The first week after restoring the Sword of Valour was spent primarily sorting out supplies – finding what was useful and distributing it as necessary. The fighters – Kieran in particular – helped clear out the remaining demons but most of my work was stocktaking. So the second week, I helped Aenivia with scouting the surrounding areas and spent time trying to get to know the advisors and leaders Queen Galfrey had sent.
After the fortnight had passed, Irabeth told us that a priest of Erastil had disappeared, right after finally completing the shrine he had been working on. A bit of investigating revealed that Jeska had taken the various set-backs to consecrating the shrine in his stride and seemed generally well-liked. A bit more digging, however, revealed that there was a darker side to the priest since he had come to town: female parishioners reluctantly spoke of the ways he had flirted with them – charming and flattering at the time, but creepy afterwards. His behaviour in other ways wasn’t entirely what one would expect from a cleric of Erastil and it seemed he had taken a great interest in the ways the ancient people who’d lived here had worshiped my god; an unhealthy interest, perhaps. The shrine had been desecrated. A book of heretical worship – that towns should have no more than 53 residents, that the 54th would always be a traitor – was annotated that he wished to find more works by the author* in her burial place to the south.
We warned Irabeth where we would be going and that Jeska had gone bad. I hope Noleski would be pleased I’m remembering not to just run off but to let people know when I might be in danger. And even as I think it I miss him with a pang… it’s more or less months, now, that we’ve been married, and nearly as long since I’ve seen him. But I can’t think of that now: there’s work to be done.
As well as seeking Jeska, Irabeth asks that we keep an eye out for the bandits that are attacking caravans, and a mysterious flying beast – larger even than Brutus in his doubly-enlarged form – that has similarly but independently taken out supplies. This strange beast has only been seen from a distance: no one who has seen it up close has survived.
Brutus carried us southwards. As we travel, we’re keeping eyes open for anything that could be the secret church of Desnae where, rumour has it, the heretical succubus Aurashalé may be hiding. Aenivia has similarly had no luck thus far, but finding her seems important so we keep trying. We didn’t see any sign on this particular trip, but it didn’t take too long to locate the likely site of the tomb: a river of lava, complete with ‘lavafalls’ and a lake beneath with three islands. Further south, we could see a forest with pillars of smoke that we took note of for later investigation.
One of the shores had bright blue gems that arced power across to scorch another of the islands. Three vrock – bird-like demons – appeared to be preparing a ritual so we thought we’d better stop them. Between the ballista on Brutus’s back, Alexei’s spells and my crossbow, it didn’t take long to send them back to the hell from which they came. The gems were an interesting and shiny mixture of colours and varieties not normally seen together – uncut, but still worth something of a fortune (hmmm… not just ‘something of’ but truthfully a real fortune. I think I’m getting too used to wealth). Having foraged the gems, we turned back to the lavafall and the cavern where we suspected the tomb of the heretical cleric of Erastil* lay. We were not wrong.
Inside, a ledge enabled us to dismount from Brutus without landing in the lava. We could see a shadowy figure further in, slumped against a crystal coffin. He was worked up, shouting that he had betrayed Erastil and was unworthy: it was pretty clear, as he stripped out of filthy, vomit-coated armour, that he was intending to cast himself into the lava. Alexei spoke to him – spoke of possession and being out of control, spoke of redemption – and he calmed. It was remarkable. The crystal coffin behind him and the body it contained crumbled to dust and was blown away on the convection currents from the heat of the lava. We took the repentant Jeska back to Drezen, where he was given a horse and allowed to travel to his homelands to seek redemption. I hope Erastil guides him on his way, for it is a dangerous journey alone and sad as he is.
Us, we headed south once more, to those forests. It didn’t take long to find a well-sealed fort, with only one entrance in the form of large double doors and all windows little more than arrow-slits. Aaron and I snuck to it using the remains of the trees that had been cut back to create the clearing in which the large building stood. As I attempted to break the lock, Aaron activated his ability to ‘blur’ in and out of reality and used this to run through the door… As I continued to fiddle with the lock, I could hear sounds of violence inside so called the paladin and bodyguard still on Brutus’s back to come and help us… eventually got the door open to find Aaron had swiftly dispatched one barbarian and was doing his best not to kill the other.
Kieran healed the dead one back to life. I took an interest in the taxidermied bear and eagle behind the door: seeing someone else pulled back has become disquieting for me. There was a secret door behind the eagle – the barbarians later explained this lead to a storeroom. For now, I gave the resurrected man a drink to help him recover from the shock and he and the other guard lead us to their leader, sitting on a throne in a large hall in which statues of men and women glared down in judgement. He accepted he was responsible for the attacks on our supply caravans and, on learning we were part of the Crusade, advised he would have to kill us… That didn’t go well for him: barely a word from Alexei, and he was on the floor in a crumpled heap with no head.
The rest of the tribe were pleased to sign on to help us out, agreeing to act as guards for the caravans over this section of their route rather than bandits. One family volunteered to come back to Drezen with us to act as liaisons.
The barbarians had rumours of the strange winged creature that was our next target. It was scaled, they believed, and acid oozed between these copper-red scales. It was armed with large talons and teeth as long as broad swords. The creature was also said to be blind, with scars in place of eyes. However, they had no idea where it was based: the size of it meant it covered such a large area it seemed impossible to pin down. Finding a previously attacked location confirmed some of the rumours: gouged marks in the ground supported the teeth and talon claims, and other areas seemed to have been acid damaged.
With trepidation, we continued seeking out a lair for this beast and, after another few days flying with Brutus, in the cliff-like side of a chasm we spotted what appeared to be the entrance to a cave large enough to fit the rumours. The tunnel within opened into a large cavern filled with treasures – whilst Keiran kept guard at the entrance and the others gathered round Alexei, I spotted a sealed and blood-stained letter addressed to a cleric of Serenrai I knew was back in Drezen and a token of Iomedae I thought Akaros may appreciate, both small enough to be quickly and quietly pocketed. In the middle of the room, Aaron, Alexei and Evander drew my attention with sudden, jerked movements – fear like I’ve never seen in them.
Alexei looked up: “We have to leave. Now.”
He had created a scrying pool and sought out the beast within it: a terrifying creature of red, oozing scales with massive scars where its eyes had been. I didn’t look into the pool: the expressions on the faces around were enough to warn me off and mean I listened when Alexei said it was coming and we couldn’t be there when it arrived. Keiran went to argue, but we overruled him and Alexei took us back to Drezen through the Ethereal Plane (it’s a creepy place, but I think I’m getting used to it).
In Drezen, we explained what we had found and what Alexei had seen. He went off and returned with powerful weapons, armour and other items: a gift from his god. Apparently, this creature is out of place – should not be here, maybe should not be anywhere – so we have been tasked with getting rid of it. These weapons would give us a chance. Not much of a chance, but should mean we won’t die within seconds of its becoming aware of us.
So now to prepare to face it. Wizards and clerics will cast whatever protection they can to assist us, but then we’re on our own. We need to fight it on some sort of ground where it can’t just take to the sky and leave us, but fighting it within its own lair seems foolhardy too. This is a frightening prospect, but something we need to at least try.
*Yes, I’ve forgotten her name. Delamere? I want to say Delamere, but that may have been somebody else.