There was no Irec. General Talabad had no word about his whereabouts. And with more pressing matters had no time to investigate. He didn’t have much time for advice either. We told him our plan to infiltrate Ostern and take the fight directly to the heads of House Hydran. He heard what we had to say. He gave us his tacit approval. Approval might even imply too much. He had his own business to attend to. His forces needed steering. I didn’t blame him for moving us along. With so much fighting ahead and men to direct even he knew our minds were set. What could his “yes” or “no” mean to us? I suppose he was grateful for the knowledge. I’ll have to be content with that.
All that was left were the details: ready our equipment, prepare ourselves, and determine our infiltration point. I worried that my habit and my style, besides my aura would place the team at risk. I would be detected immediately. I could not hide amongst them and would be found out. I wanted to teleport as close to the beating heart of the Ostern operations as possible and run my sword right through it.
During the team’s previous incursion, Ygritte and the others were in Stryker’s offices. I wanted to go right there and avoid the streets. So with Umim working his magic, he took us there before objections could be raised. In hindsight there was probably a better choice but there was nothing to be done about it now.
Baron Stryker von Hydran was meeting with three associates when we showed up. Mistake number one.
The encounter filled me with a certain dread. I anticipated it. In fact, demanded it. But this was the first encounter with a leader of House Hydran since our encounter with The Skull back at the Shrine of Stefin. It was what all our work was leading to. And it must be finished here. It wouldn’t be.
Stryker was dressed in shining plate mail armor, head to toe, wielding a flaming long sword. He was large, obviously strong, and very powerful. The armor had glints of red and emitted a palpable sense of evil. As the team moved into the room, I only had eyes for him. It was the second of our mistakes in this encounter.
I believe the surprise of their presence in the office rattled us more than our appearance rattled them. We no doubt had them at some disadvantage, but our tactics seemed to become so scattered that we did not protect one another. Too often we do not strategically marshal our forces. We don’t often face failure or retreat, but we take for granted our ability to recover and repair. We should know better.
Stryker’s three associates included a woman and two men. The woman I learned later was called Madame Ophelia. She whirled her arms throwing magical attacks around the room. Vondarra attempted to subdue her with her own magic. Natasha and Ferrus moved to bar and guard the office door and keep additional enemies from entering, while contributing to the fight as they could. Ygritte and Syen ended up on the far side of the room, engaging a man with long dark hair, wearing black, and wielding a metal arm. His eyes seemed distant, as if he wasn’t making his own decisions, but he fought with fury. Surprisingly, Ygritte called out to keep that one alive. I didn’t understand, but as I was otherwise engaged, paid it no mind in the moment.
The fourth was another burly man, this one wearing a black cloak and a mask styled with white bones. He stayed close to Stryker as I moved to engage them with Galon by my side. Thunor, too.
Our newest companion, Tam, then made our third mistake. He lobbed a smoke bomb into their midst, engulfing us in a thick smoke along with Stryker and the bone-masked man. The fight turned. Stryker used the smoke to his advantage to remain hidden and more difficult to strike. Natasha couldn’t deal damage to the targets she couldn’t see.
Galon ran into the smoke to locate Stryker and in so doing suffered a tremendous blow, staggering him. He regained some of his footing before ultimately succumbing under the weight of the next strike. Yet somehow, the fight turned to our favor. Because of Galon’s coordination, he was able to identify Stryker’s general position. I listened to his voice and attempted to do likewise, and by the grace of the Nameless One, smited him a time or two with my sword. Elsewhere, Madame Ophelia fell. As did the bone man. The doors burst open, allowing Natasha and Ferrus to put their best into play, taking care of the charging guards.
In the desperate encounter, however, Thunor fell. Teleporting right into their midst; not coordinating with each other; fighting within the smoke; blindly charging enemies; striking to subdue an enemy with murderous intent. Our mistakes were numerous. And our team paid the price.
Oberon’s grace stood tall for us during those precious seconds. The moment Thunor fell, Umim landed on his prone body and they both disappeared to Oberon’s presence where Thunor was restored to life or health or both. What else would one expect a father do for his son?
The fight continued. As his associates fell, Stryker must have felt the battle turning against him. When he sensed an opportunity, he moved out of the smoke and jumped through a portal in the floor, screaming “Arnzol! Now!”
Seconds later the wood table standing above the magical portal burst into splinters and an unnatural creature of foulness and disgust landed in the room. It writhed and moaned and screamed and squished. A conscious beast created from several rotten elven corpses. It is hard now to even think of the beast. Its image and scent remain fresh and difficult to shake as I linger upon my memory of it. But in that moment, there was one thought: destroy it; immediately.
Those of us still able engaged the creature and we dispatched it without further loss. But we had already lost another. In taking down the metal-armed man, Syen was dealt a punishing blow and fell. Yet before I could attend to her in any way Oberon’s prescience or power was revealed again. Umim returned with a revived Thunor, saw Syen prone, and escaped with her just as quickly.
The room was cleared. Our wounds were severe. Stryker had escaped.
We quickly regrouped before following him through the portal. I healed the group to regain a little strength. Umim returned with Syen, no worse for wear, thank the Nameless One. Ygritte, oddly, tended to the metal-armed man. We tried to ascertain the meaning of it, but all she shared was that his name was Buccarin and she knew him from years ago. He was an old friend and he was not himself. Deferring to her wishes, I included him in my healing and the rest of us readied for another attack from him, but it did not come. The glaze which had previously clouded his eyes was gone.
He was calm upon reawakening and in the calmness he seemed familiar to me. Had I seen him before? I would have to think on this. Under Ygitte’s tender touch he seemed secure enough and though he had difficulty remembering how he knew her, he was clear that Hydran was his enemy. I’ve heard said the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Perhaps he could help.
Time was ticking. Stryker was surely escaping further with each second spent. As I was readying an exclamation for haste, I looked up. Through the window I saw it and whatever voice I had left my lips. I stood open-mouthed in wonder as I saw Quarion, perched on the tip of a flying island, speeding toward a collision with Ostern.
Just before the impact which shook the city like an earthquake, Quarion appeared in our midst, accompanied by Piero and an unknown woman. She was striking and attractive, and carried herself with confidence and the manner of a soldier. She wore armor edged with red and gold, complementing her golden hair. She reacted with joy upon seeing Ygritte, Natasha, and Vondarra and I surmised she was the Carroline of the Black Watch they spoke of who accompanied them on their mission in Ostern at the behest of Wrath. I was not wrong.
It was good to see them all and see them well. Piero enjoyed a speedy reunion with his sister, explaining to the rest of us that this was his father, Magnus, and Asherton Magus. Quarion took credit, of course. Brief introductions followed, but impatience got the better of me and Galon and finally we dropped through the portal to follow whatever trail of Stryker’s still remained.
We fell into a room filled with alchemical equipment. In the center of the room lay a strange creature. He rose when we entered and in the heat of the battle above, some of us began to strike out at him.
He was a large man, gruff in voice and manner with a skin made of stones, like boulders. Remembering the fiery man we found in a similar room in Winterbridge, I tried to speak but didn’t find my voice fast enough. Thankfully Galon did before we did any damage of significance.
He shouted over the din, “We’re not your enemy! We are the enemies of the people who did this to you!” Hearing those words, the man relented. He told us he could be called Bengrim, and he agreed to accompany us as we continued the hunt for Stryker.
The laboratory had a window which looked out onto blue sky interspersed with white fluffy clouds. A quick look around revealed nothing of the land around us. Because there wasn’t any. We only saw that we were in some sort of flying castle, extra-planar or dimensional.
It is interesting to me now as I think about this short period of time how in a matter of a few days, short hours, quick minutes, our party had grown. First Tam at the request of Oberon. Then Buccarin, a Hydran fighter we “rescued.” Then Carroline. Now Bengrim. Were they threats? We all so readily agreed to their company and participation. Was the burden of this mission, the dread of the impending fights, so heavy we simply wanted to trust them? Even Ferrus. And Vondarra and Piero before him. All new. Vondarra and her brother proved threats, though it was Hydran’s influence which directed them. They, too, were not themselves. Vondarra, of course, is no such thing. She has proved herself. At least to me. Hopefully as each day passes, it becomes easier for the others. But it is a fine line. It bears watching in the days to come. And demands caution. But we had none this day, only urgency.
There was only one exit from Bengrim’s experimentation chamber, a short hallway connecting it to the next room. The room was large with rounded walls covered with mirrors. As we moved into the room expecting and awaiting the Hydran trap, our reflections emerged from the mirrors, dark and twisted. These evil shadows assaulted us with our own weapons and our own techniques. We began to defend ourselves, but Quarion, thinking quickly, spun a chained whip of fire around the room, destroying nearly all of our shadowy selves. Ferrus’ remained, but Ygritte, invisibly destroyed his mirror and with it the last of our ghosts. Galon, with blades extended from his bare knuckles, ran a quick circle around the room destroying the remaining mirrors so no others could be so trapped. The fight did not harm us, but once again, proved dangerous for the delay. The seconds ticked by. Stryker lengthened his lead. He must be stopped.
There was a staircase descending from the middle of the mirrored hall and a closed door at the end. There were the sounds of machinery clanking from down the stairs. We chose to move forward.
We entered another round room, almost like a sanctuary, but the evil and darkness here was palpable, filling us all with unease. Dark rites were performed here. Stryker was nowhere to be seen. In the center of the room there was a small man in a white coat and as we watched he activated a sigil carved into the floor. He looked at us and smirked, saying gleefully, “The invasion has already begun. It’s too late.”
Arnzol. As he spoke, he pressed his hands together and collapsed. An energy ring was activated protecting his body. A secret door on the far side of the room clattered open, and some Hydran guards entered, followed by Kodok instructing them to “Protect the master.” They couldn’t. With our added numbers, like the hall of mirrors, this fight didn’t last long and ended with Carroline removing Arnzol’s head from his prone body. Our enhanced numbers had proven valuable and we were able to dispatch the enemy before I had the need – or the chance – to participate.
I’ve written before about those moments when our battles stir something within me which craves the destruction of these evils. This was another of these times. I was overflowing with glee and righteousness at their destruction. I don’t know enough to know if it was simply wishing revenge on Kodok for nearly killing me in Winterbridge, joy at the payback for his mind-controlling Vondarra and Piero, or simply believing that Arnzol, the architect of all the unnatural changes and experiments, was finished. But the fire burned to the point that I almost forgot about finding Stryker. Almost.
In truth, I must be mindful. The Nameless One has blessed me with this power, but it requires my spirit to be right to mete out their punishments. It is the business of God, ridding the Empire of unspeakable evils. I should fight to restrain the joy I feel. It is not me, after all, but Him working through me. It is His strength and His power. Let Him receive all the glory.
We proceeded through the secret door, entering another chamber, square with rounded corners. In each corner were archways covered with black curtains, rippling as if from a non-existent wind. Each archway was a portal to another part of Himmelveil. We tied a rope to Galon and secured a hold while he peeked through each arch so we could pull him back, if necessary.
Through the first arch he saw a swampy land. The smell of rotten flesh hung low over the stagnant waters. Flames marked a path through the bog. It felt colorless. Most unnerving, however, was that he neither saw nor heard any birds or insects. In the second arch, he saw a field of bamboo stalks. It was raining. In the distance, a temple loomed above the land. There were no people and as he watched, the rain began changing to snow. In the third arch Galon spied a city raging in battle and Ashteron Magus hovering overhead. Ostern. The fourth arch revealed the scarred and empty city of Winterbridge.
Upon learning that the third arch led to the heart of Ostern, Ygritte grabbed Buccarin and jumped through, saying quickly she was going to liberate the prison. When Quarion heard, he jumped through intending to see “his friend” Magnus. It seems he has an unhealthy attachment to him. Even Magnus’ daughter is wary with him, yet Quarion nearly follows him blindly. I hope he is smarter than this behavior seems. Thunor followed Quarion to “keep an eye on him,” accompanied by Syen and Ayame.
Stryker was still on my mind. I wondered aloud about that descending staircase in the mirrored room. It hadn’t been checked and was the last place Stryker could be if he remained in this planar castle. Emotions were high, others were leaving, and the team was divided. With his tactician’s mind, Galon instructed Piero to investigate. Piero dashed away before Vondarra could stop him. In the next moment, Galon followed Ygritte through the portal into Ostern, accompanied by Bengrim, Tam, and Ferrus. I remained in the room with Vondarra and Natasha.
Seconds passed and Vondarra became worried. Despite my familiarity with Piero’s speed, I could not believe there was a need for worry so quickly, but she would not wait. And we wouldn’t leave her. She hastened us to move more quickly and moved to follow Piero. Natasha picked me up and flew, following Vondarra. We were on our own.
In moments we reached the staircase. It was a slow downward spiral staircase with no landings, though there were two doors allowing for exits along the way down. The doors were all closed so we continued straight down. The walls of the stairs began as carved stones before revealing a water-washed natural cavern. There were echoed sounds of fighting below. Vondarra’s instincts were correct.
As we flew toward the fight, we heard a frustrated voice, grunting and yelling. The voice was deep and sharp with an Ostern accent. Stryker! A second familiar voice yelled out followed by the sound of sundered metal. Piero!
As we turned a corner, the fight lay before us. There was a wide well in the floor of the cavern with a ramp spiraling down along the walls. Piero was engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Stryker, alone at the bottom of the ramp. Stryker’s metal shield lay splintered beside them. In the center of the floor of the well was an eldritch engine covered in runes, with a glowing monument at its pinnacle holding a small, indigo-colored stone. It emitted an aura of conjuration as blinding as one I’ve seen once before. As Piero fought and punched and dodged it seemed he kept himself positioned to keep Stryker from reaching the stone.
Vondarra stopped at the edge of the well and cast a spell. I asked Natasha to drop me into the fight and she did so before landing on the ramp and firing a bolt at Stryker. I attacked Styker immediately landing a trio of smiting slashes with my sword. Then the battle truly turned. Piero knocked Stryker’s sword from his grasp and dealt him a pair of critical blows, staggering him. Vondarra magically transported the sword to where she stood so Stryker couldn’t regain it. (It turned out this was magical fakery, which deceived even me in the heat of the fight.) Natasha continued to pour her deadly arrows into Stryker and he fell. With the hatred of his evil at its height, I raised my sword and cut off his head. He was no more.
Piero looked ragged after the fight, but declined to take much healing. He was content with a little burst of health and strength (as were we all) but I should have pressed him. We nearly lost him later due to his obstinance (and my lack of persistence). We are lucky we did not. Receiving this blessing of the Nameless One took but a moment and then we moved on. Which we needed to do. There was still much work to be done. Our friends were in who-knows-what peril. But before we did so, we addressed the indigo stone. Piero grabbed it but at Vondarra’s request, he delivered it to her rather than keeping it for Magnus. It was another of the infinity stones. Praises that we were able to remove it from the clutches of the enemy.
Holding the stone, Vondarra seemed to lose herself for a moment as the power it held washed over her. My hand moved towards my hilt, but she returned to herself in short order, though I must say there was something different about her. Was she taller? I couldn’t quite put my mind to it. Perhaps the stone instills its wearer with the confidence which comes from its power. This bears watching too. But with this effect revealed, I offered Natasha the evocation stone which I kept safe in my bag. I feared we could use someone else with extra power during the fights sure to come.
Watching her accept it, I saw the same wave pass over her, flickering her eyes and twitching her expression. Her demeanor changed too, though only slightly. She was already filled with so much confidence because of the power she wields in her bow, perhaps she didn’t have as far to go. But she revealed much.
The stone revealed to her much about the history of the old days, the days before the world as we know it, before the dragons, before demons, the age of the gods as created by the Nameless One. During my time in the temple, I hadn’t researched much history like this, but I don’t recall much of this being more than supposition or superstition. Accuracy was not presumed. She shared this knowledge with Vondarra and me. I hesitate to write much of it here due to the failings of my own memories, but I must remember to ask her – and maybe even the others who hold the stones – to visit the elders at the Temple and perhaps add some insight into the beginnings of our world. It should, of course, be respected as potentially a lie of the magic contained within these stones, but they are a new resource and should be used towards this good. Especially if any knowledge can be gained to help defend and defeat The Devourer and Thanatotic who both approach. It is troubling hearing these names and the old powers they represent. We must do all we can to learn and prepare for their coming, which seems unavoidable. Be with us Lord.