Chapter 29: The Red Vision
Fillip lay passed out on the kitchen floor gently snoring with his head tucked comfortably on a bundle of used dishcloths. Talis nudged her brother with a toe in the gray of early morning light. “Fillip,” she hissed.
The druid groaned but didn’t open his eyes. She nudged him again.
“Fillip. What are you doing sleeping on the floor?” She noticed the empty bottle of whiskey on the counter and shook her head. “Get up. Go to your room.” Gently she helped him to his feet and without a word, he stumbled off to bed. She heard a thump and turned to see he’d transformed into a wolf and tried leaping up the stairs, only to tumble partway down.
Fillip pushed into his shared room with his long nose and began circling a spot on the floor.
“Kossuth,” Keelan swore, sitting up in bed, “I hope that’s you, Fillip,” he muttered, then turned over and went back to sleep.
Oszaren remained fast asleep, taken by dreams of ravens.
It took longer for the party to leave the lodge that they would’ve liked, and Shale and Keelan stood at the entrance with their belonging’s packed, pacing the floor. Ember was saddled and hitched outside, and Trigger was bouncing excitedly on his heels. “Alright,” Keelan finally said, “we go without them. They’ll catch up. It can’t be more than a few hour’s walk.”
Uncertainly, Shale nodded and turned to one of the house kobolds and, in her broken draconic, left a message with them. “We’ll just find the town,” she told the paladin. “We won’t do anything stupid without the rest of them around to watch.”
As far as they knew, Whisper was exploring the rooms in the lodge doing gods-knew-what. Oszaren had taken Talis aside, asking her for various gems and pieces for spell usage. Reverence, as far as Shale had seen, had gone exploring about the grounds. He was particularly interested in the troll stable Keelan had described. They weren’t sure where Fillip had gone off to, but Shale was anxious to get moving. Rezmir had come through the portal and evidently not stopped at the lodge, meaning she had likely gone straight to Parnast, where the cult’s castle was supposedly floating. If they wanted to use Talis’ banner and password, they’d need to go now, or have their identity spread amongst the cult.
Shale and Keelan stepped out into the snow and trudged a path away, taking their time picking through the snow-laden trees, hoping their companions would be rushed by the message that they’d left. Neither ranger nor paladin were known for their patience.
The path took them down the mountainside and they travelled for under an hour before they reached a strange clearing in the trees ahead. The tops of the trees seemed to have been burned back, and there was a circular crater of scorched earth in the ground where a bit of snow had drifted over parts of it. As they approached, they saw the circle was set up with large boulders around the area, marking it as a strange, ritualistic site. The burns looked recent.
“What do you think it is?” Shale asked nervously, looking around the trees for an ambush.
Keelan shook his head and dropped Ember’s reins, stepping into the circle with heavy feet.
“Careful!” Shale warned, but he stepped into the ring to no effect.
“There are markings on the stones,” Keelan said curiously, walking around them. He pressed a hand to one of the stones and pulled back in surprise. “The stone is warm.”
“Is this magic familiar to you?” She asked, and again he shook his head. “We could try moving one and see what happens?”
Keelan walked into the trees and picked up a thick branch, handing it to Shale, who shoved it under one of the marked boulders. Then, they both pressed their weight into it, trying to shift it. There was a snap as the branch splintered, the rock unmoved. Annoyed, Keelan tossed the broken piece back into the trees and began pacing.
They had just tied a rope from Ember’s saddle horn to the boulder and were edging the warhorse forward when the rest of their companions arrived, looking confused. “What are you two doing?” Oszaren asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Pretending we know anything about magic,” Shale spat back a bit too harshly. She massaged her shoulder and said, “sorry. We’re not sure what it is. Do you know?”
Whisper trotted into the circle and began waving his paws, a flow of magic sparkling through his movements. “The language is infernal,” the tabaxi told them, examining each of the stones in turn.
“Great,” Fillip smiled wanly and walked to one of the stones, then began peeing on it.
“Really, Fillip,” Oszaren said in exasperation, though he looked slightly amused.
The druid walked over to the next one and continued the stream, melting the snow around it.
“Right, so…” Shale trailed off, watching Whisper.
Whisper flicked his ears at Fillip, then read aloud. “They say ‘the draakhorn will sound. The children will awaken,” he paused, looking up, “the Queen of Dragons will rise again.”
They all discussed the words curiously, not noticing when Reverence stumbled away into the trees, his eyes glazing as a vision took over.
To the tiefling, everything was shrouded in red and he was transported. He stood atop a mountain looking down on the land. The ground was formed of red rock. Beneath him wound a crooked river, and from where he stood, a mountain range spilled forth. He looked up and saw the sky was dark and starless. The vision had taken him outside the material plane.
Reverence flinched as a heavy hand dropped on his shoulder. The monk turned and saw a face that had begun to frequent his visions, though he had yet to tell his companions about the figure. Sallow, pale skin. Dark, shoulder-length hair. An unpleasant smile over a pointed chin. “Reverence,” the man said silkily, “I am disappointed. I called, and you did not come.”
Reverence looked up. “I think it’s time you tell me—exactly who you are.”
“I,” the man sighed, “am someone who needs you. A servant of Bel, who dwells in the first layer of the nine hells.” He paused dramatically. “It is I who gave you the amulet.”
The tiefling put a hand to his chest instinctively where he had placed the skull with the ruby eyes, hanging on a fine piece of rope. Reverence said, “and you had to—burn a hole in my chest—to get my attention?”
The man shrugged, “an unfortunate side effect of its use.” A pregnant pause. “It’s too bad,” the man tutted, “I could’ve used you.”
“I would have come,” Reverence admitted, “if not for meddlesome companions—who thought they were saving me. Why this vision? Why now?”
“You’ve found the site,” he smiled. “The Queen of Dragons is confined for now, but she will not stay that way for long. Some wish to see her gone from our hell, Avernus, including the leader of that layer of hell, Zariel. Others understand the catastrophe that would fall should she reach your plane. Bel, the one whom I serve, perceives the benefit of Tiamat remaining in Avernus. Zariel is more blind to her uses. He reaches out to the cult.”
“Tiamat is with—you?”
The man didn’t respond, but instead told him, “I expect you will listen to my call, next time? I have given you visions showing you how the material planes will be destroyed. If you wish to stop that, you must heed my warnings.”
“Why would you want to protect—this plane?” Reverence asked. “Why would you care, if you’re in one of the hells.”
“Avernus,” he corrected, then smiled again. “The keepers of the hells rely on souls. They’re part of our economy. Imagine what would happen, should unfortunate mortals stop existing entirely.”
“And what about—the celestials? Why aren’t they involved?” Reverence asked.
He waved a hand. “The celestials are otherwise occupied, as they like to be.”
Reverence crossed his arms, looking across the red landscape. “Why contact me?”
“Why, you’re my eyes and ears.”
He sighed. “I’m not exactly allowed to deal directly with the material plane,” he admitted. “Some of my fellow devils have sided with the cult, and some with the Red Wizards, but not me. Not Bel. As I said, we rely on the economy of souls. That, and we gain a level of protection having Tiamat and her dragons in Avernus.”
“Devils—working with the Red Wizards?” Reverence said questioningly.
“There is a splintered sect within the Red Wizards. They’ve taken to—darker desires. Their leader, Rath Modar, is the one who wants to rid the country of Thay from their tyrannical ruler, the lich Szass Tam. I don’t necessarily believe you or your friends can stop him, but perhaps if you warn Thay of this sect and give them proof of what they’re doing, they too will see the necessity of bringing Rath Modar and his group down.”
“What’s this site my companions—have found?”
“It’s the remains of a powerful summoning,” the waxy skinned man said.
“Alright,” Reverence paused, pacing across the rocky ground, “will you—tell me your name?
He smiled for a third time. “No.” With that, the man raised a hand and said, “I can aid you, but you must not resist this time.”
Reverence said nothing.
The man touched his hand to the amulet around Reverence’s neck and pushed. He pushed it against Reverence’s chest and kept pushing. The pain was incredible, but the monk remained standing, bracing himself and letting the searing agony wash over him. He stared into the man’s eyes, and the man’s eyes turned wholly black. His eyebrows curved into a focused grimace and Reverence felt the skin on his chest begin to melt under the man’s touch. “This will curb any additional disobedience from you,” the man said.
Through gritted teeth, Reverence said, “This isn’t—what I signed up for.”
The man flashed sharp teeth and with a final bout of pain, said, “It never is, when you work with devils.”
He released Reverence, and flesh knitted over the three-inch hole in his chest, pulling the skull into it until only the ruby eyes gleamed forth.
“Don’t fail me, Reverence,” he said, and the vision went dark.
Reverence blinked and saw he was standing a few feet into the forest, faced away from his companions. He felt a terrible pain and saw a hole had been burned through his robe. He quickly bent and pressed a handful of snow to his chest and felt instant relief from the cold. Then, with a deep breath, he pulled his robes tight and returned to his companions.
Reverence told them only part of his vision. He gave them the name Rath Modar, a man who was the leader of a sect in the Red Wizards and who was working closely with Rezmir and the cult. He mentioned briefly that the amulet had gone into his chest again but warned Whisper not to do anything about it. The tabaxi frowned but said nothing, and Shale felt uncomfortable with the whole thing.
“We should go,” Oszaren finally said, leaving the charred clearing. “We need to reach that castle.”
Just then, there was a crack of a branch, and a bit of snow fell from a nearby tree. Shale immediately twisted and notched an arrow and saw the flash of something mossy moving behind the tree. A moment later, Oszaren shot a warning blast of green eldritch fire into the snow. “Come out!” The half-elf shouted.
A large, hunched troll stepped out from behind the tree. He wore a thick, moss-grown cloak and had four arms raised in the air. “Alrigh’, alrigh’,” he said, taking a few steps.
“Oh,” Keelan said, “this is the fellow who works in the stables at the lodge.”
“What are you doing here?” Shale demanded, bow still raised.
“Jus’ comin’ ‘ere ter watch’a fer Talis,” the troll grumbled in a deep, heavily accented voice.
“Talis?” Fillip asked curiously. “Why would my sister send you after us?”
“Jus’ ter make sure yer doin’ wha’ yer spose’d ter.”
“Well, we are,” Shale said, lowering her weapon. “We’re going to Parnast, as we said, and to the castle, to speak with Rezmir.”
The troll nodded and whistled, and they saw a few dozen feet uphill came two drakes swimming through the snow to stand hissing at his side. The troll absently patted them on the heads with two of his four hands.
“What’s your name?” Oszaren asked.
“Trepsim,” he said.
“Trepsim the Troll. Do you know what this clearing’s about?”
The troll shook his head. “Looks like’m magic shit.”
“Indeed!” Keelan said happily. “Well, since you’re here, will you lead us to the town? We’d hate to get lost, and that way you can fulfill your duty to Talis to keep an eye on us.”
The troll agreed, and soon the drakes were pushing through the snow past them, the troll taking the lead. Ember pawed the snow nervously as the hissing creatures swam near and skirted through the trees. Shale nervously returned arrow to quiver and followed. Reverence walked behind the rest, rubbing a hand thoughtfully over his chest.
The forest opened to a small valley below filled with two dozen houses draped in a fresh layer of snow. Small wisps of smoke carried up through the sky from half the chimneys. A rough road broke the town in twain and carried on past it to the base of another mountain. There was a deep ravine next to it, and over that floated a massive structure made of glistening ice. It looked like a sculpted glacier with sharp towers shooting into the sky. The castle was shrouded in mist, and they could see even from that distance that there was movement atop its icy ramparts. The castle had clearly been intended for use by giants.
They began to formulate a plan as they descended the mountain and reached the outskirts of town, worrying over how they would escape the castle once they’d gotten in and killed or captured Rezmir. They discussed this in hushed voices so as not to alarm Trepsim. Reverence and Oszaren argued strategy while the rest of them entered the town and noticed, curiously, that there were no people about.
“Well, er’ better go,” said the troll, and he and his drakes started back up the mountain.
The streets were quiet and empty. They passed an elvish shrine depicting three deities, the fourth statue having been knocked down and taken away. One of the statues was without arms, another had dead squirrels thrown at its feet, and yet the third was untouched. Mystified, they continued through, and Oszaren and Reverence quieted. “Where is everyone?” Shale hissed.
Just then there was a slam like a shutter being pulled quickly closed. Shale turned the corner and jogged up to the house and knocked loudly on the door. No answer. She deftly unlocked it and pushed it open. In a small room stood an elderly man holding up a chair with the legs facing her defensively. “Stay back,” he warned, shaking.
“Why are the townspeople hiding?” Shale asked bluntly, ignoring his warning.
“Your group—you’ll cause trouble!” The man muttered.
Shale furrowed her brow. The townspeople had been warned. Without another word, she pulled the door closed again.
At that moment, there was a flash of blinding light. They all ran back to the road and saw a thick blue beam of light was blazing into the sky from the top of the floating ice castle. It wobbled for a moment, then began to ascend, the mist still swirling around it.
“The castle is leaving!” Keelan said despairingly.
“We’ll never make it there in time,” Reverence cursed.
“The banner!” Fillip shouted, thrusting it into Oszaren’s hands roughly.
Oszaren shoved it into Reverence’s hands and the tiefling unfurled it and clambered up the side of a house and shouted, magically enhancing his voice so it echoed across the entire valley. “TIAMAT, OUR MOTHER AND OUR STRENGTH!”
The castle continued to rise. The tiefling swore and threw down the banner, then jumped down after it.
“Well,” Fillip sighed as they all stared helplessly at the slowly rising castle, “I guess I’ll go into the tavern for a drink.”
Oszaren bundled up the banner and stuffed it inside his bag, and Fillip went a few buildings down and pushed through the tavern doors. Shale followed at his heels with Trigger, and as they entered the brightly lit room, a hush fell over the patrons. It seemed most of the townspeople were inside, and now they were all staring at Fillip and Shale. “Hello there,” Fillip said obnoxiously, bowing.
Slowly, they returned to their conversations, though their muttering was forced, and they all seemed distracted.
“This is a trap,” Shale whispered, heart thundering in her chest.
The owner stepped out of the back. He was a thick, burly man with a bald head and unkempt eyebrows. Upon spotting them, he dropped the towel that was in his hand and inched toward the bar.
“Hello,” Fillip said again, “I’d like an ale, please.”
Cautiously, the man nodded and reached beneath the bar.
“Tell me, good sir,” Fillip continued, and Shale was very aware of the patrons listening in, “why is the castle leaving?”
The owner paused before speaking. “Don’t know. Probably has some business elsewhere.” He slowly took out a mug and moved over to a shelf to pull down a bottle.
“Do hurry, please,” the druid insisted.
The man was deliberately dawdling. Shale feigned scratching the back of her neck as she checked her blades were clear in their scabbards. Whisper came into the tavern and stepped beside them and nudged Shale in the ribs. She nodded imperceptivity, turned on her heel and strode out of the bar. The rest were still standing in the street arguing over how they could catch Rezmir. In the distance, the castle continued to move upwards. “We need to leave,” Shale said seriously. Oszaren looked up questioningly, then his expression went blank.
“There are men coming,” he said quietly, using his chin to point behind her.
Shale glanced back and saw several figures in black cloaks sneaking past the houses toward them. Reverence saw them too, and threw himself into the tavern and shouted, “Fillip, Whisper, we have to go!”
Just then, more figures appeared, boldly walking through the town’s square toward them. Shale drew her blades and Trigger snarled. The rest of them looked up at the sound of leathery wings flapping through the air. There was a screech as two large wyverns dipped over the houses, men astride their scaly backs.
Shale quickly switched out her blades for her bow and shot an arrow at a wyvern as it soared past, but the arrow glanced harmlessly off its armoured belly. “Find cover!” She shouted, but her words were drowned out by another howling screech by one of the wyverns.
Suddenly, one of the dragon-like creatures turned its long neck and the rider held up and orb and bathed Keelan in freezing rain. The paladin grunted as he was hit back with a wave of ice.
There was a bang, and everything was thrown into darkness. Shale looked around and felt Trigger at her side. She held her hand in front of her, but it was too dark to see. Then, Reverence shouted, “Follow my voice!” He was near the door of the tavern, from what she could guess. Quickly, she went after the noise.
The screeches above were angry, and one of the riders yelled, “Circle around back! FIND THEM!” Men were shouting and moving, and she could hear armour clanging. Then, something large knocked into her and she felt a horse’s muzzle nudge her.
“Ember?” She felt for the horse’s saddle, then reached down and slung Trigger over her shoulders and mounted, grabbing tightly to the reins. “Get us out of here,” she said to the horse, and it whinnied and obeyed as best it could, moving cautiously in the dark.
She had no idea where her companions were, but if they’d all followed Reverence, they were likely inside the tavern and trying to escape through the back. She just wanted to get out of the darkness with Ember and Trigger.
They emerged into light and she looked back and saw the darkness was a sphere engulfing part of the tavern and a good portion of the town’s square. Looking up, she saw the wyverns had landed on the other side of the building on a roof, waiting for them to come out. There were a few soldiers around, but most were stumbling out of the darkness and disoriented. Shale used to opportunity to let Trigger down and spur Ember forward. The horse kicked back snow as it loped around the outside of the tavern, knocking aside a few men who were pushing down the alley, and quickly dismounted on the other side. “Tiamat, our mother and our strength!” Shale shouted to the riders and soldiers around them. “Stop attacking! We’re on your side!” She said it futilely.
As she suspected, the rider atop one of the wyverns smirked and threw a ball of ice at her. She ducked and slapped Ember’s rump. The horse jumped skittishly away, and Shale again drew her bow. The rider was wearing an elaborately carved mask with thick, curling horns on either side. The mouth was curved downwards in a scream but she could still see a smile underneath.
Just then, Reverence bounded out of the back door of the tavern and used his spear to propel himself onto the side of the building. Weightlessly, the monk ran three strides across the wall then used the strength of his legs to launch himself at the second wyvern, which had taken flight. He slammed into the side of it and deftly sprang up and curled his arms around the throat of the rider. The man, shocked, tried to throw him back angrily and cast a spell. Reverence used his tail to balance himself as he threw the man forward and landed a solid kick into his chest, trying to loose him from his saddle.
At that moment, a dark cloud grew over the side of the building and lightning rained down on the soldiers. Shale couldn’t see Fillip, but she recognized the spell as his. Inside the building, she could hear another struggle ensuing, but she was busy shooting arrows at the underbelly of one of the wyverns while also trying to stay out of sight of the rider. She was looking for weaknesses.
Oszaren shoved out of the tavern and spoke in a strange language. His eyes went black and the light around him dimmed, casting him in a strange, blurred shadow. “Approach me and die!” He shouted, pulling the gaze of one of the riders off Shale so she could disappear behind a building.
Above them, Reverence gasped as the stinger tail of the wyvern stuck into his gut and wrenched him back from its rider. The captain atop the wyvern got unsteadily to his feet, his flail raised high, and slammed into Reverence. The tiefling’s orange skin turned strangely purplish pale near the veins, and he went limp, the stinger still intact. Their monk had been poisoned.
The men on foot had spread out to try and surround them. Keelan and Whisper rushed from the tavern looking slightly worse for wear. Shale got her first blood by taking down a soldier as he rounded the building. She slid her two blades cleanly through his neck and Trigger stood next to her, ready to pounce.
The wyvern unburdened by Reverence took flight again and circled the buildings, then dove at Shale. Surprised by its sudden attack, she stumbled back out of the alley and the rider released a spray of ice. It hit her in the leg, and she felt a horrible pain, but ignored it and stood, sweeping her two blades into the belly of the wyvern as it tried to gain altitude over her. Blood wet her arms, but the beast escaped before she could finish it.
“I’m here!” Keelan declared, stabbing his sword into the snow and heaving a javelin at the rider as its wyvern rose.
The javelin caught the man in the ribs, and he gasped audibly over the sound of pumping wings.
Before Keelan could celebrate, he had to take up his sword and parry men as they ran at him. Oszaren, in his blurry shadow spell was shooting blasts of green at men running past, killing them left and right. Shale couldn’t count their enemies, filtering in as they were from various back alleys. They needed to get Reverence off that wyvern before the poison did permanent damage.
No sooner did she have that thought then its rider directed the wyvern to land in the large space between two buildings. As its two muscular legs hit the ground, it tried to flick Reverence from its stinger. Then, it curved its tail upward, dragging the monk’s limp body with it, and slammed him into the ground with incredible force, trying to dislodge the extra weight. The stinger was barbed, however, and the tiefling remained caught. The front of his robes were drenched in dark blood.
Shale tried to run at them but was blocked by two men, who cut at her with longswords and pushed her back. Trigger jumped at one and nearly knocked the man over as he tried to shove the small creature off.
She saw streaks of red and green fire blow past her as she fought, and she could still hear the thunderous cracks of Fillip’s lightning as it struck yet another victim who tried to push into the fight. Shale gasped at something behind the two men she fought, and both turned. She used the moment to her advantage, jumping through them and after Reverence, Trigger right behind her. She slid on her knees across the snow beneath the quivering wing of the wyvern and reached the tiefling’s body. She stabilized him with a quick word to Gwaeron and saw some of his orange colouring come back to him, then stood and began hacking at the stinger.
Keelan was hit by a volley of ice from the wyvern rider. The man held up an orb to direct his spell, and the paladin went down. The orb vibrated then as though angry, then shattered in the rider’s hand. He cursed and stood in his wyvern’s saddle, then pointed at the shadowed image of Oszaren and said, “kill him!” The wyvern took to the air again and dove at their warlock.
“Ow,” Reverence moaned as Shale hacked at the stinger while also trying to dodge the wyvern’s violent snaps around at her. The rider, who had been momentarily occupied shooting ice at their companions, now turned and grinned to see Reverence and Shale on the ground.
Reverence held up a shaking hand as though casting a spell on the man, but it seemed to have no effect. The tiefling swore and pulled roughly at the stinger inside him. Shale dodged another shard of ice, and the wyvern struck again. Trigger yelped as the creature’s body slammed Shale into the side of the building. Her head cracked hard against the wall and she slumped into the snow. Snarling now, Trigger bounded to Shale and tried to tug on her boot to pull her away, but the wyvern’s body was too closely pressed with the building to free her.
“What happened?” Shale asked, rubbing the back of her head and sitting up. Trigger nuzzled in underneath her arm and she patted him. “Did we win?” She asked it begrudgingly.
“We did,” Oszaren said. “Once you got Reverence up, he stunned the wyvern, pulled himself free and Fillip hit it and the rider with lightning. After that, your fox finished off the wyvern and Reverence killed the rider. Whisper and Fillip managed to finish off the other two as they fled.”
“Wow,” Shale said, impressed. Trigger smeared a bit of blood from his muzzle onto her cloak, but she didn’t care. “Good job, buddy.”
Oszaren helped her to her feet and she gazed around the battlefield to the dozen or so fallen soldiers and the ruins of two great wyverns and their riders. “There were tattoos on the two riders,” Oszaren told her. “They started fading as soon as they were defeated, but they showed a five-headed dragon.”
“Where are Fillip and Reverence?” She asked quickly, noticing they weren’t among them.
“Back to drinking in the tavern,” Keelan said, passing them a slip of paper. “I found this on the other one’s body. It’s a note from Rezmir describing the six of us.”
Whisper grabbed it and read the second part of the note aloud. “Delay them. We depart to the next pickup point.” He looked up. “Delay them, it says, not stop.”
Shale shook her head. “She didn’t think they could stop us. That’s good. It means she’s afraid.”
“Guess what!” Fillip said, appearing at the back door with a golden tankard sloshing in one hand and a large grin on his face.
“What?” They all said at once.
“There’s a stable,” he said happily, “full of wyverns.”
Keelan gave them a sidelong glance and said, with a heavy sigh, “I guess we’re flying, then.”