The words seemed to come unbidden from her, born out of nature themselves, as she said softly, “The world is in danger. We have to stand strong. The mind eaters are growing in power. And the spiders . . .”
Zok frowned, leaning closer as her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “What about the spiders, Jade?”
The words rolled from her mouth again, almost outside of her control, barely audible. “The spiders are all gone. And nature feels it. And nature is afraid.”
The adventuring group known as the Phantom Five is torn apart. While one group ventures through Artemis’ war-torn homeland, Unolé is flung across the planes with healer Taliesin, warrior Ruuda, and soldier Wash. All the four of them want is to go home. But this new world has its own dangers, and its own mysteries. They are forced to make dubious alliances to survive, and every escape attempt is blocked with a new threat. The shadow of the eerie ziggurat looms over the land, as do rumors of its growing army inside.
But within ancient temples, slave auctions, and blood rituals lie answers. Answers about Unolé’s stolen sister, Wash’s fugitive past, and the question that Taliesin ran away from home for. Where have all the spiders gone? Now they must ask themselves one final question. How much are they willing to risk for these answers?
High Priestess Maiathah Xanphia squinted through the gloom that weighed heavily upon the forest. The five Dark Elf women behind her shuffled, hands grasped around their weapons as their gray faces peered from hooded cloaks. Despite their underground location, the ground here was fertile with a mess of grass and fern and weeds that all wrapped over itself like a tangled net. The trees that sprouted from this ground had faded green trunks and purple-red leaves. The buzzing of insects hung in the air around the group, as well as the moaning of undead further off in the trees.
The Gloomdwell was the last place Maiathah wanted to be. But when the Material Plane could not give up what she needed, she found her path turned here. Particularly to the wooden hut that nestled underneath a tangle of trees, almost part of the landscape itself.
“The nature of this place is corrupted,” the gruff voice of Kekilshon stated. “Not just the hut. Everything here feels rotten.”
Maiathah turned to the group. Three of the Dark Elf women were members of the Black Blades and were only here for extra protection. But she’d also brought two of the priestesses with her. Kekilshon and Jezmeri.
Kekilshon stood seven feet tall, with broad shoulders and a muscle-bound body. She wore dark leather armor and had her two-handed great sword on her back. Long white hair weaved into a single braid. Her full lips were pulled down into a frown as her red eyes surveyed the area. Maiathah had chosen her to come not only because of her prowess in battle and intimidating presence, but also because she specialized in nature, plants, and animals. In such a wild and unpredictable place as the Gloomdwell, the High Priestess wanted someone like Kekilshon with her.
Next to her was the much smaller form of Jezmeri. She wore an off-shoulder black and white dress. To keep the hem clean in this swamp, she hovered a few inches off the ground. Her arms crossed tightly over her chest, and her eyes peered out in boredom from under her bangs. Maiathah considered herself closer to Jezmeri than any of the other priestesses. Able to read minds and manipulate those around her, she was always an invaluable ally.
“I dislike it here, as well,” Maiathah stated. “We will make sure our visit is short.” She glanced over at the three Black Blades. “Remain here.”
Carefully stepping on a path she knew would protect her from the deadly enchantments laced around the hut, Maiathah led Kekilshon and Jezmeri up to the front door. She knocked. “It is me. Jezmeri and Kekilshon are also here.”
There was a pause before a breathy voice said, “Do come in.”
Maiathah found the door unlocked as they stepped inside the hut. It was a small, circular place, with plants overflowing from their pots and a thick smell of incense choking the air. Before the glow of a stone fireplace sat a chair. Maiathah already knew the woman she came to see sat there, despite the high-backed chair completely hiding her petite form. Kekilshon took in the area with practiced, observant eyes. Jezmeri seemed uncaring, but the High Priestess knew better. Jezmeri was often sensing things others could not see.
“You came sooner than I expected, Maiathah,” the voice said from the chair. “You must be on urgent business, indeed.”
The High Priestess pushed her wavy white hair off her shoulders, sighing. “Yes, well, I need a Celestial and it was taking too long to find one on the Material Plane. Aranese is not tolerant of delays, after all. I hope your lead is as good as you claim, Xidime.”
The woman, Xidime, stood up from the chair and turned to face the Dark Elves. Her whole body was cloaked in a deep purple robe with wide sleeves and a heavy hood that cast nearly all her face in shadow. Straight black hair hung out from the hood and down to her chest. In the firelight, her skin seemed ghostly pale.
“I didn’t expect you to bring other priestesses with you,” Xidime stated.
Maiathah inclined her head. “I don’t trust the Gloomdwell, so I have brought two with me. The rest are busy preparing for the Induction. Gristhelia is stepping down.”
“Oh? The necromancer is finally too old, I see. Anything else interesting happening on the Material Plane?”
Maiathah gave a short laugh. “Wouldn’t you know better than I? What have you seen in your scrying eye?”
With the barest smile Xidime turned, revealing a small round table sat before the chair. And on the table sat a purple orb, the fire dancing across its glass surface. Maiathah thought she could almost see movement inside of people, cities, and huge beasts. Xidime’s specialty was peering across the planes, seeing into the future, and deducing answers through dark rituals. She was the best diviner the High Priestess knew of.
“I’ve seen many things,” Xidime answered. As she spoke, she trailed her long fingers over the scrying eye. “I’ve seen devils overtake a Human city and murder dozens. I’ve seen the burning of a coastal city and a great battle for its freedom. I’ve seen a shadowy creature take over minds in search of the lantern of an ancient king. And I’ve seen an older Human spellcaster whose rituals leave impacts across the planes. At one point he carried a medallion of the Blight Dragon. Now, I see him within a place called the Southern Kingdoms, bargaining for an orb associated with that goddess, as well.”
Maiathah scoffed, rolling her red eyes. “The Blight Dragon’s followers are disorganized. Their devotion to chaos means they will never know true power. Besides, the happenings of the Surface have little effect on us. I’m more interested if what I seek is here in the Gloomdwell.”
“Someone with Celestial blood?”
“Someone with Celestial blood, yes.”
Xidime nodded. “The information I gave you still holds true. You will have no problem obtaining your Celestial, so long as you brought enough coin with you.”
Maiathah’s only response was narrowed eyes. Kekilshon squared her shoulders, lifting one eyebrow.
“Good. But there is something else you should know. I believe there is another seeking the same thing you are. He’s here in the Gloomdwell and has a considerable force behind him. His name is Aust Mastralath.”
“I do not know that name.”
“You would not. But I have seen him wear a mask over his face with jeweled eyes. And he rides on a great raven that has four legs.”
Maiathah’s eyes widened at that, and then her jaw set and she lifted her chin. She shared a quick look with the other two priestesses. Kekilshon’s frown deepened. Jezmeri’s eyes flashed, but otherwise her expression didn’t change.
Maiathah said, “If this follower of Ragseev gets in my way, then I will crush him in the name of Aranese.”
“Don’t underestimate Mastralath,” Xidime warned. “His god has given him immense power.”
Maiathah lifted her hand as green magic traced across it, glowing with an internal light that seemed to diminish the flames in the fireplace and instead cast the hut in an eerie, poison-green glow. Flickering shadows clogged the corners, one second appearing as webs, and the next gone. A heavy presence descended on the hut, causing the muscles in Xidime’s neck to tighten and her hands to clench into fists. A sound that could have been just the wind or a dark female laugh whispered through the room.
Kekilshon smiled. Jezmeri’s black eyes flashed with amusement.
The magic around Maiathah’s hand crawled to her palm, molded, and formed into a spectral spider with long, angular legs.
The High Priestess smirked. “Aranese is stronger.”
The spinning world reformed around Unolé in a sudden, dizzying stop. Staggering back a step, she blinked to try and settle her vision. Around her, Wash, Taliesin, and Ruuda mirrored her actions. She quickly looked to her arm to ensure Teshuva was all right, but the small coatl was gone.
“What in the Hells?” Ruuda groaned, rubbing her forehead. “Where are we?”
The four stood in a lightless corridor made of faded white stone. Cracks and dirt disrupted the surface of the walls. An earthy smell permeated the cool air, and aside from their shuffling and breathing, there was no sound.
“Where is Teshuva?” Unolé exclaimed.
“Who?” Wash asked.
“Teshuva, my coatl! The one that spoke to us just before this happened!”
Wash shook his head, shrugging his broad shoulders. “I don’t even know what just happened.”
Taliesin held up one of the long black feathers that were in each of their hands. “We obviously triggered some type of teleportation. But to where?” His amber eyes flicked to Unolé. “Perhaps to where your sister is?”
Unolé’s gut clenched. He could be right. If the black feathers from the beast that took her little sister led them here, then perhaps the beast itself was close by. And then maybe the journey that made her leave her home in the capital city An’Ock would finally end. She reflected that she had come so far. Through the Hells, back to the Material Plane, across cities and mountains and forests, and now somewhere else entirely. All to find Unatchi and save her.
But through all those journeys she had Teshuva with her, or the Phantom Five. The group of adventurers that she had grown so close to. Where were they now? They had just saved Druid Jade’s home city Oceala from the red dragon, from the vision of disaster that had plagued her for years. Zok had just returned to them, obviously changed from his run-in with the followers of the Blight Dragon in the desert. And they had learned some of Dragonborn Skar’s missing past. He was a professor of the esteemed Citadel, and someone had wiped his memory. The pirate captain Sen had been left behind in An’Ock, fearing planar travel. With a pang in her chest she recalled they were supposed to go get him. But now she was gone, and Artemis . . .
When the black feathers teleported her and the group around her away, a telepathic message from Skar had just entered her mind. Their friend the archer, Artemis, and her wolf had been kidnapped. Her kidnapper was taking her back to the Southern Kingdoms, her old home she had been running from for years. How could Unolé help if she didn’t even know where she herself was?
The Half-Fiend looked at the people around her. She barely knew this strange warrior Wash. But he had helped with the red dragon attack, so she trusted him. This gray-skinned Elf Cleric Taliesin held so many answers Unolé had tried to find for so long. Who the Silver Dancer, Teshuva’s goddess, was. And what that spider symbol on Unatchi’s mysterious letter referenced. A goddess called Aranese. And then there was the blue-gray skinned Dwarf with hair that was red, orange, gray, and white. Ruuda. She looked around at everything with distrust, her hands not straying far from her dual swords.
“I think we should have a look around,” Unolé ventured tentatively. “Teshuva is missing. And maybe this path leads to my sister.”
Wash inclined his head. “Well, I was leaving Oceala anyway, so where doesn’t really matter. Lead on.”
Unolé looked to Taliesin and Ruuda for approval.
A grin broke across the Cleric’s face. “I am curious.”
Ruuda offered a single nod, inclining her head towards Taliesin. “I’ll follow him.”
Unolé smiled in gratitude. She paused, but realized they were waiting for her to lead. Building up her courage, she glanced down either side of the corridor. One came to a dead end not far away, the other stretched on into darkness. Unolé headed in that direction, hearing the others follow behind her.
As they walked, Taliesin asked in voice that was meant to be hushed but was still very loud, “Unolé, why do you wear that mask on your face?”
Her hand drifted up to touch the dark red mask that went over her eyes, with wide holes she could see out from. “I’m from the Shadow Guild in An’Ock. Our work is . . . discreet, so we often go out in masks or hoods. I guess it’s just become a habit.” Every time she donned the mask in the morning, she felt a certainty. Like she could focus better and handle herself. She knew it likely wasn’t for the anonymity. She was a Half-Fiend, and her curving horns, triangle-tipped tail, and pointed incisor teeth made her obvious. She didn’t really know why she wore it. But she liked it.
“Oh. Where is An’Ock?”
Wash glanced sidelong at Taliesin. “The capital city of the Korventine Empire. You’ve never heard of it?”
Taliesin shook his head. “No.”
Suddenly Ruuda gasped and pointed to the wall. “Taliesin, a spider!”
The dark-clothed Elf immediately bounded over to the wall. A small black spider crawled across it, barely visible to Unolé’s darkvision.
“It’s real!” Taliesin exclaimed. “This is the first spider I’ve seen in over a year!”
A memory pricked at the edges of Unolé’s mind. “A Druid friend of mine also mentioned she hasn’t seen a spider in awhile.”
He turned around at that, his eyes wider than she believed was possible. “Someone else has noticed?”
“What’s going on?” Wash asked with a cocked eyebrow.
“The spiders are missing. They’ve just vanished. That’s why Ruuda and I are traveling, to find out where they have gone and why.”
“Perhaps they’ve gone here,” Ruuda suggested. “Wherever here is.”
Taliesin pulled a small glass vial from his pack. Popping off the cork, he gently caught the spider within the vial and closed it once again.
A smirk crossed Wash’s face. “Are you gonna keep that?”
Taliesin nodded. “We may have to repopulate.”
After glancing over the area for more spiders, Unolé led them again through the passage. As the path continued on and on without event, Unolé found her mind wandering. She worried about Teshuva. This was the second time the two of them were separated. The first was in An’Ock where he was taken by the false Artemis that had tried to kill them all. He’d found his own way back to her then. Unolé tried to assure herself that he might not be in trouble at all. He could just be waiting around the next corner. He seemed so defenseless, though. A slender coatl body with only wings to get in and out of harm’s way. He had said the Silver Dancer had sent him to guide Unolé. He’d always offered so much advice when she needed it. She felt guilty now that she didn’t know much about him. On the rare occasions she’d ask, he would tell her it was a complex story. She’d thought little of it to be honest, until Taliesin had told her who the Silver Dancer was. Ellavar, daughter of Aranese. And sister to Ragseev, the Masked One.
The passage around them slowly changed. The stone grayed, and fungus grew along it. The ground sloped slightly down, and the four of them shuffled their way along. Eventually the corridor leveled out and opened. Slowing down, the three who had weapons placed their hands on them. Taliesin raised both of his hands, as if preparing to cast a spell in defense. They crept forward and took in the eerie sight that was ahead.
A vast cavern opened like the maw of an enormous beast. The bottom and top were not visible in the darkness. The walls curved around and stretched to near invisibility at each side, smooth with no obvious handholds. The cavern was hundreds of feet wide, and there appeared to be only one way across. A single bridge spanned the distance. At first Unolé thought it was made of some kind of cracked ivory. Then she realized all of it was bone. Bones bound together with darkened sinew and rope.
“Gods,” Taliesin breathed, slipping past Unolé to get a closer look. “I wonder how many bodies went into making that?”
“Not a thought I want to dwell on,” Wash stated.
Ruuda crouched down, trailing her fingers over the ground. She then cocked her head to the side and listened for a moment before saying, “This ground has not been disturbed in a long time. I can’t hear any sound or feel any shift in the air. This place feels lifeless. It’s like-Wait.” She stopped, a frown crossing her features. “I thought I heard something.”
The other three stood in silence, eyes up as they listened. But they were only greeted with deathly silence.
“What did it sound like?” Unolé whispered.
“A clacking type of sound,” Ruuda replied. “Like rocks grinding together. But it came from up there.” She pointed towards the darkness above.
The mood immediately shifted. They stared across the cavern warily, seeing that the bone bridge ended in an opening on the far side illuminated by two arcane sconces.
“Well, we could go back but I didn’t see another route,” Wash stated.
Taliesin nodded, his features fixed in determination. “Sometimes the only way out is through. Let’s go.”
Wash took the lead as they stepped out onto the bridge. It creaked and swayed under his weight, but held firm. Unolé followed him. The bones under her feet did not twist or turn, but it was still a challenge keeping her balance on so uneven of a surface. She saw all kinds of bones around her, as if no part of a body was wasted in building the bridge. Taliesin followed her with Ruuda close behind.
They crept forward, attempting to make as little sound as possible. The darker colors in all their clothes helped to hide them, but the bright white of Unolé and Taliesin’s hair, as well as the vivid colors in Ruuda’s, stood out. Despite the wide space all around, the darkness and silence felt suffocating to Unolé. It was like being underwater.
Movement to the side caused them all to turn at once. A piece of bone, what looked like a rib, fell from the black above, past the bridge, and out of sight below. All their heads snapped up to see the source, and then the silence was shattered.
Undead descended from above, skeletal corpses moving swiftly towards them. Some slid down on rope, but others free fell through the air towards the bridge. None of them were armed, but there were hundreds appearing from the shadows. And more continued behind.
“Run!” Wash shouted.
The four raced forward, the bridge shaking and swinging underneath them. Pieces of bone rained down like a precursor to the undead themselves. A skull bounced off Unolé’s arm and she hissed in pain. Bits of feet pelted Wash, the bone from a forearm slammed against Ruuda’s leg, and a rib cracked against Taliesin’s shoulder.
And then the undead poured onto the bridge like a waterfall. Some immediately fell off, their momentum carrying them too recklessly. Others got in attacks before they fell. Hands ripped at clothes, and points of bony fingers as sharp as knives slashed lines of blood into their skin. But others stayed on the bridge, leaping at the group or crawling along and going for their legs.
“Damn it!” Wash shouted, pulling his axe free and swinging in wide arcs to hit as many as possible. His axe shone with green runes. It was the weapon he took from the body of the Anti-Paladin in Oceala, but its poison did no extra damage against the undead. He drove his shoulder down and pushed forward, trying to keep their momentum.
Unolé had both daggers in her hands in an instant, spinning and slashing at the horde around her. Skeletal hands grabbed at her leather armor and her tail, and bones pounded against her shins and back. She screamed in fury, trying to break apart the enemies or knock them off the bridge.
The darkness flashed with light as Taliesin cast spells. Silverly projectiles shot from his hands, exploding the undead as they fell from above. His black cloak flung around him like a shadow as he twisted and turned, trying to prevent more from getting onto the bridge.
“Liquor!” Ruuda roared, and one of her swords lit up with fire. Wielding a blade in each hand, she moved them in complex circles as she worked to clear the bridge. Bringing up the back of the procession, she had to deal with a wave of skeletons swarming from behind, their jaws open and hands outstretched. She cut them down one after the other.
Unolé looked quickly around at her companions as she fought. They all suffered. Their clothes were ripped, and blood ran from lacerations. She looked ahead. The end of the bridge was so close, but with all these enemies it felt much further away.
“We have to move!” Unolé shouted at Wash, kicking another undead off the bridge.
“That’s easier said!” he yelled in return, struggling to create an opening in the horde before him. A skeletal hand raked across his chest and he staggered back, hissing at the pain. He then reached his hand up into the air and said, “Shulva, to me!”
The air twisted before him and the orange and black spider Unolé had seen before reappeared. As large as a dog, it dove into the undead before it and created the opening they needed. The group ran forward, weapons flashing in Ruuda’s firelight. Bones continued to rain and undead kept grasping at them. They stumbled when they were hit but did not stop. To stop was to die.
At last Wash bounded off the bridge and into the corridor beyond, swiveling around to ensure the others made it. Unolé sprinted forward, nimbly leaping next to him. Taliesin and Ruuda were next, eyes wide. But as they both exited the bridge, Taliesin stopped and spun about, looking up at the undead.
They swarmed from the darkness above, crawling all over one another and building upon each other. There were hundreds writhing as one unit, creating a horrible rattling and scratching noise. As the mass grew bigger and came thundering down towards them, it turned into the shape of a giant skull. Its bone-filled mouth opened as it dove for the closest target: the gray-skinned Cleric at the foot of the bridge.
“Taliesin!” Ruuda screamed.
His hands made wide, sweeping gestures before him. Smoky darkness trailed his fingers as he spoke the words of a spell in a biting language. The skull, impossibly huge, loomed directly over him, and loose bone fell around his feet like hail. His yellow eyes glowed, his spell nearly complete, before the skull’s cavernous mouth snapped shut around him.
Unolé’s heart jumped into her throat as she stood rooted to the spot. For a single breath she, Wash, and Ruuda did not move or blink. Frozen at the horror of what they saw.
And then the skull blasted apart as a force burst from the inside. The hundreds of undead exploded into the darkness, torn asunder by the force of magic that hit them. And there Taliesin still stood, his arms outstretched and his spider medallion glowing darkly. He staggered, and Ruuda instantly was at his side. Helping him stay on his feet, the two turned and ran back towards Unolé and Wash.
Wash gestured with his hand. “Let’s get out of here.”
They all jogged off into the corridor, but with less haste than before. The undead would not recover quickly enough to chase them. After several minutes passed, the group felt confident enough to slow down their pace. And they continued their walk in a gray stone hall.
“That was amazing!” Unolé breathed, glancing over at Taliesin. “Thank you for doing that!”
A grin lit up his face. The exhaustion that had gripped him after the spell was gone now, and a spring had returned to his step. “Well, you’re welcome! I’m glad we made it off that bridge.” His eyes narrowed curiously as he took in Shulva. “What is that? Surely not a real spider?”
“No,” Wash patted its head. “Her name is Shulva. She’s a fey spirit bound to me. We’ve been on a lot of adventures together.”
“A fey spirit?” Ruuda questioned. “How did that happen?”
Wash chuckled, wiping dried blood off his nose. “Now that’s a complicated story.”
“We don’t have anything better to fill the time with,” Ruuda stated.
“You’ve got a point there,” Wash concurred. “I used to have a friend named Aust. And he-“ Wash abruptly stopped as they rounded a corner and were faced with a room.
It was small and square, its entrance formed into an artful triangular arch. The only exit seemed to be another arch against the back wall. It encased dark, swirling magic, like a portal. The space was plain and simple save for two tombs. Long and rectangular, they sat side-by-side with a few feet of space between them. One was white and one was black.
“Whoa,” Taliesin breathed, stepping past the others into the room. “Fascinating! Has this entire thing been a burial chamber?”
“Why would the feathers take us to a burial chamber?” Wash questioned as the rest of them filed in after Taliesin.
Unolé peered about the room, trying to hide her disappointed frown. A dead end, but still no Teshuva in sight. She didn’t trust the portal at the back of the room, if that was even what it was. But where else were they to go?
Taliesin rounded the tombs, trailing his fingers along the surface. “These are in pristine condition! Perhaps by magic or perhaps someone maintains them . . . ?”
Ruuda hung back at the entry, shifting uncomfortably and keeping one sword out.
“There is writing on them,” the Cleric said, leaning over the top of the black tomb. White hair fell in front of his eyes and he blew it out of the way as he leaned closer. “I don’t know this language.”
Wash stepped over. His gray eyes narrowed slightly before he nodded once. “I can read it. It’s Celestial.”
“Celestial?” Ruuda inquired, her full lips twisted into a slight scowl. “I can read that awful language, as well.”
Unolé stepped up to the white coffin, staring at the unfamiliar writing. It was graceful and curving, almost like a song. She had heard that the Celestial Plane was where beings with divine influence came from, and was even the home to some of the gods themselves. Her heart fluttered with excitement at seeing something so exotic and so beautiful.
Unolé looked up at Wash. “What does it say?”
Tilting his head to get a better look at the black tomb, Wash read, “Ukatvi, Champion of Ragseev.”
At this Taliesin, Ruuda, and Unolé all shot wide-eyed looks at one another. Although Unolé only recently learned of Ragseev through a book in Oceala’s library and through Taliesin, the name made her slightly nervous. A dark and foreboding god.
Wash moved to the white tomb. He hesitated a moment, eyes flicking back and forth over the words. And after letting out his breath slowly he read aloud, “Teshuva, Champion of Ellavar.”
Flashes of sunlight across her eyelids woke Artemis. She heard horses’ hooves, and the rattling wheels of a cart. She smelled hay and wood and leather, and it reminded her of home. For a moment she lost herself in years past, thinking she was back in the Southern Kingdoms. But reality rushed back as she tried to move and found her wrists and ankles bound. An acrid taste lingered on her dry tongue. She’d been drugged.
Artemis blinked her heavy eyes open, taking in the situation. She was in the back of a cart, a burlap cloth covered the top and obscured her view of the world. To her side was Wolfie, his paws bound and a muzzle over his snout. That sight ignited fury in her. She twisted around, relying on her elbows and muscles to push the burlap covering off and sit upright.
Bright noonday sun hit her, warm on her pale and freckled skin. The cart was pulled by a single horse and traversed down a dirt road with thick forest on either side. There was only one driver. A Gnome with messy brown hair and simple clothes. Artemis quickly scanned her situation, deciding how she could break free and get Wolfie out before her kidnapper realized.
But the Gnome, without glancing over her shoulder, spoke. “Don’t try running off. I’ll easily catch you.”
Artemis narrowed her light blue eyes. “I am not so easy to catch.”
“And yet, here you are.”
The Half-Elf Ranger huffed, hunched over on her knees. “And how did you catch me? I don’t remember what happened.”
The Gnome chuckled. “My employer told me you had a fondness for Gnomes and used to live among them in the Southern Kingdoms. I played my part well. It seems you can’t turn down traditional Gnomish food. And the drugs within it were undetectable.”
Artemis cringed at that, embarrassed by being caught off guard. But something did not sit right with that story. “No one knows I used to live with the Gnomes in the South. How did your employer come by this information? Who are they? Who are you? Where are we going?”
The driver turned slightly at the questions, allowing Artemis a full view. She was a rough-looking individual, with a scar up one cheek and a nose that had been broken before. She had dark brown skin that had been sunburnt many times. “I’m a member of the Whistling Bards. An innocent enough sounding name, I know, but we specialize in fulfilling sensitive contracts for high-paying clients. I’ve been hunting you for a while.”
Artemis lifted one blonde eyebrow, awaiting the answers to the rest of her questions.
“My employer is a man named Lysander from the Southern Kingdoms. That is where we are heading.”
The name hit the young Half-Elf like a punch to her gut. For a moment she reeled, her mind spinning, trying to decipher what this could mean. Then she looked sincerely up at the Gnome. “These bonds aren’t necessary. I will go with you willingly.”
Her kidnapper offered her a skeptical look. “Really?”
“Really. I know Lysander and I am willing to speak with him.”
The Gnome stared at her for a very long time before bringing out a knife and cutting her free. Then she resumed driving the cart as Artemis freed and comforted her dazed wolf.
“When will we arrive?” Artemis asked.
“Before nightfall. You’ve been out for a bit, you must be hungry.” Without looking, she tossed a small bag over her shoulder into the cart.
Her attention now brought to the pain in her stomach, Artemis yanked the bag open and found food she was well familiar with. Herb biscuits, tender jerky, and well-aged cheese. All in the traditional Gnomish style she had learned and loved while recovering in that little village. The people there had taken good care of her and her wolf. Ever since that day, her heart was softened at the sight of any Gnome.
Artemis wondered what her friends were doing. They had surely noticed her missing by now. Knowing the Southern Kingdoms was close filled her with mixed emotions. Dread, certainly. But also relief. Running from home, letting everyone assume she was dead, had been the hardest choice she’d ever made. She’d left her family behind. At least, the ones that were still living. Her mother and her brother. But it was to protect them. And now, years later, it was too late to second guess herself.
As she rode along and enjoyed the meal, the trees around her were alive with the sound of insects. Much more than she would expect during late autumn in the South. Artemis lost herself in memories of home, watching the tall and dark trees pass rhythmically. She was so caught up in the past that she didn’t hear her companions approaching until they burst from the trees. With a screech of Brother Zok’s armor, an angry shout from Skar, and a sizzle of magic from Jade, the Phantom Five surrounded the cart.
“Cease your movement!” Skar cried, his wand lifted high. “Or we shall eradicate you instantly!”
The horse reared up in surprise, causing the driver to swear and struggle to regain control. Artemis grabbed the side of the cart as it lurched. “No, wait! Don’t attack!”
Zok skidded to a stop, the glowing Sunsword held high overhead. While she could hear his gold and white armor, it was still covered with loose black clothes. Skar’s dark blue and silver Wizard robes blew in the wind, concealing his bulky bronze-scaled Dragonborn form. Jade’s blackened hands were alight with flames as she stared down the driver, her autumn-colored Druidic clothes making her near invisible against the forest. But Artemis did not see Unolé.
Upon Jade’s red fox trotting out from the trees, Wolfie hopped from the cart and went over to greet his friend.
“Are you all right?” Brother Zok asked, not lowering his sword or relaxing his stance.
The Gnome of the Whistling Bards reached for a crossbow at her side, but Artemis quickly stood up and said, “Everyone calm down! It’s all good. We don’t have to fight.”
“We saw you captured,” Brother Zok protested. “You were bound!”
“Yes, that is true,” the blonde Ranger acknowledged. “But I learned who hired my kidnapper and have agreed to meet.”
A prolonged pause followed that statement. Brother Zok, Skar, and Jade all met eyes. Then they put away their weapons.
“What’s going on?” Jade asked. “We were very worried about you.”
“I appreciate it. I know I don’t talk about my time in the Southern Kingdoms much. An old friend there has sent for me. I want to know why.”
Skar tilted his head to the side. “Your friend sent for you to be kidnapped in such a fashion?”
The Gnome shrugged. “He said she would probably resist and that I need to ensure she comes. I don’t let my clients down. She’s not hurt.”
“Do you wish for us to accompany you?” Jade asked.
Artemis mulled over the thought for a moment. She supposed if she were to share her past with anyone, these companions that had risked their lives for her were as good as it could get. So she nodded. “Yes, I would appreciate all of you having my back. But . . . where’s Unolé?”
After a wary exchange of glances Brother Zok answered, “We don’t know. We’ve sent her messages and I even tried to scry on her. But there’s nothing. We’ve sent word to Jade’s family to be on the lookout for her within the city.”
“Perhaps she’s left to chase a lead on her sister,” Artemis offered.
“Let’s hope so,” Jade stated. “If something has happened to her as well, we don’t have any leads.”
With her companions joining her in the cart or walking alongside, they continued on the dirt road. Hours passed, and the sun traveled down the horizon. After two more hours of travel Jade, sitting in the cart beside her, leaned close.
“There is something you need to know,” the Druid whispered, strands of dark brown hair falling before her eyes. “Brother Zok and I have lost our enhanced abilities from Vicrum.”
Artemis blinked, and it took several moments for the meaning of these words to set in. “You mean Brother Zok can’t run fast anymore? And fire burns you now?”
Jade nodded. “But Skar has retained his abilities. We think it has to do with killing our doubles in Oceala. They were tied to the wish we made with Vicrum’s lantern, and so our abilities were lost with them.”
“Then I should still have my teleportation,” Artemis said. “But Sen will have lost his metallic scales.”
“We believe so.”
This was startling news. They had begun to rely on these enhancements greatly. Artemis knew all of them were capable warriors and spellcasters in their own right. However, with the gifts Vicrum had bestowed on them they had an edge on all their enemies. She felt sorry for Sen, Jade, and Brother Zok. She knew Jade had specifically wanted to be invulnerable to fire because of her visions of the dragon attack on Oceala. That had come to pass and they’d been victorious. But Brother Zok loved his speed.
Their doubles were gone, which was a good thing. And while herself and Skar retained their abilities, they also had doubles out there in the world still. Artemis did not like that thought.
The two fell into silence as their travel continued. The landscape around Artemis grew more and more familiar, until they turned off the road and to a sight the Half-Elf hadn’t seen in many years. A clearing broke in the forest. For several yards there was only grass until it reached a steep cliff. The cliff overlooked a vast land below. The Southern Kingdoms. And perched at the very edge was an enormous tree with branches that cast the ledge in shadow.
Standing underneath the tree, silhouetted against the setting sun, was Lysander. He was alone, wearing a thin blue cloak over leather armor. And as he turned at the sound of their approach, Artemis was taken aback by how much older he looked. He was the same age her father would have been, and deep worry lines cut into his fair Human face. His gray hair was short and wispy, and a thin beard ran along his jaw. His blue eyes were bright but tired, and that look did not fade from them even as he smiled.
“Artemis Wolfsbane,” Lysander greeted. “It has been some time, indeed. I hope you are not too angry at being summoned.” His gaze skimmed over her companions. “I did not expect you to come with anyone.”
Artemis vaulted from the back of the cart. Her heart hammered at the familiar locations around her, but she kept her expression and tone in control. “My friends came looking for me. I thought they might want to see the man who arranged for such a rough kidnapping.” She couldn’t help the next words. “It is good to see you, though. How did you know . . . ?”
“That you are still alive?” He chuckled. “Some talkative Gnomes.”
His smile was warmer this time. “I do apologize for this. I realize you want to stay in hiding and I do not blame you. But the situation here is dire and I don’t know who to go to for help.”
Artemis crossed her arms, barely aware of her friends drifting up behind her and taking in the sights. “What’s going on?”
“War has returned to the Southern Kingdoms. Armies of Humans, Orcs, and Elves run unchecked through our land, and no single city has organized the strength to formally stand against them. Not that it would matter. They are scattered and have no fortress. At least, not that we’ve found.”
Artemis frowned. “I don’t understand how this is a job for me. Reach out to Gaea for assistance. They are haughty there, but I’m sure you can convince them. You’re a good talker.”
“It’s not that,” Lysander sighed. “What I need is not an organized attack force. I need stealth and subtlety. Because my-“ His voice broke, and his mouth turned downward in deep sorrow. “My wife and son have been captured and kept as prisoners of war.”
Artemis felt rooted to the spot at that, her arms falling limp at her sides. She had tried to avoid looking out over the cliff since arriving, but now she could not stop her gaze from wandering. The whole of the Southern Kingdoms spread out before her, bathed in orange light. The flat land marked by thick pine forests. She thought she could make out the top of one of the five cities, perhaps Elkrun, breaking the treetops.
“Please,” Lysander said. “If an attack force was to move against our enemies, I’m afraid my family will be killed. I thought someone who knows how to sneak around the forests, someone who has done things like this before, someone who is the best warrior I know, could save them.”
Artemis let out her breath slowly. She remembered Lysander’s family. They had shared many dinners with her own family. She could remember the little boy being born. The smiles and laughter. The long evenings telling stories around a fire. The happy times.
She looked back over her shoulder at her three friends. They nodded in support.
Artemis returned her gaze to Lysander. “Yes, I will help.”
Ruuda lingered at the arched entry of the small room, her green eyes narrowed warily. She watched Wash and Unolé exchange glances upon translating the Celestial writing on the tombs. Taliesin scurried over to take a closer look, his face alight with interest. She was glad he was enjoying himself. This entire place made her nervous. It had a feel about it that tingled at her senses. Her mentor Neir Shadowsnare had told her to listen to those senses; they cued her into the world around her and what enemies could be lurking. But this was so different than the Deep Hollows.
“Teshuva?” Unolé repeated, turning to the white tomb. “The writing on it says it belongs to Teshuva?”
“Isn’t that your coatl friend?” Wash inquired. “The one that’s missing?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. She leaned over the white tomb, her hands trailing it as if she expected to find more answers inscribed on its surface. “I don’t understand. He’s not dead. And this tomb is not for a coatl, it looks . . . people-sized.”
Taliesin looked to her. “You mentioned he worshipped the Silver Dancer, Ellavar. Correct?” At her nod, he continued. “From this tomb it sounds like more than just worship. He was her champion. You were traveling with someone extremely important.”
Unolé shook her head helplessly. “He never mentioned any of this to me. What is a god’s champion?”
Ruuda took one step forward. “It’s another name for a god’s puppet they can send into battle to die for them.”
Wash pointed in her direction and nodded. “She’s got it figured out.”
“That’s untrue,” Taliesin protested. “It’s someone who is extremely special and has earned their god’s favor to act as their hand and voice in the world.”
“If he once was this Silver Dancer’s champion,” Unolé began slowly, “then what caused him to become a coatl? Death? Magic? And who is this?” She gestured to the black tomb. “A champion of Ragseev. Ukatvi, you said?”
“I assume it is their name,” Wash answered. “There is no word in Celestial that matches.”
Taliesin pushed his hair from his eyes. “It is very interesting they are buried next to each other. These gods are siblings and enemies.”
“Tell me again about these gods,” Unolé asked the white-haired Cleric.
“The Silver Dancer, or Ellavar, is all about embracing your true self and your own freedom. She uses music and dance to encourage this. The Masked One, or Ragseev, encourages the use of deception and violence to get what you want. His followers often perform self-mutilation in his honor. They both are weak gods, though,” Taliesin added. “Overshadowed and overpowered by their mother, Aranese. Ellavar herself has almost been erased entirely from the world.” A mischievous grin spread across his face. “We could ask Teshuva more directly for answers, though. If we want to open the tomb.”
Ruuda had been watching down the dark hall for any sign of movement, but at this she spun around. “I don’t think that’s a good idea . . . “
“Messing with tombs doesn’t sound safe,” Wash said. “But this is Unolé’s friend, so it’s up to her.”
Unolé’s eyes grew distant for a moment, considering. Then she looked to Taliesin. “I want to open the tomb. But how will we get any answers?”
He winked. “Just watch. I don’t get to show off this magic very often!”
The three of them slowly pushed the lid of the tomb partly open. The noise echoed so loudly that Ruuda took both swords in hand and guarded the room’s entry more closely. After all the undead that had swarmed the bone bridge, she could only wonder what other secrets this place held.
Unolé gasped. “There’s a skeleton inside!”
Taliesin held his hands up before him. “Let’s see what he has to tell us.” Magic trailed after his fingers and his spider medallion leaked shadow. The snarling sounds of Chasmic rolled off his tongue. “Bol saath dzmare.”
A terrible scraping sound made Ruuda wince, the grip on her weapons tightening. From the tomb the skeletal form of Teshuva rose, sitting in a rigid fashion. The eye sockets glowed darkly with the same magic as Taliesin’s holy symbol. The skull regarded him blankly. It was a morbid and unsettling sight.
“Can I ask the questions?” Unolé whispered, her purple eyes wide but determined.
“Unfortunately, it’s just me as the spell caster,” Taliesin answered. “But let me know and I will ask for you.”
“I want to know why he’s buried here,” Unolé said. “Who this Ukatvi is. Where he is now.”
Taliesin gave a single nod and then turned his attention to the skeleton. When he spoke, his voice echoed slightly. “Teshuva, how did your body come to be buried here?”
Ruuda tensed, waiting for how an answer from a dead man would sound. When Teshuva spoke, his jaw moved. And even though there was no tongue, the magic of the spell created a scratching and hollow voice.
“My body was brought here after death,” the corpse responded.
“But why are you buried by Ukatvi, a champion of Ragseev?”
The skeleton made a noise almost like the rattling intake of breath and answered, “Ukatvi was my brother in arms.”
“And where are you now? Your coatl body is missing.”
“ . . . I do not know of which you speak.”
Taliesin let out his breath slowly, nodded, and then lowered his hand. The magic faded and Teshuva’s corpse slumped back into the tomb.
“He doesn’t know?” Unolé asked.
“It’s not really him,” Taliesin explained. “It’s just an echo. This corpse having any knowledge of current events was a long shot, but it never hurts to try.”
Unolé stared for a long while inside the tomb. “Do you think this was his weapon?” She pulled out a slightly curved sword. The hilt, despite being dusty, was still in excellent shape. It had curving runes along it, and was white and light blue.
“I assume so,” Taliesin replied. “Most great warriors are buried with their weapons. It appears to be a strong blade even after all this time, it is probably enchanted.”
Unolé’s fingers drifted over the metal. “I wonder if there is a way to activate the enchantment again. I’d like to see what it does.”
The Cleric shrugged. “You never know. When we find Teshuva, the living version of him, he might know.”
Unolé hooked the sword on her belt as the lid was returned over the white tomb, Ruuda felt her skin crawl as all three of their gazes turned to the black tomb. Ukatvi’s.
“I mean . . . “ Taliesin bit his lip and smiled. “I’m curious.”
“Let’s do it,” Unolé nodded enthusiastically.
The Cleric glanced across at the Dark Dwarf. “Are you doing all right, Ruuda? It’s not too scary, is it?”
It scared her very much. But she answered, “I’m fine, Tal. That spell you did was impressive.”
He beamed as he, Unolé, and Wash lined up to push the black tomb’s lid off. “I don’t get to do it very often. I’m really good at dealing with undead. I got to use it a bit back home in Berenzia. My house was next to the cemetery and I could lay undead to rest. A couple of times another House would ask my mother to have me question a dead slave or rid their basement of a ghost an enemy had sent. It was fun.”
“Fun?” Wash chuckled.
They pushed the lid forward enough to just crack it open. And then suddenly a magical trap was triggered.
A violent burst of dark, necrotic magic exploded from the tomb. Wash, Unolé, and Taliesin were sent flying back in different directions, slamming into the stone walls of the room. Ruuda spun to the side, shielding herself with the stone of the doorway. The magic hit the walls around her but didn’t quite reach her. Even so she could feel its cold depths prod at her. She saw a wispy essence drained from each of her traveling companions and into the dark magic, as if part of their life force had been sucked away.
The shadow magic then pulled back in abruptly, coalescing above the black tomb before taking form. A skulking, humanoid figure wearing a mask over its eyes. Two pinpoints of red light shone within. It had no legs, only shadow, and it wielded a sword made of darkness in its formless, shifting hands.
Wash rose to his feet, unstrapping the large axe from his back. Unolé ducked behind the white tomb, pulling two daggers from her belt. Ruuda saw Taliesin’s feet up in the air in the far corner of the room, heard a brief scrambling noise, and saw him pop up with his hands defensively in front of him.
The dark creature took in the room and then its essence shifted. Three more duplicates ripped out of it, all wielding blades in hunched, menacing poses. And then they pounced.
“Liquor!” Ruuda shouted. Her sword caught fire as she rushed the closest enemy. Their weapons clashed and danced in between them. The Dark Dwarf pushed forward aggressively, using all the skills Neir had taught her.
From her peripheral vision, she could see Unolé throwing her daggers across the room, trails of fire and ice following them. Each time they hit a target they magically spun back to her outstretched hands. Wash and Shulva relentlessly attacked the first creature that had appeared, his axe sparking with green runes. Magic shot from Taliesin’s hands as he fended off two of the shade creatures from his corner of the room.
The creature Ruuda fought was fast and moved in an abnormal, stuttering way. Ruuda was used to adjusting her fighting style due to the strange and dangerous creatures that inhabited the Deep Hollows. But her opponent still managed to get a few slices into her, adding up against all the wounds sustained across the bone bridge. Finally, she knocked one attack wide and sunk both swords into its chest. It gave more easily than a flesh and blood enemy would, but the attack did what was intended and it dispersed into nothing around her blades, destroyed.
Blowing some strands of red and orange hair from her face, she surveyed the room. Wash had the upper hand on the main creature, and it was continuously peppered with Unolé’s daggers. It would not win this fight, she could tell.
She turned her attention to Taliesin. The Dark Elf had his back pressed to the corner, pinned in place and fighting off two shades that flanked him. Fresh blood streaked his cheekbone and his sleeve had been torn open at the shoulder.
Ruuda ran forward and leaped onto the white tomb in front of Taliesin. She spun in a wide circle, taking the enemy completely by surprise. Each sword decapitated one of the creatures in a clean, smooth slice. As they scattered in the air, she finished her turn and looked to Taliesin. “Are you all right?”
He stared up at her with wide amber eyes, the fire from her sword reflecting in them. “I’m . . . yes, I am all right.”
A noise of wind was the only sign that Unolé and Wash had destroyed the last of the shades. As Ruuda turned to them, she saw both had sustained new wounds but were not badly hurt. She could tell a difference in the three, though. The necrotic trap from the tomb created dark circles under their eyes and a hollowness to their cheeks. They looked exhausted.
“Well, that was just awful,” Wash huffed, returning his weapon to his back. “How’s about next time we check for those kinds of traps.”
“I feel sick,” Unolé groaned. “What was that?”
“A good, long rest will help,” Taliesin replied, circling from behind the white tomb. “It’s a nasty type of magic. I should know, I cast those types of spells.”
“There are different kinds of magic?” Unolé asked.
“Well . . . yes. Elemental damaging types. Healing. Defense. Necromancy. Illusion. Many more. I specialize in a lot of radiant and necrotic damage myself.”
“What little I know is nature-based,” Ruuda added. “I was taught it by a Ranger of the Deep Hollows.”
“I don’t cast magic,” Wash said. “Aside from summoning Shulva.”
Unolé inclined her head thoughtfully. “Interesting. I didn’t have any formal schooling on this. Just a friend from my Guild that taught me some tricks to help me survive.” She turned back to Ukatvi’s tomb, frowning heavily. “Let’s see if it was worth that pain.”
Ruuda joined as the four of them carefully pushed the lid further open. It was heavy and they leaned their weight into it to open it nearly halfway.
Peering inside, there was no body. Only two items were inside. One was a black mask meant to be worn around the eyes. There were two aqua gemstones set where the eyes would be. The other was a small ebony figurine of a black bird with four legs.
Unolé gasped. “That bird! That’s the one!” She scooped it up from the tomb. “This is the creature that took my sister.”
Taliesin brought his face level with it, studying it with narrowed eyes. “Strange. I’ve heard stories of a beast that belongs to Ragseev. I don’t recall any details, though. That god was never interesting to me.”
Unolé put the figurine in her bag and then brought out the mask. “Fascinating.” She put it in her bag, as well.
“Are you sure you want to be keeping that?” Wash asked with a raised eyebrow. “It could also be trapped.”
“I’ll be careful,” Unolé stated simply. “Now let’s get out of here before more things show up.”
Ruuda eyed the swirling portal at the back of the room. “There appears to be only one way out.”
A moment of silence hung as they all pondered the option.
“I don’t know,” Unolé sighed. “What if it takes us further from Teshuva? What if we can never find him again?”
“I think it’s the only way,” Wash stated. “It’s not like we’ve seen any other passages.”
When Unolé turned to Taliesin, the Dark Elf just shrugged and replied, “I’m up for anything.”
They turned to the portal, sizing it up. Wash poked at it with his axe without any ill effects. Taliesin then trailed his fingers along it before sticking his hand through. He pulled it back and gave a nod.
“Let’s go then,” Wash agreed.
Taliesin stepped through first, and Ruuda quickly followed. A strange sensation passed over her, like she had stepped into water without getting wet. But with a second step she emerged on the other side and was faced with a long, curving corridor. It was tall and circular, with a stone floor and black walls that shifted like water. She heard the sound of Wash and then Unolé step through behind her.
“Whoa,” Unolé breathed. “This place looks different than the last.”
“It feels different, too. I think we transported far,” Taliesin said. He leaned close to one of the shimmering walls and then exclaimed. “There are things moving on the other side!”
“What?” Ruuda gasped.
He waved an excited hand over. “Come look! Come look!”
Ruuda stepped up next to him, Unolé and Wash following. She focused her eyes past the barrier and could, indeed, see shapes shifting in the darkness. There were malformed, strange things. Some with too many limbs, some that crawled, some fish-like that seemed to float through the air.
“Creepy,” Wash commented.
Unolé pulled out a small vial from her pouch and dipped it into the wall. It came out with droplets of black liquid within it. Corking the vial, she returned it to her pouch.
“Are you some kind of collector?” Ruuda asked.
Wash snickered. “I’d use the word hoarder.”
Unolé shot him a glare. “I like to keep things. You never know what you might need later.”
Turning from the wall, they followed along the curve of the hall. Ruuda was tiring and her wounds stinging, but she noticed an even more haggard walk from the three the necrotic magic had hit. They were all worn out. They needed to rest soon. All was silent and dark, and they continued to see shapes lurking behind the watery border. At one point a gargantuan shape slithered by, its body fat and head massive. But it paid them no mind and moved off out of sight.
After twenty minutes of walking, they came to the end of the hall and another portal. With nowhere else to go, they gently stepped through. And this time found themselves in a cavern tunnel.
“Well,” Wash sighed. “Where are we now?”