Chapter Fifteen: Follow the Daylight
They crossed through the Trollclaws, a hilly land surrounded by wet slough. They were able to pass the caravan through with the help of some of the group’s spellcasters, who pulled the water from the road until it was relatively even and dry. They continued for another day like this, and Whisper and Oszaren spent the last day on the road huddled in Fillip’s wagon with Whisper’s hatchling dragon.
Whisper hunched over the tiny grayish-black dragon with his pen poised over a slip of parchment. He had furiously scribbled notes about the small creature with the help of Oszaren. He told the warlock he wanted to study the dragon blood, specifically. The dragon sat cleaning its toes, digging into them with its tiny but sharp teeth. Whisper bent and prodded it in the side with his pen, his detection of magic spell lingering over the hatchling but giving him nothing.
“Careful,” Oszaren warned when the dragon looked up curiously at them, then continued cleaning its toes.
“I think we’ve gotten all that we can,” Whisper finally said in draconic, sighing and sitting back.
“What do you propose we do?” the warlock asked.
Whisper took out his dagger in a flash and poked the dragon in the side, drawing a prick of blood. He needed to test the blood. The dragon turned and hissed, standing and arching its back as it took a few steps toward the front of the wagon. Whisper conjured a vial, but the hatchling was suddenly defensive, its scales seeming to shiver as a small stream of blood leaked down its side. The tabaxi knelt and reached forward slowly with the vial, and the dragon belched a glob of gooey liquid, which splattered on the wood in front of the wizard and warlock, splashing them.
“Ah!” Oszaren shouted, quickly trying to wipe the liquid off, “it’s burning,” he hissed, and Whisper threw off his scarf, which was being burned through with the acidic spit.
The dragon tilted its head.
“Oh, no—” Oszaren started to say, and the dragon spit another ball of acid at Whisper, slamming into his chest and burning through his clothing almost instantly, eating away at fur and flesh.
The hatchling had just realized a new power. It pounced at Whisper, who had fallen back unconscious as acid burned a hole in his chest. Oszaren reflexively threw up his hand and batted the dragon aside, its cat-sized body slamming into the side of the wagon. The dragon got up almost immediately, shaking its head to clear it, and Oszaren used the momentary distraction to pull out his horn of silent calling and blow into it, thinking of Fillip.
The hatchling snarled, eyeing the horn unsurely and flapping its wings as if testing them for the first time. Oszaren crawled forward to stand between the dragon and Whisper’s unconscious body. A second later, there was a jerk as the wagon came to a halt. Fillip appeared through the flap of canvas. “What is going on? Oh,” he paused as he saw Whisper with a spattering of burned flesh and missing fur and the tiny dragon, with Oszaren sitting between them, hands raised and ready to put the creature down.
“Heal Whisper, quickly,” Oszaren said through his teeth, not daring to move. “It spits acid.”
“Right,” Fillip said, darting his hand over to Whisper’s forehead, his wounds filling with light and healing over.
“Steady,” Oszaren whispered, and the dragon watched Fillip for a moment, then walked in a circle and laid down, head on its claws, seemingly over the chaos of the last few seconds, the prick of Whisper’s dagger now a distant memory to one so small.
Oszaren slowly lowered his hands, breathing out his relief, then turned to Whisper as the tabaxi stirred, then sat up.
“The hatchling is dangerous,” the warlock said in a low voice, “we must kill it before it gets any stronger. Give it a few more days and it might be flying.”
“No,” Whisper said in common, shaking his head. “Not yet.”
Fillip muttered something about the problems of spellcasters and drew the tarp back as he left. The wagon started moving a moment later.
“Whisper,” Oszaren said pleadingly. “This dragon will very quickly become a problem. Look at what it just did to you, and it’s only a hatchling.”
The tabaxi looked at him for a moment, then peered down at his notes of parchment, which lay on the floor near him. Finally, he sighed and said in draconic, “alright, fine.” The wizard raised a paw and cast a sleep spell over the hatchling and the magic crept over the ground and quickly engulfed the dragon, lulling it into a deeper sleep. He summoned a sack and quickly threw it over the dragon, slipping it around the curled body and tying it shut. “There,” the tabaxi said, “we have one minute to kill it. Do what you must.”
Oszaren nodded firmly and took the sack, jumping from the slow-moving wagon, Whisper following behind him, and walking away from the road, careful not to draw attention from the other travellers. Once they were out of eyeshot, Oszaren set the sack gingerly on the ground and held out a hand, summoning his sword in an instantaneous flash. He raised the weapon, looked at Whisper one more time for assurance, then slammed the greatsword down in an arch. The sack split open, and so did the dragon hatchling. The body twitched, but it was severed in two, blood pulsing out into the ground.
Whisper bent and quickly collected the dragon’s blood in a conjured vial. Oszaren wiped his blade and made it disappear. Whisper began hacking apart the hatchling’s body, taking whatever he thought was useful. Oszaren turned and began his walk back to the moving caravan, looking for Reverence. When he saw the tiefling walking ahead, he came in step next to him and said, “the deed is done. The dragon is dead.”
Reverence nodded his approval, and Oszaren made his way back to Beyd’s side for another day of guarding the half-elf’s barrels of ale.
That evening, they came to a roadside hostel just as the rain was setting in for the night. They entered through the wooden gates and moved their many carts through the yard. They parked them in the mud and led the horses and donkeys into the stables where it was dry. The stable hands helped them organize the beasts and hauled in buckets of oats and carts of hay. Whisper informed them all quietly that he had placed a spell of alarm over the wagon to ensure nothing would be stolen, and Shale slipped a few silvers to one of the stable boys and asked him to keep an eye on their cart. Reverence leaned in and told the boy not to interfere, only watch and see who tried to steal their goods. They could handle the rest. The boy nodded and quickly pocketed the silver.
They pushed into the hostel soggy and travel-worn and entered a large but cozy wooden room filled with dozens of travellers, not including the ones from their caravan. A short, dark-haired dwarf greeted them from the bar. “Find a seat wherever you can!” He said in a slight accent, gesturing to the crowded room with a hodgepodge of tables, chairs and benches.
Whisper immediately slid through the crowd and found a place by the fire to curl up. Shale and Fillip went to the barman and paid for lodging, which sold as shared bunks rather than private rooms. The plan was to stay at the roadside hostel for a couple days and set out after the Feast of the Moon celebration marking the new year. The sudden change in everyone’s demeanours was palpable. Finally, they were off the road and out of the rain for a short while.
Reverence stood beside Shale and Fillip and said, “did you notice—the old ruin—on the other side of the hills—as we came up the road?”
Shale shook her head. She hadn’t paid much mind to the road once the hostel was in sight.
“I’m—quite curious,” the tiefling said, his tail swishing and removing his outer cloak, which dripped mud onto the floor.
“Don’t want to go there,” the dwarven owner said, overhearing him. “They say it’s haunted.”
Fillip rolled his eyes, but Reverence looked intrigued. “Haunted? By—what?”
“Not sure,” the dwarf shrugged, filling a mug with ale and passing it to one of his serving women, who added it to her tray and began to weave through the crowd, balancing the drinks expertly. “All I know is any who go there don’t return.”
“What’s the place called?” Shale asked.
She hadn’t heard of it before, but she suddenly felt a shadow pass over her, and she quickly excused herself and went to find a table for her and her comrades. Oszaren and Keelan were seated with their employers, so Shale grabbed a chair at a table with a man who was passed out and snoring on its surface. She pulled in a deep breath and closed her eyes, sending out a wash of magic past the people and through the walls of the hostel, across the road and field and up the hill to the ruined castle. She could see it in her mind’s eye as if she were standing right there. She passed over stone and through walls, and something caught her breath. She quickly pulled out of the spell and opened her eyes.
“Something—wrong?” Reverence said as he and Fillip seated themselves next to her at the table, sliding over a mug of strong mead.
Shale took a long drink, feeling the burn pass down her throat and rest warmly in her belly. Finally, she said, “Dragonspear Castle is indeed haunted. I can sense undead from within its walls.”
“How do you know?” Fillip asked, leaning in to whisper so no one could overhear.
The man at their table snorted and turned his head, smearing drool across the surface.
Shale shook her head, tight lipped. “I have this—power to sense undead. I don’t know what sort of creatures exactly, but there are at least half a dozen within that castle, not to mention anything else that isn’t undead.”
They looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then Reverence said, “interesting.”
“I think we should go there. Tomorrow.” Shale said seriously. “We’re here for a few days, so we might as well put those days to use.”
Fillip groaned, “and I was hoping we could just drink.”
Shale smiled grimly.
“Can I get you anything, love?” One of the two serving women stopped by their table, looking down at Fillip with a flirtatious smile.
She had long, silvery hair and pointed ears. She was tall and slender with a freckled face that was identical to the other serving woman. They looked to be twins. Fillip smiled at her wanly and said, “what’s your name?”
“Arietta,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her pointed ear.
“You must be part elvish,” Fillip said curiously.
“A quarter,” she said, blushing.
“Well, it’s always nice to meet elf kind,” the druid said, then waved a hand. “I’ll take another drink, as will my friends.”
“What would you like?” She barely spared a glance to Shale or Reverence. Reverence, Shale noticed, was staring at her without blinking. This wasn’t the first time she’d noticed him staring at a woman like this, as if he wasn’t sure what sort of creature she was and was too afraid to ask. Luckily he didn’t stare at her like that.
“You choose,” Fillip said, “I trust your taste.”
Arietta blushed again, “right away,” and skirted around the tables back to the bar.
“Wow,” Shale said, looking at the two of them. Neither seemed to notice.
“What have I missed?” Keelan asked, lowering himself into a chair next to them.
“It seems Fillip may have a date tonight,” Shale said, gesturing to Arietta from across the room.
Keelan looked at the woman appraisingly, but Fillip cut in with a raised hand, “I won’t bother her. She’s here to work.”
“You’re joking, right?” Shale said. “The night we met you, you were vying for two women at once. Or, so you boast.”
“Those women went to the bar looking for something,” Fillip explained, sighing, “Arietta and her sister are here to do their jobs.”
“Wow,” Shale said again, but this time she was somewhat impressed. Somewhat.
Oszaren approached and sat with them, having bid the perpetually grumpy looking half-elf Beyd a good evening. Arietta returned with a drink for Fillip, having seemingly forgotten about Reverence and Shale, then moved on to serve other patrons, casting furtive glancing back at Fillip, who was being aloof.
“So,” Reverence said, pulling his gaze from the other serving woman, the sister, “we have discovered something quite—intriguing. There are ruins—a few miles from here—and Shale has found—that they are filled with undead creatures.”
“Undead?” Oszaren said, perking up, “are you sure?”
“Yes,” Shale said firmly. “At least half a dozen.”
Keelan slammed a fist on the table, causing everyone to jump. “Then we must destroy them!” The man sleeping on their table stirred for a moment, then continued to snore.
“Agreed,” Shale and Oszaren said quickly to placate the paladin.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Fillip said tiredly. “We don’t know what else could be up there. Besides, the barman even said that everyone who goes up there dies.”
“Well, how can he possibly know that?” Keelan said dismissively.
“The creatures are still there,” Shale pointed out, “so that proves they haven’t been destroyed.”
“We should discuss it in the morning,” Oszaren said, “but I say we go. We can always leave if we find something we don’t want to challenge.”
“I don’t back down from a fight,” Keelan said, crossing his arms.
“Exactly why we shouldn’t go,” Fillip said pointedly, but they ignored him. “Of course, I’m travelling with a bunch of undead-obsessed justice seekers.”
“What about that girl, Oszaren?” Shale asked, gesturing to the family from their caravan with the daughter who was always cloaked in black. They sat near the fire, barely speaking and sipping on steaming mugs. The girl had her hood up and her knees to her chest. Oszaren suspected her as the one who stole his horn, and he’d stolen it back, but had not spoken to her or her family since.
“I’ve kept an eye on them where I could,” the warlock told them. “She’s quiet and she barely leaves their wagon. It’s suspicious, but I haven’t seen her steal anything else.”
“Perhaps—it’s time—to speak with her,” Reverence suggested.
“She could be in the cult,” Shale said quietly. “Whisper mentioned the cultists had others of their flock hidden amongst the families in the caravan. This girl could be one of them.”
“If we create a distraction—I can observe her—and see what I find,” Reverence suggested.
“Gladly,” Fillip smiled and sprang from his seat, walking over to where two bards sat with their lutes, tuning them softly. He flipped them both a silver and said loudly, “play me The Maiden’s Merchant!”
The bards happily pocketed the silvers and began to strum in unison, one parting into the melody while the other followed with the harmony.
Patrons began stomping their feet in time with the music as Fillip clapped the rhythm and crawled onto a table, so the entire room’s eyes were on him. Then, the druid began to sing, somewhat out-of-tune but boisterously enough that almost everyone joined him in the popular chanting tune.
Reverence gave them all a meaningful look, clutching his chest and milling through the singing crowd to stand near the fireplace where Whisper lay, ignoring Fillip’s display.
“FOREVER, MY MAIDEN, I SURELY WILL CROW, TIL’ THE SUN STARTS A’ FADIN’ AND THE MOON’S ALL AGLOW!” The song continued.
Reverence said a few words to Whisper, then leaned against the wall, still clutching his chest. The cloaked girl looked around wildly for a moment, then pulled her cloak tighter. Reverence then walked past the family’s table and tripped someone with his tail. The man fell back and spilled his drink across their table and looked to be apologizing. Reverence exchanged some words with the father, then, as the song finished, he returned to their table. “The girl is worried about keeping—her hands covered,” he told them. “Her parents don’t want her to show them—for some reason.”
“Strange,” Oszaren said, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
“How did you figure that out?” Shale asked somewhat suspiciously. “That’s very specific.”
Reverence shrugged. “At the monastery where I grew up—we learned a lot about—perceiving the outside—to glean more of what’s inside.”
Shale thought it sounded too simple to be true but decided to drop it.
“Even if that is true,” Fillip said, breathless from singing and then finishing his drink and waving over the other server, Arietta’s sister, “Oszaren’s horn could have been planted there. She’s a strange girl, and therefore the perfect victim to distract us from someone else.”
Oszaren sniffed, “I still don’t like that Losvius character.”
As the woman approached to take their drink order, Reverence stared, and she noticed his gaze, a flicker of confusion in her eyes. “What can I get for you all?” She asked in the same voice as her sister’s, though distinctly more monotone.
“What’s your name?” Reverence said quickly, and it was the smoothest Shale had ever heard him say anything.
“Uh,” her eyes flickered over everyone else at their table, including the unconscious snoring man, “I’m Zelena.”
“I’ll have—wine, please,” the monk said, flashing a smile. “You’re very attractive.”
“Thanks,” Zelena said, a half-smile pasted on her lips, “what can I get for the rest of you…?”
They all ordered their drinks, and the woman hurried away.
“Don’t worry, friend,” Fillip said, slapping Reverence on the back, “it takes time to be as good as me when it comes to women—or otherwise.”
“Indeed,” Keelan said.
Reverence sat back quietly, looking disappointed.
“I’m going to go talk to them,” Oszaren said finally, standing and walking across the room to the family.
Oszaren approached and Whisper stood by the fire and followed him to the table where the family sat. The father looked up nervously as Oszaren stepped next to them. “No hard feelings,” Oszaren said to the man, “about the horn.”
The man’s eyes widened. As he’d suspected, the man hadn’t figured out who it was that snuck into their wagon that night and flipped him the gold. “I-I’m very sorry about that,” he said, scratching his unruly mess of curly black hair. “I still don’t know how that got in there. I swear, we didn’t steal it,” the man insisted.
Oszaren caught the girl shifting uncomfortably under her cloak. “Might I speak to your daughter?”
“What business do you have with her?” he asked nervously.
“I believe she’s the one who stole my horn. Now,” he raised a hand, stopping the man’s spluttered protests, “I am not angry, I simply wish to know why. So,” he turned to the girl, “why did you steal it?”
She looked up, and he saw a scarf also covered her face. “M-my family is poor,” she said meekly. “I heard the halfling talk about how it was worth lots of money, so, I thought…” Her voice trailed off.
“You thought you could sell it to help out your family,” Oszaren finished for her.
Her parents looked over at her in surprise. “Imsa!” The mother said.
“Our daughter is very sick,” the father explained quickly. “We’re travelling to Waterdeep to see if we can find a cure.”
“Cure to what?” Oszaren asked, gesturing to Whisper, who was sitting on the edge of the bench next to him. “Perhaps we can help. We’re both somewhat adept at magic.”
Whisper began casting small illusions on the table of growing trees and deer and rabbits zigzagging through them. “Beautiful,” the mother said in hushed wonder.
The father looked around at the other tables, then sighed and seemed to deflate. “My son is outside. Davey. He does what he can to help. He wasn’t there when it happened.” He looked up, tears in his eyes. “My daughter was cursed by magic.”
“Whisper help,” Whisper said, head shooting up immediately.
Oszaren touched the burned sleeve of his left hand and drew it back, revealing the winding snake tattoo on his forearm, the head of the snake coiling up to his hand, fangs bared. “We’re not so different, you and I,” the warlock said to the girl.
She leaned in, eyeing the tattoo.
The mother placed a hand on one of the girl’s gloved hands. “It’s okay, darling, I think they’re friendly. They want to help.”
Whisper conjured a toy and nudged Oszaren, handing it to him. It was a small, stuffed doll with buttons for eyes. Oszaren held it out to the girl across the table. “Here,” he said softly, “a present to show we mean well.”
The girl hesitated, then reached across the table to grab the toy from him. As she did, the top of her sleeve slipped down to her elbow, revealing skin that glowed a sickly, luminescent green. She snatched her hand away, curling her arms into her chest.
“Strange,” Oszaren muttered, setting the toy on the table in front of the girl.
“All of her skin looks like that,” the mother said sadly.
“Why would someone do this to her?” Oszaren asked.
“She angered someone,” the man glanced over at his wife and daughter, “when she put her hands where they didn’t belong.”
“I’m sorry for stealing the horn,” the girl whispered.
“Can you help her?” the mother asked.
“I’m not sure,” Oszaren said finally, looking to Whisper, who continued creating his dancing illusions on the table, “but we will try.”
They all went to sleep that evening happy to be in a bed, even if it was a bunk. They agreed to awaken early the next morning and convene outside. Shale dressed and went to the stables first thing, where Trigger was curled up in one of the stalls with the horses. She called him to her side, and he yipped happily as she threw him a few cutlets of raw meat.
“Morning,” a man’s voice said behind her.
She jumped and spun around, but it was only Oyn, the merchant they’d saved from the hobgoblins on the road. His only surviving guard, the woman, had left the caravan and headed back down the road, saying she would find better work in the south. Oyn was on his own and had become somewhat of a protégé to Reverence. She had almost forgotten about the man.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he said quickly. “Reverence paid me to watch the cart. Said you all were headed out for the day.”
Shale nodded, “that’s good to hear. Thank you.” She left him and went around the stables to the gate, Trigger at her heels.
Shale found most of her group already sitting by the road. Whisper was flipping through his spell book, Reverence was stretching, and Keelan was sharpening his longsword on a whetstone. Oszaren and Fillip showed shortly after.
“So, we’re doing this,” Fillip said, sounding less than enthused.
“We can’t sit around while these creatures exist,” Keelan said.
“Fine, but I say you all have clouded judgement when it comes to this sort of thing,” he looked pointedly at Shale, Oszaren and Keelan. “Can we at least agree that if things go poorly, we drop it and leave? I don’t want to die, and we don’t even know if there’s anything useful in that castle.”
They agreed to the druid’s terms and set out on their two-hour journey through the field and up the hills to where the skeleton of Dragonspear Castle loomed.
They approached the broken outer wall of the castle and looked out across the rolling hills and fields behind them, and the small dot of the roadside hostel in the morning light. Oszaren gave Shale a flask of holy oil and told her to use it against undead, but only if there was no other choice. “It’s rare and expensive, so use it wisely,” he advised.
As they stepped into the outer walls, Shale closed her eyes and passed her mind’s eye back through the castle and surrounding land, sensing the same as she had the night before. The place was eerily quiet, and they all snuck through dead vegetation and took in the various broken carts and abandoned spears and splintered armour. Reverence dug his hands into the stone and began to climb the outer wall, then ran along it to quietly scout the other side. There were two smaller separate buildings that remained mostly intact, both with closed but rotting wooden doors. One was left of the gate, the other to the right. The main castle had small steps leading up to a barred iron door. The castle was in a hexagonal structure with covered windows and a few spots in the roof where the stonework had caved in.
Fillip put a hand on Keelan’s armoured shoulder. “I’m going to cast a spell on you,” he said quietly, “that will give you more stamina. Hopefully you won’t need it, but it can’t hurt.”
Keelan nodded appreciatively. He was by far their strongest fighter, but his armour and shield were heavy and slowed the man down. Whisper, noticing their conversation, also stepped up to Keelan and put a hand on his other shoulder and his armour began to glow with a soft orange light. “Now you target,” he said, and walked toward one of the low buildings to inspect it.
Fillip shook his head disbelievingly at the tabaxi. “Can you believe that?”
Keelan looked annoyed, then sighed, “I think he means well… somehow.”
Whisper sent his fey owl shooting from his paw and into the air and the owl flapped up and soared overhead to follow Reverence around the top of the wall. They waited for Reverence to return, and he told them in a strained voice as he dropped down lightly from the wall, “there’s a pit of bodies on the other side of the castle, and some of the bodies look to be only a month old.”
“There’s our first sign,” Fillip warned.
Whisper returned from his owl’s eyes and nodded his agreement. “Dead bodies. Not good,” he said, then sent out his owl again and his eyes glazed over as he watched through the owl’s.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Reverence said to Oszaren, and the warlock gestured for them to continue their search. Oszaren, Keelan, Shale and Fillip walked carefully to the building on the left and checked the door for traps. Trigger followed closely at Shale’s heels looking agitated. She patted him on the head comfortingly as Keelan broke the door handle and pushed it open. They entered, weapons ready, and Keelan’s glowing armour illuminated an old temple room with a slab of stone and shrine against the far wall. They approached the shrine, Keelan leading the pack with his usual religious zeal, and they could see the stone on the shrine had been chipped away. Atop the slab sat a small silver statue depicting a raven, which was deliberately placed over a scrap of parchment with some writing on it. Keelan went to grab the statue, but Oszaren quickly put a hand on him. “Wait!” He hissed. “It could be trapped.”
Fillip began inspecting the area, then shook his head. “I don’t see any traps.” Then the druid reached over and pulled out the parchment and after eyeing it for a moment, he read aloud, his words echoing against the dark stone walls. “Warning to all would-be heroes: do not enter this castle, do not even try, for within its walls are many creatures to fear. Dragonspear Castle is controlled by powerful undead creatures and terrible drakes. I have lost two of my companions and I myself barely escaped. I leave this offering in hopes that their souls may be guided safely to the Astral Sea. You have been warned. Signed, Sylan Estrial.”
“There’s something on the other side,” Shale whispered, and Fillip flipped the page over and read.
“P.S. it seems some ritual has gone terribly wrong. I must learn more of this.” Fillip looked up at them, exasperated, “okay, there’s our second sign. We should not go into this castle.”
“We can handle it,” Keelan said confidently.
“We don’t know that,” Fillip insisted. “These mercenaries could have been ten times stronger than us. We have no idea.”
“Let’s just check it out,” the paladin said. “We don’t have to fight anything.”
Shale had to agree with Keelan. They had to at least see what was going on in this castle, even if they didn’t engage a fight.
“This is a terrible, terrible idea,” Fillip said again, but they all started when they heard a loud, booming voice echo across the yard.
Oszaren grabbed the familiar, silver raven and shoved it in his pack.
Whisper turned and headed to the short building on their right and knocked on the door before Reverence knew what the tabaxi was doing. Luckily, there was no response, and with some effort he slammed his shoulder into the door and threw it open. A wave of freezing air issued out of the open door, a sudden chill touching their very souls. Inside were the remnants of an old armoury.
“Uh, Whisper, I don’t—like this—” Reverence was starting to say.
Suddenly, a loud, ethereal voice spilled from the room and a shimmering blue figure wavered and appeared, approaching them on drifting feet. “WHO DISTURBS MY SLUMBER?”
“Oh shit,” Fillip said as they all ran out to see Reverence and Whisper standing by the open door of the other building, a tall, fully-armoured ghostly figure of a man drifting toward them with outstretched hands. The ghost’s mouth stretched inhumanely far as he screamed. The sound felt like daggers in their ears.
Reverence slammed a foot into the ground and a rolling sound of thunder rumbled through the earth. In the distance, there were screeches and the flap of wings from above. They all turned to see a group of flying, humanoid figures approaching, their long claws and razor-sharp teeth gnashing as they flapped nearer. Two of them held wooden clubs.
They opened their mouths and a beautiful, harmonious song began, beautifully juxtaposing their abominate physicality. Trigger yipped and grabbed Shale’s boot in his teeth, trying to drag her back. Shale and Keelan stared at the harpies with open mouths, walking slowly toward them as the music filled them. Shale’s eyes clouded over, and she saw the harpies for what they were: beautiful men and women with white and gray feathery wings, naked and surreal. Their song warmed her completely, and all her fears faded as she felt the overwhelming desire to get nearer to them.
What have I been fighting for, all this time? She wondered, the ghost behind them forgotten.
“Damnit!” Oszaren shouted, “they’ve affected the humans. KILL THEM! Before they kill Shale and Keelan.”
Whisper formed an orb of energy and shot it at the harpies, but they swerved around it. Oszaren shot green blasts of eldritch energy at them and they avoided those too. Reverence ran for the wall and started to climb. Fillip turned as the ghost reached for him, narrowly missing its cold hand from passing right through him. “YOU ARE DOOMED.” The ghost screamed. Fillip turned and ran after Shale and Keelan.
The druid shot a sling at the harpies, and the stone smacked into the one leading the song. It stopped singing at once and turned its angry gaze to the druid, screeching and dropping the rest of the way to the ground to land in front of Shale and Keelan.
Shale shook herself as the song halted momentarily, suddenly realizing that four harpies were landing to surround her and Keelan. At that moment, Reverence leapt from the stone wall and punched an air fist at one of the harpies, knocking her to her knees. Keelan, who had seemingly also broken out of the spell, raised his shield as one of the harpies slashed at him. Another held a club and took a swing at Shale, but she ducked out of its reach and drew both swords. They could hear Oszaren and Whisper fighting the ghost on the other side of the temple building. Shale hoped they knew how to fight ethereal creatures.
Fillip transformed into a grizzly and charged at the group of harpies and Reverence fought them with his spear, trying to draw them out of their tight formation to give Shale and Keelan the space to move. Reverence kicked one of them over and pinned its wing into the ground with his spear, but another grabbed onto him from behind and he stepped back as he tried to throw it off. There was a flurry of wings, clubs and fangs, but Shale was too focused on her dodges and slashes to see much else of what was going on. She heard the grizzly tear into something and there was a strangled sound.
They heard an unearthly scream: the ghost. Keelan shared a glance with Shale for a moment, and she nodded, diving in for an attack against the harpy nearest him as he backed away and ran and disappeared behind the temple. Whisper and Oszaren needed the paladin.
Oszaren twisted his greatsword and held it aloft defensively. “It’s time to put you to rest,” he growled at the ghost, a line of blood dripping down his cheek from where he’d been struck.
“LEAVE HERE,” the ghost said in a rattling inhale.
Then, the ethereal figure dove and tried to grab Oszaren’s sword. He barely stepped aside and felt ice enter his body as the ghost thrust his other hand into the warlock’s chest and curled his translucent fingers around his beating heart.
“I SAID, LEAVE,” the ghost said again, clenching his hand tighter.
Oszaren couldn’t move or breath. The cold touched every part of him, and the edges of his vision began to blacken. There was a blast of heat and the ghost shrieked and released Oszaren, who stumbled back gasping and holding his chest. Whisper slammed a sphere of flames through the ghost, trying to push it away.
Keelan appeared around the corner and charged, his longsword crackling with white energy as he slashed his sword through the misty figure. The ghost screamed and exploded into a radiant light of tattered ethereal segments.
“Thanks,” Oszaren managed to say as Keelan grabbed his arm and helped him straighten.
“Radiant light,” the paladin said as way of explanation. There was another screech. The harpies were still alive. “Come on,” Keelan said, and they charged back to the rest of their companions.
Only two of the four harpies remained. Oszaren hit one with his eldritch blast and seared through its flesh, and Shale swished her two blades up and severed head from body, dropping the harpy. Reverence kicked the last one and Fillip tore into it with his bear claws, Trigger running in and helping him finish it. Very suddenly, the area within the castle walls returned to its eerie quietness as the last harpy shuttered to silence.
“Can we all agree we should leave now?” Fillip asked them angrily, transforming back into his half-elf shape, his colourful robes swirling about him.
Shale reached into her pack and fished out a few goodberries, handing them out to her companions. “That wasn’t so bad,” Reverence said casually, popping a goodberry into his mouth and chewing. The monk was covered in cut marks and bruises were already starting to form.
“We found a note,” Shale explained to Reverence and Whisper, “in the temple.”
“Yes,” Fillip pulled it out of his pocket and waved it in front of them, “and it has very clear instructions for us not to go in the castle.” Then he muttered, “the one time I’m the only reasonable one.”
Shale closed her eyes and passed her primordial sight through the castle walls. “I still feel at least five undead inside,” she said.
“We can’t turn back while they remain,” Keelan said firmly.
Fillip threw up his hands, but it seemed everyone else had made up their minds: they would enter the castle.
Keelan entered through the side door first after carefully pushing it open. Inside there were stone walls decorated with tattered tapestries that were too faded to read. Atop the ledges of the walls were gargoyle statues staring down, barbed tongues and clawed hands stretching over the edges. A few skeletons lay scattered inside amongst fallen stone. Bits of morning light streamed into the great hall from the areas when the ceiling had fallen in. An old, long forgotten fireplace with incredible stonework detail stood next to a fallen set of stairs leading to a second-level hallway.
Carefully they all followed Keelan through the doors, scanning the dusty hall for signs of movement. Reverence stepped lightly to the broken stairs and began climbing the jagged stone pieces to the second level, jumping from stone to stone where they were still intact. His foot hit a large block and part of it began to crumble, smashing into the ground and scattering small stones in every direction. He paused and winced at the noise, looking back at them momentarily, then pulled himself up the rest of the way and began running along the upper hallway. Another few stones dropped and scattered.
Silence, then a group of loud, consecutive booming thumps echoed as the six gargoyles set into the walls suddenly came to life and dropped to the stone ground, turning their pupil-less eyes to the five of them. Then, there was a flurry of screeches and the thunderous sound of beating wings as hundreds of bats came pouring out of the walls where the gargoyles had been standing sentinel. The bats swarmed in a black tide and went flying for the ceiling and open door, escaping into the morning light.
The gargoyles cracked, stone grinding on stone, and began to stand and bared their claws and flicked their tongues menacingly.
“Well, this is exactly what I expected to happen,” Fillip said as he transformed into a bear and growled, then charged and bowled into the closest gargoyle.
Oszaren summoned his greatsword and ran after the bear, the rest of them not far behind the charge. Shale started slashing at one with her swords, but the stone was strong, and she was barely chipping at it, her blades glancing off and receiving pockmarks on the fine steel. As she fought, Trigger pounced and leaped back, his small teeth ineffective against the stone. She felt a stinging blow as another gargoyle came from behind and tore through her cloak and into her arm.
“Watch out!” Reverence shouted from above and there was another boom followed by several cracks as the monk slammed repeatedly into the upper hallway and sent the entire stone walkway crumbling down.
Shale barely managed to roll out of the way as part of the hallway collapsed, a few ricocheting rocks scraping her as she and Trigger got back on their feet. The two gargoyles barely paused, reaching out of the stone and pulling themselves up, charging four-legged at Shale as she tried to step around the uneven floor, breathing hard. She was being backed against the wall. Wait, no. Not the wall. It was the giant iron doors, the entrance to the castle. If she could only get them open… one of the gargoyles pounced and she fell back as stone claws ripped into her. Shale quickly cast an old, familiar spell, and a group of thick vines shot through the stone floor and wrapped themselves around the gargoyle atop her, dragging it back and tightening around it until it could barely move. Shale breathed in relief and stood, then started back to hacking at the restrained gargoyle. Reverence jumped down and began smashing into one of the gargoyles with his heavy mace, kicking aside dust as it burst apart. Oszaren and the grizzly had just finished off another stone gargoyle, and Keelan was leaving massive divots in a gargoyle with his longsword, but it kept coming at him. Whisper was slamming them with firebolts, which barely slowed them. They seemed to be resistant to nearly everything they tried.
More bats funneled through the holes above, but instead of trying to escape into the light, these ones began to swirl around. They all paused, even the gargoyles looking up as the black path of the bats separated and a pale, hovering figure emerged through them, arms raised and black cloak billowing. The bats screeched and dispersed, and the flying figure said, “RISE!”
Here we go, Shale thought, feeling the undead stir and move.
Two more pale figures flew down and landed in front of the hovering figure, hissing and baring sharp teeth. Reverence was closest to them. The two people, a man and a woman, peered at him, hissed again, then ran for the monk. Reverence crouched and raised his mace in defense as the man began slashing at him with long claws and the woman crept around him to try and pull him down from the other side.
The hovering figure dropped down and Oszaren sprang to attack. The gargoyles began to move again, snarling and biting. Fillip took down another one with his bear claws and it exploded into dust. Four gargoyles remained, and there were at least two more undead inside the castle that Shale could sense. They were surrounded by enemies. Shale had to get to that door and open it.
“Use the daylight!” she shouted to anyone who could hear her. The three undead were vampires, and if she knew anything about the blood sucking creatures from stories she’d heard, it was that they avoided daylight.
Whisper shot the lead vampire with a firebolt and put his massive flaming sphere between them, obscuring the vampire’s view as he grabbed the unconscious Oszaren and began dragging the warlock toward the door. Shale was slamming into the heavy door repeatedly, trying to open it and let the daylight in as her magical vines continued to drag a gargoyle into submission. There were patches of sunlight streaming from the broken ceiling, which the vampires were avoiding. Only a couple of gargoyles remained, but they were falling apart. The vampires were the bigger threat.
“Run!” Whisper heard Shale shout as the door opened and light spilled inside. He continued to drag the unconscious warlock slowly across the uneven stone floor, Reverence dancing around him and warding off their attackers.
Keelan started toward the door, and the vampires focused their attacks on Reverence, hissing and striking and slowing him dramatically. Whisper continued past the monk until Fillip’s bear form ran up to him and grabbed Oszaren’s cloak in his teeth and started dragging him the rest of the way to the door. Shale ran to aid him, and Whisper turned in time to see Reverence hit by the lead vampire and knocked down.
The last two gargoyles came at Whisper and he turned just in time, casting a shield over himself, causing their stone claws to glance off the shimmering field of magic. He rolled past the vampires, shooting them with firebolts and grabbing Reverence by the horn and dragging him five feet into a patch of sunlight in the middle of the hall. They were too far from the main door for him to drag the tiefling all the way, and one of the vampires had moved to block the side door from where they’d entered.
Keelan, seeing that two of them were trapped, rushed back in with hands aflame and began shooting a stream of white and orange flames. The two gargoyles rushed after him and he blocked one with his shield while the other tore into his bracer with stone teeth. Oszaren stumbled to his feet at the door as Shale’s goodberries took effect, then ran after Keelan and shot blasts of green light at the vampires.
Whisper stood over Reverence’s unconscious form as the three vampires surrounded them but dared not step into the sunlight. The lead vampire caught his gaze and Whisper felt a sudden strong urge to approach the vampire, to step out of the light. It was a seductive voice calling inside his head, but he hissed and shook his head, and the feeling disappeared. “No,” Whisper snarled, and the vampire snarled back.
Shale started shooting arrows from the doorway and Fillip ran back in his bear form to tear apart the remaining gargoyle’s with Keelan’s help. Oszaren blasted the female vampire with his eldritch power, but she seemed annoyed rather than injured. Whisper leaned down and took a healing potion from Reverence’s robes, uncorking it with his teeth and pouring it down the unconscious tiefling’s throat. Reverence gagged and opened his eyes, suddenly sitting up and looking around as he saw they were surrounded. Whisper helped him up, still staring down the vampires, and the lead one smiled menacingly.
“Ready to dodge some vampires?” Reverence whispered to the wizard, who nodded and flicked his ear.
“Follow sun,” Whisper said.
“GO!” Reverence shouted, and Shale sent an arrow at the lead vampire while Oszaren blasted the female again and Keelan shot fire at the smaller male. Reverence grabbed Whisper’s arm and the two of them bolted for the front door, leaping over the barely intact figures of the stone gargoyles. Their companions backed away, continuing to fire until they were all standing in the sunlight by the massive iron doors.
The vampires followed them to the stairs leading up to the door, then stopped and hissed, crouching low. The lead vampire hovered a few feet from the ground and shouted, “LEAVE!” They watched as a cut on his head healed over, and the other vampires seemed to be completely unscathed from the encounter.
Reverence grabbed Keelan by his arm and dragged him back, and they all ran. “We can’t—fight them!” Whisper blasted the door with a final bolt of flames, and they sprinted back until they reached the broken outer gates, gasping and looking behind them to ensure no one had followed.
Shale reached into her bag and gave them each a goodberry. Keelan and Whisper both looked as though they were barely conscious.
“This isn’t the dragon cult,” Reverence breathed, hands on his knees while everyone else had nearly collapsed with exhaustion. “We have—bigger enemies to fight.”
“I,” Fillip said, back to his druid form and breathing hard, “couldn’t agree more.”
“I’d say we learned a valuable lesson,” Shale started, “but…”
“The lesson is that you should all listen to me from now on,” Fillip concluded, swearing and getting to his feet. “Let’s get out of here before we do anything else stupid.”
“I really thought we could fight them,” Keelan said quietly, disappointed.
With that, the group left Dragonspear Castle and the undead inside, feeling tired and defeated as they made the two-hour trek back. Shale looked back, the itching feeling still pressing the back of her mind and weighing her down. If she was too weak to kill a few vampires, how was she ever going to avenge her family?
Again, the darkness crept through her.