Masters and Illusions
There was a loud crack. Lyandra had kicked Olaf, hard. He tumbled and hit his head on the table, for a moment he lay there doubled over.. He looked round till his eyes fell on Manny and he began to tremble. He saw the gnome and the blood on his hammer. He's afraid to put two and two together.
Arianna, without saying a word swept past the party, stopping at the broken Gnome. His face, coated in a paste of blood and dust was empty of life and for a brief second the others thought he was gone. Arianna was close enough to hear the gargled labour of the gnomes breathing. Kneeling by his side,she removed her gauntlets and began chanting an incantation as she moved her glowing hands across his body.
The bleeding visibly slowed to a halt and the Gnome's breathing began to stabilize. Some minutes passed without Arianna pausing and eventually Manny came to. What little of his flesh wasn't covered in blood, dirt and torn pages of books was a ghostly pale. He was alive but wouldn't be operating at full strength for quite some time. The party stared at the dwarf for a moment and though clearly in agony, for a second a mischievous grin flickered across his face and with the slightest of nods, he forgave Olaf, for his Dwarven buddy's mind had not been his own.
Lyandra looked at the dragon creature. She knew the creature was a familiar, which mean it's master had to be close. She had enough Arcane knowledge to understand the bond of familiar and master. Hell, she had a familiar of her in own in the shape of Biscuit. Cautiously, she instructs the others to look around for something that may lead to the master.
Meanwhile, above ground Aramil has become concerned by the lack of news from the others. He telepathically searched for the others. His thoughts took him down, deep through the roots rock and dirt of the earth he strained to find anything but when he was on the cusp of giving up he found Lyandra and asked her “what's taking so long?” “Olaf was possessed, dark magics at work.” She replied. Aramil looked at Celdor (who had taken to wrapping daisy chains around his belts too now) and explains what he heard. With a flash the two elves dash towards the tree in the door.
In no time they'd made their way down the stairs and Aramil glided past the guard with an air of entitled dignity so strong there was no attempt to stop him. At the sight of Celdor however, the guards visibly stiffen and lock spears in a cross. “Your sort ain't allowed in here, bugger off!” but Celdor didn't budge, he watched as Aramil's silhouette disappeared around the corner. “Listen you tiny fools, my friends are inside, we're on a quest and I don't have time for your small minds.” Obviously, this helped matters none. Celdor's fingers twitched as he toyed with idea of stabbing them both but instead began to plead with the gnomes, trying to explain he was here to help and meant no harm. He even offered a little gold but no end. They were not going to let him in.
The ranger turned on his heel and made to leave but he quickly shrouded himself in shadow and summoned a cluster of dazzling lights. His hand twisted in the air and the lights formed the shape of a person and began to walk away from the gnomes. Gnomes however are not as daft as goblins and only one of them moved forward and only so far...
Celdor leapt into the air and wedged himself between the walls, trying to shimmy over their heads. “He turned into a spider monster!! Quick, sound the alarm!” Celdor dropped to the floor and withdrew his bow. “Bollocks” he muttered to himself.
Before more guards showed up and before Celdor released an arrow, Aramil came striding round the corner looking furious. Without hesitation he walked right up to the guards and demanded they let Celdor through. “We can't let this monster through! He'll eat everyone!” “I'll eat you and hang your body from the roof if you're not careful!” Snarled Celdor through gritted teeth. At this Aramil turned and looked the ranger dead in the eye “Keep your mouth shut, I'll deal with you later!”but Aramil, they starte-” but Aramil cut him off “Enough. Young masters, I'm terribly sorry for my companions vulgar behaviour but you must understand he has a good heart and his bow has helped my party greatly, if you'll entrust him to me, I'll ensure he's on his finest behaviour.” The guards, visibly perplexed, eventually let them pass. They watch as the two turn the corner. If anything happens, on Aramil's head be it.
Aramil led Celdor to the room with the others and as they opened the door they saw Arianna was finishing with Manny, who was looking much better at this point but still not to full health. “That's about as much as I can do here.” she said as the gnome got up and began to wander around the room. Lyandra discreetly catches Celdor and Aramil up.
Aramil, being an expert in magics quickly sensed powerful ones at work. He stood in the centre of the room and began to look around. Excited by the many interesting books, he had to take a minute to compose himself and quietly he began to mutter under his breath. Slowly vapours in the air appeared around a shelf on the books case. As he looked around the room he could see a ringlet of the same smoky substance around the Dragon's head. “Hmm, a Warlock.”
Aramil became silent once again as he lapped the room, searching for the source of the magic. Rubbing his chin with his thumb and fore finger, he paces. Lyandra, also focused her mind on finding the source of the magic. She mimicked Aramil, pacing close behind him. Celdor made an attempt to distract Warlock's attention. He made a scene of searching the room, noisily rummaging through books and shelves.
Manny, feeling much better, watched as the others are tried to wrap their minds around the strange goings on in the room. He slowly picked himself up and clamoured onto the table. The dragon turned to watch Celdor as he dropped a book and at that exact moment, Manny, with the swiftest of ease swiped a book of the table and by the time the dragon turned back to watch him it was stowed deep within his robes but his eyes were drawn to a piece of paper previously covered by the book. He stole that too.
Aramil stopped pacing for a moment and Lyandra, whose eyes were fixated on the books shelves, kept pacing and walked straight into him. With a bump they both clattered into a shelve. A long cylindrical object rolls onto the floor and taps at Lyandra. Picking it up she fingers the rough leather casing and releases the clasps. An old and dusty scroll slides softly into her palm. As she rolls it over in her hand she noticed a wax seal. 'Mind Read' it said in scarlet and crusted writing.
As Celdor is pulling books from the shelves and tossing them to the ground, Arianna walks up behind and catches one with ease. Celdor turns and looks at her. “Celdor, do you not recognise this writing?” He looks quizzically at her and shakes his head. “It's Sylvan. The same language on your bow.” Trying to looks smart, he nods, “Oh, I thought as much.” Arianna gives him a knowing smile and plants herself on the ground and begins to read the book. 'The Smiling one' it says in bold writing down the spine of the book. She flicks through the pages reading passages here and there. “The Coming of the Midnight Darkness? Huh. Guys, this is so creepy. It tells of a powerful entity that wanders the forest drawing power from it's creatures and energies.” This sends a visible shiver down Celdor's spine. As a guardian of the forest, this 'Smiling one' is not something he wants wandering freely.
Lyandra feeling like they're getting nowhere, walked out the room and headed towards the communal area. She spotted Ol' Ma Hoggle immediately and cut through the crowd heading straight to Hoggle. “Ma Hoggle. Look, I know what ever is going on is bad and you don't want it to happen any more. Point me in the direction of the origin and my friends and I will do everything we can to rid you of it. We just want to find the potter and get out of your hair.” She stared hard into Hoggle's eyes, somehow still pleading, silently. Hoggle relented, she looked over her should and whispered “Come with me.” Then with a rapid shift in demeanour she grabs Lyandra. “Dragonborn, you look strong, grab that jar and help me gather mushrooms for supper.” and off they walked.
Aramil moved behind the table and sat in the chair. For a moment he sat silently, just staring at the dragon like creature. The beast, with it's tail coiled around it's body just stared back. An outsider might have thought they were communicating telepathically for the look on each face. The rest of the room began to stare and them too. “Dragon, where's your master?” Aramil broke the silence. The dragon lifted it's head to meet Aramil's gaze. “Far from your prying eyes. Miles away in fact.”
Olaf and the others gazed at the dragon, mesmerised by the beasts ability to speak. “Then to whom am I speaking now?” asked Aramil unphased and composed as ever. I am Thane Igglebrim and you are trespassing on my property.” Most wouldn't have noticed but Celdor saw the tiniest hint of a smile on Aramil's face, he was getting somewhere.
Outside, the golden sun was turning a deep orange as it cracked through the thickly packed trees. Ma Hoggle lead Lyandra through the woods but abruptly stopped when she was sure they hadn't been followed. “ Child, we haven't always been like this. HE wasn't always like this. Ghorne Igglebrim was such a sweet child but he was weak and meagre. Heck, no one expected him to reach adolescence never mind adulthood. He was a frail lad, always in pain, always tired. His brother was strong and a born leader. Throrne was eager to be thane from a young age. Everyone knew he would be thane and he rose to power quickly and was welcomed with open arms. His brother Ghorne watched from afar. We were all so surprised when Ghorne made it to adulthood and even more so when he was getting healthier, stronger. All the while Throrne was growing weak. He was taken by a sickness and soon after passed. That's when Ghorne stepped up, he was charismatic and strong not unlike Throrne was in his best days.”
“We were prosperous, we wanted for nothing.” She continued. “We always had food and supplies but it was never enough for Ghorne. He was constantly pouring over books about magic, ancient magic, dark magic. He began to covet those magics more than anything else.” It was clear this painful for Ma Hoggle to recount but she pushed on. “He would send our gatherers to far lands in search of more knowledge, he was obsessed. Then, one day a man came from Black Castle. He brokered some kind of deal with the Thane and soon people began to disappear. The Thane got stronger. It didn't seem bad thing at first, some were happy to go to the castle but none returned. We thought they were perhaps happy there until families came searching for their lost ones. The Thane's library was growing alongside his strength, we were afraid of him.”
She stopped here but Lyandra placed a hand on her shoulder and Hoggle continued. Lyandra listened intently, she didn't judge the old Gnome or any of them for that matter but she was determined now, more than ever to help these people. She knew that sometimes people can waver from their path but that doesn't mean they can't be saved. “Where is the thane now, Hoggle? Point me to him and my friends and I will rid you of his nefariousness.”
Inside the Thane's Library there was a loud knock on the door. Arianna, who was closest, put her book down and opened the door to find a portly and aged gnomish woman standing in front of her. She brought stew for everyone and strained to see past Arianna but the half elf was a rather imposing figure in her full suit of glistening armour. Arianna graciously accepted the stew and closed the door but as she made to sit down there was another knock. It was the same old gnome “Don't make a mess.” She said. “The Thane will be back next week and he doesn't like people in his space, it's private you see.” Arianna nodded and told the woman they would be finished shortly.
Celdor moved next to Arianna and the pair watched the old gnome toddle off but the same time, Ma Hoggle and Lyandra returned with a basket full of mushrooms and immediately Celdor and Arianna noticed Ma Hoggle was the same gnome who'd just been at the door. They looked at each other but before either could say or do anything the dragon leapt into the air and flew onto the lip of the door.
It reared it's head and stood on it's hind legs. “What have you done, you old crone?!” The dragon, furious was spitting acid with every word. Lyandra moved quickly towards the dragon, reaching out to it but with a flash it soared from the door and clenched it's jaws around Lyandra's wrist. She yelped as the acidic poison seeped into her pierced flesh. She stumbled into the room and shook the dragon from her arm.
Without thinking, Olaf leapt into the air, clearing a surprising amount of height for a Dwarf and pulled the dragon down. Manny, watching this as his fast hands pilfered more trinkets from the room, tossed his cloak on the dragon and Celdor with the ease of a trained hunter springing a trap, tied the ball of dragon and cloak in a tight bundle.
Lyandra, struggling to stand, swayed on the spot as sweat poured from her scales, she muttered something about “damaging the book” but before she could finish another voice spoke over her.
“He fears damaging the book.” Came the voice of the Thane. “Leave this place now and my master can make your wildest dreams come true but linger here and you shall never leave!” Then, rolling from the cracks in the walls and from the spaces between the books came more of the thick purple smoke. It was somehow denser this time though, with cracks of lightning flashing through the smoke, like blood through a vein.
The smoke spread and enveloped Lyandra and Aramil knocking them both out. As the magical smoke flashed, Manny saw the outline of a Gnome through the dense magic. A secret passage had opened, showing the position of what he assumed was the Thane as cackles and incantations in the same voice were coming from that direction.
Terror began to grip Olaf. Clutching the unnamed hammer, once thought to be his noble family's heirloom, he thought longingly of his father, and his lavish home but as his spirits began to weaver, the magical sounds of Manny's pan pipes inspired him, his resolve steeled as he tightened his grip and his hammer illuminated with the blue light of his kin! Over Olaf's shoulder a bolt soared and found it's place in the Thane's leg. Manny grinned as his ally revived the unconscious mage, Aramil.
Arianna however was not having as much success as her pint sized compatriots. Kneeling next to Lyandra, her hands traced strange shapes as she muttered spells but nothing worked. Her hands glowed for an instant but would fade as the purple smoke spread through the room. She struggled just to remain awake and for a moment and feared all to be lost nut as she knelt there, she looked up and pleaded. Her voiceless words escaped the room and trees, up passed the forests and sky. They land upon shapeless ears.
Through the darkness a butterfly floated in by a crack in the door. It hovered for a moment before landing delicately, on Lyandra's head...
A spiral of wind encircles Lyandra and she comes to. Sitting up, her hands caress the soft ground beneath. Expecting to find the cold stone floor of the Thane's library, she's surprised when her hands find the warm soft grass of a woodland. Her eyes scanned the area for her accomplices but she knew before she looked they weren't there, somehow she knew she wasn't either. With a cool flutter an enormous line of butterflies float by, winding in and out of the trees. She reached out to touch them but as her fingers outstretch, she felt him there. Watching. She followed the butterflies further but with each step she felt a cold presence lingering just out of sight. A Shapeless spirit bounced between the trees snapping back and forth, the butterflies push her, urging her forward but she hears the whooshing noise of the black shape as it darts from tree to tree, leaving husks of bark behind. She broke into a sprint struggling to keep up with the butterflies until finally she reached a glade where the trees cleared and the sunlight covers everything in it's glow. Thousands, millions of butterflies are looping around the glade, through leaves and branches. They encapsulate Lyandra, spinning like a tornado, they become one being and lift up, high above the forest and into the sky but the last thing Lyandra saw as floated upward was the black darkness, drawing from the forest.
Celdor was a sure shot at longer distances so was sure he'd land the killing blow from here. With one motion he pulled an arrow from it's quiver, placed along his bow arm and whispered “Find your Mark” as he released it. He watched the arrow cut through the smoke and land in the Thane's neck. His usual smugness was quickly dashed as he saw the Thane merely shrug this off and continue to moves his arms in deliberate fashion and bellow incantations from deep within his belly.
Olaf was ready to charge forward now, his hammer was a cackling with powerful blue lightning but before he did so he caught Celdor's eye. The ranger motioned for his friend to wait then looked to Manny who red faced was bellowing hot air and spit into his pipes. Their gaze met and they nodded. Celdor turned his back to the Thane and disappeared in the commotion.
Then from nowhere Olaf hears Celdor cry out and an arrow flies from the shadow, hitting the Thane square in the chest. Now, before the Thane can recover from the arrow Olaf charges. With each step his armour roars against the stone floor and the whole room is bathed in the blue light of his hammer. He clears the room in a flash and with a great upward sweep the Thane is knocked into the air and before his body lands Olaf spins and catches him again. Like Manny, Thane Igglebrim is blasted into wall. He falls, doubled over.
Arianna, Longsword in hand dashed over the rubble of battle and kicked the Thane clean in the face, knocking him on to his back. She pointed her massive sword at his neck. “Any last words, Thane?” She spat at him. “My master will find you”. He stared unflinchingly at the Paladin before him. Arianna chanted in a language the others couldn't recognise and as if from the skies them selves a dazzling beam of burning light washed over the broken Warlock and with a great flash, he was finished.
Celdor skids to Lyandra who is barely hanging on, and crushes the healing berries she had given him in his hand. He pushes them into her great jaw and slowly she came to, very slowly. Celdor moves down the hidden passage the Thane was hiding in. He found a small bed, some outdoor robes and wooden Halfling feet on poles. He allowed himself a wry smile before he returned to his companions.
As the party gathered themselves and checked on one another, Arianna went back to the book she'd been looking at earlier. She fingered the Sylvan lettering on the spine “The Coming of Darkness”. She opened the book and flicked through. She was surprised to find the book was only half finished. After a short time she paused on one page in particular. As she stared at the page words began to scribble into existence. “I can see you.” She gasped and looked round, no one was looking at her. In her head she asked “where are you?” but there was no response.
That night, there's a massive party. With Thane Igglebrim dead, the gnomes elected Ma Hoggle as their new leader and she wanted to share the festivities with our intrepid explorers. There was more food than even Olaf had ever seen and the most delicious of meads too but before they could attend the party, the group wanted to hold a small service for the old Thane's familiar. Unfortunately the Pseudo Dragon was crushed under the weight of Olaf and his heavy armour. It was a subtle yet beautiful ceremony. They placed the dragon on stone plinth in the glade above ground. Olaf inscribed the stone with 'Not all who are ugly are monsters' and Aramil froze the creature in block of magical ice that couldn't melt and would preserve the boy for years to come.
They spent the rest of the night partying into the early hours. Manny was in his element, singing, dancing, playing his pipes and putting on Comedy shows. Even Aramil was caught having a good time and telling tall tales. As the night waned and the numbers dwindled, Celdor noticed Arianna lost in a book. It was then he realised he hadn't seen her since the funeral and wondered how long she'd been staring at those pages.