In Citadel Drezen, life had almost begun to have the feeling of normality.
It was as if they had stumbled into a market day. Dwarves and crusaders drank and enjoyed the afternoon sun. Hot food and cold small beer was available, and everyone enjoyed the camaraderie that surrounded it. But crusaders sharpened their weapons and looked to the south and west from the ramparts, thinking of the vrocks and demons that, at first in great numbers, but over time became less numerous.
Men laughed again. And crusaders looked up at the red son of the Worldwound and saw something akin to hope.
Illendar tried to join as men and dwarves saw their fortunes temporarily bettered. But it was a sham, something that despite all his efforts the drow did not truly feel. He broke the same bread and drank the same wine, but he did not feel the same hopes nor the same confidence since being returned from wherever it was that he’d been. His memories of that lost week, the time that he had spent in the keeping of Pharasma were slipping away from him. They seemed so strong and vivid when he first awoke and in the Great Hall of Iomedae, the solar of the Sword of Valor’s hands upon him, dragging his spirit back from wherever it was that he had found rest. But now those memories were slipping away, like pale dreams in the light of a morning sun. The details were gone; now he only remembered feelings of warmth, of having found a place where his spirit could reside forever, a place of peace and tranquility like nothing he’d ever experienced. Those memories, those feelings, bled away like the blood that had flowed from his torn throat. That he remembered, Jaronicka’s claws tearing out his exposed throat, larynx and the meatier elements of his neck. He remembered trying to speak and not being able to; he remembered trying to breathe and not being able to. He remembered choking on his own blood, and looking down at the thick viscous fluid soaking his tunic. And then, dimly, he remembered everything fading gently to black.
His body felt strong now. Lothar had seen to that; the priest had visited him daily, and to the needs of his torn body. He’d spent hours, it seemed like, looking into the silvered, tarnished mirrors at the scars on his throat, staring at the pale new skin and wondering about the lifeblood that had flown out of that. illendar had taken lives, it was true; and more so, he’d helped his friends to take countless more. But that was in war; vengeance for Kenebras at first, then them joining the Queen’s Crusade, as guerrilla warfare experts. And then for reasons of their own, to find the succubus and glean from her the information needed to rescue his friend Bardos. And now, or soon anyway, to begin again on the Queen’s business. But his own death, and the place that he’d been sent after he been judged? He wondered if coming back was the right thing to do.
But Arushalae was here, as was Bardos, and it was good to see his friends again. He spent a great deal of time with Arushalae, and cemented their friendship, deepened it. He couldn’t help but think about her in ways that he knew might doom him; and worse, could doom her. Their paths were so alike, but at the same time so different. He spent hours with her, and each passing moment found him falling deeper in love with her. He knew she felt the same, he could feel it, he could see it in her crimson eyes that looked at him with such affection, such an alien concern that her kind never felt. But Desna had put this power within her, and in the same sense that he had been born with that power, the power that made of them something greater than what mere chance had created, and yet in the eyes of their kinsmen something far less.
He dare not do the things that his mind and his heart so desperately wish to do. For one, she might accidentally kill him or worse; for another, he had work to do. As his strength returned, plans were made: to return to the temple of the Ivory Labyrinth, and remove the Baphometian threat for once and all. Bardos was in the scriptorium, drafting scrolls and rebuilding his spell book. The others to their leisure or practiced their swordplay. Farina put arrow after arrow into the targets on the south grounds. It felt like they’d only just returned, but the reality was they had a job to do. And do it they must.
Lothar, quiet as always, sought them out to propose an addition to the plan: they’d already heard of the temple to Erastil that existed a day and a half south of Drezen. It was on the way to the Ivory Temple, and Lothar fervently wished to see it, in hopes that it might be redeemed or whatever creature might be lurking there ejected. No one objected; Lothar had done much for them over the past few months, keeping them alive, producing the water that they drank, healing their wounds. They could refuse the Ulfen priest nothing.
And so, to Delamere’s Tomb they made their way on the crisp, chilly morning of Neth the 7th. The Worldwound was much as they had left it a week before, dry and poisonous and rife with vermin, Abyssal and otherwise. But living in the Worldwound was old hat to them now, and they fell into their old familiar behaviors quickly and without fanfare. The nights were much colder now than when they first left Drezen, and the lack of fire and hot food had them clutching themselves in their bedrolls and sleepily edging towards a campfire that didn’t exist. In the mornings, he were sore, stiff with cold and the unforgiving soil of this blasted land.
The maps they’d cadged in Drezen were accurate enough – Delamere’s Tomb was known to them during the Occupation, and Jesker Helton was known in Drezen as well. Erastilian temples tended generally toward the modest, but this place was almost a wreck. The temple was small, the walls made of found wood and local wattle, made from the same rusty dust that surrounded them. But the small, poorly built temple still exuded a sense of foreboding, a strange animus that slithered around their spines like chill worms. Inside, someone or something had desecrated what little had been there. Rude benches were upended, the small statue of Erastil tipped and shattered, blood on the alter and the walls. Behind the altar, a small room beckoned. It was mean and empty, but underneath the bed lay a new-ish trapdoor, with a fine line of ruddy light slipping past the rough cut planks
The cave system below was alight with fire – lava ran freely through the twisted chambers, throwing sinister shadows and pulling sweat from every pore. Curious things lay in shadowed places: a small bedroll, almost a nest, with the dessicated remains of some small bird. Further in, a still-warm campfire, draped with a rough skewer, held the heads of three rats, all in a row. Blackened and and carbonized, the heads hung shorn of their bodies, like three knobs of burnt skull on a stick.
An arrow flew out of nothingness, to break against a wall. Stone tipped and twisted shaft, it was made of raw materials by someone without skill.
What are you doing here, said a whispered voice in Lothar’s ear. This place is dead to Erastil. You should leave now. You have defiled a place in which you do not belong. Your destruction is ensured.
“Jesker, is that you?” asked Lothar aloud. “My brother, show yourself and be saved.”
You cannot help me. I have done things you can’t imagine! sob WHAT CAN I DO?
“It could not have been you, brother,” Lothar said. “Erastil will forgive you if you are repentant. Please, surrender yourself and explain things to me before my companions find you. Let me help you. Come to me, brother.”
In front of the Farina, Fletcher and Fflasheart materialized a man… or what was once a man. Alternating between mumbles and shouts, the man was emaciated and had a feral glint in his eyes.
“Let him pass, let him pass!” yelled Lothar, who stood at the edge of a runnel of crackling lava. “Come to me, Jesker!”
The man – Jesker Helton, possibly – scuttled forward past Farina, who backed away with no small measure of revulsion. Abruptly, in sight of Lothar, who even now beckoned him across the lava, he stopped. His eyes, wild enough already, rotated crazily.
“She’s here,” he said.