Chapter 30: Without Planning
Fillip and Keelan approached the stable of wyverns first, the druid casting a spell over himself to speak with them in a hissing tongue. There were four wyverns in total. They gave Fillip a few minutes, and soon he was waving them in with a big grin on his face. They entered and saw he and Keelan were starting to hitch saddles onto the winged creature’s backs, a rather complicated system of girths and cinches that had to be set just right to avoid hindering wing movement or slipping off the slick scales. Keelan placed Ember in one of the empty stalls. The warhorse snorted unhappily, and the paladin patted Ember’s nose comfortingly, then mounted the largest wyvern behind Fillip, who took up the reins. With a shout from the druid, the wyvern launched itself at the stable roof. Keelan raised his shield to block their impact as the thatched roof was torn apart and snow fell inwards. Shale nervously took the reins to her wyvern and led it outside the large doors, then picked up Trigger and mounted with him in her lap. The fox shook nervously and curled around her tightly.
Whisper mounted one of the smaller female wyverns, and Oszaren and Reverence jumped on the other male together. Then they took to the air. It was cold and Shale had to wrap her fur cloak around Trigger as the wings took them higher. Beneath that, she wore the purple cult robes she’d stolen long ago.
The floating ice castle was no longer in view, but they knew which direction it had taken over the mountains. They steered their mounts and the icy wind blew past them, frosting their eyelashes and leaving them chattering and stiff.
It was another couple of hours before the outline of the castle came into view through the clouds. Shale felt a sense of thrill at catching up, but also a nervousness. They’d planned nothing for when they reached the castle, except to find Rezmir, and hope they escaped with their lives.
Just then, the air around them seemed to reverberate. Shale turned and saw, bursting out of the clouds behind them, a massive white dragon. It swooped over their wyverns and skimmed the clouds with its wingtips, lazily looping around to fly between them and the castle. It turned, its massive body taking up the sky, and turned its long neck toward them. They all held their wyverns back, and the creatures screeched nervously and flew in place. Whisper waved to the dragon. “I don’t know you,” the dragon said in common, its voice deep but loud. “Whose side are you on?”
Oszaren stood in the stirrups behind Reverence and recited the password. “Tiamat, our mother and our strength,” he said.
The dragon stared at them, wings pulsing, then nodded, turned, and flew toward the castle.
They all collectively let out their breaths and watched the white-scaled beast soar beneath the ice castle, circling the base, which was carved from a thick iceberg, then breathed a cone of ice upwards and moved into the fog around its centre, landing presumably somewhere in the courtyard. Whisper pulled his stolen cult mask over his eyes, hiding his cat ears. Shale pointed up at the tallest tower. The whistling wind in their ears made it almost impossible to communicate as they followed the dragon, but Oszaren saw her hand and nodded. As they swooped nearer, Shale saw figures moving on the walls, patrolling. They were large. Not giant-sized, but not humanoid either. As they moved closer, she saw that they were grey-skinned ogres with bald heads and wearing only the barest forms of armour. They had thick, rolling shoulders and almost no neck at all, with large, protruding jowls. They stood on the wall and pointed at the approaching wyverns, and some ran for the ballista on that side of the wall and began loading it with a large javelin. They didn’t wait to hear a password. They shot, a javelin narrowly missing Whisper’s wyvern as he rolled out of the way. Whisper retaliated with a firebolt.
Shale quickly tied Trigger to her middle to ensure the fox wouldn’t fall should her wyvern dive, then took out her bow and shot an arrow at the ogre loading another javelin. The arrow whistled through the air and struck him in the ribs, but he tore it out and took aim again, the other ogres picking up javelins and chucking them by hand. Reverence veered his and Oszaren’s mount toward the tower and magically enhanced his voice, shouting, “We need the cover of the tower!”
Shale grabbed the reins to steer her wyvern just as a javelin buried a few inches into her mount’s chest. It shuddered and dropped a few feet before regaining altitude. Shale’s heart leapt into her throat as she urged it toward the tower. She turned and saw Keelan and Fillip’s wyvern dip into the fog below the wall, out of the ballista’s range. “C’mon, c’mon,” Shale said, pressing her heels into the wyvern, then turning and taking another shot. She waited for the wyvern’s wing to drop, then released, and struck the ogre again. Trigger whimpered somewhere in her cloak. “It’ll be alright, buddy,” she reassured him, gritting her teeth and grabbing hold of the reins again, bringing the wyvern higher out of the reach of the ogres on the wall, who, while able to throw their javelins decently far, were no match versus the ballista.
Ahead of her, she saw Reverence hand Oszaren the reins to their wyvern. The warlock slid into the front of the saddle as the tiefling stood, balancing for a moment with his tail, then launched himself at the wall, half a hundred feet below. He landed lightly despite the distance—Shale could see he’d cast something on his feet to slow the fall—and hit the ground running. The two ogres turned in surprise at their attacker. He paused and crouched, positioning himself on the wall in front of them, then waved them forward with one hand tauntingly. The ogres took the bait and rushed forward.
Shale turned and saw Fillip and Keelan burst out of the fog and fly up and over the wall. Fillip turned in the saddle and a wave of thunder exploded from his hands, throwing an ogre off the wall to fall a thousand feet to the earth below. Two other ogres stumbled and nearly met the same fate. The fog had cleared somewhat inside the courtyard, and while the dragon was nowhere to be seen, there were several more ogres as well as a few men in black cloaks running out, thrusting spears and javelins at the newly appeared Fillip and Keelan. Their wyvern took a few hits before the druid could bring it back up over the wall. Their wyvern, angry at the wounds it’d received, thrust its large stinger into an ogre and threw it over the edge while Keelan’s hands lit up with white fire and burned more ogres with horrible screams.
Shale shot a few more arrows down as her wyvern finally reached the top of the tallest tower and landed roughly. She freed Trigger and the fox leapt off immediately. She jumped down and pulled the javelin from her wyvern’s chest, blood splashing on the thick ice, then ran and looked over the tower. She saw Reverence running back down the wall, then jumping up as Oszaren swept their wyvern lower. The tiefling grabbed its leg and held on tightly as the wyvern beat its way up to the tower. They landed, Reverence dropping to the ground and breathing heavily. Shale took the moment to glance at the tower. There was a massively large door on the circular landing. There were no windows and the whole thing was made of opaque, carved ice bricks. She went to the door and pulled on it, but it wouldn’t budge. There were no locks to be seen. “How do we get in?” She asked, slamming a fist angrily into the door. The door had bluish runes glowing around it, but she didn’t recognize the language.
Oszaren jumped off their wyvern. “We have no plan,” he said crossly. “Where are we going?”
“To find Rezmir—and perhaps Rath Modar, if he’s here,” Reverence said, wiping sweat from his horned brow. “We’re going to have company soon enough. We need—cover.”
Oszaren threw his hands in the air in frustration.
“I have an idea,” Reverence said after a moment, shoving a hand into his patchwork cloak and ripping off a square piece of fabric, holding it up, and sticking it to the large door.
The patch immediately expanded until it was an open window into the room. The tiefling smirked, and behind them, Whisper landed his wyvern, quickly followed by Fillip and Keelan, their wyvern looking especially injured. As they jumped off, Keelan healed the creature, which screeched gratefully as its wounds closed. Fillip said something to them, and the wyverns seemed to nod their assent. “I told them to come back for us should they need to leave,” he said, then noticing the giant door with the window said, “ho, what’s this?”
“Only one way to find out.” Shale clambered through the window and helped Trigger through.
She gasped. Inside the room, she could see out in all directions. The walls, which were opaque from the outside, were completely transparent from this view. On one side of the wall was a wide, winding staircase leading down. She stepped across the carved stone and ice to the middle of the room, in which sat a large pedestal sparkling with gems and topped with a spherical glass object, inlaid with more gems. It looked to be, oddly enough, some sort of steering mechanism. Shale moved out of the way as Reverence climbed in after her, followed by the rest, and began inspecting the pedestal. “There are runes—carved in the gems,” Reverence said, walking around the sphere.
“It’s in giant language,” Oszaren told him, inspecting it closer. “There are eighteen commands for the castle. You speak them while touching the sphere, and the castle should obey.” The warlock touched his hand to three runes, speaking a strange word with each one, and those runes seemed to brighten just a little as the sphere started to spin.
The castle instantly slowed to a stop, and they could hear bells echoing in the courtyard. Then, with a rumble, Shale looked out over the tower and saw the clouds around the ice castle were forming up and darkening with rolling thunder, obscuring the place.
“I’ve told it to anchor,” Oszaren said. “I gave it the all-clear signal and brought in a storm to keep us hidden. That should help.”
They all nodded. “Now what?” Fillip asked cheerily.
“Do we wait for Rezmir to find us?” Shale asked doubtfully.
“Or crash the castle into a mountain,” Keelan said.
Whisper walked around the room slowly, hands up. “I sense a spirit inside the castle,” the tabaxi said. “It is alive, in a sense. It will not harm itself by crashing into a mountain.” The tabaxi turned suddenly at the navigation sphere. “Move,” he said, and Reverence and Oszaren backed up. The wizard aimed a paw at it and shot a firebolt. The fire hit the sphere and the spinning slowed as the heat blasted into it, leaving streaks of black scorch marks. The glowing runes faded.
“What did you do!” Oszaren demanded. “Did you kill it?”
“What have you done,” Fillip said, sounding unusually angry. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!” He shouted, running toward the now darkened sphere.
The ground beneath their feet began vibrating, and the castle started moving again, northwards in the same direction. At the same moment, the storm began to fade as quickly as it’d come. Then, the sound of heavy footsteps below them, coming up the winding stairs. “HELLO?” The bellowing voice came, and Shale felt sudden dread. “WHO’S UP THERE?”
Fillip scrambled back to the window to jump outside. Shale steeled herself and ran for the stairs, giving Keelan a look. The paladin rushed after her, and Whisper followed. “We’re looking for Rezmir,” Shale called loudly, and she heard the footfalls immediately pause. “Where in nine hells is she?” She tightened the purple robe around her shoulders, pulling off her winter cloak and stuffing it into her bag. She continued down the stairs until she saw the hulking form of a cloud giant standing on the landing of a secondary room next to a massive pillar of blue fire, which went straight up, presumably into the steering column in the tower. The giant was twenty-four feet tall with bluish gray skin and white hair with a gray goatee. He wore thick plate armour and at his back was slung a massive, spiked morning star.
“Why didn’t you use the front door?” The giant demanded, looking down at her as Keelan and Whisper stepped behind. Whisper still wore his cult mask.
Shale shrugged, feigning casual. “Wanted to make a statement, didn’t we? Land on the tallest tower and make Rezmir come to us. Obviously, she didn’t care, though.”
“And what have you done to my castle?” he growled.
“I don’t think we did anything,” she said, glancing back. “Some of my companions are a bit dull. Perhaps one of them tripped over something on our way through?”
The giant sized them up for a long moment, then grumbled and pushed past them up the stairs. “Excuse me while I go check.” She was surprised the giant didn’t resist more.
“Could you point us to Rezmir?” Shale called before he could reach the next landing, hoping she’d given the rest of them enough time to hide.
Impatiently, the cloud giant said, “Try the courtyard. That’s a usual spot for her.”
“Thanks,” she said quickly, and Keelan, Whisper and Shale rushed down.
The cloud giant stomped up the stairs. Oszaren stepped away from the sphere and stood innocently, having heard the conversation below. “Ah, hello. Have you just seen three people go downstairs…?” Reverence and Fillip were nowhere to be seen.
The giant looked at him pointedly, then took three large strides to the pedestal and placed his wide hands gingerly on either side of the darkened sphere. In a surprisingly soft voice, he caressed the sphere and said, “Stupid cultists, messing with my tower…” then, he noticed the scorch marks from Whisper’s firebolt. “WHAT! Oh, my dear,” he murmured as Oszaren slipped past him and ran down the stairs. “What have they done to you, my love? Please come back.” He said it softly, soothingly.
The light in the runes flickered as though responding to his touch, then hummed back to life, the sphere slowly spinning in his grasp. The giant looked around the room and noticed the small window inside the door. He released the sphere and exhaled in annoyance. “This should be properly locked down… what is this? Rezmir will pay for these fixes.” The giant moved over to the window and began tugging on the tiny frame. Some of the wood around it cracked, and the giant looked through the transparent walls and seemed to notice for the first time the four wyverns sitting atop the tower, licking their wounds. The giant threw open the large door and waved them away angrily. The wyverns screeched at him, but seeing their fight not worth the effort, took flight and soared away. Grumbling again, the giant slammed the door shut and turned back to the steering column.
Reverence put a hand to his chest where the amulet was buried and inched his way quietly toward Fillip from his hiding place.
Shale, Keelan and Whisper descended the winding flights of stairs. In the middle column of the stairs was the constant cylinder of blue flames. Keelan thrust his sword tip into the flames and felt that they were cool to the touch and frosted the steel. The flames seemed to go through the entire core of the ice castle, and Shale wondered vaguely if it was caused by the white dragon they’d seen earlier.
They passed a few landings and Oszaren caught up with them. Quietly, they agreed to forgo the courtyard until they’d explored the castle more. Shale was especially curious about the flames, and insisted they go down until they couldn’t. They heard footsteps and clanking metal, and peeked into rooms to see ogres gearing up, sparring, or sharing meals in steaming bowls. Finally, they reached a final landing, the column of flames going down into the stone and disappearing beneath it. There were three doorways, and Shale snuck to each one and looked through, finding ogres sleeping in bedrolls, and others working in a forge. The forge had been reinforced with real stone instead of ice to keep from melting. In the third room, Shale peeked in and noticed past three filled sleeping cots was a curtain only partially drawn over another, smaller stairway. She tucked her lavender hair into her purple robes, then looked back at her companions and whispered, “I’m going to sneak down there. Maybe I can figure out how they’re powering this castle.”
“Splitting up again?” Keelan asked uncertainly.
Oszaren grabbed her arm warningly and Shale looked down at Trigger and said quietly, “Stay with them,” then pulled her arm free and tip-toed into the room to the staircase.
“I’ve felt the entity that powers this castle,” Reverence whispered to Fillip, having watched the giant leave the sphere and tramp back down the stairs. “I could sense—incredible sadness. It seems like it doesn’t want to—help the cult. Perhaps we should talk to the giant. We may have—an ally in him.”
“I think we should go downstairs with the rest,” the druid said nervously. He didn’t like the look of anything so large as a giant.
“Fillip—this could be our chance to bring the giant—to our side. Imagine what we could do,” Reverence said.
Fillip gave a long, heavy sigh. “Alright,” he finally said, and without another word, they ducked from their hiding place and back through the window, following the way the giant went.
On the first landing, they reached a large door, which the giant had presumably opened, for it was open only a crack and there were noises coming from within. They looked through and saw an audience chamber carved of ice. At the end of it was a dais with two giant, empty chairs. “Thrones,” Reverence whispered.
There was a flap of tiny wings, and Whisper’s fey owl fluttered to the doorway to land on Fillip’s shoulder. The druid blew it a kiss and Reverence flipped it off with a rude hand gesture. Then, they pushed inside the room. “Hello?” Reverence called loudly, “We’re looking for the cloud giant who runs this place.”
Shale went down two smaller flights of stairs without meeting anyone, for which she was grateful. She wasn’t sure, even with her cult robes, if she would be recognized. She reached a basement of sorts with a thick curtain drawn across a doorway. Softly, she raised a hand and pulled the curtain aside a few inches, peering in. Inside she saw a surprisingly nicely furnished room with an alcove on the righthand side and a dressing area that was partially closed off. There were thick rugs on the floor and curled up on one of them was a large drake. It lifted its head, sniffing the air, and turned its dark eyes on her, hissing and slowly standing.
“Heel,” Shale said in her accented draconic. “I am a friend.”
The drake snorted and hunched down, ready to pounce. Shale reached back for her scimitars, the curtain falling back over the doorway, and felt, a second later, the large creature slamming into her. She pushed it off and started up the stairs, bruising her shin hard on the steps as she stumbled and caught herself.
From somewhere else inside the room she heard a commotion, and a familiar voice, and her stomach plummeted in dread. It was Rezmir’s voice.
“More of you? Get out,” the cloud giant waved at Reverence and Fillip in annoyance, and Whisper’s owl cocked its head, looking affronted. “I’ve had enough of cultists for one day. I thought my privacy was a condition of you people taking my castle.” The giant sat at a desk in the corner of the chamber. It seemed the desk had been placed there as an afterthought, but it was piled with books, and when the giant turned to them, he removed a pair of spectacles where they were perched on his nose and glared at them.
“Sorry about that,” Fillip said, clearing his throat and trying to steady his voice. “I wasn’t aware of the conditions upon which your castle was taken. My name’s Frollop. We’ve only just arrived.”
“I wish to speak with you, because I have a lot of interest in this castle, and it seems you’re the one who’s most intimately familiar with it,” Fillip said.
“It’s my castle,” the giant nodded gruffly.
“I get the sense that there’s a great deal of, ah,” Fillip paused as though looking for the words, “a great deal of suffering within the castle. Do you know what’s caused this?”
He surveyed the half-elf and tiefling for a moment. “I’d say the sadness has to do with all of you being here.” At this, the giant stood from the desk to his full height, and the two of them took an involuntary step back.
“I’m—Reverence,” the monk said. “What’s your name?”
“First, let’s get you out of here,” he looked around and led them into a secondary chamber with giant chairs. “My name is Blagothkus,” he said finally, still standing over them.
Whisper’s owl hooted.
“Blagothkus,” Reverence repeated, “we wanted to talk to you—because—well—we’re not strictly with the cult.”
“We’re contractors,” Fillip put in.
“Who are a bit concerned about this end of the world business. That’s—why we’re here and we’ve—mostly stumbled upon this castle.” Reverence told him. “We noticed the sadness emanating from it and thought—there’s got to be a story here.”
The giant seemed to grow hesitant, and sat in a squashy chair, rubbing his hands on his thighs. “Well, let’s say the cult is, ah, paying me for the use of this castle for their—purposes. I don’t tend to agree with it, but I do what I can to survive.”
“Money talks,” Fillip nodded, crossing his arms. “And what can we do to liberate you from this…burden?”
“And compensate you for it,” Reverence added.
“How do you propose to do that?” Blagothkus snorted doubtfully.
“An interesting question,” Fillip smirked, “with which we’ll need your consultation. I don’t exactly know what’s the best approach to liberating your castle. I suspect that there is a head of a serpent that must first be severed.”
“Quite literally, in fact, I think,” the giant agreed. “Hm,” he said then, gazing at them thoughtfully, the looks of annoyance cleared from his expression, “I suppose if we could incite a rebellion with the ogres, who are, of course, under my command… Hm, yes. That could work.”
“How much are the cult paying you for this castle?” Fillip asked.
The hesitancy returned. “An undisclosed amount, yet to be agreed upon.”
Fillip studied his face. “Is that all?”
The giant met his eyes. “They don’t pay me, so much as,” he took a deep breath, “don’t kill those I love.”
“That’s no compensation at all,” Fillip said, reaching into his bag and taking out a divided coin purse containing a hundred gold and flipping it up to the cloud giant, who caught it in surprise. “This is for your time, for speaking with us. I ask for your discretion as we try to severe the vile head of this serpent.”
“It sounds like our goals are very much aligned,” Reverence added carefully. “If we work together, we can do some good here.”
“And we won’t harm the castle,” Fillip said. “I get the sense that you are sentimental towards it, and we won’t ask you to hurt it. But we may need to call on your help. Be ready for that. And keep the ogres from fighting us, if you can.”
Blagothkus nodded. “I can do that,” he said in a low voice, looking relieved as he moved to a corner of the smaller, but still giant-sized, room and rummaged around in a chest, pulling out a badge with a symbol on it. “This is my family crest,” he said. “Use this as authority over the ogres.”
Fillip took it gratefully, and it was rather large in the half-elf’s hands, but he managed to squeeze it into his pack nonetheless.
“I don’t wish to—pry,” Reverence said slowly, “but how can we help you—with this leverage the cult has over you?”
Blagothkus looked down at his hands. “They attacked our tribe, killed my wife, and took my young son, Eigeron. I don’t know where they have him, but I can’t do much against them without risking his safety.”
“We don’t want you openly involved in the fight,” Reverence told him. “We will use discretion, to protect your son.”
The giant looked at them for a while. “You are very kind, for little folk,” he said finally.
Fillip bowed slightly. “Then I will ask only one last thing before we depart. This blue flame, the core to this castle, can you tell me the source of this? Is it inborn in the nature of the castle?”
“It is the spirit of a cloud giant,” he said softly. “That of my wife’s.”
They both dipped their heads. “My deepest condolences,” Fillip said.
Clearing his throat, the giant said, “If you can clear the castle of cultists, I can direct the castle to some friends in the north. Perhaps they can help us.”
“We will carefully search the castle,” Fillip said. “In the meantime, is there a place we can rest?”
“Ah, I do have some guest rooms. I suppose those will do. Though, I’m not sure how long you’ll be protected. Word travels quickly inside the castle.”
“We will be very discreet,” Reverence assured him. “Thank you.”
Whisper’s owl hooted again, then flashed out of existence, just as Whisper opened his eyes and saw Shale scrambling up the stairs. She held her scimitars, one in each hand, and hissed at them as she went running past. “Rezmir, downstairs!”