Rain was falling as Seifer and Exelar gathered the wounded and shepherded them to the airship. After mending my wounds from the fight with Krosi, I paced the roof of the tower, ensuring that the fallen lycanthropes remained so.
Reaching the far side, I stopped at the stairs that led down into the tower itself. We hadn’t checked them; didn’t even know if someone had gone down them during the fight. I turned quickly and gestured at one of Kroenen’s men who appeared to have some authority over the others. As he approached, I asked if anyone had gone down the staircase after they had come up to fight the others. He seemed dumbstruck for a moment. I asked again, more insistently. He shook his head and stammered that no, no he didn’t think so.
I walked quickly over to where Exelar oversaw the evacuation to the ground level. I told him that we needed to go back down through the tower to ensure that no more enemies lay in wait. Aside from which, it was the quickest way to get the rest of the able armsmen down as ferrying the ship up and down enough times would be cumbersome. He considered for only a moment before nodding his assent. I enlisted Seifer, now with his wounds mended through the strength of Heironeous. Surprisingly, Nathaniel also ran to join us as we gathered the remains of Kroenen’s men. Well enough, if we ran into trouble. After allowing them check their arms, we entered the darkened stair.
As it turns out, we encountered no resistance. There were several oddities on the descent. More than once it seemed that there was too much blank space with no doors or landings where floors would normally be. The staircase seemed to be a single narrow spiral down the center of the tower and at times opened to empty space on either side. There were also several times that Nathaniel would stop at a wall or a door that could not be opened and appeared to be studying something in the magical spectrum. He mentioned nothing but would mumble to himself and move on.
For most of the journey down, there was little light. Though this posed no issue to me, several bowman had to light torches to avoid falling down the stairs into darkness. However, as we reached the lower levels, the barren nature of the stone walls gave way to colorful, though aged, murals upon the walls. Despite being a bit worn, they struck a chord in my mind. With a start, I realized that they were familiar to the those that I saw briefly when we were in the Scarlet Spire back at the Rise. I begin to believe that this place was related to our tower or the arcane academy that Exelar had mentioned existed there before the cataclysm that laid this land low. If so, this would require consideration when deciding the fate of the Cascades.
Time being what it was, we exited the tower in short order, finding no enemy laying in wait. We nearly had to drag Nathaniel out. He kept insisting that he needed more time, that he almost knew this place. A reminder of the situation we were in seemed to bring him back to himself and he nodded, agreeing that of course, we needed to go. Walking out behind him, I thought about how he’d acted since first coming into contact with the crystal housing the wyrm spirit and the summoning of the tower at the rise. It was so much like the academy mages of my youth.
Maybe those years had biased my thinking toward him. He was foolhardy, to be sure. Full of short-sighted youth and a rush for knowledge or power. But he was human and so many of them seem that way from the view of the longer-lived. To be honest with myself, I couldn’t event say if his manner had changed, as I don’t really know him. He was thrown into our current situation and, just like the rest of us, has done what he’s had to do to survive. I had a duty to him as much as anyone else here.
Walking out to the open sky and the rain pulled my from my reverie. Time enough for that later. As we exited into the courtyard, I could see that the airship was already down and the wounded from the battle above were disembarking. What’s more, Kroenen had arrived. He and his bladedancers were speaking with Exelar. I quickened my pace to arrive at his side and hear what was being said.
In short, he had also triumphed in the battle that he had fought. Trask’s men were either slain or sent running from the city proper. They were still hunting down some of those that might try to hide and strike again when we were unprepared. I was pleased to hear that Boris Cotton was still alive. And Meiko as well, despite our shared history with her. Their daughter deserved to have both her parents.
Kroenen acknowledged that we needed to have a formal conversation about the path ahead of us, but that now was not the time. Exelar agreed, of course, nodding his assent. I suggested that, with this task done, we should return to the keep on the pinnacle. Olt and the huntsmen were still there, along with whatever was left of Trask. And we needed to decide what our next step would be. With things coming under control in the city, Kroenen indicated that was going with us. Exelar arranged to have our prisoners remanded to the Kroenen’s men, who would remain to hold the tower for the time being. That done, the we boarded the airship and lifted up toward the keep.
With the need for a veiled approach gone, we soared directly up the center of the city. As we flew over the dividing wall, where we sheltered on our way in, a handful of forms took shape in the distance. With my senses warning danger, I moved to the prow of the ship and focused on the figures.
I quickly made out Olt and the Huntsmen, Lazarus. With them were two unknown Bowmen along with Trask in tow. As if in answer to my unasked question, I began to see their pursuers take shape behind them. The one that drew the eye, and appeared to be in command, was a female drow, seated upon a great machine in the shape of a spider. Her face was hidden behind a metallic mask that imitated the face of great spider. Were she alone, it would have been bad news, particularly if she were a priestess. But she wasn’t alone.
Flanking the woman were servile aberrations. First were driders. This wasn’t a surprise to me, and gave credence to the idea that the drow wielded Lolth’s power. Driders still retained some intelligence, but could be vicious berserkers when driven. With them, moving too rapidly for it’s size, was a chwidencha, a mass of wicked spider’s legs and hatred. It was the final creatures with them that pulled the floor from my stomach. I’d only seen them once before, but it was enough. They were simply called the Shunned, but that belied their nature. Punished by the power of Lolth, they resembled nothing so much as a drow that had been reduced to a mass of it’s internal organs but kept it’s face so that it could still gibber its pain. Several of them skittered on spidery legs along with the rest.
I moved back to the command post of the ship. They had already spotted our people, as well as those chasing them down. Without time to brief them on the threat, I merely stated that drow had come for us and that we should put the ship between our people and the abominations chasing them, if we wanted them to live much longer. A quick exchange of looks among the leadership, and it was decided. The ship gained speed and then began to turn and drop altitude at the same time. A testament to the skill of its Ironclad pilot, the ship neither crushed our companions nor crashed into the paving stone, but came to a stop just above it with a broad side facing the underdwellers.
Running to the far side of the ship, I saw Olt, Trask, and the Bowmen turn around and begin running toward the ship. Lazarus must have been on the other side. Locating the boarding ladder, I threw the rope and metal bundle over the side of the ship for the others to climb. And as they climbed, I saw Trask on the ground, fuming, and remembered that his hands were still bound. Rather than risk losing him, I descended the ladder far enough to reach him and told him to hold out his hands. He did so petulantly and I took hold of the bracing between his writs. Serving as the anchor for his hands, I pulled him up as he climbed with his legs. I didn’t mind that it was something of a humiliating position for him to be in. Back on deck, I expected to see Lazarus being pulled up on the opposite side and that the ship would be rising back into the air. This was not what happened.
Exelar, Seifer, Keldoron, even Trask and his bladedancers, had all leapt to the ground and engaged the raiding party while I was helping the others to board. A quick glance showed my two things: My companions were holding their own, and there were no additional drow forces in evidence (which likely helped the first observation). Lazarus had pinioned two of the shunned to the flagstones with spear-sized arrows, but was now being overrun by brackish swarms of spiders that spilled from their innards. Kroenen’s men largely had the driders in hand on one side and Keldoron the same on the other. Exelar, Seifer, and Kroenen were taking on the metallic spider and it’s pilot.
From my left, a crackling electric beam arced from the ship to masked drow. A glance showed Nathaniel standing at the rail, Wulfgar at his side. Seizing on the opportunity, I also struck at her with shadow. Sparks arced across her mask to her mount and shadows struck at her neck, but both dissipated quickly and she turned from the attackers in front of her to the ship. She raised a hand, there was a flash, and a ray of sickly green energy lanced out toward Nathaniel. As the ray raced forward, Wulfgar shoved Nathaniel down and was struck. The light around him inverted, for a moment it seemed as though one could see his bones, then it returned to the days overcast, and Wulfgar was gone. Only wisps of fine dust were left behind, that blew away in the wind.
The others assaulted the clockwork spider with renewed vigor and I took the opportunity to shadow step out to the combat. Seifer managed to sever the last section of one of the spiders legs. Though it appeared to be regenerating, it was enough to cause the automaton to stumble. Combined with a strike from Exelar, the priestess was thrown off balance and unseated. I lashed out with forward kick, forcing her back through the metal legs, towards Seifer, who promptly lashed out with the pommel of his sword knocked her unconscious. As soon as she hit the ground, the spider went inert, as well.
Taking a breath and a look around, we had triumphed. Lazarus was covered in spider bites and leaned heavily on his bow, but he still stood. The rest were in various stages of health, but none appeared poisoned, somehow. Leaning down and checking the drow for a pulse, I confirmed that she still lived. Nathaniel appeared unbidden and began plucking items off of her, muttering various magical phrases for each. As he went to pull off her piwafi, I held him back a moment. The clasp holding it in place was a house insignia. Removing it, I turned it over in my hands and felt a rise of trepidation. Whoever this was, she was related to Xar’eth. The insignia was of House Teken’und.