The cold mountain wind whipped at the four travelers’ cloaks as they huddled around the low embers of a cooking fire. The dim morning sun, lightly obscured by wisps of clouds, did little to warm the thin air. Jagged boulders cast long shadows across the narrow ledge ascending along the sheer wall to the travelers’ right. Rime nestled in the shade, invisible patches of ice that posed a deadly hazard. One wrong step, one misbalance, and an unfortunate mountaineer could find themselves tumbling thousands of feet before coming to a sudden, final stop on one of the narrow, winding paths or treacherous escarpments leading to Torchspire’s peak.
Delilah hummed an inspiring tune to herself as she doled out breakfast, a thick porridge of oats and salt pork, to her four companions. “Eat up, boys. Today’s the day we make history.”
“Today is the day we make New Tician safe, so our alliance with Tuma can be finalized and we strike out against our cruel enemies together,” growled Ayen. Blood trickled from his scarred palms as the elf’s eyes glinted crimson with sanguine magic. He looked over his shoulder towards the volcano’s peak, which just belched a gray plume of sulfurous ash. “It is within.”
“This engagement will be to our favor,” Maarich said. The riichna performed a complex meditation exercise in the shadows at the cliff’s edge, oblivious to or perhaps embracing the location’s danger. “Its lair will limit its ability to maintain distance, and this is a good thing for the rest of you.”
Delilah laughed. “And what will you be doing in the meanwhile, Maarich?”
Maarich’s body dissolved into the gloom and reappeared not a moment later behind the Tumish woman. His left forearm hovered above her throat and a silvery blade of ether sizzled from the fingertips of his right hand. “I assure you, closing the distance is no issue for me.”
“You’ve made your point,” whispered Trey’Lunariel. Wearing a thick blanket like a shawl, the elven sorcerer drank steaming tea from a tin mug clasped in both hands. Fiery, unnaturally red hair fell in loose curls around his serious, narrow face. Webs of black scars that shone dusky orange through cracks in the deformed skin covered over half of it. “Let us swiftly finish this so we can leave this abominable mountain.”
“Boris will return soon from scouting. He is making sure there aren’t further surprises waiting for us on the path ahead,” Delilah said, perfectly calm despite Maarich’s menacing pose.
“Two goblins hardly count as a surprise,” Maarich said. He stepped away from Delilah and clasped his hands, now liberated of the etherblade, within the sleeves of his woolen, black robe. The brick wall of a person moved with unnatural, practiced grace. “Unless you mean as a gift. The information they shared about this concealed ascent was most helpful.”
“I appreciated their honesty,” said Ayen. He fingered the ornate hilt of the sheathed sword on his belt with a slender, olive-skinned finger. The elf’s battered, brutish features creased into an ugly smile as he brushed stringy gray hair behind a pointed ear. “It earned them a clean death.”
Delilah glared at Ayen. “You could have let them go. They wouldn’t have dared to warn Muskybassgar.”
Maarich shook his head. “This path is navigable by us, but there may have been a different, swifter trail smaller creatures could access. They are conniving things to be trusted only as far as they can be thrown.”
Delilah arched an eyebrow and gave the riichna a sardonic look. “You hurled one of them off the mountainside.”
The riichna returned the gaze with his own eyes, solid and inscrutable pits of black. “Yes. It is wise to provide the proper motivation during any given negotiation.” Maarich shrugged. “If you had been schooled in the correct way, you would know this.”
“You were brainwashed by a collection of expansionist sociopaths who warred with and persecuted my distant cousins on this planet for centuries,” Trey said.
“They should have known better,” Maarich retorted. “Besides, that does not lessen the lesson’s truth.”
Delilah had risen and begun preparing for their departure in between bites of porridge. Dark leather armor on her body, a rapier at her waist, a lute across her back. As she tied back her long, dark hair, she said, “The food won’t stay warm forever, you know.”
Ayen and Maarich shared a grunt and began scooping the slop into mess tins. Trey, remaining seated and swaddled in blankets, gestured and said a few words in Elvish. A glob of porridge extracted itself from the pot and drifted a handful of feet to hover in midair before him. Every few seconds, he said another word and beckoned, cleaving away portions of the sphere that darted into his open mouth.
“Hi guys.” The nondescript Tumish man appeared with such suddenness that all four adventurers were taken by surprise. He ate from a tin taken from Maarich. “This is really good, Delilah!”
The riichna sputtered, looking from his now-empty hands to the Tumish and back again. “Thief!”
“That’s an unproven allegation, and I resent your words.” Boris cleaned the last bits of porridge from the tin and helped himself to another serving. “Have you checked your pack?”
“Yes, Boris, I have checked my pack. Where do you think I got my mess tin from?” Maarich strode to where his leather backpack lay. Tugging open the drawstring, he upended its contents.
A mess tin clattered on the barren rock.
“This cannot be!” Maarich shouted. He whirled on Boris, who continued eating, nonplussed. “This is yours!”
Trey’s eyes lazily rolled. “It’s labeled. All our belongings are labeled because you insisted on it to track our inventory. What does the label read?”
“It–” Maarich flipped the tin over and saw his own name on the bottom. “You!”
“Don’t know what to tell you, friend. Don’t feel too bad. These mistakes happen to everyone eventually.” Boris reached into a pocket and pulled out a boiled egg which he cracked on the ground.”
“Where did you get that?” Ayen asked.
Ayen’s eyes hardened and blood magic curled along his sheathed sword in a purplish fog. “Giants?”
“Two of ’em. They’re enjoying breakfast. It would be a real shame if we were to hurry along and interrupt them.”
Ayen donned his armor and gathered his things in a flash. The seething purple energy danced to and fro over his body like a swarming cloud of insects.
Trey sighed and began packing his own belongings. “Always with the vengeance.”
“It is an honest emotion, at least,” Maarich said with something approaching approval. “I think back to when those giants destroyed that school. Had they possessed more vengeance, there may have been fewer survivors.”
Everyone paused to stare at the riichna. After a moment, Maarich added, “It is fortunate they were instead fueled only by hate.”
After another few seconds, he continued, “The way events unfolded remains a tragedy.”
Finally Ayen spoke. “Enough of this. We must be off.”
The five broke camp and set off, Boris at the group’s head. The Tumish thief, though far more comfortable navigating crowded streets and creating forged letters of credit, ably led them up a narrow, mostly safe path marked with pitons hammered into the rock. Maarich and Boris scampered up the cliff like goats. They paused every few yards on secure ground to lower ropes and help the other, less nimble three up the steep slope.
Before they crested the final stretch, some twenty feet below the final ledge, Boris motioned them into silence. So near to the volcano’s caldera, the air was hazy with ash. He passed around kerchiefs all but Trey tied over their noses and mouths. The elf gulped deep breaths of the fumes like they were fortifying perfumes.
“So how do we want to do this?” Delilah asked. “Should we try to–”
With a scream of impossible rage, Ayen heaved himself over the ledge’s lip.
Two enormous, red-skinned forms squatted twenty feet away around a goat spitted over roaring flames. They wore soot-blackened chain shirts and carried huge, black steel axes with heads as large as Ayen was tall. They wore their long orange hair and beards in elaborate braids. Their broad faces stared numbly at the charging elf.
With a second roar, Ayen unsheathed the longsword at his waist. The energy gathered around his person surged into the weapon, imbuing and enhancing it with weaponized malice. Arcs of purple lightning lanced into the ash cloud from the enchanted sword, blasting away the obscuring dust around its wielder.
Ayen Melamar of House Melamar, wielding his family’s ancestral blade Dark Sister, chopped into the nearest fire giant’s leg. Blood fountained, and the surprised giant took a second blow to the midsection. Ayen snarled as he punched Dark Sister through armor to bury the sword in the giant’s guts. He heaved with all his strength, cleaving a garish wound. Ayen grit his teeth and roaring, “For Tician!” sent a magnified burst of lightning deep into the giant’s viscera. Hot blood gushed.
Maarich, eager to join the fray, pulled himself up next, but Boris pushed past the riichna. He darted up next to Ayen and shanked the distracted giant with a short-bladed sword. The giant howled and whirled on the Tumish, but the man danced backwards and eluded the clumsy attempt at a counterattack.
Maarich, close behind, leaped into the air in a sideways jump kick. His weight crashed into the giant’s knee with enough momentum to dislocate the joint. Howling, the giant crumpled earthward.
Maarich seized the giant’s braided beard, now within easy reach, and clambered up the impromptu rope. “How are you doing?” he asked sardonically as he balled his free hand into a fist that he plunged into the giant’s left eye once, twice.
Shimmying down, he turned to the uninjured giant, who had barely had time to react. “You, next,” Maarich said before punching the first giant’s ruined knee one last time.
Delilah, standing far back from the melee, regarded Trey. “I believe in you!” she said with a smile. “Them, not so much,” she continued under her breath. Murmuring a few words, she directed a vise of magical pressure to ravage the wounded giant’s psyche. The giant howled and grabbed at his head as he staggered.
“Watch an elemental master at work,” Trey said, grinning smugly. Chanting in Elvish, three serpentine coils of black flame sprang into existence around his forearms. “My fires burn so hot that none may resist them!” With a final command, he released all three rays at the wounded giant. Two of them struck true into the fire giant’s barrel chest, and the third seemed it would just barely miss if not for timely fortune and a flinch that sent it into the giant’s shoulder.
None seemed to have any effect.
The burn scars on Trey’s face vomited smoke blacker and more toxic than Torchspire’s. “Impossible! I honed my mastery over elemental fire especially against foes like this!”
Maarich cleared his throat. “These words are difficult for me to convey, but they must be said. Your first mistake was not being born a riichna. The second was pursuing an inferior method of spellcasting.”
Trey sat on a nearby boulder and buried his face in his hands. “I’m going to be actually useless when we battle a red dragon,” he wailed.
“Less self-pity! More vengeance!” Ayen roared. “They are gathering their wits!” He sliced twice more with Dark Sister, landing solid but nonlethal hits, then shifted to interpose himself between the two giants. “Come on, you bastards! Face me!”
“I’m doing the best I can!” Boris shouted. He attempted another attack on the wounded giant, but the chain mail deflected the blade. He hurriedly disengaged.
“Some friendly advice, Boris,” Maarich said, eyeing up the heavily injured giant. “When you make an attack, ensure you don’t miss.” He concentrated for a moment, channeling dark energy into a semicircular fan of javelins above his head. With a thought, the projectiles sped towards the giant, who to his credit attempted to dodge. But he was too hobbled and too clumsy, and he took the full assault to his upper torso. One of the shadow darts perforated the giant’s throat, blasting out the back of his neck in a shower of gore before the projectile returned to the ether.
As the dying giant toppled, Ayen raised his free hand, palm out. Purple-tinged blood flowed from open wounds in his palm into the corpse. “You do not yet have my permission to pass on.”
The giant’s legs twitched and its lifeless body bounded to its feet. Taking up the fallen axe, its eyes erupting bright purple light, it shambled past Ayen and chopped into its companion before crumpling again.
“I thank you for the ladder,” Maarich said. He bounded atop the first giant’s corpse and swiped at the remaining giant with a blade of force energy identical to the one he evoked earlier. The etherblade sliced through the giant’s thigh before vanishing.
The fire giant bellowed and brought his axe down. It hewed into the corpse just to the side of where Maarich stood moments before. “What did I just instruct about the proper method of attacking? Do you not pay attention?” A second swing came close to cutting through Maarich’s midsection, but the riichna leapt, landed on the axe’s broad head, and somersaulted back to solid ground. “Clearly not. You are a worse learner than Trey’Lunariel.”
“Maarich!” Delilah chided. The woman withdrew her lute and strummed an inspiring tune. “Boris, I believe in you too! Don’t let this stress you out!” Stowing the lute, she addressed the fire giant. “You’re a poopy-head.”
The giant winced as imposter syndrome set in and filled him with profound insecurity.
Trey needed none of Delilah’s mockery to feel disheartened. He took stock of his options and finally flicked away a group of three whizzing projectiles. They looped to strike the giant unerringly. “I’m doing my part,” the elf sighed.
“We appreciate it, my kin!” Ayen shouted back, closing the remaining distance to his opponent. Dark Sister flashed twice and left two bleeding gashes on the giant.
“Every bit counts,” Boris said, skulking around to the giant’s unprotected rear. He lunged forward and landed a lucky, decisive backstab directly into the giant’s left kidney. The grievous wound was not immediately fatal, but it pushed the giant’s endurance to its limits.
“Now learn,” Maarich said, dancing around to where Boris stood. His arms blurred and pounded the giant’s lower back with the force of steel. The agonizing pain was too much for the giant, who dropped his weapon and collapsed.
“Mercy,” he wheezed.
“Granted,” Ayen replied, drawing Dark Sister across the helpless giant’s exposed throat.
“Such a simple matter,” Maarich said. He looked past the fallen giants to the mouth of a wide tunnel leading to the volcano’s dark interior. Steam drifted from the opening. “Let us continue, lest the guards’ absence be noticed.”
“Who made you the caller?” Boris asked. He squinted into the gloom. “Anyone got a torch?”
“I can handle that,” Delilah said.
“Unnecessary,” Maarich said. He gripped the meaty part of Boris’ shoulder and reshaped the Tumish man’s internal vibes. Boris gasped and rubbed at his eyes.
Delilah stopped rummaging. “Ah, right.” She tilted her head to the left and Maarich dutifully pinched her.
Finally, the riichna pinched himself. “Now we are ready to attack into the darkness.”
They formed up in three ranks, Ayen and Maarich up front, Boris in the middle, and Delilah and crestfallen Trey’Lunariel at the rear. Whether through Maarich’s realignment of auras or natural biology, the tunnel’s pitch blackness was less of an absolute obstacle.
The rocky path sloped downward gently. The air grew clammy and warm, the wisps of steam thickening into opaque banks that limited their perception more than darkness ever could. The five descended a series of terraces leading to a broadened section of tunnel. The air stank of sulfur and the floor became treacherously slick underfoot.
“Ugh!” Trey’s foot splashed into a pool of water concealed by the obscuring mist. “How am I the one to walk around with his feet wet? I can’t imagine how this day could get any worse.”
A coil of water as thick as a barrel surged around the unaware elf. The girthy tentacle overwhelmed his lackluster strength and tugged him away from his companions. He managed one startled yelp before he was dragged beneath the surface of a grimy pool to the group’s left.
“What’s happening?” Ayen demanded, turning towards the commotion. As he did, a lithe shape, barely discernible from the surrounding mist, lashed out and staggered him with a series of quick blows. A second, near identical shape appeared from the rear and smashed into Delilah’s unprotected flank.
“An ambush,” Maarich said, staring down a vaguely humanoid being made of yellowish water that surged across the pool towards him with a gurgling roar. It attempted to constrict around the riichna’s body, but Maarich evaded the attack completely.
“Gratling, get off me!” Delilah said. Her body compacted into a flat shape that darted away from her airy assailant and reformed some twenty feet away, against the wall farthest from the pool’s edge. “You’re a poopy-head too!” The elemental seemed unfazed by her insult.
Rather than pursue the woman, the air elemental joined its companion’s assault on Ayen. Its fists buffeted the elf’s back, staggering him.
Boris’ sword cut through the mist where he thought the nearby elemental floated. The wisp chortled. “I can’t see them! How can I hit them?”
Thrashing from the pool informed the party Trey remained alive. The bedraggled elf appeared on land out of nowhere in the middle of the fray. Sputtering and hacking up water, he pointed a finger at a nearby elemental. A bolt of fire flew wide. “Kavala, protect me,” he intoned, shifting as far as possible from the water’s edge without drawing the attention of the swarming air elementals.
“Have you considered not allowing yourself to be hit?” Maarich asked as he dodged another two watery crashes from his opponent.
“Yes, how could I have been so stupid as to overlook that? Of course I’ve considered it!”
“Then act on your consideration.” Maarich counterattacked, gouging chunks of water from the elemental’s form with a flurry of blows. It rumbled in dissatisfaction. Nearby, Ayen took another pair of blows, swung Dark Sister, and hit nothing.
The water elemental in the pool surged to the water’s edge and slammed into Trey. Blood streamed from the elf’s nose and mouth.
“Trey!” Delilah yelled. She bit her lip, considered whether to inject herself into the dangerous melee, and decided against it. “Healing!” The lone word conveyed rejuvenative magic that steadied the battered elf on his feet.
“I would appreciate some help,” Ayen gasped as the near-invisible air elementals continued hammering him. The warrior’s endurance far exceeded Trey’s, but the repeated blows started taking a toll.
“I’m trying!” Boris replied, missing another round of attacks. He danced away from the melee towards the cave entrance while the elementals were distracted by pair of elves.
Ayen spotted the withdrawal out of the corner of his eyes. “So help me, if you run away I will hunt you to the ends of the earth and kill you in your sleep.”
Boris chuckled nervously.
Maarich dodged more clumsy attacks by his elemental foe. “Ayen, you are a team player, right?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?”
“A relevant one. I suggest you gird yourself. You too, Trey.” Maarich cartwheeled into a position at the edges of the fray.
“No!” Trey yelled.
“Yes.” Maarich extended a palm, though the gesture was entirely unnecessary. A spray of corrosive spikes fanned out from his position, a deadly cone that tore into all four elementals as well as his two elvish companions. Ayen blunted some of the spell’s assault with a defensive twirl of his cloak, but Trey took the full brunt, undoing all of Delilah’s healing and bringing the elf to death’s door.
The water elemental wasted no time seizing Trey’s barely conscious body and retreating with it into the pool’s depths.
“You’re such a big helper, Maarich,” Delilah said. “How am I supposed to keep Trey alive and well if you’re trying to kill him?”
Maarich shrugged. “Check for bubbles. He will be in that area.”
Delilah cursed in Tumish and crossed the chamber to stand near Boris. She retrieved a vial filled with a dark, syrupy gel and shoved it into Boris’ hands. “Feed this to Ayen,” she told him. Peering into the mist, she barely made out Trey’s body in the center of a surging whirlpool. “Get up, Trey!”
Trey groaned and returned to feeble intimacy as Ayen crumpled under his dual attackers, barely staying on his feet. Boris ran back in, quickly unstoppered the bottle, and held it out so Ayen could suck out its contents. Many of the elf’s wounds closed, and he straightened with renewed vigor. Boris even found the opportunity to slice into one of the marauding elementals, though the problematic visibility meant he was unable to land a decisive strike.
Ayen chopped into an elemental. The lightning wreathing the longsword had minimal effect, so he gripped the blade and slid his hand along its length. Sputtering yellow flecks of radiance colored his blood and replaced the purple lightning. His second attack made the elemental hiss and flinch at Dark Sister’s touch.
Maarich and the other water elemental clashed again, the riichna escaping unscathed as his hands gouged furrows into his assailant. Trey was dunked under the surface by his tenacious foe and gurgled on the brink of consciousness for a third time.
“Trey! Get up!” Delilah yelled, inserting maximal magical force into the invigorating words. The sorcerer came to, though he remained trapped in the elemental’s deadly eddy. “You are such a poopy-head!” she shouted at the water elemental. This time, the words hurt its feelings.
At last, the group made headway. Though Ayen received a few more solid hits, Boris was able to skulk around to strike one of the elementals from an unexpected direction. Despite the mist’s concealment, the thief found a vital spot to strike. The elemental’s material form dissipated with a final howl as Boris severed its tether to the material realms.
Ayen considered shackling the disappearing elemental as he had the giant, but declined. Instead he swung Dark Sister twice, feeding his lifeblood into the long sword’s radiant aura to sear the barely harmed elemental.
Maarich dodged another string of attacks. “I cannot understand how you are all so bad at not being struck. Especially Trey, he has an especially poor showing today. When we are in a place of safety, I will instruct him well on how to dodge.”
“Easy for you to say, Maarich,” Ayen growled.
“Yes, it is. But since I am responsible for your well-being and success….” Maarich leapt through space using the space between spaces and appeared in the pool next to Trey. “Come along, you filthy elf.”
He grabbed Trey’s arm and pulled him to shore, sighing as the elemental took the opportunity to swing at the withdrawing riichna only to miss. He tossed Trey on the rocky bank near Delilah’s feet. “See that he stays awake.”
The water elemental surged around Maarich’s feet, but the riichna’s body blocked it from reaching Trey. Instead, it tried and failed to pull the riichna into the pool in Trey’s place. “You are welcome,” he said, looking down at the waterlogged sorcerer.
“Shut up, Maarich,” Trey groaned. He got to his feet, retreated a few steps, and released another triple-shot of incendiary rays at the elemental that had menaced him continuously. All three struck and boiled away a substantial chunk of the elemental’s form.
“Good to have you back on solid land,” Delilah said, clapping Trey on the back and filling him with additional vitality. “Ayen, do terrible things to them!”
“Setievasi, use me!” Ayen yelled. He parried both nearby elementals, then together with Boris struck down the water elemental. Maarich’s fists smashed through the head-equivalent of the other water elemental and he joined the others to stand against the remaining enemy. It managed a final flurry of attacks that buffeted Ayen before it fell under a combined onslaught of might and magic.
“Is everyone okay?” Delilah asked once the engagement ended.
Trey and Ayen groaned.
“Should we take a bit to patch up?” Boris asked.
Ayen shook his head. “We press on. We cannot risk Muskybassgar escaping, or worse, attacking us when we are recovering. Delilah, how much of your magic remains?”
The Tumish woman shook her head. “I can provide some healing, but I’d also like to keep a reserve just in case someone on death’s door needs assistance.”
“Here.” Maarich withdrew another vial filled with bright orange, fizzy liquid, and offered it to Ayen. “I have no need of this because I am apparently the only one among us who follows the advice of ‘do not be damaged.'”
“Your kindness is bottomless,” Ayen quipped as he swallowed its contents and tossed the vial aside. “Kavala is smiling at me!” He gasped in wonder, shivering as the potion worked.
“No, that we seized from stores in the citadel of the goddess of death before we met you. Yours is a completely different deity. Actually, Ogderel was convinced the potion was bestowed with incurable rotting witchery and only appeared able to heal critical wounds as a ruse.”
“You mean you didn’t know? You fed me something that could have killed me?”
“Anything you put in your mouth and swallow could kill you, Ayen.”
They passed around a few more potions and Delilah delivered spells of minor healing to patch up most of their injuries. Ayen and Maarich took the lead again as they delved deeper into the volcano’s interior.
After leaving the fog-choked chamber with a pool, the air cleared and grew substantially drier. They emerged, blinking, on a narrow, sunlit ledge inside Torchspire’s caldera, one of many paths squirming around the chamber’s circumference above a lake of smoldering magma dozens of feet below. Multiple tunnels of various sizes, some of which were enormous lava tubes that could easily fit an elephant or something larger, radiated from the caldera.
“Where to, Ayen?” Boris asked, peeking nervously over the ledge’s rim at the burbling, red and black pool below.
The elf flexed his fingers and studied his bloody palm. Hemomantic resonance linked to a wound he dealt to Muskybassgar when they encountered the dragon by random chance a few days prior. So long as his injury remained unhealed and Ayen maintained the divinatory connection, he could unerringly detect the dragon’s position relative to his own.
Ayen pointed towards one of the larger tunnels across a perilous gap to their right and some twenty feet down.
“Not waiting for us in the lava? That’s a surprise,” Delilah said.
“It seems we infiltrated his lair pretty handily,” Boris said. He squinted at the gap.
“As far as we know,” Trey grumbled.
“Trey, can you get us over there?” Boris asked.
“Two of us easily. I can enchant Ayen and, I guess, you. You two carry Delilah and me over and make sure not to drop us. Maarich is on his own.”
“Couldn’t one of us fly back over and do the same thing?” Boris asked.
Trey’s eyes and scars blazed. “Maarich is on his own.”
The riichna seemed unconcerned by the proclamation. “When we are finished with this, we should declare war on Thea,” he mused.
“What, the five of us?” Boris asked.
“We will have allies.”
“I don’t think international relations work that way,” Ayen said.
“They have been at war with my people for centuries.”
Ayen blinked. “Not strengthening your argument.”
Trey channeled his magic into both the rogue and hunter. They took to the air and ferried Delilah and Trey across the gap. Maarich got a running start, made a mighty leap, and crossed the gap in a single bound, arriving before the other four. “As I was saying, they are the cause of all this world’s ills.”
Trey glowered at Maarich. “You instigated the war!”
“I did no such thing. I am taking steps to end the war.”
“Okay, Maarich, we’ll figure out all of this after.” Delilah patted the riichna’s forearm. She focused her attention on Trey and her voice blossomed in his mind. “He’ll forget about this by the time we return to New Tician.”
They moved down the tunnel, a black-walled tube that showed signs of artificial expansion. Ayen and Boris still hovered a few inches above the floor, buoyed by Trey’s spell. As they advanced, they heard a low, reverberating thrum, a deeply satisfied groan.
Ayen cocked his head. “He’s sleeping.”
Maarich grinned devilishly. “Excellent.” He concentrated for a moment. A shadowy pallor washed over the party, muffling their movement and cloaking their forms.
They emerged into a sprawling cavern resplendent with heaped treasure, thousands of coins of all denominations and material strewn across the floor in a jangling carpet. Geysers and open pools of magma broke up the uneven floor, and the roof bristled with stalactites.
Sprawled out near the room’s center, half rolled over, the fiery-scaled Muskybassgar dozed like a building-sized cat. The dragon’s enormous wings unfurled to scoop up and hold mounds of treasure as a pillow beneath the dragon’s head. Sizzling drops of magmatic drool melted and fused some of the heaped treasure around the dragon’s mouth into charred lumps.
“How are we going to do this?” Delilah asked, again using magic to message her allies directly.
Trey looked at the ceiling. “I have a solution. Ready yourselves to go in and finish the job.”
“What do you have planned?” Boris asked.
“Rocks fall. Dragon dies.”
“Wait.” Ayen pulled out a stoppered bottle filled with pink liquid in which white flakes of asbestos floated. He drank its contents and wiped his mouth. “I was carrying this for just this occasion.” He hefted Dark Sister and nodded to Trey.
Without delay, the sorcerer pointed a finger at a cluster of stalactites above the sleeping dragon’s torso. A beam of black energy swept from his fingertip in an arc through the stalactites’ bases, disintegrating the material and plummeting multiple tons of rock atop the unaware dragon. The stones pierced the dragon’s hide, puncturing deeply and pinning its body under the collapsed ceiling. Muskybassgar screamed.
Maarich crossed his arms and snorted. “That is not as efficient as I expected.”
Trey smirked. “I’m not done.” He quickly recited another incantation and launched another, substantially smaller bolt of necrotizing energy. It slammed into the dragon’s head and spread to cover Muskybassgar’s body in a chilling, spectral aura.
Boris pointed to the huge opening in the ceiling. “It was a great idea and it did work. Excuse me.” Running in midair, he raced into the room and buried his sword deep into the helpless dragon’s flank, eliciting another roar. Ayen shrugged and piled on as well, cleaving a magic-wreathed Dark Sister through the dragon’s flesh.
Delilah, for extra style points, mocked Muskybassgar in its own Draconic language, but it ignored the petty insults. She looked at Maarich. “I do believe in you, you know.”
“Of course I do. We have experienced much together, you and I. Now permit me to fulfill my vow to Ayen and Trey.” Maarich walked up to the dragon and punched it, hard, in the elbow. “No effect.” He struck it more, hammering on the joint, but no matter how he tried he could not make the dragon reeling and helpless from the pain. “Why must you be so obstinate? You would feel much less pain in the course of your demise if you made it easier for us.”
Muskybassgar craned its wagon-sized head to stare down at Maarich. “I will murder all of you in the most exquisite of ways!”
The dragon’s roar shook the cavern, dislodging more stalactites that fell among the party. Boris took a heavy hit, Ayen a lighter one. Maarich completely escaped harm by seizing the most dangerous bits of plummeting rubble and sending the rocks into the dragon using his reflexes and leverage and the stones’ momentum.
The riichna acted by unleashing another pair of hard strikes to the dragon’s forelimbs. One of them seemed as if it landed as to stun the monster, but Muskybassgar shook off the debilitation.
Immediately after Maarich’s attack, the dragon’s body flexed and the vast wings heaved. Muskybassgar burst from rubble and took flight. The blast’s strength knocked Ayen over and buffeted both Maarich and Boris, but the dragon only made it a handful of feet into the air.
“No,” Trey said, pointing a finger at the dragon and spearing it with another ray of disintegration. The dragon avoided the attack through a dint of fate when another section of ceiling crumbled and intercepted the ray. At the same time, Ayen and Boris recovered and pursued the dragon skyward. Both landed solid blows, and the dragon could only retaliate with a single claw swipe at Ayen which the elf weathered ably.
“You will burn!” Muskybassgar snarled, craning its head around and launching further skyward and outward. Both Ayen and Boris took the opportunity to strike again, Boris landing a sneaky, especially critical strike that made the dragon roar in pain. Dark Sister flared and the roiling malaise enveloping the blade spiraled around the dragon’s head and bored into its malignant yellow eyes.
“I don’t need to see you to burn you!” Muskybassgar’s jaws opened wide and a cone of hellfire erupted from the dragon’s maw, immolating all five adventurers and blasting down the tunnel. Delilah screamed. Trey weathered the fiery maelstrom with a timely dodge and a quick gesture that further blunted the fires and fed the energy into his blazing scars. Ayen had no cover to hide behind, but the potion he drank gave him ample protection against the heat.
Both Boris and Maarich emerged completely unharmed.
“You see, Trey? Ayen? Boris learned how to evade! Well done, Boris!” Maarich looked up at the blinded dragon. “You are worse at killing us than your lowly guards!”
Delilah’s hand glowed warmly as she placed it on her chest and healed some of the burns. She moved into the chamber, skipping across steaming mounds of half-melted coinage and scorched gemstones. She pulled out her lute and played an inspiring tune. “Boris, I believe in you!”
Steam and smoke burst from the floor from cracks in the stone, searing Trey and Delilah while Maarich again dodged the geysers. The fog made it more difficult to see, but the dim conditions aided Maarich. He ran across the floor towards the sound of the dragon’s mighty wingbeats and up a wall, then vanished into the shadows and emerged above the dragon.
“Hello, monster,” Maarich said, elbow dropping onto the dragon’s spine. Muskybassgar roared and its body seemed to freeze in midair for a fraction of a second before shuddering and shaking off the blow’s effects. Maarich’s follow-up attack glanced off the dragon’s hide.
Trey gathered magical energy at his fingertips, half a dozen missiles of force that glowed bright white, ready to release the moment his line of sight cleared. Boris flew towards the dragon and, with Delilah’s support, struck true, again skewering a vulnerable point on Muskybassgar’s body thanks to Maarich’s clinging presence on its back. A claw swiped at Boris but the sightless attack went far wide. Ayen followed up Boris’ attack with two-handed swings of his own. Muskybassgar’s tail swung about and crashed into Boris, spiking the man away.
Muskybassgar shook its head as its vision cleared. Battered and bleeding from multiple grievous wounds, the hate in its eyes was replaced by fear. It pulled away from Ayen, who swung and missed. With Maarich clinging to its back still, it dashed towards another tunnel near the ceiling.
“Damn it!” Delilah yelled as she heard the retreating wingbeats. She stumbled through the fog in their direction and pulled out her lute. She played a staccato tune that gathered rainbow energy along the instrument’s strings and neck.
The cave shuddered again, but before the rocks could fall the fog dissipated. Delilah loosed a multicolored bolt of swirling chaos that struck the dragon with a blast of acid. Trey released his magic missiles in a flurry that slammed into the dragon.
The great wings ceased moving, and Muskybassgar’s corpse slid from the tunnel opening to the floor eighty feet below with a thunderous crash, taking Maarich with and crushing him beneath the motionless body.
“Maarich?” Boris asked. The riichna didn’t answer.
“That idiot,” Trey said. He glanced at Ayen. “Are we really digging him out?”
Ayen Melamar, of House Melamar, sheathed his family’s ancestral sword Dark Sister. “He’s an asshole, but he’s an effective asshole. Did I ever tell you about when we questioned a traitor of one of Tician’s, that is Old Tician, noble houses who sold our people out to giants?”
“This sounds fun and not mentally unstable,” Boris said, searching through the unscorched sections of hoard for pricey trinkets.
“I enjoyed it. So did he. He left a vulgar message on the wall in Riichna. None of them could read it, of course, we had no idea what a riichna was because I’m not from Vanil.”
“Wait you’re not?” Boris asked. “But New Tician has always….”
“Time travel. Or something involving that anyway. We, ah, procured an artifact belonging to the Elven god of time and death,” Delilah explained. She gestured vaguely to her surroundings. “This war-ravaged planet is the good reality after Maarich, Ayen, Ogderel, Dondof, and I fixed it.”
“Used to be run by a lich who stole a god’s powers, from what I heard.” Ayen searched around Muskybassgar for signs of the trapped riichna. “I had a scarily competent wolf at one point in the past, until it bit a stone golem’s crotch.”
“Who is Dondof? How did you travel from the past, or from a somehow worse Vanil?” Trey asked.
“Stories for another time, perhaps,” Ayen answered. He reached under the dragon’s bulk, grabbed a black-robed limb, and pulled the unconscious riichna out. “There we go. Do your thing.”
“Healing,” Delilah said. Maarich’s breathing strengthened, his eyes opened, and he spit out a mouthful of blood.
“Very good,” Maarich groaned. “Now we reap our reward. With this amount of money, I think we can do much to make this world a better one too.”
“What would that be?” Ayen asked.
Maarich looked the elf in the eyes. “Would you like to tear down the glorious riichna empire that is causing so much trouble for everyone while at the same time destroying the Theans that have helped to make the glorious riichna empire the mess that it is?”
“I think so?”
Maarich grinned. “Then after we are rested and our earnings are returned to safety and tallied, I propose we should go to the Darklands. My estranged kin who fled centuries ago for not wanting to ruin everything would surely welcome earnest allies.”
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