The Gatekeeper

23. Darkness in the Depths

Of an Undead Dragon, a Shadowborn Wizard, and Storming a Tower

The dracolich struck the heroes hard, breathing forth a cloud of shadow that blew the vitality and strength from their bodies. Vayne had the sense to throw a protective black sigil over the creature, draining its strength even as it attacked. Thus the heroes weathered the attack well enough, but found that dark wraiths sprang up from the pieces of their souls burned off in the assault. Most of the wraiths looked like mere shadows, with two exceptions: Vayne’s wraith resembled her shadow self perfectly, and Tristan’s wraith looked like a gleaming silver-and-blue woman of unearthly beauty. It was, to him, a vision of his dead goddess, albeit with immortal hatred in her mad eyes.

Bakkonn moved to heal the heroes from the strike, but Brandis unexpectedly struck him a resounding blow. The dragon’s mighty will had bored into his mind, dominating him and turning him against his fellows. As the monk halted the heroes’s charge, the dragon gave a rattling laugh through its fleshless throat and took off, borne aloft by great bone wings. With Bakkonn’s magic, Brandis managed to fight off the dragon’s dominating will, but the creature instinctively probed at all of the heroes’ minds throughout the battle. It seized hold of Vayne and forced her to attack Ysabelle, but the shadar-kai’s love for the girl was strong enough that she resisted and foiled her own attack. Enraged at what the dragon had almost caused her to do, Vayne teleported up to the creature, shattered its mind with a strike of her swordmagic, then teleported back to the ground, landing in a crouch as the creature slammed into the stone behind her.

Downed and stunned, the creature took a moment to collect its wits again (while Brandis and Tristan tried to strike it effectively, then turned its dominating will upon the mortal that had dared smite it from the sky: Vayne. Ysabelle cried out in warning, but in the grip of its will Vayne dropped her defenses and did not resist as the dragon’s claws burrowed into her body and she spewed blood. Then the dragon hurled her into a previously unseen patch of what looked like liquid darkness on the ground. In her shadowed state, Vayne could see the darkness for what it was: a ravenous void that drained the life of creatures within it. The greedy blackness tore at her vitality, leaving her on the brink of death.

Fortunately, Bakkonn’s magic came to the rescue, healing Vayne before the dragon could finish her off. Bolstered by his power and Tristan’s divine mettle, the wounded shadar-kai managed to fight off the dragon’s will long enough to limp out of the void pool. No sooner had she done so, however, than a spell burst in their midst, knocking the heroes staggering. A new threat had emerged: a dark wizard sniping at the heroes from the cliff side where none could easily reach him. To make matters worse, the dragon renewed his breath weapon and loosed it on the group.

Tristan, Bakkonn, and Brandis focused on the dragon, leaving Ysabelle and Vayne to deal with the wizard. Tristan hit the beast with silver fire and Brandis continually struck it with his ki-charged fists and his cane. Among the three of them (and Vayne’s aegis magic), they managed to drive the creature off, then destroy it before it could escape. The dragon’s last words before it turned to dust were a promise that it would rise again. As the creature fell, Vayne cried out, drawing their attention to the other half of the battle.

Vayne and Ysabelle fared not nearly as well against the wizard. His magic and the lingering dracolich’s will kept Vayne paralyzed, and she could do nothing but watch as the wizard struck hard against Ysabelle. When the girl fell to her knees, Vayne could only rage against the magic imprisoning her. The wizard mostly laughed at Ysabelle’s attempts to strike him, parrying her magic with ease. Finally, when the wizard conjured a floating claw that ripped open Ysabelle’s midsection, and Vayne summoned enough fury to move. It was then that the dragon fell, distracting the wizard, who suddenly saw the battle turning against him. In his distraction, he let the imprisoning magic fade from Vayne, and she leaped up the cliff side, teleporting up to pursue him. The wizard retreated through a magical gate in the rock. Before he could close it—even as the words were on his lips—Vayne struck him with her silver sword, banishing him temporarily to a demiplane.

Her victory was short-lived, however, as the wizard’s two bodyguards—bodaks clad in black plate armor—surged through the gate and attacked. Vayne faced them, staring them down warily, then struck. She hit and disoriented one, but the second parried her. Then she teleported back off the cliff and rolled to her feet, joining the rest of the heroes below. The bodaks hurled themselves from the cliff and rushed the group, but the dragon had been dealt with and all five of the heroes could join forces against them. They handily dispatched the bodaks, but were then left with a dilemma: what to do about the wizard? Vayne recognized the man as Maren Black, a powerful wizard from Gloomwrought who had the ear of Prince Rolan, ruler of that city. No doubt he would not want the powerful church of the Raven Queen to know he wielded powers over undead, and Vayne said she wouldn’t put it past him to track them down to end their potential threat.

Ultimately, the heroes decided that instead of leaving a potentially deadly enemy at their back, they would treat with the wizard to see if a peaceful resolution could be reached and they could part without fighting one another. To this end, they followed the trail of the wizard’s power, up a rocky cliff covered with the bones of what could only have been previous enemies of the wizard. Two nightwalkers surprised the heroes on the cliff, but were handily dispatched through Bakkonn’s divine magic and some ferocious fighting on the part of the heroes.

Brandis continued to be reckless beyond measure, wandering into his second ambush of the day. The party attempted to convince him to exercise caution, but he scoffed at the suggestion, and immediately walked into a warding that paralyzed him temporarily. Vayne and Ysabelle were able to suppress the power of the wards long enough for the rest of the party to get through, but the tail end of the magic caught Ysabelle, rendering her helpless as a flopping fish. Triggered by the heroes’ proximity, a bone golem pulled itself together out of the surroundings and attacked. They dispatched the creature, though not without difficulty as Brandis and Ysabelle were still fighting off the paralysis.

After a long trek to get to the wizard’s holdfast, they recognize a symbol of death carved on the locked door, which would activate upon any who opened it without invitation. They addressed the doors, which took on the wizard’s semblance. For the destruction of his golems, Maren Black insisted the heroes owed him a great debt—50,000 gp to be precise. The party balked at this, saying that they were attacked first, and now he is charging them for defending themselves from his minions. He offered an alternative arrangement, which was to take one of their lives instead. Vayne attempted to negotiate with him, offering to perform a service out of their good faith, but the wizard refused the offer. He asked Vayne repeatedly who she was, but the swordmage said nothing of the issue (he might potentially have recognized her, though she’d been gone from Gloomwrought more than 20 years). Ysabelle attempted to intimidate the wizard, resulting only in him stating that it would be his mission in life to hunt her down and destroy her. This was too much for the heroes, who decided (for better or worse) that Maren Black would have to die. Ysabelle opened his doors with the Gatekeeper Staff, and the battle was on.

The heroes immediately found themselves attacked by four disintegration turrets, which nearly demolished Brandis. Working together (and with considerable help from Bakkonn’s healing magic), they were able to get inside and disable the turrets, only to find themselves confronted with a summoning circle that loosed dread wraiths upon them. They slew these creatures as well and deactivated the circle, confident in their ability to defeat any of Maren Black’s attempts to destroy them.

What awaits next?

TO BE CONTINUED!

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