My journey to Fallcrest after departing Orcbone Keep is pleasant and uneventful. I’m busy at nights exploring power awakened in me by my docent and I’m fortunate enough to be left alone to do so by the bandits that prey upon travelers in these troubled post-war times. The Orien trade road is becoming safer of late, claim other travelers and locals at the villages and way inns.
It’s a chill night when I arrive at Fallcrest, a damp mist from the falls blankets the whole town. I head to the Septarch Tower. Kronos isn’t present. Nimozaran informs me that they had a falling out and he’s no longer his student. I inform him of the pact Kronos has made and the artifact he bears. Nimozaran suspected but didn’t actually know of the pact. A man left without guidance other than Bellashyra’s Cloak of Eyes, that’s what Kronos is as of yesterday.
“I offer my apology master Nimozaran because I failed to keep my promise to protect him. At the crucial moment when I should have acted to prevent him from being claimed by the Coat of Eyes, I was unable to do so.”
“You are not at fault Book, no apology is needed. We all make our choices and no one can protect us from ourselves.”
His words are kind and wise. Still, I do not absolve myself of this failure. Nimozaran surprises me right then by offering me hospitality at his tower for as long as I care to accept it. He also bids me to follow him to Moonstone Keep.
Upon arriving at the Keep, I find my erstwhile companions already seated and waiting at the audience hall. We say our greetings and meet once more Lady Alande ir’Farren and Talia. I hear my companions give an edited version of events. It’s not lies but it’s not the whole truth either and Talia’s role in all this is presented differently. I keep silent, not knowing what agreement they have made with Talia or why. The changes in the story are cosmetic mostly, painting a much less victimized Talia. I hold my questions for later. It turns out that Nimozaran was asked by the ir’Farrens to craft a reward for us in the form of sending stones. He offers one to each of us and even attaches mine to my left wrist. It’s a very useful item, one that saw heavy use in every nation’s officer corps during the Last War. One need only speak a secret word, then the name of the recipient (another holder of a sending stone) and if he’s within a thousand meters, the two may converse. The first word that I speak to the stone is the name of the thirteenth moon, ‘Crya’, once the door to the Dreaming Heart. This then becomes the secret word that ensures that only I may use the stone’s magic.
Before we take our leave from mother and daughter, I ask about the knight whose statue adorns the waterfall.
“He was called Vendar and local lore says that he slew a dragon that made its lair beneath the falls. This story must be legend however, who knows what the truth is?”
Nimozaran confirms that this story is nothing but a fanciful tale and gives me the age of the statue at a thousand years. Master Teldorthan agrees with this as well, when I discuss the statue with him the next day. The mystery remains unsolved. My first day in Fallcrest since my return passes quietly in the company of the dwarf. There’s no hint and no warning of what’s coming.
- * *
In the afternoon I head to Nentir’s Inn, to meet the rest of the company. Kronos, who has rented a room at the inn, shares a disturbing vision with the rest of us. Talia he has seen, fleeing in fear down dark alleys, pursued by assailants with lethal intent, the stars adorning the veil of night overhead. While I hate to admit it, I put some stock in this vision in account of the previous one and I dare not ignore it. The previous vision that Kronos had been granted wasn’t long in coming, so if anything is to happen, it will happen this very night. It seems that the rest also have faith in the cloak’s precognitive vision and we all agree to walk the streets once night falls.
Dire news arrive as I enjoy the company of the rest of my fellow pawns of prophecy. A newsboy’s thin voice interrupts our conversation to advertise the latest edition of Sharn’s Inquisitive. A few pages later, I’m crumpling the paper, throw it in the fire and storm out of the inn. Motionless in the night, I try to remember the faces of all the soldiers that I met in Orcbone Keep, recall all the names I’ve heard in my brief stay there. The Keep is no more. A force of at least two thousands monsters from Droaam lay siege and took it by force of arms. Only one man was allowed to live, Lord Veirner ir’Tajar. The paper documents a message spoken by this man whose sanity fled,
“We shall honour our agreement but our secrets are ours and betrayal will have consequences.”
Obviously, a message from the Queens of Droaam, those damnable hags, to me. Crazy, murderous bitches. They razed a Keep and slaughtered hundreds and effectively declared war to Breland because I shared my knowledge of them with the commander. How did they know? Why didn’t they send assassins after me and sent me a message instead?
Several facts may be inferred from what has happened. The hags do not wish the death of any of us. Killing me or all of us would be the most expedient way to ensure that our knowledge won’t be revealed but they didn’t do it. Also, the Queens must have been ready for war with Breland, else an expeditionary force of that size wouldn’t be ready at such short notice. More importantly they’re willing to go to war, else they wouldn’t dare such a bold, reckless and brutal assault. I’m comforted by the thought that now that they have forced the King’s hand, the hags will reap what they’ve sown.
My anger subsides in time and I return inside. The patrons are discussing and debating the news. There are obvious discrepancies and mistakes in the paper but that’s to be expected. The news must have been sketchy at first and hastily documented before the paper was printed. It’s pointless to argue over the details. To my surprise I see that some of the company place silent blame for this tragedy on my divulging information about the Queens. I deem it pointless to argue something that I consider self-evident and so let the silent accusations lie unaddressed.
Hark reads the only bit of good news in the paper, namely the arrest, trial and conviction of Lord Aric Blacktree. My fears about the well-being of Lord Bren were unfounded it seems. In the end he brought Blacktree to justice. The villain spewed some nonsense about being manipulated by the Blood of Vol but magical influence was ruled out by the authorities of Sharn. Aric Blacktree got what he deserved. I wish with all my heart that the Queens will also know justice for their crimes.
- * *
I’m lost in thought and sorrow for the cruel fate of the defenders of Orcbone Keep, when Gorbir brings me out of my reverie. Night has fallen and we have a task to perform. We set out to patrol the streets of Fallcrest, heading towards Moonstone Keep where lady Talia should be safely asleep. Few people are about, the alleys are mostly silent and empty. Just when I begin to think that this task is a waste of time, a ruckus erupts somewhere ahead, screams and running feet mingling with howls and skittering. Quite surprised, we find ourselves in the midst of a mob that flees, pursued by wolves, rats and bats! I watch this scene stupefied until someone yells about Talia being attacked by ruffians down the alley. The brothers rush ahead, followed a few moments later by Gorbir and Kronos. I try to stop the animals but they rush by me and It seems to me that only one of the panicked and fleeing people is the target of their ire. I run after him but fear has given him wings and I cannot reach him. I turn back and join the battle between the company and the ruffians. One would expect them to turn and run, after all they were out this night to murder a lone woman and find themselves in battle with an equal number of experienced opponents. They have courage and conviction but the battle’s outcome is predetermined. When it’s over, they lie dead on the cold cobbles.
Talia’s alive and well and none of us is seriously harmed. I heard one of them scream something about the ‘swords of liberty’ during the fight and an emblem carried by them confirms that they are indeed member of this rebel group. Did they target Talia as part of their ongoing campaign to destabilize Breland’s government or was their purpose something else entirely? We will never know as no one is left alive to talk. The brothers talk about some strange business after the battle, about one of the rebels being pulled up by hands and disappearing. That occurred when we first happened upon the scene, when the rest of us were preoccupied with the animals and the fleeing people. Nairo discovers a severed leg on the roof of the house adjoining the street. The bowman speaks of stories that his mother told him when he was a child, stories of creatures of the night that devoured men or drank their blood and had wondrous powers. I know of what he speaks of and I fear that he may be right. The man who was hounded by the rats and wolves and had fled the scene with the crowd, was nowhere to be found. The animals likewise disappeared in the night.
This is strange business. Talia professes ignorance of why she was attacked and of what happened to the man whose leg was found on the roof and appears to be sincere. Either there’s a nocturnal stalker in Fallcrest who seized the chance to feed on a rebel in the confusion or Talia has a protector with terrible powers and no moral reserve. Moreover, why did the Cloak lead us to rescue Talia? Does Belashyrra have a vested interest in Talia ir’Farren? Strange business indeed.
One would expect the strangeness and excitement to cease after this night but it’s not so. Another vision is given to Kronos by the Cloak; he sees a peasant woman, possibly cyran and a field with trees where smoke’s rising and a woman’s saying “but they’re just children.” This vision brings a severe headache to the warlock. He describes the woman and asks us if we recognize her. Hark says that he may have seen her at the inn but nothing comes of it. This vision seems to lead nowhere.
- * *
A day after the assault on Talia, we are en route to Sharn, the city of towers, with Lady Azaere and Untskra in our company. Five days and nights on the road pass quickly and pleasantly, giving us a chance to unwind from the trials of the last weeks. We pass the early night hours in the common rooms of way inns or around the campfire telling stories. Untskra relates the history of Dhakaan’s fall and Sharn’s early origins as Ja’sharaat, the ‘bright blade’ of the goblin empire that became Duur’sharaat, the ‘blade of sorrows,’ after the empire’s fall. Lady Amara continues with the history of Sharn under human rule and I pick it up at the War of the Mark, allowing her to conclude it at the coming of Galifar and the erection of the towers. Hark is also in a conversational mood these nights and we exchange war stories. He speaks with pride of the Red Ghosts, a cyran recon company where he and his brother served. The Last War shaped the lifestory of each of my companions, children of war we all are and we carry many stories of comradeship and hardship, courage and bloodshed.
Many as the stories are, they’re tightly held on to and seldom brought out in the open. Untskra is a case in point. He fought in the war but is ambiguous about when and on whose side. I don’t blame him as he probably was on the wrong side and deems it best not to make such revelations. I hope that he fought for Darguun. I’d hate to discover that he fought for Droaam because he might well be a spy for the Queens if that was true. Much as I like the goblin, I’ll have to keep an eye on him. It’s odd how he put the recent bloody business behind him and moved on with his life and his work. Here he is, in the company of the killers of his kin, apparently at ease. Revenge upon Aric Blacktree has been likewise far from his mind. I marvel at his forgiving nature and ability to overcome sorrow and go on.
There are two surprises during this otherwise uneventful journey. Around the campfire, Kronos professes to fear me on the basis of not knowing what the ‘dark powers,’ as he calls them had me do these past four years. He’s not sure whether I’m going to be the slave of these entities at some point or not. His words sound rehearsed to my auditory receivers and I answer with a platitude, wondering at his motives. How does he know that the entities that granted him power are many and not one? How does he know that they are ‘dark’ and what does this mean? Entities related to darkness or spoken as an epithet to denote that they are evil? I’ve considered the possibility of some link between me and the entity or entities that granted Kronos his power and led him to me. It’s part of the reason I feel commitment and responsibility towards him. He probably plays upon this lack of knowledge, thinking that such implications fill me with fear and anxiety. Whether it was Kronos speaking or the Cloak, his words won’t have any effect to my disposition and presence of mind. As a famous aundairian inquisitive of some centuries ago was fond of saying, “the plot thickens.”
The next surprise belongs to an offer made us by Untskra in the last night of our journey together. After lady Amara goes to sleep, me and Hark are still up talking of bygone days while Nairo lies in his bedroll but not yet asleep. Untskra asks us to speak in private, away from the campfire. Apparently he wants to keep what he’s about to say secret from lady Amara and he doesn’t reveal his reasons for doing so. He reveals to the three of us his status as a ‘wordbearer’. It’s a title that brought honour and some responsibility to the goblins of ancient Dhakaan, a lorekeeper perhaps or a historian although Untskra doesn’t elaborate. He’s one of the last, the title and responsibility inherited from his father. He has sent goblin adventurers to a tomb in Sharn to recover ancient artifacts from the ruins beneath the city, what’s now called the Cogs and once was Ja’shaarat. One month has passed and his agents have disappeared without a word. He makes us a generous offer of fifty gold apiece to discover the fate of his agents and complete their task – the recovery of dhakaani artifacts from an ancient tomb. The only warning that he can offer is that kruthiks, the giant insects that we fought at the ruined tower in the Day of Mourning, were seen emerging from a chasm near the tomb. The offer bears some consideration and discussion and so we don’t give our answer immediately.
We reach Sharn under a midday sun and enter through Wroann’s Gate. The majestic statue of the queen dominates everyone’s first impression. The towers rise seemingly to the sky and part of the city floats on a cloud higher than the tallest tower can reach. People of all races crowd the streets, merchants hawk their wares, skycoaches and soarsleds flit between the towers, a frenzy of activity and a jumble of images and colours under the shadow of the tall towers is quite a shock to anyone who hasn’t been here before and is used to the endless sky and the open country. We take rooms at the ‘Olacky Inn’ in the Northedge District, as does Untskra. The time is past noon and the people are hungry so we gather at the common room for a meal as Lady Azaere goes about her business.
We are well-rested and my companions prove restless and eager for the profits of adventure and so, after a hearty meal, we announce to Untskra our agreement to his request. The goblin loses no time to get ready to lead us to the place from which we’ll gain entry into the Cogs and supplies us with additional information about the tomb and his agents. He also gives us a crude map to find our way to the tomb’s entrance. After a short jaunt across the city to Tavick’s Landing, Untskra locates the entrance in Cogsgate and bids us good hunting. We descend below the Depths following a series of tunnels and shafts until we arrive at the Cogs. The temperature rises in the industrial depths of Sharn and we pass through a foundry on our way to the tomb. The map leads us true, as workers and guards posted around the foundry because of the kruthik infestation, confirm. We locate a recently excavated tunnel in an area of ancient goblin ruins and following it, we arrive at the heretofore unknown tomb.
The entry to the tomb is a worked chamber with pillars supporting the high ceiling. A stair ascends to a double set of iron doors, badly aged. Alcoves filled with bones line the two side walls and all the walls are carved with geometric patterns and scenes of goblins at war, work and play. A red banner that depicts a black crow hangs from a steel shaft in perfect condition. Intrigued by the image and the lack of decay, I take this banner for later study. Motes of light play in the dust-filled air, probably the tattered remnants of once-powerful magic. A pile of blackened skulls rests at the center inside a rune inscribed iron barrier. The iron and the skulls are old and fragile and the runes read,
“Ashurtah, slayer of these weaklings, keeper of the blade of the Ashen Crown.
Even in death, he is stoic and strong.
The might of Xoriat has not bested him and Hell goes with him.”
So, the slayer of the men whose skulls are here, adorning the entrance to his tomb, is named Ashurtah. He must have been a warrior and his blade was important, perhaps magical. He must have fought the Daelkyr, which puts the age of the man and his tomb at five thousand years. “Hell goes with him” is a common saying among goblins even today and refers to influence over fiends or beings of fire. So much work has gone into the entrance to his tomb and such grand deeds are claimed to be his that his tomb beyond the iron doors must be a majestic piece of work. It must also be an elaborate death trap. One can only hope that age has worn down the traps and magics that the dhakaani built into Ashurtah’s last home.
The hive reaches into this chamber as is evident by the numerous holes that emerge here at various points. Examining the chamber, we find signs of recent battle, goblin arrows and blood and dead kruthiks. Just as we debate whether to head into the kruthik tunnels to check for survivors, the chitinous monsters swarm out of the holes and attack. Fliers the size of vultures and crawlers the size of dogs rush to meet our steel and their end. Although the outcome of the battle wasn’t in question, we’re surprised by the fight the kruthiks put up. All of a sudden we see those holes under a new light and feel much less assured about exploring them. Be that as it may, we’re here to find the goblins that set out to explore the tomb and to bring back artifacts so exploring the hive is at the bottom of our priorities.
Our entry into the tomb is uncontested, apart form the kruthiks but that doesn’t last. The tomb consists of a number of chambers, serially linked, that lead to the resting place of Ashurtah. We face various tests of intelligence, cunning, might and endurance in order to open the doors to the next chamber, always a double set of iron. Remnants of magical light provide some illumination in the tomb and the heat is oppressive. The very first chamber is a puzzle for which the solution could be inferred from a symbol that we had found earlier. Gorbir struck upon the correct idea but in the end we erred and had to fight the fire elementals and a fiendish imp as well as scalding fire emanating from the floorplates. Kronos was uncertain and confused and it would get worse for him further on. . Just as we open the iron doors and enter the corridor that leads onwards, Kronos has a vision of a giant stone dragonhead, him and Gorbir dying in pain, crushed by the stone jaws as the rest of us burn alive. Nothing more to do but be careful so we walk on, heading into the next deathtrap.
The next chamber is indeed fahsioned from stone as a dragonead. It’s another trap and I snared by it after making some erroneous choices. Fortunately, the rest were out of the chamber when I tried to open the doors through pressing floor plates and I was the only one that had to suffer. The fortunate part was that the others were in a position to help me and I got out of the floor pit with the grinding ball seconds before being burned by lava pouring out of two tubes. Kronos’ vision didn’t come to pass, fortunately. We leave this deathtrap behind us with a sigh of relief and forge ahead in the shadowy gloom.
As we open the iron doors and enter the next chamber, the smell of decay is overwhelming. A large chamber supported by pillars with carved walls greets us. Statues of skeletal felines with six legs and two long tentacles menace us with their presence. Alcoves line the walls and either a sodden, mummified corspe or a pile of bones rest in each. Light motes, different from those that light the tomb so far, flit around a pillar. Water falls from a hole in the ceiling like rain on a shadowy figure. Nairo’s scream to beware the corruption corpse and the grave drakes is our only warning as the humanoid figure tears a fistful of his foul flesh and hurls it at us. Two small reptilian beasts, or what remains of them also attack at the same time. These horrors do not let up even after they’re destroyed, biting and gnawing even when twice-dead. The lightmotes also surprise us and turn out to be some kind of undead creature as they swarm Kronos. The battle is hard and although victorious, we’re exhausted.
The corruption corpse had few words to say during the battle from which I infer that it was a betrayer in life and this was its punishment, guarding a hero’s tomb even beyond death. All the other corspes in the alcoves were haphazardly interred. Memories speak of cowards and deserters being slain and buried like this. Their compatriots found a use for them in the next life.
Kronos has proved less than useful so far, his spells have been mostly ineffectual and he’s perpetually confused. He curses his luck but I suspect otherwise. After the undead are destroyed, he notices the gems in place of the eyes in the statues of the skeletal displacer beasts and tries to pry one out. He had already searched the statue for traps but a hidden spear springs and impales him. Undaunted, Kronos continues prying out gems and suffering spear strikes in every attempt. Should he be called reckless or foolish? On the other hand, suffering while in pursuit of wealth is something that I can’t really blame him for. After all, what am I doing here in the first place?
The next chamber is as ominous as the one we just emerged from. There are sarcophagi, sealed and standing upright with piles of black bones around them. Those entombed in them weren’t traitors or cowards but capable and loyal in life. I get this creak in my neck fibres that tell me this trial is going to be worse than the last one. A ghostly light from motes that circle the pillars suffuses this room. A hollowed-out stone claw holding a pool of what seems and smells like blood lies between the chamber’s four pillars. Wisps of red mist float in the damp air, the temperature is lower than the rest of the tomb we’ve crossed so far. We are unchallenged after first stepping through the iron gates and so we have time to examine the room. The blood inside the claw gurgles and there are runes on the floor around it that read,
“The blood of my enemies slakes my thirst and that of my servants and sword siblings,
now and for all time.”
Kronos has surprising insight into this sentence. According to him, goblins sometimes drink blood to celebrate victory and ‘sword sibling’ describes an honoured ally. Gorbir is the one who dares to drink first from the font with an ease that tells me he’s done it before. I splash some blood in my mouth next, curious whether any magic inherent in this font, harmful or helpful, is going to affect me. The others overcome their revulsion and drink the blood as well. We wait a little but nothing bad happens to us. On the contrary, the red mist seems to avoid us. There are two sets of iron gates in this chamber, apart from the one we entered. Hark and Gorbir cut themselves and smear their blood on the gates and they creak open. It seems that we’ll go through this chamber unchallenged after all. Kronos is the one that brings upon us the ire of the defenders and my suspicions are confirmed. The warlock’s greed is unfettered by thoughts of safety and prudence and states his desire to open a sarcophagus to look for artifacts. I deny such blatant looting. We’re here to loot the tomb, yes, but one must place limits upon oneself. I draw the limit on defiling the resting place of the honoured dead. Kronos doesn’t and he opens a sarcophagus despite my protests.
A chill wind blows then and sighs reverberate throughout the chamber. The bone piles animate and skeletons assemble and move against us. Their leaders in this battle are many. A hobgoblin skeleton clatters out of one sarcophagus, wielding a falchion that drips blood. A pale hobgoblin in tattered rags shambles out of another sarcophagus with wicked claws and eyes burning with hate. Finally from the last sarcophagus emerges a black apparition with a burning hobgoblin skull floating as its head. It’s this last defender that screams ‘thieves’ and the force of its voice has each of us cringing in fear and stepping back, away from it. To our credit, not one of us breaks and runs, even though we all have our doubts about winning the battle over this host of the honoured dead. This battle is terrible but glorious as each of us gives his all against the undead, a song of courage and steel, a trial of mortal flesh against ghostly ether, ancient bone and necrotic matter. This hall has known naught but the silence and stillness of the grave and for what seems like a few heartbeats, it becomes the stage of a desperate struggle between the living and the dead. When the battle is over, when silence and stillness settle on the hall again, when every cry and every drop of sweat and blood are absorbed by the thirsty stones, the victors draw breath. The living have won.
Kronos has become a topic that’s left alone by all of us. Little help he has been so far, he has given our enemies plenty of anger but little else. I can see that my companions consider all of this just bad luck. They’re all veterans of the Last War and on some level each of them knows a simple truth of war; the survivors aren’t more skilled or smarter or better as much as they are luckier that the slain. Luck has its place in all things in the world, war most of all I think. Yet, this isn’t a case of bad luck, it’s a case of ancient enemies meeting again and the defeated bowing before the victor, unable to do harm to him and his. This Ashurtah has a majestic tomb, he was more than a hero, he must have been a warlord who prevailed upon the Daelkyr while he still lived. He was one of the men that lead the Dhakaani Empire to victory over the aberrants of Xoriat and he wouldn’t suffer a servant of the Daelkyr to fare well in his place of rest. I keep silent over this as making it known won’t do any good. Some truths must be conquered, they’re worthless when simply given.
As the next set of iron gates creak open, we gaze upon the last chamber of this tomb, Ashurta’s resting place. The ceiling vaults above an immense statue in the center of the chamber that has four identical sides, a well-dressed goblin warrior with crossed arms over his chest, a gesture of respect or a salute. The eyes of the statue are crystal and shed light enough to illuminate the whole chamber. Bone filled alcoves line the walls and four statues of hobgoblin warriors stand at each corner. Next to the far wall is a raised dais and upon it a stone sarcophagus. On the base of the center statue is written in common the name ‘Ashurtah.’ We have indeed reached the final chamber. The statue rotates in quarter circles and pauses so that each figure faces the entrance gate and by extension, us. The figure seems to bow slightly, whether through a trick of the light or magic that makes the stone move. I answer the gesture with a bow of my own. Then, the statue rotates until the next figure aligns. I call upon the others to show their respect to the entombed warlord and all do so in turn. The statue’s eyes blaze even brighter and stone grinds upon stone as the lid of the sarcophagus slides open and Ashurtah rises, a goblin clad in scale armour wielding a light shield and a magnificent broadsword. His voice is mournful yet strong as he says,
This blade of the Ashen Crown will be yours if you pass this trial by blade and blood.
Send us to our rest.”
With these words, the four corner statues are shattered and four hobgoblin warriors stand at their place, armed with chain and sword. Gorbir’s voice booms out,
“Hail Ashurtah, we accept this challenge and rest assured that we will send you to your rest,”
a smile creases the mouths of the living and the dead alike, who would imagine a goliath with a sense of humour? As we prepare for combat, not at all certain of victory, except for Gorbir perhaps, I feel the need to explain to Ashurtah the reason we’re here. I don’t want the spirit of such a man as him to consider us petty grave-robbers,
“I’ll have you know that we aren’t here to loot your tomb for mere profit. A word-bearer sends us to recover dhakaani artifacts,”
“So, a word-bearer still lives. Well then, we shall grant you an advantage in this battle,”
Untskra’s title is important enough to Ashurtah to make it easier for us – who would have thought? This last battle is a true trial as Ashurtah promised. True to the warlord’s word, each of us has opportunities to strike or move or gain advantage because of an opening left him by an opponent. Even so, our exhaustion from the previous trials and the warlock’s ‘bad luck’ make this a chancy affair. The chain-wielders prove the most dangerous of the four and strike mercilessly as the swordfighters fight tactically, in support of the rest. Ashurtah is a terror on the field, leading the rest and skillfully wielding his mighty blade. His words gave me the impression that all this weren’t built just to honour him but in order to guard his blade of what he named the ‘Ashen Crown.’ It must be an artifact of power and it will be ours to claim should we win. Even in the heat of battle, with our lives on the line, I make time to congratulate my enemies on their tactics and skill and I’m not surprised to hear similar praise from them.
In the end, I maneuver Ashurtah properly and leave myself open to him in order to land a revenge blow. It proves to be the death-blow and I’m proud to see Ashurtah sprawled lifeless once again. I call to his soldiers then, to return to their rest as their leader is defeated,
“Alas, we cannot withdraw, we fight to the end,” is the reply. The end comes swiftly after Ashurtah’s fall and for the last time, the company bathes in the light of victory. Hark kneels and grasps the hilt of Ashurtah’s blade and the warlord animates and grabs him,
“It’s yours by right, return it to the Word-bearer but please return our remains to the sarcophagus. My belt and my helm are locked in the boxes, here is the key. Take them also and return them to the Word-bearer. You fought well.”
A spirit-form emerges from the statue then and offers a warrior’s salute as it goes to its rest. As we kneel or lie on the floor in exhaustion and tend to our wounds, the statue begins to rotate again. The light from its crystal eyes falls differently each time, depicting what must be Ashurtah’s last battle against aberrants through shadow-play on the wall. He was a King, one of the last Kings of Dhakaan. He saw the victory over the Daelkyr but he was spared the decline and fall of the empire that followed. We re-inter his remains and sealed the sarcophagus anew. Now, without the burden of guarding the blade of the Ashen Crown, his rest is complete. He fought well and died proud.
- * *
At the end of our strength, we cannot go on. Our victories were many but the price on body and spirit is heavy. Feeling quite welcome and safe in Ashurtah’s resting place, we rest as well. Although hungry and thirsty, our strength returns. My companions should have thought to bring some food and more water but noone expected such a trial as the one we completed. We explore the few gates that we left unopened and discover a route to the surface. Unfortunately, it’s an ancient tunnel and we reach a dead-end. We can hear voices and other sounds, perhaps pickaxes, from above us, perhaps we’re near to some foundry workspace or mining tunnel. The alst place we explore is another tomb of soldiers that rest in sarcophagi. This chamber is riddled with recently-dug holes. Our quest here is done. We haven’t found Untskra’s agents or their remains and so, it’s a reasonable assumption that they’re dead. We could take the items gathered and return but it doesn’t sit right with me. In the hope of finding the goblins alive, I urge the company to enter the hive. Gorbir craves the challenge and eagerly forges ahead.
The slime-covered tunnel leads to a ruble-strewn chamber whose purpose has been lost in time. Slime sheets, yellow and grey, coat the whole chamber and shiny, metallic eggs litter the rubble. Tiny, kruthik young crawl everywhere. The queen of this hive, bigger than any other creature I’ve seen since my awakening, surprises us as she moves swiftly and stealthily through her nest. Rested and with high morale as we are, the battle against the queen and her minions is but an epilogue to the ones fought in Ashurtah’s tomb. Having put an end to this threat, we search the nest and discover the husks of the unfortunate goblins that Untskra sent down here. Sucked dry to feed the appetites of monsters, a gruesome death. One of them bears a silver medallion with a leering, goblin face and another has a sack of ancient dhakaani coins. Their efforts aren’t wasted at least as we’ll return these items to Untskra. Our quest complete, we return to the surface through the same route we followed to get here, bearing the corpses of the six agents for proper burial.
As we step once more into the sunlight, I hear Kronos whispering to himself, “Ashurtah, slayer of these weaklings, keeper of the blade of the Ashen Crown. Even in death, he is stoic and strong. The might of Xoriat has not bested him and Hell goes with him.”
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