The break in rain allowed the light create a heavy, humid air, even at this altitude. As we waited for the signal from Meiko, there was little to do but sweat. I sat on a rock face overlooking the valley and meditated to clear my mind before the battle to come.
Several hours later, we heard footsteps approaching from the direction of the city. As we all crouched down or clutched weapons, a Bowmen appeared over the side of the hill with his hands spread wide and away from his body. He turned out the be the signal. One of Meiko’s men, he was here to guide us into the city through a path guarded by their forces. Though there was still a chance of encountering other Bowmen, they assured us that they would be able to address the situation. Having conversed with Seifer earlier in the day, he would be staying behind with the Ironclad and would use the ship to infiltrate the city. It made sense, given their conspicuousness. Those us heading in gathered what few things we would be taking with us. This was the kre’jil. There would be no turning back.
As Exelar and I headed to the path down the cliff, Seifer wished us luck. It was an unusual enough gesture from the headstrong knight that it brought me up short. “To us all”, I returned, and down we went.
Out path took us into the city behind the first wall. As we entered the city proper, I noted how much of it was in disrepair. Not entirely dissimilar to Lochaid when we first arrived there. With the stories I’d heard of the place, and with it being the Bowmen center of operations in the area, I assumed a more formidable structure awaited us. Make no mistake, the curtain walls were old, but solid, and blocked most avenues of approach. But the city buildings themselves were in various states of neglect. The city itself had been flooded more than once, in fact a river still flowed down the central road and pushed higher up into the side streets. Additionally, the majority of the buildings stood empty. Apparently the Bowmen didn’t keep enough of a stationary force here to warrant keeping things up. If the Bowmen weren’t here, this would be an excellent second footing for us.
As we approached the inner wall, we were handed off to another of Meiko’s men who escorted us into a set of rooms built into the wall itself. The meeting wasn’t until the next evening, so we’d be spending the night and much of tomorrow here. Talking with some of them, I learned that the meeting itself was to take place at the remains of a keep on the very end of the remaining spit of land that thrust out over the crevasse at the far end of the city. I also found out that the river had always run through the center of the city, but the spread of it further outward came with the collapse that saw much of the far end of the city fall into the abyss that was purported to connect to the har’oloth.
The night passed with us in close quarters, staying away from windows and overlooks. The other faction of Bowmen never came by or, if they did, Meiko’s men handled them without issue. The meeting was to take place later this evening, so we still had several hours to wait. The Bowmen had some games of chance laying about and Cotton and the others took advantage of them. All of them but Exelar. I could see that his doubt continued to gnaw at him. It had only gotten worse since we entered city and sitting around waiting wasn’t helping things.
Eventually, a knock on the door heralded our next step. Transportation had been arranged for us to the pinnacle keep ruins. The sun was going down, so it was time to move. Taking a stair down the wall on the far side, we made our way through side streets and down to the central avenue river. Sitting in the river was a boat just large enough to hold all of us and two Bowmen pilots holding sounding polls. I felt more than a little exposed, but they confirmed that this would be the quickest and most inconspicuous way to go. Pulling the cowl of my piwafi around my ahead, I settled into the bow of the boat as we set off.
As we approached the pinnacle, one of the Bowmen lost control of the boat on his side, and it began to drift toward an offshoot that spilled over the cliffs edge and down into the chasm. Rather then try to save it, our guides told everyone to jump off onto the island we were passing, upon which the ruined keep sat. Moving quickly, we all leaped for the shore, some with more grace than the others. As one of the first ones to hit ground, I helped others that didn’t quite make the full jump. The two Bowmen rowers, their conveyance now lost, joined us. Glancing back at the tangle of people recovering from their boat ride, Hershel said that he would scout the keep in advance. Using the magic in his cloak, a small bat that had been Hershel fluttered up toward the stone building peeking over the hill.
Following a path around the island, we came on a Bowmen guard group near a primary dock. The sunlight was gone, so they gathered around a campfire. Exelar held the group back as I snuck around to the other side of the guards fire. When the one furthest our patrolled out of site of the others, I struck and took him down silently. Seeing the fourth guard not returning, Exelar and the others charged out of the darkness, surprising and taking down the remaining three. There was a bit of noise, but it was quick, so there was a good chance that no one noticed. Especially given the distance separating this island from the other buildings.
We rounded the final corner and the primary entrance to the building came into view. Our guides took us around the side to an entrance that was part old door and part a collapsed wall. Filtering in, we immediately turned and up to the second level. Hershel appeared shortly after and shedding his bat form, we quietly planned our assault. The meeting was taking place in a central courtyard that was open to the sky. On the second level, there was a balcony that surrounded three sides of the courtyard. The far side was lost to a collapsed wall, whose rubble still littered the ground. Hershel’s scouting identified three groups of Bowmen archers in rooms just off the balcony ledges. They were set to rain arrows down on those below.
Hershel went up to the third level for a clear sniper position. Exelar, Caleb, and Wulfgar each took positions out side the rooms where the archers were laying in wait and would deal with them first before descending to the courtyard. I went to the far side from where we entered. Hershel had identified the mage that traveled with Trask, Volkana, I believe, as well as the unidentified pale spellcaster that had been seen in the scrying. They were my responsibility. The others would enter through the ground floor once they saw us act. The Ironclad were supposed to provide ranged cover from the skiff, but I don’t know how Seifer was planning to act. He’ll have to worry about himself. I moved up to the third floor and took my position.
Trask rose and began a speech. At the same time, I could see across the way the light of Exelar’s flaming sword rise and fall in the darkness of the archer’s waiting room. Taking my cue, I targeted the tattooed mage and pulled strands of his own shadow around his throat. As they formed, I pulled my hands in a wrenching motion. The shadow strands tightened, bit in, and Volkana’s head dropped to the ground. Trask shouted, “They’re here!” and chaos broke loose.
I saw the others rush the archers, with more than one going over the balcony. No time for distractions, I had a job to focus on. Through the scrambling bodies in the courtyard, I spotted the pale man. He was still seated and was beginning the gestures of casting. Now was the only time that he’d remain vulnerable. I leapt from roof, broke my fall and redirected off of the balcony ledge, and dove toward the pale man. Landing next to him, I targeted where his neck met his shoulder, and used the momentum of my fall to drive a blow from my elbow. Rolling to absorb the shock , I came up in a crouch and saw that my strike had succeeded. The man would remain stunned for only a moment, so I prepared to take advantage.
As I prepared to end the threat of the unknown mystic, I felt a presence behind me. Before I could turn, a blade spun a finger width above my head and into the neck of my helpless foe. Seeing his head tumble to the ground, I kicked a leg out to my side and used the momentum to rise and face whomever had come up behind me. I found my self face-to-face with Meiko. With glances at bloodied blades and hands, we nodded to one another and turned back to back to face the soldiers flooding the courtyard.
Whatever else Meiko may be, she is skilled and soon there were none standing within reach of us. It allowed me a moment to assess the battle. The archers on the balcony had been dealt with. In fact, more than one lay on the flagstones at unnatural angles. Kroenen had taken a hit or two, but was alive and fighting. The same was true for Cotton, fighting at his side. A group of dwarven envoys, previously sitting at the tables, were now huddled back against the far wall with a nonplussed human who was mentioned in the same breath as somewhere called Unfall. I could see the flame off of Exelar’s sword as he and the others entered from the side, having dealt the archers their due. All of this was taken in but a glance, because the former hall was now dominated by Seifer’s duel with Trask.
The fight had already been going for several minutes. Seifer was wielding his frostbrand in one hand and the Thyatian steel blade in other, weaving them through looping strikes and parries that I’d not seen him perform before. Trask wielded a single, gently curved blade, but was proving more than able to keep up with both of the knight’s weapons. Able enough, in fact, that at that moment he brought his blade through a gap in Seifer’s two, around his breastplate, and drove it into his chest. Somehow, he stayed on his feet, though even he seemed surprised by that fact.
Their fight continued and another duo of Trask’s men advanced on Meiko and myself. They were swiftly dispatched and I turned my attention back to the duel. Their blades rang against one another and then Seifer swung the rimed blade into Trask’s side. He didn’t fall, but went to swing his own blade down. As if swinging an axe, he dug the Thayatian blade into Trask’s other side, but he only broke a rictus grin. He pulled back, dragging the blades through his flesh, and brought his sword down on Seifer. The long blade drove almost straight down through the mail at his neck as if he had sheathed the blade, and Seifer fell to the ground.
Several of us rushed at the man, then. Exelar, having entered the battle in the passing minutes, charged forward and smote him with his fiery blade. Two arrows from Hershel’s bow buried into his shoulder and pierced through an arm. Blow after blow came, even I made a running strike at the wound on one of his sides, sliding under his sword stroke and letting my momentum carry me past. All to no avail. He staggered for a moment, but then it was gone; and that’s when I saw it. There was a glow at the center of his chest, a gem of some kind. Was it affixed to his armor? No, there was a cutout around it, the thing was buried in his flesh. An echo in my memories told me that I’d seen something like this before. It was the source of his abilities, whatever it was. That needed to be our target.
All of prepared for another strike at Trask, knowing that any of us could join the knight in the next world, when a familiar challenge was bellowed. Looking past the monster in front of us, there was Seifer, upright, in one piece, and full of fury. Taking the ancient blade in both hands, advanced on Trask, deflected one blow and took another to the armor. Finally, with an exacting swing, he swung the sword around and contacted the glowing gem at the apex of his swing. The gem shattered with an audible crack, chips of it flying in the air. Trask convulsed, fell to his knees, and then to the ground.
Before we could take a breath, a reddish mist swirled up from the shattered gem in Trask’s chest. Curls of the mist took the shape of a demonic face that turned toward us. It hissed out something and then rose higher into the air and then away toward basin, disappearing as it went. All I made out was something about us having set it free. A shuffle and groan grabbed our attention. Trask was stirring. As the group of us fanned out around him, he opened his eyes as if he’d never seen anything that was around him before.
“Where am I? What happened?”