The battle was joined, with the heroes fighting desperately against the psychic superiority of the mind flayers. One illithid in particular proved very effective at asserting his will over the heroes, forcing his mind upon them whenever they managed to shake off his power. He kept Brandis at bay, holding his mind like a vice as the monk tried to wriggle free. The drow plunged his blades down at Brandis, but the monk managed to dodge around his strikes.
Meanwhile, Henri strolled up to Ysabelle and convinced her he was not one of the enemies, but only pretending to be a mindslave. She fell for his bluff, only to earn a blade in the stomach, from which blood leaked. Furious, Vayne used her magic to pulled Ysabelle away just in time to avoid Henri’s follow-up strike. Tristan strode forward and summoned his silver fire, which went wild and blasted not only all the foes, but also himself and Fiona’s cover, making the wall melt and crumble under its attack.
Vayne teleported across the battlefield, using the shadows to corral the enemies into one of the corridors where she could hold them at bay. This would have worked wonders, had not her mind been weakened by the constant barrage of voices she heard in her head—the whispers of someone long lost to her—which allowed one of the mind flayers to stun her. She fell to her knees, helpless before the drow’s poisoned blades and—far worse—the mind flayer’s tentacles, which began digging into her skull for her brain.
Matters grew worse: one of the mind flayers blasted into Fiona’s mind and made her strike herself with her fire magic, burning a hole through her midsection. As she stood stunned at the ferocity of the hellfire, Henri followed it up with a vicious thrust into her right lung. Fiona faltered, hovering on death’s door.
Fortunately, Brandis and Tristan came to the rescue from two sides, the monk thwarting Vayne’s would-be slayers with his impressive movement skills, and Tristan protecting Ysabelle and Fiona. Brandis knocked away the mind flayer that was feasting on his companion, allowing her to recover—only to face the Thoon Hulk, which tried to eat her as well. She had the wherewithal to escape this time, however, teleporting over to cut the lead mind flayer’s silver cord with her silver sword, banishing him to a nether realm while the fight progressed. The other mind flayer blasted her with another mind attack, and she fell back, dazed. The Hulk slunk off into the shadows.
A healing touch roused Fiona, who promptly blasted the drow to ash, but faced a dominated Tristan, who was operating at the beck and call of the mind flayer. He brought his axe down into her, putting her down once again. Hurting his ally gave him the angry strength to fight off the mind flayer’s influence, however, and when the Thoon Hulk came barreling out of the caves, it was a furious half-dragon, half-elf paladin he had to contend with, rather than a half-dead tiefling. The creature tried to knock him aside, but he smote it back and extended his divine power to help Vayne shake off the mind flayer’s assault. She stepped closer, encompassing the group in her protective warding.
The heroes fought their way into a tight group, repelling the attacks of their multitude of foes: the hulk, Henri, and a single mind flayer. Fiona thirsted for revenge against Henri, who had stabbed her nearly to death with his blades, but Brandis insisted the group not kill him.
Henri bluffed his way into striking Vayne, remarking that “there’s a shortage of perfect breasts in the world,” to which she replied “and you won’t be ruining these any time soon” and parried his attacks. He managed to jab her with a blade that came out of his boot, and blood seeped from the wound. Wracked in pain, Vayne jaunted into her shadow form and began talking to someone the others could not see, saying “I’m sorry,” and “I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t stop him!”
Unnerved even in the depths of his mindslavery, Henri hurried over to strike Ysabelle. Vayne shrieked in terror and screamed “Not again! I won’t lose her again!” When Henri struck out at Ysabelle’s throat, Vayne invoked a warding sigil around him and sent him across to attack the remaining mind flayer. The blow would have killed the creature, but it lashed out with its mind and turned Henri’s blade on himself. The halfling opened his own throat with a vicious strike, and his blood flew across the battlefield.
The mind flayer blasted everyone with an illusion of barbed tentacles, seemingly paralyzing them. Ysabelle lashed out at the creature, but it teleported away before her psychic attack could take root. Brandis fought off the illusion and rushed over to strike the mind flayer. As before, it pulled Henri into the blow, and Brandis sacrificed a sure strike for the sake of avoiding a deathblow. Vayne drew the mind flayer close, so that the heroes could attack it, but at that moment, a twist drew their attention: Fiona purposefully and maliciously burned Henri to death before Brandis’s eyes.
In the moment of shock, the mind flayer grasped Vayne’s face with its tentacles and sought to dig out her brain. Brandis watched as Henri fell, dead, and turned his wrath on Fiona. He shoved the mind flayer away (freeing Vayne in the process) and struck Fiona with his ki energy, knocking her senseless. Seizing upon Brandis’s rage, the mind flayer forced its mind into his, taking control of his body. Under its command, Brandis brought down his fist to crush Fiona’s skull, but—as fate would have it—missed when she rolled just wide. Tristan cut the mind flayer down with his axe, breaking the mind control, and the fight was over. The paladin also healed Fiona with a healing potion, and she sputtered back into wakefulness.
The party stood for a moment, staring at Brandis, who stared murderously at Fiona. Vayne drew upon her protective magic to wrap her aegis around Brandis and held out her hand toward him. “Don’t do it, Brandis,” she said. “Don’t—” But it was too late. The monk exploded into motion, first kicking Vayne in the chest to knock her aside, then twisting around Tristan to knock Ysabelle senseless with a gentle tap. The paladin lashed out with his axe, but Brandis eluded the blow and vanished. He reappeared standing over Fiona, and Vayne used her shadow infused protective magic to sap his strength so he could not kill her. Vayne pleaded with him to think about what he was doing—that he was declaring them all his enemies—but the monk would not listen to reason. His eyes burned with the need to avenge his former friend.
Tristan healed Fiona, then struck at Brandis, but his shadow cloak enveloped him and he came after Fiona again. This time, she could defend herself, and managed to strike him with her fire magic. Brandis staggered, and Vayne and Tristan barely managed to knock him down. They stood panting over his unconscious form, nearly sapped of all strength. Tristan immediately set to checking his wounds, confident the fight was over, but Vayne wiped blood from her face, turned to Fiona, and informed the tiefling that the time had come for her to leave. Fiona was startled, but Vayne explained that there was no way she could travel with Brandis anymore, and Vayne had sworn to protect her—something she could not do if she remained. Ysabelle, sick about what was going to happen next, fled into the caves, where Garal Kai tried to convince her to leave with him—to escape her clearly insane companions. The girl refused, and the genasi fled by himself.
Fiona challenged Vayne that cutting her loose in the lowerdark in her current state was as good as a death sentence, but Vayne remained adamant. She put her aegis over Fiona and warned her that if she took an offensive move, she and Tristan would not hesitate to cut her down. The tiefling paused, considering, then shook her head. They were forcing this choice upon her. She summoned her power to kill Brandis, but Vayne cut her down with two swift strikes of her silver katana. The tiefling crumpled to the ground, bleeding to death. Vayne gave Tristan a long, poignant look, and said “Do what you have to do.” Then she left to go find Ysabelle, who had hid and seemed catatonic. She saw Garal Kai briefly, but there were no words exchanged—none needed to be. Vayne found Ysabelle and reassured her that they hadn’t meant to scare her—they were making the best out of a bad situation. The girl managed to respond, and Vayne hugged her close and covered her ears so she would not hear what Tristan did next. He hauled away the unconscious Brandis and turned to blast Fiona as she lay dying, putting her out of her misery in a gout of lightning and frost.
As Vayne wept quietly, Ysabelle hugged her back.
The heroes regrouped shortly thereafter, and Brandis regained consciousness of his own accord to find Vayne leaning hurt against the wall, Tristan searching the bodies of the dead, and Ysabelle gazing at Fiona’s charred remains. The monk apologized for attacking them, saying that he could not let them do what they were doing. Vayne smiled crookedly and said, “Likewise, and for the same reason.” The monk frowned, not understanding. Vayne put a hand on his shoulder and said, “you are a good man, Brandis, but if you had murdered Fiona, then you would be something less than that.” Tristan and Ysabelle nodded their agreement. The monk nodded, touched that they thought so highly of him.
The aftermath of Fiona’s death was not without its own unsettling flair. Finally, her body burned away in purple flames, revealing the sigil of Cyric branded upon her chest. The heroes heard her crying out for mercy as the dark god claimed her soul, and they realized what had come to pass. In the previous days, when Fiona had seemingly lost her powers, it was because the God of Lies had slain her primordial patron and taken his place. He’d offered her a new pact: serve him as a spy on the Gatekeeper in return for her powers restored. Ultimately, they realized, Fiona would have taken the completed Gatekeeper Staff and used it to free Cyric from his prison. Whether Fiona meant it or not, when she had decided to fight them, that had been a noble choice, in a sense—sacrificing herself rather than going through with Cyric’s schemes. “So,” Tristan observed, “I suppose that turned out for the best.”
Any further rumination the heroes might have done was cut short, however, when cries of pain from the mind flayer prison caught their attention. Inside, they found a halfling bound upon a table, cut open and showing signs of having been experimented upon. The surgeries to enhance his limbs and skeleton appeared to have been in progress when the heroes attacked the mind flayers, leaving the halfling in considerable pain. They finally calmed him (with the pommel of Vayne’s sword) long enough that they could heal him, and when he came to, he was able to speak, he introduced himself as: “The name’s Bakkonn. ’Cuz I bring it home.” Wary of taking a new and clearly unstable companion, the heroes nevertheless welcomed Bakkonn into their number, as they couldn’t very well leave him in the lowerdark.
The heroes took stock of their situation: Fiona was dead, Garal Kai (their guide) was gone, and Bakkonn (new and crazed) had joined them. They were very weary after the battle with the mind flayers—particularly Tristan, who had spent so much of himself in the silver fire blasts—but they couldn’t very well rest in the illithids’ territory. Instead, they decided to go back the way they had come, through the area of shadowdark, and find shelter on the other side. The trek was grueling and caused both Ysabelle and Tristan to injure themselves in their weariness.
They had been traveling for some hours when Tristan heard a familiar voice say “all too easy.” The heroes turned to find Sunic among them. The elf had been following them since they initially entered the shadowdark, and had chosen just this moment to steal the Orb of Reality. In his arrogance, he paused to appraise us, and Tristan launched into a diatribe against him, which Sunic did not expect. The heroes revealed that they had bigger concerns—namely, Cyric was in the process of being freed, and he was going to come for that Orb when he had the chance. The heroes tried to convince Sunic to aid them, but he said instead that they would part ways and he would trouble them no more. Expressing genuine concern for his well-being (also a surprise to Sunic and everyone else), Vayne pleaded with him to reconsider, saying that if he took the Orb, she guaranteed it would be the death of him. Sunic considered this, then smiled slightly and said something that made her flinch: “See you in a moment, Vayne.” He was referring, of course, to her doppelganger, whom he had openly declared his ally. Then he vanished.
The heroes decided there was nothing they could do about Sunic just then, so they pressed on, hoping for shelter. What they found instead was a cave filled with poison gas and some sort of dark entity. They backtracked and rested just outside the cave, but inside the shadowdark. The gloom of the Shadowfell infused them, making Bakkonn jittery, Brandis recklessly confident, and Vayne sluggish and disinterested. Ysabelle and Tristan were also affected, but they hid their conditions far better.
The halfling and monk went on ahead, into the cave filled with poison mist. They found there a dracolich, which Brandis (in his Shadowfell addled state) could not help but insult with his bravado. Once again, when Vayne, Tristan, and Ysabelle rejoined their companions, it was into a battle.
TO BE CONTINUED!