The Gatekeeper

20. Sharpening Blades in the Lowerdark

Of Guides Found, a Rival Discovered, and a Nest of Hook Horrors

After defeating the matron mother and sealing the gate to the Demonweb Pits, the heroes turned to the last piece of business remaining in the drow stronghold: the warlock who had first fought them, then aided them in exchange for not being plunged in a vat of acid. The warlock—one Morthos by name, or at least so he claimed—suggested that his aid would be essential in escaping the fortress unharmed, and the heroes accepted this bargain.

Morthos proved a capable guide, and when the heroes returned to the relative safety of the Middledark, an offer was made: if he would agree to guide them through the perils of the Underdark, they would give him a share of the rewards they gained in their quest. The heroes bickered and argued telepathically about what bargain to offer, and finally Vayne stepped forward as the party spokesperson to make the deal. She revealed to Morthos their goal (the Well of Living Steel) and its general location (the Lowerdark). The drow balked at the concept of descending that far, but Vayne assured him that he could leave whenever he determined that the risk was no longer worth the potential gain. Morthos accepted this bargain, and the heroes continued on with a guide.

The drow warlock led the heroes to the fastest route to the Lowerdark he knew of (though he personally had not ventured down it): a great abyss filled at the bottom with what he called “deep horrors.” Along the way, Fiona traded notes with Morthos about arcane pacts, revealing her Elemental Pact to him as he told her of the Dark Pact to which he was sworn (apparently, his patron is some sort of “Great Cloaker”). She even offered some of her own lifeforce to power his spells—should the need become dire. Morthos was surprised by this and asked for clarification about her offer, to which Fiona cheerily returned, “well this way, if I happen to catch you in one of my fire spells, I won’t feel too badly about it.” Morthos: “Good to know.” Her casual promise of potential harm seemed to intrigue the drow, and he subsequently made more obvious overtures to her (including caresses in the heat of battle or when no one else appeared to be watching).

The heroes came to the great abyss Morthos had promised. Tristan plucked up Ysabelle to fly down, Morthos conjured a moving disk of force to carry himself and Fiona (once she cuddled up to him), while Brandis worked together with Vayne to make the long climb down into the pit. Briefly, Vayne lamented J’Div’s disappearance, as she would ordinarily rely on his strength for situations like this, but with his monk training Brandis proved an excellent climber, skittering down the walls and leaping to outcroppings with ease. There was never any danger, but the trip was grueling. When they got deeper, they began to hear echoing sounds as of metal scraping against stone as though to sharpen itself. It was not long before they found what awaited them: a hive of hook horrors.

Fiona and Morthos blasted away a group of the horrors to clear a path, but the creatures instinctively exuded clouds of inky, blinding darkness to cover their skittering escape. When clouds of darkness began creeping up the walls after Vayne and Brandis, a fight seemed inescapable. Steel was drawn and battle was joined: a blurry, disorienting battle fought primarily in the darkness the creatures exuded. Brandis was quickly surrounded with the creatures, though he could hold his own thanks to his great training. Vayne meant to guard him, but Ysabelle and Tristan landed to join the combat, and the shadar-kai had a new priority: protect Ysabelle from the charging creatures. Fiona and Morthos lingered on his disk of force, striking from safety fifty feet about the cavern floor.

The heroes fought a nearly endless onslaught of the beasts, somewhat hampered by the inability to see. Without their protective darkness, the hook horrors might have posed an insignificant threat, but their natural blindsight made them deadly combatants. To make matters worse, when injured, they roared with deafening, paralyzing force, and so the heroes often couldn’t hear as well as see. Brandis and Tristan were both badly hurt in the combat (the monk partly thanks to one of Fiona’s spells, an erupting volcano of flame that immolated three of the hook horrors) and Vayne was grievously hurt, fighting desperately to defend the others. Ysabelle narrowly avoided being impaled by a hook horror’s claw through use of the staff: with its power, she foresaw her own death and stepped differently, thus averting that awful second in time.

In what seemed an uncharacteristic display of self-sacrifice, Fiona conjured her hellgate between the relative safety of Morthos’s platform and the cavern floor, stepping down and allowing Ysabelle to teleport up to safety (though the warlock was considerably less pleased with her company than that of the alluring tiefling). Fiona revealed her true intentions on the ground, however, when she blasted a hook horror that charged her with repelling flames that killed it outright. Her fire powers were extremely useful in the battle.

At the height of the battle, Vayne began murmuring to herself, saying things like “No, it wasn’t my fault—I didn’t mean it!” When Ysabelle connected to her mind, she found it filled with horrible distress and a fleeting image of a small, pale, dark-haired girl surrounded in a dark corona of flames and staring menacingly at her. A chill of fear ran through Ysabelle at the sight, but before she could interact with the image, Vayne discorporated into her shadow self to carry on the fight, severing the mental connection and leaving Ysabelle with only a lingering chill of empty shadow. She sent an ardent surge into Vayne, giving her the strength to carry on in spite of her wounds, all the while a little bit nervous about the little girl she had seen. Was that Vayne’s image of her? Or something else entirely? In her shadow form, Vayne offered no insights through her mind or expression.

The heroes repelled the first wave of attackers, and looked for a way to get to the exit—across the cavern. The hook horrors appeared to be repelled by the scent of their own dead, so the heroes smeared themselves with the blood and guts of their kills and pressed on, with Fiona holding off the foes with fire at need. The hook horrors’ hesitation proved short-lived, however, particularly when the heroes stumbled across what appeared to be an overgrown hook horror at least twice the size of the others. Their cautious walk became a run, and soon enough every hook horror in the hive was after them. Tristan, who had spent so much of his vitality on the battle and on his own silver fire, would have fallen to a hook horror attack, but Vayne revealed a new swordmage power that allowed her to switch positions with him and parry the attack. They ran.

Outside the hook horror cavern, the heroes relied upon Morthos to guide them to a safe place to rest. The found a suitably defensible, out-of-the-way cave where they could hole up for the night. Tristan, who was wavering on his feet already, passed out on the spot, and it took Vayne and Brandis working together to take his armor off so he could rest effectively. The monk was skeptical of the whole process, but the shadar-kai reassured him that she had done this sort of thing often enough for J’Div, who similarly pushed himself with alarming regularity. Brandis cautiously asked if she wanted to talk about the genasi, but Vayne hardly seemed to be paying attention to him, being wrapped up in a conversation she seemed to be having with herself. He finally managed to rouse her, at which point she declared that she hardly felt like sleeping and would gladly take first watch.

As the heroes bedded down, Brandis and Ysabelle discussed Vayne and whether her recent erratic behavior was a result of the influence of Godsbane. Ysabelle asked Brandis if he wouldn’t mind taking the sword from her for the time being, to which he replied by showing her that he was carrying it in his pack—in an extradimensional space, no less. Vayne, who had been meditating, spoke up: “I know that look, Brandis—and no, it isn’t the sword. I’m just weary. That’s all.” Despite her claims, Ysabelle and Brandis kept a careful watch on her, and while she said no more aloud in waking, she murmured in her sleep, again apologizing to an unseen listener for some great sin.

In the morn, Brandis again discussed being a better person with Fiona, mostly in the context of choosing right and refusing to do wrong, whatever the consequences. Tristan was too exhausted to take part in the discussion, having dreamt of the prison of air the night before and been unable to rouse himself. Surprisingly, Morthos participated in the conversation (perhaps jumping to Fiona’s defense?). The drow was seemingly intrigued by surface world morality, which he thought incompatible with the basic truths of life in the Underdark. In particular, he did not understand why Brandis thought it was so important not to kill an “innocent” for the sake of his goals—“in the Underdark,” Morthos said, “there are no innocents.” The monk stubbornly held to his firm beliefs in right and wrong, and Vayne (who had not slept well) eventually snapped at him: “If you did not learn the error of your beliefs in the downfall of Funikashi, then nothing we can say will change your mind.” Brandis inquired as to what she meant, but Vayne refused to speak of it.

Shortly thereafter, the heroes came upon an earthsoul genasi wandering in the dark. After a moment of tension diffused by Vayne’s suggestion of food and drink for the lost delver, the genasi introduced himself as Garal Kai. It came out that he was the stonewhisperer guide for Henri and his expedition to the Well of Living Steel, and he revealed that the halfling had been taken by mind flayers in the deeps. Several of the heroes were at first relieved that their rival searcher was not beating them to the Well, but Vayne and Brandis immediately said: “We have to save him” at the same time, albeit for different reasons. For Brandis, saving Henri was a question of morality—he did not wish ill to the halfling, but if anything wanted to return him to the surface unharmed and empty-handed. Vayne had more pragmatic reasons: if Henri had been captured, it meant his compass had fallen into the hands of the mind flayers, and they would be a far worse enemy with the Well of Living Steel at their command. The heroes’ next move was clear: find the mind flayer band that had taken Henri, rescue him if possible, and recover the compass. The genasi agreed, being unwilling to leave anyone to such an awful fate.

Before they moved out, Fiona asked Brandis if he wasn’t willing to sacrifice Henri—not an innocent by any means—and the monk replied: “If he is to die, it will be at my hands.”

TO BE CONTINUED!

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