Keys of Binding, Part One - Aqueduct Ambush
Suddenly jolted back into the world, the Fellowship found themselves standing, waist deep, in a swirling pool of water. They were in a circular, subterranean chamber, with a passageway exiting at each point of the compass. Out of the curving wall between each exit, two aqueducts emerged, each at head height, eight in total.
Sophia, Storm and Tector immediately recognised that they were in the aqueducts chamber in York Catacombs, where they had encountered Rikavic the goblin, and the Twisted duo Tinuviel and Mac in the past. Back then, most of the aqueducts had been dry, with merely a trickle of water coming from three of them. Now, water was gushing from all eight aqueducts, rushing down channels in the floor, and into the pool in which they found themselves standing.
As they were taking this in, Storm looked toward the eastern passageway, straight into the eyes of a shadowraith! The glowing red orbs burned into his soul, filling his body with agonising pain.
At the same instant, a demonic hound pounced on Manzio from the west, landing on top of him and tearing into him with tooth and claw, knocking him backwards, and under the water, before leaping away. Sophia grabbed the Vesuvian by the scruff of the neck and pulled him upright.
As she did so, Heraclief noticed a figure in the shadows of the northern passage. It nocked a blue-fletched arrow and let fly. As it sped toward them, it crackled with electricity before transforming into a lightning bolt with a sharp crack. Manzio reacted fast to avoid the full force of the stroke, but it struck the water in front of him and the shock made his hair stand on end.
The assassin retaliated by hurling a fist full of blinding powder into the eyes of his assailant. He cried out and his right hand went to his eyes, rubbing at them, as he clutched his bow in his left hand. Storm noticed that he was wearing a mask over his mouth and suddenly recognised their old foe, Roarc!
The shadowraith swept in from the east at incredible speed, passing close to Tector as he tried to struggle out of the pool. He felt its deathly aura suck some of the life from him, and as it passed by, a terrible necrotic spike pierced his shoulder, burrowing into his living flesh.
The hound lunged at Manzio again, biting him. Sophia fired an arrow in response, but it was too fast and dodged away. As this happened, Heraclief rose out of the whirlpool and into the air, his robes streaming with water. He pointed at Roarc and uttered a single word. “Combust!”
The dark elf warrior exploded into flame, an agonised scream tearing from his throat. As he writhed in pain, Storm sought to press the advantage, trying to hit him with a thunderbolt, but he was still disoriented from the pain of the shadowraith’s mental intrusion, and slipped in the water as he unleashed his spell. The bolt of lightning caught Sophia straight in the back, making her cry out in pain.
Tector immediately uttered a prayer and channelled golden light into Sophia, healing her, while Manzio stabbed the hound with one of his twin daggers, dodging its bite and leaping out of the water away from it.
The shadowraith swept past Tector once more, draining more of his life force away and plunging another necrotic spike into him, while the first spike burrowed deeper into his flesh. The hound bounded around the pool, intercepting Sophia as she tried to climb out and biting deep into her arm. She jumped back, firing another arrow, hitting it in the side as it dodged away.
Heraclief blasted the blazing form of Roarc with more emerald flames, while Storm tracked the flight of the shadowraith and unleashed his ice javelins. One struck home, another exploded next to it, but the third detonated before it left Storm’s hand, embedding shards of ice in his scales.
Feeling the terrible effects of the shadowraith’s necromantic attacks, Tector stretched out his arms, forming a cross, and called upon the Lord for his blessing. He blazed for a few seconds with golden light which filled the chamber, healing his friends, stopping the advance of the necromancy within his body, and burning away some of the shadowraith’s dark form, eliciting a terrible keening wail at the very edge of Storm’s hearing.
Still screaming in pain, his clothes smouldering, Roarc turned and fled down the northward passageway at a stumbling run. Before anyone could give chase, he disappeared in inky darkness, which lingered in the passageway as his footsteps receded, blocking all vision in that direction.
Out of the pool, Manzio swept a dark cloak about his shoulders and disappeared from view in a similar pool of inky darkness, before backing into the alcove between two of the aqueducts. From within the darkness, two crossbow bolts flew at the shadowwraith. One struck home, while the other went wide. It turned again, swooping down on Tector, but this time the Dragonknight was ready for it, deflecting the necrotic spike with his axe, though some of his life force was still sucked away by its deathly aura. His retaliation was terrible, as he called the blessing of the Lord onto his axe and slashed the radiant blade through his foe’s shadowy form. It let out another keening wail as it sped past.
Sophia, still standing in the whirlpool, backed away from the hound. Its eyes glowed, burning into hers, and she felt pain course through her body. She gritted her teeth and sank another arrow into the hound’s flank. Heraclief, still levitating in the air above the pool, sent a thin trail of emerald flame at the shadowraith. As it reached its target, it blossomed into a fireball which engulfed the wraith. The flames cleared, revealing the shadowraith much diminished, and Storm showed no quarter to the servant of Morgana, sending a lightning bolt sizzling into its shadowy form. It let out another keening wail as it turned and sped away down the eastern passageway.
Tector finally managed to pull himself out of the pool and advanced on the hound, but it dodged away from him with ease. However, Manzio was approaching from the rear, and the hound was suddenly plunged into the darkness surrounding the Vesuvian. Unable to see, it could not dodge the silent assassin, and he drove his twin blades through its spine. Dropping his dark shroud, the companions saw the hound crumpled on the flagstone floor and congratulated him.
“That was Roarc,” said Storm.
“I bet Lorcan is nearby,” replied Sophia.
“It’s time we paid them back,” added Tector.
As they dried themselves off, the York companions quickly gave Manzio and Heraclief the background on their previous encounters with Lahm Sealguire, before debating which way to go. Some wanted to follow Roarc, but ultimately they agreed to head south, toward Deathwhisperer’s chamber and the circular door with the five odd-shaped keyholes. They reasoned that the Hand would either be there, or would head that way eventually in order to open the door.
While they spoke, Tector heard a voice, little more than a rasping whisper. “Come to me. Free me. Wield me.” He looked around, confused. No one else seemed to have heard it. Shaking his head, he followed his companions from the aqueduct chamber.
Heading south, the Fellowship approached a large square chamber that the York companions had visited before. It was filled with the rubble of dozens of stone sarcophagi, almost all of them smashed. As they entered the darkened room, there was a rattling noise and nine twin pinpricks of cold light appeared. In the dim illumination of Storm’s lighting orb, they could see nine skeletons advancing, some with swords or spears, others with bows.
Storm quickly conjured a whirlwind, smashing many of the skeletons to the ground, while Tector and Manzio advanced on the others, cutting them down. Sophia peppered them with arrows, while Heraclief hit them with flaming missiles, and the group quickly despatched many of their foes. As they were finishing them off, Storm suddenly cried out in pain as a frost-rimed arrow pierced his shoulder from behind.
Whirling around, he saw Roarc had followed the group and fired on them from the passageway to the north. Storm’s eyes widened as he noticed something hanging from the sithe’s belt – a large golden key, glowing faintly in the dim light!
Storm called out. “It’s Roarc! And he has one of the keys!”
As the sithe turned to run again, Heraclief twisted a ring on his finger and disappeared, only to reappear almost instantly, right behind the fleeing warrior. The sorcerer pointed at the dark elf and again uttered a single word. “Combust!” Once again, Roarc screamed in agony as flames engulfed him.
Storm called upon the North Wind, which lifted him and Sophia quickly over to Heraclief. The dragonborn was ready to launch a thunderbolt at the dark elf, but Heraclief held up his hand to stop him. Instead, Sophia enchanted the warrior, entering his mind and forcing him to hand over the key to Heraclief.
Tector and Manzio approached, and together they surrounded Roarc as he recovered from Sophia’s enchantment. He looked around. “You might as well kill me now,” he said, in his soft Hibernian brogue. “Better that than send me back to Lorcan, having failed again.”
“Why do you serve one such as this?” asked Heraclief.
“A good question,” replied Roarc, bitterly. “Once I believed that Morrigan was the guardian of our people, that she was the only force that could protect us from the aggression of the English king and the Church. But I have seen Lorcan use torture, even murder of children as a means to an end. They are evil bastards, all of them, and I have lost my honor by serving with them.”
“You could join with us,” suggested Sophia, using her enchantments to help persuade Roarc.
“Yes,” agreed Heraclief. “There is honour here.”
The sithe warrior considered for a moment, then nodded his head decisively. “Yes” he said, grimly. “It is time for me to reclaim my honour, even if it costs me my life.”
The friends welcomed him to their company, and pressed him for information. He told them about the other members of his new Hand, Lahm Bas. This Hand of Death included the necromancer Mallaidh, the sorcerer Lorcan, the assassin Bloodmask and the shadowraith they had encountered earlier. He also confirmed Mydddin’s suspicions that the Hand had been sent to find all five Keys of Binding and wake Septimus Severus from his eternal sleep.
“We have three of the keys,” he informed them. “Two that we stole from the Minster, including that one,” he said, gesturing to the golden key that Heraclief held. “The third, a silver key with a round head, was hidden in a pillar, deep in the Catacombs. We had to spend two days fighting our way into the heart of the spiders’ lair to get to it, and then Mallaidh and Loran combined their magic to open it.”
“They believe that the fourth key lies in the lair of a basilisk, in the north-eastern part of the Catacombs. Apparently there is some ancient legend that this key, one made of iron, was last seen in the possession of a danagrim warrior who disappeared in the Catacombs centuries ago. I don’t think they know where the final key is.”
“Anyway, Lahm Bas has set up camp to the north, near the Basilisk’s lair, but they have been distracted. Lorcan keeps hearing a voice calling to him from within a chamber nearby. He believes it is the voice of a powerful weapon, and is trying to find a way in. The doors are enchanted though, and he hasn’t managed it yet.”
“I have also heard that voice,” said Tector. “I think it is the Bloodaxe, a great weapon I heard about in a prophecy.”
“Whatever it is,” said Roarc, “it’s likely to be bad news if Lorcan’s interested in it.”
The group returned to the rubble-filled chamber while they discussed their next move. “I know these Catacombs fairly well now,” said Roarc. “There are two routes from here to Lahm Bas. The longer path leads through a room where magic doesn’t function, which is guarded by a four-armed skeletal guardian. The shorter would take us through a crossroads guarded by a flaming skeleton.”
The companions conferred, debating which route would be best. As they spoke, Heraclief looked around the chamber, noticing a couple of sarcophagi that remained intact. One had been badly damaged, and the inscriptions upon it were not legible, but the other bore danagrim runes in the Latin script. “_Here lies Grimfalth, Centurion of the Felix Legion_,” read Storm.
Heraclief suggested that they might find another key inside, but the York companions were not keen to prise open the sealed coffin, remembering that this was the very one that Rikavic wanted to open with his dagger all those months ago. Agreeing not to open the last sarcophagus, the group decided to take the more direct route to Lahm Bas. Pausing for a few moments to heal the worst of their wounds, they set off with Roarc and Tector in the lead.