Over four hours had passed before they began seeing the intricately carved statues of the temple once more. Darkness streamed in to the tunnel from outside, the moon hidden as though it were mourning. The only light was that of Cyrxx and Alaiya’s magick, and even that did little to comfort against the still of the night. It was this absence of light that worried Stoyan as they approached the entrance.
“I don’t like this.” Cyrxx had had an uneasy feeling since they reentered the temple, and it only grew the closer they got to the exit. “There’s a foul stench in the air.”
“Hold,” Stoyan demanded with a whisper. “Mages, lessen the light.” As they did, he turned back to the others and motioned them closer. “We are near the end, are we not?” The others nodded. “And this place is guarded by four Paladins of Pelor, is it not?” They nodded again, slightly confused at his line of questioning. “Then why is it we do not hear them, or see their torches? I have had a disturbing feeling about this place for a while now –.”
“Before or after the flying skull, skeleton, and black dragon?” offered Elias with a chuckle, though it did little to lessen the tension.
“They could be on a patrol,” said Cyrxx trying to reassure himself. “Or even gathering supplies, or resting. It is night time after all. Regardless, I don’t think we should disturb them. Let’s try the tunnel we past a while back.”
Stoyan dismissed the comment and continued. “We’re going to take this slowly, ok? Until we can be sure.”
“That you’re an idiot,” muttered Cyrxx, but he said it well beneath his breath that no one heard.
As the group approached the temple’s entrance cautiously, the first signs that something was amiss appeared on the left side, just inside the entrance. A pool of blood and a tip of a blade were visible just within the radius of the light. Not wanting to draw more attention to themselves, they lessened their light even more.
“We need to know what happened,” commanded Stoyan, his voice stern. “Someone needs to go out there and find out what happened to the Paladins. We need to know what’s out there.”
The others looked around, fear growing in the eyes. Cyrxx turned to Stoyan and spoke their collective thoughts. “Well, have fun.”
The Paladin looked taken aback by their apprehensiveness to assess the situation, clearly not seeing what he saw. “Me? They’ll see and hear me coming the second I take a step. There’s no way I could do it.”
Cyrxx thought her heard a twinge of fear in the man’s voice, which did not subdue his own growing concerns. “But you have the best chance of survival. You want to send one of us out there? Elias can’t use his arms, I’m a pin-cushion, though a fine-looking one, and Alaiya’s, well she’s Alaiya.”
The crack of Alaiya’s hand on the back of Cyrxx head reverberated off the walls of the temple. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” Cyrxx winced in pain in the pale light beneath harshness of Alaiya’s interrogatory tone.
Stoyan shook his head and the pettiness before them. “Stop it you two!” A brief silence told Stoyan they were giving him their undue attention, so he continued. “I know if it was a fighting situation, I’d be the best bet, but there’s something wrong here. We need stealth, someone who can stay out of sight and see without being seen. That isn’t me. We need one of you to go.”
“Was the body the big indicator that something was wrong? And do we look like rogues to you? We’re mages! We toil in magick, Stoyan. We are not made for shadows and sneaking. And if we were supposed to be, we’d have a spell.” Cyrxx was adamant in his stance. Gregor nodded above, approvingly. “And what happens if we get seen, or caught? You have the best chance of survival.”
“The idea here is to not get caught, you fool!” And I’m not walking into a trap we know is there without knowing what we’re up against.”
“Then you risk your neck!”
“Ugh!” Alaiya’s frustration at the two squabbling men had irritated her long enough. “I’ll do it!” But as soon as she started forward, a hand grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She turned to scowl at Cyrxx, but no one was there.
“Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” Cyrxx was muttering to himself as he slowly made his way out of the temple, his body pushed against the walls, the light bending around his body as his Moonstride spell took effect. “Should’ve been the Paladin…”
Nearly thirty minutes had passed and the moon had still not graced the night sky. Stoyan was growing impatient, and dark thoughts of Cyrxx’s abandonment toyed with him. The sword in the blood had not moved since they had arrived, but they were not going to tempt fate and see what was attached to the sword, not until Cyrxx returned.
“I’m going to look for him. This is ridiculous. How long does it take to scout, anyway?” Stoyan stood up and started moving toward the entrance. As he neared the edge of the light, a hand grabbed his and pulled him backward.
“Stop you idiot!” It was Cyrxx’s voice.
“You’re back!” exclaimed Stoyan, relieved he had returned but annoyed it had taken so long. “What did you find? What’s out there?”
“No one. Nothing.” Cyrxx’s voice was cold and distant. “They’re dead.”
“Dunno, but there were bodies. Four, counting the one here.”
“Is it the Paladins of Pelor? Did you see them?”
“No!” Cyrxx voice became agitated and angry. “I wasn’t going to poke around! The dead should stay that way, undisturbed. Remember, you just wanted to know, right? Well, I can tell you. There is nothing out there but bodies.”
Stoyan swallowed this information bitterly. “Then we should wait for daybreak. Then we can see for ourselves.”
“Fool! Death waits for us out there! Bah,” Cyrxx threw his arms up in the air, frustrated, “You never listen. Fine, get some sleep only to wake before we sleep again.” With that, he returned to the others.
They did not sleep that night. Having retreated further into the temple, they needed only to wait two hours until dawn, and they most spent it fretting about what had happened to the Paladins, wondering what would happen if they managed to survive. Finally, though, the sun crested and chased the night away as punishment. As they returned to the entrance of the temple, they noticed no one outside. More disturbing was that the sword and whatever body had caused the pool of blood at the entrance had disappeared. However, the pool of blood remained.
“Where…where is the body?” Elias was more curious than scared. His fingers twitched as he neared the blood, eager to get a sample to test. He still could not move his arms, but was slowly regaining motor functions.
No one answered the Artificer, though the group hung to the sides of the temple entrance. Cautiously, they peered out and they saw another pool of blood soaking the clearing to the west and another southeast. The only body they saw lay in the northeast portion of the clearing, and the trail back to Berathion was just to the right of that.
“Let’s go,” said Stoyan, his sword and shield readied in anticipation of an ambush. Alaiya and Elias followed, though Cyrxx hung back.
“Don’t, you fools.” But Cyrxx warning came too late.
As Stoyan and the others stepped into the clearing a low ominous howl echoed through the trees and seemed to shoot out of the temple. The sound itself brought a sense of darkness to the day, if in presence only. Startled, Stoyan looked around for the source of the sound, but saw nothing. Gathering up his mettle, he strode forward, intent on the trail head that loomed before him.
He had taken no more than a few steps when the howl echoed once more through the forest, deeper and darker than before. This time, however, the source of the sound seemed to come from the body to the north. Unable to remove his eyes from the incapacitated body, Stoyan and the others watched, terror overwhelming them, as a blurry, shapeless entity rose from behind the body. As it rose, a third howl, much closer than the other two, broke through the clearing, and the light of the sun dimmed.
Suddenly the shadow fell forward, landing on two front legs as its shape began to form. Its mid-section pulled in, as the legs thickened. A skull took shape upon strong muscular shoulders, a snout lengthening out as a tail stretched from the end.
“Wolves?” asked Alaiya, her voice an inaudible peep. Stoyan simply shook his head.
The thing stood its ground, watching the three companions in the clearing. Red eyes soon appeared in the mass of swirling black shadow that was its body, only adding eeriness to the creature. Gazing at the creature standing before him, Stoyan was overcome with a sense of familiarity and helplessness. The aura, the air about what stood before him, caused memories long buried to quickly rise to the surface. As if it could stare into his mind, the creature lowered its head menacingly as its legs tensed. Stoyan instinctively reached for his sword, causing the creature to let loose a long, deep growl. As it did, the darkness surrounding its skull began to slowly peel backwards, revealing the bleached-white bones of its skull. Rows of canines snapped as the growl rose. As the shadows continued to recede, the emptiness of the sockets filled with a crimson red glow – eyes that burned deep into the soul of the Paladin.
The beast howled again, the sound bringing Stoyan to his senses as he halted his aggressive movements. As the howl died a second, then a third and a fourth shadow each rose out of the body in the clearing. As each shadow took shape into an animal form, they stalked closer and closer to the group.
“Back up inside the temple,” ordered Stoyan, urgency in his voice. “Now!”
The others listened, with Cyrxx frantically calling for them to hurry. As they retreated, each shadow moved forward, eventually blocking their escape to the trail head. Soon, the creatures stood, shoulder to shoulder, glaring into the temple of Pelor at the four companions. Their barks and growls reverberated off the walls, making the already dark temple entrance darken further. But none entered.
“What do we do, Stoyan?” pleaded Alaiya. She did not feel comfortable seeing those creatures in the daylight. She liked it even less that Stoyan, for the first time since she could remember, decided to forgo fighting in favor of retreat. “What are those things?”
Stoyan’s silence did not invoke much confidence, and it was Cyrxx who offered an alternative.
“We could fight,” said the Wizard, though his voice was not full of the conviction that it normally had. “Or, there is that small passageway we saw, Stoyan.”
Stoyan did not reply immediately and when he finally did, his voice was distant, as though he was reliving his past. “We don’t even know if that will lead anywhere!”
“Better than dealing with that!”
The curiosity that Cyrxx spoke in a singular tone caught everyone off guard. But, as they watched the four beasts, each person noticed that the outlines of them, the shadows that flickered and danced, begin to merge. The beasts grew in size until one massive shadow creature stood at the entrance to the temple. It gave one long monstrous howl that shook the walls, dust and pebbles falling around the group inside. But, still, the creature stood, glaring menacingly down its snout.
“It…,” stammered Stoyan, as if struck by an epiphany, “it won’t bridge the holy site of Pelor.” Turning, he ushered everyone back into the temple, looking back to make sure the creature did not budge. It never did, and the last thing they heard was another long howl that darkened their minds and hearts.
“The opening should be…here!” Stoyan stepped over the broken remains of the Guardian of Zolostran, painful embarrassment twisting his stomach into knots. “Careful as you go.”
Cyrxx took the lead, begrudgingly, down the passage. Stoyan claimed his nimble feet would provide for safer passage. Cyrxx could not argue, citing the Paladin’s ‘clunky awkwardness’. The jabs and barbs continued for the greater portion of two hours.
“Don’t know what’s gotten into you, Stoyan,” a hint of mockery in Cyrxx’s voice as he spoke, “but I though you Paladins were supposed to protect people. You seem intent on using the three of us as bait and squishy meat shields.” Cyrxx turned to the Paladin and poked his armor. “See? Tough.” Then poking himself, he looked up, a hurt expression in his eyes. “See? Squishy.”
“Some places more than others.” Elias got a chuckle out of his snarky remark, and it made Cyrxx laugh too.
“Right ‘bout that. Just you wait, age’ll make sure you get some too.” A serious look overtook Cyrxx as he readdressed Stoyan, his eyes occasionally falling upon Alaiya next to him. “Aren’t you Paladins supposed to have honor or some such? Don’t you have honor, Stoyan? Wouldn’t your god look down upo– waaaaah!”
Alaiya rushed forward to the pit that had swallowed up Cyrxx. What she initially saw were numerous spikes sticking out of the bottom of the pit, greeting unwary visitors with unrelenting sharpness. On top of one fluttered a torn portion of Cyrxx’s robes, though he stood nearby, practically surrounded by the deadly spears.
“Bah,” shouted the old Wizard, “toss down a rope and get me out of here. Traps…so medieval.” Stoyan grabbed a rope out of his backpack and lowered it into the pit for Cyrxx to grab. “Oh, so now your honor dictates to help out those weaker than you? Care to use me again to trigger another trap? Sad to see my squishiness not get punctured?”
Stoyan muttered something under his breath as he let go of the rope. “Let him rot in there!”
“Hey! Waaaah!” The sound of Cyrxx slipping back into the pit rang throughout the tunnel.
“Will you two shut up!” Fuming, Alaiya grabbed the rope and heaved. With a scary display of strength, she yanked Cyrxx out of the pit as though it were nothing. “We don’t have time for your childish bickering. Now, both of you, shut up!”
Cyrxx and Stoyan stood speechless, their eyes wide with fright, their pride having fled them. Elias, on the other hand, stood smiling. With a simple shrug of his shoulders, as he could still not use his arms still, he followed after Alaiya. “The true strength of a woman.”
From that point on, Elias took point, hunting down traps throughout the tunnel before having Cyrxx disarm them. The Gnomes made a formidable tandem as they located multiple tripwires and pressure plates throughout the tunnel. Only once did they misstep, which resulted in Stoyan getting knocked to the ground by a rather large battering ram.
“Whoever uses this place sure doesn’t want to be found.” Elias had just finished pointing out another pressure plate to Cyrxx for his to disarm. “Seems strange that there’d be this many traps on a way to a Pelorian temple.”
“Perchance,” Stoyan offered, “these traps were put here but the Paladins once they discovered this unwanted tunnel as a way prevent unwelcome passage into their holy site?”
“Whichever it is, Paladin, it’d work.” A click told Elias that Cyrxx had finished and he pressed on. “This seems to be something that Orcen fella might want to know, though I don’t imagine it’d be best for you all to tell him, considering what happened last time you went to the temple.” He thought a moment before continuing. “Though, if you do go, I better make sure I’m there. Wouldn’t want to miss the encore.”
They turned a sharp corner in the tunnel, the rock walls widening enough to provide some small comfort to Stoyan’s broad shoulders. Elias stopped the group as he pondered the sight before him – a door that breached the expanse of the tunnel with two levers imbedded into the walls on either side.
“Hmm…Don’t suppose it would be as easy as opening the door. He inspected the door closely, but there was no handle. “Obviously, one of these levers opens the door. As for the other…”
“There are holes in the left side of the tunnel,” said Stoyan, as he ran his hand alongside the wall. “A lot of them.”
“Well, that solves that!” Elias backed up beyond the reach of the holes, which extended nearly all the way back to the bend of the tunnel. “Now, figure out how to pull the levers. If we tie some rope…”
“Cyrxx, use your Mage Hands. You can pull them from back here, can’t you?” Alaiya’s familiarity with her mentor’s tricks proved once again valuable and her awareness during pressure situations made Cyrxx beam.
“See, I knew I taught you for a reason!” Cyrxx conjured a Mage Hand and sent it floating through the tunnel. “So, if the holes are on the left, the left level will likely spring the trap, so I’ll pull the right one.” The group waited as the magick hand wrapped itself around the lever and yanked. There was a loud click as hundreds of tiny spears jettisoned out of the left side of the tunnel and struck the rock on the right. “Well, that didn’t work.” He moved the lever back up, but the spears stayed, blocking their path. Cyrxx moved the Mage Hand over to the left level and pulled down. Another loud click sounded in the tunnel, but this time the door beyond the spears swung open.
“Great, how do we get through these?” Stoyan seemed a little deflated by it all.
Cyrxx scoffed at the man. “Psh, now it’s Allie’s turn. Go ahead, show it what you’ve got!”
Alaiya focused her power creating a clear orb in front of her outstretched hands. As she concentrated on the swirl of colors within her, she sought out the red light, the power of fire within her. She plucked out that magick and filled her orb with its power and sent it into the sea of spears in the tunnel. The orb exploded with a blast of heat washing over the companions, the flames quickly engulfing the wooden shafts of the spears.
“Great, now we have a wall of fire to get through to boot,” moaned Stoyan. “Why’d you do that?”
Cyrxx had to refrain from hitting the Paladin where it counted and, instead, settled for a attention-getting cough. Stoyan looked down at the Gnome who was making repeated slashing downward strikes with his arm.
Stoyan stepped forward and took out his blade. The smoke was starting to irritate his eyes, but he pushed to discomfort from his mind. He struck the burning wood quickly, breaking through the flaming wall with ease. As he pushed forward, the others followed on his heels, dodging falling embers as they quickly passed through the door. Once through, Alaiya closed the door, letting the smoke dissipate. Beyond the door, Elias found only one more trap, which was quickly disposed of.
As they wandered deeper into the tunnel, they began to hear sounds like voices carrying a conversation. Cautiously approaching, Cyrxx, much to his joy and satisfaction, snuck out ahead to scout. He did not make it far before the patrol spotted him.
The patrol consisted of three men, two who were draped in heavy steel grey robes adorned with strange symbols that appeared to be arcane in nature and one in a leather tunic dyed steel grey as well. However, when they spotted Cyrxx they did not weave arcane symbols or use spells. Instead, the robed men threw large axes and charged with spears. Cyrxx only managed to dodge one axe, the other catching his arm, before he could meld into the shadows of the tunnel.
The clatter of the axes caught everyone’s attention as they took off after Cyrxx, only to arrive to see three Humans standing in the tunnel, confused looks on their faces. Stoyan’s heavily armored movements, however, got their attention.
The confrontation lasted no more that a few minutes, the ferocity of the patrol’s attacks stifled by the tactics of Stoyan and company. Once Cyrxx had retreated from the dangerous melee that was ensuing, he and Alaiya were able to freely use their magick without fear of retribution. The robed figures were strong, trained well in the use of their spears, but their training paled in comparison to that of Stoyan, who matched their attacks with parries and found the holes in their defenses quite easily. The last of the patrol, the leader, hung back and launched javelins at the group, but fell quickly to Stoyan’s blade once his lackey’s were defeated.
Stoyan searched the bodies, though he found nothing of value. “There are no tattoos either, so if these guys aren’t the Dark Light, who are they?”
No one had an answer, but they all agreed that they should proceed with caution. Another thirty minutes passed before they found themselves in a large cavern that appeared to be living quarters for someone. A bed was pushed up against one of the walls, and next to that rested a bookcase. On the other side of the room was a workbench, full of vials, beakers, burners, and scales. Next to the desk stood another bookcase with a small table and chair on the other side.
“It seems this is someone’s research.” Elias was already snooping around the workbench, looking over concoctions and notes scattered about. “I don’t suppose anyone here recognizes anything here?” Elias saw several vials of black goo and a few meticulous notes on their properties based on whoever was conducting the experiments. “Interesting.”
Stoyan, over at a bookshelf, had begun pulling out books and was attempting to read the titles. What in the Forbidden does that mean? Stupid language.” Frustrated he slammed it back into place on the shelf and continued looking around.
“Hey, Alaiya, c’mere. Can you pick that up and tell me what’s inside?” Alaiya looked hesitantly at Elias as she looked over the various papers on the desk. “Yeah, that scroll there, with the ‘earth’ marking on it. Yeah, if you could pick that up and open it, I’d really like to see what’s inside.”
“Uh, are you sure it’s safe?”
“Sure, sure. It’s magick, but nothing bad should happen unless you read the scroll inside. If there even is one.” Elias’s eyes widened in anticipation.
Alaiya picked up the scroll and turned it over in her hand. She recognized one of the symbols as well, that of ‘earth’, and began to unroll it. As she did, she felt a surge of power bite into her hand and she gave a startled yelp, subsequently dropping the scroll. “Ow! What’s this…I can’t feel my hand!”
“Oh, sorry, seems it was trapped. Sorry about that. Hey, Cyrxx, can you pick that up for me? Here, just put it in this pocket over here.” Elias spun back and forth, his useless arms flopping around, trying to open one of his side pockets, to no avail.
Cyrxx bent down and picked up the scroll. Closing his eyes, he spoke a quick word and the scroll glowed quickly before dimming. “There. Didn’t I always tell you, Allie, check first? Now, let’s see what we have here…”
“No need, just put it in one of these pockets. Oh, c’mon, I saw it first! No, what are you doing? Cyrxx!”
“What’s it say, Cyrxx?” Stoyan had wandered over, curious as to the confusion.
“It’s a slightly older magick, not all in the traditional script we use today. Definitely not of the Red. I’ll need some time to study it, but I know it spoke of ‘earth’ and ‘person’. Very well could be a defensive spell, or for those of the Green Robes.”
“How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Not sure. A few hours of uninterrupted study should do it.”
Stoyan nodded before turning to the others. “Stop being so careless. Now, let’s go before whoever lives here returns.”
“One second!” Cyrxx picked up a quill and quickly scribbled a similar scroll front on another piece of parchment before rolling it up and leaving it on the workbench. “My writing isn’t great, but just in case they really wanted it.”
A little under an hour later they emerged from the tunnel looking eastward from the Kaliois Mountains. The sun had not quite peaked in the sky, letting the sleep starved companions know it was still morning. Before them stretched a large area, boulders jetting out of the ground like monuments to the mountains behind them, covered with shallow grasses and pines providing cover and shelter to the small rodents that called this slope home.
“Alright, we’re going to move north along the mountain ridge for a mile or two. There we’ll make camp and get some rest, if we can sleep in the day.” Stoyan looked back at his exhausted friends, none of them eager to move any further and all enticed by the comfort of the nearby shade of the pines. With a heavy sigh, he relented. “Fine, we’ll make a small camp just beyond that ridge and get some sleep.” At this, everyone seemed to get a second wind and within fifteen minutes, Stoyan and the others found themselves sleeping beneath the warmth of the early afternoon sun.