In search of a much-needed rest, the ragtag group headed for the town Inn. After a thirstily consumed round of drinks, a man sat down at their table. Taking a long swig from his stein he looked pointedly at Aelar.
“It seems you are in need of my services.”
Aelar took a long, hard look at the man. Judging him to be of good character, his look softened.
“What kind of services did you have in mind?”
“It seemed that your group barely survived that little scrape with the goblins.”
“And how would you know that?”
Vore motioned to Aelar and Balthazar’s arms, “Those scratches for one, and I overheard your tale in the barracks.”
“You spied on us?” Balthazar asked, self-consciously crossing his arms to hide the tears in his armour.
Vore looked at Balthazar and winked. “Aye, only on Aelar here though, no one else seemed very interesting.” Vore looked back to Aelar and asked, “so what about it then, could you use my services?”
“You still haven’t said what those services are”
“Oh, you know, the kind that gives and gets, if you catch my meaning.” Balthazar sniggered, Vore glanced his way, rolled his eyes and looked back to Aelar’s confused face. “I’m a cleric, so I can heal your wounds, shield you from your enemies, and if you ever cross a vampire, or a similar dark creature, I can cause them a world of pain.”
Aelar looked at the group, more aware of their wounds, and saw the looks of agreement in their eyes, tipping the scales in favour of Vore joining. The feeling of his own wounds, and light-headedness from loss of blood and a drink slammed Vore’s side of the mental scale against the table.
“Okay…well, I suppose that could be useful, what do you want?”
“That’s all I needed. Bryne already said he’d pay for another mercenary to join the idiots, all you needed to do was agree.”
“The idiots?” Drel prodded.
“His words, not mine,” replied Vore, and reached to accept Aelar’s outstretched hand. Suddenly Vore froze, his eyes fixed on Iltani who had just returned from the bar with the next round. Vore’s outstretched hand clenched into a fist, and his voice became as cold as winter when he asked “What is his name?”
Aelar, suddenly very cautious, spoke carefully, “Iltani.”
Hearing his name Iltani turned and stared blankly at Vore.
Vore immediately looked at Aelar, his eyes blazing. He stood up and as he turned to leave said with a quiet fury, “I’m sorry, but I must rescind my previous offer.”
Aelar looked desperately at Iltani for assistance, but he only muttered something to himself about clerics. Seeing Iltani would be of no use, and that he didn’t want to be spending all his gold on health potions, Aelar spoke quickly:
“Look, I don’t know why there’s bad blood between you and Iltani, but we still need your help. We’ll match what we got from Bryne for clearing out the goblins today, that will double your money. We’ll even pay you now..”
Drel started to complain, but Balthazar smacked him in the back of the head; wincing from the pain he felt in his wounds as he did so. He knew that if there was anything worse beyond that barricaded corridor, they would need a healer.
Vore stopped and, after a long silence, turned to face Aelar. “Fine. But after this you’ll have to find another cleric.” He held out his hand, palm up.
Aelar sighed and tossed Vore the purse he had received from Bryne, he’d collect from everyone else later. Vore weighed the purse for a few seconds and said “I’ll meet you at the gates at dawn,” and without another word, strode out of the inn.
The next morning Vore met the group at the entrance to the gate and they rode back to the cave. Bryne, having no reason to send Tristan along for the ride, instructed that they would have to make their own way.
“Besides,” he remarked, “you’re being paid well enough to afford your own horses.”
The group had instead engaged another wagon rider to take them in case there was something to bring back. Instructing the driver to remain with the wagon, they once again walked to the cave, picking their way through the underbrush. Entering the first chamber, Vore stopped in his tracks, with Ashar bumping into to him.
“You didn’t take care of the bodies?!” His face marked with incredulity.
He was right, the group, now standing accused of mistreating the dead, looked to each other sheepishly; including Iltani. As a monk, Aelar stepped forward.
“While I do not relish leaving corpses around, I am only familiar with the burial rites for my own people. Traditionally, we have left goblins to be reclaimed by their own or by the woods themselves. I admit that I had not considered the fate of the corpses around us in the heat of battle.”
“I cannot stand for this kind of treatment. ‘If thy foe lie slain and their kin will claim them not, thou shalt lay them to rest by earth, by fire, or by water.'” Vore recited the words by heart, etched in his mind years ago at the monastery. He looked around the chamber and spied the pit. Looking in and seeing yet another goblin he sighed deeply in disappointment.
“As a cleric of Pelor, God of the Sun, my preference has always been fire…” His voice trailed off as his eyes moved around the chamber, looking first at the group, then the roof of the chamber, and finally returning to the pit.
“But a fire in here, big enough to burn these bodies, would choke us to death. We’ll do it by earth.” He pointed into the hole.
“Let’s bury them in the pit and be done with it.”
It took nearly an hour, but the men eventually dragged all the goblins, save the ones from the left chamber, and piled them in the pit. Vore spoke a brief prayer of rest, and the group covered the pile in dirt. Looking satisfied, Vore straightened up, as if shaking off a weight, and strode back to the main chamber.
Returning to the chamber, the party gathered around the boarded up entrance. It was mostly nailed boards and shored up rocks. Removing the barrier, the party proceeded inward. The passage descended further into the ground, as the party went the walls pushed outward at their centre until the path’s cross section became a perfect hexagon. The air became drier and all scent of the goblins faded away. The dirt fell away to reveal a polished black surface. The path ended abruptly, opening into a larger, intersecting hallway. Hundreds of feet below the surface, the group thought at first that the surface was bedrock, but as they looked to the left and right down the hallway, they could make out fine seams in the masonry. This passage had been built by cunning hands, carved and hewn to geometric flawlessness.
Choosing first to go right the group was blocked by a magical barrier. Using his knowledge of the arcane Iltani determined that the wall’s magic came from another plane, that it was ancient in nature, and that there was no way to pass it.
A little disappointed, the group reversed direction and headed down the hallway once more, passing their exit on the left as they went. This hallway ended in a massive chamber, with high vaulted ceilings. The chamber had seven sides of equal width, one which included the hallway they came from, and six others. In the center of the hall lay a large crystal on a platform. Surrounding the crystal were seven support columns, some crumbling and one collapsed, its remains scattered along the floor like the trunk of a fallen tree. Scorch marks and pitted holes could be seen on the walls. Balthazar and Ashar examined the marks and agreed that they were demonic in origin. The party was unsure how to proceed, as it could be seen that it was no ordinary crystal. After much discussion Aelar brazenly declared that he would touch the huge gem.
Upon contact Aelar was transported to another place, just for a moment, seeing and smelling as if he were really there, then with a rush he found himself back in the chamber. Before he could tell the others what he’d seen, a demon, spectral and shimmering, materialized in the room.
The party drew their weapons and Aelar his fists, making for the demon. It was an elusive foe, vanishing whenever the party thought they had it surrounded. Ashar marked the demon, and called to Aelar, who was nearby. Seeing the situation Aelar foolishly decided to trick the demon into attacking him, thinking Ashar would intervene with his greatsword. In his hubris, Aelar ran past the demon exposing himself tauntingly. The demon took the bait and then some, sinking its jaws deep into Aelar’s backside. Even as Ashar broke the demon’s gnashing maw, Aelar felt the idiocy of the plan. Bleeding badly he ran to cover while the others fought on. The chase continued until finally, with a terrifying scream, the demon was sucked into a black schism in the air and vanished into the Abyss.
After patching themselves up, the group examined the crystal once more. Ashar and Iltani examined it closely.
“Where in blazes did you go Aelar?” Vore exclaimed.
“I don’t know, there was a sudden light, a rush of wind. I could smell fresh air, plants and trees… I think I was outside?”
“You were teleported,” Iltani stated flatly. All eyes were on the Shardmind as he spoke.
“The arcane properties of the crystal are not too different from what I used to teleport the goblins yesterday. As to the crystal’s purpose, what brought it here, or how it is controlled, that’s beyond my knowledge.”
“I can’t answer those questions either,” added Ashar, “but I did see an Arcanist’s shop back in town, perhaps he can offer more information to us.”
“Should we bring the crystal back to Bryne then?” Aelar eyed the crystal with caution.
“It’s the fastest way to get to the bottom of this…” began Ashar.
“And to get paid right?” finished Drel. Ashar shot him a look.
“Well, best get to it then.” Drel took off his cloak and draped it over the crystal. Tentatively he reached out and touched the crystal. Nothing. With a satisfied look he moved to one end of the crystal and beckoned for Ashar to help him. With a lot of grunting and sweating they carried the crystal back through the polished corridors, the cave, and the wooded path to the road. With a final heave they shoved the crystal onto the back of the wagon.
“Ya canna take no funny business in this here wagon, buys,” the driver protested.
“Not in old Lemuel’s wagon. No way no how, buys.”
Balthazar looked Lemuel square in the eye.
“You’ll take us back to town old man, or you’ll walk back and pick up your wagon when you get there.”
Lemuel swallowed hard, “all right all right buys, I dant mean nuting by it buys, juss trying t’avoid trouble’s all.” He motioned for them to get in the back.
“By Beory buys, you’d tink old Lemuel was run off to th’Capital with your money or women or some such nonsense.” He flicked the reins, and with a curt ‘Giyyap’ the wagon started back to town, a driver, six men, and a magic crystal.
The group returned around midday, the warm sun high in the summer sky. With more heaves and grunts the group hauled the crystal into the barracks hall. They reported to Bryne their findings: the hallway, the demon, and the crystal. Bryne’s stern expression changed at the mention of the demon. It wove into a knitted brow, a blend of concern, fear, and anger. He waited for the tale-telling to finish, nodding and grunting to acknowledge points and hurry the story along. The men finished, and Bryne motioned to his second in command.
“Lieutenant!” In strode a tall, dark-haired woman with hard features.
“Get me the arcanist and priest, now.”
“Yes captain!” The lieutenant turned on her boot and marched briskly out of the room. Bryne directed his attention back to the group. With a tired sigh he closed his eyes and massaged his temples. He spoke with a slow deliberation.
“Let me make sure I understood you all correctly. After touching a crystal that conjured a demon, and almost dying as a result, you thought it was a good idea to bring it here?”
“The only way to get to the bottom of things seemed to be having a wise man come to look at it. To ensure it would not happen again.” Aelar replied coolly.
Bryne was not impressed, but being a rational man, waited to see what the town’s authorities on large, demon-conjuring crystals would say. A few minutes of silence passed, Bryne filling out some paperwork while the party stood awkwardly, waiting.
The group nearly jumped with the suddenness of the sound. Aelar to see who had spoken. It had sounded like it had come from inside his head, but how could that be?
“Guys, stop looking for the voice.”
When Aelar stopped, he noticed that the others had been looking too.
“You all scare so easily. It’s me, Iltani.” Iltani looked at each of his comrades.
“I thought you would like to know I can link us as a group telepathically. Right now you can only hear me, your minds are too full of babbling thoughts right now. You can speak when you calm your minds.”
Aelar cleared his mind and focused on Iltani, “Like this?”
“Fascinating, this could prove useful,” thought Aelar.
“Certainly,” replied Iltani.
Before they could continue, the lieutenant returned with the town arcanist and priest. The Arcanist was a young man of no more than thirty years, and curious to a fault; though before today fate had never given him such a critical opportunity to demonstrate this. The priest was good deal older, full of years but less so with experience. He had spent most of his life as a simple man of the cloth until he was selected to leave his abbey to tend to the people at the Gate.
“What in Beory is this?” The priest cried. He had never seen anything like this in his life, and from his countenance, he would have been happy to die that way. The Arcanist did not share his sentiment.
“What in Beory indeed. Where did you find this?”
The group relayed the information again, the Arcanist nodding furtively at every detail. As soon as they finished he made for the crystal.
“HOLD.” The Arcanist froze, Bryne staring him down. The Arcanist looked wistfully at Bryne.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” He asked.
Bryne’s gaze softened, thrown off by the blunt simplicity of the thought. How bad could it really be? Another demon could be handled, even three or four. Realizing that despite the danger, the Arcanist wouldn’t leave until he’d examined it, Bryne sighed with foreseen regret, and gave a nod of permission.
With a near squeal of excitement that made Drel and Ashar laugh under their breath, the Arcanist examined the crystal; taking care not to touch it. He worked silently, deep in thought punctuated by grins of realization or imaginative inquiry. After several minutes of measuring, thinking, note-taking, and the like, he closed his book and stood back.
“Well, it isn’t Demonic in nature, that is certain. However, it has strong magical properties, of that there is no doubt. From this point there is nothing else I can determine, though we will learn more if the crystal is activated, and if my observations are accurate, I can do just that.”
“So, no demons?” asked Bryne.
“Not that I can determine, in my estimation there was a protection spell on the crystal, as a trap for thieves and intruders…” he looked at the group, “but there is no such spell anymore.”
“Very good. Proceed then, so I can get this thing out of here.”
Bryne stepped back as he said this, while the group gathered round the crystal with the Arcanist. The young man spoke a series of phrases, and reached for the crystal.
In a flash of light and whoosh of sound the party and Arcanist were carried to another place: hot, humid, the thick air smelling of rotting vegetation, a swamp? Flash: the air went dry, the wind hot and the sun piercing. Flash: a frigid gust of snow swept about the group. Flash: a dense forest, brimming with life; Aelar recognized it as the Feywild. Flash: icebergs, great mountains, and balls of flame, endless in number, all drift above and below, colliding, cascading, exploding, the Elemental Chaos. Flash: silence, a breathtaking dreamscape of thought and memory Iltani telepathically communicated was his home plane. Flash: acrid smoke, sulphur, and hellfire. An overwhelming sense of evil rested on the group, felt most by Vore. Seeing a demon confirmed his dread, “this is the Abyss.” Flash.
The group looked about bewildered, Bryne, the priest, and other soldiers were there, some screaming with surprise. The group had disappeared from sight since the Arcanist touched the crystal. Before the group could explain what had happened, clashing steel and shouts of fighting could be heard outside, the party rushed out to behold: a swamp.