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The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)

rathlighthands

First Post
Real Depth

LB, I am loving this story. Great work. I started reading this as a "brutal" dungeon crawl sort of a thing, but the depth you are breathing into it, the story surrounding the dungeon itself, great writing. I don`t miss a single update.
 

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Lazybones

Adventurer
rathlighthands said:
LB, I am loving this story. Great work. I started reading this as a "brutal" dungeon crawl sort of a thing, but the depth you are breathing into it, the story surrounding the dungeon itself, great writing. I don`t miss a single update.
Thanks, rath! I admit I started the story in much the same vein as you had anticipated, but a lot of stuff has crept in around the edges and beneath the surface over the course of the tale. Glad you are enjoying the result.

* * * * *

Chapter 154

FAITH


Varo encountered Serah in one of the side-chambers formed by the goblins’ first exploratory shafts. The cleric knelt in front of an everburning torch and her divine focus, praying quietly. She heard Varo enter, and looked up at him.

“Do not let me interrupt. I will seek a place elsewhere.”

Serah nodded. Varo could see that she had reflexively taken up her holy symbol, and held it tightly in her lap. He studied her for a moment.

“You have achieved transition; congratulations. Few among the clergy of the Shining Father achieve the potency of the fourth valence.”

“How do you...”

“You forget, I was once a follower of the Father myself. Now, I am just an apostate,” he said, a faint stirring of regret in his voice.

Serah detected that regret and misunderstood its significance. “The high tenets of the faith say that it is never too late for one to return to the Light,” she said, some hesitance obvious in her voice.

Varo let out a chuckle. “Do not waste your time with me, priestess.” He started to leave, but paused a moment, and turned back toward her. “As you are bereft of your spiritual counselor in this place, consider this advice: death wards will be of great use if we encounter more incorporeal undead, and the restoration spell is likewise one that will almost certaintly be necessary. It will be a relief to Allera to have another who can cast the latter.”

“I have no diamond dust.”

Varo reached into a pocket and tossed a small bag at the cleric; it landed at her knees. “Do not worry. It is mundane; I bought it at a jeweler’s shop in the Gold Quarter.”

She looked up at him, clearly not certain how to respond.

“And if you must unleash order’s wrath, please be cautious of where you direct it.”

With a final smirk, Varo turned, and vanished back into the darkness.

Varo finally chose a mine tunnel that burrowed back into the earth, crawling a short distance before it opened onto a wider space where a vein of ore had been hollowed out by the goblin miners. Smoothing out a relatively flat space clear of rocks and debris, he knelt and began his own ritual.

The cleric opened his mind to the power of his god, drawing in raw power and fixing the triggers to release the magic in his mind. It was a ritual he had completed over a thousand times, and it now came almost as easily as breathing. Once he was finished, however, he began something new. He began casting a potent summoning, reaching out with the power just granted to him by Dagos, leavened with the strength of his will. The spell was draining, drawing some small portion of the caster’s own life energy into the weaving. Varo pierced the palm of his hand with a small knife, smearing his own blood onto the tiny representation of Dagos. He spoke words in an ancient tongue, ritual phrases that bound his need to the summons he was sending across the veil that served as the boundary between the planes. Minutes passed.

The spell’s ending was something of an anticlimax; there was no burst of multicolored smoke, no yawning portal into some fell netherworld. The cleric simply bowed his head low as he spoke the final phrases, exhaustion overcoming him as he concluded the ritual.

When he finally looked up, he was not alone. The newcomer was a tall, lean figure of a man, with strong features and a neatly trimmed beard. He was worn in an expensive-looking tunic and trousers, with a leather cape dangling from his shoulders, all in gray. He looked to be about forty, with dark shaded skin. At first glance he might have been taken for an Emorite or a Razhurian, but his flesh bore not the olive tint of the former or the deep earth-brown of the latter, but rather was the color of old ashes. His eyes were solid gray orbs that flashed as they focused upon the cleric.

“Your situation grows more dire, Licinius Varo,” the man said.

The cleric did not respond for a moment, taking the opportunity to collect himself, and to replace his divine focus—still smeared with his blood—around his neck. “That will not do,” he finally said. “Your current features resemble someone that will agitate my companions.” He was able to keep his voice level, although in all honesty, his first look at his guest had unnerved him as well; the creature might have deliberately chosen a face that was similar to that of the Grand Duke, or it might have been chance. Either way, he wasn’t going to let Talen get a look at him in his current guise.

“As you wish,” the creature said. His features shimmered, and a few seconds later he resembled a much younger man, clean shaven, but with skin color and eyes as before. He came forward and seated himself on a protruding ledge of stone that jutted from the wall. “Shall we discuss compensation?”

“To save time, I must stipulate that I cannot offer anything that depletes my personal life energy, or any items in the personal possession of any of my companions.”

“You narrow the field considerably.”

“I am not without other resources.”

The gray man smiled slightly. “Let us indulge chaos a bit, shall we?”

Varo’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Just this. Let us agree that I will assist you against the guardians, and in exchange, I will be granted choice of any item that we come across during the time of my service.”

Varo considered. “Any item that is vital to our progression through Rappan Athuk, such as a key or trigger, must be exempt. As are any artifacts.”

“Agreed, if you stipulate that once I claim the reward, my term of service ends.”

Varo stood. The simple action took considerable effort, but Varo was not going to let the creature see him weak. “Agreed,” he said.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 155

SHADOWS


Talen was buckling the straps onto his armor, Shay assisting him with the plates he could not easily reach, when Varo returned. The priest had a companion, a tall, lean youth with skin an unhealthy gray pallor, clad in garments just a shade darker.

“Who’s your friend?” Talen asked, as Shay handed him Beatus Incendia. The commander noted the way that the newcomer’s eyes followed his motion, lingering on the sword.

“This is Drakha,” Varo said. “He is an outsider, summoned to assist us today.”

Talen suppressed a sigh. “Varo...”

“Commander, we are beyond the point where we can scruple about using the powers available to us. I take responsibility alone for my companion’s activities.”

The youth made a bow that was just barely too shallow to be mocking. “Fear not, dragon knight. I am merely here to serve; I bear no love for the Demon or his servants.”

Serah came into the room from the side tunnel; she looked up at Drakha and blinked.

“I greet you, holy priestess,” the outsider said, licking his lips. Serah retreated in alarm, clutching her holy symbol.

“Wonderful,” Talen muttered.

With the morning meal consumed, and most of them fully dressed and prepared, it did not take them long to strike camp and set out again. Varo used his magic to enchant a fat bundle of arrows, which he distributed amongst the group’s archers, giving a double share to Pella. The newcomer, Drakha, followed him like a shadow, and once they had set out, hugging the cavern wall as they marched north, he tended to blend into the background, easily forgotten if you were not looking for him.

But Talen kept an eye out for the outsider, and he’d had quiet words with Pella, Shay, and Baraka before they’d departed, making his feelings about their new companion known to them.

They made their way north, with Shay in the lead. Snaggletooth, on his own initiative, had scouted out part of the cavern nearby during their time in camp, and had reported to Allera that there were at least a dozen other mine sites to the north and west along the cavern wall. All of them were deserted. Shay told them that on her last visit, the sounds of mining had echoed throughout the entire eastern half of the cavern, a constant din as the goblins had excavated the various ores they needed. Now, the almost preternatural quiet made the small sounds that did carry to them seem particularly uncanny, the echoes distorting them until their source became a complete mystery.

They continued to the scene of yesterday’s two-front battle with the ants and the umber hulks. Something had quite obviously come to clean up the mess; blood and pieces of shell were scattered everywhere, with multiple tracks heading off toward the river to the west. There were vermin everywhere, but none were larger than a man’s fist, and the companions were able to make it past without incident, giving the area a fair berth. Drakha paused at one point to pick up a beetle four inches long, chomping into it with a noisy crunch, and swallowing it with two bites. At Serah’s startled look, he flashed her a wide grin, his teeth covered with yellow gore and bits of shell; the cleric let out a strangled cry and hurried back up toward the front of the line.

“Well, I didn’t think it could happen, but we finally have someone with worse personal habits than you,” Allera said to Dar, as they continued to the north past the battleground.

Dar shot a weighing look back at Drakha, then he turned and marched forward without replying to the healer. Snaggletooth, riding invisible on Allera’s shoulder, chirped something into her ear; the healer flushed, but kept marching.

They heard the river again before they saw it. The swift-moving watercourse was narrower here, as it entered a dark tunnel in the cliff face, but it was still a good forty feet across. The goblins had erected a pulley system attached to a stone outcrop that jutted from the cliff face above the river entrance. The mechanism was still intact, and included a large basket that could be shifted from one side of the river to the other, presumably to carry loads of ore across the river. There were about a half-dozen of the goblin wheelbarrows on each side of the river, some still laden with ore, hastily abandoned. As they reached the water’s edge and shone their lights into the tunnel, they could see there was a narrow ledge on their side running parallel to the river, about four feet above the level of the water. The ledge ran straight and unobstructed as far as they could see, but only had about four feet of clearance to the rough ceiling.

“It looks like the goblins cut this from the rock,” Shay said, bending to examine the tracks that led up to the ledge. “It looks just barely wide to handle one of those wheelbarrows we saw.”

“Not much room for error,” Baraka said. “Impressive, the scale of what they’ve managed to accomplish here. Not typical for goblins, certainly.”

“There is little typical about Rappan Athuk,” Varo said.

“If you’re done nabbering on about a bunch of stupid gobbos, how are we going to get down that?” Dar said. “It’s a tight squeeze even for someone not wearing armor.”

Talen looked at Varo, who said, “That is the way we have to go, commander.”

“Look at it this way, colonel,” Pella said. “If a bunch of ‘stupid gobbos’ could get wheelbarrows loaded with ore down that tunnel without falling into the river, then surely we can manage it.”

“I don’t know if you’ve seen a goblin lately, archer, but they are pretty damned small.”

“Maybe we could just tie ropes around you and your warriors, and drag you up the stream, like barges? Your egos are surely buoyant enough to keep you afloat.”

“Listen, honey...”

“All right, that’s enough,” Talen said, cutting them off. “Take a few minutes, secure your gear, and do whatever you need to get ready. This isn’t going to get any easier for more bitching.”

“I’ll start rigging some guide ropes, in case someone goes over the side,” Shay said.

As the companions made their preparations, Drakha stood a short distance away. The outsider took a deep breath, as if savoring a pleasant odor on the air.

“Ah, chaos,” he said.

Once Shay had outfitted them with a rope that they could all hold onto, they set off down the river passage. They could only go in single file, with Shay in the lead, and Baraka bringing up the rear. True to Dar’s earlier concern, the warriors had the toughest time of it, forced to crawl on hands and knees in the tight space. After a difficult first hour of this, Talen had them redistribute some of their burdens, giving some of the extra gear to those not bearing heavy suits of armor. The knight commander himself did not offer any complaints, despite being weighed down by plate mail, a light shield, and various weapons, in addition to his own heavy pack. Fortunately the goblins had anticipated the need for frequent breaks, and there were several places where the ledge jutted deeper into the rock, forming stone shelves up to eight feet deep where they could stretch out and rest.

The only one who did not have difficulty was Drakha; as Varo’s ally made his way into the tunnel, his height diminished subtly, until he could walk along the ledge without bending over. A few of the companions sent odd looks at their unusual new companion, but there was something deeply disquieting about those solid gray eyes, and none of them attempted any conversation with the creature.

They had only one mishap, although it was quite nearly very costly. Travius lost his footing shortly after their second rest break, and plummeted over the edge of the ledge into the river. He kept his grip on the guide rope, but the current and the weight of his armor quickly dragged him down, and he might have pulled all of them over, but for the rapid response of Pella. The archer, in line just ahead of the legionary, drew her dagger and stabbed it into a crack in the rock, holding on with both hands, the rope wrapped tight around her left bracer. Her face twisted in pain as the rope, trailing back around her shoulder, put an incredible strain on her arm. But she held on, bearing most of the fallen man’s weight. That allowed Kalend, just behind Travius, to secure his own position on the ledge, while Bullo and Dar made their way back, and helped pull the soaked legionary out of the river. Shay couldn’t get back to them without crawling over several people, but she quickly hammered in a spike, and anchored the rope to it while they completed the recovery.

“Thanks,” Travius said when he was finally on the ledge, shivering.

“When I said we could pull you guys up the river, I didn’t mean you should give it a try,” Pella said, grimacing as she tested her injured arm. The shoulder wasn’t dislocated, but she was going to have a nasty bruise, if not worse.

“Pella, are you all right, or should I come back to you?” Allera asked. The healer was a few places up the line, but with only three feet of ledge, there wasn’t much space to crawl past Bullo and Dar.

“I can make it to the next rest stop,” Pella said. And she was as good as her word, although their pace continued to flag as they got more tired from the difficult crawl.

They reached another wide spot, and Talen was considering calling for a longer rest when a soft flutter of wings announced Snaggletooth’s return. Conversing quietly with her companion, Allera indicated that the river opened onto another much larger cavern ahead.

“How far?” Talen asked.

“Only a few minutes... of course, that’s flying,” Allera reported.

“All right. Pella, you okay?”

The archer nodded to the commander. “Much better since Allera healed it,” she said. “I can keep up.”

“Everyone else all right?”

“If I see a gobbo, I’m going to crack its head for not making this damned crawl taller,” Dar said. He turned to Serah. “Say, cleric, you got any of that healin’ touch for my back?”

“You’re fine,” Allera said coolly, taking her position again in the line as they moved out again.

They set out again, setting a quicker pace with the hope that the faerie dragon had given them that the journey would soon be done. As they continued, the air grew thick and moist, and warmer as well. Soon, they were all sweating, and pausing often to wipe their faces clear of beading moisture.

“It’s getting like a freaking sauna in here,” Dar said.

Talen called a halt as Shay came back to the front of the line, and conferred with him for a few moments. “All right, pass it along, we’re getting close,” Talen said to Allera, then he turned and continued after the scout.

The air continued to grow warmer, and a fog began to rise off the river, obscuring their view. By the time that the passage walls opened onto the large space ahead, the fog was a dense cloud of warm steam vapor that swirled in the eddies of air that filled the cavern, making it difficult to see clearly even within the radius of their light sources.

“There must be a hot spring around here somewhere,” Shay said.

Talen nodded; he was having some difficulty with the heat in his heavy armor. “We shouldn’t stay here too long if we can help it. See if you can find some tracks; I’ll talk to Varo.”

The scout nodded, and by the time that Talen had come back with the cleric, Shay had found where the wheelbarrow tracks headed off to the right, close along the cavern wall. The bare stone was slick with moisture. Talen gathered them all together, and pointed out the tracks.

“All right everyone... I don’t want us to bunch up, but I don’t want anyone wandering off in this damned mist. That means you and Baraka, Shay; I don’t want you guys getting too far ahead. Keep an eye on the person ahead and behind, and if you see anything, send out a warning immediately.”

“Like as not the gobbos will use this mist to their advantage,” Travius said.

“Bowstrings won’t hold up very long to this humidity,” Pella pointed out.

“We have spares,” Talen said. “Remember, stay together as a group, I don’t want any of us drawn into an ambush. And our goal is to parlay with the goblins, not attack them unprovoked,” he reminded them.

“Gods damn it, I left my tea and biscuits at home,” Dar said. When Talen glared at him, he said, “All right, all right, commander. We wait for the gobbos to make a move, boys, then we smash ‘em, got it?”

Bullo laughed.

Talen nodded to Shay and Baraka. “Take us out.”

They made their way into the cavern, the mists swallowing up the river tunnel exit almost at once behind them. The details of the cavern were muted in the mists, but the ground here was mostly bare stone, with occasional stretches of cracked slate littered with broken bits of rock and gravel. The latter crunched under their boots, the sound muted in the enfolding grasp of the steam fog.

With the mist scattering the light from their everburning torches, none of them spotted the dark thing that observed their progress from high along the cavern wall. It waited until they were fully gone, then detached itself from its perch, swooping through the darkness in a silent arc that took it ahead of them, to a protruding jut of stone cliffs that stabbed out several hundred feet into the cavern. It landed high upon the cliffs without a whisper of noise, blending effortlessly into the darkness there. It summoned its magic, invoking protections that would aid it in battle.

It waited silently, patiently, until the light sources borne by the humans reappeared in the mists, less than a minute later. They glowed like will-o-wisps in the fog, but to the silent watcher, they were like beacons.

It did not know what these intruders were, but it had seen them clearly enough to know that they were not goblins, and therefore fair game by the terms of its pact with the lords of Grezneck. It crept silently down the cliff, careful not to dislodge any loose rocks. It let the first creature, a female, move past its perch, waiting for the larger cluster of males that followed to enter its range.

The first warning that any of them had was when the creature unleashed a cone of pure negative energy upon them, the dark tendrils twisting through the streaming funnel of power into the hapless and unaware companions, stealing the life right out of their bodies.
 

Richard Rawen

First Post
Lazybones said:
The gray man smiled slightly. “Let us indulge chaos a bit, shall we?”

and

As the companions made their preparations, Drakha stood a short distance away. The outsider took a deep breath, as if savoring a pleasant odor on the air.

“Ah, chaos,” he said.

I love how this demon is so refined Makes him seem much more Diabolic than demonic, and yet I've no doubt he'll make things Interesting as only the chaotic evil truly can =-) Probably moreso for being an ally.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Richard Rawen said:
I love how this demon is so refined Makes him seem much more Diabolic than demonic, and yet I've no doubt he'll make things Interesting as only the chaotic evil truly can =-) Probably moreso for being an ally.
Think more chaotic neutral, Richard. ;)

* * * * *

Chapter 156

THE GUARDIAN


Talen felt an unnatural chill settle through his body, seeping through his flesh down to his bones. Blackness washed over his senses, and he felt physically ill as energy was torn from him. The dark wave passed quickly, but he could feel the lingering effects, a weakness that penetrated to the depths of his soul.

Baraka, Dar, Bullo, and Travius had also been caught in that cone of shadow, but his companions further down the line had witnessed the attack, and were quick to counter. Talen looked up to see an arrow, glowing with a light spell, streak up toward the cliffs above. The missile struck a dark form that vanished, the arrow shattering against the stone.

But even as the light fell with the pieces of the arrow, it had given Talen a look at what they faced. It was a dragon, covered with scales as dark as the blackest night. It wasn’t especially large, its body about as large as a draft horse, but its sprawled limbs and spread wings gave it an illusion of greater size. It had magic, as well; Talen had witnessed enough sorcery to be able to recognize the visual distortion that surrounded it as mirror images.

He wasn’t the only one. “Do not waste the magic arrows on the images!” Varo yelled, as more missiles shot up from the companions. As far as Talen could tell, they all either hit the shifting images, each vanishing as it was struck, or impacted harmlessly against the stone of the cliffs.

Shay stood almost directly below it, lifting her bow, carefully calculating as she aimed.

The dragon leapt from its perch, spreading its wings as it descended upon them. Talen could see a glowing circle of pale transparent energy in front of it, obviously another magical defense. But as it spread its wings to arrest its fall, both the mirror images and its shield shimmered slightly and vanished, disrupted by one of their own spellcasters.

Bereft of its magic, the dragon still came on, confident in its power. And as it struck, Talen saw that it had reason to be self-assured.

It came down almost upon Travius, who had clearly suffered greatly from the dragon’s initial breath. More than a little dazed, the legionary still managed to draw his twin swords. But they were of no avail as the dragon shot out its head at it landed, seizing the fighter’s neck in its jaws and lifting him into the air. There was an awful crunch and an audible snap, and then the legionary went limp. The dragon tossed its first victim almost casually aside, shifting to face its next opponent.

An arrow punched through the membrane of the dragon’s left wing from behind. The shot did little damage, but the dragon let out an angry snarl in response. But its attention was drawn by Bullo, who rushed forward, his axe lifted high above his head, his yells echoing off the adjacent cliff walls. The dragon snapped out its tail like a whip, the end lashing the fighter hard across the chest. Bullo went down like a rag doll, hurled backward ten feet from the force of the impact, rolling to a stop a good distance further away. Dead or unconscious, he did not move.

Dar came at the dragon in the legionary’s wake, swinging Valor at its body before it could recover to strike again. The axiomatic sword bit into its flesh just above its right shoulder, opening a gash about a foot long in the dragon’s muscled body. Dar had put a good deal of his strength into the attack, but the dragon’s scales may as well have been steel for their durability.

The others were rushing forward to help the fighter, but before they could get into the fray, Dar paid a high price for his attack. The dragon lashed out with everything it had, delivering deadly blows that even Dar’s magical armor could not fully absorb. It tried to repeat its fatal strike on Travius, but Dar managed to shift aside, and the dragon was only able to get ahold of his shoulder with its jaws. It lifted him a few feet into the air, the fighter’s struggles not enough to keep the dragon from digging its claws into his sides, or battering his head with its wings. Finally it tossed him aside, right into the snapping sweep of its tail. Dar saw it coming and tried to roll away, but he could not keep the tail from smashing into the small of his back. The impact was like a blow from a sledgehammer, and Dar screamed and toppled forward to the ground, his sword clattering on the ground as it fell from his hand.

But Dar’s sacrifice had bought the few precious seconds needed for his companions to get into the fight. Missiles slammed into it from the front and flank, and a second arrow hit and penetrated, this one a shot from Pella’s potent bow that stuck into its sinuous neck. A beam of searing light struck it in the chest, but the spell dissolved against the dragon’s considerable spell resistance. Talen came at the dragon as it turned from Dar’s limp body, Beatus Incendia flaring into life in his hand. The dragon screamed as the knight drove the holy blade into its body, the sacred flames searing its flesh. A moment later it felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the joint where one of its hind legs met its body, as Shay surged in and delivered a nasty hit with her own keen blade.

The dragon snarled and let out a hiss thick with fury and pain. But as it looked up, it saw still more adversaries approaching, including Varo, Kalend, and Drakha. It drew its wings in close around its body and sprang up into the air, gaining at least fifteen feet of altitude from the leap. Even as more arrows continued to slice through the air around it, it summoned some sort of magic around it, shimmered in the air, and disappeared.

Allera cast a mass cure spell, sending healing energy into Dar, Bullo, and Travius. The first two stirred, groaning as the spell brought them back to consciousness, but Travius didn’t move. The healer knelt beside the stricken legionary.

“Allera?” Talen asked.

“His neck is broken,” she said. “He’s dead.”
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
HugeOgre said:
I kind of assumed the spell was planar ally, the XP spent the sweating and all that, and the result a grey slaad, which can shift forms.
*Gives Eric a cookie* :D

* * * * *

Chapter 157

THE DEPTHS OF THE DARK


Talen staggered, and might have fallen but for the steady hand of Shay, who was beside him in an instant, wrapping her arm around him.

“Allera, Talen needs help!” the scout exclaimed. She looked him over. “Where are you hurt?”

“I’m all right,” the knight said. “Just a little... weak...”

“The dragon drained your life energy with its breath weapon,” Varo said as he came forward to join them. “We can help you, but we should not remain here. The creature retreated, but it will almost certainly be back, and with its magical defenses back in place.”

Barakha looked extremely pale, but Shay had not been caught in the creature’s breath. “I thought I saw what looked like a tunnel entrance on the far side of these cliffs,” the scout said. “I’ll check it out.”

Talen’s expression showed his feelings at that suggestion, but he recognized the need, and after a second’s pause he nodded. “Be careful... take Kalend with you.” The rogue saluted, and the two hurried off, vanishing into the mists after just a few strides.

Allera had gone over to Dar, whle Serah tended to Bullo. “I cannot feel my legs,” Dar said, struggling to push himself up with his arms. “Damn it, I can’t move!”

“Remain still!” Allera commanded, pushing him back down. She touched her hands to the base of his spine, a potent blue glow surrounding her fingertips, seeping into his body through his armor. Dar let out a sigh as the magic eased his pain, and healed the damage wrought to his body by the dragon’s terrible attacks. “Better?” she asked, after a few moments.

He rolled over, tenuously testing his legs. “Yes. Thanks.”

Allera nodded, and hurried over to Talen and Varo. “How many restorations do you have available?” she asked the cleric.

“Only one in memory, at the moment.”

Allera nodded, and turned to Talen. “We can restore everyone who was drained, but after this, we will not have any of the spells remaining until we can rest.”

Talen nodded. “Do it, quickly.”

While the casters worked their magic, Talen posted Pella and Drakha to keep watch. The restoration spells took long seconds to cast, and those awaiting treatment watched the misty darkness warily, expecting the dragon to leap out at them at any moment. Varo, Serah, and Allera sprinkled diamond dust on Talen, Dar, and Bullo, and as soon as those three were restored, Allera turned immediately to Baraka to treat him with her second spell.

“Your... friend didn’t do a whole hell of a lot back there,” Talen said quietly to Varo.

“His assistance will be needed,” the cleric replied enigmatically.

“If there’s something else you know, Varo...”

“I know that we are going to face terrible dangers as we move forward,” Varo said. “This is just the first of several guardians that we will have to confront before we will reach the final temple of Orcus.”

Talen looked like he was going to say more, but Shay came back, materializing out of the fog before them. “There’s a broad tunnel that exits the cavern,” she said. “It looks like the goblin tracks head that way, and I think the steam starts to thin out in that direction as well.”

“All right, let’s get going,” Talen said. He glanced over at Allera, who nodded as she finished casting her spell. “The dragon may return at any moment, but it will have a harder time sneaking up on us in the tunnel than out here in the cavern.”

“What about Travius?” Kalend asked.

“We must leave him. There is nothing we can do for him now,” Varo said.

The company hurried after Shay and Kalend, who directed them to the tunnel entrance. It was difficult to miss; the entrance was almost sixty feet across, with a high irregular ceiling about forty feet above them. Stalagmites jutted from the ground near the walls to either side, but it was obvious even to Talen’s unschooled eyes that the center of the tunnel had been cleared. The ground became softer as they entered the tunnel, with a layer of sandy earth over the bare stone they’d covered in the cavern; runnels were evident that Shay identified as wagon traces.

“There’s also a lot of signs of foot traffic,” Shay told him. “Goblin-sized, I’d say.”

“Anything recent?” Talen asked.

“Not as far as I can tell.”

They hurried down the tunnel, but remained alert to the possibility of a goblin ambush ahead of them. They’d covered perhaps a thousand feet when Talen called a halt. The tunnel began to bend to the left, and it seemed to grow gradually broader up ahead.

“All right,” he said, “We need to...”

He was interrupted by a loud roar that sounded from down the dark tunnel they had just traversed.

“The guardian returns,” Drakha said, unnecessarily.

“All right, everyone, spread out, take cover!” Talen ordered. He remained in the middle of the tunnel, and drew out Beatus Incendia, although he did not command it to take flame.

Dar lingered as well. “Going to draw it, general?”

“Take cover,” he said. “When it dives, we’ll hit it from all sides.”

“A good plan. But the one standing here is going to be in a world of hurt.”

Talen met his gaze. “Don’t think I can take it?”

Dar let out a chuckle. “I suppose we’ll see.”

Allera ran up to them. “I can protect you... one of you... from the effects of its breath. The ward will only last a short time, less than a minute...”

“Hit the knight,” Dar said. He saluted Talen with Valor, and then drew back toward a cluster of stalagmites along the edge of the tunnel about thirty feet away.

While Allera summoned her death ward upon Talen, the others took up positions along the sides of the tunnel. There was plenty of cover there, stalagmites and uneven heaps of debris that had been cleared from the middle of the tunnel by the goblins.

Allera finished her spell, and withdrew. Shay was now the only one left in the center of the passage with Talen.

“Get into cover,” he said. “I’ll be all right.”

She nodded. The scout didn’t say anything, but there was a lot of meaning in the look they shared, then she darted back to the side of the tunnel.

Talen lifted his holy sword, which flared into life. He stared into the darkness, and held his ground.

Varo, lingering about thirty feet back along the side of the tunnel, looked also into the darkness and frowned.

“You are troubled?” Drakha asked him.

“Why would it have announced its presence with that bellow?” the cleric said. “It must have known that we would be ready for it...”

He trailed off, as the answer came to him. It can teleport...

“Behind us!” he yelled in warning.

Talen turned. Brightness flared from his sword...

The suddenly brilliant glow revealed a pair of shadow dragons, the one they had battled before, still bearing the wounds from their first battle, accompanied by a second that was only slightly smaller. Both were surrounded by mirror images and protected by translucent shields. They swooped down silently out of the darkness behind them.

But Varo’s warning came too late. Even as the radiance of the knight’s sword revealed the foe, the dragons opened their jaws, and unleashed storms of pure darkness into the tunnel.
 

javcs

First Post
They shoulda seen that coming.

They still lacking in the Int department? 'Cause Talen is just acting stupid ... standing in the open when he knows a dragon is coming to draw it's attack?

I bet at least one person gets drained to death. And a few more will probably get permanent negative levels.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
javcs said:
They still lacking in the Int department? 'Cause Talen is just acting stupid ... standing in the open when he knows a dragon is coming to draw it's attack?
I don't see it that way. Given that Talen's the only one immune to their breath weapons (well, maybe one more ;) ), and since they thought there was only one, it seemed logical to "draw its fire", get it to waste its initial breath attack, and lure it forward to melee with Talen.

Although it's certainly true that there aren't any Rhodes scholars in the group, with a peak INT of 12, IIRC. So maybe there's a better tactic that escaped both the author and the heroes... :)

* * * * *

Chapter 158

DRAGONS!


The dragons swept the tunnel with their breath weapons, working silently in tandem to maximize the effects of their attacks. The companions, caught almost completely by surprised, were almost all hit by the full force of one of the blasts, staggering as the negative energies sapped away their life force.

The female dragon swooped down to engage the rear guard, targeting a cluster of stalagmites behind which Allera, Shay, and Baraka had taken cover. It shrieked as it seized onto the protruding formations with its claws, snapping its neck down to seize Allera. The healer screamed as the dragon lifted her effortlessly into the air, into the reach of its deadly foreclaws.

Realizing too late his mistake, Talen had started to charge back toward the dragons. He had been on the edge of the male’s blast, but Allera’s spell had shrouded him from the draining effects of the dragon’s breath. The male dragon, however, came to him, sweeping down in a straight dive, picking up speed as it came. Talen lifted his sword to defend himself, but the dragon slammed hard into him, knocking him off his feet. It snapped one of its hind claws around the knight’s shield as he fell, but did not get a firm grip. Talen’s arm was painfully wrenched as he was flung wildly about in a full circle, before he finally smacked hard into the grainy soil of the tunnel about ten feet from where he’d been standing.

The dragon spread its wings and rose up into the air, reaching almost the top of the tunnel before it twisted over on its back, and plummeted down toward the fallen knight, claws outstretched.

Arrows flew at the dragon holding Allera, the healer giving them a clear target through the shifting haze of mirror images. Baraka and Pella both scored hits, but the dragon seemed as indefatigable as the bigger one had, shrugging off whatever pain Varo’s enhanced missiles might have caused it.

“Let her go!” Shay yelled, springing up onto the rocks, her sword flashing in her hand as her magical boots helped boost her into range to strike. She slashed at one of its hind legs, but her sword failed to penetrate its incredibly durable hide. As the dragon shifted a wing buffeted her, and she fell back, barely twisting her body enough to come down on her feet, instead of on her back. She rolled as she struck the hard ground, coming up grimacing but intact a few feet away.

Allera, struggling in vain to free herself from the dragon’s grip, screamed again as it dug its claws deep into its body. Snaggletooth was visible fluttering around its head, trying to distract it, but the dragon was clearly not going to release its prey. But it nearly lost its grip on its perch a moment later, as the stalagmites under it rumbled and shifted. To the dragon’s surprise, the limestone formations suddenly came alive, twisting up like fingers to grab the dragon’s lower body, bearing it to the ground. Allera went flying, caroming off the wall of the tunnel before she fell in a heap on the ground.

Talen struggled to his feet as the bigger dragon dove at him. Arrows flew at it, but they struck only mirror images, doing no harm to the beast. The illusions continued to shift around its onrushing form, and as Talen swung Beatus Incendia, his swing clipped an image, disrupting the illusory double but doing no harm to the creature.

The same could not be said for him, as the dragon tore mercilessly into him. Only his heavy armor kept him from being torn to pieces, as the dragon unleashed a series of powerful blows with its claws, wings, tail, and bite. But even the enchanted steel could not keep him from being battered, and as the dragon lashed him hard across the shoulders with its long tail, the knight crumpled to the ground, his face twisted in agony. His left leg was twisted beneath him at an obviously unnatural angle where the dragon had wrenched it with a claw, and while he still held onto his sword, his shield arm hung limp, broken in two places.

The dragon loomed over him, looking down at its prey with a look of fury burning in its black eyes.

“Rrrraaaaarrrrg!” Dar screamed as he drove into the creature from the side. Valor blazed in his hand, but he too was fooled by the dragon’s illusions, and struck empty air as his charging attack dissolved another image. The dragon turned on him, ready to do to him what it had just done to Talen.

But before the dragon could strike, a storm of claws and feathers fell upon the dragon from behind, as a griffon summoned by Varo swooped down to attack. More mirror images disappeared, but the griffon seized onto real flesh with its beak, digging open a long gash into the muscled joint where its neck met its shoulder.

Shay rushed over to Allera, but the healer was conscious, despite the blood that continued to ooze out of the deep gouges that the dragon had carved into her body. Snaggletooth hovered over her as well. “I’m all right... go, go!” she yelled, at both of them, grimacing as she rolled over, and channeled a cure critical wounds into herself.

The female dragon grappled furiously with the animated mineral spires of the stalagmite formation. Shards of pulverized stone flew out in every direction as the dragon fought furiously to break free. Its foe was larger in size and mass, but the dragon had incredible strength in its compact body, and it was capable of unleashing truly incredible blows. Arrows continued to lance into the melee, barely noticed as it fought on.

Snaggletooth flew up to the tunnel ceiling, where stalactites dangled down from the uneven surface like jagged stone teeth. The dragon darted nimbly through them, releasing magic into the stone as he passed. As he finished his circuit, cracks appeared where the stalactites met the ceiling, and one by one the huge stone daggers broke free and fell, plummeting to the ground below.

Baraka looked up and bit back a curse, throwing himself back moments before a cascade of loose stone smashed into the floor where he’d been standing. Allera lifted her arms to shield herself, but the little dragon had been more careful with her than it had been regarding the ranger, and none of the falling stones struck near her.

The shadow dragon’s incredibly sharp senses warned it to the danger a split second before the falling slabs struck. The dragon summoned its magic with incredible swiftness, and shimmered, vanishing from the grasp of the animated stones a fraction of a second before the stalactites crashed heavily into the ground.

The dragon had not gone far. It rematerialized a few paces away, not far from where Pella was fitting another arrow into her bow. Some subtle change in sound or air pressure warned her of the danger, and she spun, bringing the arrow back to her cheek as she drew the bow. The sight of the dragon leaping at her caused her eyes to widen in sudden fear, but the head of the arrow never wavered before she released the shaft at point-blank range into its chest.

Serah ducked, and barely in time, as the male dragon’s tail lashed through the air where her head had been an instant before. She all but fell, terror pounding in her heart, even though the swing hadn’t been an attack; the dragon had spun to attack the griffon, and returned the hurt that the summoned creature had inflicted on it tenfold, as it dug its claws deep into the body of its foe. The griffon shrieked and tried to break free, but the dragon refused to loosen its grip.

The cleric felt as though her muscles had turned to liquid, but then she saw again what had drawn her out into the open, and the sight returned strength to her body. She all but fell at Talen’s side, all too aware of the raging battle taking place just a few paces away.

Talen was grievously wounded, his body battered and bleeding, but he was still conscious. “I’ve got to get you out of here!” she hissed. She tugged on his shoulder plates, but while he let out a groan of pain, he somehow was able to pull free. He refused to let go of his sword, she noticed.

“No! Heal me... heal me here!”

She had been drained by the dragon’s breath, purging her remaining higher-order spells. But she drew deep into what remained, and she grabbed Talen’s broken leg, twisting it back into position as she poured positive energy into his body. Talen’s jaw tightened, but no sound of protest escaped his lips as she worked.

Dar and his companions had not stood idly by, although their efforts had thus far been largely for naught. They’d pared back the creature’s illusory doubles, but it still maintained a considerable innate protection, which Dar learned anew as his sword glanced off of its armored body. The fighter had been going for all-out power attacks, a tactic that he realized wasn’t going to work against this foe. Bullo, on the opposite side of the dragon, was having an equally poor time of it. Kalend, weakened by the dragon breath and recognizing that he was hopelessly outmatched, remained in cover along the edge of the tunnel, sniping with his bow to little effect.

The griffon let out a last wheeze and expired as the dragon crunched its jaws down solidly on its neck. As the summoning dissipated, the dragon smashed down its wings, buffeting both Bullo and Dar, driving the fighters back a step. It spun to face them, sweeping its tail around, taking Bullo’s legs out from under him. It focused its eyes on Dar, letting out a nasty hiss that promised a grim fate for the hard-pressed fighter.


* * * * *

[Edit: the story just passed 30,000 views, sweet! :D ]
 
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