Keys of Binding, Part Two - Hand of Death

The group followed Roarc through darkened passageways, turning here and there, before passing through a large chamber with blue-tiled walls. “Take care,” warned Roarc, pointing. “Avoid those tiles, or the doors will seal up and the room will fill with water.”

Emerging safely from the trapped room, Roarc paused. “Just up ahead,” he whispered. “Follow me.”

image.jpeg They turned a corner and could see a flickering orange glow at a crossroads ahead. Creeping closer, the outline of a skeleton wreathed in flames stood out clearly against the darkness behind.

Without hesitation, the group attacked. Sophia loosed an arrow which pierced the target’s shoulder, sending a shower of sparks flying into the air, while Tector charged forward, cleaving through one of its four arms with his greataxe. As the skeleton turned, there was a crack of thunder as a bolt of lightning from Storm lanced out, blasting its ribcage into flaming shards.

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As the shattered remains of the blazing skeleton crashed to the floor, Lorcan and one of his demonic hounds arrived at the crossroads from the east. Tector was closest to them, and Lorcan hurled a red-hot iron spike at the big warrior, pinning him to the floor, the heat cauterising his wound but continuing to burn him. The hound pounced on Sophia, biting and raking her with its claws.

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Roarc and Manzio fired bow and crossbow from the rear, trying to hit Lorcan and the hound through the melee. Sophia tried to retreat, and Tector traded blows with Lorcan and his horrible, jagged-bladed axe. As the battle swirled, the shadowraith approached from the northern passageway, flying toward them like a bat out of hell and engaging Tector.

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Meanwhile, Bloodmask emerged from a door to the west, creeping along the passageway until he had a clear view of the battle at the crossroads and the companions in the southern passageway. Roarc moved forward, slashing at the hound with his longsword, while Sophia leaped away. Manzio and Storm spotted Bloodmask, but before they could attack he disappeared! Fearing a teleportation, they looked around, but saw nothing.

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Turning back to the battle, Storm saw a female dark elf, wearing a cowl, striding down the northern passageway toward the crossroads. She appeared to be wreathed in dark necrotic energy, and carried a twisted staff which fairly crackled with deathly power.

The newcomer, who could only be Mallaidh, pointed her staff at the group. A writhing ball of necrotic energy detached from the twisted head of the staff, hurtling into the midst of the friends before exploding, blackening their skin and leeching the life from them.

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Recovering from the blast, Storm suddenly felt a blinding pain as something smashed into the back of his head with massive force! Sophia and Manzio looked on in horror as their friend’s knees buckled, Bloodmask appearing behind him, one of his steel gauntlets having clearly smashed into the back of the dragonborn’s head.

As Storm crumpled to the ground unconscious, the shadowraith smothered Tector with its deathly aura, and plunged another necrotic spike into the Templar. He responded furiously, calling holy radiance onto his blade and dealing a terrible blow to the wraith which left its shadowy aura greatly diminished.

Next to him, the demon hound bit Roarc’s leg, tearing viciously at his flesh. But the warrior used this to his advantage, driving his fine blade through its neck as it worried at his leg, putting an end to its attack once and for all.

Heraclief, recognising the threat represented by Mallaidh, once again gathered his emerald power, sending five blazing green fireworks roaring toward the necromancer. Each detonated with a burst of flame, and the stench of scorched hair wafted back down the corridor.

Mallaidh responded, focusing her furious gaze on the tall sorcerer and reaching for him with an outstretched hand before snapping it shut into a fist. He felt as though he had been kicked in the chest by a horse, as a terrible force jolted his heart, almost making him vomit.

Now forced into close quarters, Sophia struck out at Bloodmask with her rapier, less hopeful of hitting and more to gain Manzio time for his attack. Her blow missed as Bloodmask ducked beneath the steel blade whilst Manzio slipped on his ring of invisibility, disappearing from view. Bloodmask, familiar with powers of this nature, whirled around to protect his back just as the young Vesuvian attacked with both druidic daggers. With blinding speed, Bloodmask parried the first blow and dodged the second, while simultaneously distancing himself from his two assailants.

The sithe assassin moved his hands, touching something inside his robe, and his gauntlets suddenly crackled as a halo of electricity surrounded them. He stepped in, dodging one of Manzio’s daggers and parrying the other, before punching the assassin solidly in the face. His head was snapped backwards by the impact and the explosive discharge of the electricity, and he swayed unsteadily on his feet, as if he might collapse at any moment.

Sophia looked around like a cornered animal, her gaze flicking from Lorcan and Mallaidh battling Tector and Roarc ahead of her, to Bloodmask fighting Manzio behind. She called to Heraclief, an edge of panic in her voice, “I’m going to get help!”

The tall sorcerer grabbed her arm, the pain of Mallaidh’s attack still evident on his face. “There is no time, my Lady. Even if you find help, we will all be dead by the time you get back here.”

“But Storm is dying . . . we have no more healing . . . I need to get help,” she replied, almost sobbing.

“Give him this,” said Roarc, pulling a steel vial from his belt and handing it to the enchantress.

She knelt beside her dragonborn friend, lifting his head with one hand and pouring the sweet liquid slowly into his mouth with the other. After a moment, he coughed, and opened his eyes.

Sophia pulled the sorcerer to his feet as Bloodmask and Manzio traded blows with lightning speed just a few feet away. Sophia struck the sithe assassin with an arrow, but Storm’s attempted lightning orb simply fizzled out in his hand.

At the crossroads, Lorcan sliced into Tector again with his horrible axe, while the Templar and Roarc slashed at the shadowraith, their magical blades biting deep into its semi-substantial form. Tector, weakened from multiple wounds inflicted by both the shadowraith and Lorcan, put everything he had into one last blow, cleaving the wraith in two. Its shadowy form collapsed into a fist-size, roiling cloud which hurtled at the Dragonknight, penetrating his chest and seeking to infuse itself into his being. Calling on all his resilience, he forced the deadly necrosis from his body.

Heraclief, approaching exhaustion, cast his oldest spell, his emerald fire forming into an arrow before flying at Mallaidh, burning her once again. She gasped in pain but stood her ground, walking forward a few paces before gesturing toward them with her staff. A black mist suddenly began to seep from the very pores of the companions’ skin, sucking their vitality with it, the horrible vapour quickly drifting towards the necromancer. As it reached her, it seemed to dissipate into her. She shuddered, and Heraclief was shocked to see her burns heal completely!

Having despatched the shadowraith, Tector and Roarc attacked Lorcan in unison. “Traitor!” the demonologist growled at Roarc. “I’m going to gut you, scum!” The three of them traded blows, all of them drawing unnatural amounts of blood, but despite being outnumbered, Lorcan seemed unperturbed. His molten iron skin deflected some blows and absorbed others, and Tector was weakening, bleeding from numerous injuries.

Back down the passageway, Manzio landed a telling blow on Bloodmask, cutting deep into his leg. Storm hit the sithe assassin with a lightning orb that sizzled across his chest, and he let out a strangled cry of pain, stumbling away from their combined assault. Suddenly, he was wreathed in darkness, which began to move away from them at a rapid rate as Bloodmask ran from the battle.

Sophia, in no mood to let Storm’s attacker escape, sighted down an arrow at the very centre of the darkness and let fly. Amazingly, it flew home, despite the fact that she could not see her target, and took the fleeing sithe in the back. The darkness around him dissipated as he struck the ground, and he lay still, unmoving. Manzio quickly searched him, and was thrilled to find a copper key with a head shaped like a lightning bolt, matching Storm’s description exactly.

As he did so, Heraclief stepped through the shadows to appear behind Mallaidh, in the chamber she had originally come from. With little left in his arsenal, he blasted the necromancer with flames once more. Through gritted teeth she retaliated, a tendril of darkness snaking out from her hand, leeching the life from the sorcerer and transferring it to Mallaidh, relieving some of her burns.

Seeing this, and feeling as though he was on his last legs, Heraclief retreated, through a pair of double doors in the western wall, into another chamber. As soon as he stepped inside he felt a terrible chill, as he lost all contact with his sorcery for the first time in his life, feeling as if his very soul had been isolated from all it held dear. He quickly stepped back into the first chamber, relived to see that Mallaidh had turned her attention to the main battle back at the crossroads.

Walking down the passageway toward it, Mallaidh saw that Bloodmask had fallen and Lorcan was being pushed back by Tector and Roarc. Noticing that Manzio, Sophia and Storm were all moving forward, and that Lorcan would soon be outnumbered five to one, the necromancer retreated back down the passageway, into the chamber she had just left. Heraclief was waiting for her, and drew upon his very last reserves of strength to blast her with a final blaze of emerald flame. She cried out in pain, but even this was not enough to fell her, and she ran on, past the emerald sorcerer, who slumped, exhausted, to his knees.

Storm was not about to allow the necromancer to escape, and dashed forward, grabbing the Wand of Fire from his belt. As Mallaidh reached the mouth of the darkened passageway that would mean her escape, Storm levelled the wand at her back and, with a grimace of pain as the flames of the wand scorched his hand, unleashed a firebolt. It roared through the air, slamming into her, sending her smashing to the ground in a blazing ruin, her staff splintered and broken.

Still fending off blows from the twin attacks of Tector and Roarc, Lorcan heard Mallaidh’s cry and looked around, seeing her fall. Shaking his head as if in disgust, he looked Roarc in the eye. “I’ll get you,” he snarled, before dissolving into a swarm of shadows like night-black bats, that swept away from them, heading for the same escape route Mallaidh had been fleeing toward.

Seeing this, Storm reacted instantly, having suffered Lorcan to escape too many times and determined to finally deliver justice. His North Wind whipped up into a gale, hurling both Storm and Tector after the fleeing cloud of shadows. Although the bat-like swarm was fast, the wind was faster, and deposited the two companions mere paces behind. As they landed, Storm unleashed his dragonbreath. The cloud of bitter cold engulfed the fleeing shadow bats before they could disappear up the northward passageway, and they froze in the air, hanging for a moment before crashing to the ground, shattering into a million shards.

Storm and Tector cheered in triumph, though the big man in particular was unsteady on his feet having lost so much blood. Manzio and Sophia, arm in arm to support each other, made their way slowly up the passageway to join their friends. Even Heraclief managed a smile, through his pain and exhaustion, as he struggled to his feet.

Knowing only too well that necromancers could come back from the dead, Storm strode over to Mallaidh. Searching her, he was delighted to find a large silver key, with a circular head that would fit the portal in Deathwhisperer’s chamber. Pocketing the third Key of Binding, the dragonborn turned back to Mallaidh.

He intended to burn her body and hammer her bones into dust, before burying them in consecrated ground, as he had done with Deathwhisperer months before. But he soon realised that he had no fuel with which to light a fire of sufficient size, and they were too exhausted and badly injured to risk further exploration. Discussing alternatives, they reluctantly agreed that beheading her, and placing her body in the magic-dead room Heraclief had discovered, was probably the best option they had. Tector used his greataxe to decapitate the corpse, and placed the head in a sack which he tied to his weapon belt. They then dragged the body into the magic-dead room and dumped it on the floor.

Silver_Doors.jpg Having done that, they went back to the crossroads where they had fought Lahm Bas, and walked down the eastern passageway, the direction from which Lorcan had come. Barring their way, after around fifty feet, was a pair of intricately crafted silver doors. Heraclief and Storm both extended their senses, quickly determining that the silver doors were enchanted with strong protective sorcery, and that ice magic would be required to open them.

The flame sorcerer shifted his focus into the room beyond, and sensed the power and sentience of the weapon within. He turned to Tector. “I do not sense evil within, but there is great anger. Be very careful if you enter this room.”

The Dragonknight nodded. As Storm had expended all his ice sorcery during the battle with Lahm Bas, the companions retreated to the blue-tiled room, which had the advantage of doors on both entrances. Closing these, and posting watches, the Fellowship settled in for a much needed rest.

As they readied their bedrolls, Storm noticed Heraclief looking at him with an appraising eye. The flame sorcerer smiled, pointing to the wand at Storm’s belt. “We both know that wand is not suited to you. I see the pain it causes when you wield it.”

Storm nodded in response.

“I, on the other hand, could make excellent use of that wand,” Heraclief went on.

Storm frowned.

“So,” continued the emerald sorcerer, “I offer you a trade.”

Storm raised his eye-ridges in interest.

“This ring,” said Heraclief, holding up the plain silver band on his left hand, “has the power to magically shift its wearer a short distance. You saw me use it to good effect with Roarc. What do you say?”

Storm smiled. “I think that would be a good trade,” he replied. Sealing their friendship with the exchange of items, the two sorcerers bedded down for the some much needed rest.

The night passed safely, and the companions woke feeling somewhat refreshed, although still pained by their wounds. Sophia and Tector employed their healing powers to aid their companions, and soon they all felt much better, if not completely recovered from their ordeal of the day before.

Gathering up his things, Heraclief addressed the group. “Manzio and I must leave you now. Tuan Mac Cairill is not a power to be kept waiting, and we must return to the aqueducts room to rendezvous with Myrddin.”

“Before we leave, we must agree how to distribute among ourselves the three keys we have found, in accordance with Myrddin’s instructions,” he continued. “Storm and I have spent some time determining the powers of the keys.”

“This one,” he said, holding up the golden key that had been in Roarc’s possession, “has the power of healing.”

“This one,” Heraclief went on, holding up the copper key they recovered from Bloodmask’s body, “has the power to call lightning onto the bearer’s weapon.”

“And this one,” said Storm, holding the silver key he had found in Mallaidh’s possession, “grants protection from the elements.”

The companions discussed for a time, before agreeing that Heraclief would take the golden key, Manzio the copper, and Tector the silver.

Having divided up the keys, the five members of the Fellowship of Fate embraced one another and took their leave, Manzio deliberately using the French expression, “au revoir,” as he hoped to see his friends again soon.

“Farewell,” replied Sophia, smiling sadly.

“May the Lord be with you both,” said Tector.

“Fare you well,” said Storm, holding the ring he had traded from Heraclief, feeling a pang of regret that his time with the more experienced sorcerer was so fleeting.

The flame sorcerer paused, guessing the thoughts of the dragonborn. “Do not worry Storm, have you not seen the convergences that bring us back together? There will be time for us to discuss the arts further, we will meet again soon. But one last warning I give to you all. We have struck a major blow against Morgana, one she will not take lightly. Keep your sponsors close, just as we will stay at Tuan’s side until our quest is done. Until the wheel of fate turns once more, and we meet again.”

With that, Heraclief and Manzo turned, the twin emerald flames of Heraclief’s eyes swallowed in the darkness of the Catacombs. Once again, Sophia, Storm and Tector stood alone.

Keys of Binding, Part Two - Hand of Death

Albion Andrew_Brereton Andrew_Brereton