The ooze that dripped from me started to dry, as the group of us looked down on the bodies of Fen and his Bandarhop cohorts. After another confrontation, I wonder if this whole thing is worth it. Is getting in the tower worth it? Is stopping this goddess worth it? Hell, is it even plausible?!
I emerge from the tent and notice that the pop-up city is starting to bustle once more. Quick to forget, I guess. We have not lingered long when another small Bandarhop approaches us. I subtly cock my crossbow as it speaks.
“Prisoners, you need not, yes? Price, want you for them?” Its tongue slips out and wets the outer ring of its mouth. “Many have you. How much, how much?” The happiness and eagerness it displays raises my worry at an alarming rate. Though its overzealousness can be beneficial to me in this situation.
“What are you offering?” Kaela slips into place beside me.
“Offering?” The Bandarhop looks confused, so Kaela spells is out in more simple terms.
“How much gold per slave? How many jewels? And you better make it worth it.” She deepens her glare to drive home the bargaining chip.
“Gold and jems not I have, but information can I give.” Its fingers twitch and I can tell that it’s running figures through that miniscule brain it has.
“Information?” Kaela and I glance at each other, seemingly reading one another’s thoughts perfectly. “Do we need your information? How do we know your information is even good? What is it about?”
“Good, I cannot say. About, you need, maybe. Who knows, but you.” It’s playing games, well, too, I might add. It is coy and evasive, dangling just enough to entice us.
“Can you tell us about Nightchill?! Can you tell us about the Clock of Midnight?!” The Bandarhop peers dumbfounded at Luc, shrugging its shoulders nonchalantly. “Forget it! I’m not selling slaves to that thing! They won’t ever have a chance at freedom!” Luc is fierce in his protest. I shoot him a look. It wasn’t I who sacrificed a boat full of strangers. It wasn’t I who denied these people their freedom. Hell, I even set them free. They wanted to stay! We can get more use out of them for information that anything else. If he doesn’t…
“Luc! Shut up!” Kaela seemed to snap him of his will. “Look if your information is of no use to us, what do you have that is? Ruby or diamond jewels would work.” The Bandarhop mulls this option over. “How about four rubies and a diamond, one for each of five slaves.”
Almost wetting himself, the Bandarhop agrees. Stormlit hands over a parchment and the Bandarhop sifts through the contents, circling five names. Then, reaching into its robes, pulls out a small coin sack and tosses it at Kaela. “What’s this?!”, she exclaims eyeing the size of the bag before pilfering its contents.
“Make is the deal. Deal as you say. One diamond and four rubies.” With that, the Bandarhop bounds away, laughing, as Kaela tosses me the bag. I open it up and see five gems – one diamond and four rubies – all the size of copper coins. I shoot Luc another look, but he’s busy with Kaela. Apparently she didn’t take to the idea of being swindled fondly either. I toss the pouch in my bag. Huzzah for learning experiences. Never let Luc say anything. By Sehanine, why haven’t I learned this yet?!
We begrudgingly regroup and head back towards the bridge. The chaos still reigns on the bridge, inhibiting our passage. Arguing breaks out again about what new tactic to try when I decide to suggest the more obvious choice – to go as Nightchill.
Now, if I say this was received warmly, I’d be a liar. It looked like everyone walked into a Dwarven flatulence contest and then took a swig of warm, bitter, Gnome piss to wash down the taste. But, really, it seemed like an obvious choice. And the more they thought about it, the more likely our chance of success seemed to be.
Stormlit used her Veil spell and we took on the appearance of Nightchill and her Eladrin escort and proceeded across the bridge. No demons even glanced our way. Simple, effective, and easy. This worries me.
Passing through the gates into the inner sanctum of the tower, we found ourselves in a room with two exits. Wonderful, a labyrinth of a maze. Yeah, that’s sounds redundant, but once you’ve tried to navigate that place, you’d say it too.
We know the clock is northeast, so we do our best to maintain that direction. We come across countless gears, all stuffed with massive pieces of lumber. We stumble across a few small parties of monsters – a Mindflayer and some snake-like creatures. We also see the golden suits of armor hard at work, stuffing the living daylights out of the gears with the large pieces of lumber. We are at our wits end to decide if we should unstop the clock’s gears (destroying the hard work of the automatons) or leave the clock still. Well, personally, I don’t care, but the others sure fear this clock, so we let the wood remain. After hours of trekking through this endless maze, we come upon a huge set of doors, at which point, Kalleron casts a spell and conjures us to an alternate dimension to rest. Yeah, who sleeps well in alternate dimensions?
Knowing what lies ahead of us, I look around at the faces. Most are calm, Luc, surprisingly so. Kaela is as jovial as ever and Kalleron seems enraptured with the inter-dimensional properties of the house. Yeah – way to focus guys. Stormlit is still the same stoic woman. She looks over her charges too much, puts too much stress on herself. Her dedication is admirable, but I wonder if she has ever lived for herself. What would it be like for her if she did? Could she manage? Does she always need to serve? From what does she take her joy? She is intriguingly complex.
The moment draws near and I start to fidget. The constant straining of the hampered gears in the tower annoy me to no end and I dread going back to that place. Here, away from the clocks, I find peace and my mind is at ease. I do not feel the pain of the gears, nor would I want to.
Tick Tock, Tick Tock
We exit the magical housing refreshed and hopefully ready to meet this destiny. I found myself eager to fell this goddess. Opening the doors that loom before us, we come across a giant room with a single enormous gear resting in the floor, with hundreds of smaller gears beneath it. Cautiously making our way through the room, four figures emerge – two knights clad in plate mail and two females. Neither of the women are the one we seek, and we ready for battle.
Before I can even load a bolt, one of the women gestures to Stormlit and she is engulfed in black flames. She quickly puts them out as I move down the stairs near the large central gear. The Knights each rush forward, quickly closing the space between us. Luc raises his swords, accepting the challenge. He meets the first of the Knights and grapples with him, luring him to the precarious edge by the large gear. With a show of brute strength, Luc heaves the Knight into the pit, and the sound of its armor clanking off the gear as it plummets down rattles in my ears. The metal clanging on metal sound in this whole place is driving me insane!
I fire on the mage who cast on Stormlit, lightly grazing her arm. She turns to me and grins.
“So, you want to play?”
Her eyes meet mine as she raises her hands and something shoots right into my mind.
I awake to the sights of the others standing over me. Rising to my feet, the body of the women are behind me. Grogginess clouds my brain as I stagger to stand.
“What….what happened?” The looks from the others are telling enough.
“To put it rather simply,” Kalleron offers, “you were, how should I say this…, dominated by this here Vampire.” He gestures to the body of the female mage at his feet. “Luckily for us, you retained some of your awareness and fought it enough to do minimal harm to the rest of us.”
‘Yeah, go me.’
We take a short rest as Stormlit indulges us with her songs once more. A beautiful symphony, that woman. We continue through the room and through massive double metal doors. The sight we came upon was unreal.
We entered the room on the second floor landing. The upper floor travels around in a U-shape, ending on each side just before two rooms outshoot from the main one. Across from us is another room, past a small corridor. Looming before us, however, is a monstrous skeleton, doting over a massive crystal in the center of the room. It’s back is turned to us, so it is unaware of our presence, and, I have a feeling, that I wouldn’t like it to know I am here.
Kalleron does a quick assessment of the creature and his findings do not ease my mind. It’s a demi-lich. I make a break for the under hang of the balcony that we find ourselves on, keeping my eye on the beast as I run. And that is when it catches my eye – a glint of metal that reflects off the shine of the crystal. Reaching the safety of the shadows, I peer closer, sure that this is what I have been seeking; a powerful artifact held by ancient gods. There is no mistake, this has to be it! I hear the others scatter across the balcony, keeping their distances in case this thing possesses any area attacks. Finally, a wise combat tactic. A voice above me addresses the lich and I know it must be Luc – wise tactic gone. The lich turns and faces the boy, allowing me to get a full look at the artifact, to assess its worth and formulate a plan to snatch it away without the others noticing. As the lich closes in on Luc, the balcony, and my position, I am able to fully view the device hanging from lich’s belt.
I cannot believe it! The artifact, the contraption I have spent the last few months tracking, risking my life for, lay before me. The research in the library of the Oracle’s Tower, the clues from the Guild, the informants, all of it has led me here, to this moment, to this location. All of it has led me to this, this sham! What dangles before me is not mystical, or even powerful. Nor is it even useful. There is nothing to it! From the way it shifts on its strap, it is not heavy enough to carry hidden compartments. There are no latches with which to get inside and pilfer contents. There is nothing there! It is no more than a memento! This, this, this is betrayal of our deal! What did they intend for me to do? What was their purpose for sending me? Was it to seek it out, or to never find it? What was…
That’s it! They harbor their secrets and seek to control and manipulate! I have worked for, but never with the Guild. I saw attachment as a negative and the idea of belonging never sat well with me. Yet, they taught me, lent me their secrets and trained me in their ways. For what? In hopes that I would see the benefits and join them? To use me as a pawn? I had grown into one of their most reliable assets, and this is how they view my worth? Do they fear me? If not, they should now. I will seek down the leaders of the Guild and make them pay dearly for their lack of faith and trust.
A fury takes over me, as I fire unmercilessly onto the lich. Bones shatter beneath the force of my bolts. Ribs crack, and the structure of its delicate frame starts to unbalance. Nothing matters to me now than getting out of this cesspool and finding swift justice for the leaders. I know not of the others, or even what they are doing. My singular focus is on the lich, and it will be my prey this day. I am relentless, cold, heartlessly efficient. Phylactery or not, this thing is mine! As I fire another round, the creaking of bones finds my ears. The bones begin to crumble and fall, piling onto the floor. My vengeance begins now!
Not a moment passes before I see it. The head of the lich falls too, but it never hit the ground. Instead, floating above the piles that were its body, the head bobs. From my hidden location of the two-story lich, I was safe. From a floating head, whose eyes can pierce the darkness and find my warmth beating within the shadows, I am vulnerable.
The floating head of the demi-lich turns and focuses its undead eyes upon me. With a sharp cackle erupting from its fleshless jaw, I started to feel a pull on the skin of my right forearm. Looking down, I see my skin rapidly flaking off. My last thought as my flesh whittles away, causes my mind to erupt with an anger and a fury I never knew I possessed.
“It was a fake! I died…for…a fake…!