Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade. Part VIII

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Things needed to be sorted out. We were not the only survivors of the war-forged attack on the train, though most it’s crew were dead.

Toryil and War-Forged searched Grilsha and Lucan’s cabin but found nothing new. As I prepared him for burial I took a few moments to look over Roewyn’s body for anything that might reveal the secrets that he had taken to his grave. What I found was a finely crafted dagger with draconic runes on the hilt, his travel documents and a potion. The potion, which was of healing, and the documents were taken by Bri. The dagger was revealed to be magical by a simple Detect Magic spell and a I tucked it into my belt.

Erban used his healing powers on Bri and Altera who had both suffered badly in the fight.

By this time War-Forged had dug a small grave beside the Lightning-Rail track way and, with a few prayers to The Sovereign Host, we buried Roewyn.

As well as the letter War-Forged had found several other items on the body of Grilsha. There were two wands, one of which I recognised as the wand of she had used to create darkness during the masquerade ball. There was a finely crafted hand cross bow and bolts, five of which registered as being enchanted . Finally there were five scrolls. I cast Read Magic and looked them over. All five were all scrolls of arcane magic. There was a spell of Dimension door, a spell of Haste, a spell of Scrying and two scrolls of Phantom Steed. War-Forged took possession of the crossbow, Bri the scrolls and I the wands.

We now had to decide where to go next. The remaining member of the train’s crew informed us that a message had been sent up to the next Lightning-Rail station and we could expect a train to arrive to collect the passengers in six hours. Where was this ancient ziggurat mentioned in Grilsha’s letter? It was described as being “within the borders of Thrane” but that covered quite a bit of ground. Did the fact that Lucan and Grilsha had been so ready to abandon the  train mean that it was close by? If we made the wrong choice we could loose Lucan’s trail for good and all we had been through, all the deaths would be for nothing.

It appeared that our journey had come to it’s premature end in the Bray River Hills. Bri asked a few of the passengers if they had heard of  any ruins in the area. She got lucky, one person had heard that there were ruins from the of Dacarni Empire of goblins to the west. Toryil pointed out that the goblins had worshiped at ziggurats. Our minds were made up when Altera, who I hadn’t seen since the end of the fight, found us to report a discovery. She had been checking the ground either side of the carriage Lucan had escaped from and believed she had found his tracks. A set of deep, human footprints revealed where a man had landed, no doubt after jumping down from the roof of the carriage.  The tracks moved away from the train and within a few strides had changed to those of a wolf of unnatural size.

Gathering our equipment we set off in pursuit.

The tracks led us across dry grasslands, up hills and down valleys. Going was slow and several times Altera lost the trail in the dark and had to cast about to relocate it. After five hours of walking the horizon was illuminated by the first rays of the new day. We rested for an hour and ate some trail rations as both Toryil and Altera preyed. Toryil would not be able to regain his full divine powers a he had called upon The Power of the Undying Court only a few hours ago. Of course he was better off then Bri and myself who had not  had a chance to get nearly enough sleep to be able to relearn spells. I didn’t know how much magic Bri had her disposal but I had used the lion’s share of mine, including all my defensive spells, in the fight with the war-forged. I still had a few spells left though as well as the two scrolls of Magic Missile Bri had leant me.

After our rest was over we picked up the pursuit once gain. About two hours later we crested a hill and saw before us a wide and shallow valley. The centre of the valley was submerged under a broad lake of still, black water out of which rose the dark mass of a ziggurat. It was an ominous sight; crafted of a dark stone there were four massive steps each about fifty feet in height. At the top was a larger square-ish structure. It looked like a broad staircase ran up from the submerged base on one side, leading to what appeared to be an entrance about halfway up the structure. The whole thing was overgrown with thick vines that hung down into the waters. Even as we watcheded a flock of dark birds rose enmasss from their resting place on one of the steps and wheeled into the sky, filling the silence with their mournful cries.

The tracks headed down through the scrub and bushed that lined the sides of the valley up to the water’s edge where they simply stopped as if the wolf we were tracking had vanished. Since the “wolf” was a vampire it seemed likely that Lucan had simply changed shape again, becoming either a bat or mist, and flown across the half mile of water that separated us from the ziggurat. This raised the question of how we were going to get across.

We circled the structure until we were facing the entrance way. We had hoped that there would be some kind of bridge but could find no trace there had ever been one. Mostly likely, considering the antiquity of the lost Dacarni Empire, the land had sunk at some point after the ziggurat had fallen into disuse, creating the lake. War-Forged decided to see if the waters were shallow enough to wade across but he had barely gone twenty yards into the water when it reached his neck. We would have to build ourselves some kind of raft, a task that wouldn’t be made any easier by the fact that  none of us had any skill with the working of wood or rope and none of us had an axe.

We used one of the swords we had collected from the war-forged to hack away at the base of several trees that grew in the area and within an hour we had put together a passable raft.

It was now time for Altera to make a choice. Lucan was somewhere within the ziggurat and we knew from bitter experience that he could exert his will over wolves. It did not seem wise to most of us that we should bring him a wolf to use against us. With great reluctance Altera agreed and told her lupine friend to stay behind.

Using improvised paddles we began to slowly row across the lake. As we went all of us were on the alert. I for one expected something to try and make a meal of us at any moments but we got across to the broad stone steps without any problem. We pulled the raft up out of the water and headed up the black steps to the entrance. The stairs were worn down in the centre by the passage of uncounted visitors in the dim past. Toryi pointed out faded sigils, just visible beneath the matting of vines, that hinted at demon worship.

The entrance was ten feet high and five feet wide and lead to a short corridor. War-Forged took the lead with his war-hammer in one hand and a shield that Toryil had leant him in the other. Bri had cast a spell of Light on a scrap of cloth and given it to War-Forged who had tied it around the shaft of his hammer. Next came Erban followed by myself carrying War-Forged Everbright lantern, then Toryil armed with Talaen Kara, Bri carrying Erban’s ever burning torch and finally Altera with her magical longsword in one hand and a shortsword in the other.

As soon as we had stepped across the threshold a gruesome wailing began to echo down the passage. It  seemed to sap the strength from our limbs Despite this we pushed on. While I am not normally claustrophobic I was all too aware of the great mass of ancient, dark stone above our heads and a cold sweet formed on my brow.

The passage opened into a chamber about thirty feet square. Two rows of columns marched across the room to an exit at the far end. The walls of the chamber were engraved with a pattern that reminded me of waves. The columns had circular indentations running up their length that brought to mind the suckers of an octopus or squid. With this idea in mind, by the unsteady light of our torches, the columns now seemed to me to be the tentacles of some vast kraken reaching up to drag us into the depths. Indeed, I realised, the illumination was very unsteady. Shadows, the source of which I couldn’t identify, seemed to slink along the walls. Was there was something in here with us?

War-Forged had just reached the exit when Altera gave a strangled cry  from behind us. I quickly turned and was horrified by what I saw. For a second it looked like the shifter had been transformed into a glossy black column that twisted and writhed before our eyes. Then I realised she had been engulf by some bizarre creature, something broad and flat like a manta-ray. It’s mouth was on the inside of the wrap and was even at that moment was biting at the pinned ranger. Also like a manta-ray this creature, which Toryil recognised as a Cloaker, had a tail; a long bony appendage that  it whipped viciously around from behind it.

The tail flicked out a whipped into Bri who screamed with pain. She tried to back away but every turn she took only seemed to earn her another blow from the tail. Eventually Bri was able to cast Invisibility and vanish. War-Forged, Toryil and Erban, running the gantlet of the vicious tail, ran up and began to slash and pound at the beast. Their efforts were rewarded by renewed cries from Altera who was suffering the attacks along with the Cloaker. The situation was grim. If we attacked the creature we would hurt Altera too but if we did nothing she would be eaten alive!

I pulled out one of the scrolls of Magic Missile, hoping that it’s unfailing accuracy would strike the beast but miss Altera but it was no good. We just had to keep plugging away and hope that the Cloaker would give up on it’s meal before we killed Altera. All the time the chilling wailing continued. In fact it only intensified and at one stage Bri seemed to become entranced , standing there motionless with a far-away look on her face.

Suddenly the mass that was Altera and the Cloaker collapsed to the ground, Altera had lost so much blood that she could no longer stand. We needed a new plan and I shouted to the other to try and drag the Cloaker off of our friend. War-Forged dropped his weapons and tried to grab the creature but was driven back by the flailing tail. Undaunted Erban lunged forward and managed to grabbed hold of the oily skin of the beast and began to pull. Toryil moved to behind him and cast a spell of Bull’s Strength on to the paladin. This, combined with a helping hand from War-Forged, was enough for the pair for pull the wriggling mass of flesh off of Altera. With great difficulty War-Forged and Erban held the creature between them, exposing it’s pasty white underbelly and it’s gore soaked maw. It was clear they couldn’t hold it for long and I targeted the beast with a Scorching Ray. My aim couldn’t have been better, striking the abomination in the mouth and burning it to death from the inside out. With the Cloaker’s death the wailing ended.

Altera and Bri were the most badly hurt of us. We did what we could for their injuries but our store of magical healing was rapidly depleting. At least we were able to bring Altera to consciousness but she was far from her fighting best.

We debated long and hard about whether we should press on. If we retreated from the ziggurat and rested for  eight hours Bri and I could regain our magic but did we have time? Lucan had been here for hours and he could carry out his, or rather The Soul Blade’s, dark designs at any moment. With some reluctance we decided to press on.

Bri was now pretty much out of magic, although I had one more trick up my sleeve. Or maybe two tricks I thought, remembering the wands. I didn’t know the command words for either of them but during my studies I had learned certain techniques to force a magical item to operate when it shouldn’t. The trick wasn’t without it’s dangers, magic items could literally blow up in your face if you did it wrong. I headed back outside and aimed the wand that didn’t produce darkness at the lake. After a few moments of concentration  a Magic Missile flew from the point and whizzed about aimlessly above the waters before dissipating. To be honest I had been hoping for a fireball but at least I now had a weapon of last resort.

We headed deeper into the ziggurat. Beyond the Cloaker room was a flight of stairs going up. This lead into a chamber pretty similar to the first. It didn’t have the columns but the ceiling was covered in dozens of hooks. The walls were carved with the faces of leering demons all looking toward the entrance. In the centre of the room was a  black cube. Four chains connected it to the hooks on the ceiling and there was a wide slot cut into it’s top.  This did not look at all safer and with some trepidation we edged around it to the it at the far end and left.

Another staircase  brought us to another thirty foot by thirty foot chamber. Towards the back of the room was a broad alter but our attention was dominated by a figure that stood behind it. At first I thought it was a statue but at our approach it hefted a huge, double handed axe. As our light fell across the figure it was revealed to be a huge man, almost ten feet tall, whose muscular body was topped by the head of a bull, a minotaur. After a few more second further details became apparent. It’s hide was a ghoulish shade of grey and there were great, bloodless holes in it’s body revealing dry flesh and bone beneath. The minotaur was dead and had been reanimated as a zombie!

War-Forged charged across the room to reach the minotaur. Unfortunately War-Forged’s foe’s greater stature gave it the advantage in reach. The chamber rang with the sound of metal on metal as War-Forged took a glancing blow from the minotaur’s axe but he plunged on to deliver a heavy blow of his own. The pair squared off, trading blows any one of which I’m certain would have cripple if not killed me.

Erban boldly held out his holy-symbol of The Sovereign Host and demanded that the zombie leave but it paid him no heed.

I whipped out the wand of Magic Missiles and launched one at the minotaur. A moment later Bri entered the room and used a scroll to fire off a Magic Missile of her own. Both hit, of course, but the minotaur barely registered them.

Like Erban before him Toryil attempted to drive the zombie back by the power of his faith but the minotaur didn’t budge.

Altera took up position in the doorway, just in front of me, and readied her bow to fire when an opening appeared.

Deciding it was steel rather then prayer that would fell the minotaur both Erban and Toryil charged in with their blades. In the blink of an eye the paladin was cut down by a vicious axe blow. As the minotaur fended off Toryil Bri grabbed our fallen comrade and dragged him back to the safety of the stairs.

I was pushing my luck with the wand and decided to employ the second,  and last, of the scrolls Bri had given me. The magical dart blasted a chunk out of the zombie, as did an arrow Altera fired a second later, but the creature refused to go down.

By now War-Forged had dropped his shield and was wielding his hammer in great, two handed swings. He was breaking bones with every blow but in doing so was leaving himself open to attack. The fact that he could still fight at all, considering the punishment he had taken since the train, was a tribute to whoever first conceived of the war-forged. But even War-Forged had his limits and after one blow too many down he went.

War-Forged and Erban were down. Altera was too weakened by her brush with death to risk close-combat with the undead behemoth leaving only Toryil locked in a one-sided battle with it. It was time to go for broke. For an instant the chamber was illuminated with a stark, white light as I cast a Lightning Bolt at the minotaur. The heat of the bolt was enough to strip the rotting flesh from the zombie from the waist down and scorch it’s bones. For a split second it remained balanced on it’s feet but then an arrow from Altera’s bow buried itself deep into the zombie’s skull and the creature collapsed.

Searching through our packs we managed to pull together enough potions of Cure Light Wounds and Repair Light Damage to get Erban and War-Forged on their feet again. Rather ominously this left us with two potions of Cure Light Wounds between us.

That was it, we were spent. We were tired, wounded and out of magic. To go on would be suicide. We had no choice but to retreat out of the ziggurat and make a basic camp on one of the broad stone steps. If we waited for eight to nine hours in that mournful spot Bri and I could regain our magical energies. We could only prey that Lucan didn’t achieve his mysterious goal in the meantime.

When I awoke, after about eight hours sleep, it was early afternoon. Nothing  of import had happened during that time, at least as far as my companions could tell. I settled down and committed a fresh batch of spells to memory. With grim humour I noticed how, since beginning the pursuit of Lucan, my choice of spells had changed. Now almost every spell was chosen with combat in mind; spells to inflict harm, spells to avoid harm and spells to repair  War-Forged. Even some of my divination spells had a combat slant; True Strike to guide my aim and See Invisibility to spot invisible enemies.

There was something else I noticed as I learnt my spells; War-Forged seemed to be mediating. Just as I put my book away War-Forged placed his hand on his chest; muttered a few words and some (but by no means all) of the many wounds he had taken repaired themselves. War-Forged had unquestionably cast an Artificer’s infusion upon himself. Under questioning War-Forged revealed that in Sharn, while us flesh-and-blood types had been sleeping, he had been teaching himself the art of Artificing. He had been practicing most nights of our journey but only in the last day or so had he managed to turn his theoretical knowledge into practical effects. My mind flashed back to the dead war-forged on the train, the one who had seemed to have just fallen apart. I was sure that War-Forged had used the reverse of his repairing spell to kill it.

I had learnt two enhanced Repair Light Damage spells of my own and cast the first on War-Forged. I offered to cast the second if he wanted, pointing out it would leave me unable to revive him for twenty-four hours if he was overpowered. War-Forged was prepared to take the risk.

Bri and I reinforced ourselves with Mage-Armour and once again the six of us headed into the black ziggurat once more.   

Quickly we found our way back to the room where we had fought the minotaur. As with the first two rooms there was only one way out but rather then leading to a set of steps the doorway connected to a long, narrow corridor. About ten feet from the doorway there were two side passages. We ignored them and carried on straight only to find the  corridor ahead had collapsed and was blocked by tons  of rubble. We backtracked and checked out the side passages. Both lead to stone staircases; one leading up and the other going down. We chooses the upwards one.

The stairs rose at a steep angle and doubled back on themselves several times before levelling out. Beyond the stairs was a short passage opening into a rectangular chamber perhaps fifty feet long. The atmosphere here seemed less oppressive. There were sizable cracks in the walls and it seemed that fresh, if a little damp, air was flowing in. The walls of the chamber were decorated by images of a strange landscape under a starry sky. Inlaid into the floor were three silver rings, each about ten feet in diameter. The rings were in a loose line, each touching the next, so they covered about thirty feet of the floor.

Craning my neck for a clearer view over Erban and War-Forged I got a better look. I was certain that they were summoning circles, extra-planar creatures were summoned into the circles and couldn’t get out. Alternatively, and I thought it more likely, the summoned stood safely within the circle while he summoned who-knew-what.

Just as we started to cross the room there was this strange scuffling and clicking noise. For a few seconds it looked, by our torch light, that the walls at the far end of the room were melting and running to the floor. Then we realised it was a swarm of centipedes, hundreds upon hundreds of then, and they were coming our way.

As the carpet of glistening, scuttling centipedes closed on us War-Forged spotted that they swerved unnaturally to avoid the circles, as if they were being kept out by an invisible wall. He shouted at us to get into the circles. Most of us ran forward to safety in time. Howevere Bri, who had been towards the back of the group and a little slow to react, became trapped as the swarm interposed itself between the first circle and the door. Once again I was grateful that I had added Burning Hands to my arsenal of spells since the night of the wolves. I unleashed a fan of flame, incinerating countless centipedes but the swarm, while diminished, endured. Bri summoned a Flaming Sphere keeping the swarm at bay. Quickly, from the safety of the summoning circles, the rest of us went through our packs. Toryil, War-Forged and myself all had flasks of lantern oil which we sprinkled over the swarm before Bri rolled her ball of fire across them. This was too much for the diminutive army and within a few moments it had broken and the remaining centipedes scuttled back into the shadows.

The fact that the swarm had been unable to enter the circles was highly suggestive. Like the wolves and the bats I was certain that they had been summoned and guided by the necromantic powers of Lucan.

Steadying our nerves we left the room. The exit lead to yet another flight of stairs and at the far end we found ourselves in a massive, vaulted chamber of ancient dark stone. The room was dominated by a huge statue of a winged abomination that dwarfed us all. Leading up to the statue, and I prayed to whatever gods might have been listening that it was just a statue, were two rows of three stone sarcophaguses.  Situated between the statue’s legs was a high backed stone throne upon which sat the object of our hunt, Lucan himself.

We had been steadily moving towards this moment since we left Sharn but all of a sudden I felt very unprepared and vulnerable. In the vampire’s hand was held The Soul Blade, the fiendish, blood-red glow of the ruby in it’s pommel mirrored by the red fires in vampire’s eyes.  On Lucan’s face was a look of sour hatred as he, and somehow I sensed the sword too, stared down at a circular seal set into the floor.