Get a Little Closer
The wraiths had fled the wrath of Fharlanghn, but would soon return to the outer sanctum. After I located the secret door, we all entered the narrow passage. The door could be closed and we could safely hide while we raided Azarr Kul’s treasure chamber. According to Miha, an essential weapon to defeat the Wyrmlord was hidden there.
The passage was just five feet wide, and ended at an intersection with a door on each side. Garrock and I stopped to consider our options; but, the others kept piling in behind us. I was shoved up against the wall. “Wait!” Miha squeezed up front, leaving her devils to jostle with the wyvern at the rear.
“Hiya!” Miha pressed in very close, all but blowing in my ear. The secret door to the chamber was on the wall. Difficult, but I found the outline of a door in the stone. “Jack, you are so very useful.” Aww, shucks. Errol bristled. Miha said she had an idea. She wanted to enter the chamber without the others. Garrock shook his head. She scowled at him. “I wasn’t speaking to you. Why don’t you see what’s behind that door?”
“We stick together,” the half orc said.
I insisted Miha explain what she had in mind. Inside the chamber, there was a magical trap and a guardian. While I disabled the trap, she would handle the guardian by assuming the appearance of the High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul.
“What if the guard isn’t fooled?” said Garrock. “And what about the wraiths?”
“Still spooked, are you, Kitty?” she purred.
Jarvis piped up. “I have a way to deal with the wraiths.”
Though Miha was disappointed, it was agreed we would destroy the wraiths first, then open the chamber. She ordered her bodyguard to the outer sanctum to assist.
Deja Vu, Too: the Wraiths of Kul
Jarvis sprang into action, while we peeked out from behind the secret door. In the hallway leading up to the altar area, where the wraiths had first attacked us, a party of adventurers appeared. They looked familiar, identical to each of us, except the halfling wizard was quite handsome in a pointy, starred hat. “Travis” struck a pose, stroking his goatee; his fingers sparkled with gemstone rings. “Savannah” the fighter was quite noisy, stomping in her amor, bashing her sword against the walls. “Lionel” the lion man devoured a piece of raw meat, spraying the walls with blood. While “Jarko” turned cart-wheels crashing into his friends, sister “Gwennie” wrung her hands, praying nobody gets hurt. The party marched in place, repeating their actions in a loop lasting agonizing seconds.
Taking the bait, the trio of wraiths returned, slipping out of the walls. “Gwennie” knew what to do. The cleric started waving her arms about, praising Furtoohlung. Above their heads, a pillar of divine fire came down like a piston all around them. Flames consumed both friend and foe. The heroes raised their hands up to fend off the fire. And though none of the good guys appeared injured, one wraith shriveled up, and the others wailed in pain and rage.
After a failed attack, the wraiths, who had once been people, saw through the illusion. They spied us by the secret door. Winnie read from a scroll and cast another flame strike. Staggering, the wraiths kept coming. Miha’s bearded devils slashed with their glaives. Jarvis summoned a floating ball of light, like a lantern but with personality. It even talked, eager to help. Two rays of energy — Ptuhooey! Ptuhooey! — shattered the wraiths who shrieked as they shattered out of existence. Winnie said she heard them say “thank you, now our souls can rest” or some nonsense but it sounded more like the agony of eternal torment. The bouncy, buzzing light bulb introduced himself as Arnold, he used to be a knight. Arnold was awesome. Jarvis said he was an Archon. He could heal and help us in our fight with the guardian. Much better than Croakums.
Something Among Thieves
We all drank invisibility potions, except for Miha and her companions. She twirled, and transformed. Skin layered in brilliant blue scales, a cross between a dragon and hobgoblin, with a jutting horn. The High Wyrmlord stood seven feet tall. He looked magnificent, terrible in dragon scale armor.
The others kept back, while I opened the door to a wide chamber. Shallows steps up to a diamond-shaped chamber. The steps were carved with runes. Azarr Kul walked up to the top step, looking around. The guardian, a devil covered in barbs, stood still as a statue. In each corner, a treasure chest, one for each color of evil dragon. Azarr said, “You tell me. Has anyone been in here? There are intruders in the Fane. My work is very important and I don’t wish to be disturbed.” Azarr Kul’s voice sounded like Miha.
The devil said, “Fine.” Shifty eyes, agitated. He looked suspicious.
She ordered her bearded devils to assist the barbed devil with his duty. They looked at each other, grumbled, but complied. “And make sure to teleport to avoid the trap.” She pointed right in front of her. The two appeared on each side of the barbed one. They were no match for the larger devil. “Psst, Jack,” Miha whispered.
“I’m here,” I said. Invisible, I searched the floor just above the stairs and found the trap. It was indeed magical. In minutes, I disabled it. “All set,” I whispered.
“I love you, Jack,” she replied, softly. That made my day. Then she tried to cast a spell on me, but it was too late. I was able to resist. “Oohh, the blue chest!” she said, unable to the contain her excitement.
The barbed devil was no fool. He began casting a spell, summoning some friends. “Alright, boys, you know what to do,” said Miha. Her devils attacked with their glaives but couldn’t pierce the tough armor. Errol, who was invisible, squeezed the hand crossbow for a sneak shot that interrupted the spell. Garrock rushed up the stairs past us, struck with his trident. He took some damage from the barbs. Winnie attempted to dismiss the devil, but failed. “Good try, Winnie,” said Jarvis. “I was thinking the same thing.” But, he used a ray of enfeeblement to weaken the guardian. Arnold whizzed over and hit the devil with his ray. I drew my bow and stuck an arrow in his eye; my second shot twained the first. “Oh, Jack,” Miha cooed. “The things we could do together.” This day just kept getting better.
The barbed devil retreated to an opposite corner and cast a spell. Miha, Jarvis, and Errol were hurt, dazed. Garrock said, “Fuck this!” He dropped his trident and short sword and drew dragonbane greatsword, two-handed, thrusting into the devil’s belly. Miha’s bearded beaus were useless, but Arnold was awesome. Ptuhooey! Ptuhooey! Every little bit counts. Winnie said, “Flee” but the barbed devil decided to give Garrock a big hug instead. The lion man was squeezed like an apple in a press. Not awesomesauce. Miha told the joke about the elves in the forest. Not funny this time. I stabbed him with my rapier in the eye. A second thrust struck, but couldn’t hurt him. Garrock couldn’t break free, but the devil let go, and moved past us. He cast another unholy spell of us. Poor Arnold exploded. Garrock hasted by Jarvis finished off the barbed devil, who fell forward on the half orc piercing him with spikes.
Fortunately, we had lots of healing potions and Garrock had a wand he kept zapping himself with. In little time, we were all better. “Jack,” Miha said. “The chest.”
The treasure chest was cleverly crafted from an actual blue dragon. The lid was the skull with the scaly hide forming the box. I had everyone back off, as I inspected it for traps. Looked good. And it was unlocked so I opened the lid. I dove back, as a wicked burst of energy nearly hit me. “Jack, weren’t you listening? I told you it was trapped.”
“Heh, just checking,” I said. This time I could see the trigger on the hinge, and after a couple minutes I was able to disable it. Opening the chest, Miha shoved me aside. “It’s all mine,” she said, with more love than she had ever shown me. She pulled out a magnificent cloak, golden with an ermine trim, and wrapped it over her shoulders. I blinked. She was beyond dazzling. I lowered my eyes. The chest contained a circlet. “Gimme.” A whip. “Mine.” She picked up the whip and and lashed out. Flames crackled on stone. A scabbard. She took that, too.
Garrock snarled. “Where’s the weapon to defeat Azarr Kul?”
A dwarven waraxe, she left untouched. “There,” she said.
“What does it do?” Garrock asked.
“Oh, you use it to chop,” she replied. “You’re the fighter, you’ll figure it out.” She seemed eager to escape with her loot.
Jarvis said the weapon was magic definitely, but not very powerful. It was made of adamantine, a hard metal. We looked disappointed. Miha was walking away.
“Hey, wait.” I stepped in her way. “Where’s Azarr Kul? We need to stop him.”
“Oh, Jack,” she said. “Why don’t you come out to the cavern with me — for a proper send off?”
I declined. There wasn’t enough time, and the last time she walked away with the deathlinks. “Maybe, when this is over.”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “I’ll be seeing you again.” Not sure if she was being honest. “Jack, here you go.” She tossed me the scabbard. The word “hone” was carved on it. I found it shrunk to fit my rapier perfectly, nice and snug. “Thanks, Miha. You’re the best!”
“What about me?” said Errol. Pouty-face, not a good look.
She smiled, motioning to her devils. “Why don’t you try to open a chest?” With an armload of loot, she trampled on the broken pieces of his heart. I held my breath, hoping to keep the empty ache at bay, from rushing in. Didn’t work, ache settled inside like a poisonous yellow cloud.
First, we needed to let the cloudkill disperse. I decided to try another chest. Of course, the red dragon skull was trapped; but this one a little different. I managed to disable it in less than two minutes. Inside, useful potions: bull’s strength, shield of faith, more healing and lesser restorations. No time to open the other chests.
5 by 5
Just behind the altar, a shaft, perfectly round, was bored through the stone ceiling. Polished to a smooth sheen, the sides were slippery like a marble floor with neither crack nor groove. Difficult to climb. Fortunately, we had enough fly spells to go around. I drank an invisibility potion and scouted ahead.
A roar like a great river boiling over rapids while giants hammered the sides of the gorge with boulder upon boulder; but louder, a pounding that sounded an alarm to all things decent. Light swarmed me as I ascended into an impressive oval-shaped chamber. In the center, a platform encircled by five stone dragon heads. Like geysers, viscous energy flared from each mouth spouting to the roof fifty feet above where it licked the edges of the dome, gathering in a luminous pool. Within the growing pool, shadowy figures twisted and writhed. Bright eyes and grinning faces, eager to escape. Claws scratched the barrier, stretching the membrane. The bubble was about to burst.
Azarr Kul stood on the platform. Big, blue and horny. Miha’s copy was very good, and I wondered how close they had been. An easy target, for he could hear nothing and seemed completely immersed, a conductor of this grand cacophony. In the balcony surrounding the chamber, I spied four blue winged devils flittering about. Otherwise, no guards or other spectators. We had the element of surprise.
The energy eruption was so loud I could shout without being heard so being invisible it should be easy enough to sneak up on him. I floated down to the others, and we came up with a simple plan. Take out Azarr Kul, quick and quiet, before he could act. Winnie cast a silence spell of the dwarven axe to prevent the Wyrmlord from casting spells. Garrock would carry it and cling to him, while Jarvis and Winnie would keep outside its range, pelting him with spells. I drew my blade from my scabbard. The edge, keen and ready.
Azarr Kul was surrounded by invisible enemies: Errol, myself, and Dennis. Garrock and Winnie flew overhead, nearby. Flanking with Errol, I aimed for the artery in his thigh, but the blade skimmed off his thick armor, while Errol also failed with his own rapier. The Wyrmlord scoffed, as we appeared. Moving away from Garrock, Winnie tried a spell, but found she couldn’t speak, an eerie, unnatural silence surrounded her. Jarvis detected a magical aura around the altar so he moved closer to the exit, where he attempted to dispel the effect, but it was too powerful. Garrock made himself angry, charging from above, and struck with the dragonbane. A powerful strike. Good old Dennis chipped in, penetrating the tough hide with a claw.
Surprised, the Wyrmlord had no time to act. We swarmed him. While my first attack missed, my second was true. I nicked the artery, bright blood foaming. Hurting, the Wyrmlord tried to step away and cast a spell. He found himself shrouded in silence and confused. Dennis pursed, clawed him again. This was the High Wyrmlord, the one responsible for so much suffering and we had him on the ropes. He cursed, glancing up at the portal as if to say hurry up will you. Five dragon heads looked down on us with terrible fury. Claws tore at the barrier, rending slits in the fabric.
Just then, as all seemed lost, flying down, Winnie raised her mace, closed her eyes, and split open the High Wyrmlord’s skull. Azarr Kul staggered forward, throwing up his arms in anguish. His eyes raised, as he fell forward to his knees. “Forgive me, my Queen,” he said. “I have failed you.”
The ritual interrupted. The energy plumes from the dragon heads ceased, smoldering. Even so, a raging vortex of pure energy swirled about the chamber, raking hunks of stone from the walls, hurling them sideways. The energy pool drained, whirling upward, leaving the stone dry and brittle as bone. Cracks, dark fissures formed in the dome. Tongues flared around the edges. “Run!” Garrock shouted. We all flew off the platform toward the exit, where a very large blue dragon had emerged from the shaft with warpriests and dragonguard. Two beautiful women, a redhead and a brunette, with feathered wings like angels suddenly appeared at the side of Azarr Kul. All witnessed the High Wyrmlord defeated and dying. The priests fell to their knees in prayer, while the guard stood paralyzed in shock. Fear and awe overcame the blue dragon, who stared up at the portal.
A shriek, a sundering roar. Rifts exposed in the stone expanded and burned away like paper. Then with a single explosion of heat the entire roof was stripped off, tearing away like a curtain, and the curtain thrown over us. Within the remains of the dome, a peephole to a hellish landscape. Twisted mountains of charcoal under red sky. A foul wind greeted us, reeking of brimstone and furious, blinding heat. Around us, the priests and blackguard cried out, consumed as they burst into flames. An intense bolt of blue lightning struck the collapsed Azarr Kul. Even the beautiful angels could not escape the judgment. All turned to piles of blue ash, piles of wet corruption. Only the blue dragon remained.
A dark figure as a colossal shape eclipsed the portal, squeezed out of the landscape, and expanded our perception. As the five-headed dragon unfurled her wings a shadow of dread fell upon us. But, the opening seemed to be shrinking, even as her aspect enlarged. So, this was Tiamat. “I’ve heard so much about you,” I might have said, if given the chance. The goddess was not interested in us. She focused her attention on the ancient blue dragon. This was Tyrgarun, the enemy of Kirimeivar. He said, “Azarr Kul failed you, my Queen. Give me a chance. I will succeed.”
“And?” Something kept the massive dragon from falling on top of us.
Tyrgarun looked puzzled. “—SSorry?”
The center head of Tiamat, a blue dragon did not hesitate. Moving quick as lightning, terribly fast for a body so large, the Queen rendered the blue dragon into pieces. “Apology accepted, Tyrgarun.”
Tiamat circled the chamber and floated over the platform of upturned dragon heads. The portal was shrinking, and a sense of relief, when the dragon slid back into her realm. Tailed by heightened anxiety as turning about like a frigate, the five heads reached back into our world and all roared at once. “Who shall be the agent of my vengeance for this insult? What being has a heart so black as to carry out my will better than these failed hobgoblins? Who has defeated them and therefore is worthy of a fraction of the ultimate power of Tiamat? Approach and receive my gift before the portal closes forever.”
“I am! Give it to me!” Errol Trask moved toward the platform. Garrock and Winnie quickly seized him. He struggled with all his might. “No! I beg you. Let me go. Please.”
It was in this moment of confusion that a tiny creature found its way to the center of the platform. An instant later, the jaws of the five dragon statues pulsed with energy, flooding the room with light again as they breathed acid, ice, lightning, and fire into the room, converging on the upraised platform in the center of the inner sanctum. With a deafening blast of wind, the portal closed, snapping shut like a jaw, and the room plunged into darkness and chaos.
Tiamat was gone. In her stead, a flying, leathery five-headed toady monster. The central blue head looked at us, staring especially at Winnie. Then with little more than a shrug, he flew off through the shattered roof, probably to go destroy the world or something.
“Oh, Croakums,” Winnie cried. “You were my friend.”
After cleaning off what remained of Azarr Kul from the powerful magic items, we made our way back through the Fane. Nobody was home. The danger seemed to have passed. After a rest in the former priest’s cell, Winnie gained the spell to raise Kirimeivar. The old dragon opened his eyes slowly. “Ah,” he said. “I had a feeling about you all. The answer to the riddle I could not solve myself.” When told about the fate of Tyrgarun he was regretful. “I did come here to warn him after all. He was playing a game he was not smart enough to win.” He said he would soon join us in Brindol for a celebration. He also longed to reunite with Meiyvr.
When we returned to Brindol, Winnie was able to procure enough diamond dust from the hobgoblin’s hoard and the tight-fisted Lady Kaal to raise Towns Speaker Norro Wiston, Laurie, and even Karl, who appeared to have changed his mind about such things. (But, no one else, just those lucky few.) Winnie was also able to restore Immerstal the Red to his full mental capacities.
Weeks later, Meiyvr, Celiira and the Tiri Kitor elves returned from their cleansing of the Vale. Frye was with them and he immediately took steps to prepare a magnificent week of feasting. The rest of the Wistons returned along with the refugees. Kirimeivar, the magnificent copper dragon also arrived. Meiyvr and he would go off soaring for hours, while Norro Wiston and I quietly played cards. I never let him win, but sometimes he got the better of me.
It was quite exhausting, being a hero. Everyone made such a fuss. Winnie was among the most important clerics in the Vale. Tredora Goldenbrow and Lord Jarmaath sought her counsel. Town Speaker Wiston and Drathgar had much to discuss as they made plans to reconstruct Drellin’s Ferry. (What a relief! I was not included.) While showing my little brother Jon Sigmund the finer points of lock-picking, he demonstrated his mastery of nose-picking then asked me if he could meet Sylvana Jarmaath. He wanted to be a Lion like her with a greatsword. Poor Garrock was mobbed by children who pulled his tail; some wanted to sit in his lap or touch his mane. Alas, the Ghostlord called. Even Jarvis and Immerstal the Red made up, but the peace was broken when Jarvis announced he was opening his own magic shop. As for me, I kept a low profile. It was wonderful to sleep in a bed. In my own room. Without my sister, her loathsome toad, or anyone else to bother me while I finished this journal.
One night I awoke from a nightmare. I was chasing Miha. She was smiling, laughing, dancing. I followed into a cool, damp room lit by torches. Naked, she writhed on a bed with posters; red and black curtains cracked open just enough so I could see her flesh. Eagerly, I undressed and tumbled headlong through the curtains. As I landed softly she was gone. I quickly realized the bed had not four but eight posters like a cage. The curtains closed. I struggled to squeeze through the bars. The foot of the bed tilted, springing upward and snapping shut like a trapdoor. I awoke thinking of the hobgoblin we left at Vraath Keep. He had a name. (Maybe someone should check on him.)
Weddings occurred daily (and Winnie presided over many) and coupling was rampant. Celiira and Meivyr, Lieutenant Arianne and Dorian, and I had seen Killiar Arrowswift sharing a quiet moment with Trellara Nightshadow. Every evening, Winnie strolled the cemetery with the paladin Zayn. Errol and Sylvana’s engagement was suspended. Errol was not himself. The torture he had endured gave him a weathered look, and he had yet to regain his health. Thin and frail, twitching nervously, he talked of leaving for Freeport. Neither of us liked the other, but misery loves company. We never mentioned her name.
“Baron” Trask was summoned to Brindol to account for himself, but Lord Jarmaath was gracious while Sylvana stared him down. Lady Kaal withdrew to her compound, venturing out for council meetings (as she was still a member though not in good standing.) Her wealth and connections were essential and she seemed willing to make amends to restore her reputation. She dressed more plainly, though no one knew whether this was calculated or genuine contrition. Rillor returned to the Manticore. Lady Kaal needed someone to run the place. And the Black Knives pitched in, using their connections to bring in much needed supplies, while quenching any black markets.
During a formal ceremony held in the Cathedral, Lord Jarmaath, Celiira and Trellara Nightshadow performed a ballad honoring the dead. It was quite moving. Outside on the steps, the original Botany Club (and Jarvis, Celiira, and Garrock) were given the official title “Defenders of the Vale.” Lord Jarmaath presented us with toy miniatures crafted by the gnome toymaker. Each one bore a striking resemblance with a key in the back that when turned would spring into movement. Mine did a backflip, drawing a rapier. (I was so pleased I broke into the gnome’s manor and returned the little wrench to his workbench. Bypassing his traps was easy enough.)
Quite a throng gathered in the square. As we paraded through Brindol, many familiar faces lined the streets, including the Kirken family from Deep Hollow, Sara Lee and Will the Smith, the Talar crew with the hermit Jorr Natherson, while an entire block was taken over by the Pickle clan who roared when Jarvis passed by. I waved and smiled, though I scanned the crowds for a gypsy with red and black hair.
Recently, Velorian’s theater reopened. A fresh new comedy starring Carlton, Will the Smith’s friend, and none other than our Karl. The reviews are mixed, but I could use a laugh. During the parade, the Teskerwill sisters rode alongside on their powerful steeds. I noticed how Danella looked very smart in her riding clothes, the tight breeches, and the killer boots. I think she caught me staring, returned a smile. So, I’m thinking. Maybe I will ask her out to see the show.
After all that has happened, what’s the worst that could happen?