The Gatekeeper

16. The Plague Cave

Of Horrific Monstrosities, a Duel between Sisters, and Trying to Stay Alive

Insectoid creatures twisted by the Spellplague into horrific monsters descended upon the heroes in wave after wave of ravening hunger. They fought two massive creatures that might once have been carrion crawlers, as well as swarms of giant spiders that went down quickly but seemed to number in the hundreds. Brandis, J’Div, and Vayne-the-White took the lead against the creatures, while Ysabelle and Fiona hung back to strike from a distance and Tristan remained behind to defend them. J’Div and Vayne slew one of the creatures almost single-handedly, prompting Vayne to remark that it was “just like old times”—an ironic sentiment, since she and J’Div never had any old times, much as either of them might remember them.

The true danger of the assault had not yet emerged yet, however: a swarm of spell-warped grub creatures erupted from the ground beneath Ysabelle’s feet, instantly engulfing her in a storm of psionic and necrotic doom. They drew Tristan closer, and his axe proved useless against the creatures. When he breathed with the power of Mystra’s grace, however, his dragon breath dispersed the creatures, and Brandis and Fiona quickly went to Ysabelle’s aid to destroy the swarm. The damage had been done, however, and rot grubs were burrowing through Ysabelle and Tristan, eating them from the inside out. The heroes, worn thin by the battle, healed Tristan handily enough, but Ysabelle was so far gone they barely managed to stave off her death. They could not quite cure her of the infestation. Vayne the White demonstrated a complete lack of any attachment to the girl, unlike her mold, which seemed to care for Ysabelle almost like a daughter.

No monsters came to trouble them, as it seemed the carrion crawlers had carved out this area of the plaguecave for their own. They could rest briefly here, but they had only caught their breath before they saw a shadowy figure following the path they had tread. Tristan pulled out his piece of the Gatekeeper staff and sure enough, the next piece was coming their way. They instantly took up a guard, ready to attack.

The creature that appeared was vaguely woman-shaped but indistinct, as though more shadow than flesh—like a wraith. It carried a gleaming sword in one hand and a staff in the other. That hand burned with a deep black fire. It paused when they confronted it, and the heroes risked talking to it. “Vayne?” Brandis asked.

The wraith seemed disoriented and confused, but at the sound of their voices, it—she—was able to pull herself together with a concentration of will. The shadows coalesced into the original Vayne, who had left them to spy upon Sunic. She bore in one hand Sunic’s rosy sword and in the other, three pieces of the staff put together. The hand that gripped the staff looked stained by blackness, which they realized was emanating from Sunic’s shadow ring on her finger.

Brandis approached, but Vayne cringed back, refusing to give up either the sword or the rod. She was not, she explained, sure that they were who they seemed to be. This could be an illusion, or she could be mad. For a long time, she hadn’t been able to say what was real and what wasn’t. Ultimately, when Brandis put his hand over hers, she released the staff into his grasp and sank against his shoulder for support as though she’d loosed a heavy burden. Satisfied, the group made to welcome Vayne back amongst them.

“Oh, horse-shit!” Vayne-the-White exclaimed from the back of the group, seemingly unable to take it anymore. She strode forward and pointed an accusing finger at Vayne-the-Black. “Isn’t it obvious? Sunic sent her. She’s here to betray us!”

Vayne-the-White went on to question Vayne-the-Black’s convenient appearance, with everything they wanted . . . but still wearing the ring Sunic bound to her. That she had betrayed the party already, not once, but TWICE, and was just doing it again, and they were falling for it like morons. Her harsh tone did not win her any allies, but neither did it speed Vayne’s welcome back into the group. Brandis and J’Div both stood up for her, while Tristan, Fiona, and Ysabelle remained silent. (NOTE: Correct me on this. I don’t recall Tristan taking a particular side here!) Vayne-the-White asserted that what Vayne-the-Black was doing? This is what SHE would do if she wanted to betray the party. “That bitch,” Vayne the White said, “is going to lead you all to your deaths, and I refuse to take part in it.”

At that point, Brandis echoed the unanimous sentiments of the group and said, “Very well. Leave.” Vayne-the-White looked startled for a moment, which turned first into anger, then resolution. “No,” she said. “No, no, no! The stakes are too high—with the sphere, the staff, the sword, the godsdamned skull of Cyric? You’re handing Sunic these talismans on a platter. Too much rests on this for me to walk off and do nothing. So I’ll do this.” She pointed her golden sword at Vayne-the-Black and said: “Challenge.” Silence gripped the clearing a moment, before Vayne-the-Black nodded and said: “Challenge accepted.”

The two squared off for a swordmage duel, despite the protests of the assembled heroes—particularly Brandis. But both Vaynes asserted they had to meet the challenge as a matter of honor. By mutual agreement, they enacted a special ritual to prevent the sort of interference they’d come to expect from the group. Sure enough, Fiona immediately set to dispelling the dueling ward: at first, she could make little progress across their combined magic, and the ward caused her pain in reaction to her attempts. The two women circled, unhindered, and placed their respective aegis wards on one another.

Fiona finally managed to unravel one of the basic spells that made up the ward, causing both Vaynes intense pain. Vayne-the-Black was already weakened from her ordeal, so she faltered, granting Vayne-the-White the chance to send her staggering away with a fist of force. It was all Vayne-the-Black could do to fend her clone off.

During the battle, the various heroes reacted differently. J’Div pulled out the silver sword to try to throw it to Vayne (which one he intended to have it was unclear, as Vayne-the-Black could summon it), while Tristan stopped him from interfering. Ysabelle watched, unsure what to do. Brandis contemplated drawing out the orb of reality and using it to penetrate the dueling circle.

As the two shadar-kai fought, like mirror reflections of one another, Vayne-the-White leveled accusation after insult at her original. She said that the heroes expected her to betray them, when one of their number—Fiona—had indeed betrayed them, and yet they trusted her. At length, she said they thought she was some sort of Far Realm creature, when they had one of those—Ysabelle—in their group and it never seemed to cause a problem. J’Div is fine with sleeping with her (something Vayne should know about!), but he doesn’t trust her enough to give her the sword that she remembers fighting and bleeding for. Brandis sees fit to judge her “loose morals,” when he is the one on a vendetta against his former friends—apparently, sleeping with people is bad, but murder is perfectly fine by him. (Notably, she says nothing of Tristan, positive or negative.) Mostly, come to think of it, she thanks Vayne for giving her an excuse to leave this cadre of madmen and bitches—though she will take pleasure in killing her first.

With the last of her strength, Fiona finally managed to breach the dueling circle long enough for everyone to interact with the two. Part of her magic conjured a gate into which Vayne-the-White charged, rather than striking Vayne-the-Black with a fatal blow. The gate whisked her some distance away, parting the duelists, but with a glance at her allies, Vayne-the-Black followed through the gate and their dueling circle reappeared around them for the final strikes of their duel.

Vayne-the-White knocked Vayne-the-Black’s sword from her hand and stood over her, ready to kill her. She took the opportunity to accuse the original Vayne of being her true originator: that it was her mind, with its doubts and insecurities, that gave birth to her, not Ruthchek—a version of Vayne that wouldn’t have any feeling whatsoever about the shadows before and behind her. And look at the result: a perfect Vayne—Vayne-the-White—who would soon become the only Vayne.

Finally, Ysabelle intervened. Perhaps she saw the Vayne who was her friend about to die, or perhaps it was rage at Vayne-the-White—or perhaps it was both. In any case, she opened herself to the mysterious voice inside her mind, harnessing its power to shatter the dueling circle. The shock disrupted Vayne-the-White’s strike, and the blow that would have killed Vayne-the-Black instead bit into her abruptly raised hand. The ravening force ripped through Vayne-the-White, who recoiled with a cry of pain and horror as it shredded her exposed skin. The worst casualty was her face, which Ysabelle practically tore off. “You little bitch!” she cried. “My face! What have you done to my face?”

Brandis charged into the breach, having taken the Gatekeeper staff to use as a club. He swung it at the reeling Vayne, who managed to parry. The force of the monk’s strike sent her golden sword ringing from her hand. Before Brandis could strike her again, she plucked up the shadow ring—which she had cut from the original Vayne’s finger—and used it to teleport away, presumably to Sunic’s castle.

With Vayne-the-White gone, the heroes took a moment to collect themselves. They’d come out of this with more of the staff (4 pieces instead of 1) and the mysterious red sword Sunic had been carrying. Also, the original Vayne had returned to the group—her first action was to go hug Ysabelle, who was barely able to stand with the rot grub infestation and opening herself to her dark side. Creatures were noticing their presence and beginning to muster, so they pressed on through the plaguecave, seeking an exit.

They came to what looked like two ways out: a forest and a huge nest of swarming, spellscarred wasps. They chose the danger they could see rather than the shadowy threat they couldn’t, and attempted to sneak under the nest to the exit tunnel. Unfortunately, one of the rock formations turned out to be a cave roper, horribly transfigured by the spellplague, which attacked mercilessly. Most of the heroes were caught up in battle with the creature, and when Fiona tried to retreat behind cover, a second roper appeared and attacked. The resultant melee drew the attention of the wasps, which increasingly swarmed the combatants.

Tristan flew over to rescue Fiona, but was immediately caught up in the roper’s tentacles. J’Div charged over to attack the creature, but it crept up onto a ridge of rock, with the dragon-elf and the tiefling captive. Severely weakened, Ysabelle relied upon Vayne for defense while she sent her psionic energy at the creatures, while Brandis fended off the approaching wasps with graceful strikes and movements. Vayne, showing her stark contrast to her red-haired alter-ego, did not hesitate to leap into danger by drawing Fiona out of the creature’s grasp and putting herself there instead. The tiefling thanks her, surprised at her selflessness—having been more accustomed to Vayne-the-White’s sardonic disregard for her allies. Vayne charged up her sword with flame and struck, teleporting the roper down to the ground where J’Div could charge it. Tristan made his way down, and he and the warlord brought the roper death from two sides.

As the wasps kept swarming, the heroes fled through what they hoped was an exit tunnel toward an uncertain fate.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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