Highsun, Year of the Defiant Priest
“Well…” said Les, arching a brow. “So, you just…live here?”
The man shook his head. “I was taking shelter from a sandstorm that blew through here.”
“The same storm that chase us?” Vrack asked.
“Then be welcome,” Rayne said cautiously. “What brings you to the middle of nowhere, though?”
The man said, “I was traveling to Tyr when the storm hit. I decided to wait it out here. Then those creatures came, so I stayed here longer.”
Vrack grunted. “Hope you don’t mind us sharing the cave with you. It has been a tiring journey for us.”
The man lowered his hands. “Not at all. I am called Hawk.”
“Good meet. I am Vrack,” replied the gladiator. Rayne placed a hand on her scimitar’s hilt and lay back down. Moments later, she was snoring lightly.
Les sighed and said, “We’ve not much taste for banter at the moment… Perhaps in the morning?” The bard’s gaze strayed to the kreen. “Naturally, Kikrik, you’ll stand guard against any horrid evil that might come our way this evening.” The shaman glared back in silent response.
Turning back to Hawk, the eladrin said, “Surely sir you wouldn’t be so rude as to end us in our slumber, why that is only something a vile creature would do.” Les shot a challenging look Kikrik’s direction. The kreen rolled his multifaceted eyes away from the bard.
Hawk watched the interaction curiously. “I have no desire to end your cycles at this time. It is a pleasure to meet you all.”
Lesallai resumed a meditative pose and with eyes closed said, “You can call me Les.”
“Well, time to take advantage of being blocked in cave,” Vrack said as he lay back down for sleep. Les began to softly hum a slow, soothing melody. Soon after, only the sounds of rhythmic breathing could be heard.
. . . . . . .
Hunger awoke the sleepers. Les offered food to Hawk and Rayne, though the latter declined, still having her own supplies from the caravan.
Hawk looked up at Lesallai and the offered food. “You are very kind. Thank you.”
“Of course.” The eladrin sat down to eat. Kikrik quietly devoured his own food, glaring daggers at Les and Hawk respectively, though most were reserved for the bard.
Lesallai smiled at Kikrik. Closed eyed, the eladrin said, “You should pay more attention to your food Kikrik, it’s not polite to stare.”
Hawk ate, but paused to look at Kikrik. “You carry a lot of anger. It distrupts your chi.”
Kikrik sat quietly, not rising to the bait or responding to Hawk’s assessment.
Looking up at the bard, Rayne said, “Lying is a nasty habit, too. Or so you told me.”
Lesallai’s head jerked swiftly to Rayne and the bard spat words filled with equal parts anguish and pain. “I never lied! I just omitted a few things. I’m sure I know everything about you!”
Rayne stared down at her food, color rising in her cheeks. “There’s not much more to me, no,” she murmured softly.
“I doubt that,” the eladrin sneered. Rounding on the kreen once more Les said, “Go ahead, Kikrik. Tell him why you’re so angry?” The shaman continued to ignore the bard.
“All of you,” Hawk began, “I mean no disrespect, I am just curious what would cause such an imbalance.”
Les stared hard at each of the others in turn. When they remained mute, the bard said, “Well, let me tell you so you can distrust me early enough. I’m sure someone will gladly tell you later, anyway. I am what Kikrik has labeled a defiler.” The eladrin paused a beat for effect, then asked, “Are you scared yet?” The question was directed at Hawk, but Les’ eyes bored into Rayne, who kept her eyes on her food.
Vrack paused between mouthfuls of food and ticked off points on his large fingers. “The Kikrik is slave to unseen masters, Les over here kept secrets of magic use from us, and Rayne is upset about that…think that sums up the problems…Vrack is glue that holds together.” Satisfied, he nodded once.
Hawk nodded as he listened. To Les he asked calmly, “Is it your intention to harm the land? Do you gain joy from such actions?”
Lesallai smirked. “Do I enjoy it? That is a loaded question, Hawk. I enjoy that it allows me to live. I use it to heal if need be. I even saved Kikrik’s life once with it.” The bard stared hard at the kreen. “But he seems to forget that.”
The gladiator shrugged. “Vrack sees no wrong in doing what it takes to survive.”
Lesallai continued, “I have other skills at my disposal, so I guess I’m lucky that I don’t wantonly destroy the world.”
Hawk offered, “The world was long on the path of destruction before you arrived.”
“Your spells did not help Clavis survive,” finally said, his voice low with anger.
“And neither did your spirits!” Les retorted. “They tried and tried and they failed!”
”...Nor did you even attempt to employ them on his behalf,” Kikrik finished. “Selfish.” Vrack sighed and went back to finishing his meal.
Hawk nodded in understanding. “You lost a friend. That is a terrible thing to endure.”
Apparently ignoring the man, Les said, “Perhaps had I been in a better position to rescue him I could have done what you could not. But if I recall, I was being dragged around by a lizard.”
Kikrik shook his head. “Yes, you always have some excuse.”
“And you always whine and fit and kick and stomp like a petulant child,” snarled the eladrin. “Stabbing at dead adversaries as though it would help.” Sarcastically, Les said, “I’m so sorry I can’t be as wonderfully enslaved as you, Kikrik.”
The shaman stood suddenly, poised on the edge of violence and nodding at something no one else could hear. Rayne interposed herself between the eladrin and the kreen.
Les dismissively changed the subject. “Ugh… Meanwhile, we must find a way out, the entrance is blocked.”
“Exactly,” said Rayne. “Can we bicker while we’re doing that? Please?”
Hawk tilted his head as he watched Kikrik. Softly, he said, “Violence here will not solve anything.”
“You have no voice here,” the shaman rasped, not looking at the newcomer.
“Then I’ll say it,” insisted Rayne. “Violence here will not solve anything.”
Vrack shrugged and said, “Maybe a good fist fight would settle this…” Everyone ignored him.
Les deflated suddenly. “No, Hawk and Rayne are correct.” The bard looked at Kikrik and said, “I apologize for goading you.”
The kreen’s head jerked back, as though he’d just been poleaxed. Clearly conflicted, he slowly took a seat again and returned to his brooding breakfast.
The eladrin turned back to Hawk and said, “You came from further within… How deep does this go?”
The ugly man shrugged. “I do not know. I have not ventured far inside.”
“Well, it would appear that there is only one way to go at the moment,” concluded the bard, indicating the tunnel at the back of the cave. “We are just trying to survive at the moment.”
“Aren’t we all?” Hawk replied as he stood. He slung a small back over his shoulder. No other weapons or armor were apparent.
Noting this, Les said, “I take it that as you have survived this long you have some skill and aren’t just as simple as you seem?”
“I am a devout monk of the Heavenly Winds,” he replied.
Gathering his own gear, Vrack said, “So are we to stand about and let the lights go out again?”
Les chuckled. “Of course not, Vrack.” The bard glanced from the gladiator to the Monk and back again. “You two…look…similar.”
“I wondered about that,” Rayne commented.
Vrack glanced at Hawk and shrugged. “Vrack much better looking.”
Hawk offered a light shrug, “Appearances are just that. We are the same within our souls.”
Rayne nodded. “Well said, Hawk.”
“I’ve never seen one like you two before… Related maybe?” Les pressed.
“Vrack no knows his people. He was raised in the arenas.”
“I was raised in the monastery,” was all the exposition Hawk offered.
Rayne nodded. “So we can’t rule it out, no. Come, then. Let us begin.”
The tunnel opened up into a larger cavern after descending several yards. An old and rotted rope bridge spanned a chasm fifteen feet deep. Skeletal remains lay the far side of the chasm, and two cliff faces rose from the surface beyond them. Something glittered amidst the boney corpses.
“Hmmm,” Hawk said as he surveyed the chamber. “Allow me to test this bridge,” he said, holding up a hand to the group.
“Fine by me,” Rayne said, squinting at the glitter in the distance. “If it’ll support you big folk, it’s sure to support me…”
Hawk turned back to the bridge. “We shall find out in a moment.” Stepping onto the bridge, Hawk found it to be incredibly unsturdy. However, having been trained to martial excellence since youth, he easily found his center of balance and began to cross.
Quietly, Rayne said to Les, “You shouldn’t stay on this side with Kikrik.”
Les whispered back, “I don’t plan to. I’ll wait until you get across and then go.”
As Hawk set foot on the far side of the canyon, the shriveled bodies of what might have been adventurers began to twitch and quiver. His teeth began to ache as a wave of necrotic energy washed over him.
“Look out!” Rayne cried out.
Something slithered across the stony ceiling toward the group. It went unnoticed by the half-orcs. Les stepped out onto the shaky bridge and drew the black blade and kept a wary eye on the amorphous form above, ready to strike it if it came within reach. Alone on the far side of the bridge, Hawk closed with the nearest living corpse. The foul stench was disorienting, but he powered through it. He feigned a lazy crouch before leaping up and dropping a vicious kick into the undead’s sternum. Pushing off from his target, his fist slammed heavily into a floating mote of necrotic energy that had emerged as he drew close.
Vrack drew a hand axe and made to cross the bridge. As soon as his weight joined Les’ the bridge collapsed. They both leapt for the near edge, scrabbling to keep from falling into the chasm. The gladiator regained his feet and scowled. He had no targets, and now Hawk was all alone with no help able to get to him any time soon. As if to emphasize this point, a pulse of bitter cold burst forth from the mote, freezing the monk. Frost gripped his flesh, and he barely suppressed a shiver. Then hawk noticed the rotted flesh of the corpse reconstitute in the hole he had kicked into it. The animate lumbered back a step and lobbed a mote of corruption at him. The necrotic orb drained his life force and sapped his considerable strength. The other corpse did the same to Vrack, who stood impotently on the far side.
Rayne focused on something she could affect and tried to drag the ooze from the ceiling with a strand of shadow. Unfortunately, the slippery blob eluded the noose. Kikrik, unwilling to let Hawk perish alone after he had offered to scout the room, summoned one of his spirits into the world beside the corpse threatening the monk. It exploded in flames, burning the undead creature. Hawk quirked an eyebrow at the sudden flash, but he was grateful for the assistance all the same.
The ooze descended from the ceiling into Les and Rayne’s tender mercies while Hawk continued fighting the undead, supported by Kikrik. Vrack climbed down into the chasm and began to cross, itching to get into the fight. A silt-covered pit trap slowed his efforts. Once the ooze was finished, everyone made their way across the chasm and took the fight to the walking corpses. Moments later, only the living remained.
“Oof, what a smell…” Les complained, stepping away from the bodies. Hawk took a deep breath and closed his eyes to try and regain his center calm. Kikrik looked around to see if everyone was all right. Vrack reclaimed his thrown axe and sheathed his weapons.
The bard glanced at Rayne first. “Are you alright?” The eladrin’s gaze slid across the others as an afterthought.
“Fine,” answered the assassin. “Thank you. You?”
“Good, I’m fine, nearly unscathed… Hawk? Vrack?” The bard paused a beat. ”...Kikrik?”
“Vrack is fine, stupid bridge…”
Hawk looked down at his scarred body. “Some minor scratches.”
Les walked over to Kikrik, who nursed a few injuries from the cold. “I’ll give you the option of my assistance with your health.”
The shaman replied flatly, “Get. Away. From me.”
“So. Where did I see that glittering?” Rayne asked rhetorically.
Searching the area, she found a body encased in fine leather armor with designs like stylized clouds sewn into it. In a pouch, she found a green gem and scraps of what appeared to be an old map. As she held it, she noticed a flickering yellow flame dancing within its facets hinting at magical secrets dwelling within. She marveled at this curiosity, then turned her attention to the fragments. The pieces bore markings and an annotation that read: “Unable to access chamber to retrieve ancestral treasures. Men too afraid of curses.”
She brought the map and crystal over for Les to inspect and muttered, “Listen, I’m sorry about before.”
Les smiled at Rayne. “It’s alright, we can talk about it later…” The bard glanced at Kikrik before continuing, “when there are fewer hateful ears around.”
Rayne nodded. “Agreed. Now, look at this gem, I’ve found. What do you make of it?”
The bard considered the enchanted gem for a few moments before commenting. “I would say that it is best in your hands, Rayne.” The eladrin offered a small smirk. Rayne almost missed the look, but when she caught it, a similar one crossed her face, and she pocketed the gem.
Hawk moved over to Rayne. “How good of a map is it?”
“Not sure. This part is something we haven’t seen yet…and I can barely read the words here…” She held it up for Hawk and Les to see. “What about these symbols? Mean anything to you?”
From the side, Kikrik said, “Is no one else concerned about having fought the living dead? I have never seen the like…”
Rayne shrugged. “Such things are common enough in Kalidnay. I never fought any before, but I’ve seen my share, believe you me.”
“After the last couple days…Vrack is too tired to care.”
Hawk glanced back at Kikrik. “Their souls were imbalanced, like much of this world. Their appearance, though not expected, is not a total surprise.”
Les eyed the symbols and said offhandedly, “Yes, but your suspicion of such abominations doesn’t surprise me. We have slain them and that is what matters.”
“Keep pushing,” said Kikrik, a hint of challenge in his tone.
Les offered a wide and toothy grin at the shaman. “Oh, Kikrik… I’ve done nothing but be polite to you until you attack me, and you repay me with hatred…” The grin faded into a cold stare. “How I grow to loathe you.”
Rayne stepped in before Kikrik could reply. “Stop it! Both of you! Let’s find some daylight before this goes any further.”
Les nodded, seeming chagrined. “Agreed, Rayne. Once more, Kikrik, I apologize.”
“Every time you say that, it means less,” he intoned.
Vrack said, “So uh…that map of this cave? We follow it out?”
Rayne shook her head. “I don’t think this is a map of this cave.”
“Well, that look like cruddy map to Vrack.”
“I agree, Vrack,” said Rayne. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it helps.”
Hawk shouldered his pack once more. “Well, let us begin moving. The sooner we leave, the sooner we will find an exit.”