Sunday, June 12

The Tale of the Magic Crossbow pt. III: The Cursed Ones

In keeping with Mr. K's suggestion, I'm going to keep on telling Grandfather's stories, but I'm changing up the format a bit. If I'm cataloguing them, I should treat them more seriously. So, I'm going to abandon the bedtime story format and just concentrate on the facts, as I know them.
When last I wrote of them, Joachim, Glory, and Rose had entered the Ironwood Forest. Rose was leading them, with the purpose of disarming the many traps and pitfalls that the Wood Elves had set up to protect their haven, although they hadn't managed to protect it from underneath. Glory and Rose weren't so disturbed by the dark. Their people had eyes better suited for the lack of light. Joachim was human, so he had to light his way.
He pulled a device from his pack. It was a leather and glass tube, about a foot in length, called a sun rod. He twisted the leather thong in the middle, and there was a crunch of something brittle breaking. The strange, alchemic fluids in the tubes met, and reacted, making the rod glow brightly, or at least it should have. The eldritch spell of darkness robbed even the device of some of its brilliance. Still, it was enough to see by.
"Put that out!" Rose whispered with a hiss. "Do you want the Drow to see us coming?"
"Better they see the light than they hear me trip over every root and break every fallen twig between here and their camp," Joachim replied. "Take point, we're right behind you." Rose stiffened, unused to taking orders from a human. Her elven ears twitched, trying to catch some tiny sound on the cold breeze perhaps, and she started forward without a word. Glory shrugged and fell in behind her. He took up the rear.
For a few minutes, they walked in silence, save for the occasional warning from Rose to avoid a certain long, or to point out a pitfall hidden in the undergrowth. The group managed to avoid any patrols. In fact, they walked for a long time without seeing anyone. Rose claimed that she knew every inch of the forest, and they believed her, but as they walked, the fact that something wasn't right settled upon them. When she felt confident enough, Glory hung back to consult with her partner.
"Something isn't right here," she whispered.
"So you noticed, too" Joachim replied.
"Yes. I suspected it before we entered, but that business with the torch confirms it."
"Wait, the torch? What do you mean?" He asked.
"Yes... wait, what do you mean?" Glory stopped.
"You first."
"Fine. That's not a magical item, is it."
"The sun rod? Of course not. It's just a fire. It's all chemicals. Take a look." He brandished the device for her to get a closer look.
"I already am," she said, and he noticed for the first time that her eyes had the faint, violet glow they took on whenever she examined things of the magical spectrum. "The torch shouldn't be working, but it is. There's something off about this darkness spell."
"Go on."
"Well, do you remember the Splinterbone Catacombs? When we had to fight that warlock?"
"Of course, when he scuppered, he called down that cloud of darkness. It took hours to find our way out of it. Even that dwarf was running into the walls... Oh, I see."
"Exactly. If this really were a darkness spell, it would be solid. My night-vision wouldn't be effective, and your torch wouldn't do any good at all."
"So it's not magic after all?" He trusted her judgement. Glory's expertise had saved them on a number of occasions.
"No, it is. This whole place is so filled with magic that I can barely see. It's even drowning out your spear, it's so thick. But it's not dark, it's more like, I don't know, night, somehow. I've never seen a spell do something like this before."
"Any ideas what could cause it?"
"Well, I can't say. It could be very, very powerful time magic, or weather magic, I suppose. It's like the whole sky is frozen above us. It could be a ritual or an artifact I've never heard of. It could be anything. I can't wait to find out."
"Well, whatever it is, spell or machine, or what not, you can figure it out after I break it."
"You do love smashing other people's toys, don't you Vernes?" Her tone was slightly colder. It was an old argument.
"Well," he considered, "mostly these 'toys' were horrible things sent to kill me, so I don't feel so bad about it. And besides, you'd think that poor old Bindle would be your top priority."
"Bindle?" She asked, puzzled.
"You do recall your poor, punctured, boyfriend, I hope." Joachim said sarcastically. The tone was getting heated.
"Of course, of course. But if this is some lost magic, it would be quite a boon. I could get tenure in Carabos for something like that." Her voice fell again.
"Who knows if you'll get your chance. I don't think Rose is leading us on a rescue mission."
"What makes you say that?" Glory asked.
"Well, for one thing, she's given us the slip." Glory looked around. It was true. Rose had disappeared while they were arguing.
"Well...I'm sure she's just gone ahead. Maybe she didn't see us slow down?"
"No, Glory, just no. You might know your magic, but I know people, and something about this stunk the moment we took it. Now I know what. Trust me, there'll be a horde of monsters just beyond that riiioh..." Joachim stepped forward,and found his foot squarely in the middle of a hidden noose. Before he had time to pull it back, He was swinging upward by his right ankle. In that moment, his arms flailed, and he dropped his torch. Fortunately, he was quicker to catch his spear, as it fell from the holder on his pack. He was about to cut himself loose, when he looked down and saw just how high off the ground he was. Then, he reconsidered.
Somehow, the sunrod had managed to avoid serious damage in the fall, and illuminated a small circle below. On the ground, Glory stood looking up at him, and laughing.
"Hilarious," Joachim said blankly. "You wouldn't have happened to prepare a slow falling spell, would you?"
"I've got a potion for it."
"Well, I don't think that's going to help me, Glory." Joachim began to feel giddy from the blood rushing to his head. Glory stepped gingerly around the smoking brush, and set her pack down on a patch of clear ground. It was muddy from the lack of light, but she didn't seem to notice.
"I still have that levitation scroll in here somewhere. I'll guide you down." She rummaged through the bag, and eventually pulled out a battered scroll case. While she was searching, Joachim reached down with the spear tip. It would be close, but he could just reach. Out in the forest, a twig snapped.
"Hold on, I've got it right here..." There was another snap, closer. "Fireball, grease, haste, ooh!" There was the sound of something climbing a tree, followed by the crash of a branch. Whatever it was, it was large. It sounded as though an army was marching through, and it was very close now.
"Do you have it? I hear something out there."
"No, I just found a lightning bolt. I thought I used up of those. Here it is. Are you ready?" Glory looked up from her pack, and at... something in front of her. She froze. Joachim tried to twist his body to get a better look, but he couldn't make out anything outside the tiny circle of dying flames. A large, impossible shadow descended upon Glory, and she screamed. Almost immediately, her cry became a chant, and, and she gestured, completing a spell just in time. From underneath the monstrous shadow's bulk, Joachim faintly heard the word 'haste,' and the spell was cast. There was a blur, presumably glory, her enchanted dagger cutting a trail of fire through beast and air, that came bounding from below, and off into the woods. Bellowing with rage, the injured thing lumbered after her. Joachim watched it skitter, seemingly too quickly, on four pairs of horrible, oddly bending spider legs, and then the clearing was quiet again.
He felt a weight settle on the branch his trap hung from, almost imperceptibly, then lift again, in silence. There was a second one, or the first had doubled back? In a moment, his question was answered as the creature slid into his field of vision, and he found himself staring into a cruel and familiar face. He had seen it, the night before in the tavern, although the addition of a pair of wickedly curved, jutting fangs had been the least of the changes that had ocurred to her. She was still dressed in the remnants of her garb from the night before, although it was badly torn and ripped. Her hands had changed like her face. Her fingers now ending in sharp talons. But it was her legs that had truly been changed. Her waist was the last part of her that could be considered humanoid, as her jet-black skin now transitioned smoothly to the hard, shiny carapace of a black widow spider. Eight huge legs tensed on nothing, and she swung from a thin, white strand of spider-silk. She looked at him with fierce hatred in her eyes, and growled a low curse in a tongue that was far removed from the graceful Elven languages it was derived from. She lashed out quickly, using both her claws. One, Joachim managed to block with his buckler, but the other reached past it, digging trough his armor and into the soft flesh of his shoulder.
Joachim sighed, and brought his short spear around, cutting through the monster's web line as well as the rope. He kicked out, connecting with his free leg squarely in what he supposed was the thorax. There was a slight crunch, and she howled in rage. Finally, he was at least facing upwards, but the ground was coming up fast, and she clawed at him, as though killing him was far more important than saving herself. He only had one chance, and she would hardly cooperate. He readied the and drove it deep into her chest, just as the forest floor rose to meet them. There was a shock of contact, and what he was sure was a broken arm. The wound on his shoulder burned, more than it should have, and he realized that it must have been poisonous. The thing, whatever it was, screamed, and fell dead. Joachim sunk down on the grass beside it, careful to avoid the leaking ichor, and saw to his wounds.
His chain was rent in a huge gash at his left shoulder. That arm was already starting to go numb, either from some natural poison, or something she had dipped her talons in. With his right, he reached into his pack and pulled out a green glass vial marked with a heart. With great care, he poured a small measure on his wound, which smoked, but where he left it, there was fresh, healed skin. He sighed, and replaced what was left of the potion.
With great effort, he rose one-handed to his feet, while his left arm hung paralyzed. At least, he thought, the poison doesn't seem to be spreading further. He headed wearily off in the direction that he thought Glory had fled in. Eventually, she found him.
"Are you alright?" He asked.
"Fine, fine. A little poisoned."
"A little?"
"It's a light paralytic. It just needs time to work it's way through. How did you do?"
"Alright. Whatever spell protection they had yesterday, the metamorphosis stripped them of it, so I managed to make short work of it, once I extrapolated the data."
"Right, right. But why change them into monsters that are weaker than their original shapes?"
"Drow culture is reclusive and mysterious. From the fragments I understand, I would hazard a guess that they were not mutated by choice, or to hunt us."
"Go on."
"There is scant information on the Drow available outside of the Underdark, but I do recall glancing at an old tome concerning their diety: Lolth, the Entrapping One. She is a devil of such power that not only does she gain worship from mortals of the dark realms, but she has enough power survive outside of the complex hierarchy the other denizens of her plane partake in. The only other Pit Lord of that caliber is Tiamat."
"Impressive, but how does that relate to those two trackers?"
"Well, the book describes a variety of rituals available to Lolth's servants. Some transformations grant enormous power, and others are terrible curses. What we fought today were 'Driders.' cursed to take the shape of half-drow, half-monsterous spider for failure in service. I would imagine that by failing to kill or capture us the night before, they were forced into a new shape, and exiled." They got up, and headed deeper into the forest, away from the cursed bodies.
"They failed last night because Rose used her daylight spell." Joachim said slowly. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Why not. It validates the fact that Rose did not in fact, turn against us."
"No, Glory. Just no. Trust me, she ditched us. You may know every run or whatnot, but I know people. And I know when we've been betrayed. It just makes the game more complicated."
"In that, you would be correct, human." The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, and suddenly, the forest was full of Drow warriors. Their leader was a woman. She was beautiful, but terrible in aspect, as though she were carved of obsidian. Her long, white hair flowed like fine silk, and her eyes were a rich, blood red. She was a warrior in black leather armor, reinforced with white, spidery carvings in bone. In her left hand she carried a weapon, a crossbow as beautiful and deadly as she was herself. The weapon was carved from midnight wood, and embellished with truesilver that shone like stars.
She held in her right was a length of chain, and Joachim saw Rose handcuffed at the end of it. She had been beaten herself, quite badly, by the look of it. The Drow pulled her forward, without seeming effort. Rose stumbled. Her captor sneered at her cruelly. "We sent the little worm to bring you here, to find a mighty wizard for us to sacrifice to the Night Stone. In that she has done well. So, in spite of her... disloyalty," the leader said, stretching the word as though savoring it. "We shall sacrifice no more of our lesser sylvan sisters." She marched slowly, up to Glory, slinging the crossbow onto her back, and reaching out to touch her. Glory backed up, and poured quick, pure fire out of her stretched fingers, engulfing the clearing in flame and smoke. There was a high, cold, throaty laugh from the Drow commander.
"You are a strong one." There was a note of surprised in her voice. "Yes, you will do nicely indeed. Take her!" She called to her guards. She and Joachim readied their weapons, but the Drow were legion, and before long, they were prisoners.

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