Sticky viscous gobbets of flesh dripped off of Gray’s talons as she shook her hands in vain, attempting to clean it of the goo. Adalai instinctively obliged her with her prestidigitation wand.
“Thanks,” Gray said absently, taking stock of who was still standing. Abassi, Miles and Adalai were alive and well, as well as the Yeonan captain and the paladin. Of the twenty-odd men and women lodged in that dank prison, only six had survived the escape attempt, including herself.
“Great, we’re out of the cage,” Abassi stated. “Now what?”
Miles had dropped the bent bronze grate he had been using as an improvised weapon and divested the two dead duergar of their warhammers and crossbows. He tossed one of the hammers to Gray, and passed a crossbow to Abassi, and kept the remaining weapons.
The paladin gazed disdainfully at Miles. “In the name of the great god Abgar, I demand that you pass me that weapon so that I might smite down Abgar’s enemies.”
The paladin sputtered. “To deny me my right to armament is an insult to Abgar his glorious self!”
“Yeah, I saw you in that fight,” Abassi interjected snidely. “Abgar’s the god of combat, right?”
“Honorable combat and glory, yes,” the paladin replied.
Abassi’s smirk grew wider. “After seeing you fight, I’m pretty sure Abgar is insulted for other reasons.”
“Stand down!” Gray snarled. “We are beyond trouble at this point as it is without you squabbling over who gets weaponry.”
“Why does he get two?” the captain asked Gray, gesturing at Miles. Gray made eye contact with Miles and jerked her head toward the captain.
Silently, Miles unslings the crossbow and hands it to the captain, causing a new bout of sputtering from the paladin, but a look from the captain silenced him.
“Right, now we-” Gray started.
“Wait,” the captain interjected. “Who put you in charge? Yeonan or Corvinian, I have rank.”
“More people in the group trust her than do you,” Adalai said matter-of-factly. The captain seemed about to speak, but it was Gray’s turn to cut him off.
“We need to move. Now,” she glanced down into the pit at the corpse of the white lion. “They took Asha into the fortress-”
“Undoubtedly your friend has been slain by the barbazu,” the paladin informed them. “However, I feel as though we should retrieve the item your companion was carrying.”
“For the glory of Yeona, no doubt,” Miles snarked. The paladin fixed a cold gaze at him.
“The barbazu are the shock troops of Hell,” he stated. “Soldiers. What do soldiers in every army have in common?”
“A superior officer,” Gray realized.
“Someone who might actually know how to use the thingy!” Adalai exclaimed.
Abassi glared. “So now do you want to tell us what it does?”
The paladin gazed at him flatly. “No.” And with that he moved toward the fortress.
“I really don’t like that guy,” Miles breathed.
“Nobody does,” the Yeonan captain agreed and followed behind his countryman.
The group arrived without incident at the wall of the fortress and, keeping close along its edge, moved around. They dared not enter the way the duergar and lemure had come, but inside they had to go. Eventually, by keeping close, they arrived at a door. It was guarded by two duergar and six lemure.
“Now will you give me a weapon?” the paladin inquired of Miles. Miles just shot him a dark look.
“There’s two duergar. Go get one.”
“Wait,” whispered Abassi, unslinging the crossbow from his shoulder. The Yeonan captain did the same. “It’s safe to assume they don’t know we’re here,” Abassi said softly. “So let’s thin the herd.”
Both Abassi and the captain took careful aim and let loose their quarrels within seconds of each other. Both thudded home with deadly accuracy, felling each duergar without a sound.
Miles, Gray, and the paladin rushed in, Miles and Gray each splattering a lemure into nothingness, while the paladin reached down to scoop up one of the fallen duergar’s warhammers. Two lemure took advantage of his momentary vulnerability and lashed out with dripping arms. One he managed to avoid, skipping sideways awkwardly, but the other slammed directly into his exposed back. Grunting in pain, he dropped to his knees, but he swung the warhammer expertly at the offending devil. Adalai launched a magical assault as twin balls of magical energy leapt from her pointed fingers at the lemure that struck the paladin. Gray and Miles quickly dispatched two more, and two more crossbow quarrels found their way into the as yet untouched lemure, obliterating it. With on final decisive blow, the paladin dispatched the last remaining lemure. The entire encounter lasted less than twenty seconds, and it was near silent.
Straightening, the paladin grimaced and touched his back.
“Abgar, give me strength,” he murmured, his hand glowing with the power of the Combatlord, his broken ribs knitting back together. He still carried a bruise, but he flexed his back and twisted without impediment.
Abassi collected the quarrels from the fallen duergar and the captain thrust a warhammer into his belt.
“Now,” said the paladin. “Let us entire the home of this foul creature and finish this once and for all.”
Asha could not recall exactly when darkness had taken her, but at some point she had slipped into merciful unconsciousness. And while there, she dreamt. She dreamt of the Children of Winter, and her father. The man was tall for a halfling, and smelt of the forest and wood smoke and leather and was the wisest of their entire sect. She dreamt of the Council of Winter in which the druid elders gathered for the first time in a thousand years. How her father had been tasked with retrieving an artifact stolen by Yeonan soldiers fifty years ago, now found in the Corvinian city of Treeside.
She dreamt of how she and her father had infiltrated Treeside and stolen the item just as the dragonforged attacked. She dreamt of how her father had thrown her aside just in time to avoid the fiery breath of a Dragonforged soldier, and hitting her head on a wooden beam and then… nothing.
Asha woke up hurting from every part of her body. Still, she opened her eyes to see how bad things were. They were bad.
She was strapped to the dragonskull altar and the black-winged woman sat perched over her, pondering the rod in both her slender hands. When she noticed Asha’s eyes, she smiled.
“Your father was very brave,” she said. Asha blinked. How… she thought.
“Telepathy. I was sorting through your memories to find out how you came into possession of this,” she held up the rod. “I find it strange that you carried it all this way and you do not even know what it is.”
Asha tested her voice. It trembled a bit, but it was clear. “Something inside told me it was important.”
“It is,” the woman replied. “With it, one could end your war. With it, one could take over Yeona and Corvan. With it, one could rule the world.”
“That isn’t something I’m interested in,” Asha stated, sounding and feeling very small next to the woman’s terrible ambition.
“Perhaps not,” the woman replied. “But it is something I am VERY interested in.”
Asha swallowed. “What are you going to do with me?”
The woman considered this. “Nothing. For now. Your friends are on their way to rescue you, they are in this fortress even as we speak. I think I will let them find you. By the time you reach the surface, you will see what your machinations have brought you. Have brought the world.” She was no longer paying attention to Asha. “They will hear my name, and they will tremble. They will never know it was you who brought them to their downfall, but YOU will know. And that is pleasing to me. Remember my name, little one: Soon it will be uttered in fear from the lips of every creature breathing. For I am Belladonna the Wicked and this time there is nothing that can stop me!”
And with a flourish, Belladonna disappeared with a brilliant flash and a crack like the settling of the world….
“What machinations?” Asha said aloud.
To be continued…