The ocean of black blood fell over the edges of the tiered stone in a steady, sluggish wave. Fiat and Rindle were covered in it, their arms up to both elbows as black and the night that surrounded them.
The soldiers were all alike, in their way – undead of some kind, equipped exactly the same. The Gebite sorcerer, his armor and weapons stripped from him and lying on the sand, lay still. Bjorn and Beltran picked through the items, soliciting from them their ancient thaumaturgical mysteries.
There was no wind. There were no stars. There was no moon.
“It’s definitely not here,” said Beltran with an air of finality.
“The book?” asked Leinard.
Beltran gestured at the items taken from the sorcerer. “No book.”
Leinard frowned, and his chin sunk toward his chest as he gazed to the east and descended into thought. Lama and Bjorn tended to their weapons, while Fiat and Rindle used some of their dwindling water supply to sluice the black fluid from their hands and arms.
“What do you think?” Phineas had sidled up to Leinhard and took a chance on interrupting his thoughts. The bard’s knowledge was exhaustive in many areas of esoterica had proved useful in the past, and if Leinhard was pondering their next move, Phineas wanted to help.
“I’m not sure,” Leinard said, almost to himself. “It seems like this pocket dimension was created to store these soldiers… yet it mimics much of what exists in the prime material. If we were to take that magical logic to its extent, then conceivably the road exists somewhere over there.” The elvish mage pointed to the darkness to the east. “And if indeed the road is to be found in the direction, then wouldn’t it by the same logic lead to the the town of Geb’s Rest? Or whatever analogue of Geb’s Rest exists here in this pseudo-plane?”
Phineas could find no real holes in the logic. “You might be right,” Phineas acknowledged.
“And, if a Geb’s Rest analogue exists, might not the missing townsfolk be there as well? And perchance our missing book.” Leinard paused. “If we can find a road to the east, and that road’s arches remain unbroken, then I think we can further infer that we would reach the town if we traveled south along the road.”
Phineas produced a small, silver raven from a hidden pouch. He whispered a few words of power to it, and it materialized into a large, intelligent raven. “Fly to the east, Poe,” Phineas instructed the creature. “Seek a stone road, heading north to south. Examine the arches thereon, to see if they are intact. Go.”
The Raven was gone a mere ten minutes. “There is a road, 400 wingspans to the east,” it cawed. “The arches are standing.”
“This confirms my theory, at least in part,” Leinard said. “Let us head south. I believe that Geb’s Rest is that way.”
Pleased at last to be moving with purpose, Master Bashir’s best henchmen and their new friends shouldered their packs and began walking to the East.
Although they had no sun to light their path, the road was empty and no creatures materialized. Nothing best them, and they grew tired and lazy in the cloistering darkness. Hours passed, and some began to fear that Leinard’s logic was flawed in some way. Some even entertained the sobering notion that they might be trapped here, to starve to death marching dutifully along this neverending road.
It was those with darkvision – Lama and Beltran – who first saw it. A blue-white light, partially obscured by some interposing structures, about a mile off. As the party approached, the light grew brighter, and it became clearer that the interposing structures were buildings of some kind. Leinard’s hypothesis had been proved right again, it seemed. it was only when they reached about a quarter-mile away that they began to hear sounds from the town. Cries of pain and anguish, wailing in the distance.
Fiat volunteered to approach stealthily and try to gather more information…
… and Phineas stepped in to cast both Invisibility and Message on him. Insulated (he hoped) from any prying eyes, Fiat made his way to the town.
For the town it was – Geb’s Rest, with all it’s landmarks intact. It was an exact duplicate of the town, different in only a few, macabre ways: for one, it was entirely dark, except for the (now very) bright light emanating from the fountain square, and two, it was packed with large, iron cages. It was from the cages that the wailing heard earlier was coming – teach cages (and there were dozens) was packed with men, women, children, all dressed in traditional, but modern, Gebite garb.
Here were the missing townspeople of Geb’s Rest, caged for some unknown reason by some unknown captor. The latter became clearer to Fiat almost instantly, however, as he observed a pair of Gebite warriors pass by one of the cages, one swatting a prisoner’s hand away from the bars with the flat of his scimitar.
Fiat heard a man’s cries of pain toward the lit square, and looped around to get a better look. At the fountain, two large stakes were planted in the ground, and the blue-white light came from them, illuminating the square entirely and throwing odd shadows and light between the dark buildings. Nearby, pairs of Gebite undead warriors stood silently.
It was the scene near the fount, however, that caught your eye. Standing near the fountain was an enormous abomination – four times the size of the hobbit, it dominated the square, growling and urping in some unfamiliar language. Horns atop its head and a face like a devilish boar, the malevolent intelligence in the creature’s eyes belied its bestial appearance.
In one hand, the creature had an open book; in the other, it had the hair of the man from whom issued the aforementioned cries of pain. Slowly, distinctly, the creature read a few lines out of the book in its guttural tongue. Then it set the book down on the ledge of the fountain, retrieved a large, heavy-bladed ranseur that had been leaning against the stone, pulled the man over toward the fountain and, with one swift motion, drew the blade across his throat. The screaming stopped abruptly, replaced with a high pitched gurgling, and arterial spray spouted across the sand. The creature waited a few moments for the blood sprays to subside, then nonchalantly tossed the man’s body across the square and out of Fiat’s line of sight.
Fiat, his blood already running high, goggled at the casual dismissiveness with which the creature had ended the man’s life. It picked up the book again, read a few more words, then seemed to wait a bit. Nothing happened and the creature growled in frustration. “Yaf zmyry! brulq vorazmyr mfpil. Hfrrh!” A pair of Gebites turned and moved swiftly towards the northerly cages.
They soon returned with a struggling Gebite man, and dragged him toward their devilish master.
“We need to move,” Leinard said.
Snapper’s eyes flew open. He’d been concentrating. “It’s a kschoort,” Snapper said, his voice struggling to wrap itself around the strange syllable, which sounded a bit like ‘chort’ and a bit like ‘kuh-SHAY-ret.’ “They are powerful, and intelligent.”
Nolan cast Locate Object. “That’s our book, all right,” he said at last.
“Should we try to take out some of the soldiers first?” asked Fiat? “If you guys can kill them and distract the creature, I’ll go for the book.”
Fiat, invisible to the rest of the group, moved out into the beleaguered town, and the remainder of the party moved north and east along the southern edge of the bordering ravine, fifteen feet below the town and hidden from sight. Fiat was able to get a closer look at the kschoort, and despite possessing the book, it seemed to be having trouble getting it to do what what it he wished of it. The blade of his ranseur echoed his sentiment, glowing red as if fresh from the forge. Fiat wanted that book.
Fiat approached the square, while behind him the rest of the party emerged from the ravine, as quietly as they could. As Fiat watched, the kschoort turned towards him, his snout drawing at the air and his black eyes rimmed with anger. Without a pause, he sent the a second pair of Gebites to the street to investigate, and called backward to some unseen Gebites, probably out of site down in the southern cage area.
The first pair of Gebite warriors passed within inches of Fiat, looking past the invisible hobbit. Thinking quickly, the hobbit fell in behind them, as quietly as he could, to try and pass them and move west between the two sets of pickets. Leinard cast Enlarge on Lama, and Nolan cast Shield of Faith on her as well, and thus girded she Squeezed her way though the alleyways toward the fountain square. Bjorn moved passed her and took cover at the edge of the square.
Bjorn peered around the corner. The kschoort had another victim, but was focused on the street to the north. The book lay on the lip of the fountain. But it’s head turned abruptly and, while at first Bjorn thought the creature was looking at him, he realized that it was looking in front of him. Something else was there.
The creature stepped back. “Gykuzyw! ta py, sy mijy ulzrfvyrw!” (in Infernal: “Gebites! To me, we have intruders!”), and they he whirled his ranseur into a combat-ready stance, smiling at the now-clearly visible Bjorn and Lama.
“He’s detected us!” yelled Phineas. “He’s called his soldiers to him!”
“They’re coming in from the east!” yelled the kschoort, as if in response. “Catch them alive if you can – they may be what we need to complete the ritual!” The Gebites filtered into the alleyways in response, seeking the group.
“Uhn!” grunted Rindle, as he flew upward with Beltran, headed to the roof opposite where Leinard. But before he lifted up, a sphere of rolling flame jetted from his outstretched hand and gave chase to the Gebites.
Bjorn, shield up, sword low but at the ready. He was taking now chances with this devil, but as he made his crablike approach, a blast of pure white light came winging past him. The blast crumpedinto the kschoort, leaving small scorch and drawing a smile from the insouciant devil.
Lama charged in, bastard sword whirling, her voice singing an exultant orcish battle song. It struck with a resonant clang, but the devil countered and spun his orange-glowing ranseur like a whirlwind. The strikes came almost faster than the eye could see, and Lama was driven backwards by the ferocity of the blows. No blood streamed from the cauterized wounds the kschoort left on her, leaving instead bright weals of fresh seared tissue.
The kschoort smiled; Lama giggled, disconcertingly. Such is the way of berserkers.
Then the book disappeared from the ledge of the fountain. But the devil’s head turned and looked at Fiat.
“Little thief,” said the kschoort. But even as he spoke, spears of ice burst up from the ground underneath the devil, slashing his cloven feet. Atop a roof near Beltran, Rindle grinned mirthlessly.
From the east, a trio of air elementals flew in, harassing the devil but doing minimal damage. Their usual tactic of absconding into the sky with a luckless enemy was useless here, given the mass of the kschoort, but at the same time Gebite warriors from the south emerged into the fountain square, their eyes and scimitars fixed on Bjorn. With a backward glance, Bjorn moved into flanking position, looking like nothing so much as a akylosaurus, an ancient armored professor of war.
kaaaWAP! a column of fire breached from the sky and landed on the kschoort, but the fire danced around the creature before evaporating. Echoing the power of the Flamestrike, Beltran brought his fists together and generated a wave of divine power that slammed into the Gebites, setting them back on their heels and drawing black blood from the ears, nostrils and tear ducts…