Sorry for the delay in updates. I’ve been busy writing for an anthology series. Also, football season is starting. And really, I don’t owe you people an ending to this story. You should be satisfied with what you’ve already gotten.
The group found the tomb at the foot of a cliff, where the beach met the limestone scarp. A dark opening in the stone beckoned the party. It was partially obscured by creepers and dangling foliage. Siv knew that if this entrance had not been used in millennia, it would have been completely grown over. Someone had come and gone from the tomb. And somewhat recently from the tracks she could see.
Upon entering, it was obvious that someone had been looting it. Ceremonial urns had been smashed and their contents taken. Pedestals that had clearly been designed to display objects of significance now laid bare. The group’s suspicions were confirmed. The leaders of Varnhold had found an ancient crypt filled with riches, and must have awoken whatever abomination had been entombed here.
The upper levels had been thoroughly plundered. The journey through the catacombs was largely uneventful. From the images on the walls, as well as other evidence they had found while searching for this place, it was becoming clear that the Nomen Heights had once been the site of a massive empire of Cyclopes. This structure was certainly built for creatures far larger than Humans or Elves.
The group eventually reached a room that they could not pass. All of the doors were sealed with no obvious mechanism for opening them. Siv enjoyed solving puzzles, but there was little to go on. Two stone statues sat facing each other on an alter. Each was shaped liked a demon that Siv could not identify. The Stone figures each held a bowl in their extended hands. A ceremonial dagger sat on each.
“I’ve seen alters like this before.” Amalie stated while focusing intently one of the stone statues.
Siv gave her a sideways look.
“With Kalatrina.” The wizard clarified. “I believe we need to fill these bowls with blood. And then…”
“And then what?” Asta asked, surely suspecting the same thing Siv was.
“Well, there are two possibilities. Either we use the torches here to boil the blood. Or…”
“We have to drink the blood.” Meric said while letting out an exasperated sigh. Amalie nodded.
Siv looked at the bowls. Each could hold a couple of pints of blood. More than one person could spare without healing.
“So how are we doing this? Short straw gets bled out on the demonic alter?” Siv asked playfully.
“The bigger question is, who has to drink the blood?” Dante added while summoning Virgil to his side.
“Let’s at least try to boil the blood first.” Asta suggested.
Dante led Virgil over to one of the bowls and grabbed the dagger.
“What are you doing?!?” Siv was incredulous. Meric and Asta looked at each other in silent shock.
“You’d rather we drain the blood from one of us?” Dante asked with surprise in his voice. He’s a horse Siv, as much as I love him, he’s not as valuable as person. I’ll heal him afterwards”
“Then heal yourself afterwards.”
“What if this ritual weakens the person whose blood is used? Or worse? Should we run into a fight against gods know what in a weakened state? Besides, if one of us has to drink the blood, would you rather it be human, or animal?”
This was rich. The paladin who was always insisting that the group do what was good, now butchering his own horse to spare himself potential pain.
Meric comforted Virgil as Dante opened a small wound in its side, above the bowl. Siv turned away in disgust for the rest of the Ritual. Before long, she could hear the sound of the blood boiling under the torches. A set of doors opened on the far side of the room. The group moved on in silence.
Exploration of the rooms beyond proved fruitful almost immediately. Laying on the ground, battered and malnourished, was a female centaur. Surely the one they were looking for.
“Xemanth?” Siv called out as she knelt beside the girl and put a hand on her side. There was no reaction.
“She’s been paralysed by magic.” Asta declared. “She won’t be able to move a muscle.”
Siv looked at Dante. “Did you memorize any Cure Paralysis spells today?” The paladin shook his head to indicate that he had not. “Neither did I. Damnit.”
Meric stepped in at this point. “We’ll have to come back for her. If we deal with whatever has done this to her, we can then safely cure her tomorrow.” Siv nodded in agreement, and spoke some comforting words to the centaur. They continued their march onward.A few corridors further and the group arrived in what appeared to be a massive dining hall. A large banquet table sat in the center of the room. It could easily seat 30 large humanoids. Seated there however, were dozens of humans. Their skulls had been bashed open. It was a gruesome sight to behold.
Siv examined the clothing of a nearby victim. It was typical of a commoner from Brevoy.
“We’ve found our first victims from Varnhold.” Siv noted.
The druid could see Meric head to the opposite side of the room. He grabbed a sword from the man who sat at the head of the table. Siv could see this man was dressed like a noble.
“This is Maeger Varn. I can tell by the inscription on his sword.” Meric stated as he observed the state of the man who he might have been, had the swordlords sent him into the Nomen Heights.
“What did this…” Dante’s question was not finished before the answer leapt from the shadows of the far hallway. Four undead Cyclopes attacked the party in an instant. The creatures were large, and attacked with little but brute force.
The party moved with an efficiency that only comes from experience fighting as a group. Meric unleashed fireballs while backing up to a safer distance. The fire temporarily illuminated the room enough for Siv to be able to make out every detail of the decaying forms of these cyclopes. Siv had only encountered the undead a handful of times, but in each incident, she was struck by how disgusting they smelled.
Dante attacked the nearest cyclops to his position. With one blow, he broke the creature’s left leg, bringing it to one knee. With his second attack, he struck it in the mid section, sending it sprawling to the ground. With his third attack, he pulled his hammer back high above his head, and brought it down on the creature’s skull.
Skyyd pounced on a different cyclops. The tiger tore, bit and rended it into pieces. Siv and Ali attacked the fourth Cyclops with a myriad of spells.The battle was soon over. Siv attempted to put together the pieces of this puzzle.
“So something down here is raising cyclops corpses from the dead. Why?”
“Raising zombie undead like this requires acting before the creature has decayed too much. Thses cyclopes must have been raised ages ago when their empire still existed.” Asta explained.
“None of this explains why we saw no signs of struggle in Varnhold.” Meric observed. “Let’s keep moving. We are getting close to the answer.”
The group continued on. They eventually reached a chamber that stretched forward into darkness. A channel of sulfurous water ran down the center of the chamber into a placid pool tinged in red and surrounded by kneeling forms. Nearby sat a small stone shrine decorated with several freshly severed human heads. Just beyond this grisly altar, a hideous throne made of bones loomed above the pool.
A voice could be heard echoing through the room.
“So far the world has fallen, that insignificant beings such as you should presume to rule over these lands. You, who cowered in caves, using tools made of stone and wood, while my people built the mightiest civilization the world has ever known. I will rebuild our empire atop your tiny corpses.”
Siv scanned every direction, attempting to discern where the voice was coming from.
Meric felt his entire body go cold and limp, as a sharp pain spread outward from his back. At first he thought he had been stabbed, but as he fell to the floor violently and was unable to bring his arms up to brace himself, he realized he had been hit with a paralysis spell.
His head came to rest on its side, facing his companions. They all turned to face Meric’s attacker. Their expressions did not inspire confidence that his friends would be able to swiftly dispatch their foe. He felt hands grab his shoulders as his body began to slide away from what would soon be a combat zone. It must have been Bishop, as she was the only one he could not see. How could a girl so small drag a full grown man in armor?
The thought was interrupted by Meric’s terror at seeing his assailant. A lich. A Cyclopean lich.
Skyyd and Barry pounced on him, but it was soon apparent that the lich’s flesh was resistant to their claws and teeth. Spells began to fly in all directions. Despite the situation, Em’s magical cackling left Meric unsettled. He hadn’t noticed just how creepy it was in their previous fights. It was likely because he had been so focused on the battles at hand. Now he was merely a spectator.
Without the ability to turn his head, he had only a partial picture of how the battle was unfolding. His sense was that the group was doing poorly. Dante was the only one who could consistently hurt the fiend. His smiting attacks tore deep with each blow. Ali and Siv unloaded everything in their arsenals, but this was a lich, by all rights the group should be dead already. Meric wonder if it was toying with them.
The lich unleashed a wave of negative energy. It healed the undead monster, and wounded all of the living beings in the room. Meric was an exception only in that he could not cry out in pain when it struck him. Bishop scrambled to move him further away from the battle, but she could only drag him so fast. A large attack from the lich might kill him. Meric suddenly thought of his grandfather’s signet ring, and realized that his death was exactly what the group needed. He desperately tried to tell Bishop to stop, but his lips would not move.
She pulled him out into a nearby hallway, but it offered no respite from the next attack of negative energy the lich unleashed. The grunts and cries of pain from the group echoed through the chamber. Even Bishop let out a pained wince. Em fell to the ground in view of Meric. Her body was lifeless. He was sure she was dead. They were running out of time. He could only hope the lich’s next attack would finish him off, and that his understanding of the contingency spell was correct.
The lich suddenly charge into the hallway, seemingly fleeing from Dante. The paladin continued to crush the lich under the power of smite after smite. The lich cast a fireball that headed directly for Meric and Bishop. He could hear his body guard tumble out of its path. If he could move, a smirk would have crossed his face.
Meric floated for an indeterminate length of time. None of his senses detected any stimuli at all. There was no color, no sound, no odor, no vibration. He couldn’t even feel the pain of his wounds. His thoughts were crowded and unfocused. There was something he had forgotten. Something he must do. What was it?
Eventually he felt heat coming from his hand. It spread quickly across his entire body. Then other sensations followed. There was a cold, hard surface under his back. There were sounds of chaos and fury in front of him. And a name suddenly appeared in his mind.
“Your Grace!” Bishop shouted in pure joy. “I was sure you were dead.”
“I was.” Meric replied, still a bit groggy. He looked down at his signet ring. It no longer radiated magic.
Asta cradled her sister’s body nearby. She was upset, but still holding it together. Skyyd walked up to Asta with his head hanging low. He nudged Em’s hand repeatedly with his head. Siv reassured Asta that the group would have her restored to life as soon as they could go to Brevoy, where such magic could be found. Asta nodded while fighting back tears. They placed Em on Skyyd’s back. The tiger carried her with great care.
Meric stood and appraised their situation. There were plenty of wounds, but he and Em had been the only two casualties. The group wandered deeper into the lich’s sanctum, and managed to find his phylactery. They destroyed it immediately. They eventually reached a room full of large clay jars that radiated magic. Dante verified that they also radiated evil.
Asta approached one of the jars and placed a hand on it.
“There is someone alive in here. I can hear his thoughts.”
Meric peered closer at the jar. “It’s a soul jar.” He stated in astonishment.
His friends gave him confused look. “My grandfather told me about them. Infernalists use them to trap the souls of people for trade. Souls are currency in the lower planes. There are also a number of other uses for souls to an unethical wizard.” He explained.
“How do we free them?” Asta asked.
“If I remember correctly…” Meric removed the lid from a nearby jar. He tipped it over and allowed it to shatter on the floor. A cloud of mist that was released from the jar, quickly materialized into a man. “…like that.”
“Oh good. You just break them. We’re good at breaking things.” Siv quipped.
They rapidly began to free the others from all 42 soul jars. From the materials that could be found in this room, it was apparent that there had originally been far more than 42 jars. Likely hundreds. Meric surmised that Vordakai had either consumed their souls already, or had used them for trade. It was a tragedy, but saving even just these 42, and preventing a lich from engaging in further slaughter was an amazing achievement. The survivors were extremely grateful. They began to explain that several weeks ago, they had all simultaneously felt an un-resistible compulsion to leave their homes and march out into the open. Some could remember the moment when they touched the jars that had entrapped them. Meric was unaware of any compulsion spell that could affect an entire city at once.
Dante had searched the lich’s corpse and brought a clear crystal sphere to the group. It contained a pinpoint of flickering red light at its center. Meric could sense that it radiated powerful magic.
“This was in his eye socket instead of an eye. I don’t know how he could even see us. It’s strange, it shrank when I grabbed it. And it’s warm to the touch.” The paladin stated.
Meric could see a look of confusion hit Dante. Without warning, Dante reach towards his own face and plucked out his left eye with one swift motion. Those present in the room gasped in horror. The paladin then moved to place the crystal in the empty socket. Meric grabbed his arm while Siv helped wrestle him to the ground. They forced Dante to release it, and Meric swiftly placed it in a bag of holding without ever directly touching it.
Siv quickly healed Dante’s eye.
“I don’t know why I did that.” Dante managed to grunt out through the pain.
“This artifact I suspect. We’ll research it in detail later. Until then, no one touches it. Gods know what would have happened if you had actually gotten that thing into your eye socket.” Meric stated.
Asta was now sorting through the other magical items that had been found in the chamber. She quickly discovered a portable hole. Meric walked over as she reached into it and pulled out another soul jar. This one looked different. It was ornately decorated. He put a hand on it and could sense the thoughts of a child. They quickly emptied the contents of the hole, discovering another 54 ornate soul jars. All contained children. The party freed them, and led all of the survivors out of Vordakai’s tomb.
“So mortal children are completely helpless for the first several years of their lives?” Em asked in disbelief.
Asta nodded at her sister as she continued watching the orphaned children that had been rescued from Vordakai’s tomb, while they played in the park.
“So they are essentially parasites? Leeching off of others for nearly two decades?” Em was having some difficulty accepting this concept.
“I’m not sure that’s the best analogy. Haven’t you encountered children before?” Asta replied.
“A few, but I never assumed them to be so incapable. Some of the smallest fey are among the most powerful. I wouldn’t have naturally associated their small size with incompetence.”
“You know, you were a child once too.”
“Why do mortals tolerate this condition? Have there been no magical efforts made to accelerate the maturation process?”
Asta could only laugh in response. She and Em were getting along much better these days. Ever since Em had been raised from the dead several weeks before. The experience seemed to humble the witch a bit. And Asta found herself appreciating some of the quirks of her sister’s personality that she had once found irritating.
Asta was spending most of her time at the make shift orphanage that had been setup upon the group’s return to Stag’s End. These children had been plucked from all over Avistan. Many were too young to even understand where they were from. Many others had been orphans before they had been taken by Vordakai. Each possessed innate magical talents made their souls particularly potent and valuable. Vordakai must have been gathering them for some weeks.
Each had the potential to be a potent wizard or sorcerer. However none of them had received any formal training. Asta wouldn’t allow them to be thrown into the world unprepared to fend for themselves as she had been.
“Yes, I’m quite certain that I don’t like children.” Em affirmed.
“Well I guess I shouldn’t ask you to be a teacher at the arcane school I’m going to be setting up for these kids then. But I’m going to anyway.” Asta gave her sister a smile.
Em sighed. “You are hopelessly sentimental.”
“Is that a yes?”
“What do you have to gain from this?”
“It’s not always about gaining Em. Don’t you want to give these kids a better start than we were given?”
“People don’t appreciate things that they are given as much as things that they earn for themselves. Our difficult childhoods have left us immensely capable. You would deprive them of all they could learn on their own.”
“Both of us are lucky to still be alive. And neither of us got through it on our own. Father’s actions in giving me Skyyd are the only reason I’ve made it this far. And despite all of her…quirks, the Green Mother protected you through your most vulnerable years. These kids need help. And I can’t think of anyone more qualified than us.”
Em let out another sigh. “Will I have to speak to them?”
“A great deal I’m afraid.”
“And where will we be building this academy?”
“Don’t worry. I know just the place.”