Stoyan and the others simply gazed upon the ominous sight that loomed before them. They had wandered around the structure a few times, diligently searching for another passage, but all they found were the four dried riverbeds. They had been through two – the one full of centipedes and the one they took deeper into a giant ant’s nest – and no one was looking forward to seeing what the other two held. But it was a tempting proposition to hope for a secret way out instead of trespassing upon a god’s domain.
“There seems to be little choice here, Alaiya,” said Stoyan, his face steeled against the oncoming venture. “I know you don’t like it, not any more than Veth or myself, but I see no other way.” The sound of the meandering river off in the distance seemed to roar in the uncomfortable silence that followed.
Cyrxx cackled to himself and shared a quiet word with his floating companion, Gregor. “Yes, yes, yes, Gregor! Inside – heh heh heh – inside, can you feel it?” The skull shifted from the Gnome’s left to his right shoulder, its magicked eyes glowing brightly. “Gregor thinks we should go in. And I side with him. He’s been here the longest, you know?”
Alaiya wanted to protest, to make them see that there must be another way. They had an idea of what was in the tunnels, but they had no idea what lay behind the doors before them. That frightened her almost as much as her magick did. And it was her fears that were getting the better of her.
They stood there, lost in thought and time, wasting away when a voice broke them of their trance.
They spun and from one of the unexplored tunnels ran a young boy, covered in dirt and cobwebs, racing toward them. His clothing was torn, shredded in some places, and he gripped his right arm as though it was injured. Quickly looking over his shoulder as he ran, the group could see hysteria in the young man’s eyes.
“They’re coming! Huge…huge! Please, you’ve got to help me!”
Stoyan looked at the others as he stretched his shoulders, trying to loosen the tight muscles in his back. He glanced at the door, still unsure if it was even open, then turned back to face whatever was coming. The boy paid him no attention as Stoyan strode passed him, intent on facing the threat head-on. The boy, no more than a child, slipped behind Veth, who tended to his arm, as Cyrxx and Alaiya readied themselves as well.
A massive swarm of spiders emerged from the tunnel, climbing along the walls and coating the floor with their spindly legs and dark, round bodies. Hundreds of eyes gazed upon Stoyan as he readied his shield and drew his sword. He had a sense of dread as he crouched low to brace against the impact. Behind him, he could hear Veth and Alaiya yelling for him to run. “I must fight every battle. Only then may I determine if I can succeed or not. And only then would retreat be an option.”
The impact was colossal. The swarm hit, driving his feet back, as spiders crawled around him, surrounding him where he stood. Before he could respond he felt fangs pierce the leather arm guards and cut through his leggings. He immediately felt their venom course through his blood, slowing his muscles. A strobe of light struck one of the spiders, which chattered and fell over. Alaiya’s voice was now ringing behind him. Something about a door.
He fell backwards, flinging a spider off his shield in the process, using the structure as a barrier. For an unknown reason, the spiders avoided the walls of the building. He looked back and saw that Veth and Alaiya had ducked inside already. He could hear Cyrxx madly laughing, a disturbing sound that fell on Stoyan’s ears unwelcomed.
Suddenly, the ground before Stoyan’s feet fell away, and the nearby spiders plummeted to their demise. Stoyan scooted backwards quickly, making sure to stay away from the gaping chasm, when Gregor appeared, teeth chattering, and spun him around. Cyrxx was standing near the door motioning inside. “Inside before they circle around. Gregor says they’re on their way.” Stoyan rushed inside, blood soaking his shirt and leggings, and slammed the door. The sounds of the spiders outside could still be heard, though none approached the door. “Heh heh heh! That was…brilliant! So many! How many would you say, Gregor, a hundred?” Cyrxx took to a wall, merrily talking to his floating companion.
Veth tended to Stoyan after he had finished with the boy. “You’re lucky the poison was weak in those spiders. What were you thinking, charging in there against numbers like that? Does Tempus expect you to kill yourself to prove yourself?”
Stoyan, his face unwavering, calmly looked at his former master. “By creed, I am not to flee battle without seeing if I must. Respect my god, Veth, and do not speak ill of him again. Leave me; I am fine.” The Paladin stood, slowly, defiantly, and headed over to the young boy. “Tell me, boy, do you have a name?”
The boy, obviously terrified, shrunk beneath the presence of the Paladin. He finally stammered out a meager cry. “Did you…did you get them all?” Stoyan simply looked at the boy, not willing to change the subject. The boy cowered further, nearly imbedding himself in the wall. “That was really cool what you did back there, but he big guy is right – that was pretty stupid.” Stoyan stood still, waiting. Cyrxx’s ramblings could still be heard as he exchanged conversation with Gregor. Finally, with a hesitant sigh, the boy relented. “Name’s Aaron.”
Stoyan softened a bit as he then introduced the group. “I am Stoyan. The big guy is Veth. The crazy one over there is Cyrxx, and this lady is Alaiya.” The pleasantries of the situation relaxed Aaron momentarily. “What are you doing down here?”
“I…I don’t rightly know. I was tossed into this place and had fallen in a lake. When I came to, these crystals were everywhere. I made my way through this rock wall and have been in these tunnels ever since.” Aaron played with his hand, wringing them as if trying to vanquish the images that tormented his mind.
“How long have you been down here?” inquired Stoyan, his interest piqued by the boy’s story.
“I’m not sure…What day is it?”
“It’s the 8th, maybe the 9th.”
Aaron thought for a moment. “Dunno, a week maybe. I was taken from my house by these men. My father was screaming, and I watched as they beat him mercilessly. Next thing I know, this lady is telling me to find something.”
Alaiya head rose at the mention of a father and she pulled Stoyan off to the side. “Do you think the man who stopped us that day was this boy’s father? He said his son had been taken.”
Stoyan shrugged and eyed the kid warily. “Maybe.”
Alaiya continued along her train of thought. “He says he’s been down here a week. What has he been living off of? How has he survived?”
A singular thought crossed Stoyan’s mind. “We’ve seen…partial corpses…”
Alaiya raised her hand quickly to stop him. “That’s disgusting! Don’t say anything else.” She looked back at Aaron, sadness in her eyes. “We should take him along.”
Stoyan nodded and turned back toward Aaron. “C’mon, boy. You’re coming with us.”
The structure’s interior was made of polished stone. No etchings or carvings graced the walls, and it was perfectly smooth. It was a short walk from the entrance to the end of the hallway, and with every step, Cyrxx became more and more excited.
“Can you feel it, Gregor? It’s strong, so very strong. The power – heh heh heh – the power is immense here!” As they walked, even Gregor seemed to change, the light in his eyes growing brighter and more intense the further they got. Alaiya, too, was becoming aware of the surge in magick. Her orb of light, similar to Gregor’s eyes, flickered, grew, and intensified.
The hallway opened up into a slightly larger area with a door. The room itself was small, made more so by the five statues inside. The first one, next to the door, stood posed in a similar fashion that one poses knight’s armor. It was beautifully human-esque in appearance with an identifiable head and limbs, though the entire body seemed covered in a simple singular piece of armor. The four other statues were more abstract. The two to the right were small, impish carvings, perched upon pedestals as big as they were. Their stone wings were lifted as if they were catching unfelt air currents and their jaws were open wide, rows of intricately carved teeth exposed in a hellish, petrified scream. To the left sat two more carvings, though detailed or beautiful they were not. They were similar in appearance, which was an amalgam of weaponry and beast. A large spear had been grafted into the back of a contraption that possessed a demonic face. Eyes, straight ahead, unwavering in their sightline, sent a chill down the backs of the companions.
“Heh heh heh,” started Cyrxx, his laughter growing with each cackle, “the Dwarves that made those things must’ve had a bit too much o’ that ale! Ahahaha!”
The others wandered around the room, inspecting the statues, though afraid to touch them. Cyrxx and Alaiya could hear the door hum with energy, the magick radiating through its metal.
“Can you sense the god’s power in here?” Alaiya asked Veth and Stoyan. “The magick is strong in this room, but I can’t imagine why.”
Veth closed his eyes in concentration and when he spoke, it was almost with relief. “The aura is still here, young Alaiya, but this magick – it might be holding it fast.” Stoyan nodded in agreement as the Cleric continued. “There is a chance this magick is holding the god captive –”
“Or a weapon! He could have created a powerful weapon!” Cyrxx had a crazed, feverish look in his eyes as he contemplated what lay beyond the door.
“Well, trap or not, we have only one choice.” Stoyan made for the door and Cyrxx could only manage a quick yelp as the Paladin’s hand push on the cool metal. There was a whirl, followed by a few clicks, and then a release of air as Stoyan stared perplexingly at the door. He had not touched it long or with much force before the sounds began and the door had not given way either.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flash of steel slash down and he managed to pull away from the door as the sword narrowly missed his outstretched hand. He turned to see the statue, creaking, whirling, and whining, wretch itself from its position near the door and raise its sword again. The contraption’s eyes flashed momentarily before fading to their dull stone color as it slashed again at Stoyan. Rolling out of the way, the Paladin managed to evade the brunt of the blow, but the tip had caught his ribs. Wincing in pain, he managed to stand and ready himself.
As he stood, the amalgam’s approached, slowly inching forward on their legs, the spears aimed directly for Stoyan’s chest. He paid them no attention and struck out at the statue that had attacked him. Immediately, two jaws snapped at his legs and he turned to see the contraptions snarling, grinding their stone teeth. “By the strength of Tempus, what are these things?”
Alaiya was resolved to not find out. She conjured a spell and lashed out at the impish statues on their pedestals, shifting the whole object backwards into the wall. The statues maintained their position, screeching into their eternal slumber. Cyrxx started cackling.
As the others turned to fight the stone beasts, however, the imps spread their wings, shedding the thing stone layers that had enveloped them. Dust settled to the podium stands as they took to the air, free of their confinement. They flew to Alaiya and ravaged her with airborne strikes as Cyrxx came to her aid with a flurry of magical projectiles. “Ready yourself, Allie, they seem to like ya!”
“I can’t see them, Cyrxx!”
The Gnome cast a quick glance at his favored and saw a faint mist settling over her eyes. “Feel where they are and listen to me!” There was a surge in magical energy as Cyrxx grasped his orb with his hands and withdrew some of his stored power. The flying imps screeched in high-pitched, angry tones, and rushed forward again to assault Alaiya. “Now, Allie! At Veth’s elbow!”
Alaiya’s sharp ears could hear the scream from in front of her and Cyrxx had told her the angle. The Sorceress unleashed a swirling orb of power and heard the wail of an imp echo around her. Suddenly the mist over her eyes began to fade as the other imp came into view.
Behind them, Aaron had begun sneaking back through the corridor, keeping just outside the light of Gregor. Sticking to the shadows, the young boy watched the battle unfold before him. Stoyan was getting beaten under the barrage of attacks from the beastly weapons and the humanoid. He figured out quickly that whenever the one with the sword was attacked, the others shifted to strike the assailant. As the attacks continued from that trio, he could not help but to watch the wrath the mages were unleashing on the flying imps. Cyrxx was in a trance-like state, hurling spells in near succession, as Alaiya shifted and slide around, adding her own powers to the foray. The imps where soon overwhelmed and feel to the magick, their carcasses lying smoldering on the floor.
With the imps destroyed, Alaiya and Cyrxx turned to the others. Stoyan had fallen to a knee and was still fending off the assault of the monstrosities when a surge of renewal burst through the room. Veth, hands clasped together, had an aura as silver as moonlight surrounding him. Stoyan used the newfound strength to hurl himself at the automaton and pierced its midsection with his sword. The automaton whirled and clanked for a second before slumping forward, motionless. Stoyan removed his blade and turned to face the beasts, parrying one of the bites just in time, when the shifting, grinding sound of metal rose from behind him. The sword crashed down on Stoyan’s collarbone with such force that it shattered beneath the armor coverings. Stoyan fell down, dropping his sword, and raised his shield in defense. Embracing for a hit, he was met with the sound of scrapping stone as the beasts were pushed back by magick. He acted quickly from the reprieve, grabbing his sword and shifting backwards. Veth ran to the Paladin and quickly mended the shattered collarbone, channeling the healing powers of Sehanine. The pain was soon manageable.
“We must act quickly and finish this fight. I’m not sure I have the strength to continue.” Veth’s voice sounded drawn and he looked exhausted. His face was pale, but he still stood, mace and shield in hand, ready to go to his last breath.
Stoyan charged one of the beasts first, knocking its head out of the way with his shield. In an amazing display of agility, he spun with the momentum and sliced with his longsword, severing one of the legs. The beast howled and gnashed helplessly with its teeth at Stoyan. It began to perch itself up on three legs when Stoyan brought down his mace on the skull of the creature, shattering the stone into dust.
Behind them, Cyrxx kept chanting, “Nightmares, nightmares, nightmares!” as laces of purple haze writhed out of his orb, wrapping around the head of the humanoid statue. Its eyes would flash and then return to stone with each chant as it slowly slowed its movements. Gears grinded and air whistled with every fraction of a movement the contraption made until it finally stopped and collapsed to the floor.
With the main threat suppressed, it took no more than mere moments to finish off the last amalgam in the roof. As it fell to the final stroke of Stoyan’s blade, the door in the room hummed before sliding back and shifting to the right, revealing another inner chamber. With the movement of the door, Alaiya caught Cyrxx’s eyes, a puzzled expression on her face, and mouth the words, “Do you still feel it?”
Cyrxx shook his head, obviously disappointed, as the group entered the inner chamber.
As soon as the companions stepped through the door the massive cylindrical tower greeted them. Extending from the floor up into the darkness of the ceiling, it melded seamlessly into the dome sitting atop the building. The inner chamber itself was plain and unimpressive, a simple square room, no more than a hundred square feet; nothing adorning the walls, nothing to detract one’s sight from the only thing that mattered – the central pillar.
As they explored the room, slowly working around the tower, the group discovered three other doors set into the outer walls of the room; they assumed these to be passages from the other entrances from outside. Whenever Alaiya or Cyrxx neared one of these doors their magick fluctuated and grew wild, though it regained its stability once they moved away. Directly across from each door, fastened into the pure sandy stone of the central pillar, was the outline of another door. No lips or edges on the stone were carved into the pillar – the door was simply there. In the middle of the door was a symbol unlike any anyone had seen. It consisted of five diamond shapes, all conjoined, forming an X-like pattern. The bottom two diamonds rested precariously on their lowest points on a singular line that extended beyond their tips, forming the base of the symbol. A similar line lay across the top two diamond’s points; however, it did not extend beyond the points like the bottom, but rather, it ended abruptly at the tip’s end. Fastened atop of this line were two symmetrically unfinished diamonds, larger than the central ones, with their bottom portion broken off.
Beside each door on the central pillar were written patterns and shapes similar in shape and size to that which they saw on the exterior of the building. Just like outside, the Dwarven word for “power” was inscribed beneath one of the shapes.
“Now what?” inquired Veth, as he glanced over at Aaron. The boy was starting to tire and had slumped up against a wall.
“Try to get in,” offered Stoyan. He walked up to the door and pushed on the symbol. “There’s got to be a way.” He pushed again, hoping the door had changed its mind, but it held fast.
Alaiya shrugged as she walked around to another door. She stared at the symbol, the light of her globe bouncing off the shadowless tracing. Reaching up, she ran her finger along the outline of the symbol, half expecting something to happen. Nothing did. Curious, she searched the face for a groove to slip a finger behind in order to trigger a switch or the like. The wall was, unfortunately, perfectly smooth. Her interest piquing, he mind started to race. She had always enjoyed puzzles, especially Cyrxx’s, and now she had an opportunity to put her mind to the test. She spoke to the door, both in the common tongue and in Dwarven, trying words like, “power”, “open”, “god”, and “door”. None of them worked. She tried channeling her magick into the symbol, but it never reacted. She even reached up to turn the symbol etched on the stone, but her hand never took to an edge. She even tried combinations of her methods, thinking maybe it was a dual lock. Frustrated, she moved back and stared menacingly at her obstacle.
“How are we supposed to get in? How is anyone supposed to get in? And why have four do-.” She stopped in sudden realization. “Four doors! That’s it!” She quickly ran to the others, hoping rising, excited she had figured it out. She returned to find Aaron asleep on the floor, his back against the wall of the pillar. Veth looked up with a start as Alaiya’s small feet echoed her enthusiasm. “We need to touch all of the doors at the same time. There’re four doors, four entrances. Why have that unless that was the key inside?”
Veth looked at her with admiring eyes. “Very clever of you, and whoever made this place. It would leave the lone explorer in a bit of a situation if he managed it alone. Cyrxx! Stoyan! C’mere!”
When the others had gathered, Alaiya explained her thinking. They all agreed it was a good idea and that Cyrxx and Alaiya would be on opposite doors to provide the most light. Cyrxx would also count down the timing using a spell in case it needed to occur simultaneously. When all were in their positions, Cyrxx began the countdown.
They each pushed on their respective doors, eyes half closed in anticipation of the unexpected, but nothing happened.
“Is that it?” bellowed Cyrxx, disappointment in his voice. “Nothing happened over here.”
Stoyan yelled back, “Meet at Veth. There’s got to be another way.” He circled around to Alaiya’s side, as she patiently waited for him with her light. As he pulled up, he shrugged. “It was a good idea. Thought it would have worked.” That is when she saw his bandaged hand.
“What happened there?” she asked, pointing at the blood-stained bandage. “I though Veth took care of your injuries.”
Stoyan glanced at his hand and cursed to himself. “Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing.” He slipped his hand back inside his cloak, out of Alaiya’s sight.
Reaching out for his arm, the Sorceress pressed the issue. “What do you mean, ‘It’s nothing.’? You’re hurt. When did that happen? How do it happen?” Tones of anger entered into her questions, tones that Stoyan felt uncomfortable hearing.
“I said not to trouble yourself with it. It was an idea and it didn’t work. Now, let’s get going.”
Alaiya stopped him, forcibly. Her globe of light was beginning to swirl in a myriad of colors as her emotions heightened, but neither noticed. “What are you not telling us? Why didn’t you tell us about your idea before? What are you so afraid of? That you were wrong? It’s okay to be wrong, Stoyan, we are all wrong sometimes. But to hide it from us? Why would you do that?”
Stoyan remained silent, but looked Alaiya in the eyes, trying to will her to stop the barrage of questions. Only a moment passed, but between the old friends, it seemed like eternity. Finally, Stoyan relented and begun unwrapping the bandage that adorned his hand, still never breaking his gaze. Alaiya took his hand in her small ones and examined the wound. It was still fresh, blood slowly clotting in the slice across the finger. As she touched the wound, Stoyan winced, but said nothing.
“You think that blood might be the key?” Her voice was soft, slightly troubled by the actions Stoyan took to open the door.
“Some gods require their servants to pay in more than prayers. Some require a show of faith beyond just words.”
Alaiya pulled away, contemplative. After a bit, her curiosity got the better of her. “What happened when you tried it?”
Stoyan shook his head. “The same thing as with everything else we’ve tried – nothing. But maybe,” and he began to rewrap his hand, “I misunderstood.”
“Or maybe it needed it to happen at all of the doors. We should tell the others.”
“Absolutely not! Whatever god demands a sacrifice of his followers in no god I want to deal with!” Veth was furious, though he controlled his ferocity to accommodate the sleeping Aaron. “And what if our blood is not enough, boy? What if this god demands a higher price?” He looked down at Aaron curled up against the wall.
“No, you can’t mean that!” Now, it was Alaiya’s turn to voice her disapproval. “How can you even think about sacrificing a person? You and your gods are sick.”
“You misunderstand, though I do not know to what extent you would be willing to go to get in there.” Veth positioned himself between Aaron and the others. “If this does not work by our blood alone, then we will end this silly charade and look for another way. The power here is oppressive, and I would feel better out of such a place. But there is no power or reward here that would get me to do as you so horridly misconstrued.” He looked straight at Alaiya, who flushed with embarrassment.
“Does that mean, you’ll try?” Stoyan was hopeful, but kept his voice steady. Veth nodded. “Very well then, let us position ourselves.”
Cyrxx, in his anxious glee, withdrew his dagger excitedly. “Yea, let’s see what’s behind these doors!” Grabbing the blade with his left hand, he slid the dagger across his palm, drawing forth a steady stream of fresh, dark red blood. “Yeowch! Ahhh, that stings! That stings, that stings, that stings!” Veth looked as though he were about to say something, but then stopped, instead shaking his head at the pitiful sight of his little friend.
As they repositioned themselves in front of the doors, Cyrxx once more took to the countdown. “Three…Two…Oh, by Garl’s beard it burns! …One…Now! Ow, ow, ow!”
As each person placed their wounded hands upon the doors, the pillar shook. The symbols retraced themselves in a faint blue light as the door’s outline glowed. Everyone stared in amazement at their respective doors as the blue light intensified to a crescendo. The light held briefly at its peak before it abruptly vanished, leaving behind only the faint tracing of the symbol and the door. The entire room was silent except for Cyrxx’s muffled whimpers of pain.
Without warning, the doors faded away and a bright, golden light streamed out from the interior of the pillar and filled the small room, drowning the light of Alaiya and Cyrxx. Blinded by the initial radiance, everyone’s eyes slowly adjusted as they all gazed into the structure. Before them sat four large crystals – fiery red, sky blue, shadowy purple, and vibrant green – glowing with their own brilliance. Magick radiated from each crystal, bathing Alaiya and Cyrxx in incomprehensible power. Veth and Stoyan also felt a sensation flow over them, though theirs was lifting and crushing, soft and hard, violent and gentle.
The crystals themselves were taller than Stoyan and spun slowly in the air, hovering slightly above the ground. Perfect in shape and appearance, they were a magnificent sight to behold. As each person took in the room, they noticed, to their left and right, that they could see two others, but their view across the room was obscured.
“What should we do?” shouted Stoyan, who was hesitant to set foot inside the pillar.
“I’m not sure,” replied Veth. “The presence of a god, it’s in this room. I never imagined it could feel this heavy. My soul, itself, seems to bend beneath its weight.” He turned to look at the sleeping Aaron near his feet. “And what about Aaron?”
“Should he even come inside? What would happen if he stepped in if he did not give his blood?” Alaiya’s voice was strong as the two men looked at her. She relished the rush of magick flowing out of the room. “These crystals – they are the colors of the orders. But I do not see a yellow one.” Then a troubling thought crossed her mind. “How is Cyrxx doing?”
“Power! Power! Power, power, power! Can you feel it?!” Cackling mad, intoxicated with the energy flowing forth, Cyrxx raced into the room and grabbed the nearest crystal, the red one, with his hands. “It’s incredible! So much…heh heh heh…power!” So consumed was Cyrxx with the magick that he did not notice the flesh of his hands begin to blister.
“You fool!” Stoyan raced inside, anticipating something happening, but nothing did. “Get away from there!” By then, Cyrxx noticed the pain in his hands and pulled away from the crystal, screaming.
As Alaiya joined them inside, Veth called out. “What about Aaron? Do we leave him?”
Stoyan’s opinion on the matter was clear. “It’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Gods and magick and who knows what else. The boy is safer outside these walls.”
Alaiya nodded in agreement and Veth took one last look at Aaron, sleeping soundly against the wall. With a reluctant sigh, the Cleric crossed the threshold into the pillar. As the last of his body passed over the barrier, the crystals glowed in unison. Immediately the seal reformed behind them and the door reappeared, creating a room with no discernable exit. As the blue crystal rose into the air, Stoyan withdrew his blade and shield.
Stoyan acted first, charging the blue crystal and struck it resoundingly with his blade, but the crystal did not shatter. Flakes broke off, small filaments of blue glass that caught the light of the other crystals as they fluttered to the ground. Then, in rapid succession, the crystals shimmered. First, the blue crystal took to the air, soaring over the head of Stoyan and coming to rest behind him. When it landed a blue flash filled the room as a bolt of lightning struck the Paladin in the back. A ghastly blast erupted from the purple crystal and enveloped Stoyan before constricting his body, forcing a deathly chill to escape his lips. Lastly, the red crystal sent a blast of fire all around it, singing both Stoyan and Cyrxx. Stoyan grasped at his chest and coughed, blood spewing forth from his mouth.
Alaiya kept to the wall as she monitored the situation. Aside from the blue crystal, none of the others moved, and she had an idea that the crystals gained power from their close proximity to one another. Playing on her hunch, she sent a spell between the center mass and it burst with a swirl of multi-colored light. As the tendrils of light lashed out at the green, red, and purple crystals she focused on the strands near the purple one. They wrapped around the crystal, embracing it violently, and she pulled it across the room away from the others. As she did, a burst of magical energy exploded to her left as she saw Cyrxx unleashed a spell on the red crystal. It fractured beneath the might of the spell but held fast. Veth, understanding the direness of the situation, hung back and channeled healing energy into Stoyan, closing his wounds.
The crystals hummed again and a ring of light emanated from the green one. The light was absorbed by the other crystals as the cracks and fractures in their structure mended.
“The green one,” cried Alaiya, “it’s repairing the others! Break the green one!”
Stoyan understood immediately, but was preoccupied by the blue crystal. He struck it again with his sword and it responded by striking him with another blast of lightning.
“Get away from it! You’re caught in its aura!” Alaiya was trying to analyze the battlefield, but there was so much chaos going on, her mind was racing. But the thrill of it all was exciting.
“And what am I going to do, throw my sword at it?” Stoyan slid away from the crystal and put his back against the wall to better guard against the attacks. “Alaiya, behind you!”
Stoyan’s warning was too late as dark crystalline shards sliced at her small frame. As she spun, she compressed energy into a bolt and flung it at the purple crystal with such force that it fractured. Another cracking sound signaled that Cyrxx was keeping up his assault on the red crystal. She risked a glance and saw the Gnome rolling around on the ground conjuring shadowy tendrils while Gregor followed above, shooting arcane bolts from his mouth. It was an awkwardly impressive sight.
The companions kept the assault, with Veth trying to stall the death the crystals seemed intent on bestowing. The red crystal shattered first, a massive explosion of energy lashing out at those nearby. With it destroyed, Alaiya maneuvered the green crystal to the far left wall, spreading the crystals as far as possible from one another. By now, Stoyan had resigned himself to guerrilla style tactics, rushing in and slashing at the blue crystal before retreating. Cyrxx had joined the fray, his robes full of holes and burn marks, cackling madly. Portions of his beard still glowed with red where the red crystal’s fire had singed it.
The green crystal continued to hum and glow, but it no longer sent out a revitalizing light. Finally able to focus their power now, Alaiya and Cyrxx quickly shattered the purple crystal.
“Stoyan, Veth, get out of there! They explode when shattered.” Alaiya was not going to injure people mindlessly as she and Cyrxx halted their magick until their friends had backed away. “Start breaking that green crystal, while we shatter the blue one.” In perfect unison, the two mages unleashed the last ounces of their magick, breaking the blue crystal in hundred of pieces. A burst of lightning erupted from the shell, bouncing off the small shards falling to the ground, creating a mesmerizing display of light and glass.
With the last crystal harmlessly glowing, the companions surrounded it, glancing nervously at one another. With a silent, understood word spoken with only a knowing look, each raised their weapon, blade, mace, and magick, and struck the crystal simultaneously. As it fractured, the green light within slowly faded until it finally shattered.
Instantly, a pale blue light rose through the room, enveloping everyone. The light, overwhelming and humbling, rendered everyone unconscious. As they faded into the unknown, the walls around them faded, aging in rapid fashion, and began to crumple. Veth managed to utter a final word as he succumbed to unconsciousness.
The lapping of waves upon the shoreline woke Veth from his slumber. He groaned as he lifted himself up on his knees and hands, moist sand filtering through his fingers in clumps. Looking around he saw the others – Stoyan, Alaiya, and Cyrxx – lying about the beach still unconscious. His head ached as he tried to conjure his memories. The structure and its elegant simplicity, the strange symbol, the crystals, and the blue light; slowly the images came back to him. “Where are we?”
“Fareen!” The voice startled Veth, as high-pitched and excited as it was. He rolled over in the sand to see, much to his joy, the young boy, Aaron.
“You’re alive,” stated Veth, not sure he truly believed what he was seeing. “Praise be to Sehanine,” he thought. He watched as Aaron rose to his feet, and not even acknowledging the others, took off in a clumsy dash. “Wait,” Veth cried, but it was no use.
“Wait for what?” Stoyan stood, brushing sand off his clothing, and walked over to Alaiya. Helping the young woman to her feet, he asked Veth again, “Wait for what?”
“Aaron, he’s here. He just took off for Fareen.” Veth pointed to the south, where the port town lay. “I don’t know how we got here, but we’re here.”
“Bah, could be another trap,” scoffed Stoyan, plucking Cyrxx from the sand and shaking him awake. “I’m not going to race along for a fool’s errand anymore.”
“This is different. I feel Sehanine’s presence. I think…I think we’re back.”
“Damnit, then, we should follow Aaron.” Stoyan did not seem pleased with this notion, but started south toward Fareen. “I would like to figure out more of how he got there and see if he can piece some things together for us.”
As the two men took off, Alaiya noticed a green shard protruding from the sand. When she picked it up she felt a small surge of power from the shard that quickly faded. Tossing it in her pack she was about to join the others when she saw a second object nearby – a simple, plain, iron rod. It was straight, with a knob on the top, and could have easily been a walking cane for a Gnome. Without thinking, she tossed it in her pack as well and hurried to catch up to the others.
They followed Aaron through the streets and alleys of Fareen, dodging and weaving through the afternoon bustle of the city. With each step, the companions could not help but share in Aaron’s genuine and escalating excitement. The boy’s father had been searching nearly a week for him, during which he had had to survive the dangers of a cavern, subject to the vile whims of a maniacal woman. He had seen and done things to survive that will haunt him for all his years to come. He deserved joy – he had earned it.
Aaron burst into the central market plaza and started looking feverishly around. He asked a few questions of some merchants who replied with a nod and gestured across the way. As if on cue, one of the house doors near the other end of the market opened and a tall, slender man exited. Stoyan stopped immediately, as did the others following. It was the same man they had seen the day of Winn’s funeral.
“Let them have their moment. It is not for us to intervene.” The others agreed with Stoyan, as they watched the meeting unfold.
The man looked about warily as he closed his door, as though he was keeping watch for someone. Reluctantly, he locked the door and started into the market. He did not make it far when a voice grabbed his attention.
Aaron shouted as loud as he could as he bobbed up and down between the people of the market. The man, recognizing the voice immediately, found his bobbing son and made a beeline for him. Slipping between people with a sense of purpose the two met in the middle of the market in a huge embrace, Aaron’s father, dropping to his knees, and wrapped his arms tenderly and lovingly around his returned son. The man opened his eyes briefly and saw, over the shoulder of his son, the group, hanging back in an alley, watching on with smiles across their faces. Through tears and a smile, the father mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
As they acknowledged the father, the man’s eyes widened and shoulders heaved. It was a peculiar look, but then he turned to face his son, the smile slowly fading from his face. The man coughed, and blood trickled from his mouth and ran down his lips, as people started to filter out of the market plaza. The once bustling market had suddenly become hushed as merchants fled their wares and people made for their houses. The only sound that could be heard came from across the plaza – the clapping of hands.
Aaron stepped away from his father, pulling the knife out of the man’s stomach, blood dripping from the blade. The boy looked at the person clapping, a small woman with her hair pulled back in braids, dressed in dark leathers, with the insignia of an extinguished candle over the right breast. A dagger was fastened to each hip and their blades caught the afternoon sun as she walked to the center of the plaza. Aaron knelt as the woman approached as she continued to clap, her eyes meeting the companions across the way. She uttered a quick harsh command and Aaron stood.
“You have done well, my little pet.”
“Thank you, Lan. You honor me –.”
Lan waved a hand dismissively. “Formalities are for the pompous. Give me answers.”
Aaron nodded. “There was a way out, through the water. Some of the people – they escaped that way. And down there,” the boy shuddered, “well, I didn’t like it much.”
Lan nodded. “What was there, boy?” She played with his hair affectionately, though she never took her eyes off the companions.
“A temple of some kind. I don’t know how we got out, but we appeared north of Fareen when we did. I came right here to finish what you asked of me.”
“So, you did. And what a wonderful job you did, too.” Lan laughed mockingly as she kicked the body of Aaron’s father. Aaron never even flinched.
Stoyan’s anger soared. The whole thing made him sick. He rushed in, adrenaline numbing the pain. He knew he was in no shape, but he needed to do something. The footsteps of the others following told him he would not be alone in this confrontation.
“So, the puppies wish to play? Bare your teeth then, let’s see if your fangs have grown in.” Lan shifted in front of Aaron, her two daggers drawn. “Boy, leave now, we’ll finish our talk later.” She smirked at Stoyan as he ran in and sidestepped the man’s first attack. She responded by nicking his arm with a blade.
Aaron turned to flee, but a burst of magick flung him to the ground. He looked over his shoulder at Alaiya conjuring another spell to throw, rage in her eyes. The air around Alaiya crackled with power as the magick swelled within her. Another burst of magick exploded nearby as Aaron rolled to the left. He sprung to his feet, deftly for an eleven year-old, and made a break for an alley. So focused on his escape, Aaron never saw Veth or his mace until impact. The blow knocked the wind out of the boy, the sheer force of it flinging him into the side of a nearby house. His body slammed into the stone wall with a thick crunch, and Aaron slid to the ground, slumped over. Veth decided not to seek forgiveness from Sehanine for his action.
Stoyan was willing himself into the fight against Lan, withdrawing from unknown reserves of strength and will. Lan, to her frustration, had underestimated the condition and resolve of the group, and spent more time dodging than attacking. But she continued to mock them. “The puppies nip in their bitch’s defense, and they claw for attention. Do you miss suckling on your mother’s teat?” She wheeled around from person to person, her blades striking the openings between armor and finding the soft tissue of the torso. “You should have left it alone, sniffing in the yards of others. Stay on your leash, mongrels.”
Stoyan had begun to calm and had started to figure out her dancing pattern. Anticipating her movements, he feinted at her chest, then adjusted his grip and swung low, hoping to sever her hamstring. The feint worked, and she moved as expected, but she managed to avoid the brunt of the second attack, taking the blow to her hip.
“Oh, this one is learning to bite. You are an interesting little puppy, aren’t ya?” She sprung away with an agile handspring. “You know, your gods do you no good here, Paladin. Pelor, he casts a long shadow.” As she landed, two burst of magick struck her, knocking her to the cobbled street. Lan quickly rolled and got to her feet. “My, my, what a nice trick. I will have to tap into that resource later.” She parried a blow from Veth as she glanced over to Aaron slumped against a building. “Tsk, tsk, that won’t do. You puppies need to respect other people’s property.”
Lan crouched and drew her daggers in to her chest, inviting an attack on a defenseless body. Stoyan and Veth closed in first, one from the front, the other from behind. As they lashed out with their weapons, Lan smiled. In one seamless motion, she kicked Stoyan’s sword arm, sending his blade flying harmlessly to the ground, while she thrust both blades up to Veth’s downward blow. One of her daggers caught his bicep, tearing away the muscle, and the other pierced the forearm between the ulna and radial bones. She spun on her plant foot, twisting Veth’s forearm with her dagger, causing him to roll over in pain. Kicking off of Veth’s torso, she back-flipped over Stoyan and sunk her daggers into his collarbones. Pushing off his lower back with her feet, she continued her aerial dance toward the two mages. She landed in front of Alaiya, who tried to conjure a spell. Lan quickly broke her hands apart, the magick dissipating. Letting a dagger dangle on its wrist strap, Lan grabbed Alaiya’s arm and spun around her. Kicking her legs out from under her, Lan wrenched Alaiya’s shoulder and the Sorceress screamed in pain. Lan then spun her around to face Cyrxx, a look of satisfaction in her eyes. The spell Cyrxx had prepared flittered away, the risk of killing Alaiya too great in such close quarters. The look of defeat made Lan laugh.
“Guess you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” She rolled over Alaiya, slamming her face into the cobblestone street, and continued to Cyrxx. The Gnome tried valiantly to fire off another spell, but Lan moved too quickly. The dagger slashed across his chest and the magick fell apart as Cyrxx collapsed.
Looking around, Lan wondered aloud, “Who first, hmmm?”
“You aren’t done yet, Lan. Sehanine hasn’t abandoned us.”
Lan turned to see Veth struggling to maintain his feet. His right arm dangled at his side, broken and useless, and he had cast away his shield. Now holding his mace in his left, he stood, guarded.
The sight of the beaten Cleric caused Lan to chuckle as she kicked Cyrxx in the head. She approached Veth slowly and weaponless, her daggers now sitting back in their sheaths on her hips. She made a point of stepping on Alaiya as she moved closer. “From what I hear,” she said as she approached Stoyan’s body. She paused a second to kick him in the face, the crunch of the jaw breaking infuriating Veth. Lan looked up to the Cleric and flashed a smile that, on most days, would be considered sweet and innocent. “The bitch was in heat.”
Veth snapped, blind fury filling his body as he mustered the strength to attempt the impossible. He charged, roaring, raging as his emotions manifested into unparalleled strength. He swung his mace in a high, arching trajectory that was easily avoided by the nimble Rogue. As Lan effortlessly glided around Veth, her hand slipping to the small of her back as she pulled out a third dagger. With a voice as soft as velvet, Lan whispered, “Sit, boy.”
Veth fell to his knees, blood spilling from his wounds. He blacked out before he hit the stone walk. As Lan stood over the bodies, the sound of the city guards echoed through the streets as three patrols suddenly appeared in the streets leading into the plaza. Lan looked around quickly, figuring out her exits, and broke for an alley.
“Stop her!” cried a guard and two of the patrols took off down the alley in pursuit. “Alert the Clerics, they’re going to have work to do!”