The Scavenger Hunt (from the Beta shard)Return to: Britannian Date and Time
One bleary eye opened, shot red. Heavy eyebrows twitched a little, then raised over the craggy eye. It flicked from side to side, eyelid sagging slightly, candlelight reflected in the pupil. Then the lid began to close again, the eye rolling up slightly behind it, and a dragging snore began to shake the rough wood table and the mug of ale sitting atop it.
“Nystul? Is that you, my friend?” called out a booming voice, so cheerful enough to break glass.
The head on the table jerked slightly, and a wet snuffle emerged. A tall blond minstrel sat down next to the drunk wizard, curls falling artlessly on his shoulders, a lute strapped to his broad back. He was dressed head to toe in green, capped off with a large floppy feathered hat.
“Mmmf,” Nystul said, as the table shook.
The minstrel grabbed the sodden wizard by the hair, pulled his head up, and sniffed in disgust. “Shame on you, wizard!” he boomed, while gesturing for another mug of ale to be brought.
Nystul pulled himself to a sitting position, a wrinkled hand to his forehead. “Hello, Galias. Oooh, my head.”
Galias the minstrel slapped Nystul on the back, grinning widely. “And a head it is indeed, somewhat soggy at the moment, I’ll wager! What brings thee here to drown thy sorrows?”
Nystul looked around, eyes narrowing. “I should know better than to tell thee of this, minstrel, knowing thy wagging tongue…”
Galias, ever alert for juicy gossip, put his head closer to Nystul’s, wrinkling his nose at the mage’s breath. “Am I not trustworthy? Do I not have the utmost confidence of Lord British himself? Have I ever betrayed thee?” he said breezily.
“Gossip from the court, is it?” Nystul shuddered.
“I fear something is afoot, minstrel.” He shook his head, and whispered, “Dost thou know of the strange stones that are falling from the sky?”
Galias burst out laughing. “Indeed! Is that all? Why, look you here, I have a keepsake ’round my neck, chipped from the one that fell near here last week. Everyone knows of these things!”
“Hush, you!” Nystul hissed, looking around. “That gaudy bauble is not from the falling shards, for I have been trying to damage the one in my laboratory for days now.”
Galias peered down at the quartz around his neck, but Nystul went on, unheeding. “Engraved in runes with a name, it was. ASTAROTH, it said. And from it emanated a most dark aura. Deep in the facets could I see glimmerings of a planet hanging in the gem itself. And behind it a most dark shadow, most dark…”
“That little TOAD of a merchant!” muttered Galias, still absorbed in his necklace. “Hey! Nystul, do not fall asleep on me now! Tell me more…”
The wizard roused himself once more and peered blearily into his empty mug. “I really shouldn’t be telling thee of this,” he said slowly. “But ’tis a gloomy night, and I fear returning to my lab with that thing still resting ‘pon the table. For another ale, mayhap…”
A sly grin upon his face, Galias called out, “Another ale here, for my friend! And remember, Nystul,” he said, voice lower, every syllable oozing sincerity, “you can trust me with ANYTHING…”
Two days later, Nystul sipped from his cup of hot tea, nursing his weary head. He had stayed long into the night working with the mysterious shard in his laboratory, and now he found himself closing his eyes often to rest them. Broadsheets from the various free presses in the city of Britain covered his worktable, brought there each morning by the servants who cleaned his rooms. He picked up the first one, ready to skim over the latest news, when a glaring headline caught his eye, illustrated by a crude woodcut of a giant arm printed in red ink.
PANIC AMONG POPULACE
Are Daemons from Another Plane Threatening our Existance?
According to reliable sources, the great scavenger hunt that hath been announced by Lord British for a day hence is far more treacherous than has heretofore been revealed. Arcane research hath determined that the crystal shards that are falling from the heavens may indeed be sent by a force beyond our ken. In addition, these crystal shards, which have thus far proven impervious to any harm or investigation, seem to embody a considerable amount of negative ether, which may indicate experimentation with necromancy or other dark arts.
Hysterical rumors have hinted at “lords of shadow” and other exaggerated claims (for, these are only crystalline rocks, however imbued with powers they may be!), and already there is one popular ballad, called “Ride of the Wraiths,” being sung in taverns, penned by one Galias the Bard.
While concerned families are keeping their children in after dark, it behooveth us of the Mage Council to investigate any rumors of magickal issues surrounding these crystals. If you are one with expertise in otherplanar gates, moongates, the crystalline structure of ether, and similar topics, it is requested that you contact Dryus Doost to join our team assessing…
With a deep breath, Nystul stopped reading. His headache had just gotten a lot worse.
The sound of hooves on cobblestones is a rumbling and a roar, as sparks are struck from horseshoes and neighs and snorts echo in the courtyard air. Gelding and stallion, well-bred mare and headstrong mustang, the horses prance and toss manes, eyes rolling when they grow too nervous. Their riders are also nervous; they tug at reins when it is not necessary, and they look at the sky and the clouds gathered there as if checking for rain, despite the clear day. They studiously ignore one another, and check their gear, sometimes with momentary looks of panic, perhaps thinking that something crucial still sits atop their bed’s coverlet, right where they had set it out but forgot to pack it…
Promises of riches have brought them here, and they are reluctant to make friends, lest they find themselves ready to betray or be betrayed tomorrow, for the sake of gold.
“The time is at hand, My Lords.”
Nystul and the two lords of the realm stood in a crypt hidden well beneath Lord Blackthorn’s castle. Mossy brick walls pressed close around them, and a creaking filled the air as heavy stone settled upon stone. The air was damp, and Nystul could not help but cough from time to time as the smoke from the four burning braziers stirred sluggishly in the air, disturbed by some unknown breeze.
“Very well, then,” Lord British said, striding to over to the braziers. “Open the moongate, wizard, so that we may see what you have wrought.”
The hot coals held by the braziers were enough to dimly light the center of the chamber. Upon the large flagstones were carved five magical runes, one at the center and the other four at each of the cardinal directions. Nystul bent to the first one, and traced over it with his bony finger, his long beard dangling to the floor. As his finger moved, he muttered beneath his breath the words required to gather the energy required for the spell. As he finished tracing the rune, it flashed blue for an instant, then faded again. Then he traced it again. This time the glow strengthened, and after the third repetition, it glowed in a pulsating pattern, flickering along the indentations of the carving with tiny flashes of silver lightning.
As Nystul came to the fourth rune, the chamber was lit by chasing bluish light. His skin looked waxy and translucent in the eldritch light. He traced the final rune, and then stopped as his finger hit a boot. Harrumphing, he looked up, and Lord British hastily moved away. As the final rune was traced, Nystul straightened once again, and stepped back. The center rune remained untraced, but as Nystul began to speak the words of power and gesture with his arms, it too began to flicker. With each pass and each repetition of the chant, its glow strengthened, and the varied pulsating patterns of the other runes began to fall into the same pattern, a rhythmic repetition that gathered in force and strength until all five runes glowed together at the same time, flashing the chamber bright and then plunging it into near total darkness.
Nystul’s chanting stopped, and then he uttered a single word, and with a quiet shushing sound, there emerged a black bubbling cloud from the center rune. A rounded shape rose from it, elongated and oval, black and yet glimmering within with pinpoint lights. The oval rose up from the tear in reality, until it hovered a few inches above the ground; then it bobbed once or twice, and stopped, seemingly flat yet perfect from any direction. Occasionally it pulsated, and sparks crackled across its surface silently.
“Most impressive!” Lord Blackthorn said, peering close with professional curiosity. “It openeth into the space between realities, then?”
“Indeed, Lord Blackthorn,” Nystul said, removing his hat and using the floppy brim of it to wipe his forehead. “It is not very stable, and if I fail to concentrate, it may collapse.”
“In that case, let us leave thee to your task. Blackthorn, are the searchers ready?”
Without tearing his eyes away from the moongate, Blackthorn replied, “They are, my Lord. They await only your word to begin the hunt.” His voice was distracted, and Nystul glanced at him sharply, wondering what the dark-clad lord saw within the depths of the gate. But Lord British did not notice, and whirled about, decisively heading for the stairs.
“In that case, let the search begin!” he said loudly, climbing up without seeing who walked behind him. His voice was full of confidence.
Blackthorn lifted his eyes finally from the mesmerizing gate, and his eyes met Nystul’s, looking red-rimmed at him from under the old wizard’s craggy brown and sagging hat brim. They shared a glance for a moment, a glance full of mingled fear and awe at the task being attempted and the foe they faced, and full likewise of lack of trust and suspicion. And then Blackthorn turned, and went up the stairs after his liege.
As the tiny figure with the silver serpent emblem blazoned on his chest finishes his rousing, the majority of the crowd bursts into shouts and cries, eager and hearty, cheering their lord who stands so far above them up on the balcony. They wrestle their horses around towards the gates that rise slowly, and then they charge past the portcullis, ducking their heads. There are the screams of some horses whose sides are cruelly scraped against the rough-hewn walls of Castle Britain. And then they are through, heading along the moat and into the wilderness, seeking out crystalline shards most of them know only by description.
After they are gone, the others come out, grumbling and muttering. They slink furtively along the walls. Many have their daggers out. And some few station themselves in the shadows of the courtyard itself, knowing that most of the elite guardsmen are gone on the hunt. There they sit and wait, ready to ambush those that first return. They sharpen and polish their knives in the meantime, for the wound must be small and the arm quick and there must be no cry, if they are to succeed.
It is not long before individual searchers are returning to Britain. Some are waylaid, and some are not. It is a tired and mud-spattered fellow who first canters into the courtyard, brushing past the waiting ambushers. In his pack burn six crystal shards, and it is a heavy load. Since he gathered them, dark thoughts have circled him like ravens circle
carrion, and he is more than ready to set down his burden. When he looks at the shining ramparts of the castle, they look dark and twisted in his eyes, like thorns of stone glistening with venom. The portcullis is a gaping maw into which he must plunge to be consumed, riding aboard his skeletal nag, his steed made of bones and torn flesh, a horse that snorts black bile from its ragged nostrils. Even his own hand seems clawlike, clutching its sword, bony knuckles cracked, warts seething and bubbling on his flesh. The ambushers in the shadows see his haunted face, and decide to withdraw from the courtyard.
Steps clattered down the spiral stairs leading down to the crypt. Blackthorn’s voice echoed and boomed down the stone walls as he called out, “Lord British! A hunter hath brought to us all six!” He burst into the room, a sweat-stained and dirty leather pack dangling by its strap in his hand. They quickly carried a candelabra over to a corner and set the pack
down on the stone floor. Lord British knelt to open the pack, and carefully lifted each crystal into the light. Soon they were spread across the floor, none touching, the carved names facing up. They were of different sizes, yet within each hung that image of the world.
“Excellent!” Lord British breathed, running his fingers across the soapy smooth surface of the crystals. “Nystul, what can you determine from these?”
The aged wizard was crouched beside one of the larger fragments. Thoughts raced through his head of legends of Mondain and the Stranger who slew him, and the crystal shards that were left. Stories of ruling the world flickered in the back of his mind, as he traced the lettering upon each crystal, reading the runes and remembering long ago forgotten lessons when he was a boy and tales were told in school of the dark wraiths that might have seduced Mondain to evil. In the end, he realized there was little he could say for sure, little that anyone could know of these strange rocks from the sky. What could he determine? “Three names, my Lord. ASTAROTH, NOSFENTOR, and FAULINEI,” he said, finally.
“Dark names indeed,” Blackthorn said neutrally from behind them.
Nystul turned to look up at the pale Lord behind him, wondering what secrets lay hidden behind that composed face. It seemed to him that he saw a hidden fear lurking there. “What do they portend?” Blackthorn went on, ignoring Nystul’s furrowed brow.
“I fear to discover it,” Nystul said slowly, eyes still focused on Blackthorn’s face. What did Lord Blackthorn know of these names? “Let us instead place them into the moongate where they cannot touch our world.” He stood with a creak of aged bone, moving as swiftly as he might, carrying one of the smaller shards cradled in his arms.
Standing next to the moongate, with a half-turn of his body, he slung the shard into the blackness.
As the shard crossed into the hole in reality, the entire gate convulsed madly, and there was a flash of light so bright the bricks of the wall seemed to cringe. Blackthorn cried out, shielding his face with his arm, and his dark robe shrank away from the light.
“What a dreadful flash of light!” he said, blinking rapidly as he re-oriented himself.
“It did glow most fearfully! I am still seeing spots…” Lord British said, still kneeling on the floor, rubbing his eyes. As he groped around on the floor, getting his balance, his hand met warm flesh and limp fingers.
“Look thee to Nystul!” came Blackthorn’s voice.
Lord British squeezed the old mage’s hand, and felt for a pulse at the thin wrist. The wizard’s hand seemed as fragile as a small songbird. “Nystul? Art thou well?” The wizard groaned.
“He stirs!” Blackthorn said, relieved, kneeling at the other side of the mage.
“Oh, my head,” Nystul said, one hand to his temple. “‘Tis difficult to maintain the gate open when those pass through.”
“Wilt thou be able to maintain the gate for what must be done?” Lord British said, letting go of the wizard’s hand as he propped himself up.
Nystul met his gaze, though the hand at his forehead still trembled. “‘Tis not a question of can, is it? Say rather, I must, or else Britannia suffer some dire fate.”
Lords British and Blackthorn helped him up, and they gathered up the crystals from the corner. Then they began to throw them, one by one, into the gate.
From the stairs, the flashes of light illuminated the staircase for the next few minutes, and rats scurried up the stairs away from the crypt.
He crouches in the woods, having noticed the odd depression in the ground here, and the scattered broken branches on the trees. The forest here is eerie still, with few breezes rushing through to rustle the leaves at this sunset hour.
He digs frantically through the dead underbrush. So far they have all been surrounded by dead matter; fallen leaves brown and crackling dry, and plants withered away as if they had burned from within. The last one was near the carcass of a doe deer, and already the worms had begun to feed, crawling over the hide.
His scrabbling fingers skate across a hard surface, and he stops, breathing hard, listening, head cocked like a wild animal. Brown hair once well-cut and coiffed now falls raggedly and dirty over his face, and his mouth gapes open, displaying ill-kept teeth. Then he scrabbles at the leaves and loose dirt again, and finally lifts it to the air, a crystal dull and unpolished, glinting only slightly with the reddish light. As he lifts it up before him, the globe within it hides the sun.
“The sixth!” he says. “The SIXTH!” He stands, still holding it above his head, grinning wildly and dancing his feet from side to side, shuffling them despite the painful blisters from the long search. “I’m rich, it’s the sixth, the sixth!”
Nystul leaned heavily on the brazier. It had gone out hours before, during one of the flashes of light when a crystal was destroyed. “I weaken, m’lords…” he said, staring vacantly. “I… cannot…”
Blackthorn stepped forward to take the wizard’s arm, tracing a rune in the air with his other hand, and whispering words of magic under his breath. A glow played over both men, and then Nystul straightened, visibly stronger, then pushed Blackthorn away, somewhat angered by needing help, and distrustful of the younger mage. “Take my strength, Nystul. We can complete this task,” Blackthorn said, sagging slightly, pleading in his eyes.
“Be strong!” Lord British said, his back to them, not seeing what had transpired. “With each set that we send from Britannia, safer does the realm grow.”
“It is very… hard…” Nystul said slowly, wondering what was behind Blackthorn’s fear and knowledge. Already he could feel the strength Lord Blackthorn had given him seeping from him into the gate, twining and twirling like a magical twisted rope, invisible to all and sucking away his very life. He knew he had little time.
Then a zing sings through the air, accompanied by a muffled thud, and the crystal falls to the ground. The ragged man reaches down to his chest, and brushes at the arrow embedded there, as if it were a spider fallen on him. He brushes at it and brushes, even as he sinks to his knees, and it just bounces back, resilient and springy wood, feathers bobbing cheerfully red and white. Then he falls forward, face down, and his hair covers his face.
From behind a tree steps a woman, her hair matted and windblown, a haunted look in her eyes as well. She has a pronounced limp as she walks forward, a stout yew bow over her shoulder. Her eyes dart from side to side, as if expecting another shadow to step out from behind a tree. She gathers up the crystal and puts it in a pack, then trudges heavily off through the forest, heading the direction of the city of Britain.
In the forest clearing, the sun sets over the startled corpse.
“These flashes of light do grow redder and more ominous,” Lord British said, just having heaved another crystal through the moongate.
Nystul lay stretched out on the flagstones, eyes half-lidded. “Indeed,” Blackthorn said, from his position tending the old mage, kneeling by his side. “And Nystul hath fallen into a stupor. The gate remains open, but his breathing doth grow shallow…”
“I mislike this, Blackthorn. He is a good man, and should we lose him…” Lord British turned, his face troubled. His golden hair was damp with sweat from their exertions, sticking to his forehead.
Blackthorn stood, suddenly angry. “Ha! Now thou dost understand!” he spat, remembering countless arguments over chess about free will, and the worth of a life versus the worth of a world. “One man, between us and whatever evil lies there. How do you judge the worth of one man?”
Lord British turned away, anguish on his face warring with some unknown shame. “How, indeed,” he whispered.
“Another ale!” Galias called out, his voice hoarse. He grabbed his lute by the neck carelessly, so tired that he cared little for what happened to it. It fell heavily onto the table, making a discordant hum as its strings vibrated with the impact. Galias settled next to it, ignoring the grumbles of the drinkers in the tavern who were upset at his cutting his set short.
“Rough night?” pretty Alyssa asked. She was the newest of the tavern wenches here at the Blue Boar, and her dark hair curled around her head constrained by a bonnet.
Galias sighed. “Rough indeed. All these hunters seeking after these crystals…”
Alyssa shuddered. “None too nice a group, I think!”
“Nay, these are the nobles of the realm, the greatest of heroes!” Galias said sarcastically.
“Noble? Pfui.” Alyssa twitched her skirt out of the way of a grasping drunk and cleverly happened to spill some ale on the drunk’s face, then nudged him with her foot to roll him under the table. “I’ve never seen a more ragged or desperate group in my life.”
Galias looked around him, and soberly said, “Yet I spoke truth, Alyssa.” The men around him had the look of the hunted, not the hunters. Their faces were drawn and exhausted. Many of them clutched pouches and packs to their chests, and they checked it compulsively, peering inside for the crystal he knew must be within. “These are in fact the flower of Britannia–the greatest heroes, the noblest of adventurers. Now they have the look of criminals and killers, as if they were hag-ridden or possessed. I think these crystals are indeed something dark and powerful.”
Alyssa giggled. “Your song was mere fiction, minstrel! Do not ascribe to thy art more than it doth possess!”
“Nay, Alyssa, I am serious. When he was drunk, Nystul did tell me a story he had heard as a child, about evil lords of shadow with the names that are inscribed on these crystals… ow!”
Alyssa had delivered a sharp kick to his ankle. “I say you are just fantasizing, Galias. The crystals are harmless. You hear? Harmless! Do you want this ale or not?” She sloshed a mug full and set it down in front of him with a thud,then flounced away.
Galias stared into the ale, and wondered if he would ever see his friend Nystul again, for the clouds were heavy that night and the lightning flickered with strobing colors over Lord Blackthorn’s keep.
He fingered his lute idly, then grimaced and took it into his lap to tune it, and soon was singing again for the patrons, wistful ballads of summer love and flower necklaces.
Alyssa watched him from the bar, and from time to time ducked into the pantry, where she crouched and shifted jars on a shelf. There, glinting despite the lack of light, lay a crystal shard, and she ran her fingers over it, tracing the name engraved in runes upon it, eyes lost in its transparent depths.
As the night wore on, she visited it more often. As the night wore on, more fights broke out. A lute was broken. A man was killed. As the night wore on, she thought maybe she heard the crystal whispering to her as she lay abed.
“The gate! It contracts!” Nystul called out. His robe was torn and his cloak lay discarded, puddled inky black on the floor. Sweat ran down his face.
“Nystul!” cried Lord British, eyes tearing from the billowing smoke that filled the air of the small chamber. He coughed, then pulled a flask from his hip and swallowed a welcome gulp of cool water. Then his foot hit flesh, and he kneeled.
“From whence this smoke?” Blackthorn said, cursing.
“It stinks of the Abyss, or worse,” Lord British said, trying to tip water into Nystul’s mouth. The old man was waxy pale, and his eyes sagged and rolled alarmingly.
“Nystul! Do not give up now!” Blackthorn said, jumping back from the gate as it once again shivered and pulsed as if it were about to explode.
“I… shall… not… surrender…” Nystul said, between gritted teeth and huge draggy breaths.
“Here, sip this water…” It trickled along the old wizard’s cracked lips as Blackthorn threw another crystal into the gate and the room flashed like lightning in fog.
Nystul coughed and spluttered, water spewing down his beard, then propped himself up, concentrating on the gate. Slowly the mad motions calmed. Then the mage collapsed back onto the flagstones, his head hitting hard.
“The gate is stabilizing…” Blackthorn said. “The opening is smaller, but large enough.”
“Do you hear that, Nystul?” Lord British breathed urgently into the wizard’s ear. “One more set… just one more!”
He tossed and turned as he slept.
In his dreams, it seemed that dark hands reached out for him and above them, faces sinewy and stark were etched in grey gleams over utter blackness. Their pearly teeth shone–some pointed, some flat–and behind the teeth tongues writhed in movements that bore no relationship to the words they spoke.
“Thou hast no need of him now,” spake one, hooded and savage. “He works against all you hold dear.”
“You work to save everyone,” cajoled another, gaunt and skeletal. “Yours is the nobler task.”
“He seeketh to destroy you,” hissed the last, dour and dank. “Act first!”
“No!” he cried out, and tore a torch through their gossamer forms, gesticulating wildly in the darkness around him. “Away, I say! Away!”
The tatters of the shadowlords reformed around him, and circled just beyond the light of his torch. They whirled and they smelled of attar of roses. They spun and they flapped like scarecrow clothing.
“You can hate him. Hate him for what he has done.”
“You can hate him. Hate him for being more than you.”
“You can hate him. Hate him for where he is leading your world.”
“No!” he cried, and sat bolt upright in bed, covers pushed aside by the thrashing of his legs. Wearier than when he had lay down, he sat on the edge of the bed, and lit a candle. His carefully trimmed goatee and close-shaven head flickered hawkishly at first as the candle guttered, then it caught and began to glow firmly and resolutely.
Lord Blackthorn draw a hand over his face, shuddering from the dream.
“Astaroth, Nosfentor, Faulinei,” he whispered.
The room stormed with smoke and light and crashing sounds as the gate cycled madly, booming every time it contracted. It was hot like a cave that channeled molten rock, and the bricks were weeping and slick.
“With these, ’tis done,” Lord British said. He held in his hands the last few crystals, brought by a woman, a leather-clad archer who limped and almost did not let them go until enticed with gold.
“Quickly, put them through the moongate!” Blackthorn said, not even looking up from where he kneeled over an unconscious body. “I fear for Nystul’s life.”
“Hath he regained consciousness?” Lord British asked, moving quickly to the gate and tossing in the shards, shielding his eyes from the flashes.
Blackthorn lifted Nystul’s hand and dropped it. Rather than falling to the ground, it stayed where Blackthorn had lifted it, like a mannequin’s inert arm. “No,” he said uneasily.
Lord British sighed, tossing the crystals through the gate as quickly as he could. With each one, the gate grew redder and the edges of it seemed to bleed into the air. No longer did it hold its perfect oval shape, and became more a ragged hole.
“That is the last! The gate hath held!” Lord British called triumphantly, tossing the last shard through.
Blackthorn looked over. “Yet it doth glow an angry color. What foul magic is this?”
Lord British stared into the gate, and within it saw a hint of movement. Was it red? Large despite the distance, like a figure striding?
“Can you rouse him?” he said nervously. “We must close the gate! Something is moving beyond the portal!”
Blackthorn slapped Nystul across the face. His nails drew blood. It had the desired effect, as the old wizard muttered sleepily, “Whaa? Is it morning?”
“Nystul, quickly!” Blackthorn said, panic in his voice. “Close the gate!” “So… tired…”
Before Lord British the figure stopped, half-hidden still within the gate, one monstrous hand reaching out towards Britannia’s ruler. “It has a most fearful visage, Blackthorn! Made of darkness…” he said, breathing fast, rooted to the spot, unable to move. His hand reached down to where he had no sword buckled, and then he looked around in panic.
“Nystul, close it, quickly!” Blackthorn hissed, shaking the wizard by the shoulder.
A huge arm reached out fom the gate, fingers outstretched, pushing past the boundary. It came coated with a viscous oily substance bled from the gate itself, stretching against it as if pushing past a permeable layer. “Hurry,” Lord British said, unable to move away as one finger stretched further, closer to his chest, “it doth reach out, hurr–!”
The finger touched Britannia’s lord where the mouth of the silver serpent blazoned on his tabard kissed his heart. Lord British was thrown across the room as if a mighty blow had been struck against him.
“My Lord!” Blackthorn shouted in horror, running to him. He knelt beside his fallen liege, and lay his head across the fallen man’s chest. “He breathes still,” he called out to Nystul, who stirred slightly. “And the gate swirls madly with darkness. Nystul!”
The old wizard raised his head slowly as if it were under a great weight. “I… am… closing it. I–”
With a sound like a roll of thunder, the gate closed. It closed quickly, and around it the very air distorted as reality resumed its normal form. The smoke in the room was sucked into it as it closed, and the eerie light seemed to go with it. The heat was sucked from the coals of the braziers, and the flashing blue lightning that traced the runes on the floor jumped like sparks and swirled into the gate until the whole thing was a pinprick of fire in the air, and then it winked out. With its vanishing, Lord British opened his eyes.
“Is… is it gone?” he said, looking into Blackthorn’s weary face.
“Yes, my Lord.” Blackthorn lay a hand across Lord British’s forehead, wincing as he saw where it bled, where it had struck the stones. “Rest, if you may, the gate is closed.”
“It had the visage of a wraith, Blackthorn, and it reached for me, with a touch as cold as night…” Britannia’s ruler said, turning his face away and grimacing.
“Close your eyes, my liege. All is well now.” The kindness in Blackthorn’s voice was belied by the terrible look on his face.
The sound of heavy breathing filled the room.
“And… Nystul?” British asked.
“He closed the gate with the last of his strength. He lies yonder.”
Blackthorn rose, and walked to the wizard, and knelt beside him, and took his hand. He put a hand before the wizard’s nose, listened for his breathing.
“I cannot rouse him, my Lord. And his skin is cold. Yet he breathes, shallowly. His eyes are open, staring into nothing I can see…”
Lord British dragged himself up to a sitting position, leaning wearily against the wall. He tore a strip from his sleeve and held it to the cut on his forehead. When he pulled it away, it came away stained red.
“Is this what victories are made of, Blackthorn? Is it?”
Blackthorn stood. “Some, perhaps,” he said, sounding very tired.
“Help me to stand, then.” Lord British said, gathering his strength. “If this is a victory, we must walk away from the field.” Blackthorn helped him up, and together they limped to the stairs. “We shall send someone to gather up Nystul.” Lord British said.
“Very well, my liege.”
They paused at the foot of the stairs. “Was this all, then?” Lord British said, casting one glance backwards into the crypt. Charred runes lay inert on the floor, and coals were scattered everywhere from overtuned braziers. Nystul’s dreaming body lay rigid and doll-like on the flagstones, looking fragile.
“I doubt we have seen the last of this,” Blackthorn said, more to himself.
INDEED! came a voice echoing in the crypt. It rolled, deep and heavy, and it held a hint of mirth.
“What…” Lord British started to say, looking around, seeing no one.
THANKS TO THY OPENING THY GATE, I NOW HAVE COMPLETE ACCESS TO THIS PLANE OF EXISTENCE! the voice continued. THE STRENGTH I TOOK FROM YOUR PUNY WIZARD WAS MORE THAN ENOUGH!
“Who are you, a daemon from beyond?” Blackthorn called out, releasing Lord British to sag against one wall, his fingers already fumbling to shape runes in the air.
DAEMON? the voice laughed. YOUR PALTRY IMAGINATIONS CANNOT CONCEIVE OF SUCH AS I. THOU SHALT DISCOVER ALL THAT I AM IN DUE TIME…
“We shall never surrender to evil, daemon!” Lord British said, barely able to hold up his head. Beside him, Blackthorn was chanting, frantically shaping magic to banish the unknown voice.
WE SHALL SEE IF YOUR BOAST COMES TRUE, LORD BRITISH. FOR DESPITE THE SHARDS YOU HAVE GATHERED, I HAVE AMPLE LEFT IN YOUR WORLD TO DO MY WORK. YOU SHALL KNOW THE RAVAGES OF SHADOWLORDS SOON ENOUGH. I SHALL BIDE MY TIME, AND PLAN, AND WAIT UNTIL I CAN RELEASE DOOM AND DESTRUCTION UPON YOU ALL, WHEN YOU LEAST SUSPECT IT!
Blackthorn completed his spell, and cast it into the crypt, which flared with bright white light. “Begone, foul fiend!” he yelled.
Nothing remained but the echo of monstrous laughter.
They stood a moment on the step, but saw nothing, heard nothing.
“The air is clearer… he is gone,” Lord British said, finally.
“Indeed. And now what?” Blackthorn said, lowering his guard, hands falling to his sides.
“And now what… we go on. Do we have any choice?” Lord British said, reaching out to his friend, asking for support.
“None at all, my lord,” Blackthorn said with a smile. He reached out and took Lord British’s hand firmly, and helped him stand straight again, on his own two feet.
“So be it,” Lord British said, limping up another stair. “We go on.”
Chuckles the jester skips down the stairs with a pair of servants carrying a litter. In the crypt, a disturbing sight greets him: a charred and molten room, stained with reddish smear and stinking of sulfur. Quickly he directs them to place the withered old man on the floor on the litter.
“Quickly, carry him up!” he directs, aghast at the destruction and the powers that must have been wielded in this crypt.
As the servants hurry up the stairs, careful not to jostle their precious burden, Chuckles pulls his jester hat off his head, and runs a hand through his hair. The room frightens him deep in his bones in a way that he does not understand. It is like the world is ending, he thinks. Like the way of things has been upset, and now we face a new and unforgiving world. Casting one last glance around the room, his eye is caught by a tiny flash of light. Curious, he kneels to investigate it.
It is a tiny crystal, and within it he can see just the glimmer of something embedded inside. It shines.
“What a horrible thing,” he mutters. “I am glad that these are all destroyed! Enough lives lost this night… Galias… maybe Nystul…”
He begins to toss it away, then stops, and tucks it in his shirt instead, where it nestles next to his heart.
“A souvenir, in their memory,” he says to himself, justifying. Then he turns, and with a falsely cheerful whistle, starts up the steps.
Last modified: April 9, 2011