The city of Athkatla loomed before them, a welcoming sight to the injured and weary group of adventurers. It had seemed so long since they had left; and yet in reality it had not really been so long at all.
“It is good to be home,” Cory said quietly, more to himself than to his friends. “At times I thought... that maybe we would never see the city again.”
No one spoke, but each and every one of them felt the same way.
After several hours of endless walking, the gates were in reach. “Let's go to the Copper Coronet,” Benny suggested. “We could all do with some rest, then we can decide what our next move is.”
Kane stopped suddenly, causing Imoen to crash into his back. “Hold. There's something...”
“It's Edwin Odesseiron! Get the traitor, kill the others!”
They were surrounded. There must have been ten red-robed wizards at least, their spell protections already in place – they had been waiting. Edwin looked around him, fear gripping his chest. Benny was still in no position to fight and Viconia was exhausted. There was no way they could win. Suddenly he felt very tired; tired of running, tired of fighting. What was there left to fight for?
“No!” he protested loudly. “I am here – I will come with you. But leave the others alone, they have done nothing wrong.”
“We will be taking you no matter what,” the grey-haired wizard sneered. “But your friends will die for trying to protect you.”
“You just don't give up, do you?” Kane growled, drawing his swords with a hiss of steel. “I am really not in the mood for this. Don't say you weren't warned.”
“Bring it on!” Kagain gripped his axe tightly in both hands. “The wizard stays with us.”
The sound of chanting filled the air, followed by the colourful blasts of magic. As Kane and Kagain dodged the fireballs and lightning bolts and charged forward, Cory shielded Imoen as she worked their magic. On the other side of the courtyard, Benny faced down one wizard, but his muscles were stiff and sore, his movements restricted, and so Viconia stayed close to his side.
Edwin threw out some fireballs and managed to tangle one enemy in strong web, allowing Kagain to dispatch the killing blow. There were too many of them, especially with the spiders and goblins they were summoning. That gave the wizard an idea. Closing his eyes, he tried to recall the precise words on the scroll he had memorised just the previous day.
He would show his fellow wizards just how powerful he had become. Tearing open a veil, he reached through and pulled hard. “Come to me,” he growled in concentration.
Red sparks of magic tore through the air and faded into nothing... and a huge scaly creature appeared, twisted from bits of mangled flesh and entrails, curved claws protruding. It turned its head in Edwin's direction, red eyes blazing as it sized him up.
“Hear me, demon! I have summoned you and command you to – wait!”
Dismissing him completely, it turned towards Benny and Viconia. A forked tongue flickered out briefly, almost as though it was licking its lips. Then it lunged violently at the pair.
Drawing his sword Benny hit out at the demon, managing to slice through the tough scales. It howled in pain and turned on him, lashing out with a clawed hand. He attempted to spin away, but his grave injuries slowed him down and it caught him hard in the chest, knocking him off balance. His knee gave out and he was down, the demon looming over him.
“Stay away from him!” Viconia snarled, drawing herself up to full height and challenging the vile creature head on. It looked at her dismissively, then turned back to Edwin who was frozen to the spot. The red eyes seemed to glow – with satisfaction? Pleasure? - and it suddenly lunged towards him with terrifying speed.
Edwin closed his eyes, certain that he was about to die. Please don't let it hurt. Then he was flying through the air as something slammed into his shoulder. As he landed on the dusty ground, all the breath was knocked sharply from his body, and he lay there dazed and confused before looking to see what had happened. At first he thought he must be hallucinating.
Randal stood face to face with the demon, his dagger in hand. The side of his face was covered in fresh blood, but he stood unwavering, his mouth twisted into a sneer. “You want a fight? Come on then, I'll give you a fight!”
The creature snarled and struck, but the assassin neatly spun away. Popping up behind the demon, he delivered a series of blows in quick succession before blocking the inevitable counter-attack. In what could have only been a minute or two, he had calmly gained the upper hand and the demon was becoming more and more enraged.
“Banish it!” Edwin heard someone scream, but he could only shake his head. No one had ever mentioned anything about how to get rid of a demon – at least, not that he could ever recall. Could they be killed like other monsters?
A blast from a fireball landed dangerously close to the small group, causing the ground to shake. Randal was forced to quickly alter his position, and the demon was quick to take advantage. Claws closing around his arm in a vice-like grip, it spun him around and all within range heard the crack of bone snapping. The assassin's face drained of colour and his dagger fell from his fingers. The creature launched him through the air, right into the city wall.
Randal made an attempt to rise, but groaned and fell to the ground.
Benny was back on his feet, but one of the wizards had broken away and targeted him and Viconia with spells. Edwin called to mind the first spell he could think of and sent an icy stream from his fingertips as the demon came towards him again. He could smell its vile breath and felt the claws pressing against his face...
And then it screamed horribly, writhing in pain. Falling to the ground, it began to curl up and crumble away. With a shaking hand, Randal pulled his bloodied dagger from its eye socket.
“Bastard... broke my ribs...” he muttered. With some effort, he glanced up at Edwin. “You... are an idiot.”
“What exactly are you playing at?” Viconia scowled at him as she knelt to attend to examine Randal's arm. “You could have killed us all, messing around with things you cannot control.”
“I was just... trying to help.”
“Trying to show off, more like,” the cleric said scornfully.
Having disposed of the nearby wizard, Benny appeared at their side. “Randy... what are you doing here? You're hurt.”
“I'm all right,” his fellow assassin gave a weak grin. “Could ask the same of you, Scarface. You look like you've gone ten rounds with a cave troll.”
“It's a long story,” Benny said with a shrug. Then he turned to Edwin, and his eyes flared with anger. “Demon summoning? Edwin, have you lost your mind?”
“I'm sorry! I have been studying the scrolls and I did everything right – I have no idea what went wrong. I was just trying to help.”
“You could have been killed. Where did you get those scrolls anyway?”
Edwin said nothing, just glanced briefly over to where Kane and Kagain were celebrating having dispatched the last of the wizards, while Cory and Imoen looted the bodies. Benny followed his gaze and nodded in understanding. “I see,” he said, with a sigh.
News travelled fast within the thieving guilds. Nothing could happen within the city without the Shadowmaster being aware of it; and so Aran Linvail was waiting for the meeting that he knew was inevitable. He had had reservations about sending the group off with such a shady sea captain and concerns about losing contact with his spies in Spellhold, and their long absence and Randal's difficulty in locating them by magical means already gave him reason to believe that the mission had perhaps not gone as planned.
Nonetheless, Aran was unprepared for what stood before him. Benny's gaunt face – still marred by purplish bruising. The dark shadows beneath his eyes, which held a haunted look that had not been present before. Despite his attempts to stand tall, the slight limp and the stiffness of his movements betrayed the pain that still gripped his body.
However, Aran knew better than to comment or show any surprise or shock, knowing that Benny would not appreciate attention called towards his so-called 'weaknesses'. Instead, he greeted his old friend neutrally and directly. “Ah, so you have returned. After you left on Havarian's wreck of a ship, I must confess that I half-wondered if you would even make it to the island, let alone return.”
Benny looked at the Shadowmaster directly, maintaining eye contact as he calmly responded: “I half-wondered that myself, considering that Saemon Havarian was not what he appeared to be.”
“He betrayed you? I am not surprised.” Aran gave a small smile and held out his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Oh, don't look at me like that. You know he wasn't one of my men.”
“That doesn't mean he wasn't working on your orders, Aran. You know as well as I do that there are a lot of powerful organisations – not to mention wealthy individuals – who would pay a lot of money to have us 'discreetly disposed of' at sea, or imprisoned in the depths of Spellhold.”
“Benny – now would I do that to you, my old friend? I give you my word, it was nothing more than unfortunate circumstances. Very few dare to even sail near Brynnlaw and it just so happened that Havarian was willing and simply the best available. I can only offer my sincerest apologies. Am I to assume that he has been dealt with?”
“Oh, without a doubt. Betrayal such as that could not have been forgiven. He can rot in the ocean now.”
“But what happened out there? If you don't mind my saying so, you look like you have been in the wars.”
“To make a long story short; Irenicus had taken over the asylum and he did some ritual to remove Kane's soul. We ended up down in the Underdark in the middle of a drow city of all places, tangled with a silver dragon, got tortured by drow and... well, I don't really remember much after that.”
Aran listened intently as Benny described what had happened in Spellhold, the horror of witnessing the slayer and having to slowly watch what Kane had become, the dangers they faced underground, and finally the ultimate betrayal. “I was lucky,” he said dully. “Kane had told them what I was, but none of them really understood my abilities – so I was able to use the last of my strength to transform and break my restraints.”
The Shadowmaster shook his head. “I have heard tales of the cruelty displayed by the dark ones... that you were caught by them and lived to tell the tale is yet another testament to your remarkable abilities, my friend.”
The assassin shrugged. “Those so-called 'remarkable abilities' mean little when I could not protect those in my care. I look at Edwin and Cory and Imoen and their suffering is all too plain to see. The nightmares will haunt them for the rest of lives, and none of them deserved any of that.”
For a moment, there was silence. “What can I do to help?” Aran asked finally. “My men are at your disposal, so just say the word.”
“We need to find Irenicus and end this once and for all. Unfortunately the trail seems to have temporarily gone cold. I am certain that the elves know something, but their attitude leaves a lot to be desired and I doubt there is much chance of working relations. Could you look into it, see if you can find out anything?”
“Leave it with me. I will send a messenger to the Copper Coronet as soon as I have any information for you.”
“Thank you.” Benny sighed and rubbed his hand across his eyes. He suddenly felt so tired. “I can only hope we can finally have an end to this soon.”