t had on him just a few moments ago. She quickly called upon her magic once more. Her Demon was quiescent, her powers drained by the heavy use she’d made of them over the last day or so, but she could still manage another fire bolt that she flung at Kavek’s back. This time her spell connected, the blast searing him in the left shoulder, but while she drew a grunt of pain the sailor did not appear to be seriously injured.
“Give it up, Kavek!” she yelled.
The sailor turned and retreated back toward the corner, moving so that he could see both of them at once. Rodan immediately started to follow him, but before he could close for another strike Kavek lifted his hand and unleashed a pulse of dark energy that streaked out and slammed hard into Xeeta’s gut. Pain shot through her and she staggered back a step. She lifted her rod again in anticipation of a counter, but before she could draw upon her magic a second bolt streaked out and clipped her on the shoulder, almost exactly opposite where she’d blasted the sailor just a moment before. The impact of the eldritch blast spun her around, and she dropped to the ground as the darkness rushed back in.
“Not… bloody… again,” she managed to gasp out before she lost consciousness.
Kurok turned back toward Rodan, expecting another attack, but even so he was caught off guard by the intensity of the tiefling’s assault. The warlock brought his mace up to parry, but the other man’s blade moved in a blur, carving past his defenses and plunging deep into his body. Kurok coughed heavily, tasting the blood as it filled his mouth. He swung his mace, trying to give himself some space, but managed only a weak blow that barely jolted his foe. But Rodan’s eyes flashed red, the only warning that Kurok got before a surge of searing flames erupted all around him. He tried to get clear of the inferno, but the tiefling’s hellish rebuke clung to him, burning and burning until he finally toppled over onto the floor.
His vision remained clouded as he looked up, barely able to see his opponent standing above him. He laughed, but it was cut off as another bloody spasm of coughing shook him.
“Ironic,” he managed to say before the shadows caught him.
Glori’s struggles to breathe eased as she began to lose consciousness. Desperate, Quellan channeled a trickle of divine power into her—all he could do, with his higher-order magic fully depleted. The spare the dying cantrip worked, stabilizing her, and her breathing eased as he let out a sigh of relief.
He looked over at Rodan, who was tending to Xeeta. “How is she?” he asked.
“Unconscious,” Rodan said. “She’s absorbed a lot of damage in the last few fights.”
Quellan carefully laid Glori down, pillowing her cloak under her head before he hurried over to them. He knelt and touched the stricken tiefling’s forehead, passing that faint spark of divine blessing into her as well.
“She’ll be all right,” he said. “But there is nothing more I can do for either of them at the moment. They should wake in a few hours. What about him?” he asked, nodding toward the fallen form of Kavek.
“I blasted him pretty good. I don’t know if he’s still breathing. I was focused on Xeeta, I don’t give a damn about that lying bastard. All this time he was pretending to be just a simple sailor, hiding the fact that he was a bloody spellcaster.”
“He might have information,” Quellan said.
Rodan nodded and went over to the body. He nudged it with his boot, turning him over enough to get a look at his face. “Quellan,” he said. “You’d better take a look at this.”
Quellan was making the unconscious tiefling comfortable, but at Rodan’s words he quickly got up and joined him. He drew in a surprised breath as he saw what had set the ranger off.
“It looks like he was hiding more than we knew,” the cleric said.
“He was a bloody hobgoblin,” Rodan snarled. “He look familiar to you at all?”
Quellan had left his shield over by Glori, but he bent to take a closer look. “He can’t be…”
“The last time I saw this face, he was running because I’d just shot him with an arrow.”
“That’s… there’s obviously more going on here than we thought.”
“Yeah. And Bredan’s likely in more trouble than we thought.”
He walked away from their fallen foe, toward the shimmering barrier. “Do you think it’s solid?” Rodan asked.
“I don’t know. But even if it’s not, it could kill you just for trying.”
Rodan reached into his pocket and took out a silver piece. “We have to try.”
But before he could toss the coin, a hissing sound from behind them drew their attention back around. Rodan scanned the dark corners of the room before his eyes settled on the dead warlock. Those eyes widened as another sound issued from the corpse, and the chest lifted.
“I thought he was dead!” he said, drawing his sword as he came back over to their fallen foe.
“He is,” Quellan said. “This is dark magic, necromancy.”
“He’s not going to get up and try to kill us again, is he?” Rodan asked.
“I don’t think so,” Quellan said. “I think someone is trying to send us a message.”
The cleric dropped to one knee and leaned over the body, while Rodan circled around to take up a warding position on the other side.
Kavek’s chest fell, and his lips moved slightly as the air left his body. “Tell Bredan… sever the link…”
“What’s he talking about?” Rodan asked.
“Presumably it has something to do with what the book asked him to do,” Quellan said.
“Kosk Stonefist… live again…” the corpse said.
“Kosk?” Quellan asked. “What do you mean? Damn it, speak up!” He stood and looked around at the walls of the vault. “Just tell us what you bloody want, you bloody book!”
Both men waited, but there was no further answer.
“All right, I’m going in,” Rodan said.
“I can’t leave Glori and Xeeta,” Quellan said.
“Agreed. What should I tell Bredan?”
“Tell him what we know. What Kavek told us, what the book said through his corpse.”
“And Kosk? Do you think it was telling the truth?”
“I don’t know,” Quellan said. “I don’t trust the book, don’t trust this place. But we have to trust Bredan. Tell him that, tell him that we trust him.”
Rodan nodded, and turned toward the barrier. He adjusted his grip on his sword, took a steeling breath. Then, after one last glance back at the watching half-orc, he started forward. The barrier shimmered and rippled as he came into contact with it, then he stepped through and vanished.
That would actually have been a cool twist! Wish I'd thought of it!
* * *
Bredan’s awareness returned within a sea of blackness.
He had no sense of his body, or anything else; he was just a disembodied presence within the black. He felt a momentary surge of panic, but without arms or legs to move or a heart to pound in his chest the sensation quickly faded.
After an interminable time he became aware of something, a tiny, distant point of light within the utter darkness. It wasn’t much, just a pinprick, but being the only thing that was different, it drew his entire focus. He had no idea how to move in this strange place, but as he continued to concentrate on the dot it began to grow bigger. It became first a sphere, then as he got closer it began to differentiate until he could see that it was a web, a complex matrix of glowing points and connecting lines that formed a bright bubble in the dark.
He continued to draw nearer, and the web grew increasingly complex until he could not even begin to count the nodes that were connected to it. His attention focused on one of those brighter points of light and it began to swell, until he could see that it too was made up of hundreds if not thousands of interconnected loci. It all quickly became overwhelming, and as the pressure on his awareness intensified, he drew back until he could once more perceive the whole from a safe distance.
He studied it for an interval. Time seemed to have no meaning here, or at least he lacked any point of reference to mark its passage. He gradually became aware of something else. There were other connections to the web, but these were coming from outside it. There were tiny threads, many of them, some bright, and some dark. He could not see where they originated; they all simply faded beyond his perceptions at some undefined distance from the web. But the connections on the other end were more distinct. He closed in again as he studied them, until he could how the threads split off into thousands of tiny tendrils that burrowed into the individual nodes, the tiny distinct points of light that he now knew were themselves additional webs that continued to subdivide in added complexity. Wary of being caught once more, he carefully studied the outside connections. They seemed to pulse with activity, minute beats that passed through them, sometimes going in, more often going out.
Bredan suddenly realized what he was seeing. This was a depiction of what the book had tried to tell him. The nodes were the lives that populated his world, and the threads and their root-like connectors were the presence of the outside entities that the Elderlore Libram wanted him to sever.
“Is this just an illusion, or the reality?” he asked. He could not speak, of course, but he pulsed the question out as a thought. But there was no response.
He found his attention drawn to another of the nodes. It wasn’t through any active effort on his part; that one looked much like the others from the outside, with nothing special to draw his focus. But he did not resist the subtle guidance that pushed him in that direction.
As he got closer, he could see that this node was different. It was dimmer than the others, lacking the layers within layers that he’d seen from the others that he’d examined. But it was connected to the web with a particularly dense network of links, and the outside connections were so thick that they almost obscured it entirely once he got close enough to see the almost-invisible threads. The node appeared to be inactive, with almost none of the pulses that he’d seen elsewhere.
“This is you, isn’t it?” he asked. Again there was no response.
“So what is it you want me to do?”
There was a slight tremor of power. As the sensation passed through him Bredan looked and saw that he now held a blazing sword of light in his hand. His own form was still indistinct—the hand and the arm it was attached to was just a vague outline against the darkness—but the sword was almost painfully distinct, glowing with such intensity that he could only focus upon it briefly.
Knowledge came to him with the surety of instinct, and he knew the choice he had before him. The sword could cut through the node here, and destroy the book in the process. But he could do it with the precision of a surgeon or the violence of a warrior. The former would separate the book’s node from the network but leave the rest of the connections intact. The second would not harm the other nodes—the sword lacked the power to harm them—but would unravel the tendrils that connected to it from outside. Somehow he knew that using the sword was the only way out of this place.
“I didn’t want this choice,” he said. Again only silence answered, though the sword seemed to pulse slightly in his hand. He wondered what would happen if he threw it into the void. Would it form again in his hand, or would he be cursed to wander this null-space for an eternity?
The voice was soft, nothing more than a whisper, but the sound of it was so jarring here that at first Bredan thought he’d imagined it. But then it came again, insistent in its intrusion into this otherwise silent space.
“Bredan? Damn it, can you hear me?”
Bredan searched out the source of the voice. At first it seemed an impossible task, but then he found himself drawn to a node situated quite close to the one that he’d identified as holding the book. He zoomed in on it, shooting past the outermost layers until he was staring at a small globe of light. The voice was coming from it. Bredan recognized it.
“Bredan! Where are you?”
“I’m here. Inside the book, or someplace…”
“Damn it! Snap out of it, we need you…”
Bredan realized that the tiefling could not hear him. Through an effort of will he pressed further, until the node took on definition. He came upon an invisible barrier at its boundary, keeping him from getting any closer, but from that vantage he could just make out a shimmering globe within the light. Figures moved within that globe, and as he continued to focus, they took on definition.
He was looking at the vault, staring down at it from some point above the floor. He could see the platform that held the book, and in a jarring shift of perspective see saw himself, standing motionless in front of it. Both he and the book were surrounded by a pale blue glow, a sphere of light that formed a discrete bubble in the center of the room.
Rodan was on the edge of that circle. He was clearly trying to get closer, but was being repelled by a field similar to the boundary that held Bredan’s consciousness at bay. He could see the frustration on the tiefling’s face as he called out Bredan’s name again.
“I’m here,” Bredan said again, but there was no flicker of recognition to suggest the other man could hear him. But after a moment Rodan seemed to gather himself.
“Bredan, I hope you can hear me,” he said. “We made it here… most of us, anyway. Quellan, Glori, and Xeeta are just outside. The women are hurt, but Quellan says they’ll recover. Kosk… Kosk died, Bredan. He and the rest of Sond’s sailors. Quellan brought him back once, but there’s nothing more that he can do for him now. There were guardians… and Kavek. Kavek attacked us. He’s a spellcaster of some sort.”
Bredan felt a momentary surge of anger, but like all other emotions in this place it quickly faded. He focused on Rodan’s words once more.
“Bredan, the book reached out to us. It told us to tell you to sever the link. It said that it could bring Kosk back if you did. Maybe it was lying… I don’t know. But we wanted to tell you, let you know that we trust you. Gods, I hope you can hear me, that there’s a part of you in there that can hear me. Do what you have to do, and come back to us, Bredan.”
Bredan allowed himself to drift back from the node. He could still hear Rodan talking, but the voice faded as he returned to the outside perspective he’d had when he’d initially approached the glowing matrix. He circled around it, circumnavigating the outer perimeter of the web. He looked at the nodes, which he now understood represented all of the life of the world, his world. Or maybe ‘represented’ was the wrong word. Somehow, in this place that the book had taken him, he was literally watching life at it happened. He could see flickers, individually faint, but taken as a whole an ongoing reinvention of the web. Some of the nodes faded, while others slowly grew brighter as new points of light erupted within them. It was a complex, ever-changing mosaic. He knew he could spend his entire life studying it and would never be able to grasp more than its barest outline.
He focused again on the threads that connected to the network from outside. He could see that they too were changing. Growing, for the most part; probing deeper into the web, extending fresh tendrils that burrowed into the nodes, taking root until they could begin siphoning off the tiny flickers of energy that flowed out into the outer threads before they disappeared with them into someplace else.
Bredan had no idea how long he remained there, watching. The sword remained steady in his grasp. It did not grow heavy the way a mundane weapon would, but he never forgot that it was there.
A sharp wind blew over the ledge where Bredan sat, his back to the reassuring bulk of the stone wall that rose up high above him. The wind was bitingly cold, but he barely felt it.
His gaze traveled over the city that stretched out below him. Severon hadn’t changed in his absence; a sea of people still went about their daily lives, ignorant for the most part of the events that he and his companions had been drawn into. Smoke rose from thousands of chimneys, joining to form a pall over the city that seemed to be immune to the wind.
A figure emerged from the large open gates that stood fifty paces along the length of the wall to his right. She looked around for a moment before she spotted him and headed his way.
“The others were looking for you,” Glori said.
“I just needed a little time alone,” Bredan replied.
She nodded and sat down next to him. “Nice view,” she said.
“Are you worried about what we’re about to do?”
“No. Not really. I know that there was some concern that it might be a trap. A last game played upon us feeble mortals.”
“We wouldn’t be here at all without that last gift,” Glori said. “I mean, we’d still be in Weltarin, probably still futzing about in the jungle. Assuming some giant beast didn’t eat us.”
“We took on everything that continent threw at us,” Bredan said.
“Aye, we did. I do feel a little bad about leaving Sond and her crew behind, though.”
“From what Quellan said, they were already well along toward building a new ship,” Bredan said. “He’s staying in touch with her with that spell of his, right?”
“Yeah. Still. We got back in the blink of an eye, and they’ll be lucky to be back sometime next year.”
“How are you feeling, otherwise?” he asked. “No… lasting effects?”
“Nothing. It’s weird. When I woke up… I told you this earlier, right? The pattern was just there, in my mind. When Konstantin first teleported us here—gods, that feels like an eternity ago—I never would have guessed that I would be doing it myself someday.”
“And here we are.”
“Yeah. What about you? Any lingering bits of ancient sentient book bouncing about in your psyche?”
“If it’s there, I can’t feel it,” Bredan said. “Ever since the magic disappeared, I haven’t felt anything.”
“Do you miss it?”
“No. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ll try to throw up a shield when some bastard tries to shove a sword in my face, but overall… I never wanted the power, never let it define who I am.”
“There’s nothing else?” she prodded. “Quellan says that you’ve been avoiding him.”
He looked over at her, but didn’t say anything.
“He doesn’t blame you, you know. None of us do.”
“I know. It’s just… I wonder what might have happened, if I’d made a different choice.”
“We can’t let ourselves think like that. Those kinds of thoughts are like quicksand; one you get caught it’s really hard to get out. Quellan said that the soul has a choice. He says that where Kosk is now, he’s at peace. If we’d been able to bring him back again… he’d have had to face judgment in Ironcrest for his past crimes. This way he died a hero. He’ll always live on in our memories that way.”
She coughed suddenly, and turned to clear her throat. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Just the smoke. Wind’s blowing this way.” She rubbed at her throat.
“Not really. Just… sometimes I flash back to it, you know? It’s funny, almost. I’ve been hacked, blasted, wounded to within an inch of my life, but what traumatized me most was a bit of poison flung into my face.”
“It’s awful to feel yourself dying and be unable to stop it,” Bredan said.
“Yeah, well, that bastard got his.” She looked at his face. “What is it?”
Bredan shook his head. “Nothing. It’s just… it was a waste. He had to know that he couldn’t beat you alone, and none of it ultimately had any effect on what happened. It didn’t change my decision, Rodan coming in after me. Kurok threw his life away.”
“He almost killed two of us,” Glori said.
“I know. I told him, that if he hurt any of you I’d kill him myself.”
“Seems like he was doomed either way then,” Glori said.
“He attacked you, and he was complicit in multiple murders. He got what he deserved. But Kurok also seemed to honestly want what was best for his people. And he saved my life several times, including at the end with Kalasien—the doppelganger.”
“Maybe… maybe he didn’t see any other way out,” Glori said. “I mean, his secret was out, and whatever you chose, there wasn’t going to be many alternatives for him. He not only betrayed us, but his former masters as well. I can’t imagine there was any scenario where he’d be able to go back.”
“Yeah. I understand what you’re saying. I just keep thinking about him.”
She clapped him on the leg. “Empathy is not a weakness, Bredan. In fact, it’s one of the things I’ve always liked about you.” She looked back up the mass of the wall behind them. “Maybe we can do something to accomplish what he sought. Come on, they’re waiting.”
He got up, the heavy steel of his dwarf-forged armor clanking a bit as he picked up his sword and slung it across his back. The armor had been repaired and polished, and now almost seemed to glow in the early winter sunlight. The light also flashed on Glori’s hand, where a platinum band set with three large diamonds circled her fourth finger.
She noted his attention and grinned. “Let’s go.”
The interior of the Monastery of the Quiet Path lived up to its name; the open buildings were silent and empty as they made their way through the gates and into the central courtyard. The monks had all been temporarily moved down into the city, part of the secrecy that had accompanied the planning for this mission.
Glori glanced over at him as they made their way up the steps toward the main building. “You want to say a few words to the group? You’re as responsible for bringing them all together as anyone.”
Bredan shook his head. “When it comes to inspiring the troops, I’m going to leave it to you,” he said. “I’m just a warrior with a big sword.”
She snorted and hurried up the steps.
The diminutive figure of the abbot was waiting for them in the doorway that led into the great hall. “The others are in the Chamber of Reflection,” Anaeus said.
“Thank you, abbot,” Glori said.
“May the gods favor your path,” the abbot said. His eyes lingered on Bredan for a moment, then he stepped past them out into the open air.
They could hear voices and the sounds of activity before they made their way into the large room where everyone was gathered. For a moment the din continued when they came in, but as they noticed them it faded into a hush of anticipation.
Gregoros Konstantin came over to them. “We’re ready,” he said.
Glori and Bredan stepped forward together. Those gathered were clustered in groups around the edges of the room, staying well clear of the complex design that had been marked upon the floor in the center of the room. Tables had been brought in to hold the gear that had been prepared for their mission, but they were mostly empty now, as everyone had what they needed on their person. A few people double-checked the fit of a piece of armor or checked the slide of a sword in a scabbard before they turned to the new arrivals with looks of expectation on their faces.
Bredan looked around the room, taking it all in. Familiar faces, all of them. Konstantin rejoined his colleague, Arcanist Javerin from the Apernium. Both wizards were clad in practical robes with their pouches of spell components and other arcane accessories close at hand. Off to the left, Embrae Kelandras and Majerion stood together. The monk met Bredan’s eyes and nodded in sympathy, while the bard’s fingers caressed a new silver lyre, idly strumming a few notes. The two elves stood opposite Darik Broadshield and Goran Thunderhammer of the Ironcrest dwarves. Both dwarves were clad in suits of heavy armor similar to the suit Bredan wore. The younger warrior carried a battle axe with a broad crescent blade, but the priest of Sorevas, recently arrived from the dwarven city, looked no less fierce with his heavy mace and shield emblazoned with the burning brand of his patron.
Finally, Bredan’s gaze turned to his friends. They all looked recovered from their ordeal in Weltarin, with new clothes and gear, their physical wounds healed. But he knew it would take longer for all of the scars of that journey to fade. But Xeeta, Rodan, and Quellan all looked to him, and Bredan saw only trust and faith in their eyes.
Everyone was waiting, presumably for him to speak, but he only turned and gestured Glori forward.
The bard walked up to the edge of the teleportation circle that she had scribed. She was confident, assured, up to the challenge of talking to men and women older and more experienced than she. They had all changed, Bredan thought. Forged in the fire of shared danger and deadly ordeals. They’d each gained in power, but it was only when they were together that they were able to reach their true potential.
“Centuries ago, our peoples joined against a common enemy,” Glori said. “An alliance against a foe that represented an existential threat to the three kingdoms.”
“Now, a new threat has arisen. We stand on the cusp of a moment that has come to this world before. The Mai’i failed to deal with this danger, and it ultimately destroyed them.”
“The Elderlore Libram was created to serve its masters, to aid them in their pursuit of knowledge and power. But what it recognized was that power also has a cost. There are entities out there in the worlds beyond, ancient things that want what we have. They crave power too, and see our world as just another prize to be won, its peoples merely as potential slaves… or fodder.”
“We’ve all faced these things. They were responsible for the attack on Ironcrest, for the attempt to seize control of the Reserve of Tal Nadesh. They were behind the violent ambition of Kavel Murgoth, and the deaths that followed his useless war. Those attempts were all defeated, but they weren’t the end of it. We now know that these entities, these outsiders, have agents in all of our kingdoms. They have infiltrated us with tendrils of influence and intrigue. They seek to undermine us, to sunder our unity and use our own weaknesses against us.”
“The Elderlore Libram thought that the best way to protect us was to sever ourselves from the worlds beyond ours. But the price for that choice was too high to pay.” She glanced aside at Bredan, met his eyes for a moment. “But the book gave us a last gift.” She extended a hand toward the complex pattern at her feet. “I cannot tell you exactly what we will find when we step through this doorway. It would be naiveté in its most extreme form to assume that this fight will be won with one bold stroke. But we have learned what we can, prepared as best we can. We aren’t just going to sit back and let this foe weaken our defenses until it is ready to strike again. Old allies have come together, and together we will put an end to this danger that threatens all of us.”
“Today, friends, we strike back.”
She gestured and they all came forward, forming a ring at the edge of the circle. Her eyes traveled around to each of them, confirming that they were all ready. Finally, her gaze returned to Bredan. “Ready?” she asked.
He met her eyes and smiled. “Let’s do this.”
She strummed her lyre, filling the air with a soft melody. The markings upon the floor began to glow, and a shimmer materialized within the circle.
“Let’s kick some ass,” Glori said. She stepped forward, followed immediately by all of the others. As they entered the shimmering field they glowed for a moment and then disappeared. As the last of them vanished the light coming from the portal briefly intensified until it dissolved into nothing, leaving the chamber empty.
Well, there it is. Another story finished. As always, it ended up longer and more complicated than I planned when I started (over 400,000 words altogether!). Obviously, I could have kept it going past this final cliffhanger, but I’ve been writing this story for almost two years and this felt like a good place to leave our heroes, with one quest finished and another about to begin. I had toyed with keeping the ending vague, leaving it unclear whether Bredan had in fact accepted the Libram’s offer, but I ultimately decided to go with the current ending.
I hope you all enjoyed Forgotten Lore. My plan is to turn the story into novels at some point, trimming down the random encounters and removing the D&D-specific elements. Who knows, maybe I’ll even come back and write a twelfth book of the story someday, like I did with the Shackled City and Doomed Bastards stories. If and when any of that does happen, I’ll post an update here. I’d be happy to give any readers of this story hour a free copy of the final work.