The Gatekeeper

17. Walk through the Fire

Of Spellplague Fire, a Fallen Goddess’s Cry, and a Devouring Worm

Still suffering under the various maladies from the wasps and ropers, hounded by the plaguechanged hordes from behind, they had no choice but to press on through the grueling challenges to come.

The tunnel behind the plaguechanged wasp hive led to an unsettling underground forest, into which the heroes delved without hesitation. Pyres of blue flame rose up around them: active pockets of spellplague that burned with energies far darker and more dangerous than fire. Tristan felt his soul drawn to these bonfires, but was able to resist their lure. Just as they though they were safe among the trees, two of the hulking things rose up and attacked, raking at them with gnarled branches like fingers and gaping, fanged maws.

The battle was a quick and brutal one, in which Fiona’s fire-based powers were indispensible. The creatures spread their spellplague infection as a mere touch, and the heroes desperately tried to keep from being injured. The wounded Ysabelle at first hid from the creatures, as Vayne in particular directed her to do, but ultimately she could not let her friends suffer on her account. She struck a pivotal blow that dazed one of the creatures long enough to turn the tide. The heroes defeated the plaguechanged treants.

After the forest, the heroes found a sure sign that they’d taken the wrong course earlier: a field of blue fire greeted them, a seemingly impermeable barrier. Shielding their eyes from the blaze, they could just make out an opening in the field of flame—suggesting a path through. Unable to turn back, the heroes plunged into the spellplague fire, trusting to their luck and talents to find a path through.

As they picked their way through, Tristan felt the silver fire growing within him, drawn to the surrounding spellplague. The power built in him, and he felt a corresponding urge to release it. The power of Mystra’s demise called out to the power of the still living goddess inside him. They had to move faster through the already impossible barrier, and in their haste, they stumbled through tighter and tighter passages between the flames. Finally, the end lay in sight, but Tristan could take the pressure of the magic no more. As the heroes dove for cover, the paladin unleashed his silver fire, which rose from him in a column to tear into the ceiling and turn the stone to butter. Molten globules of stone rained down, but the heroes managed to escape both the flames and the liquid cave-in, diving to safety just as the rock dripped into the flames.

They found a bare cavern between an empty chasm and a moving wall, with seemingly no exit. One second viewing, however, they realized the walls were covered in millions of crawling spiders—a living sea of biting, clawing death. These spiders filled the chasm as well. They spotted a tiny opening across the chasm, leading to a deeper chamber, and made for it. Brandis picked up Ysabelle and danced across the spiders, like walking on water. Vayne took J’Div’s hand and shadow jaunted them across. Finally, Tristan spread his wings and flew across with Fiona.

Through the passage, they found a larger chamber with shallow depressions filled with hulking spiders. Rather than attack, the creatures held back as though waiting for something the heroes could not see. The ground trembled, and an awful stinger burst forth from the dirt to stab Vayne in the small of her back. A purple worm the size of a building broke through the ground below them and swallowed both J’Div and Vayne whole. Instantly, the spiders charged, and the battle was joined.

Tristan, Ysabelle, Brandis, and Fiona held their own against the creatures, but the spiders kept coming. The worm lashed out at them with its envenomed stinger, but they managed to hold the awful beast at bay. Meanwhile, the warlord and the swordmage found themselves in a horrific burning nightmare, locked in battle in separate parts of the worm’s stomach with spiders immune to the creature’s acidic juices. Crushed by the worm’s muscles and harried by the gut spiders, it was all they could do to survive.

Ultimately, Brandis dove into the purple’s worm’s gullet to find J’Div, who had just lost consciousness from the acid and spiders. He revived the genasi and teleported back out and cut through the spiders like a whirlwind. Now that J’Div was awake once more, he used his inspiring cries to spur Vayne in the fight. The shadar-kai teleported to his side and destroyed the gut spiders with her swordmagic while the genasi focused on the purple worm. He drew the rosy-bladed sword Vayne had stolen from Sunic, which stole vitality from the creature and kept J’Div alive. Together, they cut their way out of the worm, which Tristan was busy hewing from the outside. The six finally managed to slay the awful creature, and stood reunited—all of them wavering on the edge of collapse.

What danger loomed ahead?

TO BE CONTINUED!

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