"What's the worst that can happen when you split the party?"
It wasn’t hard to find our red-headed kender.
"In the name of my father, I will avenge my troupe. This battle is not yet over. En garde!” Cosmo declared in an unfamiliar voice. He hovered just above the mausoleum, his daggers pointed at us while we kept at bay. His eyes glowed with an eerie blue hue as he twirled his knives in a taunting matter.
“It seems your friend is possessed,” Mattias said to us, masking his amusement. Collectively, our eyes fell to the empty tomb and the spilled goods littered around.
“Cowards, draw thy weapons and--”
“How does one help?” Feeps asked.
Mattias glanced around. “Well, none of you are of the divine nature. Knock him out.”
For the first time since we set foot in this swamp, Maziel smiled. The drow stepped forward, drawing a short sword. “My pleasure.”
“Don’t kill him, Maziel,” I added, taking watch and hoping whatever was lurking nearby, (because surely something was) wouldn’t kill us outright.
The drow raised her sword. “Let’s dance.”
Cosmo took a running leap, flipped over the drow and came down swinging. Maziel instinctively raised his/her sword overhead, deflecting the blow and the lunge that followed. The kender was quick, his daggers slashing the air and prodding for weak points. Maziel, however, had battled alongside Cosmo on many occasions, and the ghost running the kender’s body didn’t know the first thing about Maziel. After a few more side steps and hurried parries, Maziel delivered a swift blow to Cosmo’s head, knocking him face first into the dirt.
An ethereal form shimmered faintly over the kender, then dove back into his tomb.
Maziel sighed lightly before sheathing their sword and hefting the kender over one shoulder. “Now then,” the drow declared brightly. “Let’s find our gnome.”
As we crept along in the twilight, the sound of shrieks echoed far in the distance, sending a shiver down my spine. Distracted by the noise, I nearly swatted the tiny creature that flew straight into me. Big golden eyes beneath a bundle of feathers bounced up and down in my hands, hooting wildly. The little owl aptly named Hoot was a familiar of Klotonk that almost always slept somewhere beneath his robes.
“Hey Hoot,” I cooed as the party drew close. “Where’s Klotonk?” I questioned immediately.
The pygmy owl lurched out of my hands and flew off, flying ahead and encouraging us to follow. We hurried after until we found ourselves in secluded region of the graveyard, past an iron-wrought fence surrounded by identical tombstones, each bearing the symbol of a raven. In the center rested a massive mausoleum where a raven statue, wings spread wide, loomed above. At the foot of its door, Klotonk’s sleeping form slumped.
We approached hesitantly, and the gnome proved to be unharmed. Hoot deftly buried his way into his master’s robes, confident we could handle it from here. I inspected Klo for injuries while my companions circled about, searching for traps or signs of danger.
Mattias hovered nearby, intrigued by the intricate stone door before us. “It’s some kind of puzzle...by our Raven Queen…” he whispered thoughtfully.
I glanced back down at the sleeping gnome, rocking him gently. I couldn’t help but think if Klotonk could ever choose how to die, one of the options would be in front of some mysterious puzzle.
“You left the gold!” Cosmo cried out, somewhere to my right, evidently conscious again. Maziel only chuckled as they did rounds around the area, batting away the kender’s furious prodding.
“Klo,” I whispered, shaking him. “C’mon, buddy. Wake up. There we go…”
The gnome’s ever thoughtful eyes blinked open. He looked at me in confusion, then his face changed to one of horror as he reached out behind me. “Mattias, don't touch--”
Click. Went the sound of some mechanical contraption behind the door. Gears within began to churn, then stuttered to a halt. Mattias cursed, and Klotonk leaped suddenly to his feet, hurrying over.
Something shrieked very close by, clearly aware of our location now.
I hate puzzles.
A grave exploded nearby, spewing dust and rubble. From it rose a shadowy figure wreathed in a ragged black mantle. It extended a skeletal hand and leaned forward, a shrill cry split the air. Then chaos ensued.
“Into the door!” Maziel shouted, leaping atop a tall grave and drawing their bow. They released an arrow toward the crowd of shambling ghouls making their way toward us.
“Give us a minute to figure out the door!” Klotonk snapped back, busy working on the raven door with Mattias.
I moved to the side of my warforged companion as the party took cover. Half us were busy trying to keep the ghouls from getting beyond the fence, the other half facing the hovering figure in black. Fear consumed us all.
Feeps began to sing a song as he drew his rapier, encouraging us. For a moment longer, daring filled us as we stood our ground. I took the form of a dire wolf, and lunged toward the wraith as Zan and Feeps spread out to flank it.
Cosmo and Maziel climbed higher, their bolts and arrows pinning trespassers before they got close. Cosmo even started counting while the drow swore and kept up.
With a wave of the wraith’s slender hand, specters rose from the nearby graves. I rushed forward, but my bite felt cold and unwelcome against its frame, my own life seemingly draining in turn.
“We’re getting outnumbered!” Zan called out, smashing in the skull of a zombie with his bare fist.
“Just a minute!” Klotonk yelled back, hands flashing across the crevices of the door, turning notches this way and that.
Claws dug into my side and I howled in pain. Nearby, a ghoul climbed the back of Feeps, reaching for his neck. I watched as Maziel and Cosmo were now forced to kick away undead scaling their pedestal. Zan nimbly, if barely, dodged blows instead of dealing them.
“Got it!” Mattias hollered triumphantly as the ground beneath us rocked. The battle came to a halt as the black door glowed with a white light. A ring of energy washed over the graveyard, and undead shrieks were silenced as they crumbled to the floor in heaps of ash.
We all glanced around panting, but in the clear. The heavy black door of the Raven Queen slowly swung open, a shimmering black energy in the door frame. In perfect silence, five ghosts in embellished black shrouds stepped out and stood in line.
Mattias gasped and dropped to one knee.
The ghosts spoke in unison. “We offer now the opportunity to partake in the Raven Queen’s trial. Should you accept, you will win the reward of your heart’s desire. As a warning, you mustn’t take what doesn’t belong to you.” The entire party, Mattias excluded, peered at Cosmo. The ghosts continued their pitch. “Should you refuse, safe passage will be granted just this once to the edge of the cemetery, but a chance to partake in the trial later will not be accepted.”
Mattias whipped around, longing in his face. “Please,” he begged. “A chance to serve my god. I must! Only my debt to you all…”
We shuffled uncomfortably, trying to discern each other’s willingness.
“Heart’s desire, huh.” Maziel mused quietly.
“Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh, I can’t imagine what’s in store. We can’t pass this up, guys!” Klotonk bounced on his feet excitedly, hands clapping softly.
Feeps turned his head to me, and I shrugged.
“Well,” Maziel observed us all. “Since there doesn’t seem to be any objections.”
“Can’t. Take. Anything.” Cosmo repeated, put off.
“Nothing. That’s right.” I emphasized. Then I patted him on the back with a smirk. “Except your heart’s desire later.”
The kender’s eyes gleamed. “Eh. I’m in.”
Mattias closed in his eyes in thanks, then turned to the ghosts. “We accept.”
The specters parted and allowed us entry. One by one we stepped through the portal and were transported inside a massive cavern on a black bridge. Before us, an obsidian crypt took up the entire expanse.
“So...where are we?” I asked, scanning the area.
“The Shadowfell.” Mattias answered, leading the way inside the catacombs.