Egba and Pila led us through the city like two men who had lived their entire lives behind the scenes. In and out of alleys and crowds, we slipped inside a junkyard. Weaving around piles of rubbish and abandoned items, they revealed the black crater into the sewers far below. With care, we climbed down the ropes and descended. The blessed relief of cool air washed over us.
The duo guided us through narrow passageways, until the stench of waste faded. More tunnels funneled us deeper underground, through a cistern and past the city center’s underbelly. We eventually stopped at an archway leading into a cavern. Then we noticed the pile of bones, mules perhaps.
“I told you we shouldn't have tied them up,” Egba hissed at Pila.
Pila shrugged, searching around for a culprit. Whatever it was had long gone, and on a full stomach.
“Don’t worry, I have an idea!” Klo piped up.
“Please don’t do what I think you’re—” I started, too late.
The crystal gnome was already at work casting. In moments the bodies resembled their former selves, animated for the time being. The undead mules watched their former masters pitifully.
“Aye, that was neat!” Pila patted Treetonk on the shoulder, warily placing bags on the mules’ boney backs.
We carried on, the trek proving long, quiet and full of tension for what awaited. After a couple of hours we stopped, staring at the dark chasm that separated us from the towering prison fortress ahead.
“So, eh, what’s your plan?” Egba turned to us, as we all exchanged glances.
Maziel placed a hand on my back. “Rational plan.”
I grumbled a curse, but let the group decide.
The good news was that a bridge spanned over the seemingly endless drop. The bad news was that it was also the main entrance. That’s what we chose, carefully skirting along the wall and inching toward the bridge.
“Whoa…” Treetonk stopped, holding up our treacherous train on this narrow ledge. He gaped at the fortress. “That whole place...it’s practically lit up with necrotic energy…”
“We were warned dark forces were gathering. I recommend we proceed with caution,” Feeps replied genially. He reached out and booped me on the nose. “There you go, Taelim, I have placed a nondetection spell on you...just in case.”
“Thanks, buddy…” I said, not offended by his preemptive guess on my behavior. I was a pattern.
Feeps, Treetonk and I clambered onto the bridge. Pila and Egba had sent the mules back, probably toward their second death, and the others were waiting their turn to climb.
Out of breath, Treetonk pointed toward the prison gate and the two titans beside it. “Are they...moving?”
I followed his gaze, then froze, yelling at the guides. “Stay down there!”
The titans were indeed moving, they sprinted in our direction, their colossal steps shaking the ground. Instinctively, I changed into a triceratops, meeting the two head on while the others bombarded them from behind. Even through this body, I felt their fists down to my core. Fireballs exploded against their stoney frames, but they pressed on, swinging pillars that nearly crushed the others. Odison managed to distract one, smashing an ankle to rubble and forcing it to lean dangerously over the ledge for support. The other titan continued to grapple with me, beating against my frame until I reverted back into half-elf, aching all over.
A sickly green ray took the titan in the head and it disintegrated. Treetonk whooped
triumphantly, until we noted the shadowy frame that remained—its possessor. The shadow fled, passing through the stone gates without trouble.
Clenching my side, I staggered toward Odison and Maziel who fought the remaining titan. I slammed my staff down, and with a crack of thunder the titan tumbled over the side and into the cavern.
Maziel looked at me as if to say, That loud spell?
“Like they didn’t know we’re here.” I snapped back.
With something like awe, Pila and Egba clambered onto the bridge.
I pointed at the gate but spoke to the group. “One minute for someone to think of a reasonable plan before I break it down.”
“Taelim,” Treetonk cautioned. “This whole place is rigged with traps and wards…”
“Thirty seconds,” I responded, unbothered.
“I can blow it up!” Pila exclaimed excitedly, and I turned to him with a grin.
I like him.
The goliath motioned the okay. “They know we’re here,” Odison’s deep voice conceded.
Laughing madly, Pila began pulling out sticks of explosives and wrapping them into a bundle. At the foot of gates he placed them down carefully, as if it were an infant. He lit the fuse, then sprinted back toward us. Then past us.
The resulting boom made even the thunderwave seem pitiful. Fire bloomed, and a cloud of dust and debris followed. When it settled, a gaping hole welcomed us inside.
We stepped into a humongous chamber, stopping short at the sight before us. A pulsing teleportation circle dominated the center of this space, while a pyramid hung upside down from the ceiling, runes wrapped around it. It was ringed by alcoves filled with titans similar to the ones that greeted us outside. Two were missing. I tried not to think about the possibility of the others coming to life.
Our wizard gasped, mindlessly walking forward, but Maziel reached out and held him by the scruff. “Not until I check for the very real danger this place is bound to hide.” The drow moved, inching along the wall.
Treetonk sniffed miserably as he waited; I patted him on the head. I could relate.
Maziel returned silently, “All cl—”
Treetonk was already at the circle, look up and mumbling to himself with a wild smile. The rest of us followed.
“Taelim,” Maziel whispered at my side. “Do you think you could try a location spell for Lysandra?”
“Already ahead of you,” I replied, surprised at my patience as Treetonk and Feeps were discussing the purpose of the construction above.
Maziel regarded me, waiting.
“Forward and down. That’s all I’ve got,” I finished.
“I know you want to get to her…”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m not about to burrow a tunnel. We’ll do this your way.”
I thought I could see Maziel sigh with relief, but Treetonk interrupted us both.
“It’s a supercharger!” He practically screamed, words tumbling out of his mouth. “Do you know what that means? This teleportation circle can go anywhere, even through planes of existence! Feeps and I memorized the pattern, I wish I could stay and study this longer.” He gave me a single look, then shook his head. “I know…we should go.”
“We can always come back,” I offered. Unless I bury this place under rock. Depends.
The sound of gears turning grabbed our attention. Odison had lifted the portcullis ahead, holding it open for us to pass beneath. “Should we do this?”
We obliged, and the moment we walked in, a fog began to fill the space. Treetonk dispelled the magic at once, and we moved forward. We stopped when the path diverted left and right. Maziel looked to me, and I shrugged. I was concentrating on the location spell, but the answer was the same. “Still forward and down, so pick one.”
Egba picked the prison door to the right, and we moved inside a pitch black hall. Odison lit a torch and held it above us, revealing a series of runes engraved on the floor. They looked almost like serpents winding in and out of columns. Deftly, Maziel stepped across the space, inspecting the door ahead while we waited. She reached for the handle and pulled it open. Needles sprang from the wall beside her, and Odison was already shoving a shield in front of us, deflecting most of the projectiles. The drow smiled sheepishly, as if to say Oops.
We carried on a little more carefully after that, as if we weren’t already going at a snail’s pace for the sake of deadly traps. We passed a series of cells in the next room, all empty, then stumbled across another room with serpentine runes. Egba deftly picked the lock and disarmed the trap, he held the door open playfully, and the others shuffled by. I held back while Odison took the lead with the torch. When the goliath stepped outside, the room suddenly fell into darkness.
A surge of energy washed over us, and I grabbed Egba by the waist and pushed us outside. I wasn’t quick enough, Egba was already screaming. We spilled into the pool of torchlight, the others surrounding us protectively. The darkness kept at bay, fearful of the light.
“What’s wrong with him?!” Pila asked, panicked.
I pushed Pila away, taking Egba’s face in my hands. His eyes were obsidian pools, purple veins pulsing by his sockets. He was croaking about being blind.
“Hold still,” I tried calmly, uttering a restoration spell. The magic seeped into the man, and the purple veins receded. Slowly, his brown irises returned, darting around wildly. I let out a breath, helping him to his feet as he praised my name.
I pointed at Odison. “You and the light stay with us at all times.”
The goliath nodded feverishly, abashed. He wasn’t anything like his twin, Kolae.
We walked by more rooms of empty cells, and with each one I could feel the tension in my body building, fearful of when I would find the cell I was looking for. We continued until the hall of prison rooms ceased, giving way to a large circular room with an empty well. The pit looked as if it went a long way down.
“How odd…” Feeps began, moving forward, our curious wizard trailing his four-legged frame.
I was about to assert my own words of caution, but I was too late. The moment they reached the well, the two of them vanished.
“Feeps!” I cried out, already lunging forward. I could feel Maziel scraping at my arm, trying to hold me back, but I was already darting forward.
The well vanished at once, replaced by another teleportation circle. The moment I stumbled into the illusion I was immediately shifted into another space, a different room of this fortress prison. There was a different pyramid, and on the top was something I recognized. It was a power gem, the heart of an Illium golem. I might have gone for it, I owed it to my kingdom to retrieve it and protect it with my life, but chaos was already unfolding. Ahead, Feeps and Treetonk were talking to a figure. It was Minerva, the succubus that went missing the night of the undead attack in Illium. She had a golden collar around her neck.
“Please, Minerva,” Feeps was begging. “Do not do this.”
By now Maziel, Odison and our guides teleported into the room. Minerva looked at all of us apologetically.
“I’m sorry,” she said, still as sultry as ever. “I don’t really have a say in the matter.”
That’s when the Deathlocks appeared, the fallen warlocks of darker patrons, flanked by bodaks stepping around the pyramid, striking fear into all of us. Combat commenced.
A poisonous energy crawled across the floor, seeping into our bodies. Pila and Egba dropped at once. The bodaks screeched, and it was everything in our power to stay up right and face them.
Treetonk was flinging spells across the room, exchanging chants with the robed casters across the room.
Feeps, true to his beliefs, continued to beg Minerva to call the others off, but she shook her head, compelled by something stronger. Odison was holding off most of the bodaks, but one escaped his reach and went for the drow filling the warlocks with arrows. Maziel didn’t notice until it was on her; she dropped.
Panicked, I decided that I didn’t care whether or not Minerva lived or died. Turned or not, she wasn’t my priority today. Sorry, Feeps. Hurriedly, I racked my brain for something that might hold the monsters off, Odison couldn’t be the only one attracting attention.
I shape changed into a brass dragon and roared. With molten-hot fire, I wreathed Odison’s adversaries in flames, giving him time to pick up Maziel and restore her to consciousness. That was all it took. Every spell, every claw and blade was suddenly bouncing off my scaled hide. It might have worked, we might have won, but suddenly Minerva was standing in front of me. I snarled, ready to strike, but she raised her hand and smiled sadly.
Just like that, my world went blank.
I understood nothing but the dangerous shapes in front of me, the ones that hurt. I pounced on them, clawing, biting, stomping. They fell, one by one. I recognized some of the people, familiar and friendly, and the need to protect them filled me. They fought against the figures that tried to hit me, until none remained but the female with wings. The one with the shiny gold thing on her neck. I snarled, but the metal horse-man, the one I liked most, was yelling at me, saying things. I didn’t understand him. The metal horse-man waved at the winged woman, and she swayed, closing her eyes and slumping to the ground. Sleeping? I tried to approach, to sniff, but the familiar ones were standing in front of me holding out hands frantically.
With one massive claw, I gathered them close to me, refusing to let them leave. Protect them. They yelled more things, then stumbled out of my reach. Some of them stayed near, patting me, watching me. Scared? The dark woman was shaking the winged woman awake, screaming things I didn’t get. I rested my head down and watched.
Then the dark woman was running off. I tried to follow, but the others cried out, trying to hold me. Stay? I dropped back down, watching the metal horse-man go back and forth, staring at me. Scared.
For a time, I lay there, protecting my friends. Treasure. Stay. Protect. They waited with me, the metal horse-man staying by the winged woman I didn’t trust. I wanted her gold thing.
Then the dark woman came back, she brought another woman with her. A hurt one. I felt a different feeling. Familiar. Affection. She looked at me, and I leapt up immediately, circling her and dragging her in close. Protect.
They all stared me now, then at the shiny circle in the middle. They huddled close, making noise. That’s when the metal horse-man approached. Music. Soft and sweet. I felt...tired. The woman I liked patted me, smiling. I closed my eyes. Sleep.