An End to the Beginning
After a night consisting of unmentionable acts of physical prowess and brief but adequate periods of rest, I was feeling that special kind of invigorated. The others assembled at the Rusty Dragon, and I persuaded them to linger awhile so we could grab some breakfast. Fondling my beautiful new cold iron naginata, which had barely been blooded, I was determined that it would unleash its fair share of gore today.
Artax was a magnificent ride, if only in comparison to the other riding animals. Not that the horses that the Foxglove guy bought us were inferior, exactly… but it felt just right to ride a full head above even Skalmold as we began the brief journey to Thistletop Island. I had to keep an eye on Rainbow, well below my knees on her pony, for fear of trampling right over the poor beast and the shaman astride its back, struggling to keep up with the big boys.
When we arrived at our destination, we tied up our mounts a safe distance from the tangled briar and made our way towards the cliff. Emerging from the short tunnel, we saw that the bridge was gone.
So we stood at the ledge for a while, staring at the island fifty feet away with nothing between it and us except for a forty foot drop into the churning ocean. The crashing waves had carved their way between the island and the mainland, and continued to smash against the rock below us with violent regularity. There were jagged-looking rocks and probably all sorts of aquatic monsters down there. I shivered at the thought of tentacles dragging me into the depths. Definately some terrible monsters down there, I was sure of it.
Studying the scene, we noticed the rope bridge had been withdrawn to the island, and the following quick check of our resources revealed nothing that would enable us to, say, fly across.
Rakonia stepped forward determinedly. “_I’ll_ swim across.” It was immediately agreed upon that the dwarven ranger would descend the nearly sheer cliff face, swim across the dangerous and no doubt monster-filled channel, climb up the opposite cliffside without drawing enemy attention and somehow find a way to reset the bridge. The plank-and-rope device was rolled up, rather neat looking, like a large bale of hay. It didn’t look magical or mechanical, so getting it back across the gap would be an issue.
We tied a rope to Rakonia, helping her down the cliff and into the ocean. “At least if she gets in trouble swimming across, we’ll be able to pull her back,” someone commented. I shook my head, knowing all too well that dragging her backwards through water would most likely result in a drowning. Still, it would help on the descend down, and more importantly we’d need the rope once she got to the other side. Hauling a few stones weight in wet rope behind her as she ascended steep terrain seemed hardly ideal, but nobody brought it up and, like I said, we needed it to get the bridge across.
I admit my hands sweated profusely as the dwarf slowly swam across the violent channel, scanning the water for the tell-tale shadowy appearance of some immense monster rising from the depths-
Making it safely to the other side, the ranger climbed her way up the island’s not-quite-sheer cliffs. She bare-handedly made her way up the side of the island, which was thankfully less challenging than her descent. The rope was more hindrance than help at this point, but the dwarf stoically carried on, excruciatingly slow at times but getting the job done.
I think we all gave a little sigh in unison as she reached the top, impressed and relieved that it hadn’t been any of us. Rakonia approached the rope bridge, and began fiddling with it. I watched with amazement as she took out a grappling hook and began the process of tying it to the end of the bridge. She was going to try and throw the thing over to us!
While Rakonia was both strong and stubborn, I doubted her ability to throw a wood-bottom rope bridge across a fifty foot gap. “Use the rope!” I whispered to Vega, who in turn communicated the message to the dwarf through her magicks.
Untying the rope around her waist, the squat figure turned back to the bridge, and soon enough whispered something to Vega, who gave us the go ahead. I was liking this long-range communication, it was so quiet that stealth had yet to be broken. Or so I hoped. The bridge didn’t clatter too loudly as Skalmold and I quickly pulled it across, allowing Zeyara to secure the ends to their proper positions, which in turn let us join the dwarf waiting on the other side..
Teamwork is a powerful advantage, and can accomplish amazing things. Especially when you’re not the one who has to swim with the sea monsters.
Waltzing casually into the lair of the beast, we confidently made our way to the stairs leading down. It was around then we heard it.
Freezing, everyone glanced around, back out into the throne room. From behind one of the doors issued a wailing cry, high-pitched and wavering. We looked at each other, a strange mix of surprise and horror.
“Sounds like a baby,” Rainbow noted, her voice absent of the disgust I expected to hear from everyone at the thought of it.
The dwarf frowned, hand on her axe. “A stinking goblin baby.” There was the disgust I’d been looking for.
“Maybe we should help it,” the undersized star shaman began, inching her way back towards the door.
“Uh-” I stated firmly, trying to express my own disgust.
“Are you mad?” frothed Rakonia, distaste creeping towards outrage.
“It’s just a baby!” Rainbow chastised, frowning at us every bit as hard as the dwarf frowned at her.
“Also, a goblin,” Zeyara observed.
“It’s not born bad! Nature and nurture, that’s what my dad always said!” the halfling half-shouted, a deep passion written clearly across her almost childlike face. “With the right upbringing, he knew that even a goblin could find a place for itself in this world.”
“Your dad?” the fetchling prompted.
“Yes, my dad. We traveled the world, him, my mom and me. We lived off of people’s goodwill, trading our services and skills for food and clothing. He was a visionary, and a revolutionary. Or at least some people thought so, like many of the lords and ladies of territories we’d pass through. They just didn’t get him, he was too ahead of his time. They thought he was trying to cause trouble and disruption, but his goal was to abolish the very thing that makes them so prevalent in our society. Our family would travel around the continent, speaking to everyone who’d listen about the true path, and how to avoid the root of all evil. He was right, but people weren’t ready to hear the truth.” She paused dramatically. “The gold standard must be abolished before-”
“Back to the matter at hand,” I nudged, interrupting the waist-high shaman before she could get too far into her diatribe. “Your dad was some kind of goblin expert?”
“He knew everyone deserved a chance. Even goblins do, and believe me they listened to him. Mostly, anyway. He was sure that we could coexist, and that without the violent and traumatic upbringing, they could be reasonable, and even converted to our beliefs.” The small head nodded, her point proven.
“Whatever happened to him?” Zeyara interjected, catching the halfling off-guard. As Rainbow blinked, the grey-skinned woman waited as patiently as the rest of us.
“Oh. He… was killed by goblins,” she explained softly, face falling with sadness.
Rakonia burst out in an explosion of laughter, and most of the rest of us joined in. Perhaps the obvious emotional scarring from the halfling shaman’s formative years deserved a more sympathetic response. We were not the most tender group of females I’d ever known, but that of course is what made us work.
And by ‘work’ I mean band together to kill things that needed killing.
“Let’s just leave it,” I said reasonably. Hopefully it would die on its own, and carrying around a screaming goblin baby while on the way to confront our current nemesis was beyond absurd. I was more tempted to let Rakonia go ‘check it out’ and take care of the noise. Kids are fine, but babies… the crying, the smell, those creepy little faces… it all got on my nerves. And those were the regular ones.
Goblin babies were probably even worse.
Fortunately, the issue was dropped and Rainbow quickly recovered her spirits. Zeyara led us into the tunnel leading into the depths to confront our nemesis, the corrupt, celestial-blooded traitor and terrorist, Nualia.
The place was a huge maze. At least to me. We headed down tunnel after tunnel, coming to areas decorated with carvings and graven images celebrating Lamashtu, the Mother of Monsters, in all her unholy magnificence. At one point we passed a shrine, the ancient statue at its center gripping a wicked-looking kukri in his hand.
A small cavern held a disturbing room filled with images of all manner of crude, smudged artwork, goblin painting at its most primitive. Amongst the childlike depictions of strange beings, however, there was a larger and more elaborate painting of an immense, horned goblin-like creature. The goblins worshipping at his feet provided scale; if accurate, the thing would have been something like thirty feet tall. “Malfeshnakor,” Rakonia stated confidently, examining the crude-looking letters scrawled nearby. Rainbow walked up to the painting to examine it, and I watched her get real close to the wall.
“Careful,” Rakonia cautioned, pulling the halfling back. “The paint they use is made mostly of their own shit.”
“I was trying to look behind it,” the shaman murmured. It was painted on to the wall.
“That’s a pretty big looking demon,” I commented doubtfully, knowing the green-skinned creatures’ propensity towards exaggeration. Still…
Further ahead, we found what must have been some kind of planning room. Looking around the well-appointed area, stocked with paper and maps and all sorts of paraphernalia that go hand in hand with planning, I latched onto the idea that we absolutely must have one in our own Secret Base. But somehow even better.
We quickly ransacked the room, taking with us numerous books and correspondence in hopes the information would prove either useful or profitable. With a little sifting, it became clear that a northern tribe of goblins were preparing to assault Sandpoint, along with more of those sideways-hinge-jawed abominations we’d encountered below Sandpoint, in our new secret base. They were apparently known as Sinspawn to whoever was writing the notes and letters.
Presumably Nualia or one of her most trusted minions. Speaking of which…
We continued on, weighed with information but, depressingly, not much by way of treasure. As we entered a long room, Zeyara held up a hand, and across the chamber we saw that two large tables lay upturned, the opening small enough to force us through one at a time.
A trap, obviously, which became more apparent when spells started going off and things went horribly, horribly wrong.
We rushed in, the dwarf’s new velociraptor companion leaping into the fray while she and Skalmold leapt ahead of us, charging with a dancer’s gait at a plate-armored warrior and a badass looking goblinoid that had to be the largest non-giant I’ve seen. The bugbear’s stooped posture and jutting chin gave it a distinctly feral appearance, and a dark mane bristled from its head. It opened its mouth in a roar met by Rakonia’s own battlecry, and I rushed in to help, stymied by the bottleneck between the tables. I briefly focused myself, tuning into the roaring energy that swirled just below the surface of my consciousness. Behind the makeshift wall a new figure appeared.
A wizard, suddenly visible and pointing at me. Gritting my teeth, I prepared myself for whatever punishment was about to be meted out. There was a flash as the mage cast his spell, and I was surprised when nothing happened to me.
Surprise turned to sorrow and despair as I watched my beautiful new weapon crumble in my hands, the length shattering apart and dispersing throughout the room.
The battle raged on around me, Skalmold moving to smash the mage while the dwarf fought against the armored swordsman and the bugbear. Zeyara backstabbed the mage and, furious, I rushed in, laying into the armored warrior with the blades jutting from my gauntlet. He blocked my assault effortlessly with the large shield in his left hand, and I reeled back as his blade bit into me, piercing my chain armor easily.
Frustrated and shocked by my new, beautiful weapon’s abrupt and utter destruction, I’ll admit I wasn’t at my best. Rakonia and Skalmold, along with the flanking ninja’s precise stabs, laid first the mage down, then the towering bugbear. At this, the armored man dropped his weapon and held up his hands. Backing up, he took off his helmet and threw it to the ground, revealing a rugged but not displeasing face. His eyes darting about in desperation, trying to keep us all in sight. “I surrender! I surrender!” His armor glinted enticingly.
Rakonia snarled, hurling herself toward the potential prisoner. The wheels had already begun turning in my head. Something about the look in his eye…
I adjusted my newly-acquired armor for the dozenth time, more than slightly uncomfortable but extremely reassured at the feel of the heavy metal plates that covered the entirety of my body. The large sword I held felt awkward despite its superior craftsmanship, my hands feeling unnaturally confined on the much smaller handle.
It could kill. That’s all that really mattered, I told myself.
Descending the stairway we’d uncovered during our previous visit, we continued along, finding an opulent bedroom nearby, where we found little of interest except for a magnificent bed and some furniture. We made our way into a large chamber flanked by glaive-wielding statues placed along the walls. Iron bars ran along portions of the room, almost like a jail cell, and ahead of us stood a statue of a man with a twisted grin and crazed eyes.
My own eyes were glued to the statues, or more specifically the obviously-real weapons the statues held. Unlike the ivory-hafted piece of art we’d found in the Catacombs of Wrath, held by the statue of the angry woman who was now the mascot for our secret base, these weapons appeared fully functional. Eager to get my hands on one, I rushed forward and reached out to grab the weapon-
The floor lurched below me, swinging down, and I found myself hitting the ground almost before I realized I’d been falling, the scream of terror dying on my lips. With a soft grinding, the world seemed to disappear as the trapdoor slid shut, locking me inside a small pit.
Carefully, I stood up, thankful nothing was broken or dented. “I’m trapped down here!” I shouted, feeling obvious but also slightly worried they’d assume I was dead and continue on, leaving me to slowly starve to death in this pit. The sides were sheer, and cut out of the rock. If only I’d had a way to carve myself free…
It was only a few minutes before the trapdoor opened again, the shadowy form of Zeyara shoving something into the mechanism fifteen feet above my head. “You hurt?” she called down.
“Mostly my pride,” I admitted. Stupid traps.
They threw a rope down, and I climbed out. As I reached the top, for some reason I was unable to think about anything except the heavy stone slamming shut, crushing my pelvis to paste as I clung half-way out of the pit.
It didn’t happen, but I emerged somewhat out of breath. My hair had come undone, and angrily I tied the sweaty, tangled mess up out of my face before donning the helmet again. “Thanks.” Carefully, I grabbed one of the polearms displayed by the statues, examining it for damage or flaws. I was feeling better once I’d found it perfectly serviceable, and we continued on.
A statue of an evil looking man with a covetous expression gave Vega pause. The human spellcaster examined the work. “This is Krzoud, the Runelord of Greed.”
“Something I came across in my recent research in town,” the woman began, not taking her eyes off the stature. “An ancient sect of powerful wizards.” She paused, looking around.
“Okay…” I prompted, not quite getting what she was talking about.
She pointed to an inscription on the statue. The familiar seven-pointed star adorned the chiseled stone. “Like the woman in our base,” I realized. “Who I guess must be the Runelord of Wrath.” I snapped my fingers, such was my excitement at a sudden revelation. “Inside our base! That’s why there are those words playing across the walls calling for attacking and maiming and killing and revenge…”
“Why else would they be there?” Zeyara wondered. Maybe she’d caught on quicker.
I shrugged. “Inspirational messages?” Personally, I’d rather liked the sayings’ angry tone.
“I sense something,” Rainbow whispered, stopping. “Evil. Undeath,” she whispered. “Over there. Several of them.”
Rainbow shrugged. “They’re not weak, but it’s not overwhelming either.”
As one, we made our way in the direction of the doorway the halfling had pointed to, cut into the latest of the seemingly endless warren of tunnels we’d trudged down. The door was shut tight, but with a quick mutual glance it was decided to open it. Zeyara took a moment to look it over before nodding and pushing it open, swords in hand.
A moderately large cavern lay before us, a pillar or stalagmite jutting from deeper inside the room, and something strange about the patterning on the walls.
It was empty. “They’re gone.”
Puzzled, straining to see our apparently invisible opponents, we carefully stepped into the room. The tip of my newly-acquired glave poked out into the empty air, darting and thrusting but never contacting anything more substantial than the motes of dust choking the room.
“No footprints,” Rakonia muttered, squinting down at the floor
“What-” someone began, but at that moment four blurred, black shadows seemed to melt up from the stone beneath our feet.
Things happened all at once. The evil-feeling creatures, featureless black shadows with long, claw-like fingers, struck as the rose, and I watched the needle-thin wisps of midnight slice through Vega. No wound appeared, but the arcanist staggered, barely keeping on her feet as another struck her mid-stumble, its claws seeming to penetrate right through her body.
I was shocked by the ghastly pallor of the human spellcaster’s skin; she’d gone from average to brittle in the span of a second. My brain kicked in and I realized the things were, indeed, shadows, an undead, life-draining abomination. Incorporeal, they existed more in the Ethereal realm than our own world, and were immune to any kind of physical attack.
Magic could work, though. My hand flexed, and I dropped the glaive which clattered away, pulling out the oversized sword our erstwhile armor-clad opponent had wielded. It had glowed with the faint traces of enchantment, and I hoped it would be enough to affect the creatures.
I watched as a third shadow struck out at the helpless Vega, the last of her life absorbed into the terrible figure’s cruel talons. Her eyes went wide and her body seemed to writhe, pulsing with an inky blackness as she burst apart into motes of shadow-
No! I demanded, and saw the midnight talons descend only to miss the human by inches. I didn’t have time to sigh in relief as my blade sang through the air, accompanied by the attacks of my companions.
Lashing around with the magic blade, I felt the essence of the first creature to come under my assault begin to tear, a silent, psychic scream setting my teeth on edge. As the dwarf and barbarian tried to fend off the nearest undead, Zeyara’s enchanted obsidian blade sliced into another of the creatures. A blast of magical energy slammed into yet another, three glowing missiles shooting out from Vega’s shakily-held wand, destroying a creature utterly. A burst of brilliant light from the halfling’s position shook the undead visibly, flecks of shadow torn off them like a blizzard of black snow.
Enraged and in pain, the creatures turned their attention away from the reeling arcanist, focusing instead on the others of the group. I felt the cold grasp of a monster slide through my arm, burning with icy death. Shaking off the weakness, I slashed through the shadow and watched it fragment into nothingness.
Moments later, the room was silent aside from some panting and gasping. Vega swayed, looking dead on her feet. But even more than half-dead, she expressed interest in our surroundings as Rakonia began to look around the cavern.
The walls had some strange markings on them, and there was a pillar of what appeared to be… gold coins?
“That seems strange,” I remarked.
Vega cast a spell, examining it more closely. “It’s an illusion.”
“Hmm.” Nobody was too interested in touching it, so after another brief search which turned up nothing of interest, we proceeded on, eager to put the place of shadowy horrors behind us.
We passed through another tunnel, coming out into a small, boulder-strewn underground lake. Possibly connected with the ocean outside, for all I knew. After a brief search that turned up no lurking tentacle-monsters in the ceiling above us, we noticed the telltale glint of something shiny below the surface.
Coins, various pieces of equipment, and a large and apparently solid-gold helmet lay in the waist deep water, and when another brief scan revealed no danger we began to collect everything we could lay our hands on.
Of course, it was around then that what we’d taken for a boulder shifted and an immense crab stood up, scuttling toward us with its enormous pincers clacking menacingly.
“Back up, back up!” We made our way out of the water, waiting for the creature to approach us. As the thing drew itself up onto solid ground, an immense hammer cracked down on the beast’s back, the force of Skalmold’s blow shattering its exoskeleton apart. Whitish goo oozed out of the creature, and within moments the creature was dead and safely pulled away from the lake.
“Dinner,” Rakonia fairly drooled. Crab was supposed to be good, so I reserved judgement despite the hideous, spider-like appearance of the thing.
We found Nualia in a chamber deep within the lowest level of the strange island fortress. Upon opening the ornate, reinforced door with brute force, I felt the blood pumping hard in my veins as the beautiful, angelic woman appeared in the chamber before us, raising a terribly mutated hand scaled with hideous, pulsating demonflesh. Two ghostly, evil-looking dogs stood at her side, their postures indicating a readiness to rush forward and attack.
Already overcome with the need for battle, I nevertheless shouted at our nemesis. “Stop attacking us, we’re just here to talk!” I realized my words again had that wondrously strange beauty to them.
The corrupted aasimar looked at me with mild confusion, clearly understanding the words my companions could not but unsure of their merit. Skalmold stepped into the room with her immense hammer ready in her hands, and Nualia’s face pinched into a scowl of rage. She hurled a few obscenities at us before unleashing the pair of creepy flying hounds that had given us so much trouble before.
The dogs howled, the sound cutting through my brain like an ice-cold nail. I weathered their assault, thought springing back like clockwork once the terrible baying had ceased. I watched, something inside me shriveling as the blonde barbarian turned tail and ran, pushing her way back out the door and followed by Rakonia, Zeyara and Vega.
I looked at Rainbow with an Oh shit glance, and the halfling turned to head down a side passage, trying to put some distance between herself and the dogs and our enemy.
Probably a good idea, that.
I made an orderly retreat down the tunnel the halfling had disappeared into, not wanting to leave the little one alone to the dogs. Sure enough, one of the yeth hounds hurled down the hallway. I cut at it as it approached, then dealt another wicked blow that sent the infernal creature into its own retreat back toward the main hall.
There was no pursuit after that; a moment later Rainbow poked her head around a corner.
I readied myself. “Time to head back, I think she’s going after the others.”
The defeat of our nemesis was somewhat anticlimactic. Hustling down the long carven hallway, we caught up to Nualia just as she was being brought down by our other four companions, who’d outdistanced us with the power of fear compelling their legs. Luckily, they’d recovered from the supernatural panic, and upon approaching we watched as Skalmold’s hammer and Rakonia’s shield battered the woman right into Zeyara’s blade. The aasimar fell to her knees, then to the ground.
The demonic fist twitched once, and then was still. I cut her head from her shoulders, taking care to gather up the long, luxurious mane of hair so as not to damage it. It seemed a shame to destroy such a beautiful, recognizable feature.
We spent the rest of the day scouring the island fortress for treasure, hidden areas, and any lingering danger. With Vega’s levitational assistance, I was able to get what must have been the late Nualia’s bed across the rope bridge, Artax whinnying in derision as the magnificent, feather stuffed thing was doubled over and strapped to his back.
As the sun waned through the late afternoon sky, we headed back to Sandpoint, triumphant against the terror that had threatened our adopted home, and eager to let the town know it.