After spending almost a month and a half engaged in the repair and reconstruction of Cradle, far too much of which had been spent sorting through centuries old books and paper in city hall (giving myself a series of morning-after headaches without the enjoyable evenings beforehand, more fool me), the need to get back out on the road was physically tangible, like an itch under my skin.
I haven’t been sleeping well since we took Cradle. My mind chatters endlessly at me- there is so much to do, and it’s hard to know what of it, if any, can be trusted to others. Everyone has their plots and machinations, and I know far too few of them. And there’s no rest to be had even asleep. My dreams are…strange. Haunted by memories, and by things that seem like memories, but which never happened, familiar voices saying unfamiliar things. I don’t know what they mean. Maybe they don’t mean anything.
My gut tells me I’m not that lucky.
So when Yera sent me a message to meet her a half hour after dark to discuss an expedition to the northeast, to a lost library, I jumped on it without hesitation. Anything to get out of the village. Clarity comes to me on the open road, and I could certainly use some clarity these days. She promises it will be a long journey, and I hope to heaven she’s right.
She had invited the wizard brothers and our previous companion, the kenku Cicada Song, as well, and they were exactly as interested in a lost library as I would’ve expected. I worry about what Imildrak may be hoping to find- he’s gone further down his dark path since last we met, and is now accompanied by a hulking dead gnoll, as well as the skeleton he had before (though they tell me this is now the fifth skeleton thus desecrated. He holds the skull of the second in his hand, and speaks to it). But it is best I at least see what he sees, and know what he finds.
And…perhaps there will be information there I might like to see as well. I’ve dreamt of a book, too, a very familiar name written upon it… and where better to find a book than a library?
We loaded up my cart with supplies, and hooked Bob and Inspiration to the front, leaving Cradle at dawn. The air was bright with possibility. I felt better as soon as Cradle disappeared from our sight beyond the horizon. This, I know. This, I can do.
We traveled in territory just unfamiliar enough to be dangerous, and were predictably ambushed multiple times along the path- bugbears in the mountains, trying to surprise us from cutouts in the cliff-side, foolish kobolds, that sort of usual traveling problem, but the force of our powers sent them fleeing quickly before us, those few who survived. We are blessed by many gods, and all formidable in our own ways.
Our party crossed the mountains and descended into the desert after four days travel, as before. The desert was as miserable as I remembered, but Cicada Song was able to lead us unerringly across it, despite this sort of task not being his specialty. E’kah-oh is with us, it seems.
We were ambushed but once as we crossed it, by opportunistic giant scorpions. At night, thankfully- I don’t know that I could have fought anything in the oppressive heat of the daytime. Alcadizzar’s taken to hiding among the boxes in the cart for most of the day. He claims it’s because he’s being a lookout through the eyes of his bird, but I’m sure the slight shade is more than a little of the inspiration. Given that he was also somehow providing us a constant cooling breeze as we traveled through the blazing wasteland, he may claim anything he likes. It won’t stop me from teasing him about it, though. One of these days I will manage to get that man to smile about something.
Really, it just makes me miss my family’s wagon, a proper covered thing you could actually shelter in. I should buy one when we return to town. It’s not as though I’m not traveling too, in my own way.
The troll bridge we encountered before is now re-occupied, and the trolls are inclined to charge a toll- fair warning to any of you traveling in this direction. We did not destroy them, though I could see the flames curling around Alcadizzar’s fingers by the time the troll allowed us to pass without payment. He is too quick to turn to violence. Surely his god does not require everything to be consigned to flame?
Past the bridge, we were in new territory, unexplored land, and our travel became quieter. I tucked my lute away in my pack and began to ride with a hand on the hilt of my sword. Silence surrounded us, save for the breathing of the horses and the creaking of our cart and armor. It is perhaps only this which allowed even the elves’ keen ears to hear a sound echoing in the stones from beneath the earth, a rhythmic, metallic sound. Something unnatural, created. People.
We decided to investigate- what was another day or two out here, when we had already been out here for near half a month? If there were any people out here, we had to find them- what if they were more lost soldiers, or, perhaps, their descendants?
As we got closer, following the sound down stone paths cut into the mountain itself, Cicada called a blessing down upon us, which erased our footsteps and swallowed all sound. Even the clink of my armor disappeared from the air, an oddly unnerving sensation. I wonder if this is the source of the ringing that sometimes comes from his staff, an echo of lost sound?
The further we traveled into the mountain, the more clear it became that these passages were no accident, but had been constructed- hints in the stonework, lines a little too clean to have been caused by the whims of nature. Eventually, we were clearly traveling in old dwarven passageways, dusty with disuse.
But beneath the passageways, crumbling old structures showing cracks, there was a city, bustling and alive. It sprawls beneath the Crackhammer mountains, hidden from view and illuminated by the scarlet glow at the heart of mountain. It was full of dwarves.
And it is full of slaves.
Utter fury took hold of me when Cicada took me aside and told me of what he saw, his eyes better than mine- lines of duergar, herding people in chains- men, and dwarves, and elves!- standing ready with whips. My blood sang with fire and my hand, I will admit, twitched on the hilt of my sword. Cicada was clearly worried I would try something foolish, and for a savage, furious moment, he might have been right. But it was quite clear we were in no position to make these monsters pay for their crimes immediately: we would need an army. The city sprawled below us for miles.
I will return. They will be brought to justice, they, and all who would participate in the foul practice. I grow tired of waiting for the opportune time, while they continue, unopposed. Each day I delay has a cost in human suffering, and it is becoming unbearable.
The journey back out of the mountain and to our goal, the cathedral of Vitrum Sol, took all of the following day, and we spent another night in the wilderness, but spotted the vast form of the building shortly after dawn the next day. It was visible from fully five miles away, an enormous edifice with shards of stained glass glittering in the light, once a gleaming shrine to Apollo, in the time before this land was lost.
As we got closer, though, it became quite obvious that another god occupies this place now. The glorious windows have been smashed, and many of the doors have been replaced, and are now made of bone, hideously twisted. Dark and strange new symbols are painted on the walls in a weird ichor. A whisper spreads throughout the party, and I am not sure who it was who put a name to what we saw: Vecna. Lord of the undead.
Imildrak was a little too interested in the symbols. I do not like the gleam I saw in his eyes in that place.
The cathedral was occupied by hostile forces, already in the process of looting what valuables remained- hobgoblins, and more of the duergar we had seen beneath the mountains, for the most part, who we dispatched in a series of reverse ambushes. By the time the creatures even saw us, they were generally on fire, restrained, or, occasionally, already dead.
I must admit I took a certain violent pleasure in skewering the duergar, though I'm uncertain whether or not they were the same as those beneath the mountain. I never said I was a saint.
Their leader appears to have been a dragonkin. He was fearsome fighter, and dealt me a solid blow, the first I have suffered in some time. The sword bit into my flesh, and drew from me an involuntary cry. I was just as surprised as the dragonkin when scarlet flames leapt forth from my hand immediately afterward, slashing across his eye.
I was somewhat less surprised when a wave of fire came over my shoulder and immolated the dragonkin’s human companions, dealing hideous damage to the dragonkin himself. One learns to expect such things, travelling with Alcadizzar. I had thought dragons resistant to fire, much as I am myself- in the blood, as it were, but it appears not. The dragonkin’s expression suggested he thought the same thing. We didn’t give him much more time to worry about it.
The last of duergar we encountered had closed themselves in with an enormous chest, and had made themselves twice their normal size, clearly believing that would be enough to defeat us.
Cicada sent in an illusion of the dragonkin, to reveal the hidden duergar and to convince them to open the chest, locked by magical means. This accomplished, we proceeded to show the duergar exactly how wrong they had been. The larger they are, the harder they fall.
The chest, to Yera’s delight, was filled with near 20 books on various topics, along with several magical items, gold, and more usual trade items we would be able to sell back in Sprigand to cover our costs. I idly picked up a beautiful golden javelin, considering its use when I am unable to reach creatures with my sword. It sent a jolt up my shoulder like an electric shock, and I could hear a faint, constant hum coming from it.
The journey back to town was more uneventful than the journey to Vitrum Sol, though it still took seventeen days before the town became visible in the distance. I played for my companions as we travelled, lute music mixing with the rattling rings on Cicada’s staff as he lead us home.
Yera sorted through the books when we returned to town, categorizing them all and shelving them in her new library. I visited with her as she did, idly glancing through the books so far unsorted as we chatted about idle, light things. It was warm, pleasant, a little sleepy.
So when I saw the name Barinieth, briefly, as I flipped through, the shock of it went through me like I’d been plunged into a cold river.
I tried to keep my thoughts from my expression, my voice level. I’m not sure how successful I was, my mind hyper-focused and whirling, shutting out the outside world as I flipped back to the pages I’d seen. There. I hadn’t been wrong. Clear as day and appearing more than once.
“Mind if I check this one out for a little light reading, Yera?”
Either she hadn’t noticed my preoccupation or had decided not to ask, because she nodded without looking up, asking me just to record the name of the tome on her sheet and to return it once I was through.
I still haven’t read the book, though I can feel its presence always, waiting for me to open it and find out why that name appears there. I’m not sure I want to know.
But I also know I don’t have a choice.