Peering off in the distance to the north, we can still make the outlines of an encampment. The wisps of smoke in the distance let me know it’s inhabited, though by who – or what – I do not know. We continue to make our way through the fields of Red Lotus when that eerie hum rises behind us. The Reaver has continued its pursuit!
I glance at the others and make ready. It seems that we must make our stand now, whether we wish to or not. As the Reaver rounds the bend, I hear the familiar slithering in the weeds; the Creepers have maintained their pursuit as well. A small groan escapes my lips as I ready for the encounter.
With heavy legs, I try to outmaneuver the Creepers while providing assistance to fell the Reaver. The others are feeling the effects of a long day of battling as well, their movements slow and sluggish. The first few Creepers explode into the all-too-familiar clouds of poison gas – at least it’s consistent. I focus on the Reaver – it’s the only thing I know I can hit with how groggy I am. And yet, that proves false. My first few shots miss the Reaver completely, thumping into the ground well past the mechanical monstrosity. Shaking my head, trying to clear the wooziness, I steadied my stance again and take aim. Once more, my bolt flew helplessly past. Unable to clear my head, I begin to doubt my capabilities. Is my age catching up to me? Is the Rend affecting my stamina? These sensations are new, and hopefully unfounded. But the doubt persists. Readying another round, I fire again. The Reaver swats the bolt away, shrugging it off as a pest. Dejected, I fall to my knees, exhaustion taking over.
As I kneel into the field of the Red Lotus, I feel myself drifting off. Slowly a haze enters my mind. Looking at my hands, I see, in disbelief, my blood dripping onto the ground. The eerie red glow of the lotus is emitted from the petals of the bloom, reminding me of the precarious situation I am in. This feeling, this drain I’ve been experiencing, is because my vitality has been sapped by the field! I hurry out of the field, a glimmer of hope returning. As I ready my next shot, a grinding, clanking sound radiates from the Reaver. Luc, it seems, has handled the atrocity. Redemption, it seems, will wait. Just as well though, since the effects of the lotus still linger.
We move on through the fields, finally able to approach the encampment. We take a short rest to hopefully recuperate a little energy for this last push through toward K’rul’s realm. Apparently the others recognize a structure as the “Clock of Midnight”, whatever that is. This continues to get more confounding and intriguing. My assurances of finding what I seek remain strong.
As we get to the outer rim of the site, the terrain morphs into a grey, soot-covered landscape. The land is not desolate as bushes, trees, and other vegetation are visible – it just all happens to be covered in a thick layer of soot. We can see smelters of iron throughout the tent city. Ash falls like rain, blanketing the ground, tents, and us. In the distance, west of the clock tower, is the source of the smelts liquid fire; a volcano that is providing an endless flow of molten rock, feeding the ironworks. Scanning the routes to the tower, it seems the only passable way seems to be through the make-shift city.
While we are preparing for our approach, a group of five “individuals” stride toward us. There is one large one, obviously in charge, and four smaller ones, likely his cohorts. The large one reminds me of the Hunters we had seen, though his appearance is demonic and a shadow flickers about his outer shell. Sharp protrusions extend from its body, and I notice scythe-like claws for its hands. The aura is sickening. Cautiously, I glance at the others, and we all read one another’s thoughts – this won’t be easy. That’s when I notice Stormlit; she has turned a dull, earthy grey, mimicking the falling ash – her skin has begun to camouflage with her environment! What an intriguingly convenient trait!
Skittering over to some cover, and to assess their intentions from afar, the “greeters” continue forward. Luc, being his ever-cautious self, sees something shiny in their direction and runs over to it. However, he forgot to put his swords away and they saw him as a threat – poor Luc. One of the smaller beings moves toward him and suddenly Luc falls to the ground! Sehanine, save us! I didn’t even see contact between the two of them!
Kalleron, seeing Luc felled near instantaneously, raises his had towards Luc’s assailant. A strange glimmer radiates from his palm, and his eyes shoot open. A look of dread sweeps across his face.
“B-b-bodocks….and the large one is a…a Nightwalker!?”
What the hell ever happened to good ol’ fashioned Goblins and Bugbears? Really, now – demons?!
Kaela rushes in to help look. Grabbing her second dagger from its sheathe, she slides into the fray, intercepting the movement of the Nightwalker and another Bodock. Jetting her right leg out, and kneeling practically on the ground, she uses her momentum from her run and whirls around in a flash – arms outstretched, fending off the foes. The force she propels them with is spectacular, utilizing the body’s natural joints as leverage. She sends the two adversaries backwards, clearing the way for a retreat. Reaching down and grabbing Luc, she moves back toward the others.
The Bodocks look distracted by this, as does the Nightwalker, and I take advantage of my hiding spot. Unleashing a few bolts, finally focused and unhampered, I take out the trailing Bodock. Hopefully now, out of the Red Lotus fields, I can be more effective. I check how the others are faring against the Nightwalker and I see Luc lying at its feet. Luckily I see his armor rising and falling so he isn’t dead – yet. That boy has more lives than a swamp rat has fleas. Looking to my right I see that Stormlit has taken two of the Bodocks away from the Nightwalker, attempting to limit their group’s strength. She is a wise tactician, though she puts too much onus on her shoulders for the success of this group. Her dedication to them is unquestionable, though I wonder her role. I have heard her refer to them as her “charges”.
Not wanting Stormlit’s valor to go for naught, I focus on the remaining Bodock with the Nightwalker, since the twins seems to have the big guy under control. Well, for as under control as a demon hunter of unfathomable malice can be. Striking from the shadows of the foliage, I hone in on the Bardock as it looks to flank Kaela. The creature never stood a chance. Leaving the Nightwalker to the others, I shift positions behind the undergrowth. Stormlit seems to be holding her own, but she is not making progress in destroying the Bardocks. Flanked on both sides, it is only a matter of time before they break through her defensive stance and exhaust her.
As she turns to her left to parry a blow, the one on her right moves in for a strike. Seeing an opening in her stance, she won’t be able to readjust for the blow in time. I take aim at the “arm” and fire, knocking the strike from its intended destination on Stormlit. She recovers from her parry and strikes down the Bardock on her right with a sickening thud. Casting a quick glance in my direction to figure out where the bolt came from, I stand and wave, and sheepish grin coming across my face. She does that strange little cock of her head and, though it may be a figment of my imagination, almost smirks.
Shifting on her heels, she dodges another blow. Grabbing a hold of my senses, I reload my crossbow and fire again from the shadows. My bolts strike true and the Bardock emites a painful scream. The clanking of armor and the rustles of robes coming toward us tells me the others were successful with the Nightwalker. Kudos to them! Now, onto the encampment.
Leaving the others at the edges, I scout ahead. I need the time to clear my head and besides, getting a lay of the land might be useful. Noticing patrols of the Nightwalkers weaving up and down the corridors between tents, I figure the safest route is over the tents. Climbing up a pole, I make my way across the larger of the structures, coming into the center of the encampment. Teiflings scurry across the dirt roads, busying themselves like ants in a colony. A multitude of races line the shops, hawking goods and weapons. Most of the place is like a giant outdoor bazaar. The focus of the business though, seems to focus on the lager, highly decorated tent I find myself at now. A large, wooden stage is set up to the east of the structure and behind it I can see a cage. Peering into the cage, I see eighty or so people, huddled together. They reek of something foul and look hungry and disheveled. Slaves! This whole place is a slave trade! Sneaking through won’t be as easy for the others as I thought. I need more information to devise a good alternative. Working my way to the flap entrance of the main tent, I hunker down and examine the interior. Two individuals are talking – one a Fimorian giant, the other a little frog-like creature wearing a hat and sporting a red face. Obviously, this is a heated conversation – any talk with a Fimorian is.
“The price was 100 golds! You said that covered everything, including transport!”
“Never was that said! The price was for 2, as you received, and got you here to view them.”
A menacing glare crosses the giant’s face. “Get me and my property back! Now!”
The frog’s upper lip tightens and he stares dead on into the eyes of the giant. “You can take that concern up with my employer in the City of Brass. For now, the Bandahops work only when paid. And THAT –“, the frog jabs his hand right into the lower diaphragm of the giant, “– is another 50 gold!”
I peel away from the entrance as an alarming growl rumbles throughout the tent. The City of Brass…why does that…Oh, yes! The man on the boat! Stormlit has said something about them wanting to take Kaela back with them to the City of Brass. That must mean…Wait, we’re in a different time now. The coincidence cannot be more than that. Too many loose ends; too many variables. Too much thinking.
I hurry back to the others, making sure to make note of the least crowded walkways. I let the others know what I heard and gave my suggestions as to how to best make it through. It didn’t do any good. Oh well, you’re only young once – then you die. Average age of an adventurer – 18. Average age of a dead adventurer – 18½.
It’s finally decided that Kaela and I will flank the others from the tops of the tents, providing lookout and support if necessary. Stormlit, Luc, and Kalleron will disguise themselves and act like drifters, hopefully blending in. Yes, we do that oh so well. About halfway through the encampment, I spot an Eladrin. Funny – I didn’t see any on my initial scout. Knowing Luc’s giddiness around such wonderful people, I try to steer the group through an alternate route – our goal is still the tower. But my efforts are too late – Luc had already spied her. Against the protests of everyone, the stubborn, single-minded Luc follows. Gee, I wonder what will happen? Let’s all cause a commotion because we can’t stay focused…IN THE MIDDLE OF A SLAVE TRADE!!!!
Luc tails the Eladrin, who ends up meeting with another one and a young girl. Ok, no worry there. They bought a slave. Big deal. But, Mr. Self-Righteous and his pure hearted soul must continue on. The three of them turn around and head back towards Luc, who tries to busy himself with a display. They stop in front of him and exchange words. Shit. I move down off a tent crossbeam, and ready a bolt. If they make one move against him, it’ll be the last move they make. The little girl strides up to Luc and grabs his face – slave my ass!
“Where is she? The last Highborn!”
Groaning, I fire a shot directed across the face of the girl, hoping to startle her enough for Luc to catch his wits and run. As the bolt nears her, it disappears. A not-so-soft curse escapes my lips.
“Really now, a bolt? You thought a bolt would do what against me?” The voice echoed inside my head. Mirria!
“…Tiamat’s agent…” The voice still rings in my head, growing louder, pounding my temples from the inside. It’s too difficult to concentrate.
“…city to raze…” The pain is tortuous. Fire burns inside my mind. Is this what being in the presence of a god is like?
“…blue dragon to kill…” Excruciating and agonizing. Dragons? Do they still exist?
“Rael, kill them and bring me the bodies!” The finiteness of this command was outstanding. And with a sudden wave of relief, the pain ceased. But as my internal senses balanced out, my external ones were assaulted. A flying, glowing spiral descends upon the area, blinding in its brilliance. Five sparks erupt from the spiral and manifest into heavenly beings – angels! Two are much larger, their auras pure. A look of sorrow is worn on their faces, nearing regret. One of the larger ones descends unto Luc and he begins to raise his sword in protest. The angel shakes its head and I feel both pity and sorrow for Luc. He is punished, and mercilessly. Stormlit jumps between the two and stares at the angel, her gaze unwavering. The angel shakes its head again, and a look of determination works into Stormlit’s face. The angel holds out a hand and she makes no move to defend. Light streaks out and envelopes Stormlit. I feel her pain, but never hear it. Kaela leaps across a tent to engage another of the smaller angels. It is joined quickly by another, and both brush off the rogue’s attack. They look to retaliate, and send Kaela sprawling. Her pain resonates within me as well. Kalleron, throws a spell – I know not what – and darts off to the southwest. A good plan. I jump down from the tents and head northeast, toward the tower. Hopefully the others realize the futility of the situation and follow suit.
As I come around the corner of a tent, I see one of the larger angels enclose itself in its wings. Light begins to emanate from its body, and a bright flash erupts. Golden blades flash, burning with white, searing heat, and they strike Luc. Again, his pain resonates within. I dash for the stage, sliding underneath the wooden planks. With their wings, they should be unable to reach here. Quietly, I make my way under the structure towards the slave pen. We need a distraction and I can think of nothing better than eighty slaves running rampant through the camp. Hopefully the others clue in and we can make our way to our destination, the Clock of Midnight.
I emerge directly in front of the cage. Tinkering with the lock, it opens with ease. Never thought that skill would be as useful as it is right now. The slaves look up, startled at the commotion and sudden opening of their confinement.
“Run! Go, you’re free! Hurry up and escape!”
But not a soul moves. They are too dejected. They realize there is no where for them to escape to. They are no longer willing to fight their fate. Defeated I make my way out of the pen and see Stormlit by the gap between the larger tent and the platform. She is engaged with an angel, and looks bad.
“Stormlit! Get under the platform! They can’t follow you there!”
She looks up and sees me, motioning in front of her. She quickly launches herself underneath, briefly escaping her tormenters. After a few minutes I see her across from me and that’s when I get the idea to hide amongst the slaves. I motion for her to get into the cage, and seeing a gap in the angels patrol around the platform, scurries out and dives in with me. We huddle into a corner. Not knowing how to best avoid the angel’s detection, I go for the full immersion camouflage and soil myself. That should help me blend in!
Stormlit and I stay in the cage for a few hours, hopefully long enough to discourage our pursuers. She tells me a bit about herself and the history of Luc. Not a lot, but enough to fill in some important gaps I had. She is calm still, despite all that is going on. Her confidence in herself and her sorted past are intriguing. She is strong, her will tried and tested. She is someone I can rely on…
Someone I need to rely on…