THE RANGER'S JOURNEY
The sound of battle echoed up the corridor and into the main room of the tower. Canthan snarled at the noise but refused to turn away from the tome. He felt certain there were more secrets buried within that book. Energy made his skin tingle and hummed in the air around it. The book was magical, the runes were magical, and he had a much better understanding of how the castle had come about, about the source of energy that had facilitated the construction, but there was more. Something remained hidden just below the surface. The magical runes even then appearing on the page might prove to be a clue.
The ring of steel distracted him. He turned back to see an agitated Pratcus hopping from one foot to the other in the middle of the room. Ellery came out of one tunnel, and cut to the side from where the sound emanated. She looked at Pratcus as Athrogate emerged from a tunnel opposite. Up on the balcony, Olgerkhan and Arrayan leaned over the railing, looking down with concern.
"Who?" Ellery asked.
"Gotta be the ranger," Pratcus answered.
Ellery ran toward the sound. "Which tunnel?" she asked, for the torches in all had gone dark again, and the echoes of the sounds confused her.
All eyes went to the dwarf, but Pratcus just shrugged.
Then from above, Olgerkhan cried out, "Breach!"
The fight had come.
"Just keep them off me!" Canthan growled, and he forced his attention back to the open book.
Another egg fell and broke open, and that made five.
Mariabronne finished the first with a two-handed overhead chop, but he was too busy leaping away from fiery daemon breath to applaud himself for the kill.
He went into a frenzy, spinning, rolling, and slashing, scoring hit after hit, and he came to realize that the creatures could only breathe their fire on him from a distance. So he ran, alternately closing on each. He took a few hits and gave a few more, and his confidence only heightened when, upon hearing more rattling from above, he leaped over and shouldered the brazier to the floor.
The rattling stopped.
There would be no more than the four standing against him. All he had to do was hold out until his companions arrived.
He sprang forward and charged but skidded to a stop and cut to the side. He used the sarcophagi as shields and kept the clawing, smoky hands at bay.
His smile appeared once more, that confidence reminiscent of the young Mariabronne who had rightly earned the nickname "the Rover" and had also earned a rakish reputation with ladies all across Damara. His sense of adventure overwhelmed him. He never felt more alive, more on the edge of disaster, of freedom and doom, than he was in times of greatest danger.
"Are all of Gehenna so slow?" he tried to say, to taunt the daemons, but halfway through the sentence he coughed up blood.
The ranger froze. He brought his free hand up to his neck to feel the blood still pumping. A wave of dizziness nearly dropped him.
He had to dive aside as two of the daemons loosed cones of fire at him, and so weak did he feel that he almost didn't get back to his feet - and when he did, he overbalanced so badly that he nearly staggered headlong into a third of the beasts.
"Priest, I need you!" Mariabronne the Rover shouted through the blood, and all at once he wasn't so confident and exuberant. "Priest! Dwarf, I need you!"
Entreri and Jarlaxle rushed into the room to join the others. Sounds of fighting from above assailed them, and both Entreri and Athrogate started that way.
Then came the desperate call from Mariabronne, "Priest, I need you!"
"Athrogate, hold the balcony!" Ellery ordered. "The rest with me!
Entreri heard Arrayan's cry and ignored the commander's order. In his thoughts, he pictured the doom of Dwahvel, his dear halfling friend, and so overwhelming was that sensation that he never paused long enough to consider it. He sprinted past the dwarf and hit the stairs running, taking them three at a time. He cut to the right, though the door and his companions were on the balcony to the left.
Then he cut back sharply to the left and leaped up to the slanted stairway railing in a dead run. His lead foot hit and started to slide, but the assassin stamped his right foot hard on the railing and leaped away, spinning as he went so that when he lifted up near the floor of the balcony, his back was to the railing. He threw his hands up and caught the balusters, and with the others on the floor below looking at him with mouths hanging open, Entreri's taut muscles flexed and tugged. He curled as he rose, throwing his feet up over his head. Not only was his backward flip over the railing perfectly executed, not only did he land lightly and in perfect balance, but on the way over he managed to draw both dagger and sword.
He spun as he landed and threw himself into the nearest gnoll mummy, his blades working in a scything whirlwind. Gray wrappings exploded into the air, flying all around him.
Down below, Jarlaxle looked to Ellery and said, "Consider the room secured."
Ellery managed one quick look the drow's way as she sprinted toward the tunnel entrances.
"Which one?" she asked again of Pratcus, who ran beside her.
"Yerself to the right, meself to the left!" the dwarf replied, and they split into the two possible openings.
Jarlaxle followed right behind them, but paused there. Athrogate rambled back from the stairs, trying to catch up.
Torches flared to life as Ellery ran through. A split second later, Pratcus's heavy strides similarly lit the first pair in his descending corridor.
"Which one, then?" Athrogate asked Jarlaxle.
"Here!" Ellery cried before the drow could answer, and both Jarlaxle and Athrogate took up the chase of the woman warrior.
In the other tunnel, Pratcus, too, heard the call, just as he passed the second set of torches, which flared to life. The dwarf instinctively slowed but shook his head. Perhaps his tunnel would intersect with the other and he wouldn't have to lose all the time backtracking, he thought, and he decided to light up one more set of torches.
He hit the next pressure plate, turning sidelong so that he could quickly spin around if the light didn't reveal an intersection.
But the torches didn't ignite.
Instead came a sudden clanging sound, and Pratcus just happened to be looking the right way to see the iron spike slide out of the wall.
He thought to throw himself aside but only managed to cry out. The spike moved too fast. It hit him in the gut and drove him back hard against the far corridor wall. It kept going, plunging right through the dwarf and ringing hard against the stone behind him.
With trembling hands, Pratcus grabbed at the stake. He tried to gather his wits, to call upon his gods for some magical healing. But the dwarf knew that he'd need more than that.
Flames licked at Mariabronne from every angle. He drove his sword through a daemon's head, tore it free and decapitated another as he swung wildly. All the room was spinning, though, and he was staggering more than charging as he went for the last pair of daemons.
His consciousness flitted away; he felt the rake of claws. He lifted an arm to defend himself and a monstrous maw clamped down upon it.
Black spots became a general darkness. He felt cold... so cold.
Mariabronne the Rover summoned all of his strength and went into a sudden and violent frenzy, slashing wildly, punching and kicking.
Then the ranger's journey was before him, the only road he ever rightly expected while following his adventurous spirit.
He was at peace.
Blackness engulfed Arrayan as the mummy's strong hands closed around her throat. She couldn't begin to concentrate enough to throw one of her few remaining spells, and she knew that her magic had not the strength to defeat or even deter the monsters in any case.
Nor did she have the physical strength to begin to fight back. She grabbed the mummy's wrists with her hands, but she might as well have been trying to tear an old oak tree out of the ground.
She managed a glance at Olgerkhan, who was thrashing with another pair of the horrid creatures, and that one glance told the woman that her friend would likely join her in the netherworld.
The mummy pressed harder, forcing her head back, and somewhere deep inside she hoped that her neck would just snap and be done with it before her lack of breath overcame her.
Then she staggered backward, and the mummy's arms went weak in her grasp. Confused, Arrayan opened her eyes then recoiled with horror as she realized that she was holding two severed limbs. She threw them to the ground, gasped a deep and welcomed breath of air, and looked back at the creature only to see the whirlwind that was Artemis Entreri hacking it apart.
Another mummy grabbed at Arrayan from the side, and she cried out.
And Entreri was there, rolling his extraordinary sword up and over with a left-to-right backhand that forced the mummy's arms aside. The assassin turned as he followed through, flipped his dagger into the air and caught it backhand, then drove it right to the hilt into the mummy's face as he came around. Gray dust flew from the impact.
Entreri yanked the dagger free, spun around so that he was facing the creature, and bulled ahead, driving it right over the railing.
Arrayan sobbed with horror and weakness, and the assassin grabbed her by the arm and guided her toward the stair.
"Get down!" he ordered.
Arrayan, too battered and overwhelmed, too weak and frightened, hesitated.
"Go!" Entreri shouted.
He leaped at her, causing her to cry out again, then he went right by, launching himself with furious abandon into another of the stubborn gnoll mummies.
"Now, woman!" he shouted as his weapons began their deadly dance once more.
Arrayan didn't move.
Entreri growled in frustration. It was going to be hard enough keeping himself alive up there as more creatures poured in, without having to protect Arrayan. A glance toward the door inspired him.
"Arrayan," he cried, "I must get to Olgerkhan. To the stair with you, I beg."
Perhaps it was the mention of her half-orc friend, or perhaps the calming change in his voice, but Entreri was glad indeed to see the woman sprint off for the stairs.
The mummy before him crumbled, and the assassin leaped ahead.
Olgerkhan was losing badly. Bruises and cuts covered him by then, and he staggered with every lumbering swing of his heavy war club.
Entreri hit him full force from behind, driving him right past the pair of battling mummies, and the assassin kept pushing, throwing Olgerkhan hard against the back of the opened door. The door slammed, or tried to, for a gargoyle was wedged between it and the jamb.
But Entreri kept moving, right into the incoming creature.
He ignored the mummies he knew were fast closing on him and focused all of his fury instead on that trapped gargoyle. He slashed and stabbed and drove it back.
Olgerkhan's weight finally closed the door.
"Just hold it shut!" Entreri yelled at him. "For all our sakes."
The assassin charged away at the remaining two mummies.
Ellery instinctively knew that she was in grave danger. Perhaps it had been the tone of Mariabronne's plea for help or even that the legendary Rover had called out at all. Perhaps it was the closed door at the bottom of the staircase before her, or maybe it was the sound.
For other than her footsteps, and those of the duo behind her, all was silent.
She lowered her shoulder and barreled through the door, stumbling into the room, shield and sword presented. There she froze, then slumped in horror and despair, her fears confirmed. For there lay Mariabronne, on his back, unmoving and with his neck and chest covered in his own blood. Blood continued to roll from the neck wound, but it was not gushing forth as it had been, for the ranger's heart no longer beat.
"Too many," Athrogate said, rambling in behind her.
"Guardian daemons," Jarlaxle remarked, noting the demonic heads, all that remained of the creatures, lying about the room. "A valiant battle."
Ellery continued to simply stand there, staring at Mariabronne, staring at the dead hero of Damara. From her earliest days, Ellery had heard stories of that great man, of his work with her uncle the king and his particular relationship with the line of Tranth, the Barons of Bloodstone and Ellery's immediate family members. Like so many warriors of her generation, Ellery had held up the legend of Mariabronne as the epitome of a hero, the idol and the goal. As Gareth Dragonsbane and his friends had inspired the young warriors of Mariabronne's generation, so had he passed along that inspiration to hers.
And he lay dead at Ellery's feet. Dead on a mission she was leading. Dead because of her decision to split the party to explore the tunnels.
Almost unaware of her surroundings, Ellery was shaken from her turmoil by the shout of Athrogate.
"That's the priest!" the dwarf yelled, and he charged back out of the room.
Jarlaxle moved near to Ellery and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"You are needed elsewhere," the dark elf bade her. "There is nothing more you can do here."
She offered the drow a blank look.
"Go with Athrogate," said Jarlaxle. "There is work to be done and quickly."
Hardly thinking, Ellery staggered out of the room. "I will see to Mariabronne," Jarlaxle assured her as she stumbled back up the corridor.
True to his word, the drow was with the ranger as soon as Ellery was out of sight. He pulled out a wand and cast a quick divination spell.
He was surprised and disappointed at how little magic registered on a man of Mariabronne's reputation. The man's sword, Bayurel, was of course enchanted, as was his armor, but none of it strongly. He wore a single magical ring, but a cursory glance told Jarlaxle that he possessed at least a dozen rings of greater enchantment - and so he shook his head and decided that pilfering the obvious ring wasn't worth the risk.
One thing did catch his attention, however, and as soon as he opened Mariabronne's small belt pouch, a smile widened on Jarlaxle's face.
"Obsidian steed," he remarked, pulling forth the small black equine figurine. A quick inspection revealed its command words.
Jarlaxle crossed the ranger's arms over his chest and placed Bayurel in the appropriate position atop him. He felt a moment of regret. He had heard much of Mariabronne the Rover during his short time in the Bloodstone Lands, and he knew that he had become party to a momentous event. The shock of the man's death would resonate in Vaasa and Damara for a long time to come, and it occurred to Jarlaxle that it truly was an important loss.
He gave a quick salute to the dead hero and acknowledged the sadness of his passing.
Of course, it wasn't enough of a regret for Jarlaxle to put back the obsidian steed.
"Aw, what'd ye do?" Athrogate asked Pratcus as soon as he came upon the dying priest.
Pinned to the corridor wall, his chest shattered and torn, Pratcus could only stare numbly at his counterpart.
Athrogate grabbed the spike and tried to pull it back, but he couldn't get a handhold. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, both of them knew, as did Ellery when she moved in behind the black-bearded dwarf.
"Bah, ye go to Moradin's Halls, then," Athrogate said. He pulled a skin from around his neck and held it up to the priest. "A bit o' the gutbuster," he explained, referring to that most potent of dwarven liquid spirits. "It'll help ye get there and put ye in a good mood for talking with the boss."
"Hurts," Pratcus gasped. He sipped at the skin, and even managed a thankful nod as the fiery liquid burned down his throat.
Then he was dead.