Chapter 1 Prologue
She tried to focus her eyes on her surroundings. A haze of weird, colorful shapes swirled before her eyes. They suddenly coalesced into a vibrant red and it took her a few minutes to realize that someone was standing before her. She heard a voice faintly say.
"I'm here. Lie still." The woman in the red robe, gazed down at the girl sprawled out on the bloodstained rock beneath her feet.
Nica whispered, "Who are you? I can't see your face."
"My name is Safiya", the woman answered. "The binding spell should be wearing off by now. Do you think you can stand?"
Nica tried to rise and managed to get to one knee. Her muscles were aching so badly, she could hardly keep her balance. She put her hand out to brace herself and felt hard stone. Instantly, her mind cleared for a moment. Images of the Shadow King and her companions flashed before her. The Shadow King was falling. They had bested him. Some of her companions were grabbing her arm and trying to pull her to safety. The ground was rumbling. The walls were shaking. Large pieces of stone were falling all around them. What was happening?
She removed her hand and doubled over in pain. Where were her friends? Where was she?
She felt a strong arm curl around her back helping her to rise. Shakily she stood erect and turned to see who had helped her. A strange, bald-headed woman in red robes stood before her. Her head was decorated with tracings and tattoos.
" Are you wounded?" she said. " You were lying in a pool of blood and you seem to be covered in it."
Nica looked down and saw that the strange tunic she was wearing was soaked with dark, crusty bloodstains. There were flecks of blood on her hands and in her long, flaxen braid. Where was her armor, her weapons, her pack? she wondered. She shook her head but couldn't seem to clear the fog in her brain. She reached underneath the tunic and felt her chest. There was a large wound there but it felt like it had been raggedly stitched. The Shard!! It seemed someone had cut it out of her!!
"The Shard!", she exclaimed, holding her hand over her chest. "Someone removed it!"
"What are you talking about?" Safiya looked at her doubtfully. "Are you saying you had something in your chest and someone cut it out of you?"
"Yes, that's what it seems like." Nica was dazed. "Who are you, again?" she questioned. "Where are my friends?"
"My name is Safiya. I don't know where your friends are. I was sent to get you."
"What do you mean? Where am I? Is the Shadow King dead?"
"I wish I could answer all of your questions, but I cannot. You are in the Barrow of the Bear God. How you came to be here and what happened to you before, I do not know. All I know was that my mother sent me to retrieve you and bring you to Lienna, a friend of hers. For what reason, I was not told."
"Your mother? Who is she?"
"My mother is the headmistress of the Thayan academy. We are Red Wizards, but, please, don't let that frighten you. I am here to help and assist you."
Nica stared at her. "I don't understand. I don't know anyone like that. I've never heard of the Thayan Academy or the Barrow of the Bear God. This must be a dream."
Safiya patiently answered. "It's no dream and the sooner we leave here, the better. The spirits here may awaken and then we may have a fight on our hands."
As the grogginess left Nica, she noticed a strange, flying creature hovering near Safiya's shoulder. "Is that your animal companion," she asked. "No," Safiya responded. "This is Kaji, a homunculi. I shaped his body from twigs and clay. I gave life to him and taught him to speak."
"Oh," she tried to smile, but thoughts of a certain wolf companion she knew strayed into her mind.
"I think I can walk now, " she said abruptly.
"All right, lets go," Safiya said. As they slowly walked up a large stone ramp, Nica paused at the top and looked behind her. A stone circle of pillars marked with strange glowing runes lay below her.
"How in the hells did I get here?" she murmurred.
They were proceeding down a dark tunnel, when suddenly, a low, growling sound was heard. It seemed to echo throughout the whole cavern. "That doesn't sound like Ipsit and Seti", Kaji piped up.
"Sshh, Kaji," Safiya snapped, listening intently to the fading sounds. "It seems the spirits are aware of our presence."
Nica paused. "Who are Ipsit and Seti?" she asked.
"They are other homunculi I had sent on ahead," Safiya explained. "To let Lienna know we were coming. They can't be back this soon."
"Here, take this." She withdraw a glittering short sword from a scabbard she carried beneath her robes. "I brought this along, just in case. It has an enchantment of frost on it. Have you the strength to wield it?"
"I can only try", Nica said. She grasped the hilt of the sword and the familiar feel of steel in her hand seemed to center her somewhat.
"Wait a moment, did you say spirits? Where are we, again?"
Safiya fought to stay patient. Which, the gods knew, was not her strong suit. "I know you are weak and disoriented but try to listen to me. We are in the Barrow of the dead Bear God in Rashemen. He's been sleeping here for millennium but apparently our presence has disturbed him and the animal spirits that reside with him here."
"Rashemen?? But I'm from the Sword Coast!!" Nica couldn't believe her ears. "How in the hells did I get here?"
"Again, I know nothing of what happened to you or how you ended up here. I only know that I was sent to help you and bring you back to this friend of my mothers. Are you ready to move on? We really need to go. Just stay behind me and I will deal with any spirits that may come along."
As they rounded a corner of the tunnel, a strange blueish wolf stood in front of them, snarling & snapping in the air. Nica tensed for an attack. But the wolf started speaking.
"There you are, Red Wizard. We smelled your scent and it shook us from our sleep. Anything that emerges from the Rune Cavern cannot be allowed to walk. Those were the words of our god as he sank into slumber."
The wolf paused and sniffed the air. "What is that vile smell? Blood!!" It snarled, lowered its head and started to gather itself for an attack.
Nica suddenly clutched her abdomen. The pain was excruciating. She seemed to feel an unnatural presence boiling up inside of her. A black, unnameable horror seemed to engulf her. It felt like someone had taken over her body and she was helpless to control what was happening to her. She seemed to black out, for how long she did not know. But when she opened her eyes, the wolf was gone and Safiya was staring at her in a strange way.
"What just happened? That wasn't an arcane spell or divine invocation. How did you do that?"
"Do what?" Nica gasped.
"It was like a dark cloud surrounded you; a boiling, seething black mass. Suddenly the black mass seemed to stretch out towards the spirit wolf and it was gone."
"I don't know. I didn't do it on purpose. It felt like someone had taken over my body. I felt this horrible pain, a feeling like an unquenchable hunger that seemed to emanate from the depths of my being and I thought I had blacked out. But, strangely, I feel fine. Exhilarated, even. My chest doesn't ache anymore and I've never felt more alive in my life. Do you have any idea what happened to me?"
Safya shook her head. "I've never seen anything like that in my entire life!! But we have no time to ponder this. We have to get out of here. Maybe Lienna will know what has happened to you."
They wound there way through several layers of the barrow, Nica picking up any loot she could find along the way. Since all her belongings were gone, she knew eventually she would need gold to buy new weapons and armor. The first thing she needed was to get rid of this bloody tunic. "Thank the Gods, whoever did this to me left me my boots and enchanted jewelry." she mused.
Several times they were attacked by animal spirits but were able to overcome them. Nica was impressed with Safiya's wizardry. As a fighting cleric, Nica relied more on her melee combat skills than her magical abilities, however, she was able to cast a few Flame Strikes to help Safiya out.
Safiya was also impressed. "This woman knows how to fight." she silently thought."I can't believe how strong she is, after everything she's been through."
They eventually reached a large cavern and could see that the exit was blocked by a huge, colorful bear. It seemed to be waiting for them. As they approached, it started to speak.
"What stirs the air and smells so foul? Go back and die in the silence," the bear growled
Nica slowly stepped forward. "Please, I mean you no harm. I don't want to disturb your rest. I don't even know how I got here and all I want to do is leave and go home."
The bear bared his teeth and raised one threatening paw. "I guard these caverns and the spirits in them. I know what you are, little one. I smell the hunger that wakes in you."
"What in the hells is he talking about?" Nica thought. However, she raised her sword arm and prepared for an attack.
The bear looked at Safiya. "I know you, Thayan. Does your ally know the secrets you hide?"
Safiya spoke up. "And I know you, Bear God. Leave us in peace or you will regret it."
The bear roared, "Neither of you shall leave my den!"
He charged at them and suddenly a horde of spirit animals surrounded him. Safiya started reciting spells one after the other and Nica bounded forward with her blade swinging. The old fighting spirit surged in her and her sword stabbed at anything that got in her path. The Bear God was tough but it seemed she now had a new strength to call upon. He was bleeding badly and was just about to fall when he suddenly disappeared. They made short work of the remaining spirits.
"That's strange," Safiya said. "I don't think we killed him. It's like he just transported himself somewhere else."
"I don't care", Nica was panting after the exertion. "Let's just get out of here".
There was a door at the end of the barrow that led up and out. They were finally free. It felt good to feel the fresh air again and to see green grass and blue sky. The sun, she noticed, was sinking in the west and twilight was upon them.
Nica dropped to the ground, totally overwhelmed by what was happening to her.
"Are you alright? Are you hurt?" Safiya looked frightened for a moment.
"No, I'm fine." Nica assured her. " Just totally confused, is all. The last thing I remember is my companions and I were fighting the Shadow King back in some Illfarn ruins on the Sword Coast. We had finally defeated him and then the whole structure started to shake and seemed to be coming down on top of us. We ran for our lives and that's the last thing I remember."
"The Sword Coast?" Safiya shook her head in disbelief. "You are a long way from home. I vaguely remember reading some lore about a Shadow King and the Illfarn empire but we don't have time to discuss that now. Darkness is falling and I want to get as far away from this barrow as we can. Who knows what might follow us out? Mulsantir is about a day's journey from here, but I saw a small hostel, about five leagues down the road. Hopefully they'll have a spare room. By the way, you've never even told me your name."
"It's Nica Shadowbane."
"Well met, Nica." Safiya put out her hand. "You're not an elf, are you? Shadowbane is a strange name." She let out a small chuckle. "However, I don't see any pointed ears or slanted eyes."
"No, I'm not an elf," Nica smiled for the first time since she had awoken. "I'm a human. The name is strange, I admit. But that's what my foster father told me it was. I never knew my parents." She paused. "It fits though. I was the "bane" of the Shadow King, that's for sure!!"
For a moment she let herself savor her past victories but the faces of her former companions started to intrude into her memories and she had to force herself to stop thinking about them.
"Well, shall we head out?"
"Yes." replied Safiya. "Let's go."
As they trudged down the road, Nica kept trying to make sense of what was happening to her but to no avail. Thoughts of her companions kept running through her mind. She had to deliberately force them out or she knew she would break down. "No time to think of that now," she kept telling herself. They finally reached a small run-down hostel and luckily a room was available.
As they entered the room, Nica turned to Safiya. "I really need to get cleaned up. I probably look like I've traveled through all the levels of the Nine Hells. You wouldn't happen to have a spare change of clothes on you?"
Safiya grinned. "My mother told me you would probably be needing something else to put on, so I brought along one of my old robes for you. It's not red, so don't worry. You can pretend you're a wizard for awhile."
Nica gratefully grabbed it and headed for the bath. It felt so good to soak in a hot tub again. She donned Safiya's robe, which fit perfectly, piled her hair on top of her head in a knot, and headed back to the room.
Upon her return, Safiya eyed her admiringly. Definitely an improvement. She spoke up. "Well, you've been eviscerated, paralyzed and assaulted by countless spirits. How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay, but still really confused." Nica smiled wryly. "It's almost like someone's played a bad joke on me, however, it's no joke, is it?"
"No, it's not a joke, however, we should be safe here. Now do you want to try and tell me what happened to you?"
Nica proceeded to tell her the long story of the last few months of her life. But as she neared the end of the tale, she burst out sobbing and lay on the bed shaking. Her friends, Khelgar, Elanee, Casivir, Grobnar, Sand and even Ammon Jerro and Zhaeve. What had become of them? Were they all dead? How did she survive?
Her thoughts turned to Qara and a rage burned inside of her. "I could care less about that little, stuck-up, fire-bombing bitch."she thought. Sand's "idiot girl" had died in the battle and Nica was not sorry she was dead. But, poor Neeshka. To be tortured and bound like that by Black Garius and made to fight against her friends. It was too horrible to comprehend.
And Bishop! By the gods, she had really thought he loved her. How could he have turned on her and betrayed them to the Shadow King?!! Even though he had been cruel and cold-hearted most of the time they were together, valuing his freedom more than her company, she had hung on to the little bit of tenderness he had shown her, hoping he would change. She did not even want to start thinking about the long nights of lovemaking they had had together; the sleeping passions he had aroused within her.
She was still in a state of shock regarding his betrayal. She despised herself now for ever believing in him and felt like a stupid fool. Her friends had been right. He was evil and he couldn't be trusted. He had betrayed her love, their friends, Neverwinter and everything she was striving for!! Although, now that she thought about it, something had kept him from actually fighting against her at the last. Was it only her taunt that now he had a bigger obligation in front of him than she had ever been that had stayed his hand? Or did he still care about her?
And poor Casivir. She had treated him horribly. She knew he had loved her but she could never return his feelings. Not only because of Bishop, but his high and holy Paladin ways had really gotten on her nerves. But she realized now what a true friend and protector he really was. It made her sob all the harder.
"There, there, it's alright." Safiya walked over and awkwardly patted her shoulder. "I know you probably need to get this out, but you're going to make yourself sick. We have a long trip ahead of us so we should get some rest. If you need to talk again, later, I'll be more than willing to listen. I don't have much experience with such passionate emotions and I've never really had friends like you described, but I will try and help you, if I can."
Nica gulped, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes with her hand. " I'm sorry. I just got overwhelmed thinking about my friends. It's horrible not knowing if they are alive or dead. I really cared about them and it now it seems my whole past life is gone and I've been magically transported to the ends of earth. And I haven't a clue as to why, but thank you for your understanding."
"Hopefully, we can get some answers from, Lienna," Safiya said matter-of-factly. "Try and get some sleep now."