Raddinal paced the corridors of the Burning Keep, casting nervous glances at imagined shapes in the shadows that now seemed to be reaching at him with unfriendly fingers. He had finally emerged from the library after what seemed like a year of research, but was probably only a month or three. Nothing unusual about that really.
The Keep was colder than it usually was… which is to say it wasn’t causing his ring of eternal ice to activate in order to keep him from slowly roasting to death. Something was certainly not right, and he intended to find Solflame and inquire as to what was going on. Severe fluctuations in the heat matrices of the Keep could have dire consequences, not just for some of the more delicate experiments being performed either.
He rounded the corner and came to the bridge over the vast flow of lava and stopped aghast. Standing in the center was a figure wreathed in blue light so bright it was painful to look at. “Did you know that you can be burned by cold Raddinal? In spite of being opposites, heat and cold share many of the same properties.”
The light vanished and Solflame stood there, wearing his customary red robes with embroidered gold, silver and platinum flames climbing the hem and sleeves. Even this close to the lava, Raddinal didn’t feel the slightest bit warm, nor did his ring react.
“Where have you been all this time Raddinal?” Solflame asked, fixing him with a piercing gaze.
“Researching the … thing that was stealing Lady Xyrella’s powers my lord Sage.” Raddinal said, figuring a little flattery wouldn’t hurt.
“Ah. Did you find anything?”
“Only a few references to undead that drain arcane, divine or mortal strength.” Said Raddinal, frowning. “But that can’t be what is happening here.”
“Of course not.” Solflame said, “We would never allow such to infest the Burning Keep. Xy wouldn’t ever let me hear the end of it.”
Raddinal flinched from the deep laugh that erupted from Solflame to echo around the chamber, overpowering the quiet rumble of the lava flow below.
“Oh come now Raddinal, you have nothing to fear from me.” The great mage turned and smiled at him, “Let us ajourn to the library, you can show me what you’ve learned and that way we can ensure that none of it is a threat to us here. After all, one cannot be too careful.”
With a feeling of relief, he turned and led the way back to his beloved books.
“Try it again.” The gentle voice and calm demeanor of the monk would normally have made Xyrella more relaxed, however this time it grated on her last nerve. She had been here for months and felt no closer to regaining any of her strength or former vitality. Only the calm, implacable presence of Jolokar next to her kept her from screaming in frustration.
She breathed slowly in through her nose, trying to empty her mind of thought and open herself to the divine. An old exercise of thinking of the sun slowly warming her skin as it rose easily came to mind from her years of study with her mentor. Ralishka was a dragon, and dragons had little patience for the foibles of students, even if those students had been blessed with the dubious gift of immortal blood.
Xy felt her body relax into peaceful meditation even as her mind struggled to stay active. For just a moment, she could feel the glow of Bahamut’s divine love touch her spirit. In that instant, all her longing to be whole was briefly brought into focus before those hopes were once again dashed. A tear fell from her eye and burned a searing track down her face before falling to smolder on the ground.
The pain was nearly unbearable, but the reality of what had happened made her smile in spite of it. One of the ‘gifts’ of her divine blood was tears that burned, although when she had still been immortal it hadn’t hurt.
“Oh.” She managed, “Oh I was so sure I was never going to feel the life giving power of My Lord Bahamut ever again. I doubted Him and I doubted myself and this has been my punishment.”
Jolokar frowned, an expression she had grown used to over these long months. He reached out to touch the painful burn on her cheek with a hand that glowed with divine healing power, but she stopped him.
“No. I want this one to remain lest I forget this lesson.” She said, and when his frown deepened, she smiled sadly. “I needed this reminder. It will make me stronger.”
“But that burn will scar.” He said, the power still glowing in his hand.
“I have many scars.” She said with such an air of finality that he let his arm drop to his side.
“I will never understand you.” Said Jolokar, shaking his head.
“You’re still young. Never is a long time.” Xyrella reached out a hand and touched his shoulder briefly before turning back to the monk.
“Master. May we begin again?”
“No.” He said, looking at her with dismay clear on his face, “You must see to that burn before it becomes infected. To turn down the healing of one so blessed…” His voice trailed off in unbelieving dismay.
“For just a moment, I felt a great disruption in the natural order of things.” Jolokar said, still frowning at Xy, “Master, I fear we may not have time to waste. Something looms on the threshold of this world. The door is open and it merely must needs step inside.” He shuddered, “It is being… invited.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Xy asked, aghast.
“I do not know, but whoever it is must be stopped.” He put his clawed hands on her shoulders and looked into her eyes, “We need you My Lady Xyrella Kra’Alin. I go to see what I can, for the world cannot stand on its own but you must follow as swiftly as possible.”
“Wait!” She said, and the pleading in her voice stopped him even as he stood on the edge of the balcony with unfurled wings. “I can’t do it without your strength. The suffering is too great without your encouragement.”
“Oh you are so wrong.” He said, smiling fiercely. “I have seen you stand against foes that were sure of their victory. You defied the Dark Queen to her face.”
“And here I am broken and powerless in recompense.” Xy said bitterly, “I do not regret my choice, I merely mourn my loss. Jolokar, I can’t even remember what it was like…”
“Even as a mortal you are a force to be reckoned with.” The monk’s voice startled the two of them, “I have found myself doubting your mortality over these months. Your endurance and perseverance are a sore trial for all of us. However, we have sworn to obey the Lord Bahamut and so we shall.”
“I feel I need to return to the Burning Keep.” Xyrella said, “But I dare not until my former power returns, at least in part.”
“You dare not?” Jolokar asked, turning back from the edge of the balcony with blazing eyes. “You DARE NOT?”
Xy stared at him, hurt and disbelief written plainly on her face. “What do you mean?”
“What has happened to you?” He demanded, “Where is the fearless warrior who stood in the face of evil without flinching? Where is the woman who fought for the innocent, never questioning herself or her duty? What happened to the priestess of the most holy Bahamut who defeated our Lord’s greatest enemy with a defiant smile on her face?”
“I didn’t defeat anyone.” Xyrella said in a small voice, “All I did was delay one single plot.”
“Well at least your modesty is intact.” Said Jolokar, his anger draining away. “Don’t doubt yourself, don’t doubt Bahamut. Remember, our Lord Dragon helps those who strive to help themselves.”
“I’m trying!” She all but wailed, “It’s not working. I feel so weak and powerless.”
“He will not let you down.” Jolokar said fiercely, “And if he does I will travel the planes and demand an answer from him in person. Just swear to me that you will keep fighting!”
Xyrella lifted her chin defiantly, “I haven’t ever stopped fighting, I’m just less effective as of late.”
“Then we have a chance.” He responded, turning to fling himself from the balcony before she could say any more.
“Well. Shit.” She said, sitting down in a plain wooden chair. “I guess I have my work cut out for me.”
The wind stirred dust that swirled around Verda’s feet. She shuffled uncomfortably, shrugging her shoulders beneath the heavy hauberk of plate and maile.
“Weird weather lately yeah?” The other sentry, she thought his name was Devon, said.
“What? No. Seems normal enough to me.” She said.
“You ain’t from around these parts are you?”
“No. I’m from the city.” Said Verda, giving him a harsh look.
He winced, knowing that not being from the city made him of a lower caste in the eyes of the One. He hadn’t known she was of the privileged class. “My apologies Mistress.”
“Yes. Well.” She rolled her shoulders uncomfortably again, still pinning him to the spot with her glare. “What is strange about the weather?”
“It’s far too cold.” He said, and then hastily added a belated. “Mistress.”
“Ah. And that is bad?” Verda asked.
“Well, no Mistress, simply strange.”
“In that case keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. I don’t like this place.” She snapped. “Having to work with these Dwarves makes me sick. They stink and this temple to their heathen god disgusts me.”
With a rumble of wheels and the clatter of hooves, the long awaited supply train came into view. The mule teams they had to use in order to traverse the harsh terrain were unruly, but that was hardly an excuse for this degree of tardiness. They should have been here days earlier.
“What is the meaning of this?” She demanded, as the lead waggoneer came into view.
“Trouble on the road Mistress.” He said grimly, “There has been no game, watering holes have been fouled and this cold weather makes everyone nervous.”
“Fah, again with the weather. What’s the matter with you all? Too thin skinned to endure a touch of a chill?” Verda said acidly, “Are all you outsiders afraid of catching a cold?”
“Cold summer is a bad omen Mistress.”
“Did you at least bring what I asked? Did you get that right?” Verda asked.
“Oh yes Mistress.” He said, gesturing toward the last two wagons, high cages stuffed with small figures. “I brought the children, just as you asked”
Verda smiled in satisfaction as she surveyed the small, sullen eyed forms crammed inside. “Yes, this should serve nicely to quell that last little spark of rebellion.”
From his place of concealment in a nearby tree, Korrik stifled a sigh. Great. More of the short and stinky Dwarves. These idiot humans were continuing to get in his way. The cartloads of gold and jewels they had been carrying off were well enough for some but there was real treasure and true knowledge to be had in there.
It was a good thing he knew about the back door. With a smirk, he waited for the fools to unload their cargo. Soon he would attain his goal. Soon he would have his answers. This anticipation was what made living worthwhile again. The anticipation and the thrill of finding ancient things of power that no eyes had seen in centuries.
He twisted the ring on his finger and smiled to himself. This was going to be his biggest one yet, but with the number of guards and slaves here he was going to have to get a few more swords. Where the devil was he going to find more willing cutters out in the middle of nowhere?
Thinking of the trouble the wagon driver mentioned, he wondered if perhaps there was more than just bad luck involved. He decided that a brief investigation could yield some decent results.