Below you can read some short stories I’ve written as filler/between games/things that happened but not at the table. These were meant to fill the gaps between gaming sessions. I hope you enjoy them!
Thia joins the party
Adam stirred, the smell of bacon frying wormed into his brain. Was Kathra making breakfast?
Rising from his bedroll, he stopped. The slender form, hidden beneath a dark cloak, wasn’t Kathra. Nor was is Caelynn. His hand reached for his staff.
“There is no need for concern,” a voice came from the hooded figure. “Here. She explains it better than I can.” A dark arm held out a sealed piece of parchment.
Adam moved closer, trying to make out the features of the cook, but she kept her face hidden. Taking the parchment, he said, “Thank you. I think.” He slid a finger underneath the cold wax, breaking the seal.
“Adam, do not grieve. I am not dead, though I am not whole either. Flink saved my life, and I owe him a debt that I cannot repay. In my soul, I know he is dead. And I fear that my own abilities, or lack thereof, were at fault. I did not say this to you, as I know you would disagree.
“I have returned to my temple. I must resolve this fear within myself before I can hope to adventure again. Indeed, I may never venture past the gates again. I do not know what Torm needs of me.
“I would not leave you alone, though. I appealed to colleagues, and one replied. She is gifted in ways I was not. Let not her appearance give you moments of despair. She is honorable, and lawful, and not all which she appears to be.
“May Torm bless you both.”
Adam carefully folded the letter. First, they lost Flink. Helix was nowhere to be found. And now Kathra. The company was broken, but it was on him and Lynn to make sure a new group of companions rose from these ashes. One that could eradicate this curse and bring order back to the world.
“What shall we call you?” he asked.
The woman stood straight, her arms removing the hood from her head before she turned around. Pale yellow hair fell in a cascade of curls. She faced him, and he took a step back. Dark skin, but not the ears of an elf. A single tattoo on her cheek, marking her with the symbol of Kelemvor. She looked both human and dark elf at the same time. Indeed, a hunted look was present in her lilac eyes.
“I am Thia Bransdottir. Eat before the bacon grows cold. We have more companions to find before we can conquer the Fane.”
Jinnaari is sent to join them
Jinnaari swung his sword, pulling the blow at the last moment. The purpose of sparring with new recruits was to teach them, not bludgeon them to death.
“Althir!” the lieutenant’s voice cut through the din of the practice arena.
Jinnaari raised his head, his tail moving slightly.
“Commander wants to see you.”
Nodding, he left the arena. He paused at the weapons rack, putting the wooden sword and practice shield away before strapping his personal sword around his waist. Adjusting his cloak to make sure the symbol of Bahamut was visible. As a paladin, it was a matter of pride that his faith was where all could see it.
He strode through the compound to the commander’s office. He knocked on the door once and waited.
“Enter,” a deep voice responded.
Jinnaari opened the door. “You wanted to see me?”
“Althir. Yes. Close the door and take a seat.” The commander, another Dragonborn, shuffled through a small pile of parchment while Jinnaari settled onto the backless seat.
“I got a missive today from a colleague connected to the Paladins of Torm. Seems one of their clerics was out adventuring and their group stumbled onto something rather sinister. They were overpowered in the lost city of Omu, and lost a party member. The cleric’s faith has been tested, and another has been found to take her place. I’d like to send you to make sure the task they’re on succeeds.” The older Dragonborn leaned forward.
“What are they searching for?”
“A cure to the death curse that’s befallen the world.”
Jinnaari let out a low whistle. “A worthy and noble endeavor. Omu’s over in Cthult, though. And the way to it is long forgotten. How am I to get there? Or know who to look for?”
“The cleric provided for that. Here,” he handed a couple of pages over to Jinnaari, “are detailed descriptions of the rest of the party. The ones she knew would be together, at least. One is still lost, and they don’t know if he’ll return. Study those, and gather your gear. The portal will be cast within an hour.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “You’re sending me via teleport? Is this mission that urgent?”
The commander’s gaze locked with Jinnaari’s. “It’s the most urgent thing happening in the world right now.”
Lolth begins to plan
Lolth stirred, her discontent at the high priestess kneeling before her barely in check. Her legs absently played with some of the skulls laying at her feet. “You disappoint me, Herasta. For someone who has risen so high and led her house to such glory, I would have thought you knew better than to lie to me.”
Herasta whimpered, her head lowered in supplication before the Goddess. “I don’t know what you mean, Holy One.”
Lolth skittered around the cavern, moving closer. “Your first born. The one who was born under the correct signs. The one you told me was dead. She lives.”
Herasta shook her head. “That’s not possible. I told you. She looked like her father and I left her on the snowbank. I checked the next night and there was blood…the infant’s body gone. She couldn’t have lived through the night. There was a pack of wolves, starving. They had to have devoured her.”
Spinning some magic, the Spider Queen summoned a scrying mirror in front of Herasta’s face. “Then who is that?” she demanded.
The face within the web was practically identical to Herasta’s, but with some disgustingly human features. And the mark of Kelemvor was seared into her cheek.
Lolth dismissed the image. “You will find her, subdue her, and bring her before me. I have seen her future, and she will be powerful. I will use that power, not Kelemvor.”
“It shall be as you command.” Herasta began to back away, her face still lowered.
“She has companions. I don’t care about them, though you may need to bring them simply to keep her from escaping. Except for the Tabaxi. He you may kill.” She paused. “One more thing, Herasta. If you fail me in this, I will tear down your house and you will have nothing left to rebuild it from.”
The woman raised her head at the challenge. Good, thought Lolth, she still has some spine.
“And when I succeed?” Herasta asked.
A mirthless grin split the Goddess’ face. “Then the only one who will be higher in my good graces will be Thia.”
Jinnaari is summoned
Jinnaari stormed through the stone hallway, his anger barely in check. I should be there, with them! Not here! The thought ran through his mind.
One minute, they’d been clearing out a room. The next, he was standing in the middle of the practice yard. Someone’d summoned him, taken him away from his task. The very task his Commander had said a few weeks ago was the most important thing in the world.
Torches flickered wildly in their sconces as he strode past. Strange. The chapterhouse shouldn’t be deserted. Yet he hadn’t seen another Paladin in the time since he’d returned.
The Commander’s door, situated at the end of the corridor, stood slightly ajar. Another warning sign. Drakkus never left it that way. Either it was open, or it was shut. Jinnaari slowed down, one hand easing his sword from its’ scabbard. He steadied his breathing and stopped, listening before moving forward. His tail swished from side to side in small, deliberate movements.
“Althir. Come in. We’ve been waiting for you.” A voice, commanding in a way that couldn’t be disobeyed, came from the room.
Jinnaari put away his weapon, but kept a hand on the hilt. The voice was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. It belonged to a dragon, or dragonborn, that much was certain. There was a tone that only one of his kind could create. A depth to the timbre that could make a soul cringe in terror, or know that help had arrived.
It wasn’t the Commander. He knew that much.
Stopping in the doorway, his gaze was drawn to the fireplace to the left. Logs burned with an unnatural yellow hue. Three chairs sat in front of it. The center one was unoccupied. Two cloaked figures sat in the other two.
“Sit,” the figure on the right commanded, pointing to the empty chair. “We have much to discuss.”
“I mean no disrespect, but I have a task that needs completing. I need to know why I’ve been summoned, and by who, before I’ll enter. Or you can just send me back where I was.”
The figure on the right rose, hands moving the hood off his head as he turned. “I summoned you because it is my right, Althir.”
Jinnaari’s eyes flew wide and he dropped to a knee. “My Lord Bahamut. I am yours to command.”
“Then get your ass in this chair as I told you to do.” The God commanded, irritation evident in his voice.
Without hesitation, Jinnaari moved into the room and sat down. He kept his focus on the fire in front of him and not those on either side of him. If one God was present, he was fairly certain the other was as well.
“We have a problem, Althir. My brother has a cleric. One that you’ve met.” Bahamut began.
“Don’t interrupt.” Bahamut snapped. “But, yes. Thia herself is not the problem. Rather, it’s her parentage.”
“My daughter has come to the attention of Lolth.” Kelemvor’s deep voice was tinged with sadness. “Lolth would use her skills to the detriment of all, have her create armies to do Lolth’s bidding. Scores of undead driders that could walk the surface of this world.”
Jinnaari couldn’t help the low whistle that escaped his lips. “I know Thia. She detests that part of her heritage. You have nothing to fear, My Lord. She would not willingly do this.”
“The problem isn’t that she’d do so willingly, but that Lolth and Her minions would manipulate her into doing so to save others. Thia has a good heart. Too good, I fear.”
Bahamut spoke up. “Lolth’s commanded Thia’s mother to find her, bring her into the Underdark to be converted to the Spider Queen’s service. One attempt has already been made, though Thia and her companions were able to thwart it.”
“If this is the case, then send me back!” Jinnaari insisted. “I cannot protect her from here! And what of the death curse? Why bring me here to talk when I should be there, fulfilling my vows?”
“The group is well suited for the task at hand. I have seen their future, and in this quest they will succeed.” Bahamut sighed. “But I need you to learn additional skills. To defeat Lolth in Her lair will not be easy. I will not let you fail, Althir. Stay in this realm for now. Training will be provided. When you are ready, and they need you, I will send you back.”
“How long will I be here?”
“Time flows differently here. That’s impossible to answer in a way you’ll understand.”
Jinnaari shook his head. “I do not like this. I should be there.”
“I don’t care if you like it or not, Althir. Your choice is simple. Stay and take the training I require of you, or leave my service.” Bahamut’s voice cut through any resistance Jinnaari still held onto.
Lowering his head, he replied, “Then let’s get on with this.”
Help is sent
Jinnaari spun, ducking underneath the axe, and swept the legs out from underneath his opponent. The dark elf grunted as his body hit the stone floor. With a smooth motion, he positioned the tip of his sword at the creature’s throat. “Do you yield?”
Hatred glared back at him, but his foe nodded. Jinnaari stood down. “Take a break,” Drakkus commanded. “You’re slowing down, Althir. He almost had you that time.”
Nodding, Jinnaari crossed to the barrel of water that sat in the corner and splashed some on his face. “You’ve had us sparring for over an hour, Drakkus. Even you’d be tired by now.”
“My kin will not let up simply so you can rest, Paladin.” The Drow’s words were full of contempt. “We are many. There’s only one of you. Eventually, we will overwhelm you. Herasta’s daughter will be rescued. You can’t hide her forever.”
Jinnaari clenched his jaw, refusing to respond to the taunt. He rested his hands on the windowsill, looking out to the courtyard below. Despite what Bahamut and Kelemvor told him, he still wanted to be with his companions. That’s where he should be, where he’d be of use. Not stuck in a small room, sparring.
Two figures moved quickly across the open area. The female elf’s bright red hair stood out like a beacon. Her companion, a gnome who left behind dirt on the flagstones with each step. Ahead of them, a portal opened. Without breaking stride, the pair entered and disappeared.
“The Gods are not without compassion, Althir. They sent help to your friends. Thia will be kept safe.” Drakkus stood next to him, keeping his voice low.
“For how long?’
“With that pair? Who knows. Rhaine doesn’t have the same…theological restrictions that Thia does. At least the Tabaxi’s pets will remain healed now. Savy isn’t your level with a sword, but she knows how to use one.”
“Rhaine and Savy? They sent those two?” He shook his head. “One’s going to burn her way through Chult. The other will drive creatures away from her stench.”
A dry laugh came from behind them. Jinnaari turned, glaring at the Drow.
“You sent them? Might as well just escort Herasta’s daughter to Lolth’s temple now. We do not fear fire. Or filth.” He secured his white hair into a ponytail, snickering.
Jinnaari lunged at him, one hand circling his throat. Without thought, he slammed the dark elf hard against the stone wall. For the first time, he saw fear flicker in his eyes. “If that happens,” he growled, “you will be the first to die.”
The elf laughed. “Try.”
“Althir. Stand down.” Drakkus commanded.
Releasing his grip, Jinnaari took a step back. He stroked the cross piece of his sword with a single finger. All he wanted to do was end this creature’s life.
Rhaine stepped through the portal and scowled. The jungle was hot, humid. “Come on, Savy,” she told her companion. “Let’s go find this group. Sooner we take care of things, sooner we can get out of here.”
“It’s awfully damp,” the gnome responded. “Do you think there’s any mud puddles?”
“Look, you gotta stay somewhat clean. From what I was told, Thia’s a bit sheltered. Doesn’t trust many people beyond her temple. It’s going to be hard enough to convince her that you’re here to keep her safe. If she wants to vomit when she’s downwind, it’s not going to help.”
“Fine. Can I still sing when I hit things?”
They started to move toward the ruined buildings in the distance. “Rhaine?”
“Why are you here?”
“Because they’ve got a Tabaxi that likes to play with dead things. Thia’s barely able to tolerate their presence. Kelemvor instilled His hatred for undead in her. I’m keeping them alive.”
“No fire?” Savy asked, a pout on her face.
A mirthless grin crossed Rhaine’s face. “Oh, no, my friend. There will be fire.”
“In the camp!” Rhaine called out. “We’re friendly!” She stopped just out from the edge of the jungle, where she and Savy could easily be seen.
“Sure we should stand here?” Savy asked.
Rhaine nodded. “I saw one of them earlier, the Tabaxi. It’s going to be hard enough to convince them we’re here to help. Going in with swords drawn isn’t going to make them trust us.”
“Them? Or just her?”
Rhaine shrugged. “Either one. Doesn’t really matter.”
“Come closer.” A voice called out from within the ruined building.
Nudging Savy forward, they approached at a measured pace. “Keep your hand off your sword,” Rhaine cautioned the gnome.
They entered the doorway, stepping around pieces of rubble the jungle hadn’t reclaimed yet. Four of them, plus a few creations. Good. Everyone was here.
“You’re Adam,” she pointed at the warlock. “Lynn…Helix…and Thia.”
“You know us,” Adam replied. “But we don’t know you.”
“I’m Rhaine. This is Sir Savy Savv. Lathander sent us. That’s the short version.”
“Not good enough.” Lynn replied.
“Fine,” Rhaine sighed and crossed her arms. “Kelemvor found out Lolth wants to poach that one,” she pointed a finger at Thia, “and doesn’t like the idea. So, He went to Bahamut. Who REALLY didn’t like the idea, either. That’s why Jinnaari’s not here. He’s being trained to take down Lolth. But this whole death curse crap has Lathander pissed, too. So, He sent us to help you guys with that.” She reached for a pouch on her belt. “Here,” she held something out to Thia. “Kelemvor sent me with this for you.”
Thia moved forward and opened her palm. Rhaine dropped a single pearl into it. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Okay, so here’s the deal. Savy’s going to do whatever she can to keep the Drow from taking Thia again. We’re going to have a watch on her, make sure we purify all the food and drink before we eat, all of it. I’m here,” she turned her attention to Helix, “to keep your pets alive. One thing. You’re going to have to tell me when they need a heal. With them being undead, there’s no blood for me to see. I won’t notice if there’s new nicks in the bones. Thia, you take care of the rest of the group.” She looked at each of them in turn. “I get it. You all want the dragonborn back. Too bad. Savy knows what she’s doing with her sword. And I’ve got a few spells that’ll make crowds easier to manage. You’ve got the two of us and we don’t believe in letting people die. Or get kidnapped. So, let’s solve the problem and fix the world. Without losing anyone along the way.”
A Message for Caelynn
Caelynn tossed in her bedroll, trying to find a position that passed as comfortable. No matter which way she turned, a pebble or dirt clod dug into her.
“Lynn,” a familiar voice whispered.
She sat up, “Jocelyn?” she whispered. “Where are you?” Frantically, Caelynn looked around the room they slept in. Adam faced the door, his back to her. Rhaine paced the room in measured steps. Everyone else slept.
“I don’t have much time. Just listen,” her sister’s voice was tired. “Acerack knows you’re coming. He’s told me I have to leave a trail for you to find. Please, sister…don’t follow it.” Pain crept into Jocelyn’s voice. “Leave me to my fate. If you come, he’s going to kill almost all of you. He’s made a deal with the Drow to hand over one of your friends. And…and…” her voice trailed off.
“What, Jo? Tell me!” Caelynn insisted.
“He wants to take you for his concubine, like he has me. Just stay away, Lynn!” Jocelyn screamed once, then went silent.
Caelynn started, the nightmare fading as fast as her heart pounded. Adam turned his head, looking at her with concern. Rhaine stopped mid stride, one hand on the mace hanging from her belt.
Waving off their concern, she laid back down. She’d tell Adam. Later. She still didn’t trust Rhaine or Savy enough to include them.
Besides, she might need Adam’s help to kill her sister. Whatever she was going through, death was going to be better if she couldn’t get her free.
Adam and Maynard
“You should’ve had that kill, Adam!” The staff growled at him in his own language.
Adam sighed. “Maynard, I know you want to be the best magic item ever, but you won’t get there simply on kills alone. Savy has Dawnbringer. That alone should tell you something. She’s going to take down more monsters than I can.”
“Enough! I didn’t select you to hear excuses!” Maynard interrupted him.
“What is it you want from me, Maynard?”
Visions flooded Adam’s head. Mounds of treasure, a palace greater than any king’s, and multitudes of people from all races sat on the floor around a single throne. On it, Adam sat with Maynard resting across his lap, the ends of the staff resting on the arms of the throne.
“Eternal glory.” The longing in Maynard’s voice sent a shiver down Adam’s spine. There was nothing the staff wouldn’t do to obtain what it saw as its’ destiny. Absolutely nothing. Adam could go along for the ride and share in the outcome, or the staff would find another.
“Yes, Adam. I will find another if you cannot get your act together! Your companions are, for the most part, serviceable. The Tabaxi is humorous, so I would keep him around. A purring cat at our feet shows everyone we’re kind, benevolent.”
“You said ‘for the most part’. I’m almost afraid to ask who you don’t like.”
“The cleric. There’s something not right in their head.”
Shaking his head in confusion, Adam asked, “Which one? Rhaine or Thia?”
“Yes,” the staff replied before it fell silent, refusing to answer any further questions.
Jinnaari gets news
Pain shot through his Jinnaari’s body, making the muscles contract. He struggled to catch his breath as the brief respite washed over him. Beads of sweat dripped from his scales.
He wasn’t sick. He knew that much. This felt natural, organic. It was as if his body was waking up to a new reality.
Only he didn’t have any warning. Just agonizing spasms that jerked him from his bed. The impact with the floor woke him. He hadn’t been able to get off of it since then.
The door to his room opened, and he heard Drakkus’ familiar step. “I can’t…” Jinnaari gasped. “Not right now. Something’s wrong with me.” A fresh wave of pain, accompanied by nausea, wracked his body.
“Bahamut agrees. He’s had news.”
“Adam? Thia? Helix?”
Drakkus moved around to him, settling on the bed. “No. From Bozaks.”
“The clan?” Taking a deep breath, Jinnaari forced himself to sit upright and look at his Commander. He’d not been at his clan’s home since he came here and joined the order. But it was never far from his thoughts.
“Seems the elder died. Given the death curse, they burned the body over risk him becoming undead. He didn’t have an heir.”
The burning began to concentrate on Jinnaari’s back, and he was desperate to scratch it against something.
“Althir, you mother was selected to lead them. You’ve been named her heir. Bahamut himself went to do the ceremony.”
Drakkus’ words penetrated the fog of pain, barely registering in Jinnaari’s brain. A primal scream erupted from his chest as the newly formed wings forced their way out of his skin.
“All hail Jinnaari Althir, Prince of the Dragonborn of Clan Bozaks.”
“Let me go!” Adam clenched his jaw, fighting against the hold that Maynard had put on him. He felt the strain on his muscles, knew he’d fall flat on his face if the staff relented, and didn’t care.
“I’ve been down here a long time, Adam,” the voice echoed in his mind. “I know what’s up ahead. The group can handle it without you. And we have to get a few things straight between us.”
Adam relaxed a little, but not completely. In the dark corner of his mind, in the one part of his psyche that Maynard hadn’t wormed into yet, he remained alert. “Like what?”
“Are you going to be reasonable?”
“I’m listening.” Adam wasn’t going to commit to anything beyond that.
“It’s a start,” the staff snorted. A truly odd sound. It wasn’t human, but Maynard excelled at conveying a sense of derision. “We have to develop a plan, you and I.”
“For what? We’ve got a mission. Kill Acerack. Remove the death curse. Keep Thia away from Lolth and the Drow.”
Pain seared through his legs. “Not that plan, you idiot! The one where I am given the glory I deserve! It won’t happen as long as that gnome,” disgust dripped like ooze off of the word, “wields DawnBringer. We have to drive them away from the party. Or make sure they’re killed. Your choice.” Maynard paused. “I wonder if the Tabaxi knows my language.”
“Helix?” Dread seeped into Adam’s soul.
“Teach him. He’s an excellent creature, one with a great sense of self preservation. And a love of special objects like myself. I need a back up plan.”
“Why?” Adam really didn’t want to know the answer, but the question left his mouth before he could stop himself.
His legs became unlocked, and he stumbled forward. Maynard had released him, and fallen silent. You know why, he thought. He dashed down the stairs, intent on finding his companions before the staff decided to kill him where he stood.
Into the Maze
Biting into the apple, Jinnaari walked toward the blacksmith. Henry had asked for five days to alter the armor to accommodate his new wings. He’d given him seven.
Steam rose from the forge as he neared. They were busy today. For a moment, Jinnaari contemplated spending some more time practicing his flying skills. No, he thought, I’m as good as I can be without the armor. Time to find out how to compensate for the weight.
“Evening, friend,” he called out as he ducked under the low hanging awning.
“Your Highness,” Henry bowed slightly. Jinnaari’s tail twitched. He didn’t like people here using his new title. “I didn’t expect you today. Is the armor not fitting well?” He picked up a rag and wiped his hands with it.
“What are you talking about? I’m here to pick it up now. I haven’t seen it yet.”
Henry looked at him, concern on his face. “I finished it two days ago, as promised. One of the new recruits came, said he was to bring the armor to you. Drakkus’ orders. Perhaps it’s being blessed?”
“I’m sure it’s a simple misunderstanding. I’ll go find the Commander and get this straight.” Curiosity ran through his mind as he left the smithy. Why would Drakkus pick up his armor and not tell him?
“Prince Jinnaari!” A young boy ran toward him. “The Commander says you’re to meet him. I was sent to show you the way.”
“Is there a problem?”
“No, not that I know of. But he said you had to come with me right now.” The boy darted ahead then turned back around, waving his arm. “He’s this way.”
Something wasn’t right. “Let’s go back to my quarters first. I need my sword.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “No, you can’t. You have to come. Now. That’s what the Commander said.”
First, no armor. Now, no weapon. It wasn’t ideal, but the boy was insistent. Sighing, Jinnaari tousled the boy’s hair. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. Lead me to the Commander.”
The boy led him through a few familiar tunnels, then veered down a seldom used passage. “Where are we going?”
“It’s not far. I promise.” The boy reached for a torch burning in a wall sconce. “The staircase is this way.”
They rounded another turn and came to a dead end. “Lad, there’s nothing here.”
“Are you certain, Althir?” Bahamut’s voice sounded from behind him.
Jinnaari spun around and lowered his head, “My Lord.”
Turning, there was now a sturdy wooden door, bound with iron, in the wall. Torches flanked it, flickering with an unnatural green light.
“The dark one you’ve been training with escaped. He’s in there. Find him, destroy him before he can get to the portal in the center. Do this, and you will be allowed to return to your companions.”
“I need my armor and sword.”
“Everything you need is in that labyrinth. More, even. It’s up to you to find it all.”
“That’s the test, then? Kill one Drow, find my gear?”
“The dark one isn’t the only inhabitant within those halls. And they guard the treasures within well. If you can get past them all and find the portal, you’ll complete the training I require of you.”
Jinnaari looked back over his shoulder. “I will do this.”
“For Thia’s sake, I hope you do. You will get no help from me or Kelemvor once you enter. If you don’t succeed, death will not be swift or merciful. The denizens make examples of failure.”
Squaring his shoulders, he took a deep breath. Reaching out, he tugged at the large iron ring and swung the door open. He grabbed at one of the torches and crossed the threshold.
Helix Makes a New Toy
Helix took a deep breath, pausing in his work to dab at the bead of sweat that threatened to run down his nose. A mistake now would not get the results he wanted.
Adam kept watch over the party, leaving Helix time to do what he wanted. This would be a surprise for all of them, one he hoped would be well received. With Thia, it was impossible to tell. Savy and Rhaine wouldn’t care. Lor, well, how does one read a Dragonborn’s face? He’d learned Jinnaari’s tells, but hadn’t been around Lor enough yet.
As to Lynn and Adam…they’d both think it was completely justified. The warlock in particular.
He looked back down at the small pile of ashes he’d scooped up. It was time. Grasping the cylinder of wood he’d spent the last hour hollowing out, Helix poured the ashes into the center while muttering the spell. Using a rag, he lifted the small, metal pot off the fire and began to use the melted wax held within to seal the end.
Steam rose as the wax seared into the wood. The smell, a combination of materials and a hint of fear, made him smile. The rod was barely a foot long. Inside, Maynard began to wake up.
What have you done to me?
Helix smiled. “I found you a new home!” he replied enthusiastically.
As what? There was a note of fear in Maynard’s voice.
“You’re a kitty brush! You can stroke my fur and get out all the knots!”
A wail, full of despair, echoed through the room. Adam turned, looking at Helix. “I don’t want to know, do I?”
Helix smiled, holding up the new toy. “Now Maynard can be the most powerful kitty toy! Just like he always wanted! There’s all sorts of things he can do to make me happy!”
Into The Maze part 2
The door closed behind him on silent hinges. The sound of the bolt sliding into the lock, however, echoed down the stone corridor in front of Jinnaari. The light from the torch in his hand only illuminated so much. He didn’t need it to see, but it was the only thing he had to defend himself.
He had no armor or weapon, but he would find the Drow. One of them wasn’t leaving this place alive.
Moving slowly, Jinnaari crept down the hallway. The light gave him away, yes. But that didn’t mean he should run, screaming a war cry. Until he found things to help him, that is.
As he followed a curve in the wall, the light bounced off a glint of metal. Settled into an alcove sat armor. He breathed a sigh of relief. He rested the torch against the wall and took a closer look. It appeared to be his, the same set he’d asked Henry to alter. He donned the protective clothing, taking his time to buckle each strap securely. There wasn’t room in the hallway to fly, but he spread his wings anyway. The blacksmith had done a wonderful job, as they came free quickly and without any hesitation.
After he put on the last piece, he picked up the torch again and inspected the alcove. He’d found his armor, but not his sword. Just above eye level, a small hole in the rock drew his attention. Reaching inside, his hand touched a hilt. Jinnaari drew it out, hopeful it was his weapon. It was a longsword, yes, but this was caked with rust and grime. The layers of age and neglect crumbled away from his grip. What was underneath was still solid. It wasn’t his sword, and he didn’t have his gear to clean this one up, but it was still sharp enough to do damage.
“You won’t catch me,” the Drow’s voice echoed through the corridor. “Thia will be brought before Lolth and turned to Her service. And I will be rewarded for it.”
“Over my dead body,” Jinnaari muttered back. With sword in hand, he left the torch behind. He didn’t need it to hunt his prey any longer.
The Boneless Cat Puzzle
“I don’t get it, Rhaine,” Savy kept her voice low. “I mean, I know cats can sometimes look like they don’t have any bones. But Helix didn’t even have a skull!”
“I don’t know either, Savy,” she replied. “You were there when he got decapitated. Didn’t you see what happened?”
Savy’s lower lip stuck out as she pouted. “I was charmed, Rhaine. I only knew what that damn thing wanted me to know. Which was I needed to stick my head in its mouth when Helix got done.”
“Sorry, I forgot. It just doesn’t make any sense.” Rhaine looked around the room. Everyone else slept. They’d put Helix’s body and head into Caelynn’s portable hole. He was already dead. She didn’t really miss the Tabaxi, to be honest. Thia, though, had withdrawn into herself. Enough that it bothered Rhaine. It was bad enough the Drow were chasing her down. Thia wasn’t used to being outside her temple, didn’t have the hardness she needed to be adventuring. Losing a companion like this, not being able to resurrect him, had hit her hard. Still, the other cleric had skills.
Rhaine went back to how the corpse had looked when the fatal chomp happened. Helix’s body went limp. He was dead, yes. You’d think that would be normal. But there was more to it. Almost like he was nothing but mud and glop inside with only his skin and fur holding him together.
“Get some sleep, Rhaine,” Savy commanded. “You need to get your spells back before we put those eyeballs in that door. I’ll wake up Adam in a bit.”
Nodding, Rhaine settled into her bedroll. There was a high likelihood they’d be fighting something tomorrow. She just hoped it wasn’t something they couldn’t handle.
A Bit of Hope
Jinnaari pulled the sword from the drider’s body, watching closely in case his last thrust wasn’t deadly. A low hiss escaped the creature’s throat as she breathed her last. Good.
He pulled out a rag and wiped the blood and ichor off the blade. Strange. There was no real light in this maze, yet the weapon he’d been provided gave off just enough for him to see. As he worked the cloth against the edge, more of the rust fell away. There was something magical about it; his soul felt a kinship with this sword.
Jinnaari shoved aside his curiosity. He had a job to do. Aust was still ahead of him, heading to the portal. He had to find the Drow, kill him before he reached his friends. Before Aust could kidnap Thia, and turn her over to Lolth.
He kicked at the drider’s corpse, and something scraped against the floor. Kneeling, he noticed a pendant. Picking it up, he examined it. It felt good in his hand.
“As I said, many treasures would be found within the maze.” Bahamut’s voice came from all around him.
Not wanting to second guess his God, Jinnaari clasped the chain around his neck. He began to search the creature with a purpose. Where there was one gift, there may be more.
Hidden within a pack was a black silk cloak, with silver threads interspersed in the weave. Unsure of what it was, Jinnaari shoved it back into the pack and slung it across his body.
He would find out what the items were, all of them, in due time. Now, however, he hunted.
Resolve is Tested
“Thia!” Rhaine shouted at her.
“I’m fine,” she replied. Moving carefully, she pulled herself free of the remnants of the webbing. “Once Adam killed the priestess, most of it dropped away.” She shuddered, brushing the last of the sticky strands from her cloak.
“Anyone hurt?” Rhaine called out again as Thia moved around the body of the demon and joined the party.
“I am!” Lor replied, one hand clutching her side.
Thia waived the redhead’s hand aside. “I told you already, I’m fine. I’ll take care of her.” She approached the dragonborn and started to cast a healing spell. At the same time, she listened.
“This wasn’t normal, Adam. Lathander be damned, we were in a dungeon. This group targeted us, pulled us here. Thoughts?” Rhaine’s voice was tinged with anger. Thia understood it. She was angry herself. And terrified.
“No, it wasn’t,” the warlock answered. “They were after something.”
“Not something, Adam. Me.” Thia’s voice shook. This was wrong. All of it. There’d been too many close calls lately. Eventually, one of her companions would be out of range of her spells and die trying to keep her safe. “Maybe I should just go back to my temple. I can hide there. All of you would be safer if I wasn’t here.”
Rhaine spun around and looked at her. “You think they’d stop hunting you just because you were in a temple? Lolth doesn’t give a damn about the other Gods. Their holy places have no reverence or fear among the Drow. You go back there, Thia, and every single person that helps hide you would die. Every person in the town or village that ever walked onto the grounds would be slaughtered. No. You’re staying here. Kelemvor sent you out to help this group, right? Get rid of this death curse crap?”
Thia nodded, swallowing hard. The guilt rose within her. So much blood would be on her hands.
“Then stop feeling sorry for yourself and do your damn job.”
Caelynn moved closer and knelt in front of her. “Thia, you’re here for a reason. Same as the rest of us. Rhaine’s right, though I don’t agree with the words she chose.” Lynn turned her head and shot a dirty look at the other cleric. “You’re not in this alone. None of us are going to let the Drow take you anywhere. When he’s ready, Jinnaari’s going to rejoin us. At some point, though, we’re going to have to deal with this complication. You can’t run forever.”
Adam cleared his throat. “Listen to Lynn, Thia. The best way – the only way – for us to get Lolth off your trail for good is to kill Her. That’s Jinnaari’s job. Ours is to keep you safe and get him close enough. As to this,” he kicked at the corpse of a dead spider, “it’s going to get worse as they take us seriously. We’ll take care of them, though.”
Caelynn rose. “Enough of this talk. We won the fight. That’s all that matters. No use dwelling on what might’ve happened when it didn’t.”
Thia looked at the elf, “You’re right,” she said with a quivering breath. “One step at a time.”
“And the next one’s this way,” Adam called out from a nearby wall. He stood next to an opening. The room where they’d rested the night before lay beyond the threshold.
Thia settled the hood back over her head, hiding her features. Kelemvor, give me strength, she prayed within the silence of her soul.
Jinnaari broke into a run, rage blinding him to reason. Aust had crept up on him as he dozed, almost sliced open his abdomen. He’d woken up in time to deflect the sword. The Drow had snarled, and ran. The coward! He knew Jinnaari would beat him in a fair fight.
Blood seeped from his side. The wound wasn’t mortal, but it was enough to slow him down. It was entirely possible Aust wielded a poisoned blade. All the more reason to destroy him and rejoin his friends. Rhaine was supposed to stay with the group until he returned. Either she or Thia would be able to take care of him.
As long as he didn’t die first.
A low rumble began to echo down the corridor. The floor shook as a section of the ceiling crashed to the floor in front of him. Raising his shield, he deflected several stones as they hurtled toward him. A cloud of dirt and dust enveloped him. Coughing, he looked down the hall. Maybe, just maybe, Aust’s body would be under all the rubble.
The Drow rose from a crouch, shaking some larger rocks off of his body. The two adversaries locked eyes. Aust growled, then ran across the piles of rubble.
Jinnaari watched his foe dance over the rocks. He was going to lose time. Time he didn’t have to waste. Glancing upward, he smiled. The cave in had opened up the tunnel enough that he could fly.
Spreading his wings, he rose from the ground and launched himself upward. Aust turned around, fear replacing the arrogance on his face. Jinnaari put all of the frustration and rage that had been simmering since Bahamut pulled him away from the group into a single, primal scream of hatred and launched his sword at Aust. The sword flew true, piercing the Drow through the center of his chest and pinning him to a wall.
Jinnaari landed, folded his wings, all while keeping his focus on his opponent. “I told you,” his voice was low. “You would be the first to die. I’m a man of my word.”
Aust coughed, blood oozing from his mouth. “My death won’t matter. Herasta’s daughter will be one of Lolth’s priestesses. You can’t stop her fate.”
Jinnaari grabbed the hilt of his sword, twisting the blade in the Drow’s body. “I changed yours, didn’t I?”
He pulled the sword out and watched Aust crumble to the ground. A single ring on a finger was worth taking. The rest of his belongings would turn to dust, forgotten like the man would be.
Savy Gets Smart
“Shit,” Rhaine breathed when she examined Lynn’s arm. The skin was translucent, with small cracks forming. Whatever the creature spit on her definitely wasn’t good for her health.
Savy sat in the boat, watching the commotion. That Rhaine was swearing wasn’t a good sign. Sure, she swore. A lot. But that was Rhaine. And she really didn’t swear unless she really meant it.
Even Savy had to admit that Lynn’s arm didn’t look like it should.
“Here, get it wet,” Adam draped a cloth soaked in lake water across Lynn’s arm. “Does it still hurt?”
“It didn’t hurt to begin with. What’s wrong?”
“It’s a disease of some kind,” Thia said. Savy liked Thia, but she didn’t want to tell Rhaine that. “The aboleth’s secretions must cause it.” Savy watched the dark-skinned cleric concentrate on the arm, her face growing sad. “I can’t heal it, though.”
“Neither of us can,” Rhaine spoke up. “Whatever the cure, it’s beyond our skill.” The redhead moved closer and lifted one corner of the rag. “It looks better if you keep it wet. Everybody, fill up whatever you have with water. We’ll have to keep the arm wrapped, and wet, until we can get back to town. We need a cleric who’s had more training than either of us, or some sort of wish.”
“Rhaine?” Savy tried to get her friend’s attention.
“Not now, Savy,” she didn’t even look at the deep gnome.
“Rhaine?” Savy said again, this time a bit louder.
Adam wrapped Lynn’s entire arm, then started pouring water over the rags. No one was listening to her!
“Rhaine!” She screamed. It worked. Everyone turned and looked at her.
“Why don’t we just ask the genie that was in the bottle Helix picked up to heal her?”
Jaws dropped, heads hung low, and everyone looked silly.
Thia started to rummage in one of her packs. “Savy, that’s the best idea ever.”
The Way Back
The blue white light beckoned, chasing the darkness of the maze into the recesses of his mind. He’d slain Aust, beaten him to the center. The glow could only be the portal.
Finally, he’d be allowed to return to his companions.
Jinnaari resisted the urge to rush toward the light. Time had lost meaning in this place. His eyes had adjusted and moving too fast would potentially blind him temporarily. He forced himself to keep a slow, steady pace. Allowing his vision to adjust, he listened for any movement. He was so close! The last thing he needed was to walk into a trap.
A light shuffle of feet made him stop. He flattened his back against a wall. Someone, or something, was ahead. The sword left his scabbard with a steely hiss. One way or another, this game was going to end.
“Come forward, Prince. There are no monsters left for you to slay in this maze.” The deep voice had an ethereal quality to it. He knew it wasn’t Bahamut. That left only one other possibility that made any sense.
Kelemvor. Thia’s God.
Jinnaari shoved the weapon home and walked out. The portal shimmered in the center of the circular room. Five other tunnels led off of it, back into the maze.
Kelemvor stood, his hands folded in front of him and hidden within the sleeves of his robe, next to the portal. His eternal face was tinted with a sadness that made Jinnaari’s heart sink.
“Did something happen?”
The God shook his head, “No, not yet. You’ve done what was asked of you. My Brother is proud of you, and we both feel that you are ready to return to your companions. There is nothing left we could teach you to succeed at the task Bahamut has given you.”
He wasn’t sure, but knew Kelemvor wasn’t saying everything. There was something more that He would ask. “But?”
The God drew a breath, “You’re perceptive, which is necessary. There is a favor I would ask of you.” He held up his hand, and Jinnaari remained silent. “Do not answer me aloud, or even right now. You’ve earned the right to return, no matter your decision on my request. I only as that you consider it carefully.”
Jinnaari nodded, “I will.”
“Let me see the sword.”
He drew the weapon and rested the blade against his forearm.
The God reached out a hand, but didn’t try to take the blade. Instead, He brushed his fingertips along the channel running down the center of the sword. “It is as I hoped. Bahamut gifted you with a Holy Avenger. A weapon uniquely suited to aid you in bringing down Lolth.” He let out a sigh. “It may be necessary, however, to use it on someone else.” He took a step back.
“Who?” Jinnaari asked as he put the weapon away.
The God looked at him. “Thia has a purpose in this life. I have nurtured her gifts. Bahamut knows what her destiny is. So does Lolth. We cannot allow that abomination to have sway over my Daughter. If ever you think that she has turned away from the path she was meant to walk, that she has embraced the evil that is Lolth, I ask that you use this weapon to end her life. In doing so, her soul will come to me and not that vile Goddess of the Drow. It’s not about her life, but her very soul. If Lolth were to corrupt Thia, have access to all she is capable of, the world would know darkness. Do this for me, please. I cannot bear the thought of Thia serving Lolth in both this life and the next.” He waved a hand at the portal. “Your companions await. May you succeed if our fears come to pass.”
Jinnaari took a deep breath and stepped through the portal. He wouldn’t make any promise he wasn’t prepared to carry through on. And he had to get back to his companions before knowing if Kelemvor’s fears were real.
The larger orb’s outer shell retreated, and Jinnaari climbed out. “What’d I miss?”
Thia let herself relax for a moment, staying back as Adam and Lynn went to their old friend. It was nothing against Rhaine or Savy, but she’d not felt completely safe since Jinnaari had disappeared on them. Not disappeared, she reminded herself. Rhaine told you that Kelemvor and Bahamut needed him. And why. If he’s back, that means the training is over. Or Lolth is coming for you.
She shifted her attention to Lor. What little she knew of the other Dragonborn made her wonder how she’d react to Jinnaari. Caution bordering on fear from her posture. “Lor, he’s a friend. He won’t hurt you.” Thia turned toward Jinnaari. “You got wings. Those are new.”
“Yeah. You lost Helix.”
She clenched her jaw. “Not on purpose. He’s in a bag, somewhere. What’s left of him anyway. We’ll bring him back once the death curse is lifted.”
Jinnaari nodded, “Where are we on that?”
“Acerack’s down here somewhere. The intel we have points to him being the cause. He’s a lich, though. He won’t be easy to fight.” Adam replied.
“Don’t care. I love to kill undead.”
“What you don’t kill, I’ll turn,” Thia chimed in.
“Rhaine! There’s another tunnel this way,” Savy called out.
Thia turned toward her voice and saw the dirty deep gnome standing near an exit. This place was all tunnels, traps, and terrors. It was too much like the Underdark. At least, from the stories she’d been told. The cold shiver of fear that ran down her spine felt too familiar. It almost didn’t make her shudder any more.
“So, Thia,” Jinnaari said as he fell into step next to her. His voice was low. He wasn’t trying to talk to anyone but her. “How are things with you?”
She shrugged, “I’ve got an evil spider Goddess sending Drow after me. Ones that are intent on killing all of them,” she waived a hand toward the party, “and hauling me back to Lolth. Alive, as I understand it. How do you think I’m doing?”
“If it was me, I’d be pissed. And ready to fight back at the drop of a pin.”
“Pissed, angry, scared. More than a little scared, to be honest. The fear is constant. Every door we open, each hallway we find, I expect to find Drow behind it. I don’t like living this way, Jinnaari.”
He stopped her and she turned to face him. “Hold onto that fear. It’s important. You know why I left. In order to do what I’ve been trained to do, by both of our Gods, we have to go into Lolth’s lair eventually. Don’t ever think we can do this any other way. As long as you’re scared, you’ll survive. I won’t let them take you, Thia.”
“Jinnaari! I think we need you for this.” Rhaine’s voice carried back to them.
“Go,” she told him. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Herasta sat at her desk, her head in her hands. The search of Thia wasn’t going as well as she anticipated. Lolth demanded updates daily now, and there was little that she could share that would please the Goddess.
Aust was still out there, though. Of her sons, he showed the most potential. He was ambitious, though, and not to be trusted.
Then again, Herasta didn’t become Matron Mother because she trusted anyone. She earned her rank the best way she knew how: through deceit, deception, and outright murder.
Someone knocked on the door, and she raised her head. “Enter,” she commanded, settling back in the chair. The last thing she’d show to anyone is weakness.
The door opened and Ishacte entered. A daughter of hers, to be certain. And this one was fully Drow. Sadly, she wasn’t nearly as gifted as Thia. “Pardon the interruption, Matron Mother, but we received word on Aust.” The young woman crossed the room and placed a sealed envelope on the desk.
Herasta nodded once, dismissing Ishacte. It wasn’t until her daughter had left the room and closed the door that she picked up the envelope.
A black ribbon, sealed with red wax, was enough for her to know Aust was dead. The imprinted insignia was from Bahamut.
What was that bastard God up to now?
She slid a finger underneath the flap, breaking the seal, and unfolded the letter.
That brat you called a son is dead. I’d send him back to you, but Jinnaari made sure there wasn’t enough left to bother.
Let my sister know that our Champion is ready. If She wants to live, She’ll leave Thia alone.
She’ll leave all of our followers alone.
In a rage, Herasta crumbled up the parchment and flung it into the fireplace. The edges of the paper began to burn and curl. How dare He speak to her that way!
Another knock on the door. “What is it?” she snapped.
Ishacte peered through the opening. “Lolth demands an update, Matron Mother.”
Herasta straightened herself. “I’m on my way. While I’m gone, summon Diak.”
Aust was dead. Thia was still missing. And now Bahamut taunted her mistress with a champion of his own. It was time to bring in Diak. She was one of the best Yathtallar Lolth had ever trained. If anyone could find Thia, it was her.
Herasta knew she was dancing on the edge of the knife. Her inability to bring Thia before the Goddess tested Lolth’s patience. If anything, news of this champion was welcome. Bahamut would’ve picked some arrogant prick of a paladin. Someone bent on fulfilling meaningless vows.
Someone stupid enough to bring Thia down into the Underdark with him.
The Sword Arm of Lathander
Savy flung herself at the stone block, “Rhaine!” Nothing. It wouldn’t budge.
Everyone else was on the other side of the massive rock. For a moment, she thought about using Dawnbringer as a chisel.
You’re overthinking this.
She blinked. “Lathander?” she whispered.
I told you both that you would be here on loan only until Jinnaari Althir returned. Your job is done. It’s time for you and Rhaine to come home to me.
“She’s in there,” Savy pointed to the blocked corridor.
You and I needed to talk first. She will live. Do you really think I would lose my Shield, my Right Hand, so easily?
She pouted, “No, Lathander. It’s just…” she couldn’t finish the sentence.
It’s just that you have grown, as well. You are no longer what you appear to be. It is time to embrace who you truly are, and let the world know who that is.
Yes. Shed this shell, Savage. Become my Sword, and sit as my Left Hand.
Dawnbringer flared to life, sending out a blinding white light that filled the room. A guttural scream echoed through the chamber as the deep gnome changed. When the light receded, Savy was no more. Instead, a seven-foot-tall male barbarian stood.
Behold, Savage, as you were always meant to be. My Sword in battle. The counterpart to Rhaine, who is my Shield. As she sits on my right, so shall you sit on my left. Destroy this room, so it will not concern your former companions when they enter. Open the portcullis, go down the stairs, and return to me.
“What about Rhaine?” Savage smiled at the deep tenor of his voice.
She will follow soon enough. You are both creatures of pure magic. Acerack’s restrictions will not confine you. This battle is not ours any longer. You have provided the aid I promised Bahamut and Kelemvor. It is on the others to keep Thia safe now.
Savage turned toward one of the wardrobes, throwing the door open. The creature that came out never stood a chance. Within minutes, he was ankle deep in bodies and blood. The wardrobes were empty, and the portcullis began to rise.
With one final look toward the stone block, Savage charged down the hallway. The staircase was on the left.
As he bounded down the stairs, the hair on his arms began to stand. He slowed down and tightened his grip on Dawnbringer.
As the plaintive wail crept up from below, Savage’s body began to glow. The energy that held him together dissipated, and he left to rejoin Lathander.
An Old Friend is Found
Adam brought up the rear of the party, keeping his ears open. Thia had been acting odd during the last fight, screaming at someone the rest of them couldn’t hear.
Jinnaari and Caelynn went down a staircase. “How the hell…,” Jinnaari called up to them. “I thought you guys said Helix was dead?”
“He was. We saw him die. His body’s in the portable hole.” Caelynn responded.
“Then what’s in the damn cage?”
Adam went to move forward, but Rhaine held up her hand. “Lathander calls me home, Adam. Take care of her.” The redhead elf’s body dissipated into a thousand tiny sparks, drifting upward through the stone.
Thia stared at him, “What happened?” she whispered.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. But when she came to us originally, I remember her saying it was only until Jinnaari came back. I guess Lathander’s not big on sharing His followers longer than He promised Kelemvor and Bahamut.”
“Don’t come down here!” Caelynn called out. “There’s some sort of anti-magic field. We’re bringing Helix up to you. Thia, can you heal him while I get rid of the field? He’s barely breathing.”
The cleric leaned against a wall, her hands over her ears. “Thia?” Adam asked.
“Why won’t she leave me alone?” She whispered, her voice wavering on the edge of panic.
“Just concentrate on Helix. Take care of that. Then we’ll talk about these voices.”
“What voices?” Jinnaari demanded as he placed the Tabaxi at Thia’s feet.
Adam watched as she knelt next to Helix, her fingers weaving the healing spell. “She’s hearing a voice in her head.” He kept his voice low, not wanting to disturb her concentration.
“Did she tell you what it was saying?” The Dragonborn’s voice was emotionless.
Adam glanced at the paladin and saw his fingers tighten slightly around the hilt of his sword. “No. I think they started during the fight with the demons. I was next to her on the statue. She started talking, no, arguing with someone.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I.” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Are you sure this is our Helix?”
“From what the corpse in the portable hole looks like, the one that died was a doppelgänger. This is the real Helix.” Jinnaari paused, then spoke louder. “Thia? You okay?”
She nodded, stepping away from Helix. “Yeah. He’ll be fine now.”
“Adam says you’re hearing voices.”
She swallowed hard, fear on her face. “It started during the fight,” the words tumbled out of her in a rush. “She said she was my mother, that I needed to come home. I don’t know her! I don’t want to know her! Why can’t she just leave me alone!”
“It’s the hags,” Helix’s voice, dry and raspy, broke the tense silence.
“Hags?” Adam asked.
The Tabaxi sat up. “Yeah. There’s three of them. I’ve been their prisoner for weeks. They like to mess with people’s brains.”
“They’re down there?” Jinnaari gestured down the staircase.
Jinnaari looked back at Thia. “Then it’s not your mother. It’s not Lolth. And we can deal with this. Right?”
Thia nodded, “Yeah, we can.”
Caelynn looked around, “Where’s Rhaine?”
“She and Savy were only on loan until Jinnaari came back, so Lathander took them both out of the equation. We’re on our own now,” Adam said.
Adam moved across the floor, making sure not to step on any of his sleeping companions. Jinnaari sat on the far side of the room, watching him. He was early for his turn on watch. He had to talk with the paladin, and didn’t want anyone else to hear, so now was the best chance he had.
Jinnaari nodded, stretching out his leg, “Just some snoring. You’re early. I have another hour yet.”
Adam eased himself onto the cold stone floor. “It’s fine. I woke up.” He paused, looking around the room. “Besides, I think we need to discuss something.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“We have a problem with Thia.”
He heard the dragonborn shift position. “In what way?”
“If she woke up and found herself in front of Lolth, what do you think she’d do?”
“Not going to happen.” Jinnaari’s voice was determined.
“Hear me out….”
“No, Adam. It’s not going to happen. We are not letting it happen.”
He tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “I get it. None of us want it to happen. I’m talking hypothetically here.”
“It’s still not happening.”
Adam sighed, “Just, listen. Okay?”
Jinnaari grunted, and Adam continued. “Say there was a cave in and we got separated. Or a trap was sprung where she’s on the wrong side of a door. Or even that Lolth decided to open a portal next to Thia and grab her that way. It doesn’t matter how it happened.”
“What do you think her first reaction will be?”
Adam studied Jinnaari’s face as he looked at Thia’s sleeping form. It was impossible to read.
“She’s going to panic.”
“Exactly. She’s lived a sheltered life up until she joined the group. She has no real concept on how to survive if she’s being held hostage.”
Jinnaari shifted again. “You’re right. She doesn’t.”
“We need to fix that. I’m not talking major things, but if we teach her how to observe, keep calm, and see opportunities, she’d be able to cope better. At least until we could get to her.”
“I like it. Talk with Caelynn, see if she’ll teach her how to pick locks, move quieter. There are times she’s louder than a rusty construct. You can help her learn how to quiet her mind, keep the panic under control. If she needs it, I can teach her some basic hand to hand.” Jinnaari rose. “I’m getting some sleep. Figure out the details and get her started once you do.” He wandered over to where he’d put out his bedroll and laid down.
Adam rose. He checked the latch on the door that led out of the room, then began to circle the perimeter.
“It’s agreed, then?” Bahamut asked, looking at the creature across the scrying pool from him.
The Solar flared, but the light was a comfort to Bahamut. The creature was one of the Old Gods, and deserved His respect.
“Do you want to go first?” The Solar asked.
“Thank you,” The Dragonborn shifted his gaze to the pool of still water that lay between them. The surface rippled, and an image coalesced. The group of heroes, on whom so much depended, slept for the most part. The bard sat watch. Bahamut found the thread that connected Him to Jinnaari and tugged.
* * *
Jinnaari woke with a start. “Damn it!” he swore as his vision cleared. He was back in Drakkus’ office. And he wasn’t alone.
“I didn’t summon you to be sworn at, Althir.” Bahamut said as He stepped out of the shadows.
“Then why am I here, My Lord? You sent me back to do your will: take down Lolth and protect Thia. I can’t do either from here.”
“You’re asleep, boy. I had to give you instructions and this was the least…cumbersome…way to do it.”
Jinnaari sighed, relaxing a little. If this was a dream, then fine. “What is it?”
“You’re about to go against Acerack. You can’t do this without help. He’s pissed off some Old Gods. The Tricksters that the Omuan people followed. Their spirits live within this tomb. Thia, Lor, and Caelynn already have spirits attached to them. When Acerack manifests, one will come to you. Do not fight him, because he’s not staying long after the battle. But they have more reason to hate the lich than most, and the boon they give is beyond measure. Let this happen, Althir. Don’t fight it. All will be well.”
Something nudged his foot. Bolting upright, Jinnaari looked at Caelynn. “Your turn,” she told him before walking toward her gear. He rose to start his watch.
* * *
Adam felt his body jerk as he missed the step. The stairs kept disappearing beneath his feet. He knew he was dreaming. And the only time he’d had this one before was when he met his Patron.
He pushed forward, knowing the Solar waited at the top of the tower. If he’d been summoned, there was something major going on. Something that went beyond the quest they were on, or keeping Thia safe from Lolth.
The stones beneath his feet shifted again, this time levelling out to a platform. The Solar stood on the far end. Adam knelt, his head lowered, “What do you require, Patron?”
“Soon, you will fight that which has caused the death curse to descend on this plane. It is his defeat that is paramount. You are not alone in this fight. The Trickster Gods wish to eradicate the defiler from their tomb. When the time comes, allow one to inhabit you. He will give you boons that will be useful in the fight.”
Adam knew better than to question his Patron’s words. “It shall be as you say.”
“Adam,” Jinnaari’s voice penetrated his brain. “Get up. We’re getting ready to move.”
Rising from the thin pad, he started to repack his gear. Whatever was going to happen, it would be soon.
Adam leaned against the wall of the room, standing far enough from the edge so as not to slide into the lava pool. Sweat dripped from his forehead. Partly from the heat, yes, but mostly from the battle they’d just won.
Did they win, though? Acerack had been standing next to Thia one minute, gone the next. At least he didn’t take her with him, he thought. That Lolth would use an Arch Lich to get to Thia wasn’t something Adam would put past the Goddess.
He glanced over to the door they’d come through. Jinnaari had finally made his way to Thia, and she was removing the curse Acerack had placed on the paladin. The Dragonborn’s frustration was all over his face. It was a battle he’d prepared for, only to be cheated in more ways than one.
“Adam,” Helix moved his way, casually tying some string to the end of a staff. “Why’d you give this back to me? It’s a staff. I thought you warlocks loved these things.”
“It’s not that I don’t want a staff, Helix,” he explained to the cat. “It’s more that I don’t want to deal with Maynard again.”
“What’s a Maynard?”
Adam blinked, “What do you mean, ‘what’s a Maynard’? You made a brush out of what was left of that staff!”
Helix tilted his head, his whiskers twitching. Casually, he flipped the staff and sent the rope into the lava. He looked exactly like someone who expected to catch a fish on the other end. “I didn’t make a brush. I don’t remember anything after Flink died and I headed into the forest. I wanted to bring him back…somehow. Next thing I knew, I was in the cage with the hags. They kept hounding me about all of you. The only reason I knew who Jinnaari and Thia were was because they asked about them. But I wasn’t around when this Maynard was with you guys. Was he nice? Did he know how to catch mice?”
“I’m sorry, Helix. I forgot that you’d been replaced and didn’t know what happened. We’d found a Staff of Power. Only it was sentient…and the force within wanted to use me to take over the world. In the end, we destroyed it.”
“Oh,” Helix paused, looking at the staff in his hands. “Do you think this is a Staff of Power?”
“The Hags argued over it. In the end, they decided it was better none of them used it. But I never heard them call it Maynard or anything like that. They had stuff that was sentient. I could tell by the way they talked to the items. Like the dolls. This thing wasn’t like those.” The staff twitched. “I think I got a bite!”
Helix jerked it back. Off the end of the charred string dangled the burned arm of a barbed devil.
Adam watched, slack jawed, as Helix unhooked the arm. Grinning, Helix turned around and said, “I hope it’s not overcooked!” He leaned the staff against the wall next to Adam and walked off, chewing on his catch.
The Way Home
“We’re not leaving yet,” Jinnaari stated as the group stared at the portal.
“But,” Adam objected, “we destroyed the soulmonger. The curse is over.”
“Acerack isn’t dead, though.” Lor replied.
Jinnaari nodded. For once, the other Dragonborn was right about something. “Lor’s right. We came down here to kill him. And we’re not leaving until we’ve done that. Or at least made sure he’s not coming back anytime soon.”
Caelynn spoke, one arm draped protectively around her sister’s shoulders. “There’s only one more door we know of. If he’s not there, he’s not anywhere in this tomb.”
Not wanting to hear any arguments, Jinnaari jerked the door open. Beyond the threshold was a library that, at one time, might’ve been nice. Now, cobwebs and mold competed with the dust. Three skeletal corpses hung from the ceiling near where an old man snored in a chair.
He motioned the rest of the party to stop and activated his senses. The old man was definitely evil. As was Helix and the spider he rode.
Turning his head, he stared at the Tabaxi. “You and I are going to have a talk when we get out of here, Helix.” He wasn’t going to hurt him. But he did need to discover what exactly Helix was up to before the evil consumed him.
He raised his sword and charged at the sleeping figure, screaming, “Arm thyself!”
Rounding the corner, he stopped short of the chair. The figure hadn’t moved. It still slept. Reaching out, Jinnaari gently poked the man.
How could he swing at someone who was defenseless? That’s not what Bahamut taught him!
He glanced back at his companions as they came into the room and shrugged his shoulders. Thia gave him a puzzled look.
“Is he dead? It doesn’t look like Acerack,” she commented.
A mad laugh filled the air as the form shifted into multiple versions of itself and sent a chain of lightning through the group.
Jinnaari swung at one figure, swearing under his breath as the insubstantial image disappeared when his sword pierced it. Looking at the room, he watched as the mirror images were dealt with by his party.
The sorcerer, whoever he was, sent out another bolt of lightning and knocked Caelynn to the ground. She wasn’t breathing.
“Thia!” he screamed, pointing at their fallen companion.
“On it,” she replied. “Take care of that thing!”
By the time Jinnaari finished off the creature, Thia had revived Caelynn. Helix and Lor began to pull books and scrolls of the shelves and put them into Caelynn’s portable hole.
The bard turned to Jinnaari, “Now can we leave? That wasn’t Acerack. We dumped all of those phylacteries into the lava. If he’s coming back here, he’s going to be hurting when he gets up.” She looked back at her sister. “Jocelyn needs to get home. We did what we came here to do. The death curse is gone.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he conceded. He didn’t like leaving without dispatching the lich one and for all, but there wasn’t anywhere left for him to hide in here. “Let’s get back to Waterdeep.” He led them back to the portal room and they took turns returning to the surface.
Jinnaari was the last one to come through. The air was damp, but fresh. “I’m not going with you,” Lor said, her voice quiet. “My home is here, in Chult. And I cannot leave until I know all of Acerack’s phylacteries are destroyed.”
Adam nodded, “You’ve been a good companion, Lor. May the Gods guide you on your quest.”
One by one, they clasped Lor’s hand in parting. The jungle no longer hindered them, and they returned to the port city. Once there, they found a ship and sailed back to Waterdeep.
The Solar and the Cat Lord
“Will you please tell me why you’re here?” The Solar sighed, watching the Cat Lord stare at the myriad of dots on the wall.
The Tabaxi’s ears twitched. “Fine. But can you make the lights move again?”
“Not until you’ve told me why you’re here,” he responded.
“Your friend…the warlock…he’s doing important things, right? I mean, that’s why Helix is with him. But I don’t think that’s good enough. I’ve got a rogue that just began her second…wait…maybe it’s her third? Dunno. It’s hard to keep track when you get nine lives. Anyway, I’m sending her to Waterdeep. She’ll be there by the time your friend and all of his friends arrive. I told her to find him. You might want to warn him. She’s got a grudge against the Drow, so she’d be fun to take with them.” He looked back at the wall, “Do I get the lights back, now?”
The Solar sighed, “Not yet. I need a name.”
“I don’t know what your friend is called. He’s a warlock. Isn’t that enough? Can’t you keep track of your own followers?”
“I meant the name of the Tabaxi rogue you’re sending to help him!”
“Oh. Her. Her name’s Forgotten Moon Cloud. I think. She has a grey tabby stripe to her fur, and has green eyes.”
Giving up, the Solar changed his rays. With a happy chirp, the Cat Lord began to bat at the small points of light that danced across the wall.
* * *
“Adam,” the voice of his patron echoed in his mind as he stood on the railing of the ship.
“Yes,” he replied. “What can I do for you?”
“When you get to Waterdeep, seek out a Tabaxi by the name of Forgotten Moon Cloud. She’ll know to look for you, but not why. You’ll need her talents for what comes next.”
“Alright. What does come next, anyway?”
“The path isn’t clear yet. But trust the paladin. He’s smarter than he looks.”
The presence left Adam’s mind. Looking out to the horizon, he made out the outline of land. They would be docking soon.
He’d need to look out for this new companion, yes. But rest, shopping, and a bit of ale were needed, as well.
Thia ran through the dark streets, one hand raised to keep the hood of her cloak over her head. The inn wasn’t far from the temple. After what had happened, though, it felt like miles.
She rounded one more corner and caught sight of the building. Finally. Warm candlelight beckoned from the windows. The sound of music drifted out as two men stumbled out of the door and into the street. She glanced back, checking to see if she was being followed. No one she could see. Quickly, she pulled the door open and stepped inside.
Caelynn was up on the stage, playing her instrument. Helix and Moon sat on the edge of the stage, watching. Thia scanned the room, finding the rest of her friends at a large, round table. She maneuvered around the other chairs and took a seat where her back was against a solid wall.
She then buried her head in her hands.
“Thia?” Adam asked. “Is everything okay?”
“I thought you were staying at the church,” Jinnaari added. She heard everyone shift their chairs and move closer to her.
“There was an…incident.” She heard her voice tremble. It was impossible to keep the terror out of it.
“What sort of incident?” Jinnaari’s voice was low, but insistent.
“They caught an acolyte pouring something into the well. When they tested the water, it’d been poisoned.”
Adam let out a low whistle. “With what?”
“They weren’t certain. It wasn’t deadly. It was some sort of sleeping draught. Potent enough to put the entire cloister to sleep for days.” Thia finally moved her hands from her face. Absently, she picked at a worn spot on the surface of the table. “It wasn’t even magical. Just some compound that would’ve put every single person that drank from that well asleep. It was strong enough that even food cooked with that water would’ve been affected. They questioned the Acolyte. She said it was supposed to be a love potion. She’s been pining for someone. She bought it in an alley from a Drow.” She dug into the folds of her cloak and brought out a small glass vial. Placing it on the table, she continued. “I didn’t find out until tonight, after they figured everything out. The High Priest brought this to me and told me to leave. He didn’t think they could protect me any longer.” She paused again. “His exact words were, ‘The cost of keeping you safe is one I can pay, yes. But I cannot risk all of Kelemvor’s followers without their permission’.”
Jinnaari reached out and picked up the vial. Thia watched him turn it over in his hand while she took some deep breaths. The panic and fear were subsiding. She was with her friends. If anyone could keep her safe, it was them.
“Damn,” the paladin swore.
“What?” Adam slid a mug of mead over to Thia.
Muttering her thanks, she took a long drink. The honeyed liquid slid down her throat. She wasn’t someone who normally drank much, but she seriously considered getting drunk tonight.
“See this mark here?” Jinnaari held the bottle out to Adam. “That’s a guild marking.”
“So? The bottle was made by a glassmaker’s guild member. What’s wrong with that?” Adam asked.
Jinnaari shook his head. “It’s not a glassmaker mark. That’s the seal of the Yathtallar. They’re master assassins,” he looked at Thia, “trained by Lolth Herself.”
“Why can’t they just leave me alone,” she whispered. “I’m nobody. I don’t even know who my mother was, outside of she was Drow. I’m not a threat to anybody.”
“It’s not what you are now, Thia. It’s what they know you’ll become. The Gods have seen your future, and are making sure the power you’ll wield one day isn’t misused.” Jinnaari paused. “We took care of the death curse. Now it’s time we take the fight to Lolth.”
“You’re suggesting we go down into the Underdark?” Adam asked.
“I think it’s time. This isn’t going to stop until Lolth is dead, so let’s make a plan and take care of business.”
“What if,” she drew a shuddering breath, “what if She gets to me and I change into something evil?”
“It’s not going to happen.” Jinnaari took a drink from his tankard.
“But what if –”
Jinnaari reached out and grasped her shoulder. “It’s not going to. Stop thinking it will. The only way to get Her to stop hunting you is to kill Her. And I can’t do that from here. She’s not going to come to us, so we need to go to Her.” He stared at her, “We’ll keep you safe, Thia. Trust us.”
A tray full of drinks dropped into the center of the table, the amber liquid within sloshing over the brim of the mugs. Grinning at them, a man turned one of the empty chairs around and sat down. “Hey, you all look way too serious! Have a drink on me.”
“This is a private conversation, friend. I suggest you find another table.” Jinnaari growled at the newcomer.
The man picked up one of the tankards and drank noisily. “This is where I need to be, though. You all need to lighten up, relax. I mean, sure, you’re going down into the Underdark. You’ve got Drow assassins trying to kidnap your friend there. But that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we need to get drunk and get to know each other better.”
“You know quite a bit about us, friend. That could be a bad thing.” Adam replied.
“Look, do you honestly think that only Bahamut and Kelemvor have a stake in all of this? Lolth’s pissed off most of Her family with trying to poach that one,” he pointed a finger at Thia. “And They’re going to make sure She’s chastised for it.” He took another drink. “Name’s Pan, by the way.”
“Who sent you?” Thia asked.
A grin split his face. “I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you about my Lord and Savior, Ash!”
Adam looked around the room, puzzled. All of the paladin’s gear was there. But Jinnaari was not.
A slip of paper was tied to the hilt of his sword. That bothered him. Adam had yet to see his friend without a weapon in arms’ length. To leave it, sheathed and laying across his bed, was not at all what he expected.
“What’s it say?” Thia asked.
Picking up the note, Adam started to read aloud. “I have the murderer. He will be delivered to Herasta for justice unless you hand over the one Lolth covets.”
“Shit,” Pan breathed.
Adam looked at Thia. Her lilac eyes were wide with fear and a resolve that cut into his soul. “No, Thia. That’s not what’s going to happen.”
“It will, if you don’t listen to me.” A woman spoke from a dark corner of the room.
Turning sharply, he peered into the shadows. The woman stepped out enough that he could see her. Her black skin was stark contrast to the pale blonde hair. Lilac eyes stared at him with contempt. The only difference between her and Thia was the newcomer was younger. And fully Drow.
“Who are you?” Caelynn demanded.
“My name doesn’t matter. And I recommend you keep that half breed away from me.”
Adam glanced back. Pan was holding Thia back. “Talk to her,” he said, “I’ll keep Thia from doing anything stupid.”
He nodded and turned back to the Drow. “Try again. Because as far as we know, you’re the one who took our friend.”
“Diak has him. And you’d best listen to me if you want to get him back before he’s delivered to our mother.” She leaned against the wall, one hand resting on the hilt of a dagger attached to her belt. “I don’t want Lolth to get that thing,” she pointed at Thia, “any more than she wants it. I have a friend. He can get you into Menzoberranzan without being detected. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your friend along the way. Diak’s going to move slow. She likes to transport her prey in coffins. Says it’s easier on the client that way. The tunnel she’ll use will go near Vizeran’s tower. I get you to him, he can help you get into the city.”
“What makes you think we need a guide?” Caelynn snarled.
“Because your descriptions are known to the entire population of the city, wench. Especially that one. What Lolth wants, Lolth gets. There’s hardly a Drow between here and the City of Spiders that won’t know you on sight. I can get you to Vizeran.”
Caelynn’s body shimmered as her appearance shifted. “You sure they can spot me?” Instead of her normal elven features, she was now a Drow. With a single lock of bright pink hair running down the side of her head.
Adam held up his hand. “Why help us?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want that mongrel leading our house. I thought about killing her, but our mother would just resurrect her. Better to help you do whatever you need to do, and be there to pick up the pieces.”
Sighing, he looked at Caelynn. They didn’t have much of a choice, not without Jinnaari. He turned to Thia, “I don’t like this, but it’s probably our best option. We’re not going to find him without help. Not down in the Underdark. Are you staying here, or coming with us? It’s your choice.”
Her jaw clenched, she looked at him. “I’m hunted either way. I will not leave him to be tortured by the Drow.”
“It’s settled, then. Now do we get your name?”
The woman smiled, but there was no mirth to it. “I am Ishacte.”
Diak’s First Strike
The sound was the first thing to penetrate his slumber. A single wheel creaked, once every rotation. The noise chased the blackness from his brain.
Jinnaari tried to move his hands, but they wouldn’t budge. Working his jaw, he felt the gag. Opening his eyes, he raised his head and hit it on something solid. He was in a box of some kind.
The wheel creaked again.
Shifting, he felt the rough wood against his scales. Was he naked? That didn’t make sense.
“Dyointy hai, Diak,” a female voice said. Jinnaari didn’t understand the language that was spoken. He tried moving his hands again, testing the rope that tied them together. The smooth fiber cut into his wrists, but held fast.
He tried moving his leg, but the top of the box was too close for him to raise it more than an inch. Still, his feet weren’t bound. That was something. He could run if he had to. But he had to get out of the box first.
The wheel creaked again, and the cart stopped.
“Louyoika gov,” another woman’s voice barked an order.
Something jabbed into his skin. His head began to spin as whatever drug they injected into him took hold. Sleep beckoned, and he couldn’t resist the call.
The wheel creaked again, then went silent.
The Descent Begins
Caelynn kept a watchful eye on Thia. Her friend was pale, and she was quiet. Not that Thia ever spoke much, mind you. But she’d barely said five words beyond what was necessary to cast spells since they’d started the descent into the Underdark.
Thia only nodded in response.
“Leave the corpse,” Ishacte ordered, stepping over the fallen demon. “There’s enough carrion feeders down here that it’ll be picked clean within a week. We need to keep moving.”
“Give us a minute,” Adam said. Caelynn exchanged a look with him. He was as concerned about Thia as she was.
Ishacte snorted, “Why? Is the mongrel in need to coddling?”
“She’s not a mongrel,” Caelynn spat at her. “Her name is Thia. And she just had that thing threaten to rape her. It’d throw anyone off!”
Ishacte glared at her. “You think that’s the worst that can happen down here, Thia?” Derision dripped from her voice. “Grow up. Life in the Underdark is harder than you can imagine. The only way to survive is to be meaner, harder, and more diabolical than anyone else. And that’s what Lolth will turn you into. Instead of fearing what a man would do to you, they’ll fear what you will do to them.” She strode toward Thia, and Caelynn stepped in front of her. The Drow stopped, her attention on the bard. “You think you’re protecting her? There’s only one way to do that. And your best shot at it is in a coffin, heading to the City of Spiders. You can keep moving and get him back, or you can stay here and let him die. Along with your chance at ever stopping the hunt. The closer we get, the more creatures are going to come after her. She needs to keep moving.”
“Let’s go,” Thia said, pushing past Caelynn and Ishacte. “We’re wasting time that Jinnaari doesn’t have.”
Caelynn stared at Ishacte. “When this is over,” she told her, “you and I are going to have a reckoning.”
“Try it,” the Drow whispered before turning and walking down the passageway.
“Everyone okay?” Adam’s voice rang through the chamber. “Helix? Thia?”
“I’m fine,” Thia responded, her voice quiet. She heard the rest of the group speak up. No losses for them, no wounds that she couldn’t heal.
For the dead Drow at her feet, though, there would be no next battle.
She stared at the corpse; her mind numb. Lifeless lilac eyes stared back at her. They were same color as her own. Were they related? Did she just kill a cousin? A sister? For a moment, she thought about asking Ishacte, but quickly dismissed it. They were barely on speaking terms; asking her if the Drow Thia’d killed was a relation would only make things worse.
Couldn’t they just understand she wanted to be left alone?
Adam started to rummage through the Drow’s pockets. Part of the jacket moved aside, revealing a red hourglass tattoo. The mark of Lolth.
Thia’s hand moved to her cheek, caressing Kelemvor’s brand. It had been her choice to place it there. She needed the world to know she wasn’t Drow.
Yet the person on the floor in front of her, an ever-widening pool of blood beneath her, hid her mark. Was she ashamed of Lolth?
She blinked, pulling her mind back to the present. Adam stood in front of her. His face was concerned. “Huh? What?”
“You okay? I’ve asked you a question three times now.”
“Yeah, I, um,” she took a deep breath. “Sorry, my brain went someplace for a minute. What was your question?”
He pointed to the corpse, but kept his gaze on her. “They’re all wearing the same sigil on the collar. Do you know which House it belongs to?”
She looked at the garment. A swirl of red and black, against a white background. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.” She sighed. There was something familiar about it, though. Thia really didn’t know anything beyond that, and she didn’t think it was worth mentioning. “You should ask Ishacte. She’d know. From the curses she flung at her before the battle, they weren’t on friendly terms.”
“You sure you’re okay?” He lowered his voice. “You look pale.”
“I’m fine. Just tired of dealing with all of this.” She waved a hand absently. Sighing, she turned and walked away.
There was only two ways for this to end. Either they found Jinnaari, and he killed Lolth, or Lolth made Thia surrender. If Jinnaari didn’t kill the Goddess, they’d be slaughtered. At that point, would she be able to keep her soul from being consumed by evil?
For the first time since she’d heard she was being hunted, Thia wondered if surrender was the better option.
A Clouded Future
She held the crystal in her hand, trying to calm the dread that encompassed her soul.
“You can ask any question, Thia, and we will answer. The future is ever in motion. Whatever answer you seek is not set in stone. Not until the moment when you chose to set your foot on one path or the other.” The voice was calm, even. And did little to calm her raw nerves.
“I’d like,” she hesitated, “I need to know. Will I succumb to the evil that chases me?” The last words came out in a rush. If she didn’t say them fast enough, she knew she’d never utter them.
The smell of lilacs…my father’s laugh…the feeling of Kelemvor’s presence…using some of the techniques Adam taught her, Thia strove to regain a sense of calm while she waited for her answer.
“Yours is a clouded future, child. It is hard to say one way or another. A crossroad is fast approaching. You will be faced with a choice. How you choose will determine if Lolth sways you to Her, or if you remain a servant of Kelemvor.”
She squeezed her eyes shut and grasped the crystal rod in her fist even harder. That wasn’t an answer!
“I need to know,” she tried to keep her voice calm, but it cracked. “If I surrender, will my companions be spared?”
“No. Your only hope to retain the choice is with their aid. If you surrender, they will die. By your own hand will their fate be sealed.”
“But what happens if I’m taken against my will?”
“Lolth will do everything in Her power to turn you away from all that you know. You will become Her priestess completely if you do not choose otherwise.”
“Is Jinnaari okay?”
“He is well. The one who has him doesn’t wish him harm. It would be wise, however, to do your best to retrieve him before his captor gets him to her employer.”
“What if I die before Lolth can get me?”
“She will resurrect you, and blacken your soul with Her evil when she does. You cannot escape facing Her, Thia. That much of your future is set.”
The rod in her hand disintegrated into sand, flowing through her fingers. She leaned forward, trying desperately not to give into the despair that threatened to crush her.
“Anyone seen Thia?” Adam’s voice carried into the room from the hallway outside.
She swiped at the few tears that spilled from her eyes. One step at a time, she reminded herself. And the next step was to find Jinnaari before he got to the City of Spiders. Opening the door, she looked at her companions. “I’m here,” she said.
Adam looked at her, “You okay?”
Thia nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Even if she confided in him, it wouldn’t be now. Not when Ishacte would hear.
But how could she tell him that she’d found out there was no hope she’d be able to stay free of Lolth?
Freedom is Won
Pain pierced his dreamless sleep as the box he was in slammed against something hard. Splinters of wood dug into Jinnaari’s skin. He blinked, desperate to chase away the drug induced fog that clouded his brain. Something heavy stepped on his leg. He screamed, the sound muffled by the gag, as the bones snapped under the weight. The creature moved.
He couldn’t see, only hear. The ring of metal against something, punctuated by grunts, told him a fight was raging. More than once, a scream was cut off abruptly.
The battle wasn’t going well for someone. Given that no one had come near the remains of the crate he’d been stuffed into, Jinnaari hoped that ‘someone’ was his captors.
A bestial roar rang out, and the ground beneath him vibrated. Biting against the pain, he worked the palm of one hand to lay flat against his leg. Using some stores of magic, he healed the break. At least he could run when he needed to.
Shifting, he discovered enough of the box had broken that he could move his hands toward his head. He worked the gag free, then started chewing on the webbing that bound his hands. He kept his ears open to any sound that either his captors, or the beast that they had been fighting, were returning.
It took time, but the strands finally broke and he was free. Cautious, he raised the edge of his prison. Absolute darkness greeted him. A creature could’ve been standing over him, sword ready to be driven into his chest, and he wouldn’t have seen them!
The Underdark, then.
When no blow came, he moved. Sliding out from underneath the cover, he rose. Hoping his eyes would adjust enough to allow him to make out shapes, Jinnaari reached out with one hand and moved slowly, shuffling his feet along the stone floor.
His feet found the first corpse. Kneeling, he found a short sword. He was armed, at least. Running his hands over the body, he swore. The woman was wearing chain mail, but it would be too small to fit him. There was a cloak, though. Not much, but it was better than nothing.
A creature bellowed in pain and rage, the sound echoing down the tunnel. Determining which way it came from, Jinnaari turned the opposite.
He didn’t know how long he’d been down here, but it was a safe bet his companions were coming after him. The trick would be finding them before something found him.
Helix watched Ishacte as the party slept. Like Caelynn, she didn’t sleep. Talking to her without the rest taking notice, though. Now, that would be the trick.
“What is it, Tabaxi?” Her voice was low, barely above a whisper.
She turned her full attention to him. She may have the same lilac eyes as Thia, but there was a coldness to hers that intrigued him. Adam and the rest weren’t fooled. Ishacte would turn on Thia, on all of them, if the situation called for it. “You’re a Tabaxi. That’s a normal thing for your kind.”
“I was wondering if you and I couldn’t come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. Providing things turn out as we both want when it comes to Thia, that is.”
He couldn’t read her face.
“What is it you want when it comes to the mongrel?”
“If Jinnaari can do what he’s supposed to, provided we find him, you’re going to be in a position of power. Yes?”
She nodded, but didn’t answer. Helix continued, “I’m thinking there’s some things up on the surface: spell components, books, maybe some fine chocolates. Who knows. But theses are things you could use a direct line to. I’m willing to provide that.”
He stretched, arching his back, “I be given a small holding connected to your lands, somewhere down here. One that’s free of faerzress, so I can teleport without issue. That’s all.”
Ishacte snorted. “You think being a smuggler is worth that? You’re delusional.”
“I have more to offer.” He paused. “Out in Chult, not far from the ruins of Omu, there’s a hut. Inside are 4 troglodyte thralls that I’ll sign over to you. And,” he paused. This was his ace. “I can tell you exactly how to retrieve the Eye of Vecna.”
“You know where it is?”
“I do. It was offered to them, but they refused it. Fools.”
“Offered to them, but not you? That’s odd.” Her brow furrowed in thought.
“I was being held hostage by some night hags.” He glanced over at Thia’s sleeping form. “They were desperate for information on your sister. They wanted to get in Lolth’s good graces by turning her over. Only the paladin came back before the group encountered the coven. That’s when I was freed.” Smiling, he turned his attention back to Ishacte. “They argued a lot, talked even more. And never once suspected I was listening.”
Ishacte nodded. “I will think on your offer, Tabaxi.”
Friends and Relations
“And that’s how our Uncle Randy defeated the troll,” Pan barely paused before launching into a new story. “Let’s see, who’s next? Oh, yeah. I haven’t told you about Uncle Bran!”
Thia smiled slightly, letting the druid keep up with his stories of their ‘family’. Disguising her as his sister may not pass a close inspection, but he regaled her with tales all the same. It was a welcome distraction from everything else going on.
The cavern Ishacte had led them into was narrow. Thia didn’t need light to see, but she was tempted to create some all the same. Being able to distinguish her surroundings in the dark was part of her Drow heritage. Her soul desperately needed the light as a reminder of her human side.
“Wait. What was that?” Something about Pan’s story made her listen closer.
“Oh, you see,” he kept going, “Bran would make these small boxes for spell components. Mother always claimed that he used magic to do what he did, but I don’t think so. Anyway, his signature was to put three acorns made out of copper somewhere in the design. He’d hide them. Rumor has it he was part of a group of artisans that came down to the Underdark to trade with the Drow. I don’t know what happened, but Mother said he moved away and stopped making the boxes shortly after that trip. Nobody knows what happened to him.”
She stopped and turned to Pan. “I do.”
“I know what happened to him.”
His eyes flew open. “Really? You knew him? What happened?”
She started walking again. “He settled on a small farm outside of a village called River Run, several days out from Waterdeep. Led a quiet life until the villagers turned on him. The last time I saw him,” she drew a deep breath. The memory was still painful, even after all this time. “The last time I saw him, his body was lying across the threshold of our house as it burned.”
“Wait. Your house?”
“Yes. A local wizard wanted him to make the boxes for him, but Father refused. Said he’d made the last one he’d ever make after I was born. The mage turned the village against us, claiming I was a force of evil. A local priest of Kelemvor beat the mob to our home, got me out.” Her hand caressed the leather pouch on her belt. She could feel the outline of the small silver box. “The only thing I could take was the box he’d made for me.”
Pan’s face split into a grin. “Cousin!” he all but screamed.
Ishacte turned around, glaring at them, as Thia realized what Pan was saying. “You’re right,” she replied. “I guess that does make us cousins.”
A small crack of light broke through the darkness she’d been living under for the last several weeks. “Tell me more stories,” she asked him, “about our family.”
“Go ahead,” Ishacte turned toward Jinnaari. “We’re not far now. The tunnel at the far end leads right to Vizeran’s tower.”
The dragonborn turned to her. “Ladies first,” he growled. And I’m using the term loosely, he thought.
Earlier that day, he’d found the group. Or they’d found him. It was a little unclear. The best way to describe it, really, was that their paths converged. Caelynn had his gear, and he grateful to have his sword and armor back.
Ishacte, though, was another matter. None of them trusted the Drow. Adam had explained why they were paired up, and it made sense. To a point.
He glanced back at Thia as she walked next to Pan. The druid kept telling a constant stream of stories about his family. Thia’s family. He could still see the fear and anxiety she had. She wasn’t going to relax until they were back on the surface and Lolth defeated. Knowing Pan was her cousin gave her a connection with her human side, one she desperately needed with Ishacte leading them. The verbal abuse her Drow sister heaped on her any chance she got made his scales itch.
Thia hadn’t healed Ishacte after the last fight. Flat out refused to. Kelemvor’s words echoed in his mind: If ever you think that she has turned away from the path she was meant to walk, that she has embraced the evil that is Lolth, I ask that you use this weapon to end her life.
“Watch out!” Moon’s voice broke through his thoughts.
Rounding a bend, he caught sight of two Cambrion heading their way. “We have incoming!” he screamed back at the rest of the group before charging past Ishacte to engage the pair of fiends.
As he swung at the first, Adam’s voice called out, “There’s two more behind us!”
“Shit,” Jinnaari swore as he parried his foe’s strike.
“Bitch!” Pan called out.
Jinnaari dared a glance over his shoulder. Pan and Thia were engulfed in webs. Ishacte lowered her arms, a satisfied smirk on her face.
“Oh, it’s on.” He slid through the Cambrion’s defenses and drove his blade home. He glanced at Moon, “You have this one?”
“Yeah,” the Tabaxi replied, “go help Thia and Pan.”
Jinnaari ran toward the Drow. Those two would get out of the web, he was sure. His target was the wench that cast the spell.
Time to Breathe
Thia lowered herself to the floor, her back to the cavern wall. Her friends busied themselves with looting the corpses and cleaning their weapons of blood. All she wanted to do was take time to regain her breath.
Rummaging in her pack, she pulled out some dried beef and began to eat. A few remaining strands of the web Ishacte had cast on her lingered on her boot. It didn’t matter. Her sister was dead. Well, that one anyway. None of her friends were seriously hurt in this attack, either.
Damn it, she thought. Why can’t they just leave me alone?
“So, Thia,” Jinnaari said as he sat next to her, “how are things with you?”
She shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Want some?” she held out a piece of jerky.
He took it from her, saying, “That one,” he pointed at Ishacte’s corpse, “looked a lot like you. Were you related?”
“We had the same mother.” Her voice sounded wooden in her own ears.
“So, a sister.”
She sighed, “I guess so. Her idea of sisterhood was different than mine. I don’t think calling a sibling names, or trying to ensnare them, is how you treat family.”
“Family means different things to different people.” He fell silent.
“I like Pan’s idea better than the Drow version. Too much death and deception. If I come out of this, it’d be nice to meet family that doesn’t care who my mother was.”
“What is this, ‘if’, stuff? We’re going to keep you safe, and take down Lolth. There’s no ‘if’ in that. It’s going to happen.”
She smiled a little, his confidence bolstering her hopes. “I’m not running off, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She took a deep breath, “I did think of that, briefly. Just taking off, surrendering. I thought it might keep all of you safer. The oracle at the stone library told me that was a bad idea.”
She heard him shift, but didn’t look at him. Instead, she kept her focus on a spot across the cavern. “I got scared, started thinking that everything going on was my fault. I don’t want the death of one or more of you on my hands. Lolth is a Goddess. If we don’t take her down, She will slaughter all of you. And I’ll be in no position to fight back at that point. I was thinking, maybe if I surrendered, you guys would be okay and I could find a way to resist Her.”
“Are you still thinking that way?”
She shook her head, “No. The oracle said that my surrender sealed your doom. The exact words were: ‘If you surrender, they will die. By your own hand will their fate be sealed.’ Then I found out that Pan and I are cousins. It sounds corny, but he’s reminded me I have a human side. It was getting lost. Ishacte was a constant reminder of the Drow part of me. I saw in her what I would become if Lolth has Her way.”
The rest of their friends were done, ready to move on. Whatever loot they’d found had been stashed. Thia brushed the last strands of webbing off the cap she wore and reset the disguise spell. It wasn’t much, but it helped.
Jinnaari rose first, holding out a hand to help her up. “Family isn’t only about blood,” he told her. “I know you don’t trust easily, Thia. But none of us are going to hand you over without a fight.”