The days after the fall of Drezen were a welcome respite for the Fellowship of Unwilling Participants. The heady afterglow of victory surrounded the place, and even the most calloused warrior could be observed to, occasionally, emit a smile. There was food, hot stews and roasts of pork ad mutton; there was ale and wine, and even some uiscebeatha, a distilled grain liquor that the dwarves had brought and now was capturing the attention and appreciation of the drinking crusaders. There was safety, ensured by Marshal Tirablade’s crusaders, several hundred heavily armored dwarven veterans, and the Sword of Valor itself, extending a protective girding around the citadel like a skirt of plate.
They’d learned a lot, and the party had gotten it’s orders from the Queen: harry the enemy wherever they lurked, using guerilla tactics. Capitalize on the retaking of Drezen, gather intel, and destroy the enemy where he lives. Good orders, they all agreed. But even as they enjoyed some of Horgus Gwerm’s wine, a lively fire chasing back the lackluster autumn sun, thoughts of their friend Bardos were on their mind.
Baru insisted that his master was still alive, to the southwest, where the maps where blank save for the “heer be draguns” notations made by the old dwarven cartographers.
Some locations were clearer: to the west-northwest, the dead village of Sesker’s, also called Sesker’s Gully. Vallentin knew of it from old, and acknowledged that it had been abandoned a long time. More intriguing, especially to Lothar, was an old splitter’s tomb for a Erastilian priestess named Delamere, that may or may not have a priest attached to it, one Jesker Helton. The idea of this Helton fellow asked more questions than it answered. How could an Erastilian priest, alone and without allies, manage to survive in the Worldwound for so long? How was it that his books resided in the Dreszen library? What was he doing down at this tomb? There were more mysteries here than could be comfortably plumbed in an afternoon, and Lothar was keen to go there seeking answers.
But Lothar had healing duties, and the rest were unwilling to go there without him. And Bardos’ predicament yet loomed large in their minds. Without an exact location, they could wander the Marchlands for days, increasing their risk of something – a demon patrol, perhaps, or something as simple as a pestilential swarm – would put them to difficulty.
Illendar looked thoughtful. “The tiefling prisoners, they said the heretic succubus knew where the Baphometians had their lair,” he said. “Exactly where they were, if I recall.”
“It would not be a terrible thing,” said Fflasheart, “… if we were to assist a demoness who has turned her back on her demonic heritage.” He desperately tried to look earnest.
Illendar raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Do we know which way the hag tracked her?” asked Farina.
“West,” said Gato. “Due west.”
They requisitioned some burros, laid in some rations, and made their way out the citadel gate the next morning. They’d eschewed horses. For one, they’d need to move quietly, and horses would likely raise dust from the dry, powdery soil of the plateau, and with vrocks known to patrol the skies, the less attention they got, the better. They made their way out the south gates and over the Ahari bridge without fanfare. A few dwarves, manning the battlements, nodded to them as they left. One raised a battleaxe to them, in solidarity.
It was surprising, how fast the miles within the protection of the banner passed under their feet. The air was cold but still, and the burros seemed game to push them west. But by midafternoon, the air surrounding them had taken on a strange density, weighing every down with each step. The dust in the air settling more diligently in their lungs, and everyone was beset by the occasional dry cough. The first day passed uncomfortably, if without incident. After two weeks in the relative comfort of Drezen. The second was more so. It was as if a malevolent, disembodied eye scoured the ground around them. The Worldwound had evolved into a sort of presence, both dead and alive. The choking powder of fine sand that covered the plateau seemed to draw away one’s breath, leaving only a dry, skeletal taste. Yet at the same time, the ground seemed to rise up, reacting to their footfalls and the presence of life like an alien ghost, welcoming them into itself with primrose paths and forked roads festooned with as-yet unseen traps. All slept poorly the second night, with no fire to warm them and dreams of suffocation waking them breathless in the pale darkness of their tents.
On the third day out, they saw them.
They’d expected something, of course. None assumed there was a path through the waste that would not drew the attention of no demonic forces. and yet… they’d hoped that they might slip under the eye they felt, that impoverishing presence that seemed to infuse everything around them.
“Look there,” said Fletcher. His arm raised at the elbow, gesturing upward and to the south. There, almost invisible but moving fast against the wind, they saw them: enormous flying creatures – dragons, perhaps – wheeling in the distance. They were moving silently, gliding along the updrafts with a weirdly fascinating grace. The passed over the group far to the southeast.
The next day, they found the hag’s tracks, large three-toed pads that made strange patterns in the dust. Farina examined the tracks for a long time with a critical eye, before speaking.
“I’d never met one, back home, but hags were known to us,” she began. “Witches of the wood, always half feral even when they were one could still approach them. But over time they’d turn inward, drawing on the worst fey-magic. It would warp them, evolve them, into… things. Creatures, repulsive but filled with power drawn from the darkest places in the wood.”
Farina idly scratched Otto’s ears as she continued. “This one, the hag, is clever,” she said. “See this tracks? The way they loop around? In the mountains and deep valleys, elvish hunters would use this tactic to stalk bears.” Everyone looked at her quizzically. “Bears hunt you back,” Farina explained. “So, you track them by looping off the main trail, to throw off the scent come up behind them, take them by surprise. Whatever made these tracks…”
She gestured at the large, claws footprints.
“… whatever made these tracks was hunting something that it considered dangerous, something that it thought might hunt it back.”
The continued moving westward, picking their way across the blasted landscape.
The next day, their fourth in the Marchands, dawned red and chalky. Lothar captured water in one of the burro-borne barrels for their morning ablutions, and everyone went about their tasks in relative silence. It was Ohm, the dwarven captain, who broke the quiet.
“Up there,” he said, pointing as soldiers sometimes do, with his entire hand instead of a single finger. “There’s two now.”
All eyes looked to the southwest, where Ohm was gesturing and saw them. Much closer than the last one, and small. Faster. And there were indeed two. They flew fast and high, staying too far from their eyes for a positive identification.
“Vrocks?” asked Fflasheart.
“Possibly,” said Illendar. “What’s the best way to fight vrocks?”
“Lure them in close and then jump them, like we did on the plateau,” Fletcher observed matter-of-factly.
“That was a helluva fight,” Fflasheart said, a bit grimly. “And there was only one.”
“They’re watching us,” Ohm said. “That high up? Those are the watchers. They’d report back to whomever they report back to, and those people would probably send ground troops to come find out what we are.” He paused, one hand rubbing his beard. “If it was me? That’s how I’d do it.”
All of them watched silently as they creatures flew north and out of sight.
On day five, they came across their first major obstacle: a great rift, two miles wide and as much as 200 feet deep. Fording took the better part of the day, as Farina and the burro-handlers sought a path down, and Storm ferried people and material into the rift and back up again on the other side. It was mid-afternoon before everyone had regrouped on the other side of the immense canyon, They listlessly moved west, exhausted from the effort. Even the burros, usually hardy and eager, seemed reluctant to proceed.
“This is the farthest,” said Lothar, as the silently agreed to stop for the night before the sun fell below the purplish horizon.
“The farthest what?” Fflasheart asked.
“The farthest any crusader has been inside the Worldwound for a decade or more,” Lothar said.
Darkness landed around them with an almost audible sigh.
They winged creatures returned early the next morning, and this time they flew close enough for all to see they had riders. Lancers, with ornate saddles. But unlike the previous times, these flew over the rift, north to south. These flew much lower than previous scouts had, and close enough that they elves in the party could see the dark eyes and white tabards of the riders.
But they, like the others, passed them by without incident (although all agreed they were growing bolder) and the party made their way westward, forever driven forward by the line of hag tracks, winding without pause to the west. Lothar took a moment to ask Baru if he’d felt any change in the direction of his master Bardos, as they had come due west over twenty leagues. “He’s due south of us, I can sense it,” chittered the rat. “Although if he be closer to us then when we first embarked on this trek, I cannot tell for certain. Perhaps.”
“What’s it to be, then?” Asked Illendar. The drow cared not a whit for succubi, and although he’d never admit it he worried a great deal as to the conditions and fate of his first and foremost friend since emerging from the Underdark.
“The tracks still lead due west,” said Farina. “We’re closing in on her, I can feel it.”
“Yet we could be closer to Bardos,” Illendar said. “And we know that he needs our help.”
“We could wander for days looking for him,” Fletcher said. “I understand your concern – I share it – but this succubus knows where he is exactly, and that intelligence is what we need to rescue him.” His eyes met Illendar’s. “We should continue west.”
Illendar said nothing, acquiescing in a way that all could tell was, at best, temporary.
The seventh day of travel began normally, but it wasn’t long into their travels that they knew something had changed.
For one, the land, once barren, now was scorched (there was no better world for it) in large swaths, huge burnt areas that could be miles across. Even in the wasteland that was the Worldwound, these patches were blackened and strewn with minute fragments of obsidian glass. They outgassed an acrid, chemical smell, and the party went out of their way to avoid traveling within them, circling at a respectable distance as much as they could.
“Dragonfire, do you think?” asked Gato.
Fletcher shook his head. “No dragon I ever heard of could burn this much, this hot,” he said. “A mile across? Even the legends of old Leviatanus Rexii never told of him incinerating a place this large. Nah, friend, whatever did this was no dragon.”
For two, the land itself seemed to be angling downward. It was almost imperceptible, so gradual that any traveler would be within their rights not to notice, however skilled they might be. But Ohm confirmed it: they were moving downward in elevation. The plateau was flattening.
For three, by midday they had passed some unseen meridian, for when Illendar asked Baru if he could sense his master, Baru spoke quickly in excitement. “East, at last!” he squeaked. “My master tarries to aft, rather than bow-ward and to port.”
Illendar narrowed his white eyes at the little creature. “What do you know of the sea? That you can bandy nautical terms with such aplomb?”
“Every rat knows and loves the sea,” Baru said authoritatively. “Not all of us find our paws upon rime-crusted beams or atop a coil of hempen rope, but all of us long for it. It’s in our very bones.”
Gato raised one eyebrow at this rodentine revelation, but said nothing.
A few miles further, they came upon the body.
“It’s been dead about… a day or so,” Farina said with a wrinkled noise. “It’s not a dragon, though. Something else.”
Indeed, the creature was large, serpentine, and winged, but the pr fusion of horns across it’s skull and spine indicated this was no dragon, at least in the conventional sense. It was about the size of a juvenile dragon, true, but gave every indication of being a mature adult or whatever species it was. There was also the matter of the saddle, which was still slung around its midsection. An empty lance sheath lay on the ground nearby, albeit sans lance.
Farina circled the creature, eventually calling out “Here!” On the opposite side, the tracks of a pair of booted feet made their way toward one of the scorched lands. There was a noticeable limp, and bits of dried blood in the sand.
“And here,” pointed Farina. The hag’s tracks intertwined with the limping man’s, along with another set of odd looking tracks. “That’s our hag. I have no idea what that thing is.”
The tracks she indicated were circular, about the size of dinner plates, with a curious trench between.
These new tracks accompanied the hag as she returned to her westerly course.
“We could go after the wounded rider,” said Fflasheart. “Perhaps, if we can catch him before he dies out there, we can get some information on what we face.”
“I don’t know that I want to go out there,” said Farina, gesturing at the blackened dead zone into which the tracks led.
Illendar did not look amused. “We opt away from Bardos, our comrade, to chase a serpent-rider? Have we forgone all loyalty and priorities?”
“Illendar’s right,” said Lothar. “Stay the course, find the succubus.”
They moved on.
It wasn’t long, however, before Illendar stopped short, standing perfectly still. None could see his face; the surface sun still held no charms for the drow, his eyes recoiled from it, and subsequently he wore a long cloak with a large, dark hood.
“Someone’s talking to me,” Illendar said. “telepathically. I think it may be…. her.”
Inside Illendar’s head, a voice asked: “Who are you?” The voice was feminine, husky but with an iron core. “Are you allies of Jaronicka? She cannot touch me here.” When Illindar said nothing, the voice continued. “If you are Jaronicka’s allies, come and die with her then,” she said.
“I don’t know that name,” Illiendar responded haltingly/ “We’re searching for a potential ally.”
“An ally? There are no demons here.”
“We’re not looking for a demon.”
“Then who do you seek?”
Illendar paused, weighing the odds that this voice was indeed the creature they sought. “We’re looking for… a succubus,” he said finally. “The succubus that escaped from Drezen. We wish to aid her.”
“Who are you to aid a succubus?”
“One of the few groups of crusaders in the Marchlands. Are you the succubus who escaped from Dreszen?
“And if I am? What do you want with me? You claim to be allies, but you… are a Drow, an ally of demons and evil.”
“I am drow, ’tis true, but I am no ally to demons. I’m part of the crusaders that have taken the Citadel.”
“Taken the Citadel? Surely you lie,” the voice scoffed, dismissively.
“I do not lie. Vhane is dead, as is his useless brother, killed by us,” Illendar poured words out to the voice, his hopes rising. “The citadel is in the hands of the Queen’s crusaders and an army of dwarves now. Our friend was taken by a shadow-demon, spirited away, to the lair of the Baphometian templars, and we were told that an escaped heretic succubus knew the location of that lair, and more besides. We seek her for that assistance, and pledge in return our assistance in defeating the hag that stalks her. “
There was a long pause, as the voice seemed to be weighing her own risk, calculating the probabilities that what Illendar said was true. “The hag, she has found me – that is Jaronicka, and she is here,” the voice said at last. “But if you are what you say you are, allow me to read your thoughts that I may confirm what you say is true…”
Illendar felt strange tendrils in his mind, picking through his memories like a gentle doctor probing for infection. It raised the white hairs of his scalp and sent a shiver down his spine despite the rising heat.
“I see what you say is true,” said the voice with satisfaction, tinged with surprise. “I had no idea that Drezen had fallen… if only i had stayed, to see such glory. But now, I am beset by Jaronicka and her allies.”
“Where are you? What allies? We will come and aid you,”
“I am here.” Inside Illendar’s mind, the vision of a place, perhaps three miles distant, lodged itself. “Jaronicka has brought locust demons and drake riders from the south to aid her.”
“It will take us half a turn of the hour candle to get there,” Illendar said, energized by their proximity to the creature that would lead them to Bardos. “What are you called?”
“My name is Arushalae, and I am a worshiper of Desna,”
Illendar marveled at the thought of a demon worshiping the one of the old gods, a goddess of freedom and luck. But upon reflection, it did make a certain kind of sense.
Illendar, however, did not have much time for reflection: “INCOMING!” yelled Fletcher, pointing to the sky. To the north, two drake-riders dropped into attack formation, fifty feet off the ground and approaching them fast. The riders had bows in their hands, and long lances attached to their saddles. There was no pretense of observe-and-report here. This was an attack run.
“We are under attack,” Illendar told Arushalae. “We’ll be there as quickly as we can.”
The group spread out as best they can, watching the fast-moving drakes approach at high speed. Farina let fly with arrow after arrow, as did Gato. Farina broke for a moment to cast Windwall in a line, to block any incoming arrows from the drakes.
It was a good plan, as the first rounds of return fire hit the Wall and were shunted away, rattling off the stones. Farina and Gato kept shooting, while Illendar Enlarged Storm and the warriors drew their blades. Radiance slung golden light over the entire proceeding, bright and filled with Iomedaen power.
Farina loosed another arrow then Summoned a huge bat, which hovered just on the other side of the Windwall. “After them, Storm,” said Illendar, and both the eidolon and the bat rose swiftly into the air to meet the oncoming lancers. The split to attack different targets as the drakes screeched like raptors at the sight of prey. The bat rose high, guessing that the lancer would not break his attack run to chase – it was right, and the bat lopped above and behind, now giving chase.
Storm, however, had other plans. The eidolon flew straight at the drake-rider, twisting only to avoid the shockingly sudden lance-strike, and hit the rider square in the chest. The drake buckled and rose a good eight feet as the rider was knocked from the saddle and fell wordlessly to the ground. He landed with an audible thump and a small bounce, then lay still.
“At them! yelled Fflasheart, who then broke from the cover of the Windwall and ran toward the fallen drake rider. Ohm ran along beside him. He reached him in a trice, grabbed his jerkin and raised him to a sitting position.
“Do not die on me, Baphometian,” said Fflasheart grimly. “Don’t you die…”