Chapter 26: Coming up for Air
The cultists were pushing back, following the red half-dragon as he ran. Valaxarim was shouting for his men and searching for the tabaxi who’d struck him with the explosive spell. Shale parried a man’s hit as he ran past and tried to trip him, and she saw Oszaren slide in between them and thrust his greatsword through the man’s gut. The warlock slammed his hand against the man’s chest as he gasped and recoiled, and a wisp of smoke shot from behind him, rising as the man fell. It coalesced into the misty form of the man who’d died and stared at Oszaren with white eyes. The bobbing spectre looked down at his own body, then back to the warlock. “Fight for me,” Oszaren said, and the spirit obeyed, drawing its ethereal sword and, gliding suddenly away, cut the throat of a former comrade as he ran past, blood spattering across the already gory stonework.
Suddenly, a half-dozen bolts whizzed past their heads, one striking Shale in the shoulder. She cried out and looked up, seeing a second level of arrow slits with men loading crossbows. She cursed and tried to duck from the next volley, while also keeping track of the cultists moving past. “Trigger, come!” She shouted as she dodged and ran for cover, where she could see Whisper standing at one entrances of the great hall, motioning for them to join him as he shot bolts of fire from his paws.
Fillip, still in his direwolf form, bolted for the great hall to escape the arrows, easily surpassing them on four legs. With the help of Oszaren’s turned spirit and the lizard men, who had pushed the bullywogs back into a secondary room, they were able to dispatch the remaining cultists in the courtyard. They left the crossbowmen and entered the great hall, Shale charging after the men who’d been missed.
“I heard them say downstairs,” Whisper said quickly as he pulled Oszaren into the great hall last, a crossbow bolt leaving a red notch in his ear as he ducked under it.
“We need to follow them!” She shouted. “They’re going to a portal!”
She didn’t need to say it. They were already running with her. All except Reverence, who hadn’t come back from closing the castle gates. She hoped the tiefling was alright, but she couldn’t dwell on his fate just yet. If Valaxarim and Borngray escaped, they would warn the cult and come back with reinforcements. They would be dead within the hour.
“Here!” Keelan shouted after the last figure disappearing around a corner past a sizeable pile of gold at the end of the hall. Fillip, Oszaren and Whisper paused by the pile, but Keelan and Shale kept running.
They followed the man and rounded the corner to a set of stairs, beneath which lay open a trap door with muddy footprints leading down. It was dark beneath, and Shale couldn’t tell how deep the steps went. Without hesitation, Keelan rushed down, pulling out his glowing necklace to illuminate the way. Shale followed on his heels and grabbed his arm as he nearly slipped on the muddy stairs. Their descent quickly turned to more dangerous, rocky slopes, the natural stairs uneven and worn, and the sounds of fleeing cultists echoing through the basement now long faded. Shale looked back and saw her companions finally coming through the trap door well behind them. “At this rate, we won’t catch them,” Shale whispered to Keelan.
When they reached the bottom of the steps, they waited for the rest to catch up before moving into the adjoining cavern. The space opened into a rock-ceilinged room with a large pool of still water to their left and a tunnel veering off to the right. Shale inspected the muddy footprints by the light of Keelan’s necklace. “They took the tunnel,” she told them.
“Nothing magical in here,” Oszaren announced, his eyes layered with a green film as he scanned the water. His eerie spectre still floated next to him, looking gloomy.
They followed the tunnel and the air grew colder as the ground sloped continuously downwards. A few minutes later, they reached a place where the tunnel widened, and the ground was even muddier and sucked at their boots as they tried to walk through. Shale draped Trigger around her shoulders and the fox snuffled her ear gratefully. They walked along the stone wall where it was driest, ever curving to the right and descending. A few minutes after that, the tunnel opened into another, massive cavern with high, stalactite ceilings and a lake that spanned past Shale’s vision in the darkness. Along the edge of the water she could see a small path, but it was difficult to see where the tracks led with so much upturned mud.
“Can you send your owl across?” Shale asked Whisper, and the tabaxi complied, his one eye going white as his vision transferred to the fey creature’s, soaring over open water.
Whisper gasped and blinked. “There is an island in the middle of the lake, but there’s nothing on it—anymore. I saw something big moving beneath the water.”
“We need to move,” Oszaren said quickly, and a moment later, Shale could hear the rippling as water moved against the lakeshore. Something was stirring.
They all quickly slogged through the mud toward the path going around, Keelan’s light guiding the way. Trigger yipped and jumped from Shale’s shoulders, running ahead. She didn’t dare yell for him, but she hurried her gait to go after the fox.
“More coming,” Whisper said. He conjured a glowing ball the size of his fist and handed it to Keelan. “Throw it.” He dipped his head at the water.
The paladin threw it far, and the glowing orb plopped into the lake and slowly sank, illuminating dozens of dark figures swimming quickly toward them. They would be on them in seconds. Shale dropped to her knees in the mud and set up her crossbow on the shore, setting in five arrows and infusing them with a soft magic that would set off at the moment of enemy’s appearance. She got to her feet and drew her swords and heard Keelan whispering a prayer. Her companions glowed softly for a moment, then it faded just as three giant frogs with slimy blackish skin crawled onto the shore, their heavy bodies sloshing mud as their layered eyelids flicked and looked down at the assembled group of them. Three consecutive arrows shot from Shale’s trap, one into each frog and burying deep into their gelatin flesh. A gross, ribbiting burp gurgled out of them as their fat chins pulsed. Shale’s companions all stepped back as far as they could into the wall as the frogs leapt toward them.
Shale heard her friends attack as she swung her blades at one of the frog’s legs, but she couldn’t see her companions. There was more splashing and ribbiting as a dozen bullywogs came out of the water, and she felt a spike of fear in her chest as she even lost track of Trigger. She heard her arrow trap go off two more times, now expended.
Vines shot out of the ground and wrapped themselves around Shale’s legs, holding her in place. Out of the vines grew sharp thorns that pressed through her knee-high leather boots and pierced flesh. She cried out and tried to pull away, looking for the spellcaster, but instead nearly fell over as a giant frog nearly wrapped its large mouth around her. At the last second, the frog croaked and collapsed, and Keelan rushed past with his longsword covered in goo. She heard Trigger yelp and turned to see another of the giant frogs rip him out of the vines. The fox disappeared in its large mouth and she screamed to break her legs free. She looked across the water over the heads of the dozen bullywogs and saw a larger bullywog hovering over the lake with a crocodile head placed over its own like a crown. It was weaving its webbed hands and they started to glow. A clay jar appeared between them. “Save Trigger!” She screamed to no one just as an explosion of fire ripped apart several bullywogs on the shore and killed one of the two remaining giant frogs. Whisper’s handiwork.
There was a shattering noise and Shale turned to see the clay jar had exploded next to her and a thick, powdery substance was rising out of the broken shards. She started coughing as her lungs took in the strange powder and her vision swam. She felt dizzy and stopped struggling against the piercing vines for a moment as she stared off, trying to focus. She heard others coughing but couldn’t see them. She teetered, then shook her head and her vision cleared.
Suddenly, she was filled with a new strength, and she hacked the vines from her and sheathed her swords, looking past the bullywogs, ignoring the two giant frogs, one which had swallowed her fox, and stared at the dark lake. That water. She coughed again, then gasped. She was so dry. She needed the water. She ran for the lake and dove in headfirst and began to swim desperately for the bottom, moving further and further from shore. A moment later, Keelan splashed into the water after her and swam, his heavy armour pulling him deeper and deeper as the two of them bulleted for the island.
Shale looked over and saw a giant frog swimming next to her. She drew her blades in the water and went to slice into it. As her sword moved painfully slow through the water, the frog raised its webbed hand and caught the blade. As it hit, she saw her blade was wedged in Keelan’s gauntlet. He looked at her in shock and looked down at himself. The powder, he mouthed.
Realizing the strain on her lungs, she pointed up and they both swam, Keelan with some difficulty in his armour, to the surface, coughing and spluttering. They were a hundred feet from the shore, but at least their heads were clear. Shale felt the distinct sensation of nearly drowning.
The others had cleared the bullywogs, and with the flight of the spellcasting bullywog, the vines had withdrawn. Whisper used his mage hand to squeeze the last of the giant frogs until it vomited up the goo-covered fox, whose fur had been singed by the acidic stomach contents. He continued to squeeze until the frog’s eyes bulged and it exploded. Trigger whimpered and limped to the tabaxi, who patted him on the head comfortingly. Oszaren waved a hand and the goo vanished from his fur.
Fillip summoned a glowing white aura, which hovered at a point. “Anyone who was hurt,” the druid pointed, “walk through that light. It will heal you.”
Whisper ushered Trigger through, and the fox immediately sprang up and began yipping for his master. Shale and Keelan had burst to the surface and were still paddling back to shore. Shale lifted her fox in the air as soon as she was on muddy land.
“That was strange,” Keelan said, and Shale agreed.
“After that delay, we certainly won’t reach the portal in time,” she bemoaned.
“I saw a small alcove in the tunnel just behind us,” Fillip said, pointing in the direction they’d just come. “I noticed it just as they attacked.”
They all quickly gathered and peeked into the alcove. There were several tiny pools in the ground swimming with hundreds of tadpoles. A dead end. “Come on,” Shale said, nodding back to the narrow path leading around the lake.
“They must have taken boats across,” Oszaren said as they continued along the shore, cautious of any rippling’s in the lake.
“Wouldn’t have worked for us,” Fillip sighed, and Shale pictured the bullywogs clambering onto their tiny boat, beating against the hull until it sunk, then dragging them each down into the depths below to drown. She shivered and continued to pick through the muddy path.
The companions travelled through the cavern and into another, smaller tunnel. “Where is the portal?” Oszaren asked the spectre, and it stared at him but said nothing. Evidently, the spirit of the cultist was unwilling to answer.
“How long will that thing be with us?” Shale asked uncomfortably.
Oszaren looked at the spectre, then walked alongside her and spoke quietly, though everyone could hear, “It doesn’t last long,” he assured her. “Only a day.”
She stared at the half-elf. They’d grown to be friends over their months of travel. He’d confided in her about his fears and his powers. She trusted him. Yet, now he was enslaving the soul of someone he’d killed. It might not be exactly like what had happened to her family, but any sort of necromancy made her skin crawl. “Is he in pain?” she asked, glancing at the spectre, whose head was partially obscured as it drifted through the low ceiling. It didn’t seem to mind.
Oszaren shook his head, and she said no more on the subject. She would have to ask him about his patron. Were the powers taking him over? He’d asked her to do what was necessary, and she’d told him she’d help him find the answers to his abilities. She needed to fulfill that promise, before it was too late. Which, she groaned internally, likely meant finding more books.
As the tunnel narrowed, a light fog drifted underfoot, growing thicker until it was knee height. The walls became rougher and less worked, and soon they passed discarded excavating tools leaned against stone or broken in the path. As they turned a corner, they saw a five-foot tall opening set with a stone-carved doorframe. They all looked at each other and Whisper sent his owl through the door. “Room,” Whisper muttered softly. “Stone bowls on pedestals. A coffin… wait.” He stopped, his eyes still glazed, then came to. “They nearly hit my owl with a bolt. They’re waiting for us.”
“Who is?” Keelan whispered back.
“All the ones who fled.”
They nodded and gripped their weapons. “Can we draw them out? Make them fight in the tunnel?” Fillip wondered.
Oszaren shook his head. “That would be the best strategy. But they know we’re here.”
“They’re not going to fight on our terms,” Shale said.
“I have a bad feeling about that room,” Keelan told them, shifting uncomfortably on his feet. “It has a dark aura.”
“Can we set a trap and collapse the room on them?” Fillip suggested, looking to their wizard.
The tabaxi said, “I don’t think I can.”
“Let’s distract them, then,” Shale said. “Throw something in there, like another one of those glowing balls you made.”
Whisper immediately conjured a ball in his fist and made it glow, then passed it to Keelan. Keelan looked around at his companions, nodded, then chucked the ball into the room. They heard it bounce on the stone and roll to a stop, and they heard a couple crossbows loose. “Now,” Shale said, running in with both swords, Trigger at her heels.
The room was large and unadorned except for the corner alcove Whisper had described with the stone bowls and coffin. It was dimly lit with torchlight, and the glowing ball illuminated a large portion of the central area. Throughout the room were square pillars. Shale ducked behind one as she ran in, just as a few more bolts whizzed past her head. Trigger easily dodged the projectiles and ducked by her legs. She spotted the red half-dragon and threw her hunter’s mark to target him in case he found a dark corner to hide. She turned back then and saw Keelan fighting two cultists on the opposite end of the room, having charged at them with his shield out. Oszaren was shooting green blasts at anyone who dared pop their head from between a pillar. His spectre floated near him swinging an ethereal blade that drew blood where it hit. Borngray appeared, then, with a longsword and shield. He looked at them, then charged Oszaren, slashing at him, then stepping back and rubbing the ring on his fingers. He suddenly vanished and reappeared twenty feet away, smiling as Oszaren recovered from the shock.
Fillip conjured two massive spiders that crawled along the floor and flanked Valaxarim, clacking their deadly pincers. The half-dragon drew his greatsword. She saw Whisper’s fireball fizzle and disappear as Borngray waved a hand and countered the spell with magic of his own. The tabaxi shot back into the entrance. Seeing Borngray would stay out of the fight for as long as possible, Shale and Trigger ran after the half-dragon. Keelan followed, until they and the spiders were surrounding him. Valaxarim took hit after hit, growing angrier as a spider clamped onto his leg. He pulled in a sharp intake of breath, and then Shale felt incredible heat and saw a blinding light as her body was engulfed in flames.
Valaxarim breathed fire over those surrounding him. A spider reared back from the flames and he stepped out of the circle and ran. She was coming.
Borngray felt his limbs freeze and stared at the pale half-elf with the streak of green braided into his light hair. The half-elf’s face was severe, focused. He wore a long, emerald green coat with light designs patterned along the hems. Borngray recognized the power of a warlock. He stared, unable to move from the spell, as the half-elf raised his hand and an inky blackness crept into his soul. A hexblade’s curse. The warlock summoned a greatsword from the air and his blade arched down at the unmoving elf. Borngray screamed internally, tearing at the spell with his mind, and his limbs broke free at the last moment. He rolled away, his shield dropped, and rubbed the ring on his finger and flashed out of reach.
As he stood, he saw a skeletal hand reach into his chest and his body went cold. The seven-foot tabaxi stood away from him, controlling the spell. Borngray shuddered, the coldness reaching his very bones. The warlock ran to where he’d zapped and threw something. It shattered on the stone and a puff of gas spilled forth. The ether crawled into his lungs and he felt his body go numb as he collapsed unconscious on the floor.
Oszaren reached down and plucked the ring from Borngray’s finger, then looked up to see Shale kneeling, barely moving, her clothes smoldering. Half of her face had been burned away. Trigger was yelping and standing next to her, and she was placing a shaking hand on her chest. It turned to light, and the burns healed.
The spiders were crawling toward Valaxarim, who had placed himself between the enemies and his cultist friends. They shot webs, some of them binding legs and arms in the sticky substance. The companions cut the throats of those who’d been caught. Valaxarim held up his greatsword as the strongest among them, the paladin in the shining armour, ran at him through the rest. The half-dragon towered over him and blocked the human’s blows, kicking him aside and smashing into his shield over and over until he heard the paladin’s arm break and the man cried out and cast the shield aside, holding his arm close to his chest as he tried to back up on his heels. “You cannot defeat us, puny human,” Valaxarim growled, and kicked the man in the face. The nose broke, gushing forth blood, and the human didn’t stir. Valaxarim turned, then, to the spiders as they tried to fight through his men. One spat a web and it caught his arm, holding it in place against the wall.
Valaxarim cursed and started to hack at the webs, which gave Oszaren a chance to yell at the spectre. “Kill him!” the warlock shouted.
The spectre easily drifted through friend and foe alike toward the half-dragon. Valaxarim raised his sword to defend against the ghost, and in that moment, there was a flash of light from the hidden alcove to his right. “She has come,” Valaxarim spat, flexing his arm and breaking out of the web, ducking away from the spectre.
“Imbeciles!” Rezmir screamed.
As the cultists all pushed back up a set of stairs toward the alcove, Shale ran to Keelan to heal him next. He was bleeding severely and had gone pale. She looked up when she recognized the wyrm-speaker’s voice.
Reinforcements had come.
Rezmir, the great black half-dragon, stepped from the alcove and surveyed the room. Valaxarim, breaking free of webs. Borngray, unconscious on the other side of the room. The cultists scattered and fighting. The black woman with the purple hair standing, barely conscious, over the unmoving human male with the bloodied face. Two half-elves, one controlling the large spiders, the other speaking to a moving spectre. She could see no one else.
Rezmir sighed and held out a hand. Her sword materialized and with the other hand, she summoned a caustic bolt of swirling acid and shot it at the half-elf with the spectre. He threw up a shield spell and the acid exploded over it, the half-elf unharmed. She sneered, baring her long teeth, and shot again. This time the warlock stumbled back, and the acid ate through his shield, splattering on his long cloak. “Let’s clean this up!” She said, pulling down her black mask, and from the alcove spilled her men.
Fillip sent both spiders at Rezmir, but the half-dragon woman broke through the webs without effort. He threw up a healing spirit over Keelan and Shale, and the paladin stirred and grabbed his face. Whisper shot out of hiding at the appearance of Rezmir and sent a skeletal hand at her, trying to grasp her with its chill touch. She easily dodged and continued to watch the fight as her men swarmed in. “Run?” Whisper said to Fillip, and the druid shrugged helplessly. Shale and Keelan were surrounded, though at least healed. Trigger was a way off cowering next to a pillar.
Whisper cast misty step over his legs and zoomed toward Rezmir. They were of a height with one another, though she was much broader. He slashed a clawed paw at her and left three streaks of red across her neck before she turned to see him standing there and slammed into him with the back of her hand. He ducked back, narrowly avoiding the hit. “Changed sides, have you?” Rezmir said beneath her mask.
Whisper’s ears twitched.
Keelan got to his feet angrily and Shale stepped aside, parrying two cultists with her swords. The paladin raised his sword and shield and locked eyes with Valaxarim. His sword crackled with white lightning, the divine energy summoned from Kossuth. He stared and saw a flash of fear in the half-dragon’s eyes. Ignoring the cultists, Keelan charged at the half-dragon. Slash, parry, shield slamming into his side. The half-dragon turned his greatsword, but Keelan dodged and kicked his leg. He stumbled. It was the chance he needed. Keelan thrust his crackling longsword into Valaxarim’s neck. The red half-dragon gurgled in shock and Keelan pushed him over with his shield. “Take that, motherfuckers!” He screamed, the bloodlust filling him. He could taste his own blood in his mouth.
Rezmir screamed angrily, and suddenly, the room went pitch black. She’d cast darkness over them all.
“Trigger?” Shale shouted in the darkness and heard the fox yip.
She held her blades to both sides and cautiously moved through the darkness. She brushed against someone and quickly jumped back, following the sound of her fox. A moment later, she broke out of the darkness. She looked back and saw it was a hemisphere in the centre of the room shrouding companions and cultists alike. Across the room, she saw Rezmir standing above the steps. She couldn’t see anyone else, though she heard the clacking of the spiders and angry shouts.
Trigger ran to her heels, and she suddenly felt her injuries like a lead weight in her chest. She stumbled and Rezmir glanced over at her. Just then, Whisper pounced from the darkness and slashed at her with his claws.
“Keep them from the portal!” Rezmir shouted, dodging the tabaxi and moving back. “Defend me!”
Shale thought, then, how desperately they could’ve used their tiefling monk. Rezmir stepped back into the alcove and Shale could no longer see her past the hemisphere of darkness. Whisper hissed but looked at her, and Fillip burst from the darkness panting. “What in nine hells do we do now—?”
As he said that, there was a flash of light in the alcove and the darkness dropped. The cultists paused, seeing their leader had left them, and the panic swelled.
“We need to get to that portal!” Oszaren shouted, swinging his blade at another cultist.