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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
I'm back! This is the final post of Book 5.

* * *

Chapter 123

The holding cells were in the cellar of the Governor’s House, squeezed in among storerooms and sleeping quarters for the lowest-ranking members of his staff. They occupied one corner of the building, four small rooms accessed by a narrow hallway. A narrow, barred window set at ground level—near the ceiling of the cellar—let in a meager light.

A lock in that door rattled, and after a moment the iron-bound portal swung open on creaky hinges. Bredan stepped forward into the hallway alone. He had a lamp in one hand and a small parcel wrapped in cloth in the other. He wasn’t wearing his armor, and if he’d brought his sword he had left it outside. After a moment the door swung shut behind him and the lock clicked shut.

After a moment’s hesitation he started forward down the length of the cell block. The cell doors were made of layered wooden planks that had been generously banded with iron. Each had a horizontal slit in the center, surrounded by more iron banding that jutted out at the bottom of the gap to form a narrow shelf.

Bredan walked all of the way to the last cell. There was a stool there, and he set the lamp on top of it before turning to the door.

“Are you awake?” he asked. “Rodan?”

There was no response, and after a moment Bredan stuffed the parcel into the slot in the door. It barely fit, and jutted out from the opening when he managed to get it wedged in place. “I brought you something to eat,” he said. “It’s not much, just something from the kitchen at the inn. Better than what they have here, probably.”

After a moment, the package wriggled and then disappeared into the darkness beyond the door.

Bredan put the lamp on the floor in front of him and sat down. “I’m sorry about this,” he said. “But you lied to us.”

“I never lied to you,” came a soft voice from the cell.

“Leaving aside the whole disguise thing, you said that the amulet gave you resistance to fire.”

“No,” Rodan said. “I said it was magic, and that I have resistance to fire. Both are true.”

Bredan shook his head. “That’s splitting hairs.”

“Sometimes that’s all I can do. You’re angry because I concealed my true nature from you. You were with Xeeta for a while, yes? Surely you saw how people treat us.”

“I’m not like that.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. For what it’s worth, I was going to tell you. I was about to, when Caleron interrupted us. I wouldn’t… it wasn’t my intent for that to happen.”

“From what I know of illusion magic, I would have found out real quick if things had… progressed,” Bredan said.

“From that discussion in the inn, before the dwarf returned… you have been keeping your own secrets.”

“That’s different,” Bredan said. “That’s something that was done to me, I had no control over it.”

“Yet you chose to keep it from your friends. And I am what I am… I had no control over who… or what my parents are.”

“But Xeeta said you were an assassin. You started to deny it, but after she confronted you with it…”

The voice that came through the door sounded tired. “Then ask her, she’ll tell you.”

“She won’t talk about it. She just says that you and she had both been part of an underground organization in Li Syval, a group that commited crimes and killed people.”

“She’s right.”

“That’s not good enough,” Bredan said. “I want answers.”

“You want answers. Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“I want the truth. I think I deserve that.”

There was a long silence. Finally, Rodan said, “I was born of the union of a mortal woman and a fiend… a creature commonly called a devil. Such entities are rarely drawn to this realm for innocent purposes. This one was summoned on purpose, by a cult in Li Syval that venerated such entities. Or more accurately, perhaps, venerated the power that they could grant.”

“I wasn’t the only one who was created out of such a… joining. Xeeta was another, and a number of others. The cult raised us. Our fiendish progenitors… they did not stick around, let’s just say. The cult trained us to be tools. Weapons. To steal, to destroy, and yes, to kill, when it suited their purposes. The ‘gifts’ that our bloodline grants us make us freaks, but they also make us powerful. You’ve seen some of them. We’re resistant to fire, can see in the dark… and we very often display magical talents as we age.”

“That… that sounds awful,” Bredan said.

“It was all that we knew,” Rodan continued. “The techniques that the cult used to maintain control of their ‘Blooded’—that’s what they called us—were strict. Few of us defied commands more than once. Every now and again one of us would become willful, refuse to cooperate. Maybe it was in their blood. The cult made very those into examples for the rest. I saw it happen once. Needless to say, it was a convincing lesson.”

Bredan, pale, shook his head but didn’t say anything.

“Even though they controlled us so effectively, there were some among us who resisted, who carefully concealed that resistance from all save for a few among the Blooded. For a long time there was nothing they could do. The cult leaders were too careful, and they were on the ascendence. The cult had used its power to rise to a position of influence in Li Syval.”

“Then things began to take a turn for the worse. A new faction arose in the Ruling Council, and there was a backlash against groups that relied on magic for their power. Two prominent figures in the cult were exposed as devil-worshippers, and the population unified against the rest in horror. Our masters were driven underground, back where they had started.”

“We didn’t know much about what was happening at the time. We only saw the wider world on missions, and those were carefully controlled so that there was little risk of revealing our true nature. We were told that if others learned what we were, we’d be executed immediately for the crime of being what we were.”

“A few of us decided it was time to risk escape. We planned every detail, every possible contingency. We had to be careful; even though the cult leaders’ desperation was causing them to send us on more and more missions, they were still watching us closely.”

“I never learned how they found out about our plans. Maybe one of us betrayed us to them; maybe we weren’t as careful as we thought. Maybe it was just bad luck. I don’t know if they decided we were no longer worth the trouble, but I remember it when Keesa—she was one of the oldest among us—she was killed, right in front of me. They came into our quarters and just started killing. I remember picking up a dagger and stabbing one of them. I can still remember what it felt like. I’ve killed a lot of people, Bredan. But somehow that one, I can’t forget her face.”

“In the confusion, a few of us managed to get out. They hadn’t found out all of our secrets, and there was a way out of the complex that they didn’t know about. We… we got separated. There was more fighting, all over the lair. They weren’t just killing us; apparently some members of the cult were settling old scores. I hope they all wiped each other out.”

“Up until the moment I saw Xeeta in that common room, I didn’t know if any of the others had made it out. I ran, and I never stopped running. The amulet helped me escape; I’d used it on some missions to conceal my appearance, and knew how to use it to hide what I was.”

“If you had it, why didn’t you just leave earlier?” Bredan asked.

“They never sent us alone,” Rodan said. “They knew how to turn us against each other. And they knew which of us were close to each other. They knew how to use that, too.”

“Gods,” Bredan said. “Why… if Xeeta was with you, why did she denounce you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she thinks I was the traitor, that I betrayed our plans to escape. Or maybe I’m just a reminder of who… of what we are.”

“I don’t understand,” Bredan said. “If you had the amulet… how did she recognize you?”

“Stupidity,” Rodan said. “I kept my own face, and my name, the name she knew. I took away the features my father gave me, but I kept my own face, otherwise. It was a mistake. But I needed to keep something of myself.”

“That’s not your name?”

“It’s not the name they gave me,” Rodan said. “But some of us, we chose our own names. I should have picked something different, a new name for a new life. But I could not.”

“I want to believe you,” Bredan said. “You fought with us. You risked your life against the chimera. But you weren’t with us when we went to the mine. Kosk said that one of the local leaders was involved, that he helped arrange for some locals to ambush us, to join that mage. Quellan and Glori both think he’s the same one that attacked us with the giants on the road to the valley.”

“I wasn’t involved with that,” Rodan said. “But I see how it looks. Somebody had to tip them off to where you were, that you were going to the mine. Somebody who knew the terrain well enough to set up an ambush.”

“We talked to the miners, they confirmed that you were with them until you got to town.”

“But, I am a tiefling, an acknowledged killer and knave, spawn of the lower planes. If someone could have pulled it off, surely it was one such as I.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Bredan said. “Maybe I’m just some dumb yokel, smart enough to pound metal but nothing better. But I don’t think you’re that good of a liar.”

“You haven’t seen enough of the world yet, my friend.”

“Well… I’m sorry it had to come to this. Maybe we can work it all out when we get back.”

“You’re going then. To investigate this map of yours.”

“Yeah. Like I said. I need answers.”

For a moment the tiefling’s face appeared in the narrow opening in the door. “Be careful, Bredan. I wasn’t lying when I said that the south valley is dangerous. And if there is something important at that spot where the lines of power meet, you might not be the only one drawn to it.”

Bredan nodded. “We’ll be careful.” He picked up the lamp and stood. “I’ll talk to the guards, make sure they treat you okay. Quellan’s already spoken with the Governor. It may be frontier law up here, but there’s still law, and nobody’s proven that you’ve done anything.”

“Well, thanks for that, I suppose.”

“I’m sorry.”

He started to turn away, but Rodan asked, “Xeeta? Is she going with you?”

“I believe so. Her power… it’s quite considerable.”

“She’s always had a gift for magic. Well, good. I’m sure the locals would be happy to toss her in the cell next to mine, if she wasn’t with you.”

“You’re not going to tell me to watch her, that she can’t be trusted?”

“No. If anything, the opposite. None of us are ‘good,’ Bredan. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you the truth sooner, when it could have made a difference. But I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Bredan didn’t respond, he just turned and walked back down the hall to the exit.
 

carborundum

Explorer
Nice! I can't imagine this group is strong enough to get past the elementals yet either. I'm looking forward to how you'll get them all in there :)
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Book 6: PLOT ARCS

Chapter 124

Xeeta shivered as she washed her hands and arms in the icy water of the stream. That was one thing she missed about Li Syval, she thought: the mild southern winters. The strong winds could churn up the waters of the Blue Deep until the surface was like a mountain range, and it could rain so hard that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, but at least it wasn’t cold.

She decided that she’d had enough of a wash—it wasn’t like any of the others were going to smell her over the ripe stink of the men—and reached for the clean shirt she’d brought with her from the camp. But as she started to turn she heard a noise from the forest behind her. Her hand shifted to her rod, tucked in close against her left leg where she could feel its reassuring presence. She could feel the Demon stirring inside her as she tightened her grasp on her arcane focus.

“It’s just me,” Glori said.

Xeeta relaxed her grip and rose, picking up the shirt as she did. She turned as the half-elven woman approached the stream, carrying several of their waterskins.

“Sorry if I startled you,” Glori said.

“No bother,” Xeeta said. She pulled on the clean shirt over her damp undershirt. “Did Bredan send you to look after me?”

“Quellan, actually,” Glori said with a smile as she knelt beside the stream and started refilling the containers. “He does have a point. In this place, we should all be extra careful. No wandering off alone.”

Xeeta looked around, and had to admit that the forest did look rather forbidding as the night settled over it. She had no difficulty with the darkness, one of the “gifts” of her heritage, and their camp was close enough that she could have hit it easily with a thrown rock, hidden in the nook of a fallen tree that offered a ready shelter against the approaching night.

“It’s hard to believe we’re only a day’s walk from Wildrush,” Glori said. “It feels like no one has ever been in this place before.”

“Yes,” Xeeta said, though she knew that such feelings were an illusion, born of the mind’s desire to make sense of things it couldn’t easily process. In reality the forest was just another place, though admittedly one where she did not know the rules. Such places made her nervous, but she was used to keeping such feelings hidden from view, deep inside where no one else could tell they were there.

“I talked with Bredan,” Glori said, shaking each of the filled waterskins to make sure the stoppers were set firmly. “He told me some of the things that Rodan told him. About your time together in Li Syval. I’m sorry for what happened, for what was done to you.”

“The past is the past,” Xeeta said. “But its legacy… one can’t run from it.”

Glori came up to stand next to her. “I know that you only came with us because of a need to prove that you’re different,” she said.

Xeeta shook her head, but the bard’s words were close enough to the truth to give her pause. She had a feeling that if she’d remained in Wildrush, she either would have ended up in a cell next to Rodan or been shown the road at the point of a spear. She’d left plenty of places that way in her past, but after all of the effort she’d put into getting here, all of the buildup she’d allowed herself to apply to the words of a drunk miner, she found that she could not give up on the Silverpeak Valley so easily.

“I hope you don’t regret speaking for me,” Xeeta said. She regretted her own words as soon as they were spoken, but Glori just shook her head.

“I don’t,” she said. “This journey… it’s for Bredan, he needs it. And I have a feeling that he’s going to need all of his friends for this one. I think… I think he was starting to feel close to Rodan. It hit him hard, finding out the way he did.”

“I felt you had a right to know,” Xeeta replied. Her skin coloration meant that she couldn’t blush, but she felt the sting of hypocrisy in her gut as she spoke.

Glori just looked at her. “Let’s get back,” she said. “Or Kosk will have eaten our suppers as well.”

“I’m sure he’s still lamenting the loss of that elk,” Xeeta said. Her thoughts traveled back to their encounter earlier that day, just a few hours after entering the forest. The creature had been the size of a small cottage, the spread of its antlers wide enough to scoop up all of them together in a single lunge. The giant elk had spotted them as the same moment that they’d seen it, and for a long moment the two sides had just stared at each other. Xeeta remembered its eyes, which had shown no fear. Finally, the adventurers had backed away, choosing a different path that took them around the majestic creature.

“That beast’s good eating,” Glori said, in an exaggerated impression of the dwarf that had Xeeta smiling. But her smile faded as they rounded the bulk of the dead tree and returned to their camp.

They had built their fire in a depression formed by the fallen giant, where its glow wouldn’t be readily visible. The three men had already squared away their gear, and Quellan was chopping vegetables to add to their stewpot. He looked up as they approached. “Everything all right?”

“Didn’t see anything, but this forest gives me the creeps,” Glori said.

“I thought you elvish types were supposed to thrive in the deep wood,” Kosk muttered.

“And I thought you dwarves never left your dark and musty and vermin-filled tunnels,” the bard shot back.

“Dwarf holds are nothing like that,” Kosk said. “Vermin,” he added with a snort.

“Yeah, well, none of the elvish forests I’ve been in were anything like this place,” Glori said. “Even in the daylight, it felt… old. And lonely.”

“It’s just a forest,” Quellan said, but the way he looked around as he said it suggested he also felt some of what the bard was describing.

Xeeta went over to her gear and packed away the dirty shirt. She would have tried washing it in the stream, but she doubted it would have been dry by morning, even with the warmth of the fire. When she was done she glanced up and saw Bredan watching her.

The young human had chosen a flat spot a bit away from the others. He had taken out his sword and his sharpening stone, but they sat in his lap, forgotten. He had a haunted look in his eyes, as if seeing something that the rest of them couldn’t. Xeeta could understand that look.

Glori noted the silent exchange between them. “What do you think the chances are that traitor Coop sends somebody after us?”

“I’m not worried about him,” Kosk said. “Men like him are happy to create trouble for someone else, as long as their hands don’t have to get dirty. I’m sure he’s got a nice little bolt-hole somewhere, where he’ll hide nice and cozy until things cool down a bit. I’m thinking that mage is more of a problem.”

“Your friend didn’t know what he wanted?” Xeeta asked.

The dwarf shook his head. “He wasn’t my friend, just another idiot who got in over his head.”

“You should have brought us with you,” Quellan said. “We could have helped to apprehend the bandits, turn them over to the local authorities.”

“They were dealt with,” Kosk said, as much as he’d said on the topic back in Wildrush.

“You were saying, what you learned about the traitor,” Glori prodded.

“The man I talked to said that Coop sold the job as a bit of easy banditry, a quick strike, bunch of new arrivals with gold in their pockets, easy marks.”

“Pretty damned stupid,” Glori said. “Given that we’d already beaten up those giants, and were on our way back from killing a chimera.”

“Yeah,” Kosk said. “But these guys were desperate. They didn’t know what they were in for.”

“And the mage?” Quellan asked.

“He only got a brief look at the man’s face, when they were introduced in town,” Kosk said. “He kept it hidden under a cowl after that. Said it wasn’t anybody he’d seen in Wildrush before.”

“So they tried to kill us on the word of some stranger,” Glori said. “For the promise of some gold.”

“Men have killed for less,” Xeeta said.

“In that line of work, you learn not to ask too many questions,” Kosk said. “We turned over the description and the names of the other men who ambushed us to the Governor. Not sure what else you think we could have done.”

“If we’d had this guy in custody, we could have questioned him more,” Glori said.

“He told me everything he knew,” Kosk insisted.

“So you said,” Glori said. “So we don’t know anything more than we knew before. We don’t know who this mage is, what he wants, or even why he wants us dead.”

“If he was the same guy who was with those giants, it seems like he wanted to keep outsiders away from the Silverpeak Valley,” Quellan said. “It could be that this is connected to the broader war, somehow.”

“Well, iIf they’re going to try anything else against Wildrush, they’ll just have to wait until we get back,” Glori said.

“Do you really think that Rodan is part of it?” Bredan suddenly asked. They were his first words since they’d arrived in camp, and they all looked at him as he spoke them. “That he’s working against us, against the people of Wildrush?”

“I don’t know,” Quellan said after a moment. He glanced over at Xeeta. “It’s an odd coincidence. There wasn’t anyone else who knew where we would be, and when.”

“Unless one of the miners set us up,” Glori pointed out.

“I find it difficult to believe that those beetles were in on some bloody plot,” Kosk said. “As for that ranger, he wasn’t what he said he was. That we know for a fact.”

Glori and Quellan looked at Xeeta, who stared into the fire for a long moment before speaking. “And he’s a tiefling,” she said.

“That isn’t what I meant, girl,” the dwarf growled.

“No. But it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t think it, then you’re bigger fools than I thought.”

“Xeeta,” Quellan said.

“No, don’t say it,” Xeeta said. “There’s a reason why people don’t trust my kind. It’s not just an unfortunate stereotype. I know you didn’t trust me at first, and you were smart not to do so.”

“Trust works both ways,” Kosk said. “If you hadn’t been in your true form when we found you in those kobold caves, would you have told us what you were?”

“No,” Xeeta said at once. “And you’re right. But the lessons I learned about trust were hard-won. It took me as long as it did to trust you as it did for you to trust me. Assuming you do.”

“Of course we do, Xeeta,” Quellan said. “We’ve already had this discussion.”

“I know, and I know you understand better than most, Quellan,” she said. She looked at Bredan. “But I need you to understand.”

“Rodan risked his life to help us, to help the people of Wildrush,” Bredan said. “He told me about his past… your past. About how you, both of you, were abused by that cult in Li Syval. The things they did to you… what they did to make you what you were. But you escaped, you changed. Maybe he did too.”

“Maybe he did,” Xeeta said. “But all I can remember is how he left us to die.”

She saw the change in his expression, and her lips twisted. “So. He didn’t tell you that part, did he? When we finally made our desperate effort to get away, several of us were trapped by the fighting. I saw Rodan. He could have helped us, even a small distraction could have helped us get clear. But that would have put himself at risk. He not only left us, he let us serve as a distraction to help him get away. The others that were with me, they were all killed. I was taken. They hurt me. It was only the blindest luck that let me get away before they could do any more. So feel pity for him, Bredan. It testifies to your good heart that you do. But just be certain that he deserves your pity.”

She got up and stalked out of the camp. Glori started to rise, but Kosk said, “Let her go.”

“There are times when I have to remember how lucky I have been,” Quellan said softly.

“We’re all lucky to have each other,” Glori said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 125

The adventurers got an early start the next morning, resuming their journey south through the densely wooded floor of the valley. The forest remained almost preternaturally silent, even the wind growing calm until they could almost hear the pounding of the blood rushing through their bodies. The canopy was thick enough overhead that there wasn’t much undergrowth, but the land was rugged enough that they made only a slow but steady progress as the day advanced.

They paused for a brief lunch from their stores, as none of them really had the skill to successfully forage for fresher fare. Bredan’s uncle had taught him how to hunt, and how to identify edible foods in the hills around Crosspath, but his attention remained focus on the journey, and their destination. The others would occasionally glance over to see his gazed fixed on a distant point to the south. No matter how their path twisted and turned to negotiate obstacles, his attention always remained on that same spot.

They had walked for maybe two more hours since their break when the ground began to rise ahead of them. The forest thinned as the terrain grew rockier, and they could see the stark outlines of steep cliffs rising ahead.

“We’re running out of room,” Glori said. She glanced over at Bredan, but he looked no less determined, his focus now on a spot slightly east of due south.

They came to a stream that gurgled over bare rock as it made its way down into the valley. They forded it without difficulty, and entered another stand of trees that extended almost to the base of another cliff that grew steadily closer.

Finally, they emerged from the wood to find a rocky ravine spreading out in front of them. A crumbling slope descended into it. The depression extended for a few hundred paces before ending abruptly at the sheer cliff they’d spotted earlier. Tangles of growth sprouted up here or there when there was enough soil to support them, though none of them were thick enough to offer a serious barrier.

But the dominant feature of the ravine was a massive mound of rock that rose up from the far side of the ravine, near the base of the cliff. Pillars of stone rose in front of it, flanking a cleft that penetrated into the interior. From their current vantage, it wasn’t clear what waited for them inside that space, but it was too obvious to be anything but what they were looking for.

“This is the place,” Bredan said, putting their thoughts into words.

“There’s a strange presence here,” Xeeta said, rubbing her arms as she looked around. “I feel as though something is watching us.”

“Any idea of what we’ll find in there?” Glori asked, looking at Bredan. “Bredan?”

He started and looked at her as if surprised to see her. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Only one way to find out,” Kosk said. “Let’s go.”

With that the dwarf started forward, leading them down into the ravine.

The mound appeared even larger as they approached it, easily twice the size of the inn back in Wildrush. The cleft that had appeared narrow from the edge of the ravine was now wide enough to easily allow several of them to enter side-by-side without feeling crowded. They could see that it widened into a small clearing once past the entry, and as they got closer they could see what looked like a dark cave mouth within.

“I guess that’s our destination,” Glori commented. None of the others said anything; they were all busy looking around or touching their weapons. All of them could feel the vague sense of disquiet that Xeeta had commented on earlier.

Kosk paused as he neared the closest of the pillars that flanked the entry. They all appeared to be natural, with none of the markings that would have indicated that they had been placed here deliberately. However, it was obvious now that what had looked like a cave earlier was a worked passage, the narrow opening flanked by huge blocks of rough-hewn stone.

“We’re a long way from anything,” Glori said. “I wonder who built this?”

“It’s not the first such place we’ve encountered in our travels,” Quellan said.

“Yeah,” Glori said. “Seems to be one every time we turn around, almost.”

“We need to go inside,” Bredan said. He started forward, but stopped when Kosk shot an arm out in front of him.

“Better let me go first,” the dwarf said. “I don’t trust anything about this place.”

The others followed after him, carefully examining every shadow and every crevice that came into view as they approached. The interior of the cleft was studded with massive boulders, leaving plenty of potential hiding places for an ambush or a trap.

But when the trap was sprung, it wasn’t anything hiding behind the boulders.

A deep rumble was all the warning that they got before one of the boulders rose up and shifted toward them. Arms and legs erupted from its sides, one of the former slamming down toward Kosk even as it took shape. The dwarf planted the end of his staff and used it to push off, springing backwards so quickly that he almost collided into Bredan.

“What the…” Glori began, but before she could finish she was overwhelmed by the sound of the animated boulder striking the ground where Kosk has been standing. The ground shook from the impact, and dust flew up in a plume around its misshapen fist. It was joined by a second entity a moment later, which stepped out from the opposite side of the canyon to face them.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 126

Glori had an arrow out and fitted to her bowstring before the reverberations of the creature’s strike stopped echoing off the canyon walls, but she held her shot, perhaps doubting whether the mundane missile would have any effect against these beings. The two creatures blocked their way forward, but made no move to pursue them back into the narrower space of the cleft. “Elementals?” she asked.

“I am not certain,” Xeeta said. “I sense no animating intelligence within them. Guardians, perhaps.”

“Well, I’m not afraid of a couple of hunks of rock,” Kosk said. He started to take a step forward before Quellan grabbed him by the shoulder. “Wait,” the cleric said. “They are not attacking. Maybe their mandate is only to prevent entry.”

“I’m not sure how that changes our situation,” Kosk said. He looked over at Bredan. The young fighter had drawn his sword, but he kept the blade low as he took a step toward the stone guardians.

“Bredan, careful,” Glori said.

Bredan acknowledged her with a nod, but continued to slide forward until he was directly in front of the two boulder-creatures. Neither had moved, but there was still something malevolent in their sheer size and obvious strength.

“I’m sorry,” Bredan said. “I have to pass.”

“Who’s he talking to?” Kosk asked, but desisted at a shushing gesture from Glori.

“It wasn’t my idea,” Bredan said, staring up at the blank faces of the guardians. “I was called to this place.”

“Look!” Glori hissed, but none of them could have missed the form that emerged from the far wall of the canyon, right next to the dark passageway that led into the mound. At first glance it resembled the animated boulders, but as it took on a humanoid shape and stepped forward they could see a pair of softly glowing points and other features that approximately resembled a face.

“Okay, now that one has an animating intelligence,” Xeeta said.

“What is it?” Glori asked.

“I don’t know,” Quellan said. “Some kind of elemental creature.”

“Are we going to have to kill it?” Kosk asked.

“Bredan seems to know something about this place,” Quellan said. “I suggest we follow his lead… but be ready.”

“Yeah, I’ll scrape him up off the ground when those things stomp him,” Kosk said, but he held his ground as the elemental being came forward to confront Bredan. Its animated servants stepped back to make room for it as it approached, but were still within easy reach of the human warrior.

The thing stopped right in front of Bredan, close enough that he had to crane his head up to look it in the “face”. They stood like that for a full minute, gazing at each other in silence, while the rest of the group watched tensely.

Finally, the stone creature tilted slowly, lowering one massive arm. It touched Bredan’s sword, and lifted it until the blade was between them. The afternoon sunlight failed to reach all of the way down to the bottom of the canyon, but for a moment the steel almost seemed to glow.

Then the creature leaned forward. Bredan started to draw back, reflexively pulling on the sword, but the thing still had its hand under it and it adjusted its grip so he couldn’t get free. The tip of the sword touched its chest and then slid effortlessly into the solid mass of its body. Bredan’s eyes widened as the stone creature came apart, crumbling into rubble. The sword came down again as its body disintegrated around the weapon in a loud clatter of falling stone. The animated boulders quickly followed, until there was nothing left except for three uneven mounds of debris.

The others entered the canyon behind Bredan, carefully moving around the mounds of rubble. “What was that all about?” Glori asked.

Bredan turned and looked at her. “You keep asking me, like I know what’s going on.”

“They seemed willing to let you pass,” Kosk said. “If the rest of the defenses of this place are equally accommodating, then this will be easier than I thought.”

“Do you think that’s likely?” Glori asked.

“No,” the dwarf said.

“We should get out of the open,” Xeeta said. “I still sense something… not right.”

They made their way to the rectangular tunnel mouth. It was dark inside, but a thick, cloying odor greeted them as they approached.

“Gah, smells like something died,” Glori said.

“Soemthing did,” Kosk said.

Quellan paused to summon light, fixing it to the tip of his mace. The magical glow pushed back the darkness and revealed a messy corpse lying a short distance within the passage. There wasn’t much left of it, just some bloodstained scraps of fur and what might have been pieces of clothing.

“Wait here,” Kosk said. He moved warily into the passage, tapping the walls and floor with his staff, examining every inch of the ancient stonework before sliding his feet forward. He crouched over the remains, and after a moment turned with something in his hand.

“Hand axe,” he said. “Goblin make.”

“Goblins,” the others said together, staring at each other in surprise.

“So they are here,” Glori said.

“One goblin does not an army make,” Quellan said.

“I’d say this was once a worg,” Kosk said, poking at the furry remnants with the tip of his staff.

“Do you know what killed them?” Xeeta asked.

“I’d say being crushed,” Kosk replied. He looked up at the ceiling, then back at them. “Sure you want to do this?”

He was looking at Bredan, and after a moment the young warrior nodded. “There’s something here, something important.”

Kosk nodded. “Step exactly where I step, touch only what I touch.”

The dwarf led them forward into the passage. Bredan followed a few steps behind him, then Glori, Quellan, and finally Xeeta bringing up the rear. The cleric held up his mace for the others’ benefit, though there wasn’t much to see except for bare stone blocks, joined together so that the seams were barely visible. The corridor ran straight into the interior of the mound for as far as they could see.

With Kosk moving so slowly, the others had to wait for him to clear the route ahead before they could advance. Quellan took advantage of the delay to turn to Glori. “I’d like you to wear the ring again,” he said. He started to reach for his pouch, but she stopped him with a hand on his.

“Not this time,” she said. “I understood the logic of it, before, even though I still disagree with you not telling me about the nature of the Warding Bond. But here… we’re entering another ancient shrine, one that we know nothing about. You’re the priest of knowledge, and you know more about these kinds of places than any of us.” She smiled at him. “This might be one of the rare instances when you’re more important to the group than me.”

He smiled back at her, and nodded.

“I think he’s ready,” Bredan said to them, drawing their attention back to the passage. Kosk had moved about ten steps ahead, and was gesturing for them to follow. One by one they made their way toward him.

Xeeta was just stepping over the mangled remains of the goblin and its steed when she heard something behind her. Turning back toward the canyon, she felt the stone settle slightly as her foot settled on it.

There was a loud rumbling directly above her. She didn’t hesitate, but desperately threw herself forward. Quellan caught her and dragged her out of the way just as a massive slab of stone came crashing down from above, sealing the passage behind them. For a moment she could only stare at the solid block that was close enough for her to touch without extending her arm.

“Thanks,” she said to the half-orc.

“That… was close,” Glori said.

“That was careless,” Kosk said. “Did you not listen to me, earlier?”

“Give her a break,” Glori said. “Nobody got hurt.”

“This time,” the dwarf said. “And now our way out is blocked.”

“The trap reset before,” Quellan said. “There’s no sense in lamenting things that we cannot change. We still have one way to go: forward.”

“All right,” Kosk said. “Stay alert this time.”

They resumed their way forward, but Kosk had only covered another fifteen steps when he stopped and raised his hand. “There’s something up ahead, a room, I think.”

Still checking every inch of the passage, the monk crept forward, the others following until the light coming from Quellan’s mace spilled out into a larger space ahead. He paused at the entrance to the room, crouching so that the others could see past him into the interior space.

The light revealed an octagonal vault, roughly twenty-five feet across. Its walls were the same unmarked blocks that made up the passage, but at the ceiling they gave way to a curving dome that reached its apex at least fifteen feet above the floor. There was one other exit immediately visible, an identical-looking passage in the wall to their left.

But the most striking feature of the room was directly ahead.

A massive stone seat rose against the far wall, facing toward them. It was occupied by a skeletal figure, clad in the remnants of what might have once been ceremonial robes. Wisps of that fabric still clung to its skull, which lay canted against one of the tall stone posts that flanked the back of the throne. A metal object, possibly a scepter or rod of some sort, lay tucked between one arm and its body.

“That does not look promising,” Glori said.

“Let’s wait for trouble to appear before we go asking for it,” Kosk growled. Still probing with his staff, he edged forward into the room. But he’d managed just a few steps when there was a sound in response, a low chuckle that seemed to come from thin air.

“Oh, you had to say it,” Bredan said. He unbuckled his baldric and snapped his sword into his hand as he stepped into the room, moving to the side to give the others room to come in. Glori followed with an arrow fitted to her bowstring, Quellan in her shadow with his shield on his left arm and his mace raised high in his right.

None of them had forgotten the skeletal guardian, so they were not unduly surprised when its skull creaked upright, the linen scraps draped over it disintegrating as it moved. But none of them could have expected what happened next, as the skull suddenly burst into green flames that formed a bright halo around it. Within that emerald radiance, two points of bright red materialized within the eye sockets of the skull, piercing them with a malevolent stare.

“Oh, damn it, damn it,” Glori said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 127

Glori followed her curse with action, raising her bow and sighting in quickly before releasing her shot. The arrow lanced across the vault and caromed off the top of the skull, briefly flashing as the flames surrounding it vaporized the feathers on its end.

Kosk was already moving forward, his staff coming up into a ready position, but before he could get close enough to attack the undead guardian responded to the attack. The skull detached from the skeletal remnants and rose into the air, leaving behind a flickering trail of green flames behind it. It quickly rose out of their reach, ascending into the dome above them. The flames wreathing it suddenly intensified, the halo spreading until the outline of the skull was just a vague blur within them.

“Bloody hell!” the dwarf cursed in frustration as his foe evaded him.

Quellan and Xeeta stepped into the room together, the cleric stepping to one side of the entry while the tiefling slid to the other. Xeeta raised her rod and conjured a series of flame blasts that lashed up at the floating skull. The first two scorching rays passed harmlessly through its halo, impacting the stone of the dome without effect, but the last found its target, scoring a direct hit. But when the flames faded, the skull continued on its drifting course unharmed.

“It’s immune to fire,” she reported, stating the obvious.

“Let’s see if it can withstand divine energy,” Quellan said. He lifted his holy symbol and invoked his patron god. The sigil glowed, and the cleric’s voice deepened with the thrum of power as he said, “By the power of Hosrenu, I command you to be gone from this place, dark spirit!”

For a moment the fiery nimbus flickered, and the companions held their collective breaths. But it was the priest’s radiance that faltered first, and the skull continued its weaving path unhindered as another mocking laugh echoed through the air.

Kosk snarled a curse in response, and turned toward his companions. “Bredan! A boost!”

The young warrior had stood there with his sword still sheathed while his companions attacked, uncertain of what to do. He still had his crossbow, but doubted that he’d have any more luck with it than Glori had. But as the dwarf charged toward him he grasped his sword in both hands, one on the hilt and the other halfway down the scabbard. When Kosk leaped he absorbed the sudden weight and then thrust upward with all his strength, letting out a growl of effort as he did so. The monk shot up toward the ceiling. The skull was floating in the other direction, but as he neared the rim of the dome Kosk kicked off and spun toward it, lashing out with his staff right at the core of the burning field of energy that surrounded it. For a moment it looked like his strike was perfect, but then it rebounded from a shimmering barrier that surrounded its form.

“It’s got a shield!” Glori said.

“Layered defenses,” Xeeta said. “This is no mundane guardian.”

His momentum spent, gravity inevitably took hold and Kosk fell. He lashed out with a hand as he dropped, but the skull easily avoided the strike. The dwarf dropped into a roll as he hit the floor, absorbing most of the force of the landing.

Glori fired another arrow at it, but this one had even less effect than the first, passing through the halo of flames before shattering on the hard stone of the dome. “What do we do?” she yelled as she reached for another arrow.

“I’m happy to listen to ideas!” Bredan shouted back. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword, and he felt something stir, either in the blade or in himself, he wasn’t certain. But he had no idea what the magic was, or how it could help him against this foe.

Before he had a chance to figure it out, however, the flameskull responded. The skull stopped its weaving and tilted so that the glowing points of its eyes were visible through the burning haze of its blur spell. Its jaw dropped open, and it spat out a tiny bulb of fire that pulsed as it dropped toward the floor and its foes.

Xeeta’s eyes widened in recognition. “Take cover!” she shouted as she dove toward the passage where they’d entered. But there was nowhere for the rest of them to hide before the shining bead stopped at eye-level and exploded into a fireball.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 128

All Bredan could do was close his eyes and protect his face with one arm before the fireball hit. Flames filled the air around him, and he bit off a scream as they scorched his exposed flesh. He staggered a step back, resisting the instinct to take a breath that he knew would sear his lungs.

The blast was instantaneous, but it felt like an eternity before he could open his eyes and breathe again. The first breath still burned in his chest and set off a spell of coughing as he looked around. The skeletal remains in the stone throne had caught fire and had added a lurid glow to the radiance cast by Quellan’s mace. The half-orc had caught the full force of the blast and looked like only sheer will was keeping him upright; the skin of his face was charred and blackened. He’d moved to shelter Glori, who looked to be singed but intact. Kosk had also avoided the worst of it by darting into the meager cover offered by the other passage.

Looking up, Bredan saw the skull, still floating above them, thus far barely touched by anything they had managed to unleash at it. And its first attack had almost destroyed them.

The part of his mind that was still capable of coherent thought was yelling at him to flee, but the way behind was blocked and the far passage offered only the promise of worse dangers ahead. Instead Bredan let out a feral roar and drew his sword, tossing the scorched leather scabbard aside. He felt the stirring of magic he’d felt earlier and embraced it. He felt a surge of energy fill his body, gathering in the muscles of his legs. He lifted his sword and charged forward several steps before leaping straight up into the air. That coherent bit acknowledged that he had easily cleared his own height as he rose toward the dome above, but the rest of him was already sighting in on his target.

The skull started to evade, but Bredan’s sword gave him the advantage of reach, and he took full advantage of it. The undead caster had refreshed its shield, but Bredan expected the resistance and drove through it. The tip of the blade drove into the burning aura and clipped something hard, and then the two were flying apart, the skull bouncing off the stone edge of the dome while the warrior dropped back to the floor of the vault.

Glori was looking at him with her jaw dropped, but she quickly recovered. “Keep pressing it!” she yelled, firing another arrow that made it past the shield only to get lost within the blurring effect of its fiery halo. Quellan was wavering, but he raised his holy symbol again and fired off a guiding bolt that slammed into its shield but failed to penetrate, briefly surrounding the thing with a flashy display of conflicting magics. The skull, emerging from that bright but harmless clash with a crack just visible over one eye socket, fixed its attention on Bredan as it gathered its magic for another assault.

But before it could strike, Kosk emerged from the passage where he’d taken shelter from the fireball. The dwarf ran at a full charge, not directly at the skull, but at the far wall of the chamber. He kept on running as he reached it, using his momentum to carry him two strides up the sheer stone surface before he kicked off into another leap. The skull tried to evade, but Kosk thrust his staff forward like a spear, trying to penetrate its defenses. The shield flared as he struck, deflecting the blow, but he used the force of the impact to spin himself around, lashing out with one foot that managed to tear through the barrier weakened by his strike. It looked to Bredan like it would hit, but the blow only caught empty flames, and Kosk dropped to the ground without having hurt it at all for all his efforts.

Even as he touched down, the skull unleashed another counter attack. It spun in mid-air, and Bredan barely had time to register that its fiery eyes were fixed on him before a stream of flames blasted down toward him. He reacted reflexively, bringing his sword up to parry, and while the steel was of no use against the assault the translucent shield that formed over it repelled the burning streak.

“Yes, Bredan!” Glori yelled.

But the bard’s cheer hadn’t finished echoing off the walls of the vault when the flameskull showed it wasn’t finished. Even as Kosk rolled back to his feet again it spun to track him. Quellan saw it and warned, “Kosk, look out!”

The dwarf reacted immediately, launching into another roll. He nearly got clear, but the trailing edge of the flame burst clipped him in the shoulder, igniting his robe. Kosk barely slowed, tearing the burning garment off and leaving him clad only in a breechclout and sandals.

“It’s too strong,” Glori said, as another arrow missed its target. “What can we do?”

“No mortal caster could maintain this level of energy output for long,” Xeeta said. She had her rod at the ready but held onto her magic, which had thus far proven ineffective against the undead entity.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this isn’t a mortal caster,” Glori said.

“All we can do is hope to wear it down,” the tiefling said in response.

“Bredan managed to hit it,” Glori said. “Bredan, can you do that jumping thing again?”

Bredan could still feel the magic pouring through his body, but he’d held off on another leap. Having seen and felt the effects of its protective shield and obscuring blur, he knew that his first hit had been blind luck. Even as Glori called to him he was trying something else, concentrating on the skull, trying to find a way to pierce its confounding sorcery. He could feel the hilt of his sword growing warm in his hand. He still had no idea what exactly he was doing, but he let himself follow his instinct, to let the magic flow freely through him.

“Bredan?” Glori repeated. Her friend didn’t respond, and for a moment she worried that he’d been ensnared by some kind of mental magic. But before she could do anything else to intervene Xeeta shouted a warning.

“It’s attacking again!”

Glori looked up as the skull reached the far side of the dome and spun to face them again. The nimbus of fire around it coalesced around it until it formed a ball the size of an apple within its jaws. Once again it spat out its prize, and Glori tensed reflexively in anticipation of another blast. But this time the ball didn’t explode. Instead, it swelled in size as it dropped, until it hit the ground the size of a wagon wheel. The flaming sphere bounced lightly and started rolling across the room toward them.

Glori quickly gauged its target. “Bredan look out!” she warned. But caught in whatever reverie held him, he didn’t react.

She and Quellan both started forward, but Xeeta beat them to it. She leapt in front of Bredan and jammed her rod into the stone floor in front of her. The rolling sphere struck it and rebounded. The sorceress gritted her teeth as the flames splashed around her, searing her even through her natural resistance. But the contact only lasted a moment before the sphere was diverted. It quickly started to roll back around for another run, but she’d diverted it for a few precious moments.

Kosk was already running back toward them. Seeing Bredan’s distraction, he yelled, “Quellan!” The cleric had fortified himself with a cure wounds spell, and as he turned around he immediately saw what the dwarf had in mind. He dropped to one knee, raising his shield.

Repeating the trick he’d done with Bredan earlier, Kosk used the cleric as a springboard for another leap. Quellan gave him even more of a boost than the smith had, and he flew up to where the skull waited. Summoning the sphere had cost it the wreath of flames that had protected it earlier, but as the monk swung his staff he once again hit the translucent barrier of its shield. But this time the dwarf was ready for it. As the skull moved to set up another attack he bounced off the far side of the dome and rebounded. The skull realized it had been tricked and started to turn back toward him, but before it could Kosk let out a sharp sound and drove his palm down into its forehead. As his hand struck the shield there was a flash of light followed by an impact that drove the skull down and back. It dropped halfway down to the floor, and for a moment the flames that still glowed within it flickered. The flaming sphere disappeared.

As he fell, Kosk yelled, “It’s all yours, boy!”

Almost if he’d been waiting for those words, Bredan’s head came up. The others started in surprise as they saw a soft glow shining within his eyes. He leapt, and once more he seemed to rise almost effortlessly into the air. As he started to come back down he brought his sword down in a glittering arc that smashed into the skull, shattering it into a thousand pieces. They skittered into every corner of the room as Bredan landed, falling into a crouch with the sword held parallel to the ground.

“Now that, that was cool,” Glori said.
 

carborundum

Explorer
“Now that, that was cool,”
You're not kidding!

The shield spell seems to be more powerful in 5e! Do you still play the combats out before writing?

( I looked up the flame skull. It's AC doesn't seem anywhere near as high as I'd expected from the description, but we still play 3.5 )
 
Last edited:

Lazybones

Explorer
You're not kidding!

The shield spell seems to be more powerful in 5e! Do you still play the combats out before writing?

( I looked up the flame skull. It's AC doesn't seem anywhere near as high as I'd expected from the description, but we still play 3.5 )
I don't roll dice, but this fight in particular I sketched out round-by-round in my notes because of all of the spells and the complications added by the layout of the room (which allowed the skull to remain out of melee range). I agree that shield is quite potent in the new rules since it's essentially a free cast as a reaction, and combined with blur makes a potent defensive combination.

* * *

Chapter 129

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Glori and Quellan used their magic to treat the worst of their injuries.

“We’re all pretty beat up,” Kosk said. Without his robe, the others could see the taut lines of his body and the many scars he bore. “Might be a good idea to take a brief rest, use that ritual you have to restore us.”

“We can’t stay here,” Quellan said.

“What do you mean?” Glori asked.

“That thing… I know what it was,” Quellan said. “It was a flameskull, an undead guardian created from the corpse of a wizard.”

“That’s why it could cast spells,” Xeeta said. “It was drawing from the knowledge it possessed in life.”

“Why would anyone agree to do such a thing?” Bredan asked. “To be transformed so?”

“I think he meant that the wizard was already dead,” Glori said. “Or at least, that it wasn’t a voluntary thing.”

“I still don’t see what that has to do with us staying here,” Kosk said.

“The account I read,” Quellan said, “it didn’t go into much detail, but one point that was very clear was that the entity can reconstitute after it has been destroyed.”

They all looked around nervously at that. The fragments of the skull were scattered around the room, none of them larger than a gold piece. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kosk said.

“How long does it take to return?” Xeeta asked.

“I don’t know,” Quellan said.

“How do you destroy it permanently?” Bredan asked.

“Holy water,” Quellan said. “Or a ritual to remove the curse that binds it to unlife.”

“Let me guess, we don’t have either of those things,” Xeeta said.

“So you’re telling me that we’re going to have to tussle with that bastard again on our way out of here?” Kosk asked.

“That assumes that we can even go back this way,” Glori said. “We don’t know how long it takes the trap blocking the entrance to reset.” She pointed back toward the entrance corridor, which remained dark and silent.

“All right, we’d better get moving, then,” Kosk said. He started to turn toward the far corridor, but Glori interrupted him. “Ah… aren’t you forgetting something?”

The dwarf stopped and looked at her. “What?”

Glori gestured to his bare frame. “Ahem.”

Kosk shook his head. “I’m fine.”

“Well, we’re not.” The bard looked over at Xeeta. “I’m going to go ahead on behalf of the female membership in our group and insist on a minimal dress code for this expedition.”

Bredan snorted, and Quellan smiled as he said, “I think I have an extra shirt in my pack.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Kosk said, but when Quellan produced the shirt he pulled it on. It hung on him even more loosely than his robe had, but it seemed to provide enough coverage to suit Glori. Shaking his head, he tore a strip off the bottom and used it to fashion an impromptu belt.

While that was going on, Xeeta had gone over to the throne. The flames had died out as the desiccated remains of the skeleton had been consumed, but the rod they’d seen earlier was still there, propped against the arm of the stone chair. She drew it out carefully and brushed off some of the soot covering it. It was about the length of her forearm, made of bronze that was discolored with age. Runes etched into the metal were just visible along its length.

“What’s that?” Bredan asked.

Xeeta held it up to catch the light from Quellan’s mace. “I’m not certain. I don’t sense any active properties of arcana from it, but it may be masked. It may just be an arcane focus, like my rod. Any objections to me keeping it for now?”

“As long as you keep it while we’re leaving,” Kosk said. He looked a bit ridiculous with the oversized shirt trailing past his knees, but he was able to maintain a certain gravitas as he led them down the other passage, still checking carefully for traps or other concealed hazards.

The corridor started out much like the first, but quickly made a sharp right after about twenty feet. As they rounded the corner they could see that the passage widened slightly into a broad niche before it ended in a stone wall that was dominated by an odd doorway.

“Huh, that’s…” Glori began.

“Don’t say it,” Bredan warned.

She shot him a wry look. “I was just going to say that it looks weird.”

The ‘weird’ door was set in a ring of stone blocks that protruded slightly from the surrounding wall. It was a disk of stone a few shades darker than the rest of the construction, a deep gray that approached black. The disk was a full six feet across, and carved into the exaggerated features of a misshapen face. The blank eyes of the relief seemed to watch them as they approached.

“There are no hinges,” Glori noted.

“Maybe it rolls to the side?” Bredan suggested.

“That would be too easy, I think,” the bard replied.

Kosk examined the door and its lintel carefully before tapping it with his staff. “Solid,” he said. “Going to be heavy.”

“You think it is a straight lift?” Quellan asked.

“Only one way to find out,” the dwarf said. He handed his staff back to Bredan and then probed at the carvings on the door before finding a good grip on the lower lip of the carving. He tried to shift it to each side, and though his muscles bulged through his new shirt his efforts had no apparent effect.

“It looks like it’s in a channel that’s straight up and down,” Kosk reported.

“We’ll have to try it together,” Bredan said. “No way we’ll all fit, though.”

“Kosk in the middle, Bredan and I to each side,” Quellan suggested.

The men put their weapons away and stepped up to the slab. The features carved into it were just prominent enough for them to get a good grip, the dwarf crouched between the two larger men.

“All right, on three,” Quellan said. “One, two, three!”

The three men grunted with effort as they strained at the door. The slab shifted slightly, suggesting that it could at least be moved, but before they could lift it any higher Bredan’s left hand slipped and it settled back into place.

“That’s not going to be easy,” Quellan said.

“Look at it this way,” Glori said. “At least the skull’s not going to be able to open it.”

“Unless it knows a magic word that just causes it to pop open,” Bredan said.

“Can we do less chatter about worst-case scenarios and just lift the bloody slab?” Kosk asked.

The three men got back into position. Bredan pulled off his gloves and tucked them into his belt, and then laid his sword in its scabbard against the wall next to the door.

Glori began strumming her lute, repeating a simple rhythm that evoked a drum being struck. Bredan shot her a stern look, thinking maybe that she was mocking them, but at a grunt from Kosk he turned back to the door.

Once again, the three of them bent their will and their collective strength to the slab. The stone disk moved, reluctantly, scraping loudly against the channels in which it rested. It rose an inch into the air, and then two, finally revealing a narrow crack underneath it as it cleared the frame of the door.

“Keep pushing!” Kosk growled.

Glori intensified the pace of her playing. The music swirled around them, driving the men. Xeeta made a gesture and a softly glowing mage hand appeared near the top of the door, adding a small increment of lift to the effort.

The men heaved again, and the door rose another two inches. “We can put something under it,” Bredan gasped out.

“We can’t risk it getting wedged!” Kosk said, grunting with effort. “Keep pushing! Push, damn you, push!”

The door rose another inch. Quellan dropped one hand and grabbed hold of it from below, risking his fingers to get a better hold. He leaned in and let out a feral sound from deep within, straining to push the door higher.

“That’s it!” Glori yelled, her fingers pounding the strings of her lyre. “You’re doing it!”

The door rose in short jerks. When it got high enough Kosk got under it, pushing directly at it from below. Bredan took over his grip on the stone mouth. The dark opening under the door continued to expand, revealing another dark chamber beyond.

“Glori!” Quellan said. “The mace!”

The bard responded immediately, grabbing the weapon from Quellan’s belt and thrusting it into the widening gap. It revealed a small room, maybe twenty feet square, devoid of any complex features or obvious threats.

“Clear!” she said.

“Go through!” Bredan said. “You and Xeeta!”

The two women complied, squeezing between him and Kosk. Xeeta brought Bredan’s sword with her.

“You next,” Quellan said to Kosk. The half-orc shifted so that he was under the door, the curved stone resting on his shoulder.

“Don’t let it slide an inch, or it’ll crush you,” the dwarf warned. He quickly spun to the other side of the door while maintaining his pressure on it from below.

“Noted,” Quellan said. “Bredan, move to the other side.”

“Got it,” the fighter said. Keeping his hands on the door, he duplicated Kosk’s move. “There are no carvings on this side,” he said. “We won’t be able to keep it up for long.”

“Understood,” Quellan said.

“Ready when you are,” Kosk said.

“Now!”

Kosk and Bredan gave a final heave, and Quellan ducked under the door. As he cleared it the slab came slamming down. The impact seemed to shake the room, but that might have just been the intensity of the sound on their senses.

“They probably heard that back in Wildrush,” Glori said.

Kosk ran a hand over the interior face of the slab, which was completely smooth. “Well, we’re not heading back this way anytime soon. So, where are we?”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
We can have Monday cliffhangers too!

* * *

Chapter 130

The room was slightly smaller than the vault where they’d confronted the flameskull, a bare cube with few distinguishing features. The remains of what might have been a stone font jutted from one wall, now cracked and dry. There was one other exit, an uneven slit in the opposite corner that led to another dark passage. An examination in that direction revealed a set of steps that descended in a gentle curve to a subterranean level of the complex.

Kosk licked his finger and held it in front of the opening. “Air moving,” he said.

“Think there might be another way out down there?” Glori asked.

“To save him the trouble of saying it, there’s only one way to find out,” Bredan said.

“Aye, but we’re in no shape for another fight,” Kosk said. “Time to make with the healing, I think.”

That was too good a suggestion to argue, so they settled down for a short rest. Kosk folded his legs under him and sat down so that a wall was at his back and the exit was right in front of him. Quellan unfolded his prayer mat from his pack and spread it out. He knelt and placed his mace and holy symbol on the fabric in front of him, then closed his eyes and began the soft chants of his prayer of healing.

Glori began playing a quiet tune on her lyre. The notes filled the chamber, evoking a place less stark and hostile than the barren interior of the shrine. Bredan drank deeply from his waterskin, then dribbled some water on a rag and used it to clean some of the soot from his face. He grimaced as he touched the fresh burns that hadn’t been fully eased by Glori’s cure wounds magic.

“Are you okay?” Glori asked him. She continued her melody, not bothering with her plectrum, instead flicking the strings lightly with her fingertips.

“Yeah,” he said. “Rather not do that again.”

“Let’s hope that the skull was the worst of it.”

Xeeta came over to them. “You invoked your magic again during that fight,” she said to Bredan.

He looked down at his blackened hands. “Yeah. I didn’t think, I just did it.”

“Perhaps what we do isn’t so dissimilar,” Xeeta said. “My own power is like a river that flows through me. It can be… difficult to control.”

“It seems like it’s coming easier, when I need it to,” Bredan said. “But it’s not something I can just do, like you both do.” He held up his hand and made a vague somatic gesture, but nothing happened.

“It took me three years to learn how to control my gift,” Xeeta said. “It was not an easy process.”

“I can’t imagine,” Glori said. “My master… he wasn’t soft by any means, but he never struck me, or belittled me, or asked me to do anything that wasn’t in my own best interest.”

“You were fortunate,” Xeeta said.

“I, ah… excuse me a minute,” Bredan said. He colored slightly as he got up and went to the furthest corner of the room, standing close against the wall. Glori and Xeeta both chuckled as they saw what he was doing.

“I guess survival trumps modesty, in the dungeon,” Glori said.

“Ugh, now I have to go,” Xeeta said.

“You can have this corner,” Glori said as she got up. “I’ll go bother our resident curmudgeon.”

Kosk barely flicked an eye her way as she crossed over to him and sat down, still strumming her lyre. “I can stop if this bothers you,” she said. “It’s just a habit I have. Helps sooth my nerves to play.”

“I suppose the others can use some soothing after what we just went through,” he said.

“So. Still don’t believe that what you do… this ki business… that it isn’t magic?”

“What I do is based on careful training of the body and focused self-control,” he said.

“So you say, but I don’t think I could run straight up a wall, no matter how much I practiced. Let alone punch through magical shields.”

“Most people have no idea what their bodies are capable of,” Kosk said.

“So can you punch through bricks and snap boards and stuff?” she said, winking to confirm she was teasing him.

“Perhaps, if there was need,” the dwarf said with a sigh.

“Cool,” she said.

“I need to meditate,” he said. “Using my ‘magic’ is taxing. It appears I will need to claim a spot quickly while there are still places free of puddles of piss.”

She snorted a laugh. “Go ahead, I’ll keep guard.” She shifted her melody into a tune that evoked a martial air.

“Play that any louder and you’ll draw unwanted attention,” Kosk said. But she knew that as he went over to join Quellan he was making a gesture of trust that she would warn them if something did appear from below to threaten them.

But nothing stirred from the darkness below while they rested. Quellan completed his ritual, and each of them felt their physical pains ease as the healing magic of his patron deity filled the room. They took some of the food from their stores and ate, washing the cold provisions down with water taken from the many mountain streams that poured down into the valley. Rodan had mentioned that there was a lake on the eastern edge of the valley, a long crescent that froze over during the winter months. There were a lot of wonders to this place, Glori thought as she sat quietly and watched the darkness, strumming her lyre softly.

Their short rest extended out to over an hour, but finally they rose and gathered their things in preparation of resuming their explorations. Quellan refreshed his light spell, and with Kosk in the lead they started down the rough-hewn steps.

The stairs curved back in on themselves as they descended, and they’d completed at least one full circle by the time they reached the floor of another chamber. This one had the appearance of a natural cavern, or at least it did until they got a good look at it.

“Wow,” Glori said.

The cavern looked as though it had been formed from two entirely different places that had been shoved rudely together. To their left, the stone was a volcanic gray that was nearly black. The surface was irregular, with shards of the stuff jutting out that looked sharp enough to cut flesh. In the center of the wall, just visible at the edge of their light, there was a stone bowl the size of a bed, large enough that even Quellan could have fit within it comfortably.

The cavern to their right was a sharp contrast. The stone there was smooth and pale, and studded with clear crystals that sparkled in the light from Quellan’s spell. Instead of a stone bowl there was a depression on that side that held a pool full of crystal-clear water.

Where the two sides of the room met, roughly in the center of the floor, there was a jagged, meandering line of black stone, roughly half a step across. The line extended almost to where the plain stone at the foot of the stairs transitioned to the two unique styles of this chamber. The line split at that point, forming a decisive transition between where they stood and the cavern.

“Trap, guardian, or both, do you think?” Xeeta asked.

Kosk opened his mouth, but Glori beat him to it. “Don’t say it,” she said, shooting a quick look at Bredan. “Let’s at least get a good look first, eh?”

She strummed her lyre and invoked her magic. After a few moments a handful of softly glowing globes materialized in the air in front of her. With a wave of her hand she directed them forward, the dancing lights spreading out to illuminate both sides of the cavern. They didn’t reveal anything new at first, but as they reached the far side of the vast chamber the companions could see an arch of plain gray stone, and within that a set of stone doors. It was too far to make out any details; the far exit was over a hundred feet away, almost at the limit of Glori’s spell. She brought the glowing spheres back, checking the ceiling on the way. The cavern was maybe forty feet across at its widest point, the roof reaching a peak about twenty feet above. The jagged black line that separated the two sides extended across the ceiling as well.

“Hmm, an elemental theme,” Glori commented as her lights returned to her and winked out.

“Do we want fire, which I assume the obsidian and the bowl symbolizes, or water?” Quellan asked. “Bredan?”

The warrior shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“Do we have to choose?” Glori asked. “Maybe the line down the middle represents safety, sort of a balance between extremes sort of thing.”

“Or maybe stepping on the line triggers both traps,” Kosk said.

“All things being equal, I think I’d choose water,” Bredan said. “I’ve already been roasted enough for one day.”

“Spoken like a man who’s never been on a ship on high seas,” Xeeta said. “Water can be just as dangerous as fire, and I am at least resistant to the former.”

“I prefer being burned to sitting around listening to your chatter,” Kosk said, stepping forward onto the dark stone to the left of the black streak.

“Legendary monk patience,” Glori commented, but she tensed with the rest of them as they waited for something to happen. But there was no reaction, even when Kosk took another few steps forward.

“Let’s stay together,” Quellan suggested.

“If there is a trap, it might be better for just one of us to spring it,” Xeeta pointed out.

“Perhaps, but I’d feel better if we didn’t get too spread out,” Quellan said.

One by one they followed the dwarf into the cavern, staying clear of the separating line and the pale stone on its other side. Xeeta, again bringing up the rear, was the last to cross the divider. Kosk, in the lead, was about twenty feet from the stone bowl when suddenly a massive column of flames erupted within it.

Heat rushed out from the huge pyre, and the companions reflexively retreated a step back from it. None of them stepped onto the dark divider, but when Glori looked down at it she could see that pale glowing runes had appeared along its length, shining as if embedded within the stone. Glancing up, she could see that they extended all the way across the ceiling as well.

“Something’s happening!” she warned.

“No kidding!” Bredan said as he drew his sword.

“Retreat is blocked!” Xeeta shouted. They turned to see that the opening that led to the staircase was now gone, replaced by a smooth stone wall. The tiefling confirmed that it was real a moment later when she smacked it hard with her rod.

“Other side,” Kosk warned, his voice level and controlled, as if he’d expected something like this all along. The companions looked over to see that the water in the pool had begun churning wildly, as if someone had thrust into it with a giant invisible oar.

“Oh, man,” Bredan said, just before the first guardian revealed itself.

The fire continued to surge, as if the bowl had been filled with logs soaked generously in oil. But even as Bredan spoke the flames moved. Tongues of fire became a tendril that extended out of the bowl, stretching until it touched the floor of the cavern. The tendril thickened until it was strong enough to support the full weight of what was obviously a magical creature, an entity of pure energy.

None of them were surprised when the roiling waters of the pool responded in an echo to the fire-thing’s appearance. The water, spinning until a whirlpool had started to form, suddenly rose up into a tidal wave that splashed up onto the floor of the cavern. It clung together in defiance of the laws of physics and began to surge toward them. On the far side of the room, the fire creature did the same.

“Elementals!” Quellan announced. The look on his face was sufficient warning of the danger they faced, in case the obvious threat of the odd creatures was not enough.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Midweek cliffhanger! Everybody gets a cliffhanger!

* * *

Chapter 131

Kosk didn’t wait for the fire elemental to come to him. He charged forward and lunged in, sweeping at its leg with his staff. The blow seemed to have little effect on it, though the staff came back charred black from the brief contact. But the sheer intensity of the heat pulsing off the creature drove the dwarf back. As he retreated the elemental swept out at him, forming a burning “arm” that slashed out and caught him on the side before he could get out of the way. He stumbled back, his new tunic already starting to burn as the flames caught on the fabric.

“Kosk!” Quellan yelled, already charging to his friend’s aid. But Kosk warned him back with a gesture. “Get its attention!” he yelled.

Trusting the monk’s instincts, the cleric lifted his mace and shield and rushed to the attack.

Bredan was only a few steps behind Quellan, but before he could join the fight he was distracted by a disturbing sight: the water elemental rushing toward him. He held back, looking down at the jagged line that partitioned the cavern in two.

But his assumption that the elemental wouldn’t cross that line almost cost him dearly. The creature surged over the divider without difficulty, forming a long “arm” much as its burning cousin had a moment before. Bredan started to dodge, but too late to avoid being clipped across the shoulder in an echo of the blow that Kosk had just absorbed. For a moment he was stunned; the thing was made of free-flowing water, but its tendril had felt as solid as a battering ram! The force of it knocked him back a step, and only the instincts of endless hours in the practice yard kept him from collapsing to the ground.

“Bredan, look out!” Glori warned.

Bredan shook himself out of his daze just in time to avoid a second pseudopod that slammed down into the ground right where he’d been standing. He looked up to see the huge mass of the creature looming over him. He looked at his sword—what could he hope to do against such a thing?

Quellan gritted his teeth as a wash of heat seared his still-tender skin. He’d managed to hurt the fire elemental with his mace; apparently the stories he’d read about the efficacy of magical weapons against planar entities had been accurate. But the fire elemental was quick to counter, driving him back with solid blows that seemed insubstantial until they hit. He’d caught the first on his shield, surrounding him with a bright corona of flames that had looked impressive but had done no damage, but before he could react it had slashed under his guard with an impact he’d felt even through the layers of his armor. He could feel the metal heating just from proximity to the thing, and hoped that whatever Kosk had in mind, he was going to do it soon.

He didn’t have long to wait. As soon as the elemental was fully engaged with the cleric, the dwarf came rushing in again. This time Kosk didn’t bother with his staff, instead charging forward with one hand tucked in close, poised to strike. He ignored both the flames still licking up one side of his body and the aura of heat that surrounded the creature. Quellan thought he caught a glimpse of something in that fiery nimbus, a flash of light as the dwarf roared and unleashed a punch directly into the central mass of the elemental.

Perhaps Quellan shouldn’t have been surprised, but it still amazed him when the elemental shuddered from the impact of its much smaller foe, and was driven back.

Water flashed into steam as Xeeta hit the elemental with a series of scorching rays. The creature recoiled but only to reorient itself on this more serious threat. Bredan tried to block it, but when he slashed at it with his sword the blade only passed through it as if it really had been just normal water.

“You can’t have it both ways!” he growled in frustration.

“Back! Stay back!” Glori shouted. At first Bredan thought she was yelling at him, but when he glanced over he saw that she was strumming her lyre with one hand while pointing at the elemental with the other. But either it didn’t understand her or it wasn’t affected by her magic, as her suggestion had no effect.

But before the water elemental could begin a fresh surge toward Xeeta, the fire elemental, knocked off balance by Kosk’s ki-enhanced strike, stumbled into it from the side.

If Xeeta’s spell blasts had created steam, the collision of the two elementals created a wild explosion as their opposed elements canceled each other out. The beings recoiled instinctively from each other, but it was clear that the interaction had not gone well for either. A big chunk of the water elemental’s upper surface had been carved away, while the fire elemental was missing one entire side of its “head”. But it was clear that while the things could be hurt, they were not susceptible to damage to specific parts of their anatomy like a humanoid creature.

The companions pressed their attacks while the elementals were distracted. Quellan hit the fire elemental again with his mace, while Bredan came up behind the water elemental and slashed at the thickest part of its body with his sword. This time he felt some resistance, but he also clearly got the creature’s attention. He tensed, expecting it to form another bludgeoning arm, but instead it just rolled forward onto him. He started to let out a surprised yell, but it was abruptly cut off as the elemental enveloped him. He drifted up into its mass, struggling in vain to escape as water poured into his nose and mouth and he began to drown.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 132

Bredan floated helplessly within the body of the water elemental. He struggled, trying to find a way out, but without anything to push off he could not get any traction. Panic flashed in his eyes, clearly visible to his companions standing just a few feet away.

“Bredan!” Glori cried.

Xeeta stepped forward, flames flashing around her hands as she shot another series of scorching rays into the body of the elemental. Bredan flinched back as the flames slashed into the creature, but none of them penetrated to where he was. Fresh plumes of steam rose from the mass of the monster, briefly obscuring it and its prisoner from view.

It only took a moment for that fog to clear, and when it did Glori was charging forward in its wake. She leapt directly at the creature, her outstretched right hand stabbing deep into its body. As her fingertips closed around Bredan’s ankle, her face just barely outside of its enveloping substance, she unleashed a thunderwave.

The sonic pulse shot through the creature, driving it back. She clung desperately to Bredan, holding onto him as the elemental sloughed off of both of them. The fighter had been hit by the wave of energy as well, and blood coursed from his nostrils and ears as he fell to the ground, but it seemed a small price to pay as he coughed up water and took in blessed gulps of air.

Glori’s spell thrust the two elementals into contact once more. This time it was only a brief, grazing impact, but it left both of them scarred as more of their respective substances were evaporated. The elementals, unable to take their frustrations out on each other, rebounded on their mortal adversaries with a renewed fury.

But the adventurers had not let up. Even as the fire elemental turned back toward Quellan, the cleric slammed his mace into its substance. The magical weapon tore a chunk of burning matter free, leaving another gap in its body that was slow to fill. Each time it suffered such a hit the creature seemed to diminish. It continued attacking, but while the cleric’s face twisted in pain as its fiery claws continued to scorch his armored frame, he refused to give way.

On the far side of the battle Xeeta poured a stream of burning hands into the water elemental. The tiefling’s dark eyes seemed to glow in echo of her summoned fire, and as she drew back flames continued to burn around her hands. She stumbled back a step, her expression clearing as if she was coming out of a dream.

The elemental turned on her, but once again Bredan stepped into its path to block it. His sword had been left inside its body when Glori had pulled him free, but as he extended his hand the weapon materialized in his grasp. The elemental poured at him, perhaps intending to duplicate its earlier attack, but the warrior held his ground. At the very last instant he swept his sword around in a glittering arc that bisected the entirety of the creature. With a sharp shriek the surging wave came apart, dousing all of them with water.

The fire elemental flinched as the back surge of water swirled around its base. Kosk dove forward, letting the water douse his still-smoldering shoulder before rolling up into a punch that sizzled as it impacted the creature’s fading form. At the same time Quellan came up and matched the hit on its other side. The elemental quivered between them, pulsed one last time, and then came apart.
 

Neurotic

Adventurer
Did you miss the fact that it is Friday? What kind of lame cliffhanger is this? Where are those hair pulling ones from Varo and others from The Pit?! ;)
Oh, just ignore me, good story, like we're used to.
 

carborundum

Explorer
I don't think i could handle THREE cliffhangers in a week :)
Great stuff as usual, and a tough fight! Could Kosk use ki to make his fists magical yet?
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I don't think i could handle THREE cliffhangers in a week :)
Great stuff as usual, and a tough fight! Could Kosk use ki to make his fists magical yet?
That's not until 6th level. The party is right on the cusp of 5th.

I'd do cliffhangers every post if I could, but our poor heroes need a chance to catch their breaths. :)

* * * * *

Chapter 133

The companions just stood there for a moment, letting their minds catch up with what they’d just experienced. Finally, Glori unhooked her cloak. She let it trail through the lingering swirls of water that were slowly draining back toward the pool before rushing over to Quellan. She pressed it around him, the fabric sizzling as it absorbed the heat that the elemental had infused into his armor. A few feet away Kosk was scooping up a few handfuls of water to douse the smoldering embers that were still clinging to his robe. The new garment was already almost as ruined as his first, and it hung pathetically askew as he straightened and turned to the others.

“These two going to come back?” Kosk asked Quellan.

The cleric shook his head. “I don’t think so, but I cannot be certain, not with what we’ve already seen in this place.”

“Then we should press on,” the dwarf replied.

“We’re all beat up,” Glori said, as she channeled a cure wounds spell into the injured cleric. “I don’t know about Quellan and Xeeta, but my magic’s almost depleted.”

“I can still utilize my cantrips,” Xeeta said. “But yes, my higher-order spells are spent.”

“We still have a few healing potions in reserve,” Quellan said. “Bredan, are you all right? I only caught a glimpse of what happened, but that could not have been a pleasant experience.”

“It would have been worse if not for Glori’s quick intervention,” Bredan said.

“Seems like a poor bit of dungeon design,” Kosk said. “The guardians were almost as much of a danger to each other as they were to us.”

“I don’t believe that was an accident,” Xeeta said.

“What do you mean?” Glori asked. She went over to Bredan and treated him with another cure wounds spell. The warrior was soaked through, but he nodded in thanks as the healing magic seeped into him. It looked like he was getting his second wind, but he still moved a bit stiffly as he joined Kosk in looking at the stone doors on the far side of the room.

“Whoever built this place,” Xeeta said, “They obviously did not want to keep everyone out. If this place is like the site we explored near Northpine, then it was built to protect something, while leaving it accessible for some possible future recovery. Otherwise they could have just put it in a deep hole and covered it with a thousand tons of rock.”

“So these guardians and traps are a set of trials,” Quellan said. “Designed to let only a certain type of intruder through.”

“The stone creature above let Bredan pass,” Glori said. “But the rest of the guardians apparently didn’t get the message.”

“If you ask me, the people who built this place were insane,” Kosk said. “Whether they were Mai’i, Eth’barat, or something else entirely.”

“Whoever built it, we have to follow this out to the end,” Bredan said quietly.

They started toward the far arch. The stone floor in front of it was raised slightly, just enough of a step to separate it from the rest of the chamber. The stone there looked to be the same as in the rest of the complex, the common rock that was indigenous to this region. The doors themselves looked to be solid slabs of stone, set on pivots that were recessed into the surrounding threshold.

“I wonder what artifact we’ll find here?” Glori asked, while Kosk gave the doors a thorough examination.

“What makes you think it will be an artifact?” Xeeta asked.

“Well, that’s how it’s worked out thus far. Besides, what else could it be?”

“A hungry dragon, given our luck,” Kosk muttered. But he stepped back and reported that he hadn’t found any traps or other dangers upon the doors.

The doors didn’t have any handles or obvious latching mechanisms, so once more the three men took up positions and pushed. This time the doors swung open with relative ease, though their sheer size and mass still required a good amount of effort. They kept pushing until there was enough of a gap for even Quellan to slip past easily.

The doors opened onto a long corridor hewn from solid rock. This one was wide enough for several of them to walk down its length side-by-side, with a ceiling that curved up to a rounded peak ten feet above them. They followed it for a good forty or fifty feet before it deposited them on the edge of another sizable chamber.

This one wasn’t quite as long as the elemental room, but it was much taller, with a ceiling that was only barely visible at the edge of Quellan’s light. The walls were rough and irregular, save for the one opposite the entry. Once again that one was of a different composition than the rest of their surroundings, a sheer slab of a pale, coarse tan stone that didn’t look like anything else they had encountered since their arrival in the Silverpeak. There was a single feature in that wall, a carved figure that resembled the dragon head of the chimera they’d recently fought, if rather vaguer in its details. The dragon, if in fact that was what it was, stuck out about three feet from the wall at about eye level for Quellan. There was a dark opening between its open jaws, a feature that had them all giving the stone head a wide berth as they advanced into the room.

“It’s a dead end,” Glori said.

“Possibly,” Xeeta said. “But look, there’s a gap around the edges of the slab.”

Quellan held up his spelled mace, and the others could see what the tiefling had noticed. The tan wall was in fact separated by a gap from the rest of the cavern, a narrow opening that extended all of the way around it. Still giving the stone dragon-head a cautious eye, Glori advanced until she could peer into the gap at the base of the wall. It wasn’t much of a space, maybe a foot across at its widest point.

“There’s a bit of a breeze coming up from below,” she said, holding a bare hand out over the opening.

“Careful,” Quellan said. “There could be anything down there.”

“Anything thin,” the bard replied. She strummed her lyre and conjured up a fresh batch of dancing lights, which she directed into the gap. As they descended they threw up long shadows along the surface of the tan slab.

“This shouldn’t be here,” Kosk said, frowning at the pale wall. “This is the wrong kind of stone for this kind of mountains. It doesn’t belong here.”

“How did it get here?” Quellan asked.

“I don’t know, but there’s a lot of it,” Glori reported. The glow from her lights was barely visible now at the edges of the narrow chasm. “This goes down a long way. I can’t make out an end to it.”

“This must be the reason for this place, then,” Xeeta said. “It seems unlikely that they’d want someone to shimmy down into that gap.”

“Even I don’t think I’d fit,” Glori said. “And I’m the smallest among us. No offense, Xeeta.”

The tiefling smirked. “None taken.”

“Perhaps the key is the dragon carving,” Quellan suggested. “Though it looks pretty obviously like a trap.”

“I’ll take a look at it,” Kosk offered.

“Can you even reach it?” Xeeta asked.

Kosk shot her a dark look, but he didn’t get a chance to respond.

While the others had been talking Bredan had slowly approached the pale wall, moving around the far side of the dragon head to a clear spot. He pulled off one of his gloves, and as Xeeta teased Kosk the young man reached out slowly and rested his fingers upon the stone. It felt slightly rough beneath his fingertips, like pumice, and after a moment he felt something else, an odd warmth that spread through the contact into his body.

“Bredan, what are you…” Glori asked.

She was cut off as light flared out of the stone. The glow originated where Bredan’s fingers touched but quickly spread throughout the entirety of the slab. The light suffused throughout the stone but it had barely reached the edges of the huge block before it began to coalesce into an intricate pattern of lines and runes that resembled the page of a truly massive book. None of the markings appeared to be in any language that any of the adventurers knew, but the five of them could not look away as they stood there, spellbound, ensnared by whatever magic Bredan had triggered.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 134

Glori was the first to shake clear of the enchantment of the glowing wall. She tore her eyes away and shook her head to clear it as she took a step back from the gap that separated the tan slab from the rest of the room.

“What was…” she began, but wasn’t able to finish her thought for a moment as she shook off the lingering effects of whatever spell had snared her. She was careful not to look directly at it as she stumbled over to the cleric. “Quellan! Quellan, snap out of it!”

The cleric started and looked at her in surprise. “Glori? What…”

“Don’t look at it! We have to help the others.”

Quellan nodded and turned to Kosk, but the dwarf and the others were already beginning to come out of their fugue. The markings continued to glow within the pale stone, but they no longer seemed to have the same magnetic pull on their minds that they’d had on their initial manifestation.

“What… what was that?” Quellan asked.

“I don’t want your bloody magic book messing with my mind, boy!” Kosk growled. Bredan just looked confused, blinking as he stared up at the wall.

“Something definitely just happened,” Xeeta said. “My reservoir of spell energy… it’s completely refilled.”

“Mine as well,” Glori said. “And my burns… they’re healed.”

“Whatever it did, it happened to all of us,” Quellan said. “And so far, at least, the effects appear to be benign.”

“Speak for yourself,” Kosk said. “I don’t like the idea of some ancient magic taking liberties with me.” He gestured toward the wall. “Especially when all it has to say is a bunch of gibberish.”

“Bredan, do you know what it means?” Glori asked. “Bredan!”

He started and looked at her. “No,” he said. “I don’t…”

Before he could finish, they were interrupted again, this time by a gentle pulse from the markings on the wall that drew their attention back to the surface. It was followed a moment later by the emergence of a glowing stream of light from the open mouth of the dragon sculpture. The stuff poured down like a trickle of water, except that when it struck the stone floor of the chamber it simply vanished without even a splash.

“Okay, what’s that now?” Glori asked, her voice growing a bit strained.

Xeeta stepped forward, a look of awe on her face. “It’s an arcane source,” she said. “Raw magical energy…”

“That doesn’t exactly tell us much,” Kosk muttered, but the tiefling stepped forward eagerly, so eagerly that the others retreated a wary step back. But all she did was thrust her rod into the steady flow of light. Instead of dividing around it the way a normal stream would have, the glow soaked into the rod. The brightness spread down the full length of the dark wood until it shone as intensely as the spell that still radiated from Quellan’s mace. It lingered for a few moments after the sorceress drew the rod out of the current, then slowly faded.

“Um… what just happened?” Glori asked.

“Quickly,” Xeeta said. “We don’t know how long the flow of power will continue.”

Even before she finished speaking Bredan came forward, his father’s sword in his hands. Without waiting for approval he thrust the bare blade into the arcane flow. The steel absorbed the glow much as Xeeta’s rod had, and as it approached his hands a sigil began to take shape within the blade right where it met the hilt. Bredan stared at it as he drew back.

“Will it affect a bow?” Glori asked. “Or should I do my lyre? What if touches skin? Is it safe?”

“I don’t know the answers to any of those questions,” Xeeta said.

“It won’t harm you,” Bredan said.

“Well, that’s reassuring,” Kosk said.

Glori stepped forward and shoved her bow into the glowing cascade. Once again the light spread through the shaft of her weapon, but as the bowstring passed through the current it sizzled and came apart. Glori quickly drew back the bow, but the damage had been done.

“Oh, damn it,” she said.

“Do you have another bowstring?” Quellan asked.

“I do, but that was my best one.”

“The stave, it’s still taut,” Kosk pointed out.

Glori stared at the weapon in surprise, confirming the dwarf’s observation. Carefully she felt at it, and as he fingers touched where the string should have been, suddenly they could see it, a line of pure white light. It seemed to sparkle as she drew upon it. “Okay, that’s pretty cool,” she said.

“It’ll ruin the bow if it keeps the stave permanently bent,” Kosk said.

“Something tells me that it won’t,” Xeeta said. “Quellan, you’re up.”

The cleric stepped forward. “My mace is already magical,” he said. Instead he held out his shield. Again, instead of deflecting the flow the battered wooden disk simply absorbed it. When he drew the shield back the gouged wood had been replaced by a sheer surface, upon which a softly glowing sigil that marked the outline of an open book shone. Even when the glow faded, the insignia remained.

“That is… How did it… I admit, I am amazed,” the cleric said.

“Your turn, Kosk,” Glori said.

“Bah, I’m not touching that,” the dwarf said.

“It won’t hurt you,” Bredan said.

“I agree with prudence and caution in most cases, but in this case I think I would agree with Bredan,” Quellan said.

“If he doesn’t want to go, I’ll do something else,” Glori said. She reached for her sword, but before she could draw it Kosk abruptly shoved the burned end of his staff into the arcane flow.

The magical stream abruptly ceased. At the same moment the runes embedded in the wall vanished, along with Quellan’s light spell, plunging them into utter darkness.
 

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