Chapter 86: Light in Dark Places
The fight with the bone golem left Minsc in a terrible state. The golem's scythes had ripped through his chainmail in several places, and copious amounts of blood seeped through the gashes as he lay unconscious on the rough stone floor, Boo squeaking plaintively beside him. Ember picked up the frightened hamster, placed him in her lap, and set to work healing Minsc. If only he still had his ankheg armour instead of this shoddy stuff, Ember thought in frustration as she inspected the damage; there were several deep gashes across his body, and broken links of chainmail were embedded in the edges of the wounds. As gently as she could, she pulled the metal free from Minsc's flesh, then said a litany of healing prayers over him. Soon, the bleeding stopped, and his face regained some colour. She said a final rejuvenating prayer, and the giant ranger woke up.
"Boo! Where is Minsc's Boo?!"
"Right here," Ember said, and handed over the hamster. With a happy cry, Minsc clasped Boo safely in his hands.
"Do not be afraid, little one!" he cooed in Boo's ear. "Minsc is well now!"
With a sigh of relief, Ember sat back on her haunches and wiped a trickle of blood from a small cut on her cheek. "Is everyone else all right?" she asked, looking around at the rest of the group.
"I believe so, my lady," Anomen replied. "Some bruises and cuts remain, but all major injuries have been attended to." The cleric had finished healing Valygar's wound - the only reminder of it was a significant tear in the shoulder of his leather armour - and was tending to Mazzy's arm; evidently, it had been broken when the bone golem knocked her down.
"At least it was not my sword arm," the halfling said, carefully flexing her freshly mended limb. "Thank you, squire." The cleric mumbled something practically inaudible in response.
"Then, my friends," Yoshimo said with a broad smile, "I think it is time for us to move onwards. That golem must have been here for a reason, no?"
Whatever that reason might be, it was not readily apparent as the group entered the chamber the bone golem had emerged from. It was a smallish chamber, about three times as wide as the corridor, and there was nothing in it other than the usual drifts of ancient dust, some scattered bones, and a simple sarcophagus with its lid halfway off. The lid of the sarcophagus bore what Ember recognized as the corroded remnants of a sun symbol, and one of the walls was made of some kind of smooth, sooted panels rather than of rough stone.
"How exceedingly exciting," Edwin grumbled.
The bones that lay scattered across the floor were small and delicate; the bones of a child. The skull had been cracked into three segments, and several of the larger bones looked as if something had gnawed upon them, but as far as Ember could tell, few of the bones were outright missing.
"Can you feel it?" Mazzy asked quietly.
"Feel what?" Yoshimo asked.
"The wrongness of this place. It has seeped into the very rocks themselves."
Valygar nodded, his face a stern mask. "It is ...not surprising. Dark, foul magic is drawn to such pits like flies."
"I don't think it is dark magic," Mazzy said. "It is something else. Something is out of place."
"Boo knows what is out of place! Bones should be in graves, not on floors!" The giant ranger bent down, carefully picked up a shin bone, and placed it in the sarcophagus.
Anomen shrugged. "If nothing else, we may at least restore dignity to this tomb," he said, and started gathering up the frail, ancient rib bones. Edwin scoffed loudly at the foolish waste of time, but the rest of the group joined in. It was not long before they had the skeleton neatly laid out in its original resting place.
Something seemed to whisper through the chamber, and a small, shimmering figure appeared beside the sarcophagus. "My bones have been retrieved," the figure said in the voice of a young girl. "I am most grateful to you, and I pray that you are in this place to strike a blow against the darkness that has engulfed it."
"We... we are," Valygar said. "Who are you?"
"I am Amauna," the ghost said. "I was born a prophetess to our lord Amaunator. I was the Child of Light who would fight against the darkness that was beginning to spill into these lands. Long ago, I gathered the last of the faithful, and brought them here. The temple was old, even then, and a shadow had taken up abode in it. We were to destroy the Shade Lord and reclaim the temple. We... we failed in our task."
"What happened?" Ember asked.
"We drove the Shade Lord from this place, but we did not destroy him. I was killed in the battle. My people entombed me here and set up wards to keep the darkness at bay, but as our Lord's power dwindled, the wards began to weaken. The priests left, or died, and I slept here alone. Then, one year ago, the Shade Lord returned, accompanied by vampires as well as his shadow minions. Together, they destroyed the wards and claimed the temple, and the Shade Lord threw my bones to his dark wolves, that they might defile my remains."
"I have seen several of his minions, but no vampires," Mazzy said. "Where are they?"
"Once the temple had fallen to darkness, they left. They can find no sustenance in a dead place, and cannot linger long."
"There was a light outside that destroyed the shadows," Yoshimo said. "We were searching for its source when we found your remains."
For a moment, the ghost brightened. "It still exists? It is good to hear that. The source lies beyond the glass doors," she said, looking towards the panels on the wall.
"(Glass?)" Edwin ran a finger over one of the panels, rubbing off a thick layer of soot and grime. A piercing ray of light shot through the freshly exposed glass.
"The Altar of the Eternal Sun is behind those doors," Amauna said. "It was once the inner heart of the temple. Daylight reigns eternal in that room, harnessed in a sun gem. No undead creature can tolerate its presence; the Shade Lord could not access my remains until he had sent living creatures, dominated by his will, to darken the glass panels. He fears it even now, and none of his creatures, save the bone golem, would come here."
"This sun gem... it can be used as a weapon against the Shade Lord, then?" Valygar asked.
"No. The gem will fade if it is removed from the altar."
"I see," Valygar said quietly. His shoulders seemed to slump, just a little. "It matters not. I have another plan for the Shade Lord, but... his dragon stands in the way."
"I was not strong enough to defeat the Shade Lord, even when I was among the living, but I do have some power," Amauna said. "I have power enough to elude the attention of his guardians, if necessary, and I can give this to you." She spoke a few words over the sun symbol on her sarcophagus, and with a flash of bright light, it broke off and fell to the dusty floor. "Take it. It is now a wardstone... carry it, stay close together, and move quietly. The Shade Lord's creatures will not notice your passing unless you draw attention to yourselves."
"Thank you for your assistance," Valygar said, and picked up the wardstone. "We will do our utmost to free your temple from this fiend."
"We are truly blessed to have an ally such as yourself, Lady Amauna," Anomen said, "but if you do not object to my inquisitiveness... why does your spirit still linger here?"
"My duty was to destroy the Shade Lord. I have not yet fulfilled it," the ghost said quietly, then looked at the cleric; there was a strange weariness in her expression.
"As long as he still exists, I will remain here."
After leaving Amauna's tomb, Mazzy led the party down the path that she and her companions had followed before, through darkened tunnels and dusty chambers. Amauna's wardstone proved true; they passed by numerous shadows, wraiths and skeletons without ever being noticed. Even though their footsteps seemed to go unheard, nobody spoke, just in case the undead would hear them after all.
Soon, Mazzy directed them all into an empty chamber with only one doorway, and called for a halt. "We are not far from the dragon's lair," she said. "We should rest for a while here, and gather our strength. I also think it is time for our leader to tell us what our plans are; I would not go blindly into this battle."
"You are right," Valygar said. "It is time." He sat heavily down on the floor, his back resting against the solid rock wall. "Most of you know of my ancestor, the necromancer Lavok, and that I recently vanquished him. Most of you do not know that he had let himself become possessed by a demon. It needed flesh to stay on this plane, and repaid him with longevity. My companions and I knew nothing of this creature until we had beaten down Lavok. The demon left him on the brink of death... and possessed me. I was only saved by the quick actions of the knights that were fighting by my side. They set upon me. The demon had been weakened - whether from the battle or from possessing my body, I do not know - and the knights were able to drive it out of me without killing me. Before it could attempt to claim another body, they destroyed it."
"And you suspect the Shade Lord will do the same thing," Edwin said, studiously examining his fingernails.
"Yes. It is likely that he will attempt to possess one of us. We- do not interrupt me, wizard! We must be prepared to fight him in more than one host. If such a thing comes to pass... I intend for that host to be me."
"No, Mazzy. I will not suffer any of you to endure such a thing in my stead. Come, let us sit down. I will explain further while we rest."
The shadow dragon's lair was shaped very much like a crater; it was almost as if some wizard, mad with power, had used his strongest spells to scoop out a circular pit right in the middle of the temple ruins. The dragon itself lay in the center of the pit, lazily coiled up around a small pile of bones that somehow was visible even through the bulk of the dragon's body, and the all too familiar sea of dark fog billowed above it. Mazzy raised a finger to her lips in warning, and the group started a slow, careful climb down into the pit, taking care to stay close to each other and to the protection of the wardstone even as they traversed the sloping sides of the pit, using every slight protrusion of rock as a foothold. Some of the rocks were looser than they appeared, and many slipped loose, creating minuscule landslides that made everyone hold their breath, but the dragon seemed to be used to such things; its only reaction was to lift its head just enough to glance at them with large, empty eyes. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, it settled down again almost immediately.
Their descent stopped a hundred feet from the dragon, where the surface of the pit was level enough to walk without fear of anyone losing their balance, and they moved slowly in a semicircle around the dragon towards the opposite side of the lair. There was an opening high up on that side of the pit; when the dragon had destroyed Mazzy's friends, the Shade Lord had entered the lair there. A second grueling climb, up instead of down, and the group found themselves in a short corridor, its walls still showing traces of elaborate carvings. Amauna's wardstone had held.
At the end of the corridor, a flight of worn stone steps led up to a walled courtyard, crisscrossed by a lattice of ancient paths. Something that looked like a seated statue, even darker than its surroundings, stood in the very middle of the courtyard, and a figure wreathed in shadow stood beside it. As the group entered the courtyard, it turned to look at them.
"My knight miniature has escaped, and returned with more souls to feed upon," the figure said in a voice that sounded like ashes. "Welcome, all."
The figure pointed at them, and Amauna's wardstone crumbled to dust in Valygar's hands.