Catacombs, Part Ten - Heart of Darkness
Moving down the corridor, the group soon came upon a skull, sitting in the middle of the paved floor. Beyond it, the corridor widened into a chamber, with double doors at the far end and single doors off to either side. They noticed that a pair of skeletons, wearing heavy armour, were standing before one of those doors.
Remembering the problem they had previously experienced with an exploding skull, Sophia drew her bow. Firing from a safe distance, her arrow pierced the skull and it duly exploded, blasting bone fragments in all directions. Immediately, the two skeletal knights turned, looking for the source of the threat, and seeing the group they moved forward in unison.
One of the skeletal knights charged Tector, while the other moved past him to engage Storm and Sophia. Storm snapped off a lightning orb which harmed the skeleton bearing down on him, while Sophia struck it with an arrow that seemed to have little effect. Tector and his opponent exchanged blows, Tector rattling the skeleton’s bones through its platemail while it slashed him with a precise cut through a weak point in his scalemail.
Finding himself engaged in melee, Storm responded by raking his opponent with his crackling lightning claws. Sophia jabbed the same skeleton with her rapier, again having minimal impact. Its heavy armour and hard bones made it difficult for her to land a telling blow with such a light weapon. Meanwhile, Tector dealt a massive blow which smashed through armour and bone alike, causing his opponent to stagger, before it retaliated with a blow that the warrior did well to avoid.
As the melee swirled around, Storm was skewered by a precise strike that pierced a weak point in his scales, wounding him badly. He answered with his lightning claws, driving them through the skeleton’s armour and into its ribcage, while Sophia nicked it again with her rapier. Tector took some heavy punishment from his opponent, but responded with two powerful blows to smash through one of its legs, before cleaving its skull in two with his greataxe.
As Tector turned to aid his companions, he noticed that the door which the skeletal knights had been guarding had opened. Through it stepped a swordwraith, a shadowy creature with a razor-sharp greatsword which it wielded with lightning speed. The brave warrior moved to engage it, while his companions finished off the other skeletal knight with lighting claws and rapier thrusts.
The swordwraith’s grey aura of necrotic energy weakened Tector, while the speed of its blade meant that it landed two blows for every one of the dragon-armoured hero. Sorely pressed, he traded blows with his highly skilled opponent, calling upon the power of his Brooch of Mithras to produce an adrenaline surge which enabled him to strike with more power and ignore the worst of his wounds.
Behind the swordwraith, an apparition emerged from the same doorway. Clad in ragged robes, it had pale bluish-white skin, with the bones showing through in places, and its eyes glowed with an unnatural fire. Its long hair flew wildly about its head, and its fingers ended in long talons wreathed in sickening negative energy. Taking stock, the companions were shocked to see the resemblance to a human they had once encountered, and realised that they faced the necromancer Deathwhisperer once again, this time returned from the dead as a wight.
Chanting in a fell language unknown to the group, the necromancer gestured in their direction, flexing his talons. Beneath their feet, the flagstone floor cracked and shifted, as skeletal arms burst upwards, grasping for the warm flesh of the three friends. Sophia and Storm managed to dodge away, but Tector was too slow, or perhaps distracted by the blade of the swordwraith, which was slashing him relentlessly. He felt a sharp pain as the bony talons dug into his calf, and a grasp of unnatural strength held him fast.
While struggling to break free, Tector was cut several times by the swordwraith. Fearing that her bodyguard would soon fall, Sophia darted forward and channelled the warmth of her healing power through her fingertips, brushing the back of Tector’s neck. Before their eyes many of his wounds closed, and strength returned to his arms.
Realising that they finally had the chance to destroy the source of the undead scourge, Storm decided to unleash his greatest powers. Calling up his sorcerous whirlwind, he slammed Deathwhisperer up into the arched stone ceiling and then back onto the flagstone floor, leaving the necromancer struggling to regain his feet. As he stood upright, he spread his arms wide, gathering a ball of necrotic energy which he hurled toward the companions. They flung themselves down just in time, Tector using his bulk to shield Sophia, as it expanded to engulf them all, leaving the swordwraith seeming stronger than ever.
Storm drew his wand of fire, pointing it at Deathwhisperer and scorching him with a bolt of fire, yet wincing in pain himself. Tector continued to trade attacks with the swordwraith, inflicting blows which seemed to strike home somewhere within its shadowy form, but bleeding freely from many slashes received in return. Meanwhile, Sophia drew her bow and fired several arrows at the necromancer, putting one through his shoulder. Storm then extended his white-scaled hand and conjured three javelins of pure ice, which shot toward Deathwhisperer. One slammed home, piercing his chest, while the others exploded on either side of him, peppering him with shards of ice shrapnel which shredded his parchment-like skin.
As the swordwraith lunged at Tector, inflicting a terrible cut, Sophia noticed that, as the necromancer stumbled back towards the door he had come through moments before, his bloodless wounds were healing before their very eyes. Snapping off an arrow, she tried to stop him in his tracks. But it missed and he disappeared through the door, slamming it shut behind him.
Turning back to the immediate threat, Sophia threw her vial of holy water over the swordwraith. Everywhere the droplets landed, steam hissed forth as if from burning heat, and the wraith seemed to writhe in silent agony. Still it pressed the attack on Tector, slicing into him yet again. The dragonborn and the noble lady focused lightning orbs and arrows on the swordwraith to aid their friend, who was increasingly unsteady on his feet from blood loss. The wraith could not withstand the combined assault of the three companions for long. As blows and spells rained down upon it, the unearthly light in its eyes grew more and more faint, until it seemed to implode upon itself, leaving its gleaming greatsword hanging vertically in the air, point uppermost, four feet off the ground. There it stayed, suspended for a second, before exploding in a burst of razor-shards that sliced into the three friends.
Picking themselves off the flagstone floor, the companions caught their breath and took stock. Tector was streaming blood from multiple wounds, despite benefitting from the blessings of both his Brooch of Mithras and Sophia’s powers during the fight with the swordwraith. Seeing that her friend was in truly bad shape, Sophia took a few moments to wash his wounds and channel her remaining restorative power to ease his pain. Storm, feeling that he was also sorely wounded, drank the last of their holy water and felt reinvigorated.
Briefly discussing their next steps, the group decided that they had come too far to turn back now, and determined to pursue Deathwhisperer. Throwing open the door, they rushed into a small chamber, startled to find the necromancer waiting for them, and even more surprised to see most of the rents in his skin healed over!
Immediately, the flagstones beneath their feet erupted as skeletal arms reached up, grabbing for them. This time, however, all of the companions reacted quickly, leaping aside or tearing free from the grasping undead. Sophia let fly an arrow, taking her target in the stomach, before Storm strode past her and unleashed the full force of his Solstice Stone-enhanced dragon breath. The necromancer stumbled backwards as a freezing maelstrom engulfed him, leaving much of his body frozen solid. Before he could recover, Tector stepped forward and brandished the crystal crucifix given to the group by Father Geoffrey.
“Please God, help me destroy this foul creature!” he cried. Searing light erupted from the crucifix, bathing the room in a brilliant glow and causing Deathwhisperer to howl in agony. As the friends looked on, shielding their eyes from the blinding light, the necromancer’s flesh began to smoke, burn, and fall to the ground in ashes. Still the brilliance of the crucifix seared him, and he collapsed to his knees, as his very bones began to disintegrate under the holy radiance. Within moments, the necromancer had been reduced to a pile of blackened ash on the carpeted floor.
Overjoyed at finally overcoming their nemesis, the friends took a moment to celebrate. Tector then took one of the sacks he had obtained for just this purpose, and carefully transferred the ashes to it, so that they could be buried in consecrated ground. In doing so, he noticed that one item had survived the conflagration – a large copper key with an unusual head shaped like a lightning bolt. Having examined this and stored it safely away, the companions turned their attention to the chamber.
Immediately opposite was a most unusual feature – a huge, circular stone door, elaborately carved from what appeared to be a single block of granite. Arranged in its centre, at each point of a carved five-pointed star, were five unusual key-holes. Clockwise, from the top, they took the shape of a square, a cross, a lightning bolt, a circle, and a crescent moon. It was immediately clear to the friends that the copper key they had just found was a perfect fit for the third key hole.
Wondering at this strange door, and where the other keys might be, they looked around the room. An unmade, and apparently unused, bed stood in the centre of the room. One wall was lined with bookcases, all filled with tomes, bound notes and catalogues of specimens. On the other side three tables were arranged along the length of the wall. These were packed with specimens, including hearts, livers, and brains. Many were in jars, but others were in the process of dissection. Jars of blood and other dark liquids were also plentiful. Above the middle table, which was the least cluttered, a circular mirror hung on the wall.
The friends took a few minutes to search the room. Under one of the desks they found a small chest, half full with silver shillings and a few gold sovereigns! Storm sensed that a vial of purple liquid on one desk was enchanted, and focused his attention upon it. After a few moments, he felt sure that, if consumed, it would enable the imbiber to somehow communicate with a recently deceased person. Looking through the necromancer’s notes, he was pleased to find a treatise on the making of just such an elixir, and felt confident that he had identified it correctly.
Scanning more of the scribbled notes, the friends were astonished at the revelations they contained. It became clear to them that Deathwhisperer was a faithful servant of Morgan le Fey, perhaps one of her most highly regarded human pupils. It was clear from various journals that he had been sent to York to investigate a lingering vestige of great undead power that his mistress sensed in the vicinity. Upon arrival, he made contact with another servant of Morgan already present in the city, a dark elf known as Bloodmask.
As they pored through more of the notes and began reading the necromancer’s journals, the companions noticed that the circular mirror on the wall had clouded with mist, and that this was beginning to swirl. Quickly scanning the most recent notes, written in a different, more spidery hand, Storm skimmed an account of Deathwhisperer’s demise in All Hallows’ churchyard, at the hands of protagonists who were clearly recognisable as Sophia, Storm and Tector. However, the notes revealed that Morganna activated an artifact she had given to the necromancer, and this triggered the spark of undeath within him, allowing him to rise as a wight with even greater powers than before. The final journal entries recorded Deathwhisperer renewing contact with Bloodmask, then planning and launching a daring raid to steal the gilded cross from the Minster, only to be thwarted again by the three friends.
Sophia and Tector were becoming more and more concerned about the mirror, recalling the talents of Morgause for the use of such devices, and convinced Storm to abandon his reading. Quickly shoving journals and bundles of notes into the other sacks they had brought with them, they retreated from the chamber, closing the door behind them.
Feeling relatively strong despite their travails, and having not yet located Bran the carpenter, they decided to press on further into the catacombs. Moving up to the double doors at the end of the corridor, they listened for a time but heard nothing. Throwing open the doors, they were confronted by an odious sight. In the centre of a large circular chamber, a pool of similar shape was filled with stinking black slime. Directly opposite, and again to their left, double doors led out of the room, while to their right a large skull-faced chalice stood in an alcove.
As they entered, their attention was drawn by two figures – a ghoul stalker and a hulking ghoul brute. Both appeared to have emerged from the fetid pool, as there were traces of the black slime on their skin. The companions also noticed that the pool contained a number of large, leathery pods. One of these was writhing, as something inside was trying to force its way out. The skull faces on the chalice began to belch grey gas and, at the same time, the two ghouls seemed to become aware of the group.
Storm reacted instantly with a bold idea, conjuring his whirlwind over the very centre of the pool before ducking back through the doors with his friends. The vortex lifted the disgusting slime, together with the leathery pods it contained, slamming it down in all directions and rupturing the pods, which spilled out corpses in various states of hideous evolution into ghouls. Having destroyed the ghoul birthing pool, Sophia put an arrow into the stalker, while Tector charged the brute and dealt it a hefty blow. In return the large ghoul clawed at Tector with powerful talons before sinking its teeth into his neck. A wave of nausea washed over him.
The stalker moved around the edge of the pool to engage with Storm. Unwilling to let that happen, Storm launched a lighting orb which blasted away one of its arms, before Sophia felled it with an arrow through the chest. Meanwhile, Tector traded blows with the ghoul brute, before it once again sank its teeth into him, tearing away flesh and causing him to pass out from the pain. Panicked by the fall of her bodyguard, Sophia sank an arrow into the ghoul’s shoulder. As it bellowed in agony, Storm hurled a lightning orb into its face, causing it to convulse and collapse to the floor.
Although her mystical powers were exhausted, Sophia still had some skill with the treatment of wounds, and quickly fell to tending Tector, while Storm nervously stood guard. After a few minutes she was able to get Tector shakily to his feet, though he was very weak. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, the companions retreated back the way they had come, and ascended the stairs to the crypt in All Hallows churchyard. Banging on the doors, they attracted the attention of a rather startled young Templar. Having established their identities, he quickly lifted the heavy bar across the doors of the crypt, and the three friends stumbled gratefully out into the fresh air . . .