The magic in these stones bears watching. Not only do they instill in their wearers great power and strength, but knowledge. What’s not as obvious is do they instill wisdom? Can they guide or instruct the wearer? Or would it move one to act outside of one’s conscience? At some point we ought to begin testing these stones, measuring however we can their influence upon us. I trust my companions, but I do not trust these stones. I do not trust the magic contained within them. And I trust myself to do what must be done, should it be required. I pray it does not come to that.
With the unsettling knowledge of the approaching evil in tow, we moved on, climbing the stairs and exiting the canyon. It mattered. It was important. But the urgency of completing our tasks and reuniting with our friends in Ostern was critical.
The first door up the stairs revealed a room with weapons along the walls and an altar in the center. There were tendrils of enchantment in the air. It appeared to be a room for enchanting, a workshop of sorts with all sorts of spell components and scrolls. We found a few usable items and stowed them away.
When we opened the next door up we were blasted with an overwhelming odor of rancid, rotting meat. It was slightly metallic, as if tinged with blood. There were tables throughout the room covered with dead bodies, cut open with pieces missing. In the gaps rested animal eggs. The horror of House Hydran knew no bounds. Vondarra and Natasha informed me with distaste that we should destroy them. These were Gug eggs. Flesh eaters. Enemies they encountered walking freely in Ostern. Natasha burnt the corpses and eggs so they could spread no more. There was a door at the far side of the road. Perhaps unwisely, we opened the door and were met with the sounds of gurgling and clanging chains. There were six Gugs chained to the wall which began to strain against them attempting to break free and attack us. Disgusted, we slew them all before they could.
This was the last unexplored room of the planar castle. All else had been revealed. We returned to the room with the four archways to go to Ostern, but to our dismay we discovered the portals had all been dismissed. Perhaps this was a result of securing the conjuration stone? It seemed logical that they were held in place by the engine from which we pilfered the indigo gem.
What now? How will we get there? As we thought about it, the stone chose that moment to reveal to Vondarra that the other portal destinations were Nandapar (the mountain temple) and Gloommoore (swamp). There were also portals in Amstern and Wallpointe.
With the death of Stryker, my thoughts returned to The Skull. We needed to find and destroy his phylactery, too. That had to be a priority. While discussing it, Vondarra mentioned that the stone also flashed the sight for her a red vial in a well-fortified basement residence near Gloommoore. The stone also permitted her the use of the knowledge and power to take us there. However unsettled it made me, I was willing to use it to that end. We went without debate.
We arrived in a cavern of jagged rocks, crystals, and bio-luminescence. Overall, the stone of the cavern appeared shaped. This cavern was not natural. And there was something off about the space. My hackles rose. This was unholy ground. As we moved into the cavern, we discovered an underground pool rippling in the space. In the center of the pool was a stone. On the stone lay a red vial: the phylactery. The presence of evil was overwhelming. Necromantic magic and energy was dripping from the vial. Evocation magic covered the water.
Unwisely, we tossed a rock into the water producing a wave of necromantic energy which washed over the cavern. It was protected. We had to find a way to dismiss it. And more likely our presence would sure be detected soon if it had not been already. We may have only moments before we had company. We had to work fast.
Looking around we discovered a riddle or puzzle of sorts. We had to rearrange numbered stones into a particular order. The only clue we had was the word “PRIME.” It ended up being a riddle of mathematics. I freely admit I’m not skilled in that area. I’ve never had a head for numbers. But by pooling the knowledge between the four of us, we figured a solution. We arranged the stones to represent the answer and the aura over the water dissipated.
While we were solving the math problem, we lost track of Piero. He wandered to another area of the cavern and came upon a human-sized skull set into the rock of a wall. Scattered over the floor before it were hundreds of jewels and precious stones of different colors. Piero called out to us and we began walking over to him. Too impatient to wait, he picked up rubies and placed them in the eye holes. Nothing happened. He tried again with aquamarines and they also had no effect. What color were The Skull’s eyes? I tried to remember. I wondered if Vondarra had any glimpses from the stone. The only thing which came was that the eyes were bright and clear. Diamonds! We placed diamonds in the eyes, they glowed briefly and the jaw opened, speaking “Who Dares?” No one spoke in reply. After a brief pause, the skull continued: “The alert is being sent as we speak.”
We ran back to the vial and the necromantic energy was gone. Vondarra reached out her hand and magically called the vial into my grasp. I immediately dropped it to the ground at my feet and crushed it with my sword. It exploded in a wave of necromantic energy as the scarlet force or entity which inhabited it splashed like water droplets around the sword. It briefly formed into an image of what we supposed was The Skull in his former, human form before it completely dissipated into smoke and drifted through the cave roof.
With the alarm raised, there was no time to dawdle. With the phylactery destroyed and The Skull’s ability to regenerate eliminated, we decided return to Ostern to reunite with the others. We were too small to press our advantage here. Vondarra consulted the stone about the prison in Ostern and in a blink we were gone. But before we blinked away I saw The Skull, appearing in the cavern in response to the alarm.
Seeing The Skull appear in the cavern just before vanishing left me sour. I wanted to go back and face him. When we “landed” in the prison my hand was already on my sword. I didn’t see what kind of support he had with him, but I regretted missing that chance. I wanted him ended. I knew our chances were better to circle back and face him later among the others, but it didn’t make it easier to think we were retreating. I had to content myself with having dealt him a significant defeat. There was satisfaction in that, but I knew we’d have to face him again.
Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to dwell upon it. The indigo stone dropped us in a rectangular room. It was dark and murky, though not pitch black. Immediately a door burst open and I was charged by someone wielding a kama. It partially struck me parried only by my armor. I heard Vondarra say “Stop, Asa!” so I restrained my hand and only then realized it was Ygritte. With her were Quarion, Buccarin, Carroline, Ferrus, and Tam.
We were inside the prison and Ygritte and the others had just arrived. They marveled at our presence there before them, so we revealed that Stryker was dead but said no more. We shared a quick reunion but with the battle raging outside it was imperative we continue. At one side of the room there was a spiral downward staircase. At the stairs, Quarion read some markings and triggered a magical explosion, which destroyed and blocked the stairs. Right then a large, hulking man burst through the walls of the prison followed by a mage of sorts. Ready to fight, I was only restrained by Piero informing us that this was Cyttorak and others of Magnus’ Brotherhood. To reinforce the point, Thunor was with him. One of them, some sort of geomancer, worked the stone at the stairs and cleared the way for us to descend. Once again, we took the help where we could find it with no questions asked.
The stairs first let out at a landing into the middle of a circular room with five doors, each embossed with some sort of sigil or glyph. The first was a skull with empty eyes continuously opening and closing its mouth, emitting an aura of evocation. The second was a slithering mechanism of a snake devouring its tail, an alchemical symbol. There were trigger plates in the floor directly in front of the door. The third was a skeletal creature with tight skin. The creature had a mantis head, a human body, and a scorpion tail with venom dripping from the stinger. It showed an aura of conjuration. The fourth door showed the grim reaper. The fifth door had a hammer with lightning bolts. It had an aura of evocation and there was a dull thudding sound coming from behind the door.
Buccarin confirmed that this was the heart of the prison and that the individual cells were behind the doors. In short order, with only slight damage and delay, we were able to dismiss the magic from the cell doors and trigger or disable the traps. We promptly began releasing the prisoners.
Our trouble came from deciding what to do with the potentially evil or untrustworthy. Some wished to leave them captive or to kill them outright. Others wished them set free. Despite the occasional evil auras, I fell in the latter camp. Hydran held them captive for their own awful purposes. This did not make them enemies of the Empire. We had not the time, nor was this the place to judge them.
How does one balance these decisions? I chose to err on the side of life. My choice did not always win the day, unfortunately. I must pray more deeply upon these issues. It seems easy when deciding upon purely good versus evil lines. But perhaps more is demanded of us. Where does one go when walking in the grey spaces? Which way is right? Despite our successes, on a day fraught with mistakes I chose freedom. Show grace and mercy and perhaps these potential enemies could be friends at the end. And at the least, perhaps they could help in the fight against Hydran. Enemies of our friends and all that.
We first freed those prisoners kept behind the skeletal door. There was a yellow robed man caught only in a glimpse who sped out of the prison immediately upon his release. He moved like Piero. We all seemed stunned that there was another. The second prisoner was a young man with ruffled, unkempt hair who also took to his freedom with a sprint to the open air. Oddly, he looked a little like Galon. I wished he was with us just to see the likeness. He would be startled, I suspect. The third captive was a strange creature. He moved like a man and breathed like a man, but was definitely a construct of some sort. His face and head was red and he had a yellow diamond on his forehead. He graciously thanked us for his freedom and introduced himself as Visionaire. He accompanied us while freeing the remaining prisoners.
Behind the slithering door were five more prisoners. The first was a naked man with long black hair and webbed feet and gills. He was incredibly fit and looked brutally strong. As we freed him he stalked with anger, seeking revenge upon Hydran. His name was Romarrus. We offered him clothing and gear as he lingered. He expressed a desire only for a magical trident. Recalling that we found one in the enchantment room of the planar castle, I presented it to him. He took it gladly, acknowledging its return with joy. The second and third prisoners were an average looking man with brown hair and eyes and a non-descript woman, both engulfed in flames (and kept in separate cells). In the fourth cell was a woman dressed in black and wearing a golden mask. These all departed without a word. They were the captives we saw upon entering the cell block, but before we walked off a woman’s voice called out from one of the cells we though was empty. She introduced herself as Sulerin and expressed gratitude at her release. She asked if we had freed a man named Ricar with dark hair with white around his temples. As we had not, she remained to watch as we had more prisoners to free.
The door with the hammer was next. In this room were three more prisoners. The first was a large, aberrant creature. Humanoid, like Irec, but his skin was covered with green scales. There was a dark-skinned man, muscular, wearing the clothing of the lower classes. And there was a third prisoner. A red-haired, green-skinned half-goblin half-human male. It seemed that he was recognized and it was argued that he should be killed. As we argued about it, Romarrus took matters into his own hand, sprinting after him and killing him before he had a chance to escape.
We continued with the grim reaper’s chamber. Four more prisoners here. There was a young man with brown hair wearing a suit of black, pacing back and forth across his cell like a trapped tiger, muscular. There was a young girl with brown hair, maybe 13-14 years old, fit and lean. Next, we released a man-shaped creature, covered in some kind of black fluid like tar, twisting and writhing. It skittered across the ceiling and out of the cell before anyone could react. The last was a white-haired drow female with fibers like spider webs on her clothing. All these prisoners departed for the surface and their freedom.
In the final room we freed the last three captives. The first was a man who seemed very flexible, contorting himself in a number of ways testing the cell and seeking a means of escape. Upon seeing him, Sulerin called out the name Ricar and ran to him (presumably). He opened his arms and hugged her, I suppose. The next one was a man with a purple cloth over his head. My companions (especially Ygritte) noticeably reacted upon seeing him and said he must be killed. This was the man they had implicated during their previous mission into Ostern and without much consideration the deed was done. Romarrus stepped up again during the brief indecision and completed the task. I was uncomfortable. He was Hydran they said, and I guess that was enough for us. These executions without opportunity to defend oneself were troubling. Lastly, we saw a somewhat familiar face. It was Viktonus, the masked man Quarion sent us in Avalon, only unscarred. But how could that be? Was this the true Viktonus? There was some uncertainty about how to proceed. Quarion asserted he was an imposter and not the real Viktonus, but thankfully his life was spared and we allowed his escape into the city. What happened to him then is anyone’s guess.
With the Hydran prisoners freed we continued down the stairs to the basement to see if anything else remained inside. In the center of the room there was a raised platform, a hill-shaped pile of bones. At the far side of the room were three skeletal sentries. Speaking was a man dressed as an executioner and he was speaking to a giant construct with a blank face, but a face in the middle of its torso. Arnzol’s face. How could this be? Had we not killed Arnzol in the castle? Carroline had his head! Whatever devilry this was – perhaps Quarion could explain – we were set to face him again, this time in a new, larger and stronger form.
Tam raced to the executioner and blinded him. Ferrus fired energy beams at both the executioner and the construct. Blinded, the executioner had no defense to Ygritte, who attacked him and put him down quickly. Quarion warded us from the attacks of the skeletons as we ringed the Arnzol construct and destroyed it with haste. Our numbers overwhelmed the small group of enemies and the prison was cleared.
We regrouped quickly and exited the prison the join the battle for Ostern, but the fighting had ceased. The walls of the prison camp had been obliterated as well as seemingly all but a small bit of Ostern. Ashteron Magus hovered above us. Bodies of Hydran soldiers, citizens, women, and children littered the streets. The only people still upright were the mages of Magnus’ Brotherhood. It was a slaughter.
A wave of shame overcame me. Were all here equally guilty? Guilty enough to deserve this cruel fate? I knew not. Surely the soldiers or those who actively fought the Empire deserved death. But was every citizen of Ostern equally culpable? Equally to blame? They were still citizens of the Empire and yet this summary judgement was handed down by Magnus. I wondered if he hesitated at all. Was there any justification for this? I suffered to see this devastation despite the successful outcome. The Battle of Two Cities was over. Hydran was defeated. Ostern – or whatever remained of it – was free.
But not all of the fighting was finished. Elsewhere in Himmelveil, the invasion of Hydran continued. Stretched to our limits, we pushed ourselves to press on. Vondarra again consulted the stone, asking for aid. She saw a vision of the tallest mountain, with a peak above the clouds, looking over the entire world. She took us there.
We appeared in an alchemical laboratory, high in the mountains. I recognized some of the equipment, but my own alchemical studies were so long ago and have been so neglected there was much I didn’t. The air was thin and cold. But it was oddly comfortable. There was a certain warmth in the peace contained within this room. I breathed easy understanding that here we were under no threat.
Alone in the room was a solitary figure dressed in white with his back to us standing at the window, looking out over the realm. Surprising us all, he spoke directly to Natasha in a protean celestial language. I understood nothing of what was said, but Natasha told us he spoke of The Devourer. He was one year away. More urgently he revealed The Skull was at Gloommoore and Rhasgoulin in the Nyador mountains at the shrine of the Aethereals. This “Watcher” was an Old One who wore a white stone, like everything else he wore. It sparkled around his neck.
With Natasha’s information passed along, there was no need to wait. Knowing where The Skull was – where we left him in Gloommoore – we asked Vondarra to take us there and left immediately. We appeared in a swamp on the outskirts of the castle. There was a path illuminated by willow wisps. In stark contrast to the mountain laboratory we just departed, the air here was heavy with a stench of decay and rot. In a clearing across the way was The Skull with some Hell Knights. Immediately upon our arrival, some vampires charged at us to protect their lord.
Startlingly, our group was not whole. Present from The Watcher’s lab was Vondarra, Natasha, Carroline, Ferrus, Piero, and Visionaire. The rest of the group did not make the journey. I prayed that they were safe. I prayed we could succeed without them.
The fight raged across the swamp. Natasha flew to gain an angle on the enemies beyond the trees. Piero dashed to The Skull where he was preparing some evil rite so as to take the fight directly to him and disrupt the spell. Carroline and I engaged the Hell Knights somewhere in between where we landed and The Skull’s position. Visionaire and Ferrus fought from distance attempting to slow the incoming horde. In the end, Piero took the brunt, but we killed all the enemy. Natasha, as is regular for this diary, slew The Skull with a barrage of her fiery arrows.
I’m glad he was dead. But I wished it was me. I wished I had dealt the finishing blow. I’m ashamed to say it. And I haven’t said it to anyone else. I overflowed with hate towards him. I had no sympathy for the man he once was. I wished him only death. I wanted to deliver it. I should have been happy enough for the outcome. He was dead. With his phylactery destroyed, he had no means to come back. He was eternally defeated. This evil, this abomination which tread upon the goodness of your earth was destroyed. Lord, let me be satisfied with that. Temper these destructive emotions within me. I want to defeat this evil before us, but it need not be me. Let my attitude and my method do right by you and point others towards you. Remove my ego and grant me the grace to accept my role, whatever it may be.