Monday, June 13

The Tale of the Magic Crossbow- Conclusion: Darkness and Sunlight

For a moment, the two Ungwes simply stared at one another. Her guards stood dumbfounded. The real Drow recovered first, but Rose did very well for herself. The guards knew one of them to be false, but did not dare risk attacking the wrong one, and to even raise a hand against the image of their lady, even a false one, would be high treason. Joachim used the distraction to slip into the hole on the building's side while the two seeming Dark Elf commanders argued with one another about which one was real.
"Get her, you fools!" One of them shouted. The guards jumped, and began to move, as if by reflex.
"Not me, she is the impostor! Slay her at once for her impudence!" The other cried. Rose was so skilled that if Joachim hadn't watched Rose transform, he wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. The guards were also having trouble. Neither of the options in front of them were promising. Strike their master, and she would have their hides, for what hope could they have of actually besting her? Or strike at the poseur, assuming that they chose correctly, and face the shame of striking at her form, and be whipped for the crime. Poor odds all around, and that kept them paralyzed.
The building was constructed by the Dark Elves, and it suited their aesthetic by being cramped, dark, and suffocating in atmosphere. Joachim fought off a sneeze and squeezed through the hole left by Incisor as it ripped its way through the construction. The bricks were wide and thick, and it pushed a whole section of them out of the makeshift wall. Joachim wondered how they were being dried without the sun, but he didn't bother himself with it for long. Stealth had never been his strong suit. He just hoped Rose would make enough of a commotion so that he could slip in unnoticed. In spite of the dark, and the tight corridors, stuffed with the treasures the Drow had relieved from the Wood Elves over the course of their invasion. The warehouse had the look of permanence to it. They hadn't simply shipped their booty back down the tunnels to their Underkingdom. This was their foothold, and from here they would bring up their armies. Perhaps all the strange countries of the Underdark would make use of the magical darkness, to break free from the subterranean prison-lands and wage their revenging wars against the surface.
Joachim considered himself a hero, a free spirit wandering the trails of this world, free of the bonds of land and property. It was his calling to keep those roads free, of bandits, and monsters and the dread cultists of the old gods. He fought as a wanderer, a free knight who cared little for position or title. That was the cost of his freedom to follow his own code. He was invisible and unguarded in a treasure house of demonstratively evil elves, which, as an aforementioned fighter of the wilderness, made them his by right of virtue, but he had work to do to pay for them.
He hesitantly set riches aside for the moment and donned his armor. He found a few suitable weapons for Rose as well, and Glory's pack. He had a feeling she'd be needing it. Trying to take as much advantage of his invisibility as he could, he snuck up behind Engwe's guards as quietly as he could. His chain mail jingled a bit when he walked, and the one defender cocked her head as he approached, but she never turned around. I thrust Incisor savagely into her back. He had learned long ago that fair fights were for paladin and idiots who didn't know better, and had no place in the real world. He fought dirty.
Joachim reappeared as he attacked, and in the next second, the scene burst into violent chaos. Joachim tossed a longsword to Rose and struck the other flunky with his gauntleted fist. Rose bobbled the blade, but the other Drow were still so stunned by her appearance that she had enough breathing room to back away and draw before they came at her. Engwe turned and attack Joachim with the stock of her crossbow, knocking him flat. By the time he got back to his, the Drow leader was gone, and Rose was being overwhelmed.
"Need a hand?" he asked, stabbing one of the remaining Drow in the shoulder.
"Thanks," Rose swung the sword in front of herself in a wide arc. The enemies avoided her attack, but she managed to free herself. As soon as she could, she prayed for a new spell. "Sanctuary!" She genuflected, and suddenly seemed surrounded by a softly glowing blue mist. The Drow recoiled and came after Joachim instead. "We need to free the others!" She said.
"Well, I'm a bit busy right now." Joachim navigated Incisor beneath the shield of one attacker, catching her in the thigh. She howled in wordless pain. "Talk to me in a bit."
"We've lost the element of surprise, you know." She said from her bubble of solitude. The Drow glared at her from behind the misty barrier, but turned their full attention back to Joachim.
"Whatever it is you're doing, it works against them!" He parried an incoming blade and rewarded the swordswoman with a kick to the stomach. Their numbers seemed endless. "You'll have to get to the prisoners. I'll hold these guys off and stop whatever they're up to with Glory!"
"Me, but, I'm... I can't! I'm just a chaplain, I'm no heroine!" Rose called helplessly.
"Rose, I can't get there! You can. This is your moment. We can't save your people. It's up to you. This is something only you can do! Go!" Rose nodded and disappeared from his view. Joachim knew that he was taking a risk with her, but she hadn't betrayed him yet, well, again, and she'd had the opportunity. And he was far too busy. He fought off a few more of the women warriors.
Onward they came, the cruel women in armor dyed a deeper black than the darkness of their eternal night. Before them, in rags with clumsy fists flailing, their men were pushed as slaves. Monstrous spiders, the size of horses, and dripping with venom, were their mounts as well as hunting dogs. They pushed Joachim to the very limits of his exhaustion. He used the crowd against themselves when he could, withdrawing, forcing them through the narrow alleys formed by the ancient trees and the squat barracks the Drow had constructed for themselves. But before long, he had nowhere else to run to. A slave, long white hair filthy, his red eyes wild with bloodlust and madness, raised his giant fists to hammer a blow that Joachim was too exhausted to parry.
The blow never landed. There was a sound like the sighs of a thousand winds, and a strange sound of steel hitting flesh. The giant toppled forward, a dozen arrows sticking from his back. A cadre of Wood Elves stood by the mouth of the alley. In spite of their raged clothing and improvised weapons, they held a regal bearing. It was not imperial, as the Drow conquerors, but a natural grace and determination. Something the Drow had lost, and could not take away from their cousins. Their leader gave the slightest of nods and waved his hand. It seemed to Joachim to equal the deepest and humblest bow, somehow.
"I am King Thallon. Sister Rosa asked us to come find you, Master Joachim Vernes. Please take this." He held a small object in his hand, a tightly curled leaf.
"Rose, where is she?" Joachim asked, eying the object wearily.
"It is unfortunate, that she was able to free us from our prison, but her spell was undone, and the guards had attacked her before we could come to her aid. None amongst us save her wield the healing touch of the Goddess.
"Is she dead then?"
"I know not. We have done what we could for her, and administered this sacred medicine to shore up her fortitude." The King gestured to the leaf. "She asked that we grant you the medicine as well, though it is rare for an outsider to receive it. When I left her to find you, she was floating between this world and the Fair Shores."
"What is it?" Joachim asked, taking the plant.
"A holy herb that we grow in the forest. Chew it, but do not swallow the leaf itself. It will restore your vitality, though it will do little for your wounds I am afraid." Joachim did as he was instructed. It was delicious, with a spicy flavor he couldn't quite define. As he chewed, he could feel life return to his leaden limbs. His resolve returned. He could still save Glory, even if it was too late for Rose. For her he would deliver vengeance.
Joachim sat up gingerly, and reached into his pack. His emergency healing drought was still there. As reverently as he could, he spit out the leaf, and drank the potion. He felt a familiar wave of energy flow through his body. His wounds dried and healed. He was ready to fight again.
"I saw that stone of theirs in the central clearing. If they're going to sacrifice my partner, that's where they're going to do it. Can you take me there?" Joachim climbed to his feet and tested the spear. It was undamaged and hungry for more violence. King Thallon watched the human and chuckled.
"Ho ho, you're quite energetic already. Perhaps giving you the sacred medicine was too much?" He smiled. "In any case, you would demand the help of the king himself, even in these circumstances."
"I was hired to do a job, majesty, and I aim to do it, if you will forgive me for saying so. I've never been one to defer to rank and title when work needs doing," Joachim replied.
"A fine answer. I believe you mean the Glade of the Forest Mother. We we proceed there." He motioned ahead, and gave commands in bold, crisp elven speech. The escaped rebels responded with martial enthusiasm, and marched ahead, never once falling out of step in the thick brush or twisted roots.
The king led them to a rise, slaying the guarding Drow warriors with little noise. The ceremony was already underway. Ungwe stood at the center of a raised dias, with a pair of red-robed priestesses on either side. A collection of Drow were assembled to watch. There were cavalry on giant bucking spider-creatures, foot solders in decorated armor, and huge male slaves obidiently kneeling before them. Glory was tied to a black slab. Her tiny form struggled against the bonds, but she couldn't slip free. Ungwe shouted something, and traced an intricate pattern in the air with a wickedly curved knife.
The team of archers began their work at once. Acting in concert, they loosed flight after flight of deadly accurate arrows, which the other Elves protected them with whatever clubs or swords they had managed to liberate from their captors. Almost at the same instant, they brought the for priestesses low in a hail of timbers. However, the arrows seemed to strike at an invisible wall in front of Ungwe, clattering harmlessly to the ground in front of her. She looked at their hiding place and directed her troops forward. Her red eyes seemed to glow with hate and triumph in the smokey dim torchlight.
"She must be protected somehow!" Joachim shouted. "Can you clear me a path? I'll cut her free and destroy the stone myself."
"As you will, human." King Thallon replied. Joachim was already vaulting to the clearing floor. The archers struck with uncanny precision. Each of his steps was dogged by a feather-tipped arrow, merely inches away. The Drow, unprepared for the sudden attack, could not bar his way. He reached into the pack and pulled out a pair of Glory's knives. The stage loomed in front of him, and Ungwe finished chanting in her demon's tounge.
"You are too late, human. Now watch the mage die for the Darkstone!" She cackled. Trusting all his warriors skill, Joachim threw the knives. They sung through the air with magical speed and balance, thudding heavily into the black stone, and through the hempen rope as well. Ungwe released her darkling strength, forcing the blade with all her evil will towards Glory's heart.
Joachim sliced through the ropes just in time. The sacrificial dagger came down, but Glory wasn't there any more. She was on her feet, and already pawing through the bag Joachim provided. Ungwe bellowed in rage.
"Keep them busy, I've got an ace up my sleeve," she said, and pulled out a tattered scroll. Without another word, she opened it and began reading aloud, chanting the strange symbols that covered it.
"It's a plan. They got Rose, but she managed to free the rest of the elves first. I'll handle the spiders." He leapt into the fray and charged the riders, scattering them. His spear seemed to be everywhere at once, unseating the Drow from their mounts and sending the giant spiders into a panic. The wood elves were fighting valiantly against the Drow infantry, but they were desperately outnumbered, and had lost the element of surprise. The guards would have them routed again in minutes at best.
"Foolish woman, your petty magic can do nothing to harm us! Our Dark Lady protects us," Ungwe hissed.
"I can do little, aye, but they will have more luck," Glory said, and finished the spell. "Scions of Light, I call upon you by ancient contract. Banish this darkness with your holy flames! Summon Lantern Archons!" The spell finished, and a bright circle appeared in the clearing, three feet above the ground. From within, an idyllic daylight sky could be seen. The Dark Elves cringed and looked away from the light, and maybe they missed the five small, glowing figures that emerged from it.
They couldn't be said to have proper forms, but were merely small globes of pure, strong light. They spiraled through the air, scattering the Drow in a panic before them. Engwe fired blindly at them with her crossbow, but her arrows never seemed to find their marks. The tiny Angels were too swift and too righteous. They fired rays of pure light, burning and blinding the Dark Elves wherever they struck.
Ungwe shrieked furiously in her own tongue, and charged at Glory. In her bone-white armor, she came rushing on like a skittering spider, her crossbow in one hand and a dagger in the other. Both dripped with a noxious poison.
"Your blood will feed the Darkstone, one way or the other!" Glory attempted to meet the assault with her own daggers, but she was no warrior. The barely parleyed attack sent her tiny frame sprawling to the earth. A fiendish grin lit up Ungwe's face as she readied her crossbow to finish the magess off. Joachim had to act quickly, but there was no way for him clear the distance, filled as it was with the drow's monstrous cavalry. He touched the bloodied tip of his spear to his forehead in benediction.
"Please, Incisor," he prayed. "Fly true!" Reaching with the last reserves of his strength, he threw the spear at Ungwe with as much force as he was able. The dragon-weapon seemed to take on a life of it's own in flight, rending the air of the clearing with a mighty roar, as though it were the very spirit of the great beast from whose fang it was carved. Ungwe watched the blade coming, and twisted out of its path, but not quickly enough to avoid a great wound to her right arm as the pike passed through the air where she had been. She screamed, her magic crossbow tumbled from her hands. Joachim was already on his feet, clearing the distance between them. Ungwe dove to find the bow, but a pair of the light spirits converged upon her, driving her deeper into the woods with their holy bolts.
"Are you alright?" Joachim asked.
"I'm fine, or were you talking to the spear?"
"I know she's OK. Something like that wouldn't break her," he said, pulling the shaft from the earth. "But what have we here?" He transfered spear to his left hand while he bent down to examine the crossbow. "Darkwood with, if I'm not mistaken, mithril facings, and hey now, an Ironwood stock. What's that little crossbow? You need a new home?"
"Boys and their toys," Glory sighed.
"Speaking of which, what are we going to do about this?" Joachim asked, putting down the bow and pointing at the altar.
Joachim and Glory looked down at the stone. The carvings were somehow darker than the rough black rock, and they seemed to squirm in their vision, defying their ability to read them. From what Glory could make out, she wasn't sure she wanted to. A cold wind blew through the dark forest.
"Well, what do you think, Joachim? Can you break this toy?"
"Are you sure you don't mind?"
"It needs to be done. Even if We'll do it together on the count of three. Ready?"
"As I'll ever be." He raised the spear above the stone with both hands. He felt it quiver with anticipation, ready to absorb the surging energy of the spell. Glory counted off and cast her counter spell. Joachim brought down the spear.
It felt as though a wave of purest cold went through him, traveling up through the spear and into his hands. He pushed through it, as though he were trudging trough the heart of every snowy, moonless night there ever was. The spear bit deeper and farther, grasping for all of the strange, black energy it could devour. A formless void seemed to pull him down forever.
And then, all of the sudden, he felt the tip hit soft dirt, and the pressure was gone. He had cleft the stone in two. Immediately above them, the spell was lifting. Shafts of morning sunlight shone down into the forest, clear and cloudless. It would be a fine day.
The remaining Drow quickly retreated, clutching their eyes and covering their jet skin as best they could. The forest elves who were still standing pursued them to their hole, capturing or killing those they could. Ungwe dived for the hole, still clutching her right arm, which hung limp and useless at her side. Despite the harsh glare from the sun, she glared back one last time at Glory and Joachim.
"This isn't over. None escape the Underkingdom! Our revenge will come!" She shouted. Almost lazily, Joachim fired a bolt at her from the crossbow. It sparkled through the air and whizzed just inches above the Drow's head. Ungwe ignored it, and turned and headed down deeper into the earth. She gave a guttural command, and as though the earth itself obeyed her, the tunnel collapsed behind her. Joachim briefly wondered if whatever unseen slave was manning the tunnel managed to escape the collapse. He doubted it.
They found Rose where she had collapsed. She was still unconscious, but the bandages were holding, and it looked like the worst of the bleeding had stabilized.
"Glory, you still have a healing potion left, right?" Joachim asked.
"I was saving it." She said defensively.
"Please heal the Cleric who ended up not killing us."
"Purely through accident if you ask me."
"Just feed her the damn potion."
"You owe me a new potion, then."
"She can heal you when she's conscious, plus she's paying us. Consider it 'expenses'." He reached down and cleared her mouth while Glory poured the potion down her throat. After a moment, Rose's eyelids flickered, She coughed and opened her eyes. She sat up blinking in the sunshine. Her hands immediately went to her side, and she winced. The potion had brought her back from the edge, but she was still grievously injured. She spent a few minutes praying, and healed herself and any other survivors she could find. Unfortunately, there were many it was too late for.
The Wood Elves had pushed their evil cousins back underground, but their forrest had been grievously hurt by their intrusion, and many of their fellows had fallen to spider fangs and Drow bolts. King Thallon himself was among those found dead, having taken a poisoned wound to the shoulder while leading the defense of the archers. It fell to his heir, a boy of perhaps only one hundred, to send the adventurers on their way, their bags filled with stout ironwood ready for carving. The ceremony was solemn and short. At the end, Glory turned to Rose and did something Joachim had rarely seen her do: Apologize.
"I was wrong to have suspected you as I did. If you want to come with us, we could use your magic." She said, bowing low. Rose smiled, a tear in the corner of her eye.
"Maybe someday I will see the world, but for now my place is here, with my people. The Sylvan Elves will be forever in your debt, mighty heroes. Go with the Lady of the Forrest's blessing." The pair left the woods and headed back towards the city. As they walked, Joachim hefted Engwe's crossbow, which he had decided to keep.
"Well, we made enough to have the squirt raised, earned the respect of the Elves, and I got a new crossbow. Not a bad night's work, eh Glory?" He asked, experimentally sighted a rabbit. "Bang," he said, pretending to fire. The creature scampered back into the underbrush.
"Except that I was nearly sacrificed to Demons, again." Gloria sighed.
"Par for the course. Remember those lizard guys last year?"
"Like I could forget. Let's get going," she said.
"Where are we going?"
"Potion shop first, then the temple," she replied.

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