Chapter 22

Strongbow Firehand waited. Standing before the red worldgate, the red light shimmering oddly over his blonde hair and bladesinger tattoos, he stood caught in thought: Should he go back? Wait for a signal? Send a scout? Who? Where does the gate lead? Around and around his thoughts spun, all the while aware that precious time was passing.

Behind Strongbow, Rayella Saarin stood leaning against one of the griffons, stroking it's soft feathers. Head bowed, her glorious silver hair shadowing her face from the light of the gate, she remembering unwillingly Lyrianda's awful fate and her own failures recently. What is it that was holding her back? Her panic at being attacked on the road; her paralysis at confronting two Strongbows... It was uncharacteristic, to say the least. Waiting, she gnawed at the thought.

Taelsin Greneleaf stood with his back to the gate, the light from the gate throwing his face completely into shadow. Hands clasped tightly behind him, he stared out over the flattened devastation. His Elven eyes could just make out the unnatural green glow of the storm flashing purple occasionally just over the horizon, still covering Neverwinter. The gate frightened him badly somehow. His mind teetered precariously between striding boldly through (cutting ahead of Strongbow) out of pure stubborn reflex and running screaming away. He rehearsed a speech in his mind over and over again; sorry, a prior engagement... a sick mother... left a frying pan on the stove... panic fluttering continuously at the edges of his mind.

Sometime later, Strongbow glanced at the ground; the wind swirled some sand into odd shifting patterns, and his mind drifted. Deep in his mind, something he saw made a connection. Suddenly he was filled with certainty.

It was time. They had waited long enough.

Quickly Strongbow gave orders and led his griffon confidently through the red worldgate. The red light rippled and they were gone. Rayella shook off her grim mood and went next, leading her griffon. Lastly Tael came leading his griffon; he dimly heard himself making nonsense disconnected excuses, but he still walked forward into the crimson light. With a shimmer, they were gone.

The wind slowly erased all trace of their passage.

With the army of imps surging around them, somehow the drow maintained their watch on Riklaun and Nalynn. Then a dead imp, flung away like a toy from Jas'Sanoth's grasp, crashed into Rimellyn. The imp's sword tumbled to the ground at Riklaun's feet, and Elf saw his chance.

As soon as his fingers wrapped around the weapon's hilt, he saw K'ellz run at him. Riklaun moved out of the way of K'ellz's charge and swung his sword in a sweeping arc aimed at the drow's back. The sword clanged off chain mail, leaving only a scratch. K'ellz turned and brought up Elams'hin. He started to chant something in drow. He looked over to Riklaun and started swinging his blade in sweeping movements. The movements became faster and faster. He came at Riklaun, his sword almost a blur.

Riklaun parried strike after strike, but the heat of the land and the duration of his captivity were wearing him down quickly. He wondered how much longer he could hold out against this drow. Riklaun dropped back in a feint, parrying furiously. He ducked and rolled away from K'ellz. Coming to his feet, Riklaun saw Rimellyn standing in front of him. Rimellyn swatted Riklaun with the back of his sword hand that sent him sprawling.

Nalynn could only watch as Riklaun battled against the drow. Too weak to fight, she collapsed to the ground, hoping the end would come swiftly.

As exhaustion finally overtook her, she searched once more, trying to find some reservoir of strength; anything which would give her energy to help Riklaun in his desperate fight. The scar on her cheek pulsated and then, she discovered it. The grain of poison which had contributed to her capture, rooted deeply in the tissue which had festered throughout this ordeal. It glowed like a beacon. Unable to resist any longer, Nalynn finally embraced the poison's power, reveling in its sweetness, allowing it to grow unobstructed within her.

The poison activated quickly, once the Elf stopped fighting its effects. Interacting with her body's chemistry, it spread like wildfire, coursing through her veins, producing the energy she so desperately sought. Nalynn felt the surge of magical power and slowly rose to her feet, facing Ebonstarr. The witch was pure rage and hatred. Nalynn smiled cruelly as the evil rose within her, understanding at long last, its compelling nature.

An unnatural glow surrounded her briefly as she murmured the words of the nearly forgotten spell. Ebonstarr gaped in amazement as the Elf maiden disappeared from sight.

Ebonstarr leapt to where she last saw the Elf. Finding only the faint traces of a magic, she cursed in anger. She turned and saw Riklaun fighting the two drow. She saw Riklaun fall and Rimellyn standing over him. She screamed inhumanly and pounced on Rimellyn.

"He is mine!" She yelled. Rimellyn struggled under the drider's weight to no avail. She swiped at his neck with her remaining claw, tearing a gash in it. K'ellz struck at Ebonstarr in an attempt to get him off his brother. She turned to him and easily batted him away.

Rimellyn got a hand free and thrust a dagger into Ebonstarr's underbelly, making her howl. She reared up and ripped the dagger free. Rimellyn used the distraction to crawl out from under her. Luckily, his wound was not as deep as it could have been. Ebonstarr turned to look at Riklaun who was getting to his feet. She moved towards him, lurching slightly with only five legs. Riklaun lifted his sword up only to have the drider grab it and wrench it free form his grasp.

"No! That is not yours." She yelled with a smile. She heaved the sword away, and it hit the rocks near the edge of the cliff and slid over into the river of lava. Ebon grabbed Rik by the neck and hoisted him up. "You die now, Riklaun. Lloth will be pleased!"

Just when Ebonstarr tensed to throw the Elf into the lava, she froze as K'ellz spoke.

"But Mistress, you have sworn to give him as sacrifice to Lloth." K'ellz' voice was strangely insolent.

"Which would require the proper ceremony." Responded Rimellyn conversationally, also lacking the proper deference.

"And using the holy Khem'ish It'ikiri." Continued K'ellz. Icy fingers clutched at Ebonstarr's soul, for the Dagger of Infinite Slaying the drow mentioned had been destroyed months before... While in her custody. Did they suspect?

"As is proper when offering Lloth your betrothed." Reminded Rimellyn.

Ebonstarr whirled around in a rage to face them, ready to rend them for their impertinance. She realized that they were very professionally just out of reach and too widely separated for a single spell to take them both. "Down, down on your faces before the beloved of Lloth!" She shrieked, using her considerable voice and presence to intimidate them. They didn't so much as flinch.

There was a pause when only the sizzling of the lava and the cries of the distant daemons faded to insigificance. "She doesn't have the Holy Dagger, does she, Master Rimellyn?" K'ellz lazily asked Rimellyn. Ebonstarr trembled, very slightly.

"Indeed, the Matriarch suspected as much when she sent us, Master K'ellz." Replied Rimellyn calmly. The fear rose in Ebonstarrs throat; if the Matriarch had turned against her, her power amongst the priestesses would be...

"And since we cannot recover the dagger, Master Rimellyn..." said K'ellz.

They both had to die, thought Ebonstarr rapidly; she could still win back much of her following with her new status as Lloth's chosen.

"...Master Riklaun will have to serve instead, Master K'ellz." Replied Rimellyn. Riklaun, still weakened from his ill treatment, could only widen his eyes as he realized that Ebonstarr was not the worst that could happen to him.

Ebonstarr turned, cried, "Then take him!", and hurled Riklaun into the river of lava.

Rimellyn casually broke the rune matching the one he had placed in Riklaun's clothing earlier; Riklaun disappeared from an astounded Ebonstarr and appeared with a pop in front of Rimellyn who caught him as he fell.

"His family will be grateful to see him again, Master Rimellyn." Said K'ellz. Ebonstarr could only gape in impotent outrage, for once no words emerging as she felt control slipping from her fingers. Then K'ellz slowly drew his longsword.

Spurred by the thought of falling into the hands of his family, Riklaun pawed feebly at Rimellyn; looking for a weapon, anything, but only snagged a vial of some liquid, which promptly broke as Rimellyn tossed him to the volcanic ground, where he lay like a dead man. Shocked and relieved not to be boiled away in the lava, he laid there and tried to recover his breath as K'ellz and Rimellyn lunged to attack Ebonstarr. He didn't notice through the pain at first, but he gradually became aware that his wounds were healing and his exhaustion had receded to such an extent that he felt nearly well again. He realized that the small vial must have contained a rapid healing elixir of some kind. Now survival depended on just the right timing. He opened his eyes a slit and watched.

K'ellz led the attack against Ebonstarr now, his leaping, rolling, thrusting attacks easily matching her jumping lunges and web attacks. Rimellyn hung back as they had developed their tactics over the years; healing K'ellz, counterspelling her magic, and trying to get into backstab position. Ebonstarr fought like a demon possessed, but her Lloth-granted powers availed her naught. Even when she poisoned K'ellz a couple of times, it seemed he was immune.

There was really no doubt as to the outcome; she had been hurt repeatedly by K'ellz slashing attacks and they were backing her up towards against the lava flow. But Ebonstarr had yet one more move in this game. She put forth her will and called silently.

From the rocks behind them Nalynn emerged, sword in hand. For a moment Riklaun's heart leaped and he tensed to move, but he realized something was different about her. Inky black spiderwebs of shadow crawled all over her body, her hair slowly waved and flowed as if weightless, her eyes were gleaming obsidian in a face set with an expression both ugly and eager. And in her hands... she held a hellblade easily the size of a two handed sword with purplish vapor flowing off of it, with a faint keening coming from it as of the distant screams of the damned.

"I come, my mistress." Nalynn said and charged forward into the two drow, her hellblade screaming with hunger. Riklaun was disquieted by her changed appearance, but her reckless charge gave him the opportunity for one of the most highly specialized of bladesinger spells. Quietly he began casting, his hands underneath his body.

Nalynn's charge surprised the two drow, and they retreated from Nalynn and Ebonstarr for a moment; Nalynn was berserk and the hellblade made her even more dangerous; she was willing to take risks that her former self wouldn't have dreamed of. However, the two drow had been partners for many human lifetimes, and they were long practiced at adapting their tactics. Carefully they began pressing forward again, each one quickly shifting targets back and forth with no talking and carefully defending against Nalynn's hellblade. They had done this before.

Riklaun's heart pounded, the time was now. He leapt to his feet. Rimellyn, thinking his prey was escaping, altered his path and swung the flat of his sword to knock Riklaun down again. Riklaun bent, pulled from the ground two scimitars his bladesinger spell had called forth, and blocked smoothly. His riposte nearly took Rimellyn's head off, and the two closely engaged.

Riklaun was in a glorious mood; he was finally free, in good health, and with two good swords in his hands. He rolled and twisted deceptively with his opponent, their scimitars wheeling and clashing with circular movement. The battle seemed to both like hours, but it was less than a minute later when blood erupted in a fountain, and they both stopped in shock.

Rimellyn slowly collapsed to his knees, blood gushing from a chest wound. He clutched weakly for a healing potion that wasn't there, glanced at Riklaun with something that Riklaun later remembered as ironic humor, and fell over dead.

Breathing deeply, Riklaun turned around and came face to face with Ebonstarr.

Strongbow cruised along on the griffon's back just under the smoke layer and gazed down on a scene of hell. On a sloping floor of broken terrain and flowing lava sat a temple made of glassy black obsidian. Before it stood a gigantic wolflike being surrounded by a small horde of daemonlings. It howled an ugly song of victory as it had just forced a rival to retreat.

"Yes. There is the source of the magestorm. The aura is unmistakable." Strongbow gritted out to Tael, riding behind him. They had lost many friends in that storm, and now that the Shadow that had haunted their lives for years now had been weakened, it seemed to Strongbow that now was the time to strike and finish it once and for all. He frowned as he mindsent to Rayella; for one of her background, it was even more certain that she would never pass up a weakened enemy. At the moment he saw her in his mind; she had left her mount concealed up in the high rocks and was sneaking up on the Shadow through the horde invisibly, her mind concentrated on gutting him from behind... Strongbow worried about her sometimes.

More immediately he wondered what to do about the daemonlings that surrounded the Shadow. Even if they could bring him down, the horde could still swarm them and make all their efforts for naught. Strongbow muttered under his breath. "How do we get rid of these daemonlings?..."

Tael spoke up from behind him. "Hey! I think I got something that'll do the trick." Rummaging around in his belt pouch he produced a four-inch lens which glowed softly with an opaline luminescence. "I got this outta a blue dragon's lair. See, I was tracing this here dracolich cult up in the Nevrast forest when I...".

"Tael! Whatever you do, make it quick!" Strongbow cut him off. "Ray's almost in position."

Tael looked down on more than a thousand feet of space between himself and the ground. "Um, could you set me down somewhere? I could..."

A shriek cut Tael off this time as Rayella, moving like a bolt of lightning, moved in and slashed the back of the Shadow's left leg open.

"There's no time! They've noticed Ray!" Strongbow shouted. With no warning, he rolled his griffon inverted, dumping Tael, and dove to the attack.

Tael cursed his situation most of the way down, until his reflexively-cast Featherfall gently brought him to the earth. He shuddered with relief, until he looked up and saw the horde approaching.

Strongbow surprised the Shadow by attacking from the air while Rayella cut and slashed at his legs; the Shadow reeled back for a moment, but seemed to gain strength somehow. Suddenly he grew to giant size and swatted his airborne harrasser with all of his strength. Strongbow, suddenly finding himself within reach, banked too late to avoid being hit, and both he and his griffon were batted away in a spray of blood and feathers.

Rayella screamed and charged, but the Shadow simply lifted his foot and crushed her to the sharp volcanic ground. Rayella screamed again, this time in pain as well as frustrated rage. Her pupils narrowed to slits as all of her carefully maintained control over her body was stripped away.

"Poor little creatures." Growled the Shadow. "Tar'Rohk must have lost control of his minions..." He said as he lifted his foot to see what had bit his legs.

A lightning bolt exploded in his face. A seventy-foot long, thirty-ton silver dragon in a berserk rage erupted from the ground at his feet and lit into him in a frenzy of tearing and clawing.

The Shadow reeled back and fell under Rayella's assault, great shreds of flesh and black blood torn by her claws and teeth spattering the ground around them. But then suddenly Raella realized she was fighting empty air, an illusion! The darkness around her cleared a little to reveal the Shadow standing a short way apart; he was tattered, and great wounds were visibly closing on his body, but he was standing upright, holding an open book before him that was chained to his waist and wearing an even more unpleasant smile than before (if that were possible). With a muttered phrase of power that somehow insinuated itself into the core of her being, Rayella was held still as a statue made of silver. Rayellas mind leapt back and forth frantically, looking for a way out; for a Great Dragon, who's name for themselves means "most free", this was worse than torture.

The Shadow slowly closed his book and came forward. "Almost. Almost you had me." He whispered to her and threw back his head and howled a song of victory. Unable to do or say anything, Rayella nearly went mad at the horror of it. The Shadow stopped and smiled, lazily scraping one claw down Ray's back like fingernails on a blackboard.

"I have not had such a game in centuries!" He continued. "It was impressive that you managed to conceal your true nature until now, but it was all for naught I fear. It would have worked anywhere but here, at the center of my power. But now what shall I do with you?" He said, leaning against her and drinking in the panic in her eyes. "Oh do not fear, you shall not die. Ah, I have it! I need a new Dagger of Infinite Slaying!" He backed up and his Book of Names, the source of his power, levitated and opened in front of him.

He paused and said, "No, I think another shall have that fate." He smiled at the thought.

"A silver dragon would not serve me willingly, but a Shadow Dragon would." He began chanting from the book, and shadowy tendrils began to crawl over the silver scales of Rayella's limbs and wings.

Continue to Chapter 23