Act III: Court of the Queen of Thorns - Part 2
The Bitter Gap, Black Peak Mountains, Pendaelen 16th-19th 1014 YE
The party finally entered the mountain pass known as Bitter Gap, a depression between two peaks formed from a long extinct glacier. As they traveled through the gap they were suddenly attacked from above. A volley of barbed spiked rained down on them inflicting many injuries. A pride of manticores were circling the party and were using their barbed spikes to inflict mass casualties on the party.
Many of the parties mounts died under the unceasing volley of the manticores. Ivanova screamed out in grief as her beloved pet owl Titana was pierced by one of the spikes killing her. Oberron’s pony fell throwing the dwarf to the rocky ground.
The manticores stayed far enough away that it neutralized many of the heroes’ offensive capabilities. None of Avery’s, Garrick’s or Lozen’s spells could reach the flying monsters. Ivanova had pulled out her bow as did Arnie. Ivanova’s first shot was caught by the mountain winds and blew away, however her second shot was true and a manticore bellowed it pain.
The casualties continued to mount as almost everyone suffered injury. Piotr the Pious, one of Ivanova’s guardsmen dies when a barb pierced his armor and his heart. Avery attempted to shield his wounded familiar Hugein with his body but another barb found it, killing it. The death of the familiar dealt Avery and Garrick a terrible blow as the arcane link between the brothers caused them both to scream in agonizing pain.
Sensing their pray was sufficiently weakened, the manticores swooped in for kill. Instead, they were stopped cold by the ferocity of The Lightbringers who unleashed their full fury on the beasts. The three manticores fell shortly after. The heroes then tended to their wounded and buried their lost comrades and friends.
The most of the party was now traveling on foot, the remaining horses being used as pack animals with the exception of Damien’s and Moryna’s horses, both were skilled horse warriors and they needed the mobility.
The Northern Slopes of the Black Peak Mountains, Pendaelen 20th-24th 1014 YE
As the party descended out of Bitter Gap, they were finally on the north side of the Black Peak Mountains, well beyond the boundaries and reach of the empire. Before them stretched a sea of green, the great forest of Canolbarth, it was an ancient and primordial forest. Even from this far distance they could make out towering trees and the mighty Thorn Wall. Sparrow-Hawk had become excited and began to regale the party with tales of the forest kingdom of the elves.
Sparrow-Hawk never got to finish his story as two large rocks smashed him and his mount into a bloody mess. A gang of hill giants had surprised the party and had begun lobbing large rocks at them. The party split up and engaged the giants; Damien still mounted charged one giant and unleashed his anger upon it.
Avery turned to face the three giants to the rear with Lozen. Avery lifted his hands and wove a spell; the smell of ozone filled the mountain gap as a bolt of lightning struck two of the giants.
The rest of party had various successes with the other giants, Damien being the most successful, struck down two. Avery however was acting oddly, ever since the death of Hugein during the battle with the manticores, he had seemed distant and distraught; the loss had affected him deeply. When the two large rocks thrown by the giants smashed into him, he did not even cry out; he just crumbled into a bloody mess.
Avery was numb and could feel nothing, he could only watch as his brother and friends continued to fight against the giants. The world shifted and blurred; he was once more in the realm of twilight and could feel himself being pulled towards the Death Gate’s. He had nothing left, his strength was gone, his anger, his pride, his will to live was draining out of him.
A dark feather shape swooped in next to him and he could hear the voice of Hugein.
“Caw, Hello Master”
“Caw, I did not think we would be reunited so soon”
“I am sorry I could not protect you, I failed you.”
“Caw, Blame you not I do, Caw, All things die, even magnificent birds such as I”
“Caw, do you wish to finally pass beyond the gates?”
Avery thought for a minute of what that would mean, no more pain, no more fear, peace, to see his mother and father again, maybe to see Lynara. Avery could begin to feel himself fade more and more.
“Caw, Oath Unfulfilled, Promises Broken, Love Undeclared, Master wants this?’
Then the image of Ivanova came to Avery and he felt an ache in his soul. Why did the thought of Ivanova make his heart hurt so? Then he thought of his brother and the other Lightbringers and the ache grew worse. He then thought about Chill Wing and the ache turned into searing pain; that pain soon became anger and that anger howled like the north wind.
“I WANT TO LIVE” screamed Avery
“Caw, and so you shall, my parting gift to you my master”
The raven opened his wings wide and a bright light shined forth. This light propelled Avery away from the gate and sent him hurtling towards a bright star. During the journey, Avery could feel himself getting stronger and stronger; the power of the dead filled him. Avery’s spirit crossed over and he could see the battle taking place.
Seeing his body, Avery yelled for joy and darted for it hoping to rejoin the battle. Just as he reached his body, a black bolt of lightning struck him. A wispy shadowy wraith appeared above him cackling madly. Avery could feel all of his energy being drained away; it was flowing into the creature as it became thicker and more substantial.
“Hehehehe, Thank you so much elf lord, I have been waiting for my chance to wreck my vengeance upon you all.”
Avery recognized the voice; it was the voice of the Necromancer Keyes, who they had killed during the storming of the Watch Tower of Eammon Tor.
“I going to make that filthy dwarf watch while I disembowel his pretty little priestess, hehehehe”
Avery watched in anguish as Keyes took over his body.
Avery’s spirit hovered above the battlefield and watched in horror as his possessed body wrecked carnage on the giants and his comrades. Garrick sensing something had gone terribly wrong shifted in the middle of the battle into the form of a giant raven and flew to his brother. Avery screamed in frustration as he watched Lozen get cut down. His brother Garrick tried repeatedly to stop Avery and finally succeeded in doing so by draining most of the necromantic energy out of his body starving the wraith inside until it was but a small black flame.
Reaching out with his hands, Avery desperately attempted to pull the necromancer out of his body. However a black hole emerged in the sky above Avery and black barbed iron chains shot out of it, they whipped around his throat, his limbs and his waist. The chains dragged Avery’s spirit towards the yawning black hole, Avery struggled with every ounce of his being but the chains were too strong,
Darkness engulfed him
Lozen having failed in her attempted to enthrall the hill giants, drew her blades and prepared to fight the lumbering giants in hand-to-hand combat. She never saw the blow that broke her jaw or shattered most of the teeth in her mouth. Before she had a chance to figure out what hit her, Avery drove his glaive through her, Lozen looked into Avery’s eyes and could see her reflection, and her face registered shock and betrayal. Avery’s face excluded a sense of glee and sadistic delight as her life blood splashed on him.
The party was in shock, Avery had collapsed unconscious to the ground and the last hill giant could be seen running away over the horizon. Damien and Oberron both stood poised to land a killing blow on Avery’s prone form. Ivanova had transformed into a black swan and flew to where the wounded Lozen lay. When she landed she shifted back into her human form and did her best to treat the blade dancer’s wounds. Lozen had been run through with a glaive. In addition to that her jaw was dislocated and most of her teeth had been broken.
Garrick had transformed back into his elf form, took his brother in his arms and tried to wake him, but Avery did not respond. Damien took a moment and used his gaze to look at Avery, what he saw was troubling. Avery’s aura radiated chaos like he had seen few time before, it looked like black and red flames. As he continued to watch Avery, the flames became weaker and fainter, until finally the elf’s aura was the gray of neutrality once more.
While the fight with giants was over, a new one looked to be brewing. Ivanova was furious; Damien and Oberron looked ready to fight. Garrick got his brother up on one of the remaining horses with Noelia’s help. Moryna looked torn, she was sworn to protect Ivanova, but concern for her former master was etched on her face.
“Get him out of here Garrick and away from us” Ivanova’s voice was cold when she spoke to Garrick.
Garrick simply nodded, taking the reins of the horse and led it down the pass.
The rest of the party buried Sparrow Hawk, gathered together their remaining mounts and redistributed their supplies. A makeshift litter was assembled and Lozen was placed on it. After a couple of hours they found a good place to make camp, Ivanova could see a thin column of smoke from a nearby campfire, Garrick’s most likely.
Night had fallen and the stars shined brightly above. Garrick knelt down beside his brother and checked him again. Avery was still unconscious and there was not telling if he would every wake. There was something terrible wrong, as Avery spirit was absent but his body was still breathing.
Garrick traced the symbol of Calefa into the dirt and then knelt over it. Pulling out his holy symbol, he gripped it with both hands and bowed his head. He began to pray to Calefa in the hopes she would hear his pleas.
“So, I know we’re probably not on the best terms right now. After what I did. I’m sorry for that, by the way. I really, truly am. But I don’t really know who else to turn to. My brother needs help and I think he is beyond the basic healing a priestess or cleric can give. Our priestess is barely alive and in no condition to help Avery. My brother draws breathe still but he sleeps like the dead, it is if his spirit has fled his body.”
Tears began to flow down Garrick’s face as he the thought of losing his brother came home.
“I know I said the last time my mission was the most important thing. But that’s… a lie. My family is, and the only one left is Avery. None of this will be worth it if we’re not standing atop the mountain together at the end of this. Together, or not at all. Maybe it has fled to you Gray Mother and is in your care. If that is so, please send him back.””
Noelia stood silently watching over both brothers and made a silent prayer to the seven.
The mood in the camp was subdued, the loss of so many companions and the sudden rift in the party had everyone brooding and looking inward. Arnie had gotten a fire started and Fred had produced his always amazing stew, through few seemed interesting in eating. Lozen laid on a make shift litter, where her quiet moans and sobs of pain could be felt. Oberron hovered and fretted over the priestess, doing his best to make her comfortable; worry carved jagged lines in the dwarfs face. Ivanova was sullen and taciturn; she gave orders to Moryna to set the watch and to wake her if there was trouble. Damien was aloof and kept to himself; he tended to the few remaining mounts and seemed preoccupied about something.
The dwarf rung the cold water out of the cloth, folded it neatly and placed it on Lozen’s forehead. The blade-dancer was in great pain and groaned softly. The dwarf took her hand in his scarred callous hands and gently patted it. She seemed so frail and small now, nothing like the tall strong brave woman she normally was.
The dwarf in a spoken in a soft whisper “Forgive me priestess, I should have been there fighting by your side. If I had, you would not been in so much pain, now.”
Closing his eyes he began to pray aloud. “Oh Ianna, Goddess of Love and War, It is me Oberron. Please hear this prayer. Bring me strength in battle, and guide my heart to where it is meant to belong. Forgive me this failure and the shame I have done. I will honor you with my actions. For each failure may I achieve two more victories. Praise be your glorious name.”
Unseen by the dwarf his hammer gave off a warm glow then faded.
Damien put the war saddle on the ground and began to brush down Maximus; who seemed unchanged from what had happened to him. Garrick had somehow pulled Maximus from the edge of death, turning the once white gelding, black. The horse was busy happily munching on his oats and whisking away flies with his tail.
Damien could see the others around the camp and it was clear that they were all in dealing with the pain and shock of Avery’s betrayal and attack on them. Damien only felt confusion, what had happened to Avery, had his dabbling in the necromantic arts finally caught up with him and is he now possessed by some evil spirit? The Northman would not be caught unawares again by Avery and there would be an accounting for his actions.
“Man, that was something back there” said a small voice; Damien looked around and saw a small kangaroo mouse was sitting on the back of Maximus.
“It is you, the Saint’s Messenger”
“Abner the Avenger at your service” The small mouse gave a pronounced bow. The mouse turned and looked at the camp. “Your friends all seem to be in pain.”
Damien shrugged his shoulders, “Pain is temporary; it will make them stronger in the end.”
Abner cocked an ear towards him, “Man, you are one frosty goy.”
“I am a son of the north, not a goy, whatever that is.”
The Saint of Swords communicates to me through a rat? The Dane thought to himself as he sat down on a boulder and let out a soft sigh. Aye, how far the mighty have fallen that I now communicate through the musings of a rat; I must be thankful, for the Saint did clear my mind, my brain no longer aches and that low buzz in my ears is now gone.
“So tell me good rat, what message has the Saint for me”
“Hey Buster I ain’t no rat!” Abner spat back indignantly. “I was once a man and a mortal champion of the Saint just like you. I was brought off the bench to be a messenger and advisor to you and for your information I am currently a kangaroo mouse, M-O-U-S-E.”
“So…you were a man and a mortal champion?” Damien said quizzically to the diminutive creature before him as the once unflappable, now totally confused Dane sat back.
“Yep, I use to be a beat cop back in my hometown of Keystone City until I got tapped by the Saint to be his mortal champion of my earth. I became the masked crime fighter known as the Avenger. The thing you have got to know is that there are a lot of different worlds out there and some of them have their own mortal champion. Do you remember all of the swords in the Saint’s Tabernacle?”
Damien nodded quietly as he tried to digest what the mouse was telling him.
“A lot of those belong to mortal champions from dozens of different worlds and time periods. When a mortal champion dies, his sword appears in the tabernacle as does his soul. We serve the saint even in death. Sometime we are recalled back to the mortal realm, like I was for a special purpose.”
A soft stroke of his chin and a low laugh combined with a slow shaking of his head brings a light to the Northman’s eyes as he begins to speak aloud, “Please forgive my rudeness…this whole affair takes me by surprise…which is no easy task I assure you.”
“If I am to be his champion I must know what he stands for…or at least…what he stands against. Is there some quest I am to pursue to prove my worth to him? Perhaps a mission to right a wrong? Yes?”
Damien smiles at the thought, then leans forward as a flood of questions explodes from his mouth, “What is his symbol? Am I to carry it into battle? Does he have any rituals that I need to know about or any holy days that must be observed? Do I pray to him and if so when, morning, twilight, on the field or off? Or is he not about any of that?”
Abner was busy stuffing oats into his cheeks and chewing while he waited for Damien to take a breath. Once he had stopped Abner attempted to answer some of his questions.
“Listen, the mortal champion is a soldier in the cosmic war between order and chaos. The Saint of Swords is like a recruiter, he looks for men and women who have the chutzpah to fight against those schmuzik agents of chaos that infest their worlds. Your ability to heal yourself, see evil, ward off almost all diseases are all gifts that the Saint’s champions get from him.”
“What in the twelve hells is chutzpah?” thought Damien, but he refrained from interrupting Abner.
“Being a Mortal Champion of the Saint of Swords is not about religious symbols, holy days, rituals or prayers. This is a vocation Damien, the saint’s symbol is the sword and when you wield it against the agents of chaos, you do honor to him. Hell, my people only used swords for ceremonial purposes but even I carried a sword during my days as the Avenger, but I also carried a forty-five.”
Damien did not respond but instead picked up his sword and gazed at it.
After everyone in the party had fallen asleep for the night, Ivanova got up from her bedroll and crept silently across the field. The breeze carried a slight smell of decay from the battlefield they'd left behind. But that wasn't what worried the young paladin-- it was the pain in her heart. Of course, she was still in mourning for her sweet, Titana. But she knew that Finnoughla was watching him soar in his afterlife, where there were no manticores or evil beings. No, it was something else.
Ivanova was remembering a time when her Uncle Dmitri had to put down a beloved dog, Quick. The dog had a problem with its mind, and had begun to attack the family. At first, Dmitri had overlooked the bites and snarls, as they were not serious. But finally, the dog had given Lemunda a nasty bite to her hand, and her uncle could put it off no longer.
Ivanova had screamed and cried, being a young girl and a lover of animals. But once Dmitri had finished burying the creature with tears in his eyes, she had felt confused and sad.
"You see, Evie," he told her later. "We all loved Quick, but he was dangerous. He was loyal to us, and it was not his fault. Sometimes our minds go bad and the same happens to animals. So even though we loved him, I love Lemunda and this family more, so I could not let him stay and hurt anyone else I care about."
Ivanova had understood. And now she felt much more keenly and strongly what her uncle must have felt that day.
She knew, in her heart of hearts, that it was not safe to have Avery around anymore. He was dangerous, him and his brother. But unlike Garrick, Avery was apparently capable of killing friends in the real world, not just the spiritual plane where they were all as good as dead to begin with.
Also unlike Garrick, Avery was loyal and kind. He was strong and stoic, single-minded and determined. Yet, there had been signs. And just like Dmitri chose to look the other way and not admonish his beloved pet, Ivanova now knew she had been doing the same, but much more recklessly. Animals that walked on two legs were far more dangerous than the beasts that walked on four, and an unhinged elf was even more perilous than that.
Avery used dark magic. She had seen him use it to raise the dead in battle, yet she had not focused her will on him to see if he was evil. Would that have been true for anyone else? She did not even use it this last time; she couldn't bear to do it, for some reason. Perhaps, she thought to herself, she did not want confirmation that such a trusted ally could be turned towards the darkness.
Damien had warned her once in the past, but as she had shrugged it off, so had he. And now, Damien and Oberron were both enraged enough to kill Avery.
With a sigh, Ivanova crept farther away, where she could see the stars. I know that I should want to kill him for what he did to Lozen, but I don't. Although she had made Garrick take Avery away, she knew it was more for his own safety than that of the party's.
What Ivanova couldn't understand was why there was such a struggle inside of her. It should be an obvious decision to banish him from their party. Even if it was some art of Calefa that had made Avery do what he did, it was still his choice to follow that path. He made his own decisions every step of the way, and there were consequences.
But when she thought of saying those words to him, telling him to leave, it was as if her heart were shattering to hundreds of pieces and her tongue was suddenly cloven to the roof of her mouth. And now he was gone, away from all of them, gone from her, maybe permanently. She did not know where Garrick would take him. The realization that she may not need to speak any words of departure to him at all left her no comfort.
He had been by her side, always. He had given up his fire magic to please her. He considered her opinions without question, while still showing resolve to his own aims. She admired that about Avery, his willingness to go to the ends of the earth for vengeance against Chill Wing. But why would that thought make her cry at the thought of losing him?
Ivanova knew that Avery would have died for her at any step on the journey. Or he could have killed me tonight, and the realization of that thought chilled her heart. She was still, as if she had been enchanted by a sudden spell of paralysis.
It hit Ivanova suddenly that somewhere along the way; somehow, she had come to care very much for Avery. Far too much. And then she burst into tears. Throwing herself on the ground, she muffled her sobs into the rocky earth, feeling incredibly wretched. For a long time she cried, until the tears began to ebb and she felt very tired. I'd rather fight a battle than go through this, she thought grimly. And then she felt very comfortable lying there, and rolled over onto her back. The stars were so bright, and they glistened and blinked through her tears.