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 of 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.”
Acid Rains Down
Adam hovered near the wall, his feet above Pan’s head, and watched as the black dragon moved on Thia. Jinnaari kept pace with the beast, his sword already covered with the creature’s blood.
He let loose a barrage of magic, hitting the creature with each bolt. It flinched, and bellowed in pain, but kept moving.
Adam watched in horror as the dragon inhaled sharply, then unleashed a storm of acid right on his friend. Thia stood her ground, her cloak disintegrating around her. The black beast then slammed a tail into Jinnaari. The paladin grunted at the blow, his legs shifting to keep his balance.
Thia’s voice, barely audible, chanted out a phrase. Adam watched as she dropped to her knees, her own life force being forfeited, while the magic she wove strengthened Jinnaari.
“Adam!” The paladin screamed.
“I’ve got her,” he called back. “You worry about the dragon.”
As Jinnaari swung at the beast, Adam moved to Thia’s side. She tried to wave him off, “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not,” he countered. Reaching out, he put a hand on her shoulder and healed her.
“Cousin?” Pan called out.
“She’s fine,” Adam replied. “Help Jinnaari.”
Adam held out his hand to Thia. She grasped it, standing.
They turned in time to see Pan’s spell stop the dragon’s advance. The ground shook as the beasts’ legs gave out, plummeting the corpse to the cavern floor.
“Everyone okay?” Jinnaari’s deep voice echoed in the silence that descended.
“I think so,” Caelynn called back. “Helix? Moon?”
The two Tabaxi nodded. Adam glanced at Thia again. “You sure you’re okay?”
Her smile was tired, but color had returned to her face. “I’m better than that thing is,” she gestured at the gigantic corpse. “And, hey, we know Lolth didn’t send it. That’s something, right?”
He smiled back, “Yeah, it is.”
“Well?” Herasta asked her guest. Her back was to Diak, but even the Yathtallar couldn’t sneak up on her in her own home.
The tall woman eased into a chair across from Herasta. “It’s done. Now, we wait.”
“Where did you last see them?”
Diak shrugged. “We let the paladin go near enough to them that he’d be found easily. Last time I saw them, they were enjoying Vizeran’s hospitality.”
“Ishacte went into his tower? She loathes him.”
Diak leaned forward. “Ishacte wasn’t with them, Herasta. And Thia wasn’t cowering like you thought she would by now. That one’s stronger than she looks.”
Herasta narrowed her eyes. It was possible Ishacte tried to hurry up the timeline and ended up dead. The girl always was impulsive. “Tell me what you saw, Diak. I need to keep Lolth informed of any changes.”
“The human they picked up back in Waterdeep…he was protective of your daughter. He called her ‘cousin’ more than once as they fought old Josiah.”
“Josiah left his lair?” Surprise crept into Herasta’s voice.
“Vizeran stole something from him. You know dragons – don’t disturb the hoard unless you want to die.” Diak leaned back in her chair. “Doesn’t matter now. The one Tabaxi’s soul is still in the hoard, and Josiah’s dead. They’re not going to find it before Vizeran sends them here. There’s no way.”
“He’s on board, then?”
“Yes. He still believes you’ll overthrow his rival, and let him back into your bed, by doing what you demanded.”
Herasta nodded. Everything was in place. A week or two at most, and she’d be able to present Thia to Lolth.
“Keep an eye on them, Diak. When the time is right, extend the invitation for Thia to come home.”
Diak rose, disappearing into the hidden passage she’d entered through. Herasta reached for the bottle of brandy on her desk. At this stage, Thia’s companions wouldn’t see what was happening within their very midst until it was too late. And that was exactly how she’d planned it.
“Cousin, you okay?” Pan asked
Thia nodded. “Yeah. They took out the duplicates before they got to me.”
“Cool. That’s a great spell…you should use it more often.”
She shrugged. “Magic’s not unlimited. You know that.” Looking past him, she said, “Hey, Adam! Don’t move.”
Pan watched her go to help the warlock unhook his cloak from the rock. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jinnaari. The paladin was wiping blood off of his sword, but his focus wasn’t on the weapon. It was on Thia.
Walking over, he leaned against the wall near the Dragonborn. “You missed a spot.”
Jinnaari grunted, “No, I didn’t.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“If I say no, will it matter?”
Pan laughed. “No, I’ll still ask it.” He shifted his focus for a moment, looking at Thia, then back to Jinnaari. “Why are you here, anyway?”
“Bahamut gave me a task. I’m here to take down Lolth. You know that.”
“Yeah, but I’m starting to wonder if you’re here for more than just that one thing.”
Jinnaari stopped wiping the cloth across the blade for a moment, then started again. “Not sure I know what you’re talking about, Pan. Care to explain?”
“You seem to be more protective of Thia than the rest. That’s all.”
“Lolth’s trying to kidnap her, force Thia to worship Her. We’re all trying protect her, Pan.”
“Yeah,” he persisted, “but that’s not all, is it? I mean, it seems like there’s something else at stake with you. It’s almost like you’re watching her to make sure she’s not changing into something else.”
Jinnaari looked at him. “I’m trying to keep her safe, Pan. That’s it.”
Pan watched as the paladin rose and walked away. “Sure it is,” he muttered, unconvinced.
“Jinnaari,” Thia said as he wiped his sword on the body of the demon. “We have a problem.”
Moving toward where she stood, he asked, “What is it this time?”
“That,” she said. Her arm pointed down into the fissure.
Glancing down, he sighed. Descending down the rocky face, Moon was heading toward a large metal sphere. Stalagmites jutted from the wall, suspending it over the river of magma. “Bahamut give me strength,” he muttered.
Spreading his wings, he descended toward the Tabaxi. “Moon,” he called out, “that’s not a good idea.”
“It’s shiny!” she called back to him. “Did you see all those levers and knobs? I want to know what they do!” She moved closer.
Bahamut, why did you have me pair up with some of these people? It wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought. And his God never answered the question. “Moon, I’m serious. I know what that machine does. I’ve been in one before. If you’re not careful, it can hurt you. Or someone else. You don’t want that, do you?”
“But what if my soul’s in there?” She stopped moving and looked at him, her ears twitching.
“Why don’t you go back up top?” Jinnaari kept his voice calm. “I can see if it’s in there. I know what lever to move to open it.”
Her face twisted into a pout, “But what if there’s more than just my soul? How will you know which one is mine?” She started to climb down again. “I should check. I know what I’m looking for. I think.”
“I’ll bring them all up. I promise.”
Her head swiveled upward quickly. “Lights!” she cried out, delighted, and started to climb back up the rock face.
Jinnaari looked up. Caelynn had cast a spell, making lights dance around the area where the rest were at. Good. That’d keep both Tabaxi busy for a few minutes.
He turned his attention back to the mechanical sphere below him. He spotted movement in the lava. Landing on one of the stalagmites, he pushed the lever to open the machine. If things were coming, he wanted to be ready.
The tunnel kept going. The light from his sword kept Jinnaari from tripping as the group navigated the passage. They’d been walking for a few hours, without sight of another creature. That was fine with him. Everyone could use the chance to catch their breath, relax a little.
A small alcove was to his left. The opening was narrow enough they’d have to go in single file, but it would be a good place to get off their feet for a short time and eat. “In here,” he said as he looked back at everyone. “We can rest for a while.”
He waited at the opening, letting everyone else fill the room. Adam stopped, “What about you?”
“I’ll stay in the opening, keep watch. Make sure Thia eats something, will you?”
His friend nodded in response. “If Pan doesn’t beat me to it.”
Jinnaari leaned his large frame against one wall and pulled out some food from a pouch. His eyes watched the passage for any sort of movement.
“What is it, Althir?” Bahamut’s voice echoed in his mind.
Jinnaari stood straighter. “What do you need, My Lord?”
A shadow began to coalesce in the hallway. “You’re the one that’s been asking questions, Althir,” Bahamut responded.
Glancing over his shoulder, he checked to see if anyone in the group heard the voice. They were all sitting down, eating. Pan said something to Thia and she laughed in response.
“They don’t know I’m here, Althir. And I cannot remain long, or my Sister will sense my presence. So, again. What is it?”
He turned to face his God. “It’s Helix. There’s something not right about him, and I don’t know how to fix it. Thia said she had a spell, but it would take us restraining him. There’s already a lack of trust there. Doing that would make it even worse.”
“Ah. That one.” Bahamut paused, “Althir, the Tabaxi don’t think the same way we do. They have no real concept of right or wrong, good or evil. They don’t have the attention span to adhere to moral codes like you and the rest do. They can become fixated on a single item, or ideal, and study it to death only to discard years of research for something else without a thought. I know this much. Helix is no danger to anyone in your group. Including Thia. The time may come where she’ll need to trust him. Does she?”
“No,” he shook his head. “Neither do I.”
“Fix that. It may make the difference between life and death for her. You don’t want her to refuse his help if that’s what keeps her safe.”
“How? He’s pure chaos!”
Bahamut’s shadow smiled. “Helix is fascinated by power, prestige, titles. How the nobility go about their day. He wants to experience that world. You’re part of that. Those wings didn’t come to you because I thought you needed them. They’re a symbol of your rank. Helix knows this. You want to keep him from causing chaos, then give him a taste of your world.”
“My Lord, I haven’t been home since my mother’s ascension to the throne. I don’t have the connections Helix thinks I have.”
“You and I know that. He doesn’t.”
“You’re asking me to lie?”
“No,” Bahamut gave him a direct look. “I’m telling you to keep Thia safe, and kill Lolth. And that means giving Helix enough of a glimpse into the clan’s nobility to keep him in line. You’re not ignorant in the intrigues that happen at court, Althir. Treat him as you would any other person who was trying to gain favor within the hierarchy. You’re going to rule after your mother. Cementing alliances now is not unheard of.”
The shadow dissipated, leaving Jinnaari with his own thoughts.
A Matter of Trust
Thia looked at Jinnaari, “You’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”
He shook his head, “I’m serious, Thia.”
She pushed a hand through her blonde hair. “It’s just…. the last time I trusted Helix, he ended up being a doppelganger! I don’t know who this Tabaxi is. He’s pure chaos! Even if he’s the real Helix and not another changeling, I sense something evil about him. His time with the Hags changed him. How can I trust he’s not going to hand me over to Lolth if it’s advantageous for him?” She rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her head into her hands.
“I don’t say this to you without reason, Thia. I understand what I’m asking you to do. But I have every reason to believe he won’t do that.”
“How?” she demanded. “How do you know this?” She raised her head and looked at him.
“Remember the other day? When we rested in the alcove? Bahamut appeared to me in the passageway while everyone ate. He told me that Helix wasn’t going to do anything to hurt you, and that you and I both needed to trust him.” He looked at her. “I know I’m asking a lot, but Bahamut said that there may come a time that your life would depend on trusting Helix. And He wouldn’t lie to me. If my God says to trust someone, make them trust me, then I’m going to do it. Somehow.”
She leaned back and let out a long sigh. “I don’t know…”
“The only time I’ve ever heard him ask any of us if we trust him is if he’s going to teleport us during a fight. He can’t use that to take you to Lolth. For one, he doesn’t know where She is and he has to have that knowledge. Second, the faerzress. That stuff’s all over the place down here. Short hops to get you someplace safe – or me to where I can get you out – is all he’s going to be able to do.” He paused, “You still trust me, right?”
“You know I do.”
“Then give me time to work on Helix. I think I can get him to trust me enough to let you do that one spell. If he’s evil, that’ll take care of it. Until then, I’m asking you to trust me when I say you need to trust him.”
“Fine,” she gave up the argument. “But I’m still not healing those….creatures he summons!”
Pan finds the bottom
Pan squeezed his way through the crevice, the alchemy jug held securely in his arms. Everyone else was looting the Driders and Drow they’d just killed. All he wanted to do was figure out how to empty the jug.
Ever since they’d found the jug, he’d waited to try it out. It was one thing to hear about what it could do; it was another to actually experience it.
“Beer,” he whispered.
The sloshing inside changed tone. Uncorking one of the spouts, the aroma of hops wafted out. “Oh, my,” he said. Lifting the jug to his lips, he took a sip.
And then started to gulp.
Two hours later, with the jug empty at last, he put the stopper into the spout. The small room spun enough that he thought twice about standing up. But, damn that was good beer!
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
Pan squinted, barely making out the shimmering form of Sparkles. The small dog wormed its way through the crevice. It sniffed the air, then took a step back.
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
Through his drunken stupor, Pan caught sight of Caelynn on the other side of the fissure. “He’s in here.”
“Hold on,” Jinnaari instructed her. With a massive push, they rose from the ground.
Thia closed her eyes. The chasm floor was at least five hundred feet below them. She wasn’t about to let go.
She felt him stop, finally opening her eyes. They hovered at the side of the cavern. Helix and Pan were fighting the Beholder already.
“Here,” she felt him drape a cloak around her back and secure it. “Now, put a hand against the wall.”
Taking a deep breath, she did as he instructed. Her body didn’t move. “The cloak’s going to keep you safe over here. As long as you have a foot, hand, or something else touching the wall, you won’t fall.”
She let go of the paladin, and he flew toward the fight.
Shifting her position, she made it so both of her hands were free to cast spells. Drawing a sigil in the air in front of her, she did what she could to aid her companions.
The Beholder turned and the center eye focused on her. Her feet slipped and she began to fall. Desperately, she grabbed at the rock wall but couldn’t find anything to hang onto. With a scream, she began to tumble toward the floor.
“Hold on,” Jinnaari called to her.
“To what?” she was panicking, her arms flailing about blindly as her body twisted in the air.
Turning her head, she saw the paladin flying to her, his arm reaching out to her. Thia stretched out, her hand grasping his.
He carried her back to the bridge, waiting for her to get her feet under her before going back to the others. The creature was dead. Pushing down the panic, she set to trying to heal her friends.
“Not my pets?” Helix asked.
She glared at him. “No, Helix. I am not healing those abominations!”
“Hey, what’s that?” Moon was pointing to a section of the cavern wall.
Thia looked that way. Carved into the rock face was the image of the Beholder, with a large hole where the center eye would be.
“Stay here. I’ll check it out.”
She watched the paladin fly down and disappear into the darkness. Minutes later, he came back up. “Well?”
“It was a treasure room. Let’s get off the bridge first.”
The group moved to the far end and inspected the loot. Not a bad reward, all in all.
“What happens now?” Adam asked. “We got everything Vizeran wanted.”
Jinnaari looked around the chamber. “If my bearings are right, we can reach his tower by nightfall. Let’s do that. Then we see how long it takes him to make this device he promised us.”
“And then?” Thia asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Jinnaari turned and looked at her. “And then we end this.”
A Dinner Party
Thia walked slowly, her body alert for anything out of the ordinary. You’re in a Drow arch mage’s tower…in the Underdark…none of this is ordinary! Still, it was wise to be cautious.
The door she wanted was open. The dim light within drawing her forward. Vizeran had no need for the light. Neither did she, for that matter. Jinnaari and Pan, though, needed the help. The gesture to make everyone feel somewhat comfortable wasn’t unnoticed.
Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that things weren’t as the mage wanted them to think they were. His answers to questions made sense. But she didn’t understand much about Drow society. She wasn’t trying to learn more, either.
Walking into the room, she stopped. The table was set for eight, but it was just her and Vizeran. The Drow rose, his black robes falling gracefully from his shoulders. “Welcome, Priestess. Please, have a seat,” he gestured toward a chair next to him. “Your friends will be here soon. I gave them a different time for the meal. I wanted to be able to speak with you privately.”
Thia walked about halfway down the table, pulling out a chair other than the one he pointed to. There was room on each side of her for her friends to sit. And it was far enough away from their host that she had a chance of making it out of the room if things went badly.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t call me that,” she said as she sat down.
He started, “Clerics of Kelemvor are not priests or priestesses?”
“Those titles are usually reserved for the higher echelons of the church. And,” she took a deep breath, “given the circumstances, I tend to associate the title with something I will never be.”
“What is that?”
She stared at him, “I will never be a priestess of Lolth.”
He studied her, but she didn’t lower her gaze under his scrutiny. “Lolth can be quite, how can I say this, persuasive. You may not be able to resist what She offers you for your loyalty.”
“I would rather die than betray Kelemvor, or my friends, in that way.”
“I believe you believe that, Thia. If your friend is able to fulfill his task, I would ask that you consider remaining down here with us for a time. You are part of our world, after all. Your mother, and siblings, deserve the time to get to know you. And you to know them. I’m familiar with your family. There’s power you could claim. Herasta would welcome you as her heir, I’m certain.”
“When this is done, I’m leaving with my friends. This has never been my world.”
“Does not the surface treat you poorly? Have you not spent your life hiding simply because you don’t look like they do? Here, you would be seen as a princess. Your beauty would be celebrated, emulated. You wouldn’t have to hide your true self.”
“She said no,” Pan called out from the doorway. Thia turned toward his voice. Jinnaari, Adam, and the rest were coming into the room. The dragonborn took the seat between her and Vizeran, while Pan moved to her right. “You okay?” he whispered.
“Now I am. He’s not the best at taking ‘no’ for an answer,” she said.
“If you need to leave, just let me know. I’ll make sure it happens.”
“I hope you’re all hungry,” Vizeran said. “I made my chef dust off some surface recipes to make you all more comfortable.”
A bowl of soup was placed in front of her. Not bothering to hide it, Thia cast the spell to make sure everyone’s meal would be safe to eat.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Vizeran chided her.
“Yes,” Jinnaari replied, “she did.”
A Dinner Party part 2
Adam pulled out a chair opposite of Jinnaari, his focus on Thia. Pan whispered something in her ear, and he saw her relax slightly. The panic they’d all felt when she wasn’t in her room faded, but he was still on alert. Vizeran had said he wanted to help them take down Lolth. That didn’t mean any of them trusted the Drow.
Whatever had been said between Thia and the mage would be shared later. She trusted the paladin enough to tell him everything. And Jinnaari would share what he thought Adam should know. The atmosphere in the room was tense; Thia’s casting didn’t lessen it, nor did Jinnaari’s assertion that it was necessary.
“I was wondering,” he kept his tone neutral. Waiting for Vizeran to focus on him, Adam continued. “Lolth has several different forms. Is there one She prefers?”
The dark elf responded, “This is true. Her true self She reserves for only those worthy to see it. Or who fail the trials and become Driders. Even most of her priestesses and the Matron Mothers have never seen Her in this way. It is, from my understanding, both beautiful and terrifying to gaze upon.”
Reaching for his wine goblet, he took a sip before continuing, “Rumor has it that preparations are under way for a rare occurrence. Lolth plans to raise someone,” he looked over the glass and settled his gaze on Thia, “to the status of Matron Mother, allow her to establish her own noble house among us. To be a priestess with power and influence beyond what most have. In this case, She would not reveal Her true form. Not yet. The new Matron Mother would need to prove herself worthy. During the rite, Lolth would likely take a human form. Limited, yes, for one of Her talents. But She does not want to run the risk of scaring away Her prize.”
Adam noticed Thia’s hands trembling. Both Pan and Jinnaari were whispering to her, trying to calm her down. Thinking quickly, he tried to shift the conversation. “And this device? When will it be ready?”
Vizeran looked back at his plate, cutting into the slab of meat. “Tomorrow morning. I’ll work through the night to make sure it’s completed. You’ll have at least three days of travel to get to the passageway, and I doubt it will be without incident. Every single creature in the Underdark wishes to gain Lolth’s favor. Being the one to present Thia to the Goddess would ensure that.”
“Yet you are helping us. Do you not also want Lolth’s favor?”
The mage turned to look at him. “I’m a realist, Adam. Not a devout zealot. I have my own alliances and allegiances. I fear Her, yes. But I think your friend,” he gestured toward Jinnaari, “has the best chance at driving Her back into the Abyss. That allows others to rise, or fall, within the Underdark. And that’s where my bets are placed.”
Too Much Beer
Adam walked silently down the short corridor that led to the circular common room. Vizeran had given them all rooms that led to the shared space. After the way their host had isolated Thia before dinner, Jinnaari thought it wise that some of the party keep an eye on her room during the night.
He didn’t tell Thia that, though. Not to Adam’s knowledge anyway. He agreed with both not telling her, and the watch. Her nerves were shot. She needed to rest before they set out again. It was likely to get a lot worse for her before it got better.
A quiet sobbing reached his ears before he got to the room. Worried, he picked up the pace. Pan sat on one of the couches, arms wrapped around his alchemy jug, with tears streaming down his face.
“Pan?” he asked, looking toward Thia’s door. It was closed. “What’s wrong?”
“I just feel so bad for her,” he hiccupped, then took another swig from the jug. “She didn’t ask for any of this. She had a great life with Uncle Bran. And now all she has left of him is that little box! And she’s being hunted!”
Slowly, Adam sat next to the drunk man. “Can I have some?” he asked, reaching for the jug. He didn’t want any, but it was clear Pan had drunk more than enough.
Pan let go and wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I want to do something, Adam. Something nice for her. The way she talks about Uncle Bran, I know they were close. His death still bothers her. I just wish….” His voice trailed off as he looked at Adam.
Adam knew that look. Whatever the druid had thought of in his drunken stupor, it probably wasn’t a good idea.
“You can talk to the dead, can’t you?” Pan whispered.
“Well, yes, but there’s limits to it,” he answered.
The other man smiled broadly. “That’s perfect! You just need to summon his spirit! I volunteer as a host! Then I’ll go in her room, wake her up, and he can talk to her! That’ll make her feel better!” He started bouncing on the seat with excitement.
“But it doesn’t work that way,” he tried to explain. “I need the body of the person, for one.”
“No…really…I’ll do this!” Pan stopped moving and closed his eyes. “Come on, Adam! I’m ready! Infuse my body with Thia’s dad so she can talk to him!”
Adam caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Jinnaari stood in the doorway to his room, a puzzled expression on his face. Thinking quickly, Adam rose and walked over to the paladin. Shoving the jug at him, he muttered, “He’s your problem. I’m going back to bed,” and walked toward his room again.
A Hangover He Deserves
Pan woke up, his head screaming in pain. He didn’t want to move. Every single part of him hurt.
“I know you’re awake,” Jinnaari said.
“Do you have to talk so loud?” Pan whined. He raised one hand to his face, shielding his eyes from the meager light the tower gave them, and opened them.
The paladin leaned against the wall across from him, near the door to Thia’s room. “I’m barely above a whisper, Pan. What did you drink last night from that jug?”
He sighed, “I started with the beer. When that was gone–”
“You drank ALL THE BEER? Again? And kept going?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. That thing makes really good beer,” he said.
“You were supposed to be watching Thia’s room, making sure Vizeran didn’t try and talk to her alone again.”
Pan winced at the tone in Jinnaari’s voice. “I know. But then I started drinking, and thinking about her. She’s my cousin and the only one in my family that’s gone through this sort of thing. It’s taking a huge toll on her. I wanted to make her laugh, even for a minute. Forget that Lolth’s after her, that her mother’s a total bitch.” His voice trailed off.
“What do you remember?”
“Adam came out at one point, took the jug from me. Where is it?” When the dragonborn didn’t answer, he sighed. “I know I asked him something about Thia’s dad. But that’s about it.”
“He gave the jug to me and went back to bed. I left it here, told Helix you were his problem, and did the same. I have no idea what he did with it.”
“Slept through it all. Caelynn’s in there now. We’re going to hit the road as soon as Vizeran’s done with the device.”
He forced himself to sit up. A wave of nausea washed over him. “I don’t suppose you’ll help with my recovery?”
“In a way.” He walked over to him. Each step made the armor he wore clang, and the sound reverberated through Pan’s head. He put a single finger on Pan’s forehead and whispered something.
The nausea and weakness left, but the headache remained. He looked up at Jinnaari, worried.
“I need you to be able to fight. So does Thia. But that doesn’t mean I’m taking away all the consequences. If you’re lucky, that’ll be gone by the time we stop for a rest. I recommend water. Lots of water.” He tossed a waterskin onto the seat next to Pan, then walked to the door leading to his own room. “And don’t even think about asking Thia to take it away. We already told her not to.”
Sighing, Pan reached for the pouch. He needed to talk to Helix about that jug at some point, but not right now.
The Tabaxi’s voice whispered into his ear, “I’ll give it back to you when you’re on watch tonight.”
Back on the trail
Thia stood near the door while Jinnaari and Adam talked to Vizeran. Pan and Caelynn were nearby. Judging by the way her cousin was wincing at every sound, his hangover still raged. Jinnaari was right; Pan had to suffer the consequences of his drinking this time.
“Ideally,” the Drow mage was saying, “this should be carried by someone who’s at least part Drow.” She shifted, turning her head away and refusing to meet his gaze. After the way he’d pressed her the night before, tricked her into talking to him alone, she wanted to be gone. If it wasn’t for them needing this one bit of magic, she would’ve talked Jinnaari into leaving after dinner.
She wasn’t anxious to confront Lolth or her mother by any stretch, but she did want this all to be over and done. Think about the illusion Adam said he’d set up in your room. She closed her eyes and forced her mind to calm down. Adam had said the rooms would be ready at the Green Frog when they returned from the Underdark. Each one a small pocket dimension where they could set up the room as they wanted it, with a common room for them to all use. She’d be able to touch a wall and have it change to a balcony overlooking the sea. The sky would reflect the time of day and weather, to a point. She’d be able to change that based on how she felt.
“That’s not happening.” Jinnaari said, his voice even. She knew the tone. Either Vizeran would stop pushing, or the paladin would make him. “Adam’s carrying it, and using it. Thia’s not touching it.”
“I created it, and I’m Drow. It’s going to be more responsive to her touch than his.”
“Thia is not touching it.”
She turned her attention back to the three men. The temperature in the room was dropping fast as the tension rose. “I heard them talking this morning,” Caelynn whispered. “They think he built it to emit a beacon if you carry it, something that would make you easier to find.”
“I wish we never came here,” Thia replied.
“Which here? The tower or the Underdark?”
She kept her focus on the men, “Yes.” Turning her attention to the bard, she exhaled. “I know why we’re here. I get that. It’s just that…”
“I understand, Thia. I don’t think any of us like the situation you’re in. But Jinnaari’s got a job to do. You said it yourself, before we left. They’d come for you if you stayed behind. They even tried to poison your church. You’re safer with us than you would be anywhere else.”
“That’s it? I just keep it on me and it’ll start to glow when we’re close to the tunnel you say will get us to Lolth’s lair?” Adam asked.
“Yes,” the mage replied.
“Come on. We’re moving.” Caelynn nudged her forward.
As she walked past the men, she heard Jinnaari speak to Vizeran. “If this is a trick…if it leads to an ambush or trap of some kind to get to her…I’ll be back.”
It wasn’t a threat. The dragonborn never threatened anyone that she’d heard. He made promises he had every intention of keeping.
Tick, Tick, Tick
“What’s that, Adam?” Moon pointed at the cylinder that hung from the warlock’s belt. She’d not seen it before.
He looked down as they walked. “It’s the device Vizeran made.”
“What’s it do?”
“It’s supposed to show us a hidden passage that’ll lead to Lolth’s lair without us being detected.”
Her whiskers twitched. “Really?” Quickly, she pulled at it and it broke free of Adam’s belt. Turning it over in her hands, she marveled at the smooth surface. There had to be a way to open it!
“Hey, Moon,” Adam kept his voice down. “I don’t think you should be doing that.”
She held it to her ear and shook it. “Did you know it makes a noise?”
He stopped and looked at her. “What sort of noise?”
“It’s like…tick…tick…tick. Like a clock.” Moon watched Adam as Jinnaari, Pan, and Thia continued to walk. Caelynn paused, looking back at them. He waived at her, and she turned around. “Did you open it? Can I open it? I want to know why it’s ticking!”
“So do I. But let’s do it carefully, okay? We don’t want to break anything.”
She turned it over, studying it. “Aha!” she giggled. Using a single claw, she pushed on a pinpoint sized indentation. A thin line appeared down the long edge of the device and the two halves separated.
Inside was a mess of strange things. A lump of tissue sat in the center, with four different arms leading away from it. They were made of thin pieces of metal and tubes filled with purple liquid. “That looks strange,” she said.
Adam passed his hand over the device and his face grew cold. “Moon, I’ve got to change a few things on this. Do you think you can hold it or should we put it on the ground?”
“Oooh! Is that an emerald? A sapphire?” She pointed to a couple of pulsating gems at the end of two of the pathways.
“They might be. I’ll let you have them, when we’re done. But you have to hold it steady.”
Moon grinned, “Okay!”
Adam started to weave some magic in and around the different pathways. After a few moments, three of them stopped having the purple goop flowing to them. “You can take the gems out now, Moon. Then close it back up and give it back to me. Okay?”
Quickly, she plucked the gems from their spots and sealed the machine before handing it back to Adam. Skipping past Jinnaari, she caressed her treasures in her hand.
“Adam?” Jinnaari asked as she moved past him.
“He’s back there. He played with the thingy and made it stop ticking.”
Jinnaari waited for Moon to walk away before he tried to talk with Adam. Turning to the warlock, he asked, “What’s going on?”
“We were right,” he said. “Vizeran put more than he said into this.” He held up the cylinder. “I’m not entirely certain what, but my Eldritch sight gave me enough information to limit it.”
“Damn,” the dragonborn breathed the word. He’d anticipated this, talked about it with Adam. Still, he held out a small sliver of hope that the Drow wasn’t as evil as they suspected. “The passage does exist though, right?”
Adam nodded. “Helix brought me a map. I don’t know where or how he got it, but he did. It showed the route, and the tunnel we need. Just not how to find or access the door. Which is why I didn’t just leave this on the ground.”
Jinnaari exhaled. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Pan and Caelynn talking with Thia. Distracting her while they waited. “Don’t tell her,” he instructed. “It’ll just be one more thing she’d worry about. Besides, you neutralized it.” He looked back at Adam. “You did neutralize it, right?”
“Yeah. The only thing it’ll do now is what we were told to start with. When we get close enough, I’ll know it. Oh, and I found this inside.” He placed a long, black crystal shard in Jinnaari’s hand. “Don’t tell Moon,” he cautioned, “or she’ll want to play with it.”
The paladin turned it over in his hand. The edges were cut and smoothed out. “What is it?”
“I think it’s the key to open the door. It was rattling around in the container. It’s what made the sound Moon heard.”
“Let me get this straight: he made a device to find a door, then hid the key in the device? And added a whole bunch of other things to it? That we have no idea what they did?”
Jinnaari looked back down the path that led back to the mage’s tower. “I tried to warn him. The next time I see him, he pays the price for not listening to me.”
“Don’t get distracted. Lolth dies first. Or Herasta.” Adam paused, “You’re not really letting Thia kill her own mother, are you? I don’t know if she could handle that.”
Jinnaari shrugged, “She’s tougher than she lets on. You’re right, though. Something like that would be hard for her to live with. I only said that I might let her have the final blow. I didn’t say that it would be the one that killed her.”
Adam chuckled, “That’s an awfully thin line.”
“But it’s one we have to maintain. She’s a healer, not a killer.” He turned back toward the rest of the group. “Come on. They’re getting antsy, and we’re going to have to tell them something about what you did.”
Thia tossed the cloth back into the bowl of water. They’d been able to bathe at Vizeran’s tower, but getting some of the dust off her face still felt wonderful. All she wanted was to have this over, behind her. Once she got back to the surface, there was no way she’d go back into the Underdark again. Not willingly, anyway.
If Jinnaari defeats Lolth, I won’t have to. She sighed, correcting the thought. Not if, when. He has to do this. Otherwise… Her mind shied away from the idea. If the paladin couldn’t take down the Goddess, she was defeated as well. She could resist for a while, would fight against whatever She threw at her. Eventually, though, that will would crumble. Especially if Lolth offered to spare her companions.
“Do you think Thia can go through that? Or should we come up with a way to help her?” Adam’s voice floated through the opening to the next level of the fortress.
Rising, she started to climb up the ladder. “I’ll come up with something,” Jinnaari said to Adam.
“Come up with what?” Thia asked as she reached the room where the two were. They both looked at her, surprised. A map was spread out on the floor between them, and Adam held an open book.
Moving closer, she watched the two men exchange a look. Adam handed Jinnaari the book, then smiled at her. “I’ll talk with Moon and Caelynn, get a watch set up.” Without another word, he descended the ladder.
“What’s going on, Jinnaari?”
The paladin leaned against one of the walls. “Helix gave some things he found in Vizeran’s study to Adam. They detail this tunnel we’re looking for.”
“Found?” she laughed. “Did he ask our host if he could have them?”
“Probably not,” a small smile crept across Jinnaari’s face. “I think the term Helix gave Adam was he ‘liberated’ them. Given the circumstances, I’m certain neither of our Gods will be upset with us for taking advantage of the information. However unlawfully obtained.”
“What did he mean by my needing help to go through something?” She knew he studied her, but she refused to back down this time. “Jinnaari, if it’s something bad and you know it’s coming, doesn’t it make more sense to tell me ahead of time? At least then I’m ready for it and it doesn’t surprise me.”
“Good point,” Opening the book to a marked page, he handed it to her. “This talks about where Lolth’s lair is. And how it was constructed.”
Taking the book, she started to read. Her heart began to race. “It’s one giant web,” she breathed.
“Yes. Calcified and hollowed out strands to make conduits to the center where She holds court.” He moved closer and turned a page. An image was drawn on the page. Thick, white strands reached out from a black void, attaching themselves to a wall. The center was stark white. A single piece stretched from the surrounding rock to the interior of the tunnel. “In order to get to Lolth, we have to enter Her web. Literally.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “And he’s worried I won’t be able to go inside when I see it?”
The paladin nodded. “I’m not too certain, either.” She snapped her head up, looking at him. “This hasn’t been an easy trip for you. You’ve lost it a couple of times. We’re worried about you.” He paused, “How are things with you, Thia? Really?”
Turning her head, she stared out of the narrow arrow slit. The perpetual black of the Underdark was as cold and unwelcoming as ever. “I’m tired. Of running, hiding, being down here, all of it. I’m done with being hunted and living in a constant state of fear.” The words came out quickly, tumbling over each other. “I want this to be over. I want to be back at The Green Frog, laughing while Caelynn plays to a packed house, even for a little while before we go our separate ways. If Adam allows it, I may stay there for a while. I’m not sure the cloister is where I need to be, once we’re done. I think I’ve outgrown it.” She laughed a little, but there wasn’t any mirth in the sound. “I feel lost. But I’d much rather find a new place to set up on the surface than down here. This sounds trivial, but I’m likely to take my shoes off and run barefoot through the grass when we get back up there.” She looked at him, “How long?”
“How long what?”
“How long until we finish this?”
He held out the map, “Adam found a better route than what Vizeran told us. We should be at the entrance late tomorrow, be able to get to this area,” he pointed to what looked like a bubble in the webbing, “and rest. After that, it’s less than two hours until we reach the center.”
“And then it’s over?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
Adam climbed down the ladder, glad to be out of the room. The look in Thia’s face wasn’t one she normally wore. There was no mistake; she’d overheard them enough to realize something was being kept from her. And she didn’t like it.
“Everything okay?” Caelynn asked him as he reached the main floor of the fortress.
“Yeah,” he said, forcing himself to be calm. If it wasn’t, they’d know it soon enough. Not that Thia was one to scream when she was angry. But he didn’t think the discussion would stay silent, either.
He looked at the bard and Moon. “Jinnaari wants us to set up a watch. I’ll take first, he’ll take last. Who wants the second and third one?”
Moon’s ears twitched, “Why do we need a watch? No one can come in here.”
Adam nodded, “You’re right. But they can surround us, set up a siege. Do you want to wake up tomorrow and find a thousand Drow out there? Or a swarm of Trolls? Besides,” he pulled a piece of dried beef out of his belt pouch, “if the book and map were correct, we won’t have this when we get into the tunnel.”
“What book and map?” Caelynn asked.
“Helix liberated them from Vizeran’s tower and gave them to me. I found a shortcut, so we’ll be to this tunnel of his tomorrow. But it’s not tall enough for this to work.” He nodded upward. The fortress had been great so far, but it was a good ten feet taller than the conduit would be. “If we set it up, we could destroy it. Or punch a hole into the ceiling, alerting everyone to where we are. I’m not willing to take that chance, and neither is Jinnaari.”
“What about Pan and Helix? Don’t they need to be on the schedule?” Moon asked.
“Helix spends so much time in the Ethereal plane, we’re not sure where he’s at, let alone if he’s awake or asleep. Pan’s human, he needs the sleep. Thia needs it, too. The two of you,” he pointed at the two women, “either don’t require it or can meditate and be good. Though I think sleep when it’s not your turn is a good idea. We’re close to Lolth. Everyone needs to be at their best, not tired.”
“So, four of us? Two-hour shifts?” Caelynn asked.
Adam nodded. Caelynn knew the drill well enough that he didn’t worry about her. Moon had done well when they’d set up a watch before, but she was a Tabaxi. Which meant easily distracted more times than not. “With the two of you in between me and Jinnaari, he and I will get enough sleep, as well.”
“How close are we, Adam? Really?” Caelynn looked at him. “I’m worried about her.”
“Closer than Lolth wants us to be.”
Grasping at Straws
Thia grasped the fabric of her cloak tightly, moving the edge closer to her chin. Almost everyone else was sleeping. Adam was moving around on the floor below her, where Jinnaari, Caelynn, and Moon slept. Pan was up here, with her. Where Helix was, no one knew.
She shifted again. Her body was used to sleeping on the ground. And she was so tired. Every muscle ached tonight. Jinnaari had set a quick pace when they left Vizeran’s tower. Now she knew why.
“Thia?” Adam whispered.
She opened her eyes and watched him emerge from the opening in the floor. “What?” she asked.
“Why are you still awake? Is something wrong?” He moved near her and lowered himself to the floor.
She laughed, but there was nothing funny in the sound. “I did the math, Adam.”
“We’re going to be in front of Lolth, have this over and done with, in less than forty-eight hours. Even if we get into a dozen fights from now until we reach the conduit, the timeline doesn’t shift much.” She paused, staring at the ceiling. “In less than two days, I’ll be in front of Her. And I don’t think She’ll take ‘no’ as an answer from me.” The words were barely a whisper. “Do you think she’ll be there? With Lolth?”
She heard him shift. “Probably. It shouldn’t matter. Herasta may have given birth to you, Thia. But she is no mother. To her, you’re probably nothing more than a way to get into Lolth’s good graces. I wouldn’t waste your energy thinking about her. She showed how little she truly cared about you decades ago. If anything, she made a choice to get rid of you and that was the best thing she could’ve done for you. You had a good life with your father, from what I’ve heard you tell Pan. If she hadn’t rejected you, you wouldn’t have known him. And we wouldn’t have known you.”
She nodded, knowing he was right. Her life would’ve been drastically different if Herasta had kept her. “It’s just…” her voice trailed off.
“I thought I had this figured out, Adam. We’d get close enough for Jinnaari to do what he needs to do, then leave. I’ve been running scared for months now, ever since the first time they tried to take me. Ever since we found out I was a target. With us being so close, I almost hope that we’re past all of that. Do you think it’s possible? That we’ll make it to Her lair as a group?” She turned her head and looked at him.
He smiled. “I certainly hope so. I don’t think we need to let our guard down, though. You’re still doing the meditations, right? Are they helping you stay calm when you need them to?”
“Except for tonight, yes. My mind won’t shut up. We’re so close to being able to leave that I’m thinking of all the ways it could go wrong.”
“Try thinking about all the ways it could go right instead.” She felt his hand rest briefly on her shoulder, reassuring her.
Closing her eyes, she did as Adam suggested. Eventually, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.
Ding, Ding, Ding
Moon absently raised the dark blue gem toward her eye and peered through it. The light in the room was subtle; no source could be found. But ever since they’d set foot into this…what had Adam called it?…conduit? Yeah, that was it.
Though that word didn’t describe it. She preferred spidey bones or mummy webbing. Every time she’d said that, though, Thia and Pan shot her a dirty look.
Her ears perked up at the sound. It was hauntingly familiar.
Her head swiveled up, searching for the source of the sound. A small hole, about fifteen feet up the wall and just shy of the ceiling, was a small dark spot on the opaque white walls.
She looked at the door. The heavy wooden bar still sat in the braces, preventing it from being opened from the outside. Even with Jinnaari’s strength, he’d needed help putting it in place. It was that heavy. Okay, so no one was going to come inside. And everyone else slept.
No longer able to hold back her curiosity, she scrambled up the wall toward the hole.
It wasn’t that wide, barely large enough for her to get inside. It went back about ten feet. Hanging from a piece of rock that stuck out of the wall sat the source of the sound. A silver bell, embossed with gold, on a tooled leather collar. A single word was etched on the bell.
Excited, Moon reached for the collar. As her hands grasped it, it disappeared in a shower of sparks. She blinked, frantically looking around the area for where it went. It was just there! Her heart sank as the realization hit her: it was an illusion.
She scraped her back and the tops of her feet against the walls of the tunnel as she turned her body around to leave. Maybe it really was in that dragon’s hoard. She’d have to talk to Jinnaari about going after it soon. Well, after he took care of whatever it was he was supposed to do. He seemed to think it was awfully important. So did everyone else. Though not nearly as important in her mind as getting her soul bell back.
She rubbed her nose. The hole looked like it was open. She could see everyone sleeping down there. But she ran into something. Hard. Reaching a hand out, she felt the area. There was definitely something smooth, solid, and invisible covering the exit. Her heart began to race and she used both hands to search the edges, looking for a weakness or hole she could exploit. That’s when she saw the bar across the door move.
Her eyes grew wide and she pounded on the force field, yowling as loud as she knew how. No one stirred. The beam lifted from its place and floated to one side before resting on the floor. The door swung open and a woman entered. Moon wasn’t certain, but she looked like she was Drow. She had a mask on, and all of her arms and legs were covered. She knelt down and put a metal box on the ground. The woman looked up at Moon and smiled. But it wasn’t a friendly smile.
Moon stretched out her claws, clawing at the barrier, but nothing was making a dent in it. The Drow opened the box and stood back up. A thick fog, swirling with black and purple colors, began to roll out of it. Within seconds, it covered every one of Moon’s friends. The woman raised one arm and motioned with her hand. More came in, and some of them were carrying a long, wooden box. They put it on the ground and opened the lid. It was empty.
She watched in horror as they moved to where Thia had been sleeping. Within minutes, they raised her naked body up from the mist. Thia’s chest rose and fell; she was still alive. Another one bound her hands, then put a gag across her mouth. She was lowered into the coffin. Once the lid was locked into place, they picked it back up and left the room.
The leader, still wearing the same cold smile, moved something on the box. The fog began to retreat back into it. Once it was all inside, she closed the lid and looked up at Moon again. The look she gave her made the hair on her neck stand on end.
The door closed behind them, and the beam returned to its former place. Everyone except Moon slept. All of Thia’s belongings and clothing stayed on her bedroll.
Instead of having only one problem, she now had two. First was getting out from the hole. The second would be explaining what just happened, and why she couldn’t stop it, to the paladin and the druid.
Thia took a sharp breath as the black veil fell away from her brain. She was being carried. No. She was in a box that was moving.
She took a few deep breaths, trying to calm the panic that rose within her. What had Adam and Jinnaari told her? Stay calm, learn your surroundings, observe. Evaluate everything so you’re ready to act if opportunity comes. Focus on what happened before to find clues on what’s happening now.
They’d made camp for the night. She remembered taking off her armor and, using her cloak as a blanket, laying down on her bedroll. The Underdark wasn’t the warmest place, but it wasn’t like a blizzard raged just outside. Between her clothing and the cloak, she should’ve been warm enough.
Her breath was warm as it bounced off the lid and back onto her face. There was barely any space around her. Was she in a coffin, already dead?
Focus! She took a deep breath, gathering her thoughts. What happened next?
She’d gone to sleep. Adam, Moon, Caelynn and Jinnaari were all taking watches. They wouldn’t let her take one, insisted she slept. For a change, she didn’t argue. The day had been a hard one, between travel and skirmishes, and she was exhausted both physically and mentally. The closer they got to Lolth’s lair, the harder it was to take that next step.
And now she was in a box of some kind. Her teeth bit into cloth. They’d gagged her. Great.
She went to move her hands. Nope. They were tied with something. She could feel the thin, sticky rope as it cut into her wrists when she moved. No, not rope. It was strong, but thin.
Like spider silk. Damn it!
Breathe, Thia…. just breathe.
She shifted, trying to gauge how much room she had in the box, and felt her bare back scrape against the rough wood.
Okay. So, you’re tied up, naked, and in a coffin. This is not good!
She clenched her teeth. What had Ishacte said about the assassin who’d taken Jinnaari? She had a signature way of delivering her prey. The box she was in, everything, seemed to match what had happened to the paladin. Diak was the best Yathtallar ever trained, if her half-sister was to be believed. If she was here, where was everyone else? Kelemvor, let them be safe!
The crate shifted, tilting her forward. She winced as her body slid slightly, the skin cutting against the abrasive surface. The board beneath her feet vibrated as it landed on something solid. Wherever they were taking her, they’d arrived.
Fear rose in her, but she forced it down. Whatever she saw when the lid opened, she’d face it head on.
The lid to her prison opened, and she blinked against the dim light. Ten or more Drow, all armed, surrounded the crate. Two of them reached out and grabbed her upper arms. Thia tried to pull free, but they held on. Without a word, they forced her forward.
One woman stood in front of her, lilac eyes evaluating her. Thia felt her heart race. It wasn’t Ishacte, but there was no denying the relationship. Grasping onto the last thread of courage she had, Thia stared at her. She wore a dress that barely covered her body. The center of the fabric was cut away, framing the red hourglass that was tattooed on her abdomen.
“Leave us, Herasta. I wish to get acquainted with your daughter.” a voice behind her ordered. Obediently, the Drow began to fade into the shadows. Kelemvor, I need you. Thia prayed, her mouth working the phrase around the gag, and slammed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see what was coming. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Screw staying calm! All she wanted to do was run. This wasn’t fear or panic any more. This was pure terror.
“Welcome, Thia. Do you not wish to see me? I’ve waited so long to meet you.” The voice was seductive, calm, yet carried a note of command.
Kelemvor, I need you.
“You’re in my realm, child. My Brother cannot hear your pleas.” Thia cringed as she felt something stoke the skin on her back. It wasn’t a human finger. “I can feel your body tremble. But I wonder. Is it me you fear? Or the darkness within yourself? Shall we find out?”
Thia felt the tears as they fell from her eyes, but kept them closed. This is just a dream, she told herself. I’ll wake up, and everyone will be nearby. We’ll go down the passage, find the temple, and execute Jinnaari’s plan. I’ll be close enough to keep him alive, but far enough away to stay out of Lolth’s reach. That’s what’s going to happen. This is a dream, nothing more.
Pain stabbed into her arm. Something ice cold began to flow through her veins. A sticky, wet fiber began to spool around her legs. A single whimper escaped her throat as any hope that she was dreaming left her. “There, there, Thia,” Lolth crooned in her ear. The sound was anything but soothing. “It’s time for you to choose which side you will embrace. Time to find out what life in my service can be like. I give you one final gift, to help you when you make your decision.”
Thia felt something slide into her hands, but terror refused to loosen its grip enough for her to know what it was. As the webbing wound up her body, something pulled the gag from her mouth. Unable to control herself, a single wail of desperation tore from her throat. The last strands covered her head, silencing her cries, as the drugs took over her mind.
Pan carefully rolled up Thia’s gear in her bedroll, making sure that all the smaller pieces were tucked safely within the fabric. Her armor he set off to the side. He’d have to put that into his bag separately.
“We’ll get her back, Pan.” Jinnaari’s voice was just above a whisper, but confident.
“We have to,” he insisted. “I made promises to her. Ones I intend to keep.”
“What sort of promises?”
Pan opened up his bag and eased the bulk of her gear inside. “My mother would want to meet her. Our entire family would. I promised to take her there. She’d have a home, if she wanted it.” He leaned back. “This is my fault.”
“No, it’s not. It’s no one’s fault. Not even Moon’s.” The dragonborn knelt in front of him, picking up Thia’s chain shirt. “Whoever Lolth sent after her watched us for a long time, waited for the perfect moment. It was too well planned out.” He looked around the room. “She took advantage of Moon, and of us. It’s not ideal, but we’ll work with it. For now,” he turned back to Pan and handed him the shirt, “keep her stuff safe. She’s probably going to want it back fairly quickly once we find her.”
“About that,” Pan said as he put the chain mail in the bag, “I know your target is Lolth. It always has been. Do you think Thia will be nearby?”
“Absolutely. This whole time, Thia’s been some sort of prize for Lolth. I doubt she’ll be far away from the Goddess. Especially if she’s been resisting Her attempts to convert her.”
Pan nodded. “She will, you know. She’ll not give in easily. Kelemvor has been the one constant in her life this far. She trusts Him more than she does you.”
“I hope so.”
The words were so faint that Pan wasn’t sure he heard them. “What do you mean?”
“I hope Thia’s close to Lolth. That’s all.” A dark shadow passed over the paladin’s face so quickly that Pan wondered if he imagined it.
“Good. Because I’ll get to her, make sure she’s alive. You’ve got enough to worry about with Lolth and anything else we have to fight in the room.”
Jinnaari rose and started to walk away. “Hey, one more thing,” Pan called out to him as he rose.
Turning, he looked at the druid, “What?”
Pan held out his alchemy jug. “Keep this with you. Thia doesn’t need me getting drunk today. You can give it back to me when she’s free and we want to celebrate.”
Mind Games pt. 1
She stirred, her mind struggling to push away whatever fog permeated it.
“Thia? Are you awake?”
The voice was male, but not one she recognized. Part of her screamed a warning, but the fog quickly silenced it. It can’t be Lolth, she reasoned. it’s a man. Remember what they taught you. Observe, don’t react. They’re coming for you. Kelemvor won’t leave you here.
She was laying on something soft. The ropes that bound her were gone, and she could feel cloth on her. She wasn’t in the cocoon any longer, and dressed. Was that Lolth’s doing? Or had Jinnaari and Pan found her already?
“It’s okay, Thia. No one else is here but us. You don’t have to be afraid.” Someone sat down near her, shifting the blankets covering her. A bed, then? How did she get into a bed?
She moved her hands, touching the smooth sheet beneath her. Flexing her fingers, she tested her strength. Lolth had given her something, but what? Would she be able to reach her magic?
You won’t know until you try, she chided herself. Whoever this is knows you’re awake. They’re coming for you. You just have to hold on until they do. She maneuvered her body so she’d be facing whoever was in the room. That it was a man was reassuring; that ruled out both Lolth and her mother. Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes.
The Drow smiled at her. His hair was white, but he had the same lilac eyes she did. “Hello,” he said, smiling at her. “My name’s Aust.”
She sat up, moving herself farther from him in the process. She didn’t respond to him. Instead, she took in her surroundings. A richly decorated bedroom, done in shades of blue and gray, surrounded her. A fire burned in the fireplace, adding both warmth and light to the room. “Where am I?” she asked.
“Your room, of course! Granted, you’ve never been able to enjoy them, but Ishacte and I both had a hand in putting it together. If something’s not right, just let us know. We’ll get it corrected.” His voice was overly eager.
“You know Ishacte?”
Aust laughed. “Of course! She’s our sister! Not nearly as talented, kind, or nice as you are, to be certain. But she’s as eager as I am to make sure you have whatever you need, now that you’re home.”
Something about the man’s name tugged at a thread in her mind, but the knot refused to untangle. “Where’s Herasta?”
“Dead, of course. You’re the head of the house now, Thia. You’re our Matron Mother. After what she did to you,” he paused, “it wasn’t right. None of it was. She denied you your birthright, abandoned you to a life on the surface. But it’s all going to be fine now. You’re home, where you should’ve been the whole time.” He reached out and put a hand on hers.
The cold chill of death ran in her veins as the ghostly hand passed right through hers. “You’re not real,” she whispered. “You’re dead. Worse than dead.”
A bright red stain began to seep across the white shirt he wore. Aust’s eyes narrowed and his expression changed. “That paladin,” he spat out the word, “killed me. Same as he killed our sister. All to keep you from taking your rightful place. But now you’re home. You’re Hers, the same as we are.”
The room faded away as blackness overtook her.
Mind Games pt. 2
The blackness was thick. Even with her ability to see within the darkness, she couldn’t make out her own hand in front of her face. Thia kept her left hand on the wall; her fingers trailed against the smooth surface, ready to warn her if it changed. She didn’t know how she got here, but it wasn’t that bedroom where Aust’s ghost was. Nor was it the cocoon Lolth had wrapped around her.
It could be an illusion. Trust nothing. Lolth’s going to twist everything until I see it Her way.
The texture of the wall changed. Thia stopped, turning toward her left. Her fingers began to trace the outline of a door. Her heart beat a little faster with the hope that it was a way out. Her right hand found the knob. Before she twisted it, she pressed her ear against the wood. She could hear something on the other side, moving around.
What are you waiting for? Lolth’s seductive voice echoed in her mind. Thia, child, I will not harm you. You are precious to Me. What’s behind these doors are your own fears. Confront them, embrace them, conquer them. Show Me the strength that my Brother thinks should be hidden from the world.
Her hand moved to the tattoo on her cheek. “Kelemvor, stay with me,” she whispered. She had nothing but her mind, and her magic, to escape with. Open it slowly, she told herself, and then take a look. Be ready to close it.
Dim light filtered through the crack as she eased the door open. Figures were on the floor, writhing and moaning. In the middle of each group was a female Drow. Men of various races surrounded them, vying for attention. Thia felt the heat rise in her cheeks as she shut the door against the debauchery. There was no way she’d go into that room.
Laughter echoed down the hallway.
Thia started her walk again. This time, she kept a hand on each wall. The corridor was narrow enough.
“Do you need some light, child?”
As if a switch was flipped, the entire area became illuminated. The hallway stretched on in front of her, without an end she could see. Every five feet sat another door.
A scurrying of claws sounded from behind her. Thia closed her eyes at the sound. It was the same one she’d heard before Lolth put her into the cocoon. Panic and terror rose, and she was suddenly more aware of her nakedness. Both in body and soul.
“Pick a door, child,” Lolth whispered in her ear. “Or are you afraid of what you might find on the other side? Is it truly more terrifying than I am?” Something pushed against her back, forcing her forward. “Perhaps you want Me to pick for you?” Claws grasped her shoulders, dragging her to face a door at random. “Let’s try this one.”
The door was pushed inward and Thia fell after it. She landed in a puddle of thick, warm liquid. As the light of the hallway illuminated the room, she looked at her hands. Blood dripped off of her fingers and ran down her arms. Around her were thousands of bodies. They were all dead.
Twisting in the pool, her eyes grew wide in horror as she began to make out the faces.
In unison, the eyes on the corpses flew open.
“They died trying to protect you, find you, child.” Lolth taunted her from the doorway. “You could’ve prevented their deaths, and you know it, simply by becoming Mine. Explain it to them. Explain to them why your life was more important than any of theirs.”
The mouths on her friends’ faces began to move. The word began as a whisper, steadily rising in volume. “Why?”
Thia pressed her blood-soaked hands to her ears and screamed as the door was shut, plunging the room into darkness.
Adam nodded, knowing no one else in his group saw his Patron. None but him heard the voice. “I understand. And I will comply. But why now?”
The Solar pulsated once.
Letting out a deep breath, Adam nodded again. “Caelynn, as well? But,” he hesitated, “you know what’s about to happen. I’d like to see this through if possible. Please.”
The celestial pulsated again, brighter and more insistent.
“Adam? What’s that?” Caelynn asked.
“You see it?”
“It’s my Patron. You and I are needed elsewhere. Stay here, I’ll go tell Jinnaari.”
“What about Thia?” she grabbed his arm, stopping him.
“He says all will be well. I have to do what he says, Caelynn. We both do. If we don’t, Thia’s doomed.” He looked at her. “I know. I don’t want to leave now, either. But I don’t want to be the reason why she turns away from Kelemvor, either.” Removing her hand from his arm, he moved past Moon and Pan, heading for the paladin.
“Jinnaari, hold up. We have a glitch.”
The Dragonborn stopped, turning to look at him as he approached, “What is it?”
“I’ve had a visit from my Patron. I’ve been told I have to leave, now, and take Caelynn with me.”
Jinnaari clenched his jaw, “Did they give a reason?”
Adam shook his head, “Not really. Just that, if we don’t go, Thia’s doomed. Us being here, in this fight, is going to give Lolth whatever final ammunition She needs to turn her. I want to get her back, same as the rest of us. But I won’t be the one to seal her fate like that.” He glanced back at everyone else. “They’ll take care of things, as will you. When it’s all over, when we find ourselves all back at the Green Frog, we’ll swap stories. First two rounds are on me.” He held out his hand.
The paladin grasped it, “And the next two are on me. Go. I’ll explain it to Thia when we get her back.”
Adam nodded and walked back to where his Patron stood with Caelynn. His heart was heavy. He didn’t like leaving, not with the battle that they were about to have. But he also knew that being the cause of Thia’s doom would weigh even heavier on his conscience.
Mind Games – The Final Push
The water pummeled Thia’s body, driving her to the floor. The large drops fell in a torrent, pushing the breath out of her lungs as it washed over her. In the growing light, she saw the blood flow away from her as the deluge subsided. The rivulets began to run clear, no longer tainted. Her soul, though, was still drenched with guilt.
Nothing would wash that away. And she knew it.
“Get up,” a woman commanded her. A towel was thrown down near her hand.
Thia sat up, grasping at the rough fabric, and covered herself. Herasta stared at her. “Thank you,” she muttered.
Her mother snorted, “For what? A towel? I knew you’d be weak when you came out of me. I should’ve kept you, or made sure you died. Bran did nothing but make you even softer.”
Thia hung her head, the wet strands of her hair falling around her face. “Then kill me now,” she whispered. “Please.”
“I won’t allow that, child.” Lolth said.
Thia kept her head down. Tears mixed with the water that dripped from her head. Kelemvor, she begged, please. I need you now more than ever.
“Look at me.”
She couldn’t resist the command. Raising her head, she looked Lolth in the face. Instead of a giant spider, She was a beautiful woman. Voluptuous, sensual, and terrifying all at the same time, the Goddess regarded her with cool indifference.
“There,” She said, a thin smile spreading across her face, “isn’t this better than hiding from me? I’m not much different from you, child. All that time you wasted, being afraid of an image that isn’t who I really am.”
The water on the floor in front of her began to swirl together, drawn into a small pool by unseen magic. “You know what that is, don’t you, Thia?”
“It’s a scrying mirror,” her voice cracked with exhaustion.
“You know, then, that it will show the truth of the past. Thia, child,” Lolth’s tone softened, “you have to see this. You deserve to know the truth of what my Brother, and your paladin friend, truly want.”
The surface of the water shimmered. A scene began to come into focus. A circular room, with a portal in the center. Jinnaari was handing Kelemvor his sword.
She watched as the God she’d dedicated her life to drew a single finger across the blade. The words He spoke drove daggers into her soul. “I ask that you use this weapon to end her life.” He held the weapon out to Jinnaari, “Do this for me, please.”
As the Dragonborn’s hands grasped the sword, the vision faded.
Anger, pain, and hatred began to rise within her. A scream tore from her throat, and she threw her head back to let it fly.
Her hands grasped the hooked blade Lolth gave her. Rage guided her strokes and she started to cut her way out of the cocoon.
“Damn it, Jinnaari!” Pan screamed at the paladin. Thia staggered toward one of the prisoners; her naked body splattered with blood from the woman she’d killed as they arrived. The curved dagger she held slashed at the air in front of her. She was on drugs; Pan knew that much. That the paladin had ignored her and moved on Lolth angered him. “You’re the only one who can save her! If you let my cousin die or become one of that bitch’s followers, I’ll make sure Bahamut knows you let her die!”
Drawing on his own magic, he summoned an invisible creature and sent it after one of the Drow closest to him. Maybe, just maybe, he could use it to keep Thia safe somehow. “This is your last warning, paladin!” he screamed across the temple chamber. “If she dies, I’m making sure you’ll never have the chance to father a child!”
Jinnaari changed course, moving toward Thia, and Pan took a deep breath. Helix was…somewhere. Moon was trying to set a prisoner free. And the one the Dragonborn had freed was already engaging Lolth.
Pan watched Thia’s face closely, waiting for some sort of sign that the drugs Lolth had fed her were gone. He moved closer. Her gear was in his pack, and she’d need it once she had her wits about her again. His creature tore apart one of the Drow and moved toward the next foe when the ground beneath them began to rumble.
Scores of skeletons emerged from the ground, moving toward Helix’s latest pet. Pan took one out, still focused on Thia. The disorientation left her face, and her eyes focused on what was around her. She drove the knife into a skeleton, then sent out a wave of healing to the group. Thank the Gods!
“Thia, use this,” Helix said as he appeared next to her. He held out his staff.
Jinnaari started to work his way back toward the Goddess as Pan ran at Thia. Flipping his pack off his back, he dropped it at her feet. “Get dressed,” he advised her as he turned back to face another skeleton. He heard her dig into his bag. “You okay, cousin?”
“I think so,” she said. Something was still wrong. Her voice cracked, as if she was on the verge of tears.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was pulling her chain mail shirt on. “Let’s kill the bitch first, Thia. Later, if you want to, we can talk.”
She nodded, picking Helix’s staff up off the ground. Pan smiled as grim determination crossed her face. A single blast from the tip and the last Drow warriors fell down, dead.
Pan shifted his attention back to Lolth. The Goddess snarled at them, and swung at the fighter they’d freed. Just then, Jinnaari activated the talisman he wore. The ground beneath the Goddess opened up, swallowing Her and sending Her back into the abyss.
“I’m done with all of this,” Thia muttered behind him. Holy words left her mouth, turning the remaining skeletons into dust. Helix’s pet ran in terror.
Reaching out, he grabbed her arm. “Stay close,” he told her. “Helix, can you teleport us somewhere if I describe it to you? I think we need to leave here, and fast.”
“What’s wrong with the Green Frog?” Jinnaari asked.
“Too many Drow know we’ve got a base there. They’re going to want revenge for this.”
“Where do you have in mind, Pan?” Helix asked.
Quickly, he described a courtyard in great detail. Down to the crest that was etched into the flagstones. “The town’s called Cirrain.”
“Got it,” the Tabaxi replied. Thia handed his staff back to him. “Everyone ready?”
“But my soul!” Moon cried out. “We can’t leave without that! It’s in the dragon’s hoard!”
Pan took in Thia’s face. Making her stay down here, even another day, wasn’t a good idea. “Moon, we know where it’s at. There’s no guarantee the lair is here in the Underdark. We’ll do better to find out where it is than to go searching blindly.”
Helix nodded, “Pan’s right. Give me a week, Moon. Let me do the research. Then we can go right to it instead of wasting months searching and getting nowhere fast.”
Reluctantly, she nodded. “A week, Helix. That’s all.”
The walls of the temple swirled into a multitude of colors. When the haze cleared, they stood in the courtyard Pan had described.
Ten guards moved toward them, alarmed at their sudden arrival.
“Hello, Mother,” he replied.
The statuesque woman, a small silver and pearl circlet on her head, began to descend the stairs. “Mom, you have to meet someone.” He grabbed Thia’s arm and moved her closer. “Mom, this is Thia. She’s Uncle Bran’s daughter.”
The Baroness placed her hands on each side of Thia’s face, studying her intently. “I see my brother in you,” she embraced her. “Welcome home, niece.” As she pulled away, she glanced at the rest of them. When her eyes hit Jinnaari, she dropped into a deep curtsey, “Welcome, Your Royal Highness. Our house is honored.”
Pan’s eyes grew larger and he caught the look on Thia’s face. Something was definitely wrong with her.
Jinnaari came forward, “Thank you, Baroness. My apologies for dropping in on you unannounced, but we’re weary. May we impose on your hospitality for a short time?”
“Of course, Your Highness. Our home is yours. Please, follow me. Anything you might need will be at your disposal.”
Helix moved forward, “Do you have a library? I have need of researching something of great importance.”
She waived for a guard to come forward. “Artur here will lead you there.”
Pan watched Helix disappear, then followed the rest into the keep. He longed to get to his own room, but there was something he wanted to witness first.
Thia took a deep breath and looked around the courtyard as Pan’s mother spoke with Jinnaari. A prince? And not just a prince, but the heir to the kingdom? She felt the muscles in her jaw clench. Something else he hadn’t bothered to tell her.
She began to wonder just how well she knew him, after all.
“Thia,” Pan’s mother’s voice broke through her thoughts.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “I didn’t hear the question.”
“How fares my brother? Your father? We haven’t had word from him in some time.”
“He died,” she said. “Fifteen years ago, this past spring.”
A shadow passed over the older woman’s face. “I feared as much. I will not press you, niece. But, at some time when you are able, I would like to know the details.” She turned away and whispered something to a guard, who took off running. Thia watched her move forward and strike up a conversation with Jinnaari.
Anger still coursed through her veins. The sense of betrayal that had begun when Lolth showed her the image in the scrying mirror hadn’t dissipated with the drugs. She’d trusted him, trusted Kelemvor. How could they have agreed to murder her?
There’s more to it than She showed you, daughter.
We will talk, soon. Your soul is tired after a hard battle. It is necessary to find peace before you can heal.
The presence left her, replaced with a weariness that made her drag her feet. The Baroness was showing Jinnaari a room, closing the door after he walked into it. “Thia, please. This way.”
Pan walked with them, a small smile on his face. They stopped in front of a door farther down the hallway. The soldier who’d ran off earlier was waiting. A blue velvet box rested in his hands.
“One thing that our family does is to keep the rooms of those who leave us in stasis. Until word comes back, incontrovertible, that they have passed on, we leave it alone and locked. In this way, it remains for them to return to exactly as they left it. This,” she took the box from the soldier, “is the key to my brother’s room. His room is now yours, along with everything inside. The spell kept everything as he left it.” She held the box out to Thia.
Taking the box, she lifted the lid. Nestled in a bed of white silk was a single brass key. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“Come, Pan. Your cousin needs to rest.”
Thia watched them walk down the hallway before removing the key and inserting it into the lock. The tumblers made an audible ‘click’, and she turned the handle. The door opened inward on silent hinges.
The room was plain and unassuming. So much so that it instantly brought a smile to her face. Their home was much the same. Simple furniture without ornate decorations. A bed, with a padded bench sitting at the foot. A pair of comfortable looking chairs near the fireplace. An iron bound wood chest against a wall, with a low table beneath the window. On top of the table were a set of tools. Setting her pack on the bench, she walked over and took a closer look at them. They were almost identical to a set he’d had when she was a child. The set he’d sworn never to touch again. Small knives, tweezers, and a single magnifying glass meant to piece together intricate metal objects.
She walked over to her pack and opened it. When Pan had given her everything, she’d only pulled out enough to cover herself. Her hands found the small box she’d kept on her since his death. Unwrapping it from the leather surrounding it, she placed it on the center of the table, just above the tools.
“I came home, Papa,” she whispered.
Another wave of exhaustion washed over her. She pulled the chain shirt off, dropping it in a heap on the floor. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she unlaced her boots just enough to kick her feet free. Throwing back the blanket, she curled up and drifted off to sleep.
The sound of feet shuffling on the floor woke Thia hours later. Opening her eyes, she caught sight of a young woman moving through a door she’d not noticed earlier. “Hello?”
“Just a moment,” the woman said. “Let me put the towels down.”
Pushing off the blankets, Thia froze. Blood was caked on her hands and under her fingernails. Herasta’s blood.
Memories of what she’d done while drugged assaulted her. Bile rose in her throat as she saw the stained sheets. Frantically, she shoved them away.
“Matron had me get a bath ready for you,” the woman said as she came into the room. “And there’s a clean dress in there that should fit you.”
Thia looked up at her, her heart racing in fear. “Matron?” she stammered.
“Yes,” the brown-haired woman nodded. “It’s what we call the Baroness, our aunt.” She smiled. “I’m Arianna, by the way.”
Inhaling, she forced her fears down. “Do you think that she’d be okay if I called her something else? I don’t have fond memories associated with that word.”
Arianna smiled, “I’m sure she will. You’re family, after all. Now,” she pointed toward the other room, “why don’t you go get cleaned up. I’ll take care of things in here.”
Thia rose, grabbing for the sheets at the same time, “I can do this.”
“Nonsense,” Arianna gently removed the fabric from her hands and guided her away from the bed. “My parents believe that it’s necessary for me to learn what it means to take care of others before I have to. As you outrank me, that means your care is in my hands.”
“What did you say?” Thia asked, confused. “I have no rank.”
The woman led her through the doorway, “Your father had one, though. As you are his heir, it now is yours. I’m certain Matron, er, the Baroness will make it official tonight. But you are Her Ladyship, Thia Beckenburg.”
Stunned, Thia didn’t know how to respond. The small room Arianna led her to had a large copper tub filled with steaming water. Fresh towels sat on a nearby stool, along with a cake of soap. Hanging from a hook was a light gray dress. Soft leather shoes sat on the floor nearby.
“Take your time,” Arianna said from the doorway. “Dinner’s several hours away yet.”
As soon as the door was closed, Thia pulled off the stained tunic and breeches. Tossing them into a pile, she stepped into the tub and started to scrub off the blood.
Jinnaari sat in his chair, watching the ceremony unfold to formally acknowledge Thia’s place within the family. She was quiet, as always, and unused to the attention. Then again, the last time any of her family tried to get to know her, they were down in the Underdark.
And she ended up gutting her mother before presenting the woman’s heart to Lolth.
He grasped his goblet and took a drink. The wine was perfect. “You’ve got a skilled vintner, Lord Randy,” he commented to the man to his right.
“Thank you, though it’s not something we’ve brewed here. One of my brothers tried, and failed rather spectacularly, to brew several different beverages.” He chuckled, “Let’s just say it took the keep about a month to collectively recover from his efforts. One of the best parts of my position,” he took a drink from his own goblet, “is to sample wares from Waterdeep and other cities and make sure we stay supplied with the good stuff during the winter months.”
“You’re in charge of the merchants, then?”
“Yes. Pan will take over, eventually. But Elizabeth wants him to mature some, get some of his foolish nature under control. He’s a bit, how do I put this delicately, impulsive.”
“I’ve spent several months around him,” Jinnaari replied. “Impulsive is better than some things I might say.” He chuckled. “He’s been protective of Thia since they figured out the relationship. And he’s far more subdued here than I’m used to him being.”
“He wasn’t exactly thrilled when I was elevated over him, but his mother had her reasons. If you remain a few more days, you may see the Pan you know come back. It’s not often he can keep himself restrained. Or sober.”
The ceremony ended, and everyone began to move back to their places at the high table. The Baroness sat between him and Thia. Rising as they approached, he looked at Thia and bowed. The glare she sent him was ice cold. Something wasn’t right. Then again, it could be residual of the drugs Lolth had given her. Give it a few days, he reasoned, she’ll either say what’s bothering her or be herself again.
“As you all know,” his host spoke as she stood, “my niece’s homecoming is not the only thing we celebrate tonight. We are deeply honored by the presence of Queen Agrana’s heir, His Royal Highness, Prince Jinnaari. Protector of the realm and heir to the throne.” She reached behind her and took a large chalice from an attendant. “Long have the Beckenburg family held this Barony for the Kingdom. May we continue to have a strong alliance, built of trust, friendship, and loyalty.” She raised the chalice to her lips and took a sip. Elizabeth turned, handing the cup out to him, and said, “So shall it always be.”
Jinnaari grasped it, “So shall it always be,” he replied and raised it to his lips. The wine was excellent, but he didn’t drink much. Turning toward his right, he handed it to Randy. “So shall it always be.”
The man smiled and repeated the phrase as he took the cup and drank. Within seconds, a white froth formed at the corner of his mouth. The chalice fell from his hands as his body crashed onto the table.
Jinnaari reached out, trying to heal the man, but it was too late. Helix rushed over, casting a resurrection spell as he moved, but it didn’t help. He was dead.
Helix looked up at Jinnaari, “What happened?”
“The Prince poisoned him!” a voice screamed from the back of the hallway.
Turning, he tried to see his accuser. “Never,” he said, his voice calm. “I drank from the same chalice. This is not my doing.”
The Baroness’s face was cold. “Your Highness, I ask that you return to your room. I will post a guard, for your own safety, outside. Please do not leave until we learn more of what happened.” She paused, “I also need to write Her Majesty, and hear her council. It is only your position, Sir, that keeps you from the dungeon. Don’t make me regret that courtesy.”
Jinnaari nodded curtly. Glancing past her as he followed his escort, he caught Thia’s face. Instead of shock and concern, her face was as hard as his hostess. Did she actually believe he could commit a cold-blooded murder?
Brother and Sister
“I’m going to kill him,” Pan muttered under his breath as Jinnaari was led from the great hall.
“Pan, take me to our cousin. Now. I fear she’s about to do something rash.” Valerie tugged insistently at his sleeve.
He tore his eyes off of the retreating paladin and looked at his sister, “Which cousin?” he asked, trying to read her expression. The cloth that covered her eyes prevented most from seeing what Pan could.
“Thia,” she said. “Pan, we must go now.”
He grasped her hand and threaded it through his arm. Once he knew she had a secure grip, he started to weave through the throng of people. Their aunt, Randy’s wife, and her daughters followed the corpse from the hall. Helix was with them.
“Not so fast,” Valerie chided him.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I’m pissed. That son of a bitch murdered Randy!”
“No, Pan. He didn’t.”
He whipped his head around and looked at her, “What?”
“Keep walking,” she commanded.
Spying a small passage that he knew would take them to Thia’s room, he cut through the crowd and led Valerie to it. “If it wasn’t Jinnaari, who was it?”
“I don’t want to explain this sixteen times, Pan. Get to Thia’s room. She’s in more danger now than the Prince is.”
Once they got into the corridor, Pan picked up the pace. A few turns and they were at her door. Two guards were posted farther down the hallway in front of Jinnaari’s room. Rapping on the wood, he said, “Thia? It’s Pan. I have my sister, Valerie, with me. May we come in? She needs to talk to you.” He could hear someone pacing in the room, but there wasn’t any answer. “Thia?”
“We don’t have time for pleasantries, Pan.” Valerie reached out and twisted the door knob. It swung into the room and she walked in. Pan followed, closing the door behind him.
Thia was pacing. She still wore the light gray dress she had on at dinner, but she had a dagger clenched in her fist. He drew back from the look on her face; she was ready to kill someone.
Valerie reached out for her, “Thia, please stop.”
Pan moved closer, ready to get between them if Thia took a swipe at his sister. Thia stopped and stared at them blankly.
“Can you give Pan the dagger?”
She looked at her hand, her eyes were hard. “I need this. He has to pay for what he’s done. All of it.”
“Thia, Jinnaari didn’t kill our uncle.” Valerie’s voice was calm, soothing. “I know it was someone else.”
Pan’s eyes narrowed, “What do you mean by, ‘All of it’, Thia?”
Valerie’s head swiveled at him. “One thing at a time, brother,” she admonished him quietly. She turned her attention back to Thia. “Let’s sit down, talk this out.” The two women sat together on the padded bench at the foot of Thia’s bed. Gently, Valerie eased the dagger from Thia’s hand and handed it to him. A single sob escaped Thia’s throat.
“Pan,” Valerie looked toward him as she cradled Thia’s head against her shoulder, “go find everyone else you came with. Except for the Prince. I’ll calm her down while you do. Once they’re here, I’ll explain everything.”
He nodded once and left the room. Once in the hallway, he leaned against the wall and glanced toward Jinnaari’s room. If it’s your fault, any of it, I’ll make damn sure you put it right.
A Marked Man
Jinnaari pulled his sword from the fiend’s body. Blood dripped down the blade. Stepping aside, he leaned against the rocky wall of the pass and started to clean the weapon. He wasn’t sure how far until they found the inn Valerie was leading them to. Pan and Moon were looting the corpse. He had time.
“What was that thing?” Helix asked.
“An Abishai. Tiamat uses them as messengers,” he replied, not looking up from his task. “Take a close look at any pouches or pockets. There’s likely to be something.”
“What’s it say?” Thia asked. Her voice was tired, which didn’t surprise him. He was exhausted. Yes, they’d slept when they got to Cirrain. But then dinner happened, and everything that followed. He’d been so close to walking away from it all, going back to the chapterhouse. He had diplomatic immunity. The Baroness couldn’t legally hold him.
But he goes where Bahamut commands. For whatever reason, that meant staying with these people longer.
He looked up, watching Thia as she read the parchment. She’d changed somehow. Pan was openly hostile toward him now. The two Tabaxi still made his scales itch. Valerie he couldn’t figure out, not yet. Pan protected his sister more than he did Thia, and the blind woman certainly was a voice of reason that the druid listened to. She and Thia had spoken often during the trek up the mountain. If Thia trusted her, maybe he could as well.
“What’s it say, Thia?” he asked. He trusted her. She wouldn’t lie to him. Whatever it said, good or bad, she’d tell him.
“It’s a letter,” she looked at him, “to a Dezmyr and Zalthar.”
“They’re the current heads of the Shadowdusk family,” Valerie said. “They live deep in the Undermountain.”
Thia started reading, “The time approaches. Bahamut’s puppet,” she paused, directing a look at him, “is weak. Waterdeep will fall beneath Shadowdusk’s power. Watch Halaster. I do not trust the lich.” She took another breath. “It’s got the signet of Tiamat at the bottom.”
“Who’s Halaster?” Jinnaari asked Valarie.
“He’s one of the liches I believe to be responsible for our uncle’s murder. It was either him or Ezzat. They’ve fought each other for centuries. By killing Randy, and framing you, they’d be able to sow distrust between our lands and your mother. That would weaken the area enough to allow for some sort of takeover in Waterdeep. And now Tiamat’s playing along.”
He put his sword into the scabbard and walked toward Thia. “I’ll take that,” he held out his hand for the letter. “I killed Lolth. I’ll kill Tiamat.”
Helix laughed, “You didn’t kill Lolth, Jinnaari. You sent Her back to the Abyss, that’s all. For Thia’s sake, I hope we’re all dead before She climbs back out.” The Tabaxi grinned at him. “But everyone knows what happened down there by now. Word gets around fast. You, my friend, are marked. Every God or wanna be God is going to be trying to take you down a few notches.”
Jinnaari shrugged. “They can try. I’m not as weak as Tiamat thinks.”
Thia lowered herself to the ground, her back against the wall. Torches burned at regular intervals, illuminating the passageway. “How far down does it go?” she asked, staring at the slope ahead.
“Several miles,” Valerie responded. “Nothing is likely to disturb us. Not until we reach the Runestone Caverns themselves.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jinnaari said. “We’ll still keep a watch.”
“Put me as third,” Thia said as she removed her boot. A pebble had been rolling around in it since the fight at the pass. Even if they weren’t staying put long, she wanted it gone.
She felt the paladin’s gaze on her. “We need you to have your spells, Thia.”
Looking at him, she said, “I’ll have them. I’m taking a watch.” The last time I let you talk me into sleeping all night, I ended up with Lolth! And Adam and Caelynn left us! She didn’t know what hurt more; that her friends had left, or that no one had told her why. She missed them. They had to have left, she reasoned. If they were dead, Pan would’ve told me. Or Helix. But why leave when they did? Did they feel the fight wasn’t winnable? Or that I wasn’t worth saving?
“Did you ask anyone where they went?” Kelemvor’s voice broke through her thoughts.
Raising her head, she looked around her. The tunnel was gone. She sat on a bench, surrounded by a walled garden. It was the same one she’d go to at the cloister when she needed to be alone.
Kelemvor sat next to her. His face was calm, as always.
“No,” she stammered. “I haven’t. I thought they’d tell me.” Absently, she looked at her feet.
“Something troubles you enough that I came, brought you here. Don’t let it rot inside you, Thia. If you do, my Sister will win. Eventually.”
“Why’d you do it?” she blurted out. “Why’d you command him to kill me?”
“Ah, that. How did you find out?”
“Lolth showed me, in a scrying mirror.” She closed her eyes, trying to push aside the memory.
“She did not show you everything, Thia. My Sister is adept at manipulating truth to show only what She wants you to see.”
“Scrying mirrors don’t lie,” she whispered.
“No, but they can be made to only show part of what happened. I cannot, I did not, command Jinnaari. He is not one of My followers. All I could do was make a request. It was always his choice if he wanted to act upon it. Here,” Kelemvor waived His hand in front of her.
The air coalesced and swirled, opening a portal into the past. It was the same area Lolth had shown her. Only this time, the entire conversation played out in front of her. She saw Jinnaari draw back in shock at Kelemvor’s request, but that was the only reaction before he stepped through the portal.
“When?” she asked. “When did you ask him to do this?”
“Just before he returned to all of you. Bahamut did not know beforehand that I would make the request. Jinnaari never gave Me his answer. That you are alive tells Me that he chose not to do that. Or that you were never in danger of being lost.”
“I was, though,” she whispered. “When I came out of that cocoon, all I wanted to do was kill him. Kill all of them. I felt betrayed. I still feel that way.” She sat back, crossing her arms. “I would’ve welcomed that blow, honestly. If he’d told me, I would’ve had that to draw on. Why couldn’t either of you tell me? I went down there blind to things that I should’ve known, things that Lolth used against me.” The words came out in an angry rush. “I trusted both of you! Did either of you trust me enough to be able to fight back? Did either of you think that maybe, just maybe, I’d be capable of handling this? That I’d draw strength from knowing he had my back if things went bad?” She looked away, shaking her head. “He couldn’t even tell me he was royalty.”
“Thia, you cannot go through life expecting everyone to tell you what you want to know without asking the questions first. I do not know his motivation for not telling you. I did not ask him to keep silent. If you believe you deserve answers, you must ask him for them.”
Something nudged her. Opening her eyes, she saw Jinnaari kneeling next to her. “You wanted a turn on watch,” he said, his voice quiet. “You’re up.” Turning, he moved to his pack and laid down. “Wake me in a couple of hours, or if you hear anything.”
She pulled her chain mail on over the padded undergarment, then tossed her tunic over her head. Standing up, she wrapped the cloak around her for some extra warmth. Forgiving Kelemvor was easy. But how would she initiate a conversation with someone who never believed he was wrong?