Stoyan stepped through first, the light of his torch coupled with the magical light of Cyrxx and Alaiya, showing the stairs cutting back underneath the tomb. Bringing up the rear was Elias, who calmly kept a close eye on their retreat, making sure nothing followed them down.
They winded and twisted for hours beneath the Temple of Pelor as they descended further into the heart of the Kaliois. Elias, who had a good sense of direction, figured that, despite all of the twists and turns, they had traveled primarily north, north-east. As they marched on, Elias became fascinated with the mineral composition of the rock, picking out small minerals from the wall and stuffing them into pouches, mumbling nonsense to the others about ‘ratios’ and ‘covalence’.
During these periods of collection, the Artificer noticed a liquid, a dark watery substance, seeping through the rock face. He ran his hand gently across the surface and the substance was easily brushed away. Intrigued, he began to notice that the further they continued traveling, the thicker and more viscous the substance became. At one point, Elias completely covered his right hand in the liquid to study it as they traveled, even depositing a portion of the compound into a vial for later analyzing.
Eventually the path began to level out and widen, giving Stoyan a reprieve from the narrowness. Before long, the companions found themselves within a rounded dead-end. All around them, Elias noticed the dark liquid emerging from the walls, not from cracks in the rock, but from the wall itself. It was darker here, and thicker than he had noticed before. But that was not the most impressive sight. Ahead of them, carved into the wall, were five symbols, arranged in a pentagonal formation. In the middle of the formation was a slit, no more than a few inches wide and barely an inch high. Near the corners of the wall were engraved four symbols, none of which Elias had ever seen before. However, the only person who seemed visibly disturbed by the sight was Stoyan.
“It…it’s the same feeling.” The Paladin turned to Cyrxx and Alaiya, a look of worry in his eyes. “From the temple; I sense the same divine power.” Pointing to the symbols in the corners, Stoyan’s voice rose, fear distinctly audible. “Those…are the same symbols as the one from the temple beneath Fareen.”
Cyrxx scoffed cynically as he approached the wall, “I don’t feel anything. Last time, we could. How about you, Gregor, you feel something?” Gregor spun around and shook itself, its eyes dimming slightly. “See, Gregor says no; hmmm…these do appear to be the same.” Looking closer, Cyrxx traced his fingers over the wall. “How about you, Allie, feel anything?”
Alaiya shook her head as well, drawing a look of dissatisfaction from Stoyan. The Paladin turned back to the wall and continued to examine it.
“Hey, there’s something written here!”
Beneath the pentagonal formation were written words in the Common tongue:
“When all become one, the way shall be revealed.”
“What does that mean?” Stoyan ran is hand over the symbols and, as he did, he felt a comforting presence emanating from the slit in the middle. “And this, it looks like it would hold a sword.”
By now, Cyrxx was inspecting the lower symbols of the pentagon. Focusing on the lower left symbol, he held his hand over it and let loose an illusionary spell. The symbol radiated a deep violet before slowly fading. Elias, picking up on Cyrxx’s idea, approached the wall and held up an alchemic tool. Twisting a few protrusions on it, a burst of cold magick hit the wall. The symbol above the violet one turned a solid blue before fading back to its original stone grey color.
“Well, there’s two down,” stated Cyrxx proudly. “Now to figure out the others.”
Over the next hour, through a mixture of delicate potion application and magick, the group was able to decipher the requirements for the five pentagonal symbols. However, no matter what they tried, they were unable to move past the wall. Out of options, they returned back to the tomb where they had destroyed the skeleton of the Paladin. Looking around the tomb, Stoyan finally found what he was searching for. Grabbing the Paladin’s longsword, the one from the statue that had been used to open the passageway initially, he, and the others, turned back and began the two-hour trek once more. Then, before the wall, Stoyan placed the weapon in the slit as the others, through the mixture of Elias’s potions and magick, activated the symbols. Nothing happened.
“Maybe,” stated Elias, “you need to use a divine weapon. Can’t you bless it or something?”
Stoyan looked at the Gnome, unsure of how to respond. “I only am granted one favor from Tempus a day. What if it doesn’t work? It would-.” He stopped as an idea struck him. “Maybe I can channel my own divine power into the weapon!”
Setting up everyone again, Stoyan channeled his divinity, though small, into his blade as the others triggered the symbols. Briefly, the slit in the middle glowed with a fight, pure white light, before fading back into stone.
“Seems you’re on the right track there, Paladin.” Elias’s words were encouraging, but Stoyan caught the underlying message.
Reluctantly, Stoyan called upon the favor of Tempus, imbuing the blade with a massive amount of divine power that it illuminated the entire area. Cyrxx and the others had to shield their eyes from the brightness, not being used to such power. As Stoyan slid the blade into the wall, the center of the pentagon shone strongly. As the symbols were triggered simultaneously, they shifted, whirling in an array of colors as they circled the blade, rotating faster and faster. As the speed increased, the five symbols began to be pulled into the center of the wall, finally coalescing upon the blade. In a bright, multi-colored display of light, the four symbols in the corners of the wall began to rotate and retreat into the stone sides of the tunnel, taking portions of the wall with them. When the light had suddenly faded, all that remained was an open passageway.
The group had not walked more than fifteen minutes since the wall when they reached the end of the tunnel. Before loomed a large cavernous opening within the bowels of the mountain in which they traveled. Massive granitic stalactites hung overhead, threatening the pierce the companions if they mocked the overseers of this place. As they surveyed the terrain before them, they noticed, high above, a single light shone through the mountain. The light, catching specks of dust and debris in its path, streaked to the cavern’s base, and fell among a patch of lush green vegetation.
“Looks like we won’t be using that as a way out,” commented Stoyan, as he assessed the steeply slanting interior rock face. “Let’s press on. I’ve a bad feeling about this place.”
As the companions worked their way closer to the cavern floor via a series of switchbacks, they noticed piles of rubble scattered about. Large massive boulders lay imbedded in the ground, smaller chunks of rock littered around it like worshipers to a god. There was no rhyme or reason to the boulders, each person thinking where remnants of broken stalactites or stalagmites.
Focused on the source of light trickling in through the cavern’s ceiling, they began to notice that there was a distinct substance surrounding it. As they got closer it became more apparent that it was not rock in origin, and it possessed a thick green color.
“Vernalbloom,” remarked Stoyan as they set foot at the base of the cavern. “We’ve finally found it!”
Surrounding the light was a lush and vibrant outcropping of moss, rich in various hues of green. Throughout the large patch were buds, various in their colors as well – reds, blues, yellows, oranges. Elias was the first to notice and draw attention to the bare central portion of the blanket moss. Plucking a blue bulb from the edge of the outcropping, he delicately stepped through the vernalbloom toward the center. He held his fist in the light and opened it slowly, exposing the blue bulb he was holding to the light. Almost immediately it began to shrivel and crack before it turned to dust in his palm.
“As I suspected,” he muttered aloud. He dropped the dusty remains and they fluttered lightly to the rock at his feet. “We need to be careful with this. Direct sunlight will destroy any sample it touches.”
“Why don’t we just take a whole bunch then, to lessen the risk?” asked Stoyan, paying no mind to where he stepped as he moved through the moss. The soft squish of buds could be heard with every one of his steps.
“Stop you idiot and watch where you’re going! You’ll destroy the plant if you aren’t careful!” Elias shooed the Paladin out of the vernalbloom with urgency. “Remember your promise to Orcen, Stoyan? The one where you said you’d only take what was necessary? I don’t think betraying his generosity would be wise.” He rummaged through his pouches and backpack as he spoke, “Besides, I only have the capability to transport one or two fresh samples.” He pulled out two small containers and set them next to his feet. “Now, we need a full, fresh sample to preserve as long as possible.”
Before long, Elias had uprooted two samples of vernalbloom, complete with the surrounding moss and the rock upon which it grew, being careful to keep out of the sunlight. Wrapping the containers in a cloth covering, he placed on gently in the bottom of his pack and gave the second to Alaiya, despite Stoyan’s insistence at holding on to one.
As Elias and the others were preparing to leave, a huge cloud burst inside the cavern. Green and yellow in color, it was sulfuric in smell and instantly made everyone gag. Elias, caught in the middle of the cloud, began to feel his lungs seer in pain with each breath. As he struggled to get clear of the cloud, the light within the cavern suddenly vanished, only to reappear a few moments later. Looking up, Elias spied a shadow raving across the walls of the cavern, but could not see what was making it. “Shadow magick?” he asked himself, but then his question was answered as a Black Dragon dropped from the hidden recesses of the cavern’s ceiling and hovered before the companions.
Greenish-yellow froth dribbled out from between its fangs, its red eyes staring menacingly at the defilers of its home. Gusts of wind burst forth with each beat of its massive wings, sending small particles of dust into everyone’s eyes, forcing them to raise their arms as shields. Its body even seemed to move and sway with its movements, its scales merging into one another like colors on an artist’s palette.
Stoyan, still standing in the clearing in the middle of the vernalbloom, was the first to raise arms against the beast. The dragon roared in mutual challenge and shot forward, snapping viscously at the Paladin who managed to guard against most of the attack. Suddenly a huge chasm opened up beneath the dragon. Stoyan recognized the spell immediately and rolled backwards, both away from the beast and out of the vernalbloom. The dragon raged as shadows sprung out of the chasm and wrapped themselves around the creature’s limbs and pulled it forcefully to the ground. It landed with a thud in the middle of the vernalbloom, on the small clearing where Stoyan had just been standing. The light trickling in from above caught the beast’s scales, revealing what appeared to be the source of the black ooze they had seen earlier. As the dragon thrashed beneath Cyrxx’s shadows, droplets of black ooze fell from its body, landing on the rock.
“Cyrxx,” yelled Elias, “you need to release it! If that stuff lands on the vernalbloom, we’ll lose the plant forever!”
As the shadow constraints disappeared, the Black Dragon took to the air once more, searching for the largest threat. Stoyan made the decision for the beast. Slashing through the air, the Paladin’s blade tore through the cartilage of the left wing, bring the beast back down to the floor of the cavern.
“That’s right, buddy!” Stoyan yelled, “I’m right here!” He banged his longsword against his shield, sending a clanging sound throughout the cavern and drawing both the dragon’s attention and ire. Stoyan could not help but smile at his great fortune.
The dragon roared at Stoyan, froth splattering on the ground, small puffs of steam rising from the acidic concoction as it melted into the rock. Rising on its hind quarters it lunged forward, completely focused on the Paladin. Alaiya, Cyrxx, and Elias pelted the dragon with their magick, a mixture of cold frost, twisting shadows, and orbs of light erupting from all directions.
The dragon, slow due its size, proved an easy target on the ground, but it was no less ruthless. Countless attacks pestered the Paladin, a combination of claws, fangs, and tail forcing Stoyan into a defensive stance. The only true openings Stoyan got were when the beast spewed its acidic gas. With its neck outstretched, Stoyan could quickly slide around and strike the exposed flesh, but it was not without consequence. Taking the brunt of the acid attacks was damaging his armor and the few parts of his arms and legs that were exposed blistered and bubbled with sores. It had gotten to a point to where he could not even feel the pain anymore, which aided in maintaining his focus.
Together, they had managed to withstand the might of the Black Dragon, severely wounding the beast to the point where they could notice its movements become sluggish. Its attacks were not as rapid and it ceased with its breath attacks, likely from the damage of Stoyan’s blade on its neck. The companions could sense victory. Hope gave them strength as they pulled on all of their inner reserves.
And then, thinking victory was assured, Stoyan lowered his guard.
The Black Dragon seized the opportunity, lashing out with its maw and clamped its jaws around the Paladin, its fangs piercing the armor with ease. A soft whimper escaped the Paladin’s lips as he was tossed to the ground, left upon the ground, blood pooling around him from the massive wounds in his torso. The shock of the attack resonated throughout the cavern as the dragon continued, wheeling around with alarming speed and pouncing on Cyrxx. The Wizard was instantly crushed beneath the beast’s claws, its talons tearing through the supple fabrics and flesh of the Gnome. In a mere instant, the tides of the battle had turned.
Elias assessed the situation as fast as he could. “The dragon is injured, possibly critically, but there is so little knowledge on them…” He looked at the gaping wound in the dragon’s neck, its blood spilling out and mixing with the black ooze on the floor of the cavern. “If we focus our attacks where Stoyan has weakened it, maybe we can beat this thing!” He looked back to Stoyan and Cyrxx. Neither moved and the blood continued to flow. “They don’t have much time. They need help, but–.”
Just then, the dragon charged across the cavern towards Alaiya, its head pulled back, ready to strike. Elias reacted as fast as he could, barely able to launch himself in front of the Sorceress as the Black Dragon bit down. Elias screamed in agony as the fangs shredded his tunic and broke his collarbone and shoulder blade.
“Alaiya, run!” ordered Elias, as he struggled for his weapon. “Use your spells and focus on its neck – the wound where Stoy – ARGH!!!”
Alaiya ran, looking for the wound on the neck of the dragon. As the beast let the body of Elias fall from its jaw, she noticed it, a spot where Stoyan had broken through the scaled skin and exposed its flesh. As Alaiya gathered her magick into a spell, the dragon broke for her. She launched prematurely, her spell missing its mark, but slowing down the beast enough for her to get away. As the pursuit continued, Alaiya maintained attacking hoping that one would hit the mark and finish the dragon off. However, she could never get a clear shot on the neck.
Alaiya stopped and turned to face the dragon. As she tried to steady her racing heart, she seemed to accept her fate. The dragon sensed this resignation as well, its red eyes flickering with a vileness only known among dragon-kind. A tongue, greenish-yellow lashed out of its mouth like a whip as the beast eyed its final victim. Alaiya, a defiant stare in her eyes, held the dragon’s gaze as she prepared for the end.
The dragon struck fast, its head cutting through the air with deadly accuracy. But Alaiya’s movements had already happened. As the Black Dragon’s jaws clamped down to crush the Sorceress, they caught nothing but air, Alaiya having rolled underneath the bite attack. She popped up and made for the opening in the creature’s neck and, finding it quickly, placed both hands near the opening. The spell had already been prepared and Alaiya released a massive orb of energy into the gaping wound. As she buried her magick deep into the dragon’s neck, the beast bellowed. Its body quivered as the magick tore through its flesh resulting in a deafening roar echoing throughout the entire cavern.
It soon fell deadly silent, the great magical beast finally vanquished. Alaiya stood there, amazed at what she had done, when she heard a groan from behind her. Remembering the others, she rushed to Elias’s side, turning him over gently. He smiled at her, his blond hair matted to his forehead in a mixture of blood and sweat.
“Vernal…bloom…,” he managed with a slight gesture to the moss. “Eat…bud…”
Alaiya understood immediately, plucking four buds of vernalbloom from the moss. She wept as she forced a bud into Elias’s mouth. Not knowing if it would work on the others, but unwillingly not to try, she hurried to both Cyrxx and Stoyan and force fed them buds as well. Then she ate the fourth and waited.
A soft blue glow radiated around Elias’s body as the potent healing herb coursed through the Gnome’s body, speeding up the body’s natural regeneration rate beyond what even a healer’s magick could. Alaiya could only watch, speechless, as Elias slowly stood. Turning to see if Cyrxx and Stoyan were undergoing similar changes, she saw both enveloped in a pale yellow light. Once the light faded, they both began to stir, and slowly rose to their feet.
“So, I think it goes without saying, that little Allie here saved the day!” Cyrxx strode over and gave her a hug, the combination of his compliment and affection causing Alaiya to blush. “Gregor says that’s a face, and,” he paused and turned up at the floating skull, his demeanor suddenly getting dark, “he says it would be wise in case that wasn’t the only one.”
The ominous foreboding struck everyone to the core. Everyone knew Gregor was essentially Cyrxx, but the two personalities differed so much at times, that it was not hard to believe there was some other force speaking to the Wizard. This was one of those times.
Stoyan gathered up his belongings first before heading back up the switchbacks that had led down to the cavern floor. He had spent the last hour fixing what little he could of his armor in a brooding silence that no one dared to interrupt. Where he should have been happy to finally possess the cure for Veth, something about the dragon had disturbed him.
The others followed suit, though no one noticed Elias slip away toward the carcass of the Black Dragon. Likewise, no one realized he had collected two vials of pure dragon’s blood until he had returned, his clothing reeking of acid.
“Ugh, what’s that vile smell?” Cyrxx covered his nose and held back a forced gag. “Reminds me of Ottinal’s cooking.”
“Oh, that? Probably me there, Cyrxx. Needed to, uh, procure some fresh samples of that dragon’s blood. Not too often you come across such resources.” Elias had a massive grin on his face as he headed over to his backpack. “Now,” he said gesturing to his pack with his feet, “if someone would be so kind as to put this on my back. Seems my arms have become rather…indisposed in the pursuit of greatness.”
Following a frantic flurry of questions, Elias assured everyone his arms were alright, merely subdued by the black goo that had been coating the dragon, a similar but more potent version of the stuff from the walls of the cavern they had encountered on their way down. It was from this that the common sense of Alaiya took over.
Not wanting to risk a corruption of the last outcropping of vernalbloom, the same substance that had saved the lived of her friends, she risked approaching the carcass of the dragon, carefully avoiding the puddles of blood and ooze. Positioning herself between the moss and the beast, she conjured a force spell, hoping the shockwave would slide the dragon’s carcass far enough away as to not risk corrupting the moss. It took two solid spells to move the body against the wall, but eventually Alaiya was content enough that she had done all she could. Rejoining the others, they walked out of the cavern, hoping to leave the temple of Pelor and return quickly to Veth in Fareen.