The Doomed Bastards: Reckoning (story complete)

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 64

THE VANGUARD


“That was too easy,” Dar said.

Kiron looked up at him, an incredulous expression flitting across his features before he schooled them under iron discipline. Both men were covered in blood, some of it their own, but most belonging to the huge carcass that steamed hot and foul in the late afternoon air.

Dar heard people coming down the rough slope behind them, and turned to see Allera at their head. “Everyone all right?” he yelled up to her.

“Petronia suffered a broken collarbone, and one of the dwarven sappers had his skull cracked,” the healer reported. “But they’re all right.” She didn’t have to check Dar and Kiron; a mass heal had preceded her down the hill, even as the creature’s death struggles had come to an end.

A slight rush of air announced the arrival of Mehlaraine, who descended on the wings of a fly spell to land gently beside him. “Just the one?” she asked.

“For now,” he said, quietly. He looked up, scanning the dozens of faces that looked down at him from the emplacements atop the surrounding hills. More foot soldiers were approaching, but what happened here was already finished. One more of the ravager’s spawn slain.

This was just a warm-up, Dar thought, the words grim within his mind.

The debriefing went smoothly, with Dar’s battle commanders, representing all three races gathered at the site, reporting their perspective on what had happened.

Just about everything had gone according to plan. The creature had emerged from the Well seriously injured, whether from Amurru’s delaying action or from the half-dozen glyphs of warding that the priests of the Father had placed within the shaft. The dwarven sappers had set up a series of deadfalls, and the creature’s ascent had been hindered by hundred-pound slabs of rock that had fallen on it from above. They had failed to dislodge the creature from the walls of the shaft, however, and Dar was partly relieved that the attacks had only enraged it to push ahead faster. The smart tactic would have been for the creature to pause until its natural regenerative abilities healed the wounds it had suffered in its escape from the vault. At least that was one area where they seemed to have an advantage over the things; they were pure, raw destruction, and not possessed of fine nuance.

The creature had certainly seemed pissed when it had finally emerged from the top of the shaft. Just to make sure, several more explosive glyphs had gone off around it, blasting it with shards of rock and tongues of fire, but doing little in the way of serious hurt to it.

That’s when a dozen massive bolts, fired by the scorpions on the surrounding hilltops, had slammed down into it. Most of the missiles struck it, but nearly all simply shattered—shattered!—on its dark red hide. The thing’s skin was tougher than a dragon’s scales, a fact that Dar had learned through hard experience. But two of the shafts had penetrated, and the creature had certainly felt those. Each of the steel heads had a long groove down the center, into which enough purple worm poison had been poured to slay a whole cavalry troop’s worth of horses. That had been a contribution of Alzoun and the church of Dagos, along with the flaming burst arrows that had begun lancing into the creature from the emplaced archers. Most of those had likewise had little or no effect, but one flashed into a bright spurt of flame as it hit the creature’s head right at the corner of its jaw, and another vanished into the creature’s left nostril.

Dar never did learn which of the two had come from Selanthas’s bow, but he knew that one of them almost certainly had.

The creature had hesitated, just for a moment, looking for foes close at hand, confused by the attacks coming at it from all directions. But its indecision had come to a sudden end as Sultheros had blasted it with a streak of lightning that had briefly silhouetted its entire body in a raging nimbus of blue sparks. That made its decision; the creature had launched itself forward, straight for the hill where the elf had taken up position.

That had been part of the plan as well, but they’d underestimated the creature’s speed. It ignored the traps that had been set for it, even as long wooden stakes had pierced its legs and stuck in its lower body, and flashes of yellow fire erupted where it stepped. The steep slope of the hill barely slowed it, its claws digging deep into the bare rocks as it shot up toward its tormentors, intent only on rending these little creatures that had dared to challenge it. Arrows and bolts continued to strike it, and a lighter barrage of spells from the flying wizards above, but while the assault wore at it, none of the wounds it suffered were serious enough to slow it.

And then it reached the summit, where the defenders were waiting.

The creature knocked down the outer edge of the emplacement with its first surge, ignoring the long pikes that stabbed deep into its chest, the reinforced shafts snapping as though they were toothpicks. Petronia, who’d set one of the pikes, went down, clutching her shoulder. More missiles struck, including another scorpion missile, fired at point blank range into the juncture where the creature’s neck connected to its armored body. Shards of rock from the shattered barricade were blasted into the defenders, pinging off their armor; a dwarf went down as a rock the size of a grapefruit caromed off his forehead.

The creature turned, looking for Sultheros, who stood calmly not ten paces away, flanked by Selanthas and one of the elven rangers he’d brought from Aelvenmarr. But before it could spring at the elf, Dar and Kiron rose up from behind the ruins of the barricade and struck.

Both blades bit deep, Justice carving through ridged flesh like a butcher’s knife, while Kiron’s sword of fiery red brilliant energy tore off its foremost left leg, severing it clean from the spawn’s body. The creature let out a scream that had shattered the night and rang in the ears of those present for minutes after. Unbalanced, it was hit by a barrage of arrows and then a freezing sphere, tossed almost casually by Sultheros. The globe hit the creature in the head and exploded, engulfing it in a torrent of utter cold. Crystals of ice formed and were shattered by the thing’s desperate movements, and accompanied it as it toppled over backward and plummeted back down the slope.

It had been a dramatic moment, but forewarned by Dar, the defenders had not let up. The scorpion crews continued to shoot it with their heavy bolts as quickly as they could reload, while Dar and Kiron had shot down the hill after it, each of them nearly falling in their hasty descent. Magic missiles streaked down from the wizards hovering above, but even with all the wounds it had suffered, still the thing was starting to stir again as Dar and Kiron reached it. But fortunately Dar had learned how to stop the spawn from regenerating. It was a messy business, destroying the brain that resided deep within that armored skull, but shortly, less than one minute after the creature had first emerged from the shaft, it had been finished.

Once the last of them had recounted the tale, the gathered men, dwarves, and elves paused, letting the moment of what they had just witnessed settle around them. They had beaten the ravager spawn, but that had only been a minor foe in comparison to what still waited below. More allies were on the way, and they had a few surprises left to them, but would it be enough?

“Swap out the front-line teams; send those who have finished two shifts back to the rear camp, and make sure those who are on the night watch get an hour’s rest at the relief tent, in shifts. I want everyone to be ready.”

There was a chorus of assents through the assembled group.

Dar looked at Dalvev Gorr. The dwarf’s face was as craggy as the hills on which his team had spent the last few days working, but Dar had seen the man work from dawn to dusk since his arrival two days ago, pushing his team to do likewise, even after a forced march from the small dwarven outpost in the foothills of the Galerr Mountains leagues distant to the southwest. The dwarves were as hard as the iron they worked, and Dar was glad to have them.

“When will you have that onager finished, Gorr?”

“We’ll have the thrower done by midnight, general,” the dwarf said simply, as though another night without sleep were a trivial matter, not worthy of mention.

Dar nodded and turned to the elven wizard. “And you, archmage?”

“With the dawn, I will teleport back to Aelvenmarr and bring more rangers back, along with more supplies. It will be modest; we only have a handful of bags of holding left among the aelfinn.”

“Whatever you bring will help,” Dar said. He shifted his eyes to Maricela. “The wardings?”

“We will refresh those that we can now,” the priestess said. “The rest, in the morning.”

Dar would have preferred not to wait, but the priests of the Father prayed for spells with the coming of the dawn, and needed rest even for that. Some of the priests would sleep on the front lines with the men on watch, but they would sleep.

“All right,” he told them all. “Set watches and get some rest. I have a feeling we’re all going to need it.”
 

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Lazybones

Adventurer
No, they'll be fully prepared. You have to meet the end of the world on your feet, with steel in hand, and howling your defiance to the gods.
Now, Grollo, I know you've been a long time reader of this story... :]

* * * * *

Chapter 65

SHORT NOTICE


The next sending came in the deep hours before dawn, when the horizon to the east had not yet begun to brighten with the light of the coming day. Even the wind had died down, until a preternatural hush had fallen over the hill country.

Dar shot up out of his rude cot in the back of the forward shelter. Even asleep, his hand had found the hilt of Justice, and the blade came half out of his sheath before he realized where he was.

Allera, caught in an even deeper sleep beside him, nevertheless stirred at his sudden movement. “Is it...” she began, blinking to clear the sleep from her eyes.

But Dar was already on his feet. Reaching down to grab his armor, lying in a neat pile at the foot of the cot, he drew the attention of the small knot of men in the outer “room” of the shelter, warming their hands around the small camp stove where a pot of coffee was constantly kept ready for men taking a break from a long shift in the emplacements. Several soldiers rose, knowing or guessing the significance of Dar’s sudden awakening.

He confirmed it a moment later. “Sound the alert,” he said, “And send a runner to the rear camp. We’ve got company coming.”

He slid his breastplate on over the chainmail vest he’d slept in. Allera was there to help him with the straps, and started efficiently fastening his greaves to his limbs even as he adjusted the fit of the heavy armor against his body.

“Is this it?” she asked, lifting the heavy shoulder plates up to him, so he could fasten them to his breastplate. The armor shone brilliantly in the light of the torches, flickering almost like something alive.

“The prison has collapsed,” he said. “The Ravager hasn’t stirred from its slumber yet, but there are three spawn heading our way. Amurru said it would delay them as long as it could.”

Allera nodded. “Are you ready?” he asked her.

She reached up and touched his face, then handed him his helmet. Justice went last, the sword fitting against his hip like a part of him.

Only a few short minutes had passed since Dar had woken, but by the time he emerged from the tent and started up toward the crest, the emplacement above was abuzz with activity. Kiron was there, but Maricela had gone back to the rear camp for rest, and would not be along for a few minutes at least. The would have heard the horn sounding the alert, but it would take a little time for them to reach their positions on the front lines.

“How long until... until the big one wakes?” Allera asked, as they made their way up the steep slope. A rope had been strung to help those coming down, and Dar was making use of it, not trusting his eyes in the poor light cast by his torch.

“I don’t know, angel,” he said, pulling himself up the last stretch of trail with a grunt of effort. Kiron was there at once. “Report,” he said, as the knight saluted him with a fist to his chest.

“Everyone’s in place,” Kiron said. “The engines are ready, and the elves...”

He trailed off, and Dar turned to see them approaching from further along the crest. Mehlaraine was already flying, a long pike with a silver head clutched in one hand. The elves had taken shelter in a magical space created by the archmage; they could not have gotten more rest than the other troops, and had gotten no more time to prepare, but they looked calm, collected, and ready. The archmage merely met Dar’s gaze and nodded; he knew the plan and his place in it, and had suggested some of the improvements himself. His apprentice, standing at his shoulder, seemed slightly less composed, smoothing out the front of her robe with a slight nervous motion of her slender fingers.

“The reinforcements from the camp will be here in a few minutes,” Kiron went on.

“Let’s hope we have that long,” he said. He updated the others on what he’d told Allera earlier, and then moved to the forward emplacement, stepping up behind the wall of spikes to give him a clear view of the valley below.

There was enough light to see; they’d placed everburning torches in a wide ring around the dark entrance to Rappan Athuk, enough for them to clearly see anything larger than a cat that stirred in the area. There were more torches on the ridges, but those were kept hooded, to preserve the night vision of the defenders. To Dar’s eyes the forms moving on the other hilltops were vague shadows, flickering things that may or may not have been real.

His eyes were drawn almost inexorably to his far right, to another shadow jutting out from the edge of the ridge about twenty paces distant from his current position. He couldn’t make out Duke Aerim’s face, but he could feel the weight of the man’s stare, answering his gaze with cold equanimity. He could also feel Allera’s disapproval, but his wife did not say anything.

Aerim had taken advantage of the distraction caused by the first ravager spawn’s attack to attempt escape. Even with one arm and part of a leg missing, he’d broken free of his bonds, disabled the fully able soldier watching him, and fled a good fifty yards before he’d been spotted, using a spear as a crutch. The soldier had lived, although it might have been a close thing if they hadn’t had clerics close at hand. Aerim had been unapologetic, and had not complained even when the arrow that had finally taken him down was yanked from the meat of his right thigh. Dar wasn’t sure what he’d hoped to accomplish, given that he’d nearly collapsed the last time he’d been taken away from Rappan Athuk. Was that what he wanted, a simple release? He’d been tempted to give it to him, but something beyond Allera’s disapproval had stayed his hand.

Well, he wasn’t going anywhere now. The Duke had been chained to a pair of wooden beams as thick around as Dar’s waist, buried almost half of their lengths into the packed earth of the hilltop. The dwarves had initially started building a watchtower there, before Dar had directed them instead to focus on the siege engines. Given a month, the man might have been able to work his way free, but short of sacrificing his remaining arm and leg, he wasn’t going to escape in the near future.

A sudden flurry of movement around him drew Dar’s attention away from the prisoner, back down toward the pit in the valley below. Stepping forward, Dar motioned those nearby to silence. Fifty sets of eyes focused as one on the dark opening. The surrounding torches flickered slightly, although the wind remained utterly calm.

Then they heard the noise. A dull roar, filtered up through the ground, slowly building, a noise of frustrated rage, accompanying a promise of violence.

“It begins,” Sultheros said, his voice oddly calm.
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 66

IT BEGINS


Dar made a motion to Kalen, who lifted a torch affixed to a long pole, waving it above his head to alert those on the other hills. The action was unnecessary; it was impossible to miss the coming of the ravager spawn.

Sultheros touched Dar on the shoulder; the general felt a sudden flush of magical energy that faded within a few seconds. The elf then rose into the air and streaked out over the valley, followed by his apprentice Callyse, and then, to Dar’s brief surprise, Jalla Calestin. Mehlaraine was already aloft, the silvered head of her pike gleaming off the light of the torches.

The elven archmage drew ahead of the women as he dropped to about a hundred feet above the shaft leading down to the Well. He moved his hands, speaking words that faded over the distance separating him from the others. A small bead of red light appeared in one hand; he dropped this, watching as it descended swiftly and vanished into the opening.

The delayed blast fireball exploded in a violent burst, and a plume of liquid fire erupted out of the hole. The flames accompanied the snarling, darting form of one of the ravager spawn, which hurled itself into the air, clawing and snapping at the elf. Even with its strength, however, it could not jump that high, and it flipped over as it arced back down toward the ground, landing on all six of its feet about fifteen paces away from the opening of the shaft. A second spawn, its face blackened with char from the blast, was already emerging, slightly more cautious than the first as it gripped the edges of the shaft and scanned the area. It hesitated only a moment, but it was suddenly thrust forward as a third spawn pushed out past it, snarling as it extracted itself from the shaft.

The defenders were already unleashing their fire into the things. Arrows and bolts lanced out of the night from the surrounding hilltops, but the three huge monsters barely seemed to notice them. They were not quite so dismissive of the scorpion bolts, but the initial volley was unlucky, scoring no hits. The long shafts of the missiles snapped as the steel heads were deflected by the monsters’ dense hides, or they spun harmlessly away as the creatures twisted and turned, moving with a speed that was amazing for things of their size.

Lightning flared from above, as Callyse shot one of the creatures with a lightning bolt from a wand. Hovering thirty feet away, Jalla Calestin added a fireball that briefly flared around all three of the creatures, inflicting slight damage upon them. The plan involved focusing as much as their attacks as possible on a single creature until it was taken down, and then shifting to the next target. But the ravager spawn did not wait for that plan to come to fruition, and they were already moving, their claws churning up great plumes of dirt and stones as they sought out targets.

The first tracked Sultheros’s movements with its eyes as the elf drew back slowly toward the hilltop where Dar’s command resided. The elf was almost invisible in the night sky, and well out of the creature’s reach, but the spawn’s keen senses had no difficulty keeping him in view. Taking heavy fire from the hilltop, including several well-placed shots from Selanthas that stung at the tender flesh around its nostrils and eyes, it picked up speed as it followed the path that the first ravager spawn had taken less than twelve hours previously. The defenders, including Dar and Kiron and his knights, were waiting for it, but this time the odds were much less in their favor. While the clerics had refreshed some of the glyphs of warding within the shaft, they’d not had a chance to rest and recover more spells, and the dwarves had not had the time to reset their traps. Still, holy and arcane magic continued to pour into the beast as it surged up the hill. Callyse hit it with another lightning bolt, followed by a pair of scorching rays from Jalla Calestin. Maricela had not yet arrived, but the few lesser clerics among the defenders added a ray of scorching light and a sound burst that did not seem to faze the creature in the slightest.

Sultheros summoned his own magic again as the lead spawn approached the summit, and the protruding forest of stakes that had not managed to slow its slain brother. But this time, a large chunk of the hillside gave way under its claws, and the spawn fell in an avalanche of stones and dirt back down toward its base. But the rockslide was more than just that, as the plume of debris coalesced into a vaguely humanoid form that landed squarely atop the creature, crushing the spawn beneath almost fifty thousand pounds of rock. That would have killed almost anything, but the spawn was merely stunned, and as the earth elemental pulled itself up, its huge fists coming up to further punish the foe, the creature twisted its head almost full around, seizing the elemental in its massive jaws.

The second spawn had been drawn to the right of the first by a series of hits from the dwarven sappers entrenched in the emplaced position where the huge onager rested. The dwarves had mounted a number of heavy arbalests almost as big as they were on the embankment that sheltered their position, and had added a pair of small spring-operated launchers that sent pots of alchemist’s fire arcing into the ground at the creature’s feet. Neither the bolts nor the blazing flames really hurt the creature, but they drew its attention, enough to draw it forward in a violent charge that shook the ground. The dwarves somehow managed to stand their ground in the face of that surge, and even managed another volley of the burning pots, one of which struck the creature’s left shoulder, leaving it trailing a stream of blazing fire in its wake. The logs and stones of the emplacement shook as the creature neared, and the crossbowmen dropped down behind the shelter of the low wall, a move that looked to be of dubious help against such a terrible foe.

The dwarves manning the onager held their ground, watching with stoic expressions until the thing was almost on top of them. Then they slammed their hammers against the stays holding the huge central wheel in place. The tension released, the stubby throwing arm spun in a blur, picking up speed as it turned on the wheel’s axis. The ravager spawn launched itself up over the embankment at the same moment that the last dwarf still standing threw another lever, and the heavy retaining arm of the catapult shot up into position, stopping the throwing arm on its next traverse, and launching the contents of its basket into the face of the spawn. Those contents—twenty razor-sharp disks of black adamantine, ruined the features of the creature in an instant, pulping one of its eyes, shearing away a dozen black teeth, and burying themselves in its thick hide. The monster, far from being mortally wounded even by that devastating attack, was nevertheless driven into a mad frenzy, and it hurled itself upon the engine, tearing and crushing. The onager was transformed into kindling in the blink of an eye, and two of the five dwarves were instantly killed. The sappers were no cowards, but were smart enough to know that standing their ground here would result only in death. They fled, another of their number dying as the creature shredded him with a flailing claw. The spawn, half blind and seriously injured, spent another few moments tearing up the emplacement, then started looking around for something else to kill.

“We have to intervene!” Allera yelled, but Dar shook his head. “Wait for the big one!” he yelled, even as he leaned out over the now-gaping cliff, firing his heavy bow down into the violence below. Sultheros’s summoning had come just in time, but it had shorn off the front of their entrenchment, and Dar and Kiron had come close to following the creature back down the hill. Everyone who could hold a bow was firing now, and with the sheer volume of fire some of the shots were telling. But the spawn were incredibly resilient, and Dar knew that they were fighting the creatures’ regenerative powers, hoping to overcome them before they could simply tear the Camarians and their allies apart.

He caught a glimpse of the third spawn as it surged up one of the other hills, which was held by another group of dwarves, bolstered by a handful of Camarian legionaries. The spawn’s furor was explained by the scorpion bolt jutting from its left shoulder. Like the others it had no difficulty with the steep ascent, but its climb was made difficult by the traps laid by the dwarven sappers. Boulders the size of horses tumbled down onto the creature, smashing off the spawn with loud thunks. One dwarf leaned precariously over the edge and dropped a large cask directly onto the creature’s head, which shattered into a bright flare of white fire that engulfed the spawn. The monster, enraged and blinded by the attack, hurled itself upward into the defenders. The dwarf that had thrown the cask was knocked flying, toppling over the edge and bouncing down the steep cliff before landing in a limp heap at its bottom. The Camarians were there to meet the creature, stabbing it with their long spears, but it was the abrupt collapse of the ledge at the top of the cliff that saved them, sending the spawn back down in a rough trip that copied the fall of its brother a few moments ago. One of the legionaries followed it, screaming before his helmet was intercepted by a jutting boulder.

The first spawn, despite the disadvantage of its position, had managed to push itself up and out from under the elemental, ignoring the powerful slams that the summoned creature rained down against its head and neck. Shrieking in a red fury, the spawn seized hold of the elemental with its claws and teeth, and tore it apart in a display of raw strength.

Even as huge clods that had been part of the elemental were falling to the ground, the spawn was shooting up through them, back up the hill once more. Twin bolts of lightning from Sultheros and Callyse flared around its head, casting it in grim relief for an instant before the discharges faded. Magic missiles from Jalla peppered its back, but the tiny bolts seemed almost like gnats as they vanished against its hide. More mundane missiles shot down from above, stabbing into its body at point-blank range, and at that distance a few penetrated. But the creature was beyond feeling pain, and this time it would not be denied.

Allera threw up a repulsion spell, hoping to forestall it, but the thing went right through it without slowing. Time seemed to slow as the spawn surged through a wild cloud of swirling dust, whizzing arrows, and raucous sound. A scorpion loaded too quickly broke as it was fired, sending the bolt arcing high into the air across the valley.

The spawn surged toward the summit; forty feet away, thirty, twenty. Finally, as its claws bit into the summit, Dar roared a challenge and leapt off the cliff to meet it. Its jaws twisted sideways and snapped around his torso, but he was already driving the sword forward, through its left eye, into the brain. Justice flared white in his hand, then was yanked from his grip as the monster spasmed.

Creature and man fell together. The spawn’s jaws clenched and then sprung open, dropping Dar to roll down the cliff after it. Fortunately the spawn’s multiple trips up and down the cliff had sheared away most of the larger boulders, but landing on its body was hardly softer than landing on the packed earth around it. The spawn died faster than its brethren had before, its limbs clenching once, then falling still.

“Damn it, I am getting too freaking old for this crap,” Dar said, grimacing as he tried to get up. His helmet had vanished, and he could feel blood trickling down the side of his head. His hair clung to his scalp, soaked with sweat and blood, and coated in a thick layer of dust and dirt that likewise lay in a patina over his armor and clothes. He started looking for the creature’s head, to recover his sword, but his attention was drawn back up the ridge by Allera’s shouting his name.

“DAR!”

The fighter looked around for the threat, but realized that it wasn’t he who was in danger. As the dust whirled around him he caught sight of the second spawn, climbing the southern face of the hill, approaching the position he’d just vacated from its flank. He could just hear the yells of the defenders as they shifted to meet the new threat, but then the monster reached the crest, and everything devolved into a confused, violent melee.

One down, Dar thought, all too aware that this was still the warm-up, and that even now the Ravager itself was likely rising out of its aeons-long slumber, ready for a snack after its long rest.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 67

DESPERATE MEASURES


Allera’s heart froze in her chest as she watched Dar go over the edge with the spawn, lost in a welter of slashing limbs and falling rock. Sultheros had empowered him with a fly spell at the start of the battle, but the creature had snared him in its jaws, and Allera could not see through the clouds of dust that were raised by its violent passage down the cliff. She leaned out over the battlement, and might have followed him down the cliff, had not Petronia lunged and grabbed onto her from behind.

“DAR!” she yelled, but she doubted he’d be able to hear her over the ongoing clatter of stones that continued to fall from the damaged cliff face. So she summoned her magic, flinging it blindly down the cliff, and felt a vast thrill of relief as she sensed the tiny white glow that was Dar’s life force. He was wounded, but not as badly as she’d feared, and that white flame of her inner perception grew stronger as she poured healing power into it.

Shouts from the defenders nearby drew her attention around, in time to spot the second spawn that was making its way up the cliff on the south face of the hill. Men and dwarves were shifting to meet the new threat, and she heard Kiron yelling orders as he ran along the ridge, Aldos and Qatarn at his heels. Above them, she could just see Sultheros and the other wizards floating closer. She was also aware of the battle going on with the third spawn on the next hill over, but she could not spare any more attention for them right now. And over everything, pounding in the front of her mind was a glowing nodule of power held ready for release. She wanted to free it now, but knew that Dar was right, and that this was only the initial phase of the battle. Assuming any of them survived to greet the Ravager itself.

The spawn reached the crest and pulled itself over, snapping off wooden stakes as though they were mere splinters. Flames ran down one flank where one of the dwarven fire-pots had struck it, and near a dozen arrows peppered its crimson hide. Selanthas had stepped up atop the low wall that fronted the scorpion emplacement, and was firing as fast as he could reload, each shot striking the spawn. He was aiming for the vital spots, eyes and nostrils and the softer flesh inside its slitted ears and gaping jaws, but thus far his assault, and the shots of his allies, seemed barely felt by the raging creature. The scorpion unleashed a bolt at close range that drove into the center of its chest, but the long missile simply shattered on impact, the bent steel head clattering to the ground to be trampled under the creature’s huge claws.

As the creature gained the ridge the defenders engaged it directly, thrusting spears and other long weapons into its body. Again the attacks seemed to do little but distract the creature. It seized a dwarf in its jaws, cutting off his screams with a noisy crunch of its jaws. Half of the hapless sapper went down its gullet; the other half was flung aside, landing at the feet of Duke Aerim, who could only watch from his prison, not ten paces away from where the spawn was working its way through the defenders.

More flashes of magical energy flared down from above, driving the creature into even greater paroxysms of rage. It rose up on its hind legs, snapping at the air, but the wizards had wisely kept their altitude high enough to avoid any reprisals from below. That immunity was not sovereign; the Camarians knew that the creature could change form, but Amurru had told them that the transformation into a shape capable of flight took upwards of a full minute, during which time the creature would be vulnerable to concentrated assault.

As it was, however, the spawn did not lack for targets upon the ground. It dug its claws into a stone-lined trench, ripping out a ten-foot swatch of hillside, along with the two legionaries manning it. Both men perished messily, along with a third who was almost accidentally impaled by a sudden outward thrust of one of the creature’s legs. All six of its limbs terminated in four curving black claws as sharp as adamantine daggers, and those cut through stone, wood, and steel plate alike indiscriminately. The remaining defenders quailed before that assault and began to fall back.

Then Kiron and his knights reached the line, and threw themselves into the breach. The monster saw them coming and lunged to meet the young knight-captain, but Kiron dodged those deadly teeth, taking a glancing hit that nearly dislocated his shoulder. The epic magical blade given to them by Amurru flared into power, a five-foot shaft of ruby brilliant energy hissing from the long golden hilt at the knight’s call. He threw himself forward before the creature could follow up on its attack, slicing the blade across the bottom of the spawn’s jaw.

Here was finally a weapon against which the spawn’s otherwordly resistances proved to be of no avail. The red blade carved a deep gouge in the creature’s jaw, and eager blood that was just as bright sprayed out in a fan that hissed as it splattered on the knight’s breastplate. The attacks by Aldos, Qatarn, and Petronia were of little matter, as far as the creature was concerned, for here was a foe that could really hurt it.

Unfortunately for Kiron, that worked both ways. He held his ground, knowing what was coming even as he lifted the brilliant energy sword again, and the full fury of the ravager spawn descended upon him.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 68

PAIN AND TORMENT


There was nowhere to go, even if he had decided to try to escape. Kiron's sword flashed red as he lifted it before his face, casting the monster’s features into grim red relief. The ravager spawn seemed to move in a blur as it lunged at him, black claws and gaping jaws converging on his head.

There was a blue flash, and then an odd and sudden silence. A pulse passed through him, and for a moment his entire body thrummed with the intensity of it. But somehow, he was not crushed or torn apart, as he’d expected.

It took him several long moments to realize why he was not dead. As the chaos receded he found himself staring straight into the gullet of the beast, its jaws stretched unnaturally wide in front of him, frozen in mid-air, nearly close enough for him to reach out and touch one of the dagger-shaped teeth. A transparent blue aura separated him from the creature, and as he looked around he realized it was a bubble, a sphere of force that had appeared around him right as the creature had launched its attack. Protected by the resilient sphere, the creature could not harm him. Amurru had warned that the touch of the creatures could disrupt magic, but apparently this spell—it had to be Sutheros who had cast it, none of their other mages were powerful enough for magic of this sort—was durable enough to withstand the spawn’s attack.

The spawn was belatedly realizing this as well. It unclenched its jaws and then leapt forward, perhaps believing that sheer mass could rupture the sphere. Kiron flinched as the weight of the creature settled upon him, but the magical globe held, and it suddenly grew dark as the weight of the thing settled around him. He could just see out from under the sides of its body by bending low, but could not discern what was happening at the forefront of the battle. Both cursing and thanking the magic that held him safe, he waited to find out what would happen.

And then, so suddenly that he started in surprise, the creature was past him, and he could see again. The monster’s hindquarters were close enough to touch, its rear limbs half-folded around the sphere. He could not hear the sounds of battle from within the globe of force, but he had no doubt that his companions were engaged in desperate battle with it.

Kiron was ready a second later, when the sphere abruptly vanished. The epic sword danced like a switch in his hand, slicing half-through one hind leg, tearing through the second on his backswing, and then vanishing forward as he planted his feet and thrust the entire length of the blade into the monster’s bung-hole.

The ravager spawn’s reaction was rather... intense. Its body contorted improbably as it rose up into the air, its crippled rear legs spasming underneath it. As the damaged limbs collapsed it fell heavily to the side, slamming hard into the wooden frame to which Duke Aerim was bound. The impact sundered the wooden stakes and nearly did the same to the Duke, who was flung roughly to the ground, part of one of the sundered shafts still attached to him by his chains.

Kiron was down; the spawn’s flailings had crushed his left leg, and blood oozed down his left side where its claws had penetrated deep through his armor into his body. But power flooded into him as Allera unleashed another mass cure, and his pains receded, fading into the background of tumult and chaos of battle. Petronia offered him a hand, which he took gratefully, staggering back to his feet. He’d lost the sword, which was probably still embedded deep in the body of the spawn.

The ravager spawn had been seriously injured, but it still had fight left in it, and it used its four intact legs to drag itself back onto its belly. Turning its eyes on the battered defenders, it issued a roar of pure malevolence that promised an accounting for its hurts.

An armored form shot up over the lip of the ridge, and flew headlong at the spawn. Corath Dar held Justice in both hands, the sword trailing long tendrils of ravager blood behind him as he continued to pick up speed. With his armor shining with a brilliance that went beyond the reflected lights from the hilltop, he seemed almost an avenging angel, intent upon the destruction of his foe.

But the spawn was not about to accept its fate meekly. Digging its foreclaws into the stony knobs of the ridge, it lunged forward and seized the diving fighter in a single snap of its jaws. Dar was too big a morsel to swallow easily, but pinned in its mouth, which engulfed him almost from shoulders to knees, he could not effectively strike back. He still held Justice, but his swordarm was trapped between two black teeth, the blade jutting out from the creature’s mouth like a toothpick.

Kiron and the others rushed forward to Dar’s aid, but before they could get close enough to rejoin the melee, the ravager spawn convulsed suddenly. Its jaws snapped open, hurling its prisoner free, as it roared again in pain. In twisted onto its side, the motion revealing Duke Aerim, who pulled free of the spawn in a cascade of blood and gore that splattered over his entire body. In his right hand the brilliant energy sword flared bright; somehow the Duke had managed to tear himself free, get over to the spawn while it was distracted with Dar, and seize the weapon embedded in the ravager’s body. The ravager’s struggles were growing weaker, now; blood poured from its abused hindquarters as from a fallen decanter. He lifted the sword to strike again, but in its last violent throes one of the ravager’s legs smashed into the ancient warrior’s body, launching him into the air. He fell hard onto his back in front of the knights, still conscious but more than a little dazed. Kiron made a motion, and two legionaries hastened to take custody of the man, reclaiming the sword before Aerim could recover enough to use it against them.

The knight ordered his remaining forces forward again, but there was no immediate need. Freed from the ravager spawn’s jaws, Dar had recovered in mid-air, using the still-effective fly spell to spin and dart forward once more. The spawn could not react again in time, but it snapped its head up, trying to knock its attacker aside. There was a blur of steel and then Dar was past. Blood flashed in an arc above the spawn’s head, and then it toppled back, its skull shorn nearly in two by the critical hit. After having put up such a violent fight, it died quickly, landing in a heap without so much as a tremor shaking its body.

“Make sure of it!” Kiron yelled, gesturing for Petronia to use her axe. A number of legionaries and dwarven sappers were still in the area, but most had either fled or been killed by the creature’s rush. Three dwarves were still trying to work the scorpion, but the engine had been damaged in the fray, and they were having difficulty getting another bolt into the mechanism.

Dar spiraled around and landed beside Kiron. “That’s two,” he said. The two men looked out into the night at the far hill, where the third spawn had ascended. The hillside was cloaked in darkness, now, the torches that had been set there either knocked down or snuffed by the creature’s ability to disrupt magic. Nothing moved, although anything could have been lying in the deep shadows along the crest. There was no indication that the twenty humans and dwarves that had occupied the fortifications atop the hill yet lived.

“There!” Kiron yelled, pointing toward the gap between two of the hills, off to the west.

Even without light, it wasn’t hard to mark the passage of the ravager spawn, once they knew where to look. The creature seemed to be moving off, although its course would take it close to the secondary camp, Dar noticed at once. Maricela and the other reinforcements would be coming that way; maybe the creature had already detected them, and identified them as its next victims. Dar hadn’t ever seen one of the ravager’s brood retreat from a fight, so the alternative seemed more plausible.

Kiron had seen it too. “We have to stop it!” he yelled.
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
Excellent fights, though it would be great to see the Duke come back to the Light...
Well, we definitely haven't seen the last of him!

I'm only about 6 chapters ahead at the moment, and while I'm approaching the end of the story, there's still one big scene left to write. :) I am not going to have much time to write next week, but I'm going to try to bank enough posts so that I can continue with the update-every-weekday strategy through the end.

* * * * *

Chapter 69

THE LAST SPAWN


The spawn had already come under attack; the flying wizards had engaged it, but even Dar could see that their magic had been largely depleted. Magic missiles and lightning bolts from wands flared in the night, and Dar caught sight of Mehlaraine, flying low over it, thrusting down with her pike into the creature’s back. The spawn paid little heed to any of the attacks, trudging forward with singleminded intensity. Whatever wounds it had suffered thus far had likely been healed already, either by its innate regenerative power or via its nasty ability to absorb the life energy of the foes it destroyed.

“I’m on it,” he said, but before he could fly off again, Allera grabbed onto his arm. “You’re seriously hurt,” she said, invoking a heal spell to purge his injuries. As the healing magic poured into him, she said, “I held onto it; there was nothing else I could do.” It was clear from the look on her face that it had been difficult; Dar knew that she felt the loss of every dead human, dwarf, and elf around them as a painful wound.

“It will fall upon you,” he told her, and then shot out into the night again, barely clearing the ruined battlements before diving down the face of the hill toward the retreating spawn. Behind him Kiron was shouting orders, but Dar knew that nothing that the knight did would likely affect the rest of this battle. An arrow from Selanthas passed him, dropping in an arc that intersected with the black slab of the monster. But then the creature turned into a dell between two parallel ridges, taking it out of sight of the defenders around Rappan Athuk.

Dar followed it, picking up more speed as he descended. They had to finish this, and quickly; he had no idea how much time they had left, but doubted that it would be very much. He lifted Justice, and picked his spot, right in the back of the ravager spawn’s skull.

But before he could attack, the night came alive ahead of him.

Lightning flashed down into the gorge. But this was no mere lightning bolt from a wand; the surging currents of an empowered chain lightning filled the space between the ridges with blazes of power. Even more than fifty feet away, Dar could feel his skin tingling from it. The spawn felt it more acutely, rising up on its forelegs, uttering a scream of pain and rage.

A white lance of power streaked down and struck it in the throat, followed by a second, and then a third. The archer was a strange creature, a merging of a woman’s body with that of a snake, with broad feathered wings that kept it aloft in a steady beat. It carried a white longbow that formed arrows of pure energy with each draw.

A short distance away, Dar saw a squat, pudgy black man, riding a flying carpet barely big enough to support him, drift down and point to the walls of the canyon. A rumbling accompanied a sudden collapse of the cliff walls, as rubble poured down toward the spawn. The plumes of debris took on shape, and Dar saw that the wizard had summoned a pair of earth elementals, each the size of a small cottage. But as the light of another white arrow flashed he saw that the outlines of the things were twisted, strange, pseudonatural reflections of the elemental forces that he’d seen and fought numerous times in his storied career. But the creatures, whatever they were, engaged the spawn with vigor, putting their ponderous weight to advantage as they descended upon it from both sides.

The spawn reacted with predictable violence, lashing the elemental with its claws, while it took a massive bite out of its shoulder with its black teeth. The elemental, for all its pseudonatural resistances, was not able to withstand that amount of damage, and it collapsed in a heap of rubble. The other elemental smashed its fists into the spawn’s back, but while the impacts were strong enough to collapse a stone wall, the creature merely twisted around to face the second threat. It tore a claw across the elemental’s belly, sending fist-sized clods of earth flying. It looked very likely that the second summons would not long outlast the first.

But the attack of the pseudonatural elementals had distracted it long enough for the casters above to get in another sequence of attacks. Dar found himself an observer as another series of magical bolts from Sultheros and his companions tore home, but that was trivial compared to what followed. Dar now saw the source of the lightning that had landed moments ago, as a robed figure descended from the night skies, her robe dancing wildly around her. Letellia had replaced her cloth mask, but Dar knew her, even before she lifted the silver staff, and invoked another powerful spell. This time he saw the blue flashes build from his hands, swirling up and down the length of the staff, growing in intensity until she plunged the end downward. The bolt slammed down into the spawn’s skull, and Dar could see the echoing glow flickering from its eyes, tendrils of energy flaring out from its teeth as the chain lightning full discharged. The fighter could smell the odor of roasted flesh, and for a brief moment he felt an odd sympathy for the thing, tormented by enemies that it could not reach.

Then he saw the light ahead, moments before a small column of armed men appeared along the trail ahead. Maricela was at their head, holding up her burning mace, its light glinting off the breastplates and steel spearheads of the legionaries.

The spawn saw it too. As the elemental lunged at it again, it lifted a claw and seized it by the chest. The elemental had to weigh thousands of pounds, but the spawn dashed it to the ground, its substance collapsing as the black claws tightened on its frame. The spawn was already surging forward, projecting all of its fury and frustration at this new target, one it could reach, a foe it could tear to pieces, and feed upon.
 

Oversight

First Post
Hey there Lazybones, I just wanted to express my gratitutude for this story. I ran across it a couple of weeks ago and needless to say it has caused my work productivity to take a major hit. Very well written and thoroughly enjoyable. I'm kind of thinking of picking up Rappan Athuk now. I realize that you have taken liberties with it, but I'm still curious. I've never played in or run an epic dungeon like that. Really I think that must be some kind of major hole in my gamer resume. Perhaps its time to fill it. Now if I can only resist getting absorbed into your other stories for a couple of weeks I might get something done. Somehow I don't think the odds are good.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Hey there Lazybones, I just wanted to express my gratitutude for this story. I ran across it a couple of weeks ago and needless to say it has caused my work productivity to take a major hit.
Thanks for posting, Oversight. I had the same problem with some of the classic early story hours, which is what led me to decide to try one of my own.

* * * * *

Chapter 70

PURSUIT


Dar dove toward the spawn, but his heavy armor slowed him, and the creature had a small but significant lead. Within a few seconds, he saw that he would not catch it before it reached Maricela and the Camarian reinforcements.

The priestess shouted orders, and the legionaries spread out across the trail, setting their long spears to take the spawn’s charge. She fired a beam of searing light at the spawn, but while the bolt hit it squarely in the center of its chest, it did nothing to slow its rush.

The lillend archer kept pace easily, maintaining the fire from her magical bow. The shafts stabbed deeper into its body than mundane arrows, and left bloody streaks trailing down its back, but the spawn, it appeared, would not be denied.

The little black man on the flying rug had gotten ahead of the charging spawn, and dropped to within fifty feet of the canyon floor. He leaned over and dropped a small black ball that plummeted to the rocky ground. As the spawn charged forward, the rocky terrain around it came alive with stirring, grasping tendrils. At first, they looked like the common black tentacles spell, but as he drew near, Dar could see that these tentacles were coated in a slick substance that left dark marks on the spawn’s skin where they struck, and each terminated in a gaping maw that snapped and hissed as they sought to gain purchase on its hide. The spawn tore through them like a farmer’s scythe through wheat, but it cost it time, time that it no longer had.

Dar lifted Justice and prepared to strike, but Letellia drifted into his path, her hand outstretched to bar him. “Let me, general,” she said, her voice hollow from behind her mask.

He wasn’t about to argue with her; the spawn had been delayed by the black wizard’s spell, but it was close enough for one dedicated charge to take it into the ranks of the Camarians. But even as he started to move around Letellia, she summoned her magic once more, and unleashed a final bolt of energy, once that stabbed into the back of the spawn’s skull like a knife. The spawn, already critically wounded, collapsed in a twitching heap, even as the last flickering remnants of electricity danced around its ehad and died.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead,” Dar said, but the lillend was already descending, dropping to almost point-blank range as it continued to fire its bow into the creature’s head. At that range, the entire length of the glowing shafts penetrated, and vanished into the interior of the spawn’s skull.

Letellia started to drift back upward, forcing Dar to focus his thoughts on the fly spell to follow her. “We thought you were dead,” he said, glancing back down at the path of destruction left by the ravager spawn through the canyon.

“I quite nearly was. Fortunately the collapse weakened the barrier between planes that exists in the vault, so I was able to eventually plane shift to another reality.”

“Why didn’t you let us know that you were alive?”

“I knew that your failure—our failure—would result in the eventual release of the Ravager. I had to take steps to address that eventuality. I regret that it took as long as it did to recover and return.”

He pointed down at the lillend, and the diminutive wizard floating below on his tiny square of carpet. “Who are your friends?”

“Members of the Mind’s Eye. I would have rallied more aid, but Lyllalya and Dra Mak Mor were the only ones who could come on such short notice. I have called in a number of favors, Corath Dar. Let us hope that are resources are sufficient to the task.”

They had risen high enough to see over the ridge, and Dar could see the lights of the torches that surrounded the entrance to Rappan Athuk, popping into sight like distant fireflies. There were other lights now on the hilltop where he’d left Kiron and the others, although at this range all Dar could make out were the outlines of men moving about.

There was one other thing as well. A rumbling, distant, a vague sound on the edges of his perception. Without the anchor of the ground beneath him, it seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“What’s that?”

“You know, Corath Dar. It is time.”

Concentrating on the magic, he shot forward, willing the spell to carry him faster. He was moving as fast as a charging warhorse, but it still felt as though the air around him had thickened, tugging at his limbs, his sword, his cloak.

“Allera!” he shouted, knowing that he was probably too far away for her to hear over the evening breeze, which had started up again briskly, as if to spite him. The rumbling grew louder, and he could see rocks dislodged from the hillsides ahead, bouncing as they tumbled down the steep slope.

He could see Kiron and the others, now. Kiron was shouting something, lost over the rising pitch of the trembling ground. He saw a flash of white and saw Allera, running toward him. He was still too far away.

And then the hill exploded in a shower of rocks, dirt, and dust. A stone the size of his head shot past him, close enough so that he could have reached out and touched it as it passed. For a moment, the hilltop was obscured by a storm of debris that hung in the air, swirling in the wind.

“Allera!” he yelled, but there was no sign of her. There was too much dust in the air to see anything for a few seconds. He coughed as he entered the outer edge of the cloud, but kept on going, trying to see something, anything.

And then the debris cleared, and he saw more than he wanted to see.

It was huge. It looked like the spawn, down to the black teeth and claws, but its crimson hide was a deeper, richer color, almost like congealed blood. It was easily the size of a galleon, and he couldn’t even see all of it, its lower half still obstructed by the swirling dust and scattered dirt in the air. Apparently it had burrowed up directly from below, drawn by something—the sense of prey, magic, whatever. Even though it hadn’t sensed him, its presence was almost overpowering. The Ravager was massive beyond its mere size, although that was more impressive than anything he’d ever faced before. No, it was ancient, epic, a thing beyond mere human words. It was a force of nature, destruction made manifest. He’d been a fool, to think that mere men could face such a thing and defeat it.

But what he felt more than anything at that moment was a tight fear for Allera. And then, as though summoned by the thought, he saw her, lying half-buried in a pile of rubble. She’d been hurled over the edge of the crest by the explosion, and had made the violent passage down the steep cliffside that he’d made earlier. He’d survived it, recovered to fight on, but his wife was not moving.

“Allera!” he cried out, diving toward her.

But the Ravager had finally sensed him, even before he cried out. As he dove, it lunged, its jaws opening to seize him and swallow him in a single gulp. Desperation guided instinct, and he threw himself aside, lashing out blindly with Justice in what had to be vain effort to divert its attack.

The sword struck one of the Ravager’s teeth, and was almost wrenched out of his grip as he was buffeted roughly aside. He started to fall, but a moment later he felt an agony as the creature’s jaws snapped shut, closing on his right wrist. His arm was nearly wrenched out of its socket as he was yanked violently down, and then, with a sickening tearing feeling that he felt through his entire body, his right hand and much of his forearm tore free, and he was tumbling away from it. For a moment, as he fell out of control, he caught a glimpse of the Ravager falling back, and saw the gleaming blade of Justice jutting from the right side of its jaw, protruding out from between its teeth like a toothpick.

But anything else, including recovering from his fall, proved beyond his abilities. The ground rose up quickly to meet him, and he landed in a rough heap on the piled earth and stone that had sloughed off the sundered hillside, blood from his severed arm splattering on the rocks around him as he slid to a halt.

Above him, the Ravager lifted its head toward the sky and unleashed a roar that shook the world.
 
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Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 71

THE RAVAGER


In the sky above the Ravager’s perch, atop the remnants of the hilltop adjoining Rappan Athuk, the surviving defenders launched magical attacks that seemed as futile as they were tiny against its bulk. Much of the creature remained half-buried in the chaos of unearthed boulders, heaped earth, and jagged timber that it had created as it had burrowed up from the prison complex deep underground. Drawn by some instinct to the locus of the enemies fighting against its spawn, the Ravager had bypassed the broken wards and sundered traps of the ancient prison and burrowed up directly into the midst of those that would challenge its newly-won freedom.

Lightning flashed in the air, but it barely marked the Ravager’s crimson hide. Magic missiles vanished into it, less than pinpricks, the slight injury they inflicted easily repaired by the creature’s monstrous properties of regeneration. It had killed at least a dozen men and women in its sudden and violent appearance, and some trickle of their life force had found its way into the monster, siphoned off by another grim power of ancient lore imparted by its creators.

Letellia conjured a crushing fist that delivered a glancing blow to the creature’s head. Just barely too strong to ignore, the attack drew an immediate response; the Ravager merely opened its jaws and engulfed the fist. That reaction might have given it at least some indigestion, but the creature’s touch disrupted the sorceress’s magic, and her conjuration dissolved as thoroughly as if the fist had been a morsel of flesh.

Around the base of the hill, dust-covered, battered forms stirred among the rubble, groaning as they slowly pulled themselves free of the debris. Here and there an arm, a leg, or another part of a body was visible, lying limp, their owners slain by the concussive force of the Ravager’s arrival, or by shards of flying stone, or by the hard landing at the base of the cliff, or by being buried by the subsequent rockfall. A legionary, his arm dangling at an improbable angle, staggered through the wreckage, calling a name that was lost in the chaos that still raged around him.

Dar did not call out, but his face was a tight agony as he crawled through the clutter, his severed arm pressed tightly against his body. Blood left a generous trail in his wake, and it was clear that only sheer stubborn persistence kept him going now. His weapons lost, his body broken, all he could do now was make his way to the goal he’d seen before from above. The spell that had carried him aloft had been broken, or it had expired, and all he had left to carry him now was the lingering remnants of his strength.

Still, he reached Allera, lying limp in the dust that covered her face and clothes. He pulled her against him, his arm leaving a bright red mark on her tattered robe.

“Angel,” he croaked, the dust thick in his throat. “Angel, wake up... we need you. I need you.”

At first, he thought she was dead. He could not feel the warmth of her body through his heavy mail, and his good hand was numb, unable to feel anything but a vague echo of the pain that radiated from his other, severed limb. He tried to open her satchel, which miraculously still clung to her hip on a much-abused strip of leather. His fingers fumbled on the latch, and his vision blurred as rare tears appeared. He shook his head, partly in frustration, partly at anger at himself. The motion caused his vision to blur. He was already starting to drift; even Corath Dar had only so much blood in his body to lose.

A stone the size of a wagon wheel struck the ground six paces away, but he could not feel the shards that pinged loudly against his armored back. Looking up, he was only vaguely aware of the Ravager’s movements. It had pulled itself up out of the shaft it had dug, and clung to the top of the hill like a bird defending its nest. It hissed in what seemed to Dar to be irritation at the flying ants that continued to harry it. White shafts briefly flashed in his vision, but he no longer had enough awareness to recognize the arrows from the lillend’s bow.

He didn’t see Allera’s eyes open, or feel her hand on his arm. But the sudden sweet surge of healing magic cut through the haze into which he was falling, and brought him back fully into consciousness. Her spell had not been strong enough to fully heal him, but she had clearly channeled some of it into herself, for her gaze was strong as he finally met it with his own. She had noticed his amputation, and closed her hand without flinching over the stump, which was now covered in a tender layer of freshly-healed skin.

“I seem to keep losing that arm,” he said, almost laughing with his relief. But before she could respond, another impact nearby drew their attention back up. The Ravager’s movements were dislodging more of the hill, provoking new slides which tumbled down the hill. It was only a matter of time before something hit them. “We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. He started to rise, but she held him with her hand, her eyes steady.

“No. This is the time, and this is the place. I will need you... to hold me, to anchor me. There is going to be... a cost.”

He nodded. He did not try to caution her; there was no need. He held her, protecting her with his body, as she drew upon her power, the deep thread that connected her to the life energies that suffused this world. The magic that fueled her healing, and which she had wielded against the darkness of this world, and worlds beyond.

Her head lifted, and her eyes fluttered up into their sockets, showing almost all white. Her body shook, but Dar held her, serving as her anchor, as she drew that power into herself, using it to tear open a portal in the very fabric of reality.

The gate opened in the air above them, maybe a hundred feet above the Ravager. A brilliant light issued from within, accompanied by a sound both unreal and sublime, a note of simple purity that caused those mortals gathered here to stare up in surprise, the pain of their wounds and the desperation of their circumstances temporarily forgotten.

Allera send a calling through the portal, and the hosts of Heaven answered.
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
Are we getting a cascade, Lazybones? :)
No, in my campaigns I use a device called the Compact that puts limits on the engagement of Outsiders on the Prime. One of the things I disallow is letting Called creatures use their summoning abilities unless they spend a long period of time on the Prime (e.g. like the demons in Rappan Athuk). Thus a cascade a la Sepulchrave's story hour isn't possible.

Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't get creative with the gate spell... ;)

* * * * *

Chapter 72

HEAVEN’S ANSWER


They came in an orderly double-column, bright points of light that spread out to form a ring above the Ravager. Flaring with divine energy, they projected beams of liquid light that lanced down into the creature, flaring slightly as they vanished into its colossal bulk. Individually, each beam did little, but with eighteen lantern archons all firing a steady stream of bolts into the monster, it clearly felt an effect.

Despite being land-bound, the Ravager responded with a fury. Drawing its legs under it, it sprang into the air, gaining a surprising clearance despite its size. An archon vanished, swallowed up into the creature’s maw, but the others darted nimbly back, only to form up again and descend to follow the creature as it slid awkwardly down the side of the hill. Even in motion they kept up their barrage, if at a slightly slower pace. The arcanists continued their own attacks, wearing away at the creature little by little. A portion of their spells were disrupted as they struck it, but the magic resistance of the Ravager was sporadic, and for each lightning bolt or magic missile that dissolved on impact, several others got through, inflicting damage. They were hurting it faster than its regeneration could repair its body, now, although the task seemed akin to tearing down a mountain using a pick and shovel.

“You did it,” Dar breathed at Allera, watching the ongoing display in wonder. Fortunately the creature’s leap had taken it down an adjacent flank of the hill, or its tumble would have crushed them both under its bulk. He looked for other survivors from the hilltop, but it was still too difficult to see through all the floating debris in the air.

Allera groaned slightly, and Dar looked down in concern. She held her hand outstretched before her, her body trembling with the effort of opening the gate.

“Let it go, Allera,” he told her, resisting the urge to shake her, as if that could free her of the grasp of the magic. But she did not falter, and if anything drew deeper, her breath heaving in her chest as she refocused herself upon the portal floating high in the night sky.

The gate remained open for a few seconds longer, sufficient time for one more entity to arrive through.

The figure hovered in a globe of pure light that could be seen for leagues distant. He—if gender could even be assigned to something so utterly perfect—was a tall entity in the shape of a human being, a sculpture of gentle lines and flowing curves, bright wings flaring from his back. He carried a massive sword in one hand and a bow nearly as large as he in his other, and he wore a white robe, over which was fastened a breastplate of white steel so brilliant as to be almost blinding to look upon. All those gathered, who had been transfixed by the initial opening of the gate and the arrival of the heavenly host, now felt tears flow down their eyes at the sight of this newcomer, one of the generals of the blessed, a prince of the Light.

A solar.

The Ravager was the only thing present that appeared unfazed by the new arrival. Still harried by the archons, it lunged up on its hind legs in another attempt to lash out at its tormentors. But this time its counter was unsuccessful, as the archons merely flowed back out of its reach, still blasting with their beams. The Ravager was possessed of the ability to change form, but with the damage it was absorbing, it looked as though it would have to succumb before it could adopt a shape capable of dealing with flying enemies on their own terms.

“By all the gods,” Dar whispered, unable to do anything but watch as the solar descended from on high, its sword a bright shaft in its hand. Allera, her powers spent, sagged in his grasp, but there was a slight smile on her face that lingered as she passed from consciousness.

The solar released its sword, and to Dar’s surprise the weapon hovered obediently in the air beside its master as the angel lifted his heavy bow, and fitted a white shaft to the string. He hands moved in a blur as he fired once, a second time, and then too quickly for Dar to keep count of the arrows it launched. As far as Dar could tell, every shot struck the Ravager, but he could not tell how effective the impacts were. The idea of an arrow, even one fired from such a bow, harming the creature in any significant way seemed utterly unfathomable. But something had to be able to kill it; they had slain the spawn in numbers, and while durable and ferocious, those lesser monstrosties had bled like any other living thing that Dar had battled in his storied career.

But now, with his wife lying unconscious in his lap, and his hand somewhere inside the belly of that beast, probably keeping his sword company, all he could do was watch, and pray.

The Ravager lifted its head and roared a challenge at the solar, its fury quite clearly evident. The angel, in turn, perhaps unsatisfied with the results of his archery, slung his bow across his back and folded his wings close around him, seizing his sword out of the air as he arced over into a dive. The Ravager, sensing that a foe was coming to challenge it directly, focused on the descending celestial, ignoring the beams of light that continued to lance into it from all directions. Letellia had summoned another crushing fist, but the Ravager likewise paid it little head, ignoring the thumps that smacked hard into the densely knobbed flesh of its neck and shoulders.

The Ravager’s long neck and generous reach allowed it first attack, but the angel spun in a beautiful pirouette under the snapping jaws, which closed upon empty air. His blade carved a long gash under its jaw, but he still retained enough agility to dart back, avoiding the claws that sought purchase in his hide. The angel did not escape fully; bright drops of blood glistened in the air as it withdrew, torn from gashes in the celestial’s long legs. But the Ravager had clearly taken the worst of that exchange.

The angel immediately returned to the attack, streaking out over the Ravager’s back, lashing out with his sword. The blazing steel weapon opened two deep gashes in the creature’s hide, but only the head of the sword came back bloody, indicating that the strokes had failed to penetrate deeply.

The Ravager’s body contorted, and it flipped over onto its back with an alarming suddenness. The angel drew back, but too late to avoid the raking claws that bit into its flesh from both sides. The sword flashed, and part of a claw fell away, but then the Ravager’s head snapped hard into him. The combatants fell apart once, more, but bits of once-pristine white fabric trailed from the Ravager’s jaws, and the solar had clearly absorbed serious punishment. The Ravager sought to press its advantage, lunging after its enemy, but the celestial wisely retreated, his wings lifting him almost effortlessly back into the air beyond its reach. In its wake the lantern archons reformed into a close circle, blasting away.

Dar, still transfixed, gently lowered Allera to the ground and rose to gain a better vantage, standing over her protectively as he watched the battle. He could see the creature laboring now, the cumulative effects of its wounds having a definite effect despite its ongoing regeneration.

The solar’s glow had brightened as it hovered in the air, and now it dove again, uttering a cry of challenge that drew the Ravager’s attention once more. Again the creature rose to meet its foe, but this time the solar abruptly arrested its dive, spreading its wings to stop its descent in a way that no mortal flier could ever have managed. The Ravager extended its neck fully, springing up on its legs, but the angel had judged the range perfectly, and the creature’s jaws closed on empty air five feet below him. Gravity reasserted itself, and as the monster began to fall, the angel fired a prismatic spray into its face. The brilliant beams lanced into the Ravager, scoring its flesh in a manner that had to have hurt it, but even that potent magical assault failed to destroy it outright.

“Surely it cannot take much more!” Dar exclaimed, the words torn out of him in his frustration. He itched to join the fight, even in his current condition, but knew better than to attempt something so foolish. Then he saw a figure off to his right, staggering out of the swirling dust. Dar recognized him only by the familiar design of his armor; Kiron’s face was obliterated in caked dirt and blood, and he did not appear to see Dar as he stumbled forward, nearly falling with each tortuous step over the rough ground. He didn’t even react when Dar grasped him, but he let himself be eased down to the ground not far from where Allera lay. Blood bubbled on his lips as he tried to speak, but Dar could not identify what he was trying to say.

“Stand easy, knight,” he said, holding the dying man’s shoulder.

A loud noise drew his attention back up, just as a tremor shook the ground under him, and he nearly fell. At first he could not see clearly what was happening, as a new plume of dust had risen like a rising fog from the side of the hill where the Ravager had battled Allera’s celestial allies. Then he oriented on the bright points of light within the storm, and they allowed him to focus in on the outline of the creature, a dark shadow within the cloud.

And diminishing, as it burrowed into the ground beneath the hill.

The noise and shaking grew stronger, until stones began rolling down the hill around him. He dragged Kiron over to Allera and shielded both of them with his body. Debris glanced off of his back, hard enough to draw a grunt, but not enough to break bones. The chaos reached its peak and began to recede, but even as the noises faded, the thrum within the ground at his feet continued. To Dar, who had already guessed what was happening, it felt like the sound of hope dying.

The rockfall came to an end; a quiet interrupted only by the sound of the wind returned. He reached down and touched a stone half-buried in the ground. He could still just sense the trembling of the earth in the Ravager’s wake.

A light drew his attention up. The solar descended toward him, his glow parting the swirling detritus in the air. His eyes shone with pity, and Dar felt a twinge of irrational anger, which he choked down with his frustration and pain. The celestial spread its wings and lifted a hand over them, and Dar felt a surge of healing power that eased his physical wounds, but did little to help those deeper hurts. Behind him, both Kiron and Allera stirred as the life-giving energies settled into their bodies.

The solar’s presence had attracted others as well. Sultheros and the other mages drifted down from above, followed by Letellia and her otherplanar allies. The lantern archons had dispersed across the battlefield, looking for survivors that they could aid. Dar was dimly aware of shouts and a globe of light just coming into sight between the hills; Maricela and the soldiers in the relief column, arriving too late to do anything but pick up the pieces.

No. Dar squashed that thought as soon as it appeared. If they’d been here at the start of it, all they could have done was die, and in dying bolster the strength of the Ravager. Their decision—his decision—to face the creature had been the height of hubris, he saw that now. Still, Allera’s intervention had nearly been enough to beat it, only the creature had not quite been stupid to linger long enough to be destroyed. The same could not be said of most of his command...

“Are you well, general?” Sultheros asked. Dar realized that the elf had spoken before, but the words had swirled around him like the gusts of wind, lost without meaning. He struggled to his feet, even as Callyse and Jalla Calestin landed behind him, tending aid to Allera and Kiron. Mehlaraine had not remained, and was probably off looking for her husband. Selanthas had been atop the ridge when the creature had arrived, but he’d been at the very edge of the long crest; perhaps he’d been lucky.

“It was all for naught,” he said, fixing all of them—even the celestial lord—with a cold look. “The bastard got away, and we have no idea when or where it will strike again. The way it regenerates, it’ll be back to full strength in a few minutes, if that.”

None challenged his assessment. All they could do was deal with the survivors of the disaster, the celestials joining the surviving clerics to offer succor, if not solace.
 


Lazybones

Adventurer
ARGH!
yeah... I mean it makes sense . . . grrr
clever dang lazybones...

then again, it means more story... so, yay, it lived?
My original plan was to have this be the final confrontation. But as I wrote the scene, I kept coming back to the question, does the Ravager just sit and take it when it can't effectively fight back against foes that overcome its DR and push it steadily toward death? I figured it was a dumb beast, but not quite that dumb.

Plus this outcome let me take the story in some new directions. I promise it will wrap up shortly, though. I want to get to my new Shadowfell story. :)

* * * * *

Chapter 73

SURVIVOR


A day after the Ravager’s emergence from Rappan Athuk, the scene of the first battle between the Camarians and the creature remained desolate and stark. Dar and the other leaders of the group had departed late on the morning after the confrontation, using wind walk and teleport spells to return to the populated lands of the north. Only a handful of legionaries and dwarven sappers that had survived the assault remained, keeping watch. It was a precarious duty, for all that the arcanists had agreed that it was unlikely that the creature would return here. There were other, richer targets to sate its hunger, Letellia had pointed out, in a tone that had sent a chill down the backs of those who had been close enough to hear.

Legionaries in tattered and dust-covered livery poked through the rubble, persisting in their tasks despite their dazed expressions. The events of the previous night—from the desperate battles with the spawn, the appearance of the Ravager, up to the opening of the heavens themselves to give battle—had overwhelmed these men, whose lives had been commonplace up until this moment.

One soldier, a youth of twenty years by the name of Livius Tartha, looked over the dark form lying in a niche in the rocks three times before he nearly stumbled on it. Shaking his head to clear it, the legionary bent to examine the form, before starting in surprise.

“Centurion! There’s a live one here!”

Three others came running, including a bald-headed veteran, his armor dinged with almost as many scars as his creased flesh. The centurion was the first to reach the youth, and as he knelt beside the unfortunate victim, his experienced hands quickly confirmed the soldier’s words.

“Water!” he yelled, accepting a skin from one of the other men. He lifted the head of the man lying in the rubble, and poured a thin stream of water between his cracked and blood-flecked lips. The man was clad in garments that might have once been of quality, but were now as torn and ragged as those of most of the survivors of last night’s engagement. He was clearly a man of status, though; he wore a necklace of silver links tight around his throat, and there was chasing of the same metal on his belt buckle. Oddly, the centurion saw flecks of color in the dirt caught in the man’s clothes, or maybe it was just a trick of the uncertain light. He wasn’t clad in legion garb, and he obviously wasn’t an elf, so that made him one of the “specials” that had been sent here to try to stop the demon-beast that had come up out of the ground to wreck destruction upon them.

The man stirred, and coughed. The centurion helped him as he turned his head and unloaded a surprising amount of dirt from his lungs. It was amazing that the man hadn’t suffocated, with so much crap jammed down his throat. There was something stranger, as well; the man’s face showed signs of exposure, his nose and ears looking almost like they’d been sorely frostbitten. It had been chilly, the last few nights, but even if he’d been lying here since the battle with the Ravager, it shouldn’t have been bad enough to leave such marks on him.

“Get a stretcher,” he said to two of the legionaries, who rushed off to comply. The centurion and the soldier who’d originally found the man remained with him, offering him water again once he’d finished clearing his throat and lungs of debris. The unfortunate accepted mechanically, although he was anything but lucid.

“Just take it easy, mate,” the centurion said, looking up as the pair returned with the stretcher. They loaded him onto it, then the centurion directed the two bearers to take him back to the command tent for immediate treatment from the last cleric to have remained with the small remnant of the company.

“I thought we’d found the last of the live ones,” the young legionary said. “Who do you think he was?”

“A damned lucky bastard,” the centurion said. “Continue your sweep, soldier. Maybe we’ll find another one.”

The soldier saluted, and moved off. The centurion lingered for a moment, glancing down into the rocks where they’d found the man. The crevice went deeper than it first looked, and a sour smell rose up from below. It was a familiar stink; the same odor rose up off the rotting corpses of the dead spawn that lay in heaps around the bases of the hills.

“Lucky bastard,” the centurion repeated, then he moved off toward the tent, to check on the status of the survivor.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Behind-the-scenes update:

While I have had a general outline in mind for the finale for some time now, I admit that there were more than a few loose ends related to the Ravager plotline that I was waiting to somehow resolve on their own. Today while writing (about 6 chapters ahead of where the story is right now), I had a few sudden inspirations that will hopefully allow me to tie it all together at the end. Now I just hope that my writing abilities can live up to what I can see in my head. :)

In the meantime, let's see what's been going on with an old character:

* * * * *

Chapter 74

PATH OF WRECKAGE


Deep under the surface of the world, far from the cares and even the awareness of the people of Camar, a city lay in ruins.

The place was called Talaceth-Azbar, and some of its structures dated back almost a thousand years. Or they had; much of the city was heaped in wreckage, the slender, twisting spires cast down, the carved structures that had been etched deep into the sloping walls of the huge cavern gouged off to leave blackened, empty pits where rooms and hallways had been before. A few days before, Talaceth-Azbar had supported a population of maybe a thousand citizens, mostly duergar, bugbears, and minotaurs, seasoned with a smattering of drow and tieflings, and the whole supported on the backs of maybe five thousand slaves.

Today, maybe fifty survivors picked through the rubble.

A small cluster of dark figures observed the scene from a ledge high atop the city, near the vaulted summit of the great cavern. Most of the luminescent growths that had been painstakingly cultivated along the cavern walls had been torn away with the destruction of the city’s structures, but there was no need for much illumination to note the thoroughness with which Talaceth-Azbar had been razed.

“And where is the creature now?” spoke a tall figure that loomed over the handful of duergar who looked down at the wreckage of their community with dark looks. He was clad in flowing garments that draped over his body like a shroud, but failed to conceal the considerable size and strength of their owner. His eyes gleamed like tiny torches, and even the sturdy deep dwarves stirred at his glance, quickly looking down at their feet. One might have attributed that to the fact that these creatures had had their spirits broken by the fate of their city, but to assume that would have underestimated the potency in the entity that the people of the underworld referred to at the Nightlord.

“Its travels are erratic, great lord,” one of the duergar managed. “We believe it makes for the general direction of Kalas Xothi.”

The Nightlord glanced over at another of those gathered on the ledge, a lean figure clad in a hooded robe. “Velkyr?”

The robed figure shifted slightly, the voice that came from the cowl rasped like the creak of an old door. “Divination magic still proves useless regarding the creature, master.”

“Useless,” the Nightlord said. The word came out like a curse, and all of those present quailed before it. But the Nightlord turned away, and looked back out over the cavern.

Someone approached from below, flying up close to the cavern wall. The new arrival was a figure much akin the Nightlord, but slightly smaller, faster, moving with a lithe ease as she dropped lightly onto the edge of the jutting platform. A woman, but otherwise an echo of the dark, powerful figure that dominated the scene evolving upon the ledge. She was clearly a part of him, but in the dark underworld, she had her own name: the Dark Lady.

“Anything?” the Nightlord asked.

The newcomer shook her head. “Nothing useful. Nothing that would indicate a weakness.”

“If it had a weakness, we would have known of it by now.”

“You recognized the descriptions of the attacker?” the Lady asked.

“Yes. It’s the Ravager. The grown-up version.”

“I seem to remember the little ones being a big enough problem in and of themselves.”

The Nightlord smashed a fist into the palm of his other hand. “This has the stink of our old... companions all over it.”

“You think they freed the creature, to use against us?”

The Nightlord snorted. “Not even they are that stupid. No, I suspect they’ve long since forgotten about us, and I would prefer to keep it that way. But I have not forgotten our expedition into the vault under Rappan Athuk. I also remember that our friends had custody of the keys, or at least one of them, I think. My memory of those last days... after... they are a bit... hazy.”

“What about that fiend that came calling, a few months back?”

“I had not forgotten that emissary. I am starting to wonder if I made the right decision to destroy it.”

“We agreed that we would not get involved in the actions of the surface world again.”

The Nightlord gestured with his hand. “Look around you. It is going to be hard not to get involved with... this.”

The Lady moved closer to him, the two shadows blending together. “What do you want to do?”

His eyes met hers. They were cold, those eyes, but what feeling remained in them, was saved for her. “We need information. I suspect our realm is just an appetizer for this thing, and we cannot remain ignorant of what is going on in the world beyond any longer.”

“We have agents...”

“No. This is something we need to do ourselves.”

“Velkyr will test his leash in our absence.”

“Of course he will. He is what he is.” In an undertone, but one that she heard clearly, he added, “We all are.”

He turned to face the delegation gathered along the ledge; the duergar flinched back reflexively as he focused his attention upon them. “You will rebuild. To aid in this, I will send a company of formians to assist you. I will furthermore cut your tribute in half for the next two intervals.”

One of the dwarves, his skin deeply furrowed like the ridges of the surrounding cliffs, blurted, “Half! But great lord, how can we...” His statement was cut off as he met the Nightlord’s eyes.

“You are fortunate indeed that enough of you survived to remain useful, or I would finish what the Ravager started, and take the lot of you now. Go! And think on what I have said.”

The dwarves fled as one. The robed figure remained, but it kept a respectful distance, leaving the Nightlord and his consort staring down over the ruined city, their minds sharing dark thoughts.
 

Lazybones

Adventurer
Chapter 75

MEANDERINGS


The ground trembled.

Corath Dar felt it, and he paused in one of the stone passages deep within Highbluff Castle to place his hand against the nearest wall. The thrumming was clearly felt through the ancient stone blocks, and the vibration seeped through his hand into his arm, persisting for a good fifteen seconds before fading.

“Damn,” the fighter said.

“General!”

He turned at the shout, and saw Petronia coming down the stairs at the far end of the corridor, a bright lamp held aloft in one hand. The blade of the knight’s axe gleamed brightly over her left shoulder; few of the Dragon Knights went anywhere unarmed any more. Dar understood; Justice rode at his own hip, even here, deep in the sanctuary of one of the strongest citadels in Camar.

“What is it?” he asked her, as she stopped in front of him, snapping off a salute.

“The others are waiting for you, general,” she said.

He nodded. “Tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes. Allera’s not with them?”

The momentary hesitation told him all he needed to know, even before she responded. “No, general. I believe she went below to speak to the prisoner.”

He didn’t respond, and she started to turn away before he forestalled her. “Wait a moment. Did they reestablish the link with Jaduran?”

“No. Jalla Calestin is still trying to puzzle out the workings of Honoratius’s Orb, I believe. But with Maricela here, and the Patriarch in Camar using sendings and wind walking messengers back and forth, we’re able to keep in fairly regular contact with the capital.”

She hesitated again, and Dar could sense the added question there. He wasn’t sure of the answer himself, so he said nothing. Petronia took it as a dismissal, so with another salute she headed back to the stairs, and the more comfortable chambers in the higher levels of the castle. The others were there, waiting for him.

Instead Dar turned and continued on his original course. He took another staircase at the end of the tunnel, descending several levels, until he was below the level of the castle walls, descending into the foundations of the bluff upon which the fortress and its surrounding town were perched. Much of the levels above were of recent construction, repaired after an assault from the first of the Ravager spawn years ago that had destroyed a good portion of the castle and town. But down here, the tunnels were hewn from the rock, and were as they had been when the fortress was first created, centuries ago. It was cold, too, but Dar was far beyond letting such a minor concern distract him.

He reached the level he wanted and headed off down a narrow corridor. A few lamps burned in niches set high along the wall, almost near the ceiling, but they were far enough apart to leave long expanses of shadow between them.

The passage wasn’t very long, and it ended in a heavy wooden door that looked capable of resisting a siege. Dar reached for the handle, but before he could touch it he heard the sound of a metal latch being drawn, and then the door opened to reveal Allera.

She started when she saw him, hopping back in alarm and nearly dropping the small lamp she was carrying before she realized who it was. “Damn it, you scared me,” she said.

“I thought you weren’t going to come down here any more,” he replied, unclenching his fist from the hilt of Justice.

“The bond between Duke Aerim and Rappan Athuk remains dormant, but it is still there. I need to check on him periodically.”

“He’s a dangerous man.”

“I can take care of myself. And in any case, there is more to him than that. I have encouraged you to meet him; his story is... complex.”

“I heard enough of his story from Jaduran to confirm that he be kept down here until this is all over.”

“That is not all that Jaduran said. His divination refers to Aerim playing a significant role in the outcome of... of all this.” Like Dar, she seemed reluctant to refer to the Ravager specifically, as if mentioning its name could somehow draw it, like a fiend from the hells.

“Bah, the gods are as cryptic as ever. That verse could be read in a dozen different ways. And ‘the fallen champion of yesteryore’ could refer to more individuals than our captive Duke.”

She looked up at him. “I had considered that as well. But having spoke to him...”

“I did not try to stop you when you restored his leg and arm, but we don’t have more time to waste on Aerim. Did you learn anything more from the wizard?”

Allera shook her head. “No. His mind is... broken, beyond my ability to repair. I do not think he knows more than what he told us, certainly nothing that would help us fight the creature.” Her frown deepened; she seemed to take any failure of her healing abilities as a personal challenge. But the Seer had been forthcoming in their interrogations; it was just that what had been done was done, and there was little more that he could give them that could help with their current problem.

“A pity we did not find any more of those stones of holy power that he spoke of,” Dar said. “Did you feel the tremor earlier?”

“I did. They have been getting stronger, of late.”

“Yes. And with our magic proving useless in tracking the creature, we have no way of knowing when or where it will choose to make an appearance.”

“We’ve been doing all that we can to get ready...”

“You were there, Allera. You know that whatever we do, it will probably not be enough.”

“We drove it away. All we need to do is find a way to trap it, and kill it.”

“To do that,” a third voice interjected, “you must draw the Ravager to you... you must give it what it wants.”

Dar and Allera spun together to face the speaker, who stood in the shadows a short distance down the corridor. Allera lifted her lamp, driving back the darkness enough to reveal the intruder.

“Where in the hells have you been?” Dar asked. “We tried to get in touch with you after the battle at Rappan Athuk, but you did not respond to our sendings.”

“My power wanes,” Amurru said, and as the lich shifted, they could see that it was only partially there; the light of Allera’s lamp shone through its body, the outline of which only barely clung together, like a wisp of smoke on a breeze. “My existence is tied to the Ravager’s prison, and like it, is now broken and crumbling into nothingness.”

“We failed to destroy the creature,” Allera said.

“I know. I sensed the outcome of your confrontation with the Ravager. You drove it away, but it has regained what it has lost, and has grown even more powerful. But while it has fed in the dark underways beneath the earth, its hunger grows stronger with each passing day.”

“We beat it once,” Dar said. “How can we force it to fight us again, on our own terms?”

The lich wavered, and for a moment it looked as though it would vanish entirely. But then the outline of the creature became more solid, the red pinpricks of light within the sockets of its eyes brightening like tiny torches.

“The Ravager is drawn to two things. Magic, and life. Its current diet is richer in the former than the latter, as the underworld realms it pillages are not as heavily populated as the world above. Its meanderings you have felt as the shaking of the world, as its claws tear into the fundament, and it opens breaches in the planet’s mantle. Eventually this damage will cause earthquakes, or open passages that allow molten fluid from the world’s core to reach up to the surface. Or it will return to the surface, likely emerging under one of the more populated cities of your world.”

Allera shook with the force of the lich’s words, but she held her head up, and she put a hand on Dar’s arm, to forestall him. The fighter’s face had darkened as the undead guardian had spoken, and had drawn a few inches of Justice from its scabbard, as though he could stop the fate predicted by Amurru through the sheer force of his anger.

“You would not have come to us if you had no answer to Corath’s question,” the healer said. “You said we had to give it what it wanted, and that it wants magic and life. That would suggest it will go to Camar, the strongest source of both on this continent. Is there any way we can divert it from that path?”

The lich regarded them for a long moment, its red eyes blazing with power even despite the tenuous nature of its presence. Finally, it said, “There may be a chance, one chance. But if you fail this time, then it is almost certain that nothing will be able to stop it.”

“We’ve heard that before,” Dar said, grunting as he slammed his sword back into its scabbard.
 

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