Lythvard struggled to move but the ropes that bound his wrists would not yield, and the aura of deadening magic numbed his mind and made it impossible to connect with his own magic. It was still there, his magic. He could feel the chaotic energy, like an angry beast throwing itself against the iron bars of its cage… but it was somehow out of reach. Where was he? It was cold, and dark, and smelled of sewage. Faint images of the past week flashed in and out of his memory, mere wraiths glimpsed out of the corner of the eye in the mists of early morning. He remembered being an elephant.
The sound of approaching footsteps drew him back to the present. Three robed men now stood before him, accompanied by large, pasty-skinned man. His pallor and grimacing disposition suited the dank environment, which, Lythvard guessed, could only be some sort of dungeon prison.
“Time to use the worm.” The words came from the robed man in the middle. The worm? Worms were usually nothing of great concern to a druid – just another part of nature. But the oily way in which the man said “worm” chilled Lythvard far more deeply than the dungeon air ever could have done.
With a fluidity of motion that belied his paunch gut, the jailor stepped forward and rammed a balled-up rag into Lythvard’s mouth. He turned back to the wizard and raised an eyebrow.
The wizard answered the unspoken question, “Leave the worm to do its work. If it fails you can take your turn at extracting the information later.” This seemed to satisfy the large man, who then produced from his pocket a small vial containing a tiny leech-like creature. He unstoppered the vial and casually emptied the contents onto Lythvard’s face. The worm crept slowly across Lythvard’s cheek, traversing a tattoo of the Priestess’ sigil, and disappeared into his right nostril. As Lythvard’s vision began to go dark, he could distinctly hear the sound of a soft voice speaking from somewhere nearby, “Hey you meanies, leave him alone!”
“They’ve made it this far already! Destroy them!” The mage’s shrill command reverberated down the length of the narrow stone passage, reaching the group just before their attackers. The group had infiltrated the prison in hopes of locating their friend Lythvard and were now fighting their way deeper into the dark stone halls.
At the head of the defenders was a stout soldier. He was followed by a troll-like man wearing a gargantuan set of bronze knuckle-dusters across the backs of his meaty hands. Following them, and shrieking orders almost maniacally all the while, was a thin mage in rust-coloured robes. The defenders moved in quickly and struck the group like a wave crashing on rocks. Magic sizzled through the air. Metal rang on metal. The large man flailed savagely with his metal-covered fists while the mage lashed out with his staff, and the soldier hacked around him with his mean blade. The group fought with cunning curses, raging fury, and noble honour. Finally, they prevailed, Rawdon felling the soldier, and Vorax incapacitating the bronze-knuckled man. The mage, seeing his companions defeated, retreated down the hall and into a distant room.
Lythvard awoke to the smell of something sharp and foul that pierced the back up his sinuses and curled up just behind his eye sockets. It felt like thistles in his head. He gingerly opened his crust-caked eyes and saw a smiling wizard standing in front of him holding a vial just under the elf’s nose. Lythvard’s body convulsed for an instant when he remembered where he was. Then he relaxed: Humph. Still alive. Well, that’s good. The thoughts came into his head but he could not force them past his parched lips.
“Did it work?” a voice questioned from the shadows near the door.
“Not sure… Better get Lathony” replied the wizard who had just roused Lythvard.
The wizard turned to comply, but before he could make the summons, Lathony entered the cell. He stood pensively surveying the bound elf before speaking. “No. The worm was unsuccessful.” He stepped closer to the elf to get a better look at him. “There is something very… odd… about this mind.” He sighed. “Well, it matters not. There is certainly nothing odd about his body. We’ll do it the traditional way.” Lathony whirled on his heel, and swept out of the cell, the motion causing the slimy door to swing on its creaking hinges as he passed though the opening. A few seconds later, the swinging of the door was stopped abruptly by a meaty, brass-clad hand. The hand was attached to the large, pasty-skinned jailor. Lythvard remembered him from before.
The burly man entered the cell pretending to stretch his muscles as if he were getting ready for a long round of exercise. Shortly thereafter “exercise” of a sort began in earnest. “Where… is… Flotilla?” came the question. It was punctuated with a solid punch to Lythvard’s stomach. The elf would have doubled over if he hadn’t been tied down, and the pain of not being able to breathe was not only excruciating - it was paralyzing. Lythvard felt like he was stuck in time and the world was frozen around him as he tried to catch his breath. The jailor laughed as he realized his mistake but continued with the interrogation, “Come on! Speak up, lad. Where’s the floaty-floaty place? It’ll only get worse for you if you don’t talk.” Strangely, there was no anger – barely even any malice – in the man’s voice. He spoke almost matter-of-factly. He struck Lythvard again, this time lower, and the sound of the elf’s right femur breaking echoed in the hollow room.
In the cell beside Lythvard’s a tiny figure suddenly jumped to her feet. The sounds of crunching bones and pain induced screams signalled that her cell-mate was awake and, at least for the moment, very much alive.
“You leave him ALONE, you meanies!” she shouted with as much volume as she could muster. But it was useless. Even if they could hear her voice above the alternating sounds of thumping and screaming, it’s not likely they would have heeded her anyway. They keep asking about some place called “Flotilla”. Flotilla… She’d have to remember that.
Sweat was now pouring down the jailor’s cheeks and forehead. He reach out with blood-covered hands and clutched the face of the nearly unconscious elf, pinching his pointed ears between thumb and forefingers as he did so. The elf stiffened and finally broke. “Ok… I’ll… tell… you…” he rasped in a voice barely audible.
No sooner did those words escape his lips than his entire body began to spasm. The jailor stepped back in surprise as black smoke began to seep out from Lythvard’s mouth, nose, eyes and ears. Green lines, like veins, just under the skin, snaked across the elf’s face, exited the skin, and floated up as flaring green sparks to twist and turn in the air, mingling with the black smoke enshrouding the prisoner. Then, there was a loud sucking sound as Lythvard’s chest caved inward and released a larger puff of black smoke and green sparks.
It took some time for the dark smoke and sparkling static to clear in the dank air of the cell. When visibility returned, the jailor stepped forward again and gazed at the elf’s body. It was lifeless – a gaping hole and protruding, jagged ribs were all that remained of his chest. Wisps of black smoke and residual green sparks still clung to the edges of the wound.
“Down here! This way! Hurry! But be careful! There are guards waiting for you!” Rawdon could hear a faint voice shouting out to them. He signalled to the group and together they set off down the corridor at a slow jog, towards the soft voice. As they got closer to the source of the voice they noticed a faint, slightly sweet smell in the air. It reminded Rawdon of the smell in the plains after a particularly violent lightning storm.
Rounding the corner they found themselves in a slightly wider corridor lined with what appeared to be cell doors. Standing before them, barring the way, was a large bronze statue. Further down the corridor they could make out another statue of similar size. Perhaps, thought Vorax, it was made of clay or some sort of soft stone. As they approached, a pair of sneering mages stepped out from behind the bronze statue.
“Spies! Get them!” shouted one of the robed wizards. At the command, the bronze statue vibrated slightly and took a large step forward towards the group. The newly awoken bronze golem was advancing to attack. From down the hall the second statue, not of stone or fired clay as the group had thought initially, but of soft dripping clay, lumbered forward to join the battle.
Rawdon, with a glass-shattering shriek of rage, leapt forward and smote his axe against the body of the bronze golem. There was a resounding clang as metal struck metal and a large crack appeared in the automaton’s metallic flesh. The golem responded by beating viscously on the barbarian with fists like giant mechanical hammers, but in his berserker rage, Rawdon barely noticed the onslaught.
Dark, ghostlike smoke jetted out of Thybalt’s hands, writhing through the air like obsidian snakes climbing along a horizontal line, and struck the clay golem squarely. The golem tried to retaliate but Thybalt deftly stepped out of range of its bare, brutal hands.
One of the wizards struck his staff against the stone of the corridor floor and a crack of thunder pealed down the hall. It was focused on Rawdon and stuck him instantly to the ground.
Vorax swung a mighty blow against the hull of the lumbering bronze golem and connected soundly, leaving a deep dent where he had struck.
Thybalt flung another curse, but this time at the bronze golem. It struck with such force that the creature stumbled backwards smashing its metal elbow into the top of one of the cell doors.
As the battle raged, Nimona watched helplessly from inside her prison cell. She could hear and see much of the battle, but the magic-deadening aura around her cell kept her unable to lend any assistance to the group. Just when she thought all hope of helping them was lost, there was a mighty crash against her prison door. She flinched and closed her eyes in response to the impact and falling particles, but when she finally opened them again, she could see narrow shaft of torchlight stabbing down into her cell from a ragged, newly formed hole at the top of the door. The tiny gnome thanked the gods, climbed up to the gap, and, after much effort, managed to wriggle out through the opening.
When the gnome emerged from her dark cell, she could see a sinister-looking tiefling administering a potion of some sort to a large lifeless man on the floor. Without a second thought, she stepped forward and, summoning her faith, called forth a shimmering spear of blue radiant energy. The spear hovered for a second by her right shoulder and then launched itself forward towards the large metal creature that was pounding relentlessly on a very noble-looking young man clad in armour.
The spear sliced through the bronze golem like a knife cutting through the soft skin of a baked potato. The creature immediately ceased its onslaught and crumbled to the ground, the metal panels of his body ringing like giant church bells as they crashed against the hard stone floor.
Nimona looked around and saw that the battle was over. The creatures were dead and one of the wizards had been captured and was now being interrogated by the furious tiefling.
“Where is Lythvard!?” Thybalt’s face was but a mere finger’s breadth from the face of the wizard when he shouted the question.
“He’s… in… there…” replied the wounded mage as he pointed to a cell down a few metres down the corridor.
Thybalt wrested the keys from the belt of the wizard, manhandled him roughly into one of the nearby empty cells, and locked the door. He then turned to Vorax and Rawdon and said, “Let’s get our friend.”
The group made their way down the corridor and turned into the cell that the captured mage had indicated. There, lying on the floor in the centre of the cell, was Lythvard’s lifeless body. The gaping hole in his chest left no doubt that their friend was dead.
“Nooooo! You were so young!” shouted Thybalt as he fell to his knees beside his childhood friend’s shattered corpse. Tears welled up in his fiery eyes.
Lythvard awoke in total darkness. There was a great weight upon him, pressing in from every direction and the smell of freshly turned earth forced its way into his lungs with every breath he took. Or was it breath? In some strange way, he felt like he was under water. The elf stretched out a hand and realised he could move through the mass that was pressing on him. Slowly he pushed through it and broke free into the night air. He was in a graveyard. It was dark and a ghostly purple mist lay low over the ground. He could see the crumbling tops of headstones poking out above the mist like islands in some ghastly sea. The sky above him was inky black, void of moon or star, and Lythvard thought he heard the mournful cry of a raven in the distance.
He stood up and brushed the soil from his clothes. Moving forward to explore his new surroundings, it was some time before he realised he was not walking but floating a hand-span above the ground. Lythvard looked down as his feet with mild interest but was not alarmed – he was used to the whimsical dalliances of his chaos magic and this sort of thing was commonplace in his life.
Lythvard noticed a large mound rising up out of the shadows ahead of him. Moving forward through the ethereal purple mist he soon found himself standing in front of a giant throne. The throne was massive and seemed to be constructed out of stacks of aging tombstones. Atop this throne sat a large figure. The figure wore a crown of bone and long, flowing purple robes. It turned its shadowy face towards Lythvard and he could see one glowing red eye looking back at him.
“Welcome, Lythvard,” a grating voice sounded from somewhere deep within the shadowy visage. “You have a choice to make…”
“Stand aside, please.” The gnome’s voice was gentle but firm. “Let me see him.” Nimona moved towards Lythvard’s lifeless body. Thybalt stood and backed up a pace to let her get closer. She crouched on the damp floor where Thybalt had just been kneeling and, placing one hand on Lythvard and clutching her holy relic in the other, began chanting fervently and rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.
Golden light began to shine in Lythvard’s body. It pulsed rhythmically and seemed to flow back and forth between his broken shell and Nimona’s rocking body. Vorax had the sense that she was both physically and spiritually trying to push life back into his friend. The light grew until it was blinding to look upon and Vorax, Tybalt, and Rawdon were forced to take a step back and shield their eyes.
A faint line of silver smoke drifted up from the base of Nimona’s neck. She grimaced in pain but did not lose her concentration. Then the light flashed its brightest and faded. The gnome, all her energy spent in this holy act, collapsed to the cold stone floor.
Vorax was the first to uncover his eyes and look back on the scene. Nimona was lying on the ground but the slow rising and lowering of her side indicated she was still breathing. He looked at Lythvard and saw that his mangled chest had been knitted roughly back together. There was an oozing scar where the hole had been just minutes before. The three companions took a step closer to the two bodies on the floor, not entirely sure of what had just happened.
Then, suddenly, Lythvard sat up and looked around.