III

Epilogue: Nevermore
In Which Aramis Begins and Ends

Posted by Darth Krzysztof

24 March, 103 CY

Aramis stared at his folded hands while he kept watch, chanting dirges in a low voice to regain his exhausted spells. Most of his healing magic had gone to Azal, so the tiefling rogue slept more soundly than Bhavik Devanta did. The rest of the warden’s mending would have to wait until dawn, when Aramis’s prayers were answered.

The three adventurers had fled the Black Lake, back up to the foundry’s abandoned library. The room reeked of moldy paper, but its single entrance made it the most defensible position they could reach. Though the dragon was likely licking her own wounds, many other threats still dwelled in the halls of Khundrukar…

Distracted once more by the shame of their retreat, Aramis halted his prayer. We threw everything we had at her, he thought again, and it still wasn’t enough. How can we slay the dragon?

How can we save Talgen?

A shadow crossed his face as a small black form fluttered past the everburning torch that illuminated the room. The intruder flapped to the top of a bookshelf, where it perched upon the cracked remnant of a white marble bust and turned to regard the cleric with one beady black eye, then the other.

“A raven,” Aramis found himself saying aloud. He stole a guilty glimpse at his companions, but neither stirred at the sound of his voice. A sign! It must be a sign… no bird could have possibly found its way down here – not unless it was sent by the hand of fate herself.

“Greetings, Shepherd,” the raven croaked, dismissing Aramis’s last vestige of doubt.

“Hail, raven,” Aramis replied. He didn’t care to be called Shepherd anymore – not after his last disastrous visit to his home in Oakhurst – but he wasn’t about to correct a divine herald on the matter. His exhaustion dragged down every syllable he spoke: “Has my Queen sent you to talk me out of what I must do?”

The bird tilted its head to a different angle. “What makes you say that?”

“I know that, when I go to face the dragon again, I’ll die. We will all die. And my Queen knows that I must face the dragon again. I cannot abandon the only hope my friend has.” Unless Aramis recovered the golden apple that the duergar stole for the dragon below, Talgen Hucrele would forever remain a monster, twisted by the Gulthias Tree into its supplicant…

“Yes. Our Queen knows.” The raven shifted from one foot to another. “Yet she also knows that there is another way.”

“What?” Aramis got to his knees. “Tell me. Please.”

The bird paused to fluff its feathers out, sounding like an opening parasol. “Nightscale may be a dragon, but even a dragon is a living thing. And every living thing owes a death to the Queen. Fate would have her, and not you, in this hour.”

So that’s the dragon’s name. A dozen questions poured into his mind, but he only dared ask one: “But how?”

“Nightscale has a weakness. She has many weaknesses, Shepherd, but this one may be of use to you.”

“But this wisdom comes at a cost.”

“Of course.” The raven flitted down from the bust to land on the top of Aramis’s backpack, within the cleric’s reach. “It is not our Queen’s way to make her designs plain, even to her servants. But these are trying times.”

“I will pay whatever price she asks.” As she well knows.

“She wants your eye. And she wants your companions.”

A river of ice flowed through Aramis’s veins. “They’ll die? Down here?” Losing an eye to save his friend was nothing. Losing Bhavik and Azal was unthinkable.

“That is not for me to say. But, should they live, you will be called to a place where the tiefling and the shifter will not follow.”

“Will I ever see them again?”

“Not for me to say. Fate wills what it will. But, were I you, I wouldn’t pin my hope upon it.”

The cleric considered this. “I have become the Raven Queen’s avenger,” he said, closing his eyes. “I am Death’s reaper sworn, bringing those who would challenge the natural order of life, death, and rebirth into her embrace, by her grace and my will.” But I’m nothing in battle without my friends. And I’m sure there will be many battles beyond this one… if my Queen wants me to survive this day, what plans could she possibly have for me?

The raven squawked, once, the normal sound seeming abnormal. Bhavik moaned, once, then turned over in his sleep. “The choice is yours, Shepherd,” the bird croaked.

Guilt panged Aramis’s heart as his thoughts turned to Sharwyn, the girl who’d fallen in love with him when he was only a shepherd. She’d confessed her love only nine days ago, after keeping it a secret for six years or more. She still loved him, though he could scarcely remember being that shepherd boy, could see no resemblance when he looked in the mirror. How much more could he change before it cost him this newfound love? Fate was cruel enough to tear them apart so quickly after bringing them together; fleeting love had brought him into the Queen’s service in the first place…

You vowed to save her brother, Aramis reminded himself. Sharwyn would give an eye, at least, to save Talgen. So would their mother! This is the only way. You must pay this price, but don’t count the cost…

“Fate wills what it will,” Aramis said. “I accept.”

“Come then,” the raven said, fluttering up to land on his shoulder. “Let us begin.”

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Session 27: The Black Lake

23 March (Continued)

Defeating the wraiths had required most of the adventurers’ strength, but they felt strong enough to press forward a little farther. After all, though it felt like they’d already expended a full day’s worth of effort, they’d only awoken perhaps an hour before. Bhavik led the others in a room by room search of the doors lining the eastern hallway. Most of them were empty except for orc graffiti, broken furniture, and ancient corpses littering the floor.

The first chamber to the south, however, had surprisingly not been looted. It must once have been the personal quarters of an important dwarf, decorated with tapestries and furnished comfortably, although age had taken its toll on the room’s contents. A beautiful rug easily twenty feet across covered the floor in the center of the room, and a simple bed and writing desk stood in the southwest corner of the chamber. Searching the room, the heroes discovered a small wooden chest beneath the bed containing jewelry and gems – the deceased owner’s personal wealth perhaps. The name Arundil was carved into the chest, though it meant nothing to any of the three.

The eastern hallway terminated in a second open chamber containing another dark pool in a low stone basin toward the center. The room was likewise littered with the remains of old warriors – no less than seven dwarven corpses lay where they’d fallen a hundred years before, surrounded by at least a dozen orc bodies. Someone had apparently gone to the trouble of stripping the dead of their arms and armor, leaving only a handful of broken weapons and shattered shields.

As they drew farther into the chamber a door creaked open to the south, and they could see the flickering of angry flames as a burning skeleton emerged, a fireball floating above its hands. From all around, they heard the telltale clicking of bones on stone. Looking back down the hall, they could see perhaps a dozen skeletons emerging from the doors lining the corridor, even those that had appeared empty!

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Session 26: The Haunted Foundry

22 March (Continued)

Bhavik pushed the door open to reveal a chamber that must once have been a shrine to the dwarven gods. The walls were carved with their dour images, and a low stone altar stood at the western end of the room. Stone benches once lined the wide hall in even rows on the floor, but the pews have been smashed and thrown askew – the icons of the gods defaced. Atop the altar, arms folded over his chest, lay the corpse of an old dwarven warrior in half-plate armor. Bones lay scattered around the altar’s base, and the leathery remains of an orc in half-plate crouched before it.

The warden led his companions into the shrine cautiously, alert for traps and threats. When Aramis entered the chamber, he frowned at the sight. “Too many bodies down here that need to be laid to proper rest. Mind that they aren’t the restless dead.” Bhavik shifted his attention to the corpses as he crossed the room to the altar, and Azal followed behind the two men.

Even were they not so alert, they would have sensed the evil presence in the shrine – a cold whisper of death and dark magic. They watched, horrified but unsurprised as the bones before the altar stirred and rose up to form two towering skeletons gripping massive femurs in their bony grasps. The dead orc warrior turned its head to look at the heroes and grin wickedly, green fire burning in its hate-filled eyes.

“It’s a trap!” Bhavik declared rhetorically.

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Session 25: The Great Hall

22 March (Continued)

The three made their way back up to the Glitterhame and crossed the large chamber to the iron door set into the east wall. After deciding it was not in fact trapped, Bhavik put the key they’d found in the dwarven gaol into the door and turned it. The lock clicked, and he easily pushed the door open. Beyond it, the path turned to the north and a stairway set with evenly carved stone steps led up and beyond their light.

The stairs terminated at an octagonal chamber roughly thirty feet across. The floor was inlaid with cracked, dusty blue tiles, and the walls were dressed with polished marble. Large doors of ironbound oak exited to the northwest and northeast and three cast bronze statues standing almost ten feet in height stood stoically on the west, north and east walls. Each represented a dwarven warrior armed for battle – the east and west carried axe and shield, and the canter statue was armed with two axes. The ceiling rose in a dome almost thirty feet above the floor. Somewhere in the distance, they could hear the faint ringing of hammer on anvil.

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Session 24: The Sinkhole

22 March, 103 CY

The heroes awoke in their rooms at The Griffon’s Nest early in the morning, having returned to Blasingdell after their encounter with the lizardfolk. Azal had thought to return to the Great Ulfe’s chamber to procure evidence that the ogres forces were dead or scattered. Presenting this evidence to Sir Miles Berrick, she collected the reward for ending the threat of orcish raiders. She and Bhavik were enjoying the fruits of their reward by indulging in a big breakfast while Aramis tended to his injuries, frowning at the scars he was likely to have. He joined the others later and quietly munched on the leftover bacon as the warden retold the tale of their conflict with the denizens of the Stone Tooth to a handful of interested locals.

When they’d finished their meal, the cleric begged off for an hour or so to go check in with Iva about her research. His sister-in-law smiled when she saw him and told him that she’d made progress. She and Ashrem had tracked down the family from the rumor and traveled to the farm to speak with the mother and meet her afflicted child. Iva’s smile faded some when she told him that the boy’s symptoms were very like Henri’s. Still, even as her eyes glistened at memories of her son, he could see that her hope had been rekindled. If there were others, perhaps they could discover a cause and from there a cure. She said she and the scholar would be staying in Blasingdell perhaps another day or so and then taking their search to Brindinford.

Rejoining the others, Aramis found them discussing what to do with the adamantine greataxe they’d found with the smith’s mark of Durgeddin the Black. They decided to postpone the decision, and Bhavik lashed the heavy weapon to his pack, hefting the bulk across to his back as the three set off for the Stone Tooth once more. They still hadn’t seen any evidence of the gray dwarves that had supposedly stolen the magical apple that remained their one hope of restoring Talgen Hucrele to his former self. Their search continued.

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Session 23: Scalykind
The Lizardfolk's Revenge

21 March (Continued)

The ceiling must have been thirty feet overhead, and the far end of the cave was lost in darkness. A musty scent permeated the area – someone or something lived there. The remnants of butchered game animals hung from crude wooden stakes along the cavern walls, and the adventurers spotted a pair of orc corpses treated in the same fashion. In the shadows to the southwest, they saw a mud wattle that seemed to be plugging a hole in the wall – some sort of crude, heavy door. Once they’d recovered from their latest encounter, they approached the door-plug and listened for threats.

The sounds of dripping water and the occasional splash were the only noises to come from beyond the makeshift portal. Expecting trouble, Bhavik motioned to the others before grabbing hold of the door and attempting to pull it open. He was surprised when the heavy mud door did not budge. Aramis stepped up and between the two of them, they were able to clear the way.

The passage opened into a long, low cavern that quickly broke up into narrow, twisting passages leading off into darkness. The ceiling was only about five feet in height, so low that they all had to stoop to proceed. A number of rock columns met the stone overhead, and the air was thick with lizardfolk stench. The floor of the cavern was littered with refuse from the creatures’ meals and gnawed bones of dubious origin. Pools of murky water had collected in the low caves, making the way forward difficult and soggy. Something splashed and hissed in the darkness, and they heard the soft padding of scaly feet on rock from another direction.

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Session 22: Exploring the Glitterhame
"Here, leezard leezard leezard."

21 March (Continued)

Bhavik led the party through the eastern passage, peering inside the chamber beyond. Several passages branched away from the large, high-ceilinged cavern. To the north, a ten-foot wide, square-mouthed tunnel showed signs that someone or something had been at work in the caves. A strong gate of rough-hew timber blocked a small passage to the northeast, and three other passageways wound off towards the south. A heavy, animal smell lingered in the air. The warden noticed a pair of figures crouched in the shadows along the chamber walls, and alerted the others to the threat.

Aramis illuminated the room with a sunrod then struck the green-scaled lizardfolk lurking along the south wall with a brilliant lance of faith. Bhavik moved up to the target of Aramis’s assault and tricked the creature into giving up its guard, striking it in the head with a devastating attack of his own. Azal moved to engage the other lurking lizardfolk, just missing it with a toss of her enchanted dagger. The startled creatures attempted an ineffectual counterattack before the tiefling’s target rushed over and shoved the wooden gate open and cried out in Draconic. A bulky, black-scaled lizardfolk lumbered out the gate and slammed into Azal with a greatclub so large that might once have been the trunk of a tree. She staggered back a couple of steps from the impact of the bruiser’s blow.

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Session 21: The Spurned Warlord
Stirges, Story, Stirges

21 March (Continued)

Crossing the bridge, the heroes returned through the narrow tunnel to the chamber of the one-eyed orc shaman. The bodies had been removed from the chamber, as evidenced by the bloodstained drag marks on the stone floor. Noting this, Bhavik said, “We should be cautious.” The key still jutted from the door to the north, and once they were all ready, the warden turned it and pushed open the stone portal.

The ceiling soared thirty feet high in the center of the impressive chamber beyond, and the walls were carved in images of dwarves at their forges. Another stone door on stood on the far north wall, opposite the one they’d just entered. Several old skeletons lay scattered near the northern door, and a gate of wrought iron stands in the western wall. They could see the straw of the mattresses and other detritus piled up against the opposite side of the iron gate.

In the center of the floor, a natural rift descended sharply, and dozens of stone steps led down into darkness. From far below they could hear the distant sound of running water and a curious buzzing sound.

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Session 20: Near Death
Protect the Cleric

20 March (Continued)

The heroes returned to the orc commons, where haphazard stacks of crates, barrels, sacks, and bundles littered a long, narrow cavern. The moved cautiously south toward the old well filled of murky water. Finding the space unoccupied, they began to poke around the orcs’ loot. Bhavik found a small locked strongbox wedged between a couple of boxes containing a vial of holy water and some gold coins. Aramis discovered that the crates stacked in the northeast corner seemed to be blocking a passage. Nodding to Aramis, Bhavik said, “We should head to the passage beyond those boxes, see what the orcs are hiding.”

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Session 19: Akuti's Death

20 March (Continued)

After they’d caught their breath and Aramis had healed their injuries with prayers to the Raven Queen, the heroes crossed the bridge once more and approached the wooden doors. Bhavik removed the makeshift barricade they’d hastily erected and they cautiously opened the doors to reveal the tunnel beyond. It opened into a natural cavern with carefully smoothed walls and floor. Wet stone gleamed, and at least four exits were visible, leading off into darkness. Red coals glowed in the gloom of the far right-hand passageway, and crude wooden bars blocked the closer right-hand passageway. The room was littered with orcish sleeping furs, loot, and rubbish.

Bhavik moved to the wooden bars and peered through. A row of rough-hewn sapling trunks formed a crude but serviceable cage across the mouth of a small cave. A door locked with an iron padlock secured the room. Inside, he saw two figures lying on rough pallets. “There seems to be someone over here,” he observed.

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