After Morgan and Ember withdraw, the rest of the party falls to debating their next course of action. A few, like Ember, want to stay. Most, like Morgan, could go either way – not liking the situation in the city, but unwilling to strike out on their own and waiting to see where most come down. After much talk, no one has come foreword to say that they definitely want to leave, and in the end this decides it.
Once there is a tentative agreement that they are staying, Morgan and Ember return. There are a few hasty and hushed conversations as people speak privately in twos and threes. Ember offers Hazrad healing. He is still wounded from the fight with the ghouls, some 24 hours ago. He accepts, and Ember finds that afterward she has just enough heartmending left to attend to Thrud’s last wound from the rat-men as well.
The maidens have prepared hide tents for the party, or at least ushered men out of them – the ones indicated look like they have been hastily vacated. There are hides and stuffed pillows on the floor, a basin for water and a chamber pot, but little else. One has a large stone, hollowed out to make a fire-proof hearth in which a small flame burns fitfully. Odleif tries to ascertain the fuel, for it surely is not wood or coal, and finally decides it is a dried animal dung. “That’ll heat yer dinner, but wha’ do they use ta forge metal?” wonders Bhelgarn.
Bhelgarn, Hazrad, and Remmy bunk in one tent; Odleif, Wolfbane, Iris, and Pooches in another; Morgan, Thrud, Ember, and FluffyKitten in a third. Hazrad tosses and turns in his sleep, and occasionally moans – while he wakes his tent mates, they do not wake him.
Later, when the rested party re-assembles, Morgan announces loudly, “If Hazrad is staying with us, if we are to trust him as a fighting companion, he should have his weapon back.”
Bhelgarn nods, kneels, and opens his pack. He takes out, then unwraps, the spearhead and offers it to the nomad. “Noooo!!” shouts FluffyKitten, and shakes her hands and head. Bhelgarn pauses, looks between the halfling and half-elf, and then extends the weapon again.
“No!” insists FluffyKitten. She looks imploringly at each party member in turn, but none are willing to champion her side, and she is unwilling to physically come between the dwarf and the nomad.
“No.” she says petulantly, and stomps off.
Hazrad accepts the spearhead, but leaves the wrappings around it, and in fact wraps it up again himself. He faces Ember. “I do not know why your foreign god tells you this object is evil,” he says, “but out of respect to you, and the rest of our group, I will keep it packed away, and only bring it out in true need.”
Wolfbane prepares her Read Magic spell, and then has a look at the runes on Bhelgarn’s sword (recovered from the fox-people). She shows the dwarf how there are two symbols on one side of the blade, and the same two symbols, plus a third, on the other. She says (with Odleif translating into Common) that the third is more of a modifier than an actual symbol, and tells the dwarf that on the one side it is read “Lumos” and the the other “Ex-Lumos”.
The dwarf listens and nods, but is still nonplussed as to what to do. Ember offers, “If these magic runes work like nordic runes, the magic is stored when they are written, but they have to be read, that is, spoken, to activate them.”
“But she did read them,” says Bhelgarn, jerking his thumb at Wolfbane.
“Yes, but you are holding the sword,” says Ember.
Bhelgarn stares at her blankly.
“So perhaps you have to read them,” Ember suggests.
“Yes, well, that,” blusters the dwarf. “Lumos” he says, reluctantly.
The courtyard is flooded with light. Cyndiceans scream and run about; there is a flurry of activity along the wall. After a second the party-members adjust and can see that the light is coming from the sword – equal in intensity to full daylight for about thirty feet from the weapon, and then tapering off to torchlight beyond that. The Cyndiceans seem unable to adjust, and are shielding their eyes and wincing in pain.
“Ex-lumos,” says Bhelgarn, and the light is gone. The Cyndicians, however, continue to be run about, as ants when an anthill has been disturbed.
“Sorry, sorry,” says Hazrad, speaking in his best ancient Alaysian. Eventually the courtyard is restored to order.
“Well, I guess we don’t have to worry about running out of oil and torches,” says Morgan.
“Yeah, if we don’t mind alerting the whole city to our presence,” comments Odleif.
The women of the party form up in front of the Tower and ask to enter. The are told to wait, but eventually are escorted inside and up to the temple where they spoke before. Both the High Priestess and the Great Mother are there, but no guards. This time, watching carefully, Ember notes how the High Priestess touches the altar, then begins a spell to allow her to communicate, then touches the Great Mother to pass the spell to her as well.
The party tells the women that they have decided to stay and help. The relief and gratitude on the faces of the two women are obvious.
“Very well,” begins the priestess. “It is a tradition among the warrior maidens that the members propose courses of action and the leaders decide; but the leaders cannot decide on something that the members have not proposed. In that spirit we would like to offer you three possibilities of how you might begin to help. These suggestions have been made by the handful of maidens who know the prophecy – myself, the Great Mother, and a few others. We do not agree on which would be the best course of action, so please do not ask us personally, as we will not say – but rather, decide among yourselves. Once you have chosen a path, we will provide more information.”
Now the warrior takes over. "The first possibility is an immediate, direct assault on the Zargonite temple-fortress. This is not as foolhardy as it sounds, for the Zargonites are typically lax and unorganized. We believe that their priests constantly struggle for power among themselves. Those with more power head tasks such as the harvest of crops or the “taxing” of citizens, things that they can profit from. The less powerful guard their fortress and run worship ceremonies, while the least among them get stuck impressing people into work crews for things like dredging the irrigation canals. By attacking them first, before they know that you are in the city, you should meet with the least resistance. The advantage of this approach would be that you would be able to use the surprise to inflict maximum damage on them in one raid, as well as scout their fortress for future assaults. The disadvantage is that once they are attacked directly, they will likely put their petty squabbles aside, and will never be as easy a target again. And, all of your subsequent missions in the city will become more difficult, as they will surely be looking for you from that point on, so that anything else you might want to do will be hindered."
Now it is the priestess’ turn to speak. “A second path is that of building an alliance with the other factions. Ultimately this must happen – if we understand the prophecy correctly, we will overcome the Zargonites when you have united the Three True Gods. However, this may be difficult until you have achieved some successes in other areas – they have, at the moment, little reason to trust you.”
“Finally, a third option is to find a cure for the mushroom addiction that plagues the city. We all use the mushrooms to receive visions – among the maidens, it is only during religious ceremonies, and never often. But the Zargonites encourage the cityfolk to use them often and to excess. Almost all the cityfolk are addicted, and the Zargonites use this to control them. Denied access to mushrooms, the people of the city suffer horribly and soon will do whatever they are told. However, our lore speaks of a cure – the Gods have placed a magical cure for the mushroom addiction in some caves near the city.”
The warrior speaks. “If you could recover this for us, we could administer the cure to the cityfolk and break the hold that the Zargonites have over them, allowing them to rise up and resist. The advantage of this path is that it may be possible for you to complete this task without anyone in the city knowing, without the Zargonites discovering you or even knowing that you are here yet. The disadvantage is that of all of the three, we can help you the least in this effort. We can show you how to get to the cave, but we can not accompany you and we do not know what is inside besides our lore telling us that the cure is to be found there.”
Having listened to the options, the women of the party request time to discuss among themselves, and the maidens agree. As they prepare to leave, the Great Mother calls to Morgan specifically. “As you know, the High Priestess leads us in religious matters, as I do in worldly affairs, including war. If I am not mistaken, the same relationship exists between you and your priestess.”
Morgan nods noncommittally.
“As a war leader, you need to understand something about our situation. Before, you commented that you could not save us when we were not even willing to save ourselves. It is a fair criticism, but the real situation is more complex. As a war leader, you understand acceptable loss and unacceptable loss. Any one of our maidens is willing to die to overcome the Zargonites, and I have no reluctance to commit them thusly. We can skirmish with the Zargonites and, win or lose, recover. But if we lose our leaders, the maidens are done. The line protecting our culture, unbroken for centuries, would be sundered, and we would never recover. This is why we do not assault the Zargonites directly. To do so, we would have to commit all of our leaders, and the cost of failure would be not honorable defeat, but the complete extermination of our people. It is true that we are asking you to fight on our behalf, and it is a painful truth to admit. But I promise you this – in the final battle with the Zargonites, I and all of the maidens under me will fight by your side.”
Morgan nods but does not respond.
Once outside the tower, the women discuss with the men what to do next. They have been enjoined from telling anyone about the prophecy, but they trust that none of the men, maidens, or children in the compound speak Common.
None of them are particularly eager to assault the Zargonites directly. Most favor a combination of either the cure or the union. They decide to play one into the other – perhaps finding the cure for the mushroom addiction will allow them the first step in unifying the factions. Ember and Morgan return to the temple and ask to be briefed on the mission for the cure.
The maiden leaders explain that the next building over from their Enclave is abandoned, but that it guards the entrance to a series of catacombs beneath the Undercity. They will send maidens to guide the party inside the building and operate the giant winch that raises a huge stone slab. Under the slab is the entrance to the catacombs, and somewhere within them is a portal to the underworld. The party must find the portal, pass through it, and receive the cure from the Gods.
As Ember and Morgan prepare to retire, the maidens send commands to assemble a guide party of three maidens. Ember says she wishes to rest and then select spells. The Great Mother says that is just as well, for they will need time to watch the building and make sure there are no Zargonite patrols about. Also, they will raise the Enclave gate just enough to allow the party to slip out, but this will make noise, so it is better to raise it and then wait a few hours before they leave.
Several hours later, the party is ready, with Ember having selected a full complement of heartmending as well as a hearthglow, and Wolfbane back at two sleeps. There had been talk of a scouting mission to the city, but this is soon abandoned when it is realized that only one of those wanting to go will be able to see. As they prepare to slip out of the gate, the maidens explain to Hazrad that it is important not to use light or make noise, because the Zargonite temple is nearby. Typically Zargonite patrols avoid their destination as an abandoned building, but sometimes Cyndiceans on bad trips take refuge in the upper stories.
There is a single door on the ground level, leading to a huge open room. In the center of the room a massive stone slab has four chains bolted to it, one in each corner. These feed through a huge pulley in the ceiling, and then to a larger chain that enters a winch. The winch has a crank and a ratchet, and looks like it will need at least three women on the crank to lift the slab. As Bhelgarn examines it, he notes that the winch mechanisms and chain are all of (rusty) iron, but that the crank handle is of bronze, a poor choice given the softness of the metal.
As the party stares at the slab, they realize that they will be unable to open it from inside, and the maidens caution against leaving it open, which would alert any patrols to their presence. Iris offers her cloak, tied to a rope. Positioned correctly, it should be able to be pulled through the gap between the slab and the floor, creating a signal. The maidens will check on the slab every few hours, and when they find the slip of cloak missing they will raise the slab.
With their plan agreed upon, the maidens set to work on the crank. The iron chains rattle and clank, and the echoes of the ratchet locking in place fill the stone building. When the slab is raised enough for Bhelgarn to stick his head in, the dwarf lies prone on the floor, then indicates for the maidens to keep turning. He slides under the slab and drops eight feet to a stone ledge, just slightly smaller than the slab itself. After a few moments, he calls for the party to join him.
Once everyone is on the ledge, Iris tosses her rope-bound cloak to the floor above, and pulls it in as the maidens lower the slab into place. The air below is cold and damp, but without the earthy smell of the undercity. “Haz light?” asks FluffyKitten, and Bhelgarn draws his sword and speaks the word of command.
The ledge floods with light, revealing that it is more like a platform high above a cavern floor below. The four sides are sheer drops, but one edge has a steep staircase carved into the rock. The party arranges themselves in single file and descends some fifty feet to the floor below.
They are in a large vault, intersected with numerous natural tunnels. One wall of the vault contains a large arch, which looks like it has been carved into the rock. Below the archway is a scene of a rocky beach on a nighttime shore. The beach is in a small rock alcove, but soon opens up to a vast, expansive sea and a black sky with no stars or moon. The scene has deep, realistic color, but is not painted – it looks more like the rock itself has been dyed somehow.
Above the arch are carved words in the ancient Alaysian script that Hazrad can recognize, but not read. Bhelgarn probes the portal with his pole, and finds it solid enough. When the pole brushes against the archway, however, the script glows faintly and a sound, as if of a long-dead voice, reads it.
“قبل هذه البوابة، المصير النهائي. ترك الجسد وراء، لأنك سوف تجد إلى الفراغ وحيدا، يمكن أن تمر الروح فقط.”
Hazrad listens carefully, then bids Bhelgarn probe the archway again, several more times. Finally he says, “There is a word for meat or flesh…something cannot pass beyond the gate, only spirit.”
Remmy inspects the arch, checking for traps. He finds three sections where between the carved arch stones it looks like small rectangular stone sections may be removed. These don’t seem to be connected to any wires or gears, so he doubts they are traps. Pulling one out, he finds the stone handle of a stone knife, the handle carved with the symbol of a snake. The other two are also knifes, but the symbols carved on them are of a lightning bolt and a sheaf of grain, respectively.
The party experiments with various ways to enter the portal, but without success. They try walking in, walking in holding a knife, cutting their palm and then walking in. Frustration mounts. Hazrad presses the arch, hears the words one more time, and unwraps his spear head. Before anyone realizes what he is about to do, he grabs the head with both hands and plunges it through his chain armor into his heart. A second later, his body crumples to the ground.
Ember is instantly by his side, getting ready to staunch the blood in the wound…but curiously, none is produced. The faintest show of red rings the spear head, but it seems the blood itself is not leaving his body. “Look!” exclaims Odleif. Inside the archway, in the strange mural, a form is visible, standing on the shore, dyed in a pearly color. Although the form is distorted by the angular rock surfaces on which it plays out, it is somewhat recognizable as being that of Hazrad.
“Is that what we have to do? Kill ourselves?” whispers Ember, aghast. She feels neither pulse nor breath in the body of Hazrad, but, laying her hand on the chest, feels a faint and very occasional heartbeat.
“He did say that flesh cannot pass through the gate, only spirit,” murmurs Morgan.
Remmy snorts derisively. “This is obviously a trap by the maidens. They fear attacking us, so they have led us here to try to get us to kill ourselves, one and all.” And yet, several minutes later, he is the first to take the stone knife and plunge it into his own breast. One by one four other party members do so, until only Ember, Morgan, Thrud, Bhelgarn, and Pooches are left. One by one, pearly forms appear on the rock wall, even seem to jump about, almost to move.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
On the shore of the sunless sea, six of the party members look out across the seemingly endless black waters, and up into the black sky. They are in a rocky alcove, with water before them and walls around. The beach itself is perhaps twenty feet wide, then the water laps at the base of the sheer rock walls. Remmy finds he can climb the walls, but finds no where to go. Wolfbane ties to fly, but cannot. FluffyKitten puts her feet in the water and finds it cold.
Behind them, the rock wall has a long section as if of the back side of the arch. Light comes from it, illuminating the beach, and they can see the forms of their companions, as if through a smoky window. No amount of calling to them seems to command their attention.
“Is the water the cure?” asks Remmy, and he fills an empty vial in the sea, marveling that his spirit form possesses all the same gear that his real body did.
“But do yer body have th’ water?” asks Odleif. After several minutes of gestures, Remmy manages to get Ember to pull a vial from his body. It is difficult to tell, but the vial looks empty.
Remmy pulls out another vial and stoops to fill it, but now sees the glint of several coins under the gentle, lapping waves. He soon has gathered a handful. Hazrad examines one and finds the inscription in ancient Alaysian.
“Oooh!” says FluffyKitten and fishes for a coin of her own. “Wishy well? Makey wish?” she says, then tosses the coin out into the sea. The splash it makes echoes on the rock walls behind them, and almost instantly a boat appears in the distance, approaching slowly.
“Ahhh…PudgyKitten,” says Hazrad carefully. “No matter what we are offered from here on, do not eat or drink anything!”
“Nothing?” interjects Remmy, his lips on the second vial he had filled.
“Nothing,” says Hazrad firmly.
“I can haz cookie?” asks the halfling pleadingly.
“No!” shouts back half the party.
As the boat slowly approaches, the party can see it is a small vessel, just large enough to hold them all. There is no mast, and though a single robed boatman stands in the stern with an oar, he does not move and it is not obvious how he is propelling it. The design appears that of a fishing vessel.
The boatman brings the craft within a foot of the shore, but does not beach it until Remmy holds up a coin, at which point the hull scrapes gently against the rock beach and the robed man gestures at a bench seat. Remmy has one foot in the boat already when Hazrad grabs him from behind, preventing his boarding.
Hazrad holds up his own coin for the boatman to see. “This coin is for my passage there AND BACK,” he proclaims loudly. “All of us are paying for a round trip, and we are not paying until the end!” The boatman nods silently, and gestures for Hazrad, too to take his seat.
Remmy sits near the boatman and gazes up into his cowled face, but sees only a skull looking back at him.
The boatman waits until everyone has boarded, but still he does not launch. Rather, he raises his arm to point at the light section of the alcove wall. As the robed sleeve falls away, a skeletal hand is visible, pointing. On the other side of the archway, Ember feels a chill. It is impossible to tell from the mural, but she feels the boatman is pointing directly at her.
“I, I have to go…” she falters.
Thrud turns abruptly, looks at her pleadingly. “Please, Elskerinne, please! I have pledged to protect you…but I cannot follow you there…”
The priestess puts her hand on the warrior’s arm soothingly. “Det er greit, Thrud, it’s alright. You will guard my body here. That is important.”
“Yes,” says Bhelgarn coldly. “Wouldn’t want something coming out of one of those tunnel mouths and eating her, would you? That’s why I’m staying.”
To Ember’s surprise, Morgan kneels and takes a stone knife from the cold grasp of another party member. “You don’t have to…” she begins.
“Whatever,” says Morgan, interrupting.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once Morgan and Ember have entered the boat, the boatman gives a single push with his oar, and the vessel pulls away from the shore, pulls about, and starts out into the sea. The light from the archway grows smaller behind them, but can be seen for quite some time as the only source of illumination in the inky blackness. Some of the party look down into the water, or up into the sky, but no one sees anything.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
As the boat fades from view in the archway, both Thrud and Bhelgarn hear a voice, in the same ancient whisper as that of the arch, but in their own language. In Nordic, it says; “You have failed the Test of Faith,” while in Dwarven, it says “You have failed the Test of Trust.”
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
It may be hours later, it is difficult to say, when an island is seen. A grey shoreline against the black water, it is visible from far off but grows steadily. It is as barren and rocky as the alcove was, but much broader. There are no rock walls or cliffs, just a flat expanse of rocky shoreline sloping gently upward inland.
The greyness of the shore is odd, for the sky is still dark and there is no obvious source of illumination, but the ground is light enough to discern a pebble-strewn path leading inland. The party follows the path. They have not been walking long when there is a distant screech, as if from a bird of prey.
As they walk on, the call repeats several times, each time louder.
The cry comes from above, from a now lead-grey sky. A huge form is circling far above with vast wings, easily eight feet long and with a twenty foot wingspan. It is circling them, but descending a bit on each rotation. The party tries hurrying forward, but the creature is flying faster than they can run without barely a wingstroke.
“That,” says Iris cautiously, “is not a natural bird.”
“Oooh! Feathers!” says FluffyKitten. “I can haz feathers!”
When it is clear that they cannot outrun it, the party groups together defensively. They look for cover, but are on a vast, flat rock plain. The creature is low enough now to be recognized as having a vulture-like head, and long clawed arms in addition to its huge wings. “Elesther shaitan…” whispers Hazrad. “A vulture demon…I think you call them vrock?”
Iris sends a magic missile at the demon. As it hits, the demon emits another piercing cry.
As the demon-bird descends, Odleif, Remmy, and FluffyKitten try to shoot at it, but they are untrained in shooting straight up, and the demon keeps in a tight circle above them. A poison dart from Remmy misses the bird, but falls and lodges in Fluffy’s hair. Wolfbane casts her sleep spell, prompting Hazrad to retreat from the group. She is fairly certain she has the demon in the range of the spell, but it seems unaffected – whether because it is a demon, because no sleep is needed in a world freed from the body, or whether it is simply too powerful she does not know.
Just before the demon reaches the ground, Morgan feels a jolt of force and she is knocked to the ground, her sword clattering away across the rocks. For the next several minutes the force pushes her away from the confrontation.
The demon tries to land near FluffyKitten, and it attacks the halfling with both its front and rear claws and a vicious beak strike. The halfling nimbly dodges all its blows, however, deftly running between the demon’s legs, or tumbling out of the way just before a strike. With the demon in melee range, it is now Wolfbane’s turn to retreat, and she runs behind Hazrad, who has his spear out, but is not advancing.
Unable to land a blow on the halfling, the demon turns and fixes on Odleif. The woodsmen fires one last arrow before pulling out his axe, but the arrow flies past the demon and sinks into Remmy’s shoulder. Ember swings her mace at the demon, but is wounded and then engulfed in a cloud of darkness and blinded.
The demon leaps into the air with two flaps of its massive wings, landing on Odleif and rending him cruelly with its rear talons. As the man collapses under the demon’s weight, its front claws rake his face and its beak plunges savagely into his neck. He is dead before he hits the ground.
Seizing the moment when the demon’s back is turned, Remmy and FluffyKitten advance. Remmy stabs the demon in its back with his magic dagger; Fluffy runs under it and slices her own dagger across its leg.
Fluffy trips over the body of Odleif, and the demon pounces on her, delivering several savage wounds. She crawls away under the cover of her comrades, and Remmy and Morgan (finally permitted to fight) are wounded as well, Morgan seriously. Things seem grim for the party, as the demon’s skin seems to turn away most blows.
Ember calls forth the fire of her goddess. Her skin shining with hearthglow, her brilliant form pierces and then dissipates the darkness around her. As the vulture head swivels toward her in apprehension, Morgan lands a massive blow, crushing one of the demon’s wings. Without the ability to hop aloft, the demon cannot use its rear talons, and seems substantially wounded. It turns and begins to back warily away from the party. Hazrad charges, impaling it with his spear, and Morgan lands another sword-blow. The demon crumples to the ground.
Ember checks Odleif, but he is beyond her aid. She uses two heartmendings on FluffyKitten, just enough to get her ambulatory again.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
For Odleif, everything is black, and the horrid pain is mercifully fading. A muscled, bearded man appears, and tells him that he has failed the Test of Might. He finds himself lying on the stone cavern floor, with Bhelgarn and Thrud standing over him.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
The party continues up the path. The ground around them becomes more rugged, with larger rocks and finally boulders that the path winds among. The sky lightens to a twilight grey, and shadows appear under the rock overhangs.
Rounding an outcrop, the party finds themselves facing a young boy, who sits cross-legged on a large, flat stone. With no greeting or introduction, he says simply, “Before the city’s fall, there were four statues, one of each of the gods, in the central plaza, all in a row. One was iron, one was bronze, one was marble, and one was stone. The stone statue was somewhere to the right of the statue of Gorm. The marble statue was somewhere to the right of the statue of Madarua. The statue on the far right was neither the statue of Usamigares nor the stone statue. The statue made of iron is somewhere to the left of the statue of Gorm.”
“Tell me, what was the order of the four statues, and of what were they made? You have three minutes.” A sand glass appears in the air near the boy, with the sand already running.
By the time Morgan, Remmy, Wolfbane, and Iris have taken paper and quill from a pack and distributed them, the sand is half out. None of them have an answer when the time has run out, though Remmy makes a guess. “You have failed the test of Insight,” the boy says in Elven, and Morgan and Iris vanish. “You have failed the test of Cleverness,” he says in Darokite, and Remmy and Wolfbane disappear.
Hazrad and Ember, drawing on their practice of memorizing lengthy oral prayers without reading, have been mumbling to themselves the whole time. When the boy turns to Hazrad, the nomad says confidentally, “At the right is the statue of Zargon, of Marble. To its left is that of Madarua, of stone. To its left is that of Gorm, of Bronze. To its left is that of Usamigares, of Iron.” Ember nods her agreement.
The boy smiles, almost imperceptibly. “You two have passed the test of Knowledge.” He turns to face FluffyKitten.
“Boy haz cookie? I can haz cookie?” she asks.
“You, little one, are in luck. Disguising yourself is a mark of cleverness – you will not be judged by this Test, but may pass.”
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wolfbane, Iris, Morgan, and Remmy are back in the cavern.
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
The man, woman, and halfling continue up the path. The boulders lessen and grow smaller, the sky brightens to the golden shade of morning. Grass appears among the stone, and the land begins to swell and roll. After an hour of walking, it is open rolling meadow land. They find an old crone sitting in the grass.
She smiles pleasantly at them but does not speak. Hazrad goads Ember into beginning. “Do you have a cure for the mushroom addiction, reverend one?”
“Oh, that,” sighs the old woman. “I have cures for all ills, deary, but what matters it? If I gave you the cure, and you took it back to the city, the people would still suffer. Under the yoke of Zargon they would still be, they would still sicken, they would still die. There is no difference. In a hundred years, you will all be dead, you and the cityfolk both, and it will be of no consequence.”
“Even if they still die, some of their suffering is relieved. There is a difference,” Ember says more boldly. “A good parent, a good mother, would want as much for her children.”
“Is that a good parent?” asks the crone incredulously. “Sacrificing for her children even if it does no good?”
“Yes,” says Ember firmly. “That is what a good parent does.”
“Very well, then.” The crone opens her withered fist. Inside is a tiny, delicate, pure white flower. “This flower, placed in water, will produce a drink that can cure any addiction. But I am cursed to remain on this spot, unmoving and undying. I cannot carry the flower to the boatman unless someone takes my place.”
“I will take your place,” says Hazrad. Immediately roots spring from the ground, wrap around him, and drag him under the turf. His screams are muffled by earth.
“Foolish man,” says the crone. “Only a woman may bear the flower.”
“Why you no go boatman and come back?” asks FlufflyKitten. “I wait here.” In a second, she too has been dragged underground by roots.
The crone chuckles. “Ah, the impertinence of youth.”
Ember stares at the crone for several minutes. “I will stay here,” she says. I will take your place, if you will deliver the flower to my hearthmates."
“You will take my place? Sitting on this grassy knoll forever? Helping the cityfolk who do not even know you?”
“Y..yes.” Ember sits on the grass, immediately feeling rooted to the spot.
The old woman rises slowly, stretches. “Then, deary, you have passed the Test of Compassion.” She hobbles off, down the path from which they came.
Ember sits and lies in the grass, lies and sits. Hours pass, but she does not hunger or thirst, tire or need to relieve herself. She supposes that is the advantage of being without her body. She is just bored…and alone. For eternity.
“Well, perhaps not quite eternity,” cackles the crone as she hobbles back into view. “Care to swap out a spell, deary?”
“Much as I appreciate your sacrifice, young one, Glöð is not so keen on you taking my place. Have to keep peace with the neighbors, you know.” The crone eases her frail body down into the grass. “Now go kick some Zargonite tail for me, will you?”
- * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ember appears in the cavern, alive and with the rest of the party. The tiny white flower is in her hand.
The party mounts the steps to the platform, and Iris pulls the rope tied to her cloak. Almost immediately the slab begins to rise above them. “Lights out,” says Morgan to Bhelgarn. “And maiden feet – make sure they are maiden feet before anyone slips out!”
The party reunites with three maidens on the ground floor. They decide to split into three groups, sending one group with Ember carrying the flower back to the Maiden’s Enclave and the other two groups covering them from the building they are in.
A maiden guide, Ember, Thrud, Morgan, and Odleif slip out the door, on the side of the building opposite the Zargonite complex. Bhelgarn, FluffyKitten, Wolfsbane, Hazrad, and a maiden stay on the first floor, with Bhelgarn at the window facing the Enclave. Iris, Pooches, Remmy, and a maiden start up the stairs to take a position in a second floor window facing the Enclave.
As the outside group rounds the corner of the building, the maiden in the lead literally runs into a figure, perviously unseen to those with infravision. Instantly the stench of decaying flesh is overwhelming, and those around her begin to hear the sounds of a struggle, as the figure gropes at her with rotting but unnaturally strong fingers.
Morgan draws her sword. “Ambush – undead” she hisses to the rest of the group, reasoning that undead creatures would be the ones most unlikely to show up to infravision. A second later, both she and Thrud are grappling with unseen assailants of their own. She manages to “slay” hers, but is wounded by it. Thrud buries his axe in the head of the one trying to bite him, and it falls to the cavern floor. While the maiden has wounded hers with her sword, it has overborne her, and is now on top of her unconscious body, tearing at her throat. Odleif and Ember have hung back, hearing the noise of combat but unable to see anything. When Morgan hisses “undead,” however, Ember grasps her holy symbol and channels the divine power of Glöð. She feels a connection to the creatures in front of her – zombies. Originally they were five, but now two have been dis-animated by damage from Morgan and Thrud. She drives the remaining three back, forcing them to turn and shamble slowly off.
“Fall back to the building!” commands Morgan. The maiden on the first floor slips by Bhelgarn in the open window and runs over to the fallen body of her comrade. Thrud lifts the body across his shoulders and enters through the window, while Bhelgarn helps Ember and the maiden through. Odleif and Morgan retreat around the corner of the building and make for the door.
By this time Iris and Remmy have done a quick scan of the second level and, finding it currently unoccupied although trash-ridden, have taken up a position in the window. From there, they can hear the sounds of the struggle beneath them. Iris is beginning to see faint forms of the retreating zombies, as their bodies get slightly warmer when they move. She sends an arrow into the one directly below the window, and is about to fire again when she sees, bright and living, five men in armor at the far tower crossing the gap to the building. Hazrad is running up the stairs, calling for the maiden with Iris to come down. Iris shouts at him to tell the others that human fighters are approaching the building.
As Morgan guides Odleif toward the door, she sees a gang of hobgoblins at the edge of her infravision, preparing to charge. She pushes him at the window, instead, and begins her sleep spell.
FluffyKitten and Wolfsbane, on the ground floor of the building, can’t see anything in the dark. FluffyKitten, however, standing by the window facing the hobgoblins, clearly hears their cries as they charge Morgan and Odleif. She runs to the mage and moves her to the door, imploring her “sleepy time outside! sleepy time outside!”
On the second story, Iris spots a man in the tower above the battle outside. By his gestures and the snatches of words that carry across to her, she is pretty sure he is casting spells. She sends a magic missile over, burning his face in a flash of light. That is enough to get him to crouch behind the parapet. As she fits an arrow to her bow, she hands three other arrows to Remmy, and he dips their heads in different vials.
Odleif tumbles through the window while Morgan backs up to it. She is now completely surrounded by hobgoblins, and takes a crushing blow from a club, knocking her to the ground just as she completes her spell. When she regains her feet, she finds that the six hobgoblins closest to her are all asleep, while four others farther off are trying to pick their way over their fallen cavemates to get at her. Before one is close enough to strike, however, Wolfbane completes her own sleep spell. It engulfs Morgan, but she resists and remains standing even while the remaining hobgoblins drop. Morgan turns and hauls herself through the window as Bhelgarn manages to light a torch.
In the light of the torch, Hazrad leads the maiden to her fallen comrade while Ember examines her wounds. She is unlikely to survive even the short journey across the gap between the buildings and arrive at the Enclave alive without assistance, so Ember uses two orisons of heartmending. She is still not conscious, but is at least stable. The torchlight also reveals that Odleif is enveloped in a shroud of darkness. It obscures his face, and he keeps repeating that he cannot see.
Bhelgarn tells him to hold still and passes the torch off to him, then returns to the window just in time to drive back a man attempting to climb in. Outside the window are five men in bronze plate armor and bearing swords. Bhelgarn uses his own sword to block the window, stabbing at any of the men who try to enter.
Iris keeps the man in the tower pinned down by sending one poisoned arrow after another at him. These fly off into the darkness, but he is unable to cast more spells at the combat below.
FluffyKitten moves to the door, then slips outside. Enough wan torchlight comes out the window to keep her oriented with respect to the building, but she cannot see the shapes of the hobgoblins on the ground. Their snores, however, make them easy to locate, and she crouches and moves among them, one-by-one slitting their throats. “Stabby-stab, stabby-stab, rainbow stabby-stab…” she sings to herself as she works.
The man in the tower is shouting directions down to the armored men, and some move past the window and around the corner. Hazrad and Thrud move to guard the door. One man spots FluffyKitten among the hobgoblins, even though she kneels and tries to hide behind a pile of one hobgoblin collapsed on top of another one. She sees the briefest of forms as he crosses the light of the window, but easily keeps track of his creaking, clanking advance. When she hears the whoosh of his sword, she rolls neatly out of the way and comes up at his side, burying her dagger into the back of his knee where his plate armor affords little protection. He screams and drops to the ground, but she silences him with a quick jerk of her blade across his throat. “RAINBOW stabby-stab…” she hums.
Bruised and bleeding, Morgan stumbles over to the window defended by Bhelgarn. She completes a second sleep spell, this one bringing down three of the men outside, including the one at the window. “You can’t see?” she asks Odleif, and when he confirms, she takes his bow and a handful of arrows.
The door to the building crashes open, and lifeless Cyndiceans, more zombies, begin to shamble in. Thrud, Hazrad, and Morgan bring several down before Ember forces the rest to retreat.
Bhelgarn heaves himself through the window and out into the open, dispatching the remaining warrior and then turning on the sleeping ones. The figure in the top of the tower vanishes behind the parapet. FluffyKitten, having slain all the sleeping hobgoblins, now moves among them, searching the bodies. “Coiny-coin, coiny-coin, knife!” she sings.
With the field finally free of enemies, the two maidens bear their wounded companion to the gate of the Enclave. Ember follows them closely, and slips into the courtyard of the Enclave.
Morgan, Thrud, and Hazrad leave the building. Morgan tells Bhelgarn she doesn’t want any of the Zargonites getting away, and orders him and Thrud into the tower through a large bronze door at its base. Meanwhile, she moves to the corner of the building closest to the Zargonite fortress to scan the darkness with her infravision.
Hazrad joins Thrud and Bhelgarn in examining the door. It has a simple latch, opening out, and no lock. But as Bhelgarn reaches for the latch, he feels a sense of dread roll over him – the tower is full of dark magic, he is sure of it. It is several moments before he can master his feelings and open the door. Stone spiral stairs lead up and down – from the shaft leading down come the sounds of footsteps in retreat.
Bhelgarn, Thrud, and Hazrad cautiously descend the stairs, and now the feeling of dread affects the barbarian and the nomad as well. By the time they reach a narrow stone corridor, below, all three are trembling, and they manage to get only about 30 feet down the corridor before Bhelgarn insists on returning. “Cannae catch him, too far a lead,” he mumbles, as he retreats back up the stairs.
Morgan hears a bang, then sees a figure sprint across the cavern floor, leaving the far tower and heading for the Zargonite fortress. She lets fly an arrow. A second figure emerges from the tower. She keeps shooting until both figures are beyond the range of her vision.
Thrud and Hazrad turn to follow Bhelgarn back to the surface. The torch, held by Thrud, flickers and sizzles, making as if to go out. For a second the tunnel is dark. When the torch brightens again, Thrud is alone – Hazrad is nowhere to be seen, and there are no footfalls to be heard. Thrud looks about warily, then hastily exits the tower himself.
Morgan is upset about the two escapees, but quickly organizes a search-and-loot operation. She claims one of the suits of plate mail from the fighters. Thrud and Bhelgarn look, but cannot find any armor broad enough for them. The men have no coins or other gear, but all bear rather normal-looking swords. She collects the knives and coins that Fluffy has retrieved from the hobgoblins, and does a quick search herself by torchlight. Finally, she leads a search of the third story of the building, which none of them have entered yet. It is much smaller than the first two, containing only a single room with windows on each wall. In one corner is a pile of filthy rags that served as a mattress for an emaciated-looking corpse. A small pile of rotten mushrooms is near his hand. Later, speaking with the maidens, Morgan learns that the cityfolk are forced by the Zargonites not only to grow mushrooms, harvest them, but to dry and process them as well. Occasionally one of them escapes with a bag full of the hallucinogenic kind. This is the typical result – a man finds an abandoned corner of the city to hide in, and eats only the mushrooms, tripping continually until he starves to death.
With no further avenues of investigation, Morgan leads what remains of the party back to the Enclave.