Chapter 33: Breaths Between Battles
In a haze of sadness, Shale stood up and walked to the door and peeked in, seeing Keelan standing at a fire, his gauntleted hand raised into the flames. Shaking her head, she went back to Trigger’s body, unsure of what to do with it. She bent and pulled out a small dagger, cutting a piece of reddish fur and tying it with a string, which she placed in her breast pocket. Whisper was crouched in the corner flipping through a book, completely engrossed.
Finally, Shale laid Trigger gingerly by the stairs. He was gone. His body, like the bodies of her family, would be left in enemy territory while she ran and fought and hoped, for reasons beyond her, to survive another day. Though, it was only by the whispering comfort in the voice of Gwaeron that she did not throw herself from the tower after the two wizards, to rejoin her loved ones in the afterlife she wasn’t sure existed. Still, there was more she needed to do before the end. She would fight for this world until her last breath, then gladly go into the void.
“Shale?” It was Oszaren.
He and Reverence stood at the bottom of the stairs in the laboratory. He looked hesitant, awkward, as if afraid to break her reverie.
She looked up at him, feeling the coldness in her eyes.
“There’s a—hidden door,” Reverence said, gesturing behind him. “A—trap door. We can hear something beneath, only…”
“Only it’s locked,” Oszaren said with a helpless shrug, “and we’d like to open it without making too much noise.”
Numbly, she nodded and followed them down the stairs to where they pointed out the uncovered trapdoor. Dust had been shifted where a workbench had been moved. She knelt over the rusted lock and pulled out her thieves’ tools, carefully working at the mechanism inside until it clicked. As she cracked it open, she could hear the clanking of chains far below. Despite herself, a vague curiosity stole into her mind. “What is it?”
“Let me see,” Reverence offered, kneeling beside her and peeking down. A tiefling’s eyes were made for darkness where a human’s failed. “Some sort of—creature wrapped in chains. A demon, perhaps? Could be—part of another summoning ritual. And cages down there, too. I can’t see—what’s in them.”
A rope ladder descended into the pit. “I’ll tell the others,” Oszaren offered, climbing the stairs.
Reverence laid open the door and held himself over the opening, looking at Shale with grim determination. She didn’t even try to tell him to wait for the others. She saw in his eyes what had once burned in hers. “See you down there,” he said and dropped into the pit half a hundred feet below.
Keelan, Fillip and Oszaren were coming back down the stairs. “He just jumped,” Shale started to say.
Oszaren looked angry for a moment, then seemed to think better of it as they all rushed to the opening. They heard a shout below and the clanking of more chains. Shale thrust a hand into her pack and withdrew a single torch. She looked at Keelan with raised eyebrows and the paladin held out his gauntlet, which glowed hotly. She pressed the torch to it and it immediately ignited. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with…” and she dropped the torch. A few seconds later, it thudded on a frozen dirt floor, bringing the pit below into better relief.
Reverence was darting around a large chained figure, while chains floated around it with hooked ends and tried to slash at the dancing monk. There was a grating, rattling growl. The inhuman sound made the hairs on Shale’s arms stand on end.
“What are we waiting for?” Keelan demanded.
All waking from their momentary surprise, they scrambled for the rope ladder. Shale jumped through first, wrapping her hands in her cloak and sliding down the ladder to land lightly on her feet at the bottom. She moved out of the way as Fillip came clambering down after shouting up to Whisper. “Whisper, if you’re not too busy, there’s a man downstairs attacking Reverence with chains!”
Oszaren climbed down a second later and shot green flames at the creature as one of its floating chains outstretched and whirled around Reverence, restraining his arms at his sides, the great hook at the end of it pulling across the monk’s chest and drawing a thick gash of blood. Reverence exploded in rage, his eyes turning red. Keelan crashed down the ladder next with some difficulty in his heavy armour, but Shale was already running. She hesitated as the creature’s black eyes looked through its chains and stared at her.
She was momentarily transported into a vision. The chained head transformed into Trigger’s head. The fox’s nose was bloodied, the eyes lifeless, and for a horrible moment, she felt a spike of fear. No! She thought, shaking off the vision.
She ran again as the demon creature looked back at Reverence, who was trying to move toward it despite being restrained. Shale took the end of the cloak she wore and jumped behind the chained creature, wrapping the fabric over its face and trying to drag it back to expose the neck. She scrambled for her dagger as the creature slashed with its chains and made horrible retching noises.
There was a howl as Fillip transformed into a direwolf and rushed in, and another green blast hit the creature, giving Reverence the opportunity to shake loose the chains and punch a glowing fist into its chest. Its body went rigid. “It’s stunned!” Reverence shouted, pulling his spear free and twisting it in the air. “Kill it!”
But the chains around the creature reacted to an unspoken command. Shale felt a horrible, biting pain in her thigh as one of them grabbed her leg and pulled her away from the demon. She released its neck and instead tried to remove the chains while they constricted tighter and tighter. She looked up and saw, for one hopeless moment, that the chains had the direwolf too. A second later, Oszaren and Keelan were both wrapped in metal and struggling to get out. Reverence lost his footing as one found his waist and dragged him back. With a final, angry scream, Oszaren lashed out, the chains digging deep into his chest, and summoned his blade in the last moment. The greatsword’s silvery end exploded into existence and glided straight through the chains like hot metal through snow. The chained demon shuttered and died. As its body collapsed, it withered and, in another burst, it turned into horribly thick, black smoke. The chains all collapsed with a loud clatter, and Shale felt instant relief as her leg was freed. They all laughed somewhat in surprise.
She looked over to the cages in the corner of the pit and limped over to them. There were bodies, some long decomposed, others pale but still lifeless. Then she saw there was one stirring. She stumbled to the door and began working at the lock. The metal bars screeched open and she saw, lying there and barely conscious, the starved form of a pale elf woman with dirty blonde hair and a wretched gash across her cheek.
“Keelan,” Shale called, her voice unsteady.
The paladin turned and his face fell as he saw the injured elf woman. He rushed into the cage and touched her shoulder with surprising gentleness, his healing magic flowing into her still form. She stirred more but did not wake. Keelan bent and pressed his lips to her forehead, but her skin remained ashen. It looked as though she’d been down there for months.
“Here—let me,” Reverence pushed past both and took out his waterskin, uncorking it and splashing water on the woman’s face.
Before Keelan could protest angrily, she mumbled and awoke, and his attention turned instantly back to her. Her eyes widened and she scrambled further back into the cage as far as the bars would allow, cowering amongst tattered rags and remains. She drew her shaking hands to her chest, shivering.
“It’s alright,” Keelan said soothingly, “we’re not with the cult. We’re here to stop it.”
“A healing potion,” Fillip said. Shale hadn’t noticed the druid turn back into a half-elf until that moment. He handed the tiny vial through the bars. She took it but did not drink, still staring round at them as if waiting for one to strike. “I promise it will help,” Fillip added.
“Who are you people?” She asked instead.
“We’re here to kill Rezmir and stop the cult from spreading,” Oszaren told her.
Thoughtfully, she stared down at the vial, fingering it for a moment before pressing it to her lips and tipping it into her mouth. A bit of the colour seemed to return to her as she did so, and she took a long breath of relief.
“Why are you here—instead of with the other prisoners?” Reverence asked.
She shrugged. “I was in the forest, doing my rounds, when they caught me and dragged me down here.”
“Who are you?” Shale asked quietly, and the women’s eyes met, and they seemed to share something between them in the brokenness.
“My name is Aidra. I work for the Emerald Enclave.”
Aidra looked searchingly at Shale, then nodded, her eyes lingering over Keelan for half a fraction longer than the rest. She sat up a little straighter, her hands still nervously clutching each other. “They’ve been doing strange—horrible things. I don’t know how long I’ve been down here.”
“What forest were you in when they took you?” Shale asked.
“The north end of the High Forest. I—I don’t know why they took me.”
“It could be because you’re a member of the Enclave,” Shale speculated. “They know they’re against them.” As she thought on it, she added, “Zelnar Jorhus was a prisoner of the Enclave. He was one of the red wizards.”
Reverence cut in. “You—said they were doing strange things. Anything—that seemed to be a summoning ritual?”
Aidra shook her blonde head. “There was a red-cloaked man who made copies of himself. One day he showed up with this—this thing,” she glanced over to the pile of chains. “He said if he couldn’t make me talk, then that thing could.” She broke into a coughing fit, and Keelan hurried to offer her his waterskin, which she drank gratefully, giving him a small smile as she handed it back.
“We won’t be able to stay here long,” Fillip told them, and everyone seemed to awake to their surroundings, and split off to explore the rest of the pit.
Shale sat with the elf woman in silence while Reverence attempted to prise open a nearby box and began pocketing the papers within. Fillip called them over to a grate in the far wall with rusted iron bars. “There’s a tunnel through here,” the druid said.
“These papers speak of an inhospitable valley in the sunset mountains,” Reverence muttered slowly. “The Well of the Dragon…” He seemed to be speaking to himself.
“What are you doing down here?” Whisper’s call came curiously from the ceiling through which he poked his head.
“You can come read down here,” Oszaren told him. “Barr the door on your way down.”
Whisper nodded. “I’ll set up an alarm spell.” Then, he bobbed out of sight.
“Do you think we’ll have time to rest?” Shale asked hopefully, her leg feeling bruised and swollen where the chains had caught her.
Oszaren shook his head doubtfully but watched as each of his companions sat back in exhaustion, unable to move on. Reverence, after thoroughly searching the papers he’d found, withdrew a bundle of food and handed it out to each of them. Shale hadn’t realized until that moment how hungry she was.
She leaned back against the bars of the cage, and before she knew it, a restless, nightmarish sleep overtook her.
“Wake up! Everyone!” Keelan’s voice broke out of the haze of sleep and Shale sat upright.
From the floor above they could hear shouting and stomping of feet. Glass smashed and someone was trying at the barred trapdoor. “What’s down here?” A low voice grunted, but the response was too mumbled to make out.
“Reverence, help me with this,” Fillip said, running to the pile of chains and beginning to wrap himself.
The tiefling rushed over to help and Whisper cast small illusions around the druid to make it look like he was larger and more demon-esk, with thick, curling horns and a serpent tail. “Everyone else, hide in the cages,” Oszaren hissed, and Shale saw Keelan duck into the darkness with his crossbow aimed at the trapdoor.
Not a moment later, the thing was wrenched open and two faces peered down. “Well?” Came another voice. “Did you find them? What’s down there?”
Fillip was moaning and rustling in his chains, and Whisper’s illusions made it look like he was glowing. Then, some of the chains lifted and slithered over to the rope ladder.
“Well, what is it?” The first voice came again, and he shoved them aside to peer down. “What in the nine hells…?”
“I’m not going down there,” said one of the men. “Those red wizards were insane!”
“Hm,” the leader contemplated for a moment, clearly not wanting to go down by himself, “well,” he finally cleared his throat.
Then, the chains shot up toward the opening and the men screamed and scrambled back.
“Rezmir’s going to kill us if we don’t find them!” The other said in a panicked voice.
Reverence started chanting darkly in harsh, guttural tones, and with that, the trap door slammed shut.
“Put the crate over the door!” Another shouted.
“I’m not fucking doing anything!” The man whined, and they heard feet moving away.
They all breathed their relief. “We can’t rest any longer,” Oszaren said quietly. “We must move on.”
Reluctantly, Shale got to her feet, feeling every soreness fully. “We can’t go through the trap door,” she said, walking over to the grate and pulling out her thieves’ tools. “We’ll have to go through here.”
Suddenly, there was an ear-splitting roar of the white dragon, and Shale felt immediate dread as large, leathery wings beat through the air. The castle shook and the sounds of battle drifted to them from above. “Now what?” Fillip demanded, pulling free from the chains.
“Someone’s fighting up there.” They all stared up and heard another roar from the dragon.
The grate opened for Shale and she looked to her companions, her anxiety building. “I’m not going to survive this fight.” She said it with certainty.
“Don’t say that,” Keelan started to say as he helped the elf woman to her feet and put his shoulder under her arm.
Oszaren said gravely, “Perhaps none of us will.”
“Alright, no need to be grim,” Fillip insisted, pointing to the grate. “Why not scout ahead and see what we’re dealing with?”
Oszaren and Reverence crawled up into the tunnel and disappeared around the bend and the rest waited for a few tense minutes before they returned. “The storm has returned around the castle,” Oszaren informed them.
“Blagothkus?” Whisper asked, and the warlock nodded.
“The ogres—are fighting the cultists,” Reverence said.
Before they could bemoan the sudden ensuing battle, they heard another loud rumble from above. “C’mon,” Keelan said as he helped Aidra into the tunnel, “it’s not safe down here.”
It’s not safe anywhere, Shale thought, touching her breast pocket where she’d put the fox fur, then climbing in after Keelan.
They moved quickly through the icy tunnel to a set of rough-hewn stairs, which then turned into a set going straight up, and another going to a tunnel that sloped steadily downwards. As Shale tried to make sense of the castle’s interior, she thought perhaps the tunnel might lead to the underground cavern where she’d sensed the white dragon earlier. Whisper turned and sealed the path they’d taken with bricks of ice. Shale paused at the fork, seeing her companions run ahead of her and up the stairs toward the battle. With a sigh of finality, she followed, limping slightly.
They came up a landing near the wall and saw ogres on the towers, moving their ballista to point inwards, where a flock of wyverns and riders were flying about, picking off the potato-headed creatures one by one. There was clanging metal and steel where more ogres fought cultists on the ground, occasionally ducking out of the wyvern’s reaches. Nearby, two stone giants were swinging clubs at cultists. They couldn’t spot the white dragon for the swirling storm clouds thundering around the castle, obscuring half the courtyard. Shale looked but couldn’t see the tallest tower, where she knew Blagothkus must be with the castle controls.
There was a scream, and with a plunging horror, Shale saw Rezmir astride one of the wvyerns with her face covered in a large horned mask. She was flanked by two others and was pointing at where they’d emerged. “THERE THEY ARE!” the black half-dragon screamed triumphantly. “KILL THEM!”
“Here we go,” Keelan breathed.
Reverence turned to Aidra and handed her a spear. “Stay out of sight,” he warned her, and the elf nodded and ducked away as the rest of them ran to the top of the tower.
Shale drew her bow and hit one of the wyverns, then ducked under the stone palisade as they shot something back at her. Oszaren ducked next to her, having just shot green fire from his hands. “If you see the dragon, hide!” the warlock shouted at all of them as a ball of ice exploded next to Keelan. The paladin barely jumped out of the way.
Shale turned, heart thundering, and shot another arrow back at the cultist who’d just shot ice from their strange, magical orb. They had to find cover, but where? She saw Fillip controlling the lightning around the castle’s storm, sending it arching after Rezmir’s mount. Before Shale could find a place to run, the top of the tower was plunged into darkness. She couldn’t see her companions anymore, and she heard Rezmir laughing. “We have them now!” She shouted gleefully.
Shale could hear explosions as magic was shot from both sides, and she felt the ground on hands and knees, trying to find the stairs. If she could get off the tower, they wouldn’t be such a target. Near her, she heard Whisper shout to Keelan over the chaos. “Come on, fire boy! We’re going on a little trip.” There was a pop as Shale reached the edge of the darkness and stood.
She saw, as she turned back, the colossal body of the white dragon as it descended through the clouds and opened its maw. The world went cold as a blast of bluish-white energy shot from the creature’s mouth. Before she could jump for cover, she felt it hit, then felt nothing.
“It’s interesting, is it not?” The trickster asked vaguely, stroking his chin and looking bemused.
“Hardly the word I’d use for it,” the ranger demigod answered sadly.
“You agreed to it, Gwaeron,” the trickster said.
“I didn’t expect—”
“I know what you expected. It’s what we always expect. It’s what they expected of us when we were—ah—mortal.”
Gwaeron gave a half-smile. “I had hoped…” he started to say.
“We all do,” the trickster said with an understanding nod.
“Perhaps it’s cruel?” the ranger wondered aloud.
“Yes, well, it’s definitely cruel,” the trickster agreed, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.”
“She can be very strong,” the ranger reflected, “despite everything.”
The trickster didn’t answer.
“I wish I could do more, Baravar.”
Baravar glanced at the ranger’s smooth features and put a hand on their shoulder. “There are laws, friend.” Then, he squeezed the shoulder with the twitch of a smile. “But, oh, how I do love to break them.”
With a flash and a flutter of his black cloak, the trickster was gone. Probably to check on his ward. They were connected, though they didn’t know it yet. They had crossed paths once, briefly. Perhaps now, they would never meet. It was so often that way with fate.
Gwaeron watched sadly as the cultists overtook the ogres. The stone giants were falling to their demise, and souls shot into mist as each creature, on both sides, expired. Shale’s companions were losing.
Deep below the bowels of the earth, Gwaeron heard the pleased rumble of Tiamat, and felt dread at the coming storm.
“Fall back!” Oszaren shouted to Fillip, dragging Shale’s body unceremoniously down the tower stairs as three wyverns landed atop the tower, Rezmir in the lead. Reverence had fallen, and Fillip had run to grab him. Keelan and Whisper had transported across the courtyard and were fighting with the stone giants, but there was no way for the rest of them to get through that chaos. They were separated, surrounded, and losing ground. The battle, loud as it was, seemed to grow quieter every passing second despite the thundering storm overhead. The dragon had flown off for the moment, and Oszaren was desperate to get away from its icy breath.
Oszaren summoned his blade as he heard someone coming down the stairs, but saw, to his relief, that it was Fillip and the newly restored Reverence. They both looked seriously injured. Fillip, who was usually so put-together, was now in complete disarray. “They’re coming,” the druid panted, turning at the base of the stairs in preparation.
“WE’VE GOT A CHANCE!” A familiar, magically enhanced voice echoed over the courtyard. “I’M BRINGING THE CASTLE DOWN!”
“Blagothkus!” Fillip grinned in relief.
It was only then that Oszaren really noticed how Reverence looked. The tiefling’s orange skin had gone extremely pale and there were black tendrils following his veins, crawling up his neck and down his exposed arms. His eyes seemed darker, too, and there was something about—
The stone rumbled and they all glanced up, ready for a fight. “Shale, is she…?” Fillip asked uncertainly.
“I don’t know,” Oszaren said, glancing down at the dark-skinned ranger at his feet. Still keeping an eye on the stairs, knowing that at any second Rezmir and the cultists would come streaming down, he bent to administer a healing potion to Shale.
Then, Rezmir appeared, a cruel smile on her dragon-featured face beneath the black mask. “You can run no more,” she said, summoning her greatsword in a flash. “Kill them,” she ordered, and two cultists ran ahead of her.
Oszaren raised his sword, Reverence threw up his fists, and Fillip backed up, ready to transform. With a gasp, Shale awoke as the healing potion hit, and saw they were surrounded. She scrambled to her feet. She tried to reach for her blades but wasn’t quick enough. Rezmir saw the opportunity and, while the rest were distracted by her minions, slammed a large fist into her chest. Shale flew back and her head cracked against the stone wall. A moment later, Fillip was knocked down, his skin turning ashen as the necrotic energy of the blow took hold.
Whisper stood apart from Keelan. The paladin was slashing at two drakes while the second of the stone giants was overtaken by cultists. The tabaxi darted behind a doorway, shooting fire at any enemies who came too close. A voice in his head spoke in a harsh, rattling gasp. You can’t do this alone. REALEASE ME! Whisper fought to suppress the rage boiling within. No, the tabaxi hissed back, shooting another firebolt from his paw, killing one of the drakes. Keelan turned and gave him a nod of appreciation as he beheaded the second drake.
There was a rumble. The white dragon appeared again and landed on the wall. A thick bolt of lightning cracked and hit the dragon, and they heard a triumphant cry for Blagothkus’ tower. The dragon roared.
This is your only chance, the voice warned, and the overwhelming presence threatened to take over his mind. Whisper hissed again. NO. It pushed. He felt the heat rise in his chest, and suddenly, his ruby eye glowed red. Without understanding where his body was taking him, the tabaxi leapt four-legged from the doorway and streaked after Keelan. Giant flaming wings erupted from his back and took him into the air. He leapt over Keelan and dropped in front of the paladin, his paws flaring into white flames as he incinerated two cultists.
“You have wings?” Keelan asked, sounding impressed. Then, he took a startled step back as Whisper turned his glowing ruby eye on the paladin and the madness threatened to overtake him. “Whisper?” Keelan said uncertainly.
Let me in, the voice insisted.
Oszaren blocked Rezmir’s sword as it came down on his. The blades shuddered before he pushed her back. The half-dragon snarled as she circled him. “You’re the one,” she said in a dangerously low voice, then stepped in for another attack. Oszaren parried and jumped over Fillip’s body, shifting back to the stairs. The other two cultists were trying to surround Reverence, who was barely on his feet, but taunting them.
“Fight me—cowards,” the tiefling said, ducking under one of their angry slashes with a wicked grin.
Rezmir and Oszaren’s blades caught each other again and Oszaren felt a flash of pain and stumbled back, momentarily stunned by the feel of the blades revolting against the other. He looked up and saw Rezmir had stumbled as well, looking pained. “I knew they would send someone to kill me,” she sneered darkly.
Oszaren gripped the greatsword in both hands and stood a little straighter. “That’s what happens when you’re not worthy to wield that blade.”
Rezmir’s grin turned into a grimace. “I chose to serve the stronger god. Your queen is weak,” she spat. “LET ME SHOW YOU THE POWER OF MINE!” She raised her sword and jumped at him, and the blades collided again.
Whisper and Keelan both turned as a wyvern landed in front of them, screeching. The rider held up an orb, ready to strike, and they both managed to jump out of the way. Keelan brought his blade around and slashed at the wyvern’s neck. Whisper felt the strength of his mind ebbing as he backed away.
Oszaren fell back, grabbing at his chest where a fresh gash had sprouted. Rezmir stood over him. “I told you she was weak,” the half-dragon said, plunging the sword down.
Oszaren barely rolled out of the way as the sword scraped against stone. Breathing heavily, he glanced over to Reverence. The tiefling was just managing to keep the cultists occupied. He saw Fillip stir, and one of the cultists turned to the druid’s body and said, “Stay down!” The man thrust his sword into Fillip’s chest, and they all watched as the half-elf shuttered and died.
“Bastard!” Reverence roared, striking.
Oszaren turned back just in time to see Rezmir’s greatsword crashing down on him for a second blow.
Fillip felt a lurch as he left his body, a dull ache in his chest. There was a soaring sensation in the darkness, and suddenly he was looking into a pool of light. He glanced around, rubbing his chest. He felt something heavy drop into his hand, smooth like a stone. It was familiar. “Don’t leave me, Fillip!” A woman cried in agony. The fey sprite.
He felt a horrible pain, too. It was as though someone was cutting out his heart. He screamed out, gasping, but no air would come to his lungs. His head burned and he felt the stone in his hand shatter into a thousand pieces.
“DON’T DIE!” the sprite screamed. “Take some of my life, Fillip!”
Fillip screamed too and felt a horribly cold sensation as his soul was thrust back into his body. He sat up with a gasp. His body was glowing. He looked down at his hands, which had been bleeding before, and were now fully restored. The drifting memory of the fey sprite passed through him as he heard the dying echo of her voice, and he looked up to see Rezmir standing over Oszaren’s body. Next to him lay Shale. Reverence was barely on his feet, panting heavily as the inky blackness spread over his skin.
Fillip got to his feet and said, “Not today, BITCH.” Rezmir turned as he conjured a healing spirit over his friends, then turned on the spot and howled. The druid-direwolf pounced. Reverence turned in surprise at seeing his friend alive, and sent a stunning blow at the half-dragon, whose body went rigid only for a second before her mask glowed and she broke out.
The direwolf’s teeth wrapped around her bracer and forced her to drop her sword.
Whisper’s hackles raised, the flaming wings on his back quivering and bending to his side. Keelan backed up another step and held up his shield defensively. Whisper was readying to pounce. “Bad cat!” The paladin reprimanded, his sword dripping with the blood of the wyvern he’d just beheaded.
But Whisper only saw enemies. He bent, his whole body wriggling in anticipation.
The white dragon flew down and landed in the courtyard, shaking the ground, and released a mouthful of freezing air. Whisper turned to it and absorbed the ice, but when the tabaxi turned back, he saw Keelan had been hit with the full brunt of it. The paladin was frozen solid.
Rezmir threw up her darkness spell, and the tower room was suddenly gone. Fillip and Reverence shouted at each other, and the cultists shouted their confusion. “Kill them!” Rezmir screamed, not for the first time.
The men were scrambling through the darkness, trying to find their enemies. Meanwhile, Reverence and Fillip looked for the stairs. Shale awoke again in darkness and confusion and saw above her the floating, healing spirit that Fillip had cast. With a pained gasp, she got to her feet and tried to make sense of her surroundings.
Whisper turned his rage on the dragon and shot it with a firebolt. At the same moment, another crack of lightning shot down from the storming clouds in the courtyard and struck the dragon. It roared angrily and, with a cold puff of air, jumped a hundred feet across the dark courtyard and crawled into the caverns below. The dragon was done with the fight.
Whisper’s flaming wings unfurled as he turned on the spot, looking for the next enemy.
Shale could hear Rezmir. She drew her swords and slashed at the half-dragon and felt both blades hit solid flesh. Rezmir grunted and Shale heard, rather than saw, the sweeping greatsword as it came whistling through the air. She ducked swiftly and rolled away. When she got to her feet, she wasn’t sure which way to turn.
Then, Rezmir shouted in a pained voice. “Upstairs! Get upstairs!” There was a clamouring and some more pained noises as, with difficulty, they made for the stairs.
Shale tripped over something and felt a body. Oszaren’s body. She shook him. “Oszaren?” She whispered. “Fillip!” She called in the darkness.
Then, the darkness dropped. The room was empty except for the two of them, but Fillip’s healing spirit was still hovering across the room. With effort, Shale dragged Oszaren beneath it and saw the gash on his chest slowly knit together, leaving only the crack in the armour. His eyes fluttered open and assured that he was okay, she ran for the stairs after Rezmir.
Rezmir and the two cultists were running to mount their wyverns, but Reverence was trying to stun Rezmir’s beast while flitting around, avoiding its stinger. The tiefling had learned once what one of the stinger tails could do and was careful to avoid it a second time. Fillip, in his direwolf form, pounced and knocked over one of the cultists. The man screamed as the direwolf’s jaw locked around his throat, and he died in gargling gasps.
Shale stood at the top of the stairs and shot an arrow, which lodged itself in the other cultist’s calf as he tried to climb onto his saddle. The man slipped.
Whisper shook his head, desperate to clear it. The entity inside his brain was pushing against the bars. If he could only just shut it away, he might be able to banish it for good. His ruby eye was dimming as the tabaxi growled aloud. “No! I’m the master.” He turned and shot bolts of fire at a cultist who’d just landed in the courtyard with his wyvern. The man fell, and Whisper ran to mount the wyvern. The creature screeched angrily at him and whipped its neck around to attack. “Be at peace, sister,” Whisper said to it in draconic, which seemed to soothe the beast. Quickly, he leapt onto its back and slid into the saddle, tightening his legs around its scaly sides.
Oszaren ran up the stairs next to Shale and shot green fire at Rezmir. “Don’t let her get away!” He shouted angrily. The half-dragon grinned as she ducked under his shots and dug her heels into her wyvern, which unfurled its wings and readied itself to spring into the air.
The direwolf bit into its leg with a snarl. It screeched and stumbled and struck out with its tail. Fillip was batted aside. Reverence was sprinting toward her and Rezmir hit him with a ball of acid and threw him back. Black shadowy tendrils like the ones on Reverence’s skin drew up from the ground and raised Reverence to his feet. The tiefling’s eyes were very dark now, and Shale could feel something undead crawling inside him. She shot another arrow at Rezmir, who knocked it aside with her steel bracer. This time, unimpeded, the wyvern sprang up and took to the air.
Oszaren continued to shoot green fire angrily at her as she escaped.
The black tendrils shot from Reverence and wrapped around the wyvern’s legs, dragging it back as it struggled against the strain. The tiefling threw up his hands and a roaring ball of fire flew from them and hit Rezmir squarely in the back. There was a moment where it seemed the fire had done nothing. Then, the flames erupted over her and with a horrible, bellowing scream, the black half-dragon slumped dead in her wyvern’s saddle, then slid off its back and slammed into the ground thirty feet below. Shale and Oszaren ran to the wall and looked over, seeing Rezmir dead. Then, the tendrils let go of the wyvern, which careened toward the ground, and Reverence fell to his knees in exhaustion. “It’s done,” he said wearily.
The other two wyverns took off, their masters dead on the tower.
Shale ran to Fillip, whose unconscious form had turned back into a half-elf. She searched through his robes for a healing potion. She poured it down his throat, but it seemed to have no effect. “Fillip?” She shook him, felt for his heart. Felt it was still beating, but faintly.
Behind her, there was a loud screech and Shale felt a sudden pain, and fell to the stonework, unconscious again.
Oszaren shot down the wyvern that had appeared over the tower and spiked Shale with its stinger. He shot it down with green fire and it died on impact with the ground. Another flew past a second later, towards Reverence, the rider atop it brandishing a white orb.
Oszaren summoned his blade again and the steel ignited in green flame. The wyvern landed on the tower, and both it and the rider focused on the tiefling. At the same moment, Oszaren struck the wyvern with an exploding boom, and the wyvern snapped at Reverence, grasping onto the tiefling’s tail and whipping him around violently. It screeched and threw the tiefling as though he were nothing, turning its face now on Oszaren, who shot the rider with an eldritch blast and killed him instantly. The wyvern, seeing the flaming blade, screeched angrily and flew up, disappearing into the storming clouds. Oszaren breathed in the moment of relief, then ran to his unconscious companions.
Whisper slipped from the saddle of the wyvern and found himself kneeling on the ground. He frantically ripped the spellbook out of his bag and opened the pages. He could feel the entity, feel it like it was pounding against his skull. He tried to stuff it into the book. “This is where you came from,” the wizard panted, “now. Go. BACK!” He could feel the entity lashing out, fighting against him.
Will struggled against will, and Whisper felt it threatening to overtake him. “NO!” He said it in draconic.
The soul slithered into his mind, and his vision was tinged with red. A moment later, he felt two large paws gripping his. He looked down. The paws were black with glittering golden claws. The ethereal form raised in front of him. The black tabaxi looked at the tiger-striped one with a glimmer in its eyes. Its ears were tattered and clamped with silver and gold earrings. It had a rough, scarred look about it. “Whisper,” it said. “Hushed words of hate. Whisper, quiet secrets and lies. Whisper, soft sound before the kill. This is not you.”
The spirit faded as the entity pushed back, stronger than ever. He felt the paws leave his. One paw touched his forehead. “Breath. Whisper. Whisper, wind that rustles grass. Whisper, soft breath of life. Whisper, merry song of leaves. This is you. Remember you.” He tried to hold onto the voice, but he was slipping.
The figure faded and the spellbook burst into flames. Whisper’s vision turned wholly red as he lost himself.
“Keelan!” the tabaxi shouted as pain shot through his head. He wasn’t sure if the paladin was still frozen or not. The corpses of cultists, ogres, giants, and the black half-dragon littered the castle grounds as the thunderous storm continued to rumble overhead. The castle was now making its steep descent toward the ground far below, and Whisper was lost to the will of the entity inside him.