Ruins, Cormyr (27th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
Ryuu woke in a room that he couldn't see clearly even with darkvision. He reached out, weak, and his hand brushed against something cold and hard.
He tried to rise, for he lay on his side, and screamed, as a thousand fires alit his back. He seized up, foam coating his lips, and he waited for it to pass. There was nothing else he could do.
"Light the brazier." a woman's voice commanded, in perfectly accented draconic.
The room illuminated by firelight.
Ryuu hissed, tried to shield his eyes, but his limbs wouldn't obey him. He suffered, waiting for his eyes to adjust, waiting for the pain in his back to abate.
"Primitive creatures..." The woman, a Dark Elf with blood red eyes that burned like coals, cooed in perfectly accented draconic, "Unimaginative."
She leaned down, over him, her hem of her flowing skirt bunching on the floor. "But you...you interest me, a sufferer among savages."
Her hand caressed his cheek, and it felt cold, "So much anger....so much pain...a stirring of destiny, I think."
Her pale flesh was like marble. Cold. Unfeeling. Her cloak, some manner of webby, membrane-like fabric, rustled of its own accord. It was clasped by some manner of bony material.
"Who...who are you?" Ryuu asked, his voice dry and feeble, and she smiled.
"Who I am doesn't matter. What does matter is what I will do for you."
She laughed, and it sounded colder than her hands felt.
He noticed others, with eyes like hers but skin that was mottled, marred by pustules and old scars. They didn't meet his eyes; the way they moved seemed...off. That was the only thing that he, in his state, could determine.
They opened his cage, and lifted him up.
Ryuu cried out, as the motion brought fresh waves of pain. His blood fell from his body, dripping onto the tiles as they carried him to a stone altar.
Gently, they set him down, and lit candles on either end. He shivered in the cold.
A banner hung overhead; it looked like the wheel of the World Serpent, but harder, more angular, with barbed points like arrows. An eye, blue and piercing, marked its center, and when he stared deeply into it, Ryuu saw a furred humanoid screaming in bloodlust, covered in gore, and a grinning half-elf in finery standing over a feasting table with a glass of wine in his hand.
The truth of the matter fell upon him, and he whimpered in horror, trying to stir from the slab.
Like the vision pools of his home, this was a holy place, but not to the World Serpent.
"I amuse myself with those touched by fate." the woman noted, "I find uses for them that suit my needs. I think you will do nicely, Ryuu, for I desire change, and destruction, and chaos."
The woman approached, and it was only now that he noticed the fangs poking from her lips. Her cloak parted, and folded backward.
Not understanding, Ryuu cried out when they spread wide, the bony clasps in fact talons, the cloak in fact a pair of bat-like wings.
She wasn't an Elf.
She turned his head away, "Hush, child."
Her nose brushed against his neck.
Her lips pressed against his scales, and a feeling of sheer, deathly coldness spread through his body. He wheezed, breathless, struggling against the creature, which held him firmly in an iron grip.
Ryuu's sight filled with dark spots, and he could hear his own heartbeat.
World Serpent, it sounded faint!
"You will awaken to find yourself made anew in my image. Go. Seek your child, and punish those who condemned you to this. Your path of bloody vengeance will bring me great amusement."
He stared, sightlessly, anew in darkness.
"Dump him in the wastes. The sun never peaks through those clouds. He will find his own way. I am certain of it."
He heard Oki scream, and knew no more.
"What was that creature?" Haidée asked, startling awake.
"A Succubus." Ryuu noted, distant, "Herself turned into something like a Vampire. Her life-draining kiss functioned like a bite. She turned me."
"I have never heard of such a thing." Alexander noted.
"They call us Greater Vampires, resistant to some of the weaknesses of our lesser kin. We refer to ourselves as Broodlords. Kind of like the equal opposite to Dhampyr. As we age, we grow stronger, the better to rule those beneath us. Quite a few members of...never mind that. We are powerful, even among Vampires...and that means you too, Haidée. I was turned by a Succubus, and I, in turn, turned you. You're second generation to demonic blood."
She paled, looked away. Esmer tried to reach for her hand, but she snatched it away.
"You haven't even seen the best parts." Ryuu chuckled, "But you will."
"Do you find amusement in this?" Esmer snapped, "Tormenting her like this?"
"I find amusement in everything, Human." Ryuu parried, all seriousness, "Reminds me how it feels to be alive."
With that, they set out again, through the foundry.
Through another hall, which forked several times, they found themselves in yet another great hall, but not like anything Haidée could have imagined the dwarves building.
A great open space, this chamber was filled with mirrors. They stood upon metal daises that looked like they could be rotated. Their obverse sides were mirrors, but their reverse sides had a small circular impression, and through each of them, a beam of light emanated, so piercing that she was forced to squint. The beams had a perpendicular opposite all throughout the chamber; always there was a space between each of them wide enough to permit two humans across. That path turned, doubled-back, and even forked into dead ends, with one path alone reaching the far end.
"It's a maze?" she asked, and Ryuu chortled, "More a puzzle. A puzzle someone else has already solved. Thunderholme has had its share of tomb-delvers over the ages, I am sure."
He palmed a small stone, and tossed it onto a tile that wasn't occupied by a mirror. With a metallic pop, the tile tumbled down a chute, leaving a gaping void.
"This doesn't look like something they would build for a city."
"That just means we're closer to the goodies. They wouldn't build traps on the path to the privy. Not even the Dracolich would. That would just be too evil."
He advanced along the tiles between the beams of light, and Haidée and the others followed him.
But then Ryuu stopped, again studying the pattern.
He frowned, "Hold a moment! What have we here?"
He motioned to a mirror that didn't belong to the pattern the others formed, placed between and around it so subtly that Haidée hadn't noticed it at all. Its surface was tarnished, non-reflective, and a curious glow emanated from it.
Tossing another stone into the tile it occupied, Ryuu grinned when it didn't collapse.
"Now that looks like something the others missed, boys and girls. I would be remiss not to take a closer look."
He stepped onto that adjacent tile, and inspected the mirror.
"Definitely a trap spell." he noted, "But one only meant for the living. Hang on a second while I...There were go."
He passed his hands in mystic cadence, and the peculiar glow changed color, from a dark, dark purple to a light violet.
"Transformative magic, definitely." he said, "But look, when I turn the mirror..."
As he angled the mirror to her left, she noticed that the tarnished surface still reflected something along the far end of the room. A stretch of wall that had a door.
Turning, Haidée saw no door back that way.
"The door only exists here." Ryuu proclaimed, reaching his hand towards the mirror. Where it would have touched, his hand slipped right through, and shrank to the proportions of the reflection. As he touched the knob of the door, and turned it, a door opened behind them, seemingly from nothing.
"Shadow magic." Ryuu chuckled, "How delightful. Well, let's go see what's behind door number two."
Sirahani pored through Aurus' encrypted notes with ease, thanks to her psionic abilities. This was indeed one of his primary laboratories. Sealed canisters of tissue lined the walls; the flesh and blood of many of the rarest species of beings of Toril and beyond. Notes of the grisly experiments he orchestrated to procure or manipulate these tissues, and divulge their many uses. Just reading his words gave tremendous inspiration for her own spell research.
Possessed of an eidetic memory, she burned the notes as she read them. Necromancy and Blood Magic did not endear towards loyalty for fellow practitioners...
And then, a final archive, of his most precious specimens.
It was here.
Excited, Sirahani unlocked his most potent warding mechanisms at a central point in the room, reinforced with a series of powerful runes. One by one, they winked out of existence, until the central point emerged from the floor; a great cylindrical puzzle-lock that she in turn opened, revealing a trio of decorative vials.
One was a hexagonal prism of clear crystal, filled with a clear fluid preserved with warding runes. The tears of a celestial archon, they could utterly redeem a soul, no matter the evil they performed in life; a last ditch effort of many of evil weal to escape punishment after death.
The second vial was a tetragonal, without fluid, which held a shard of a Mythallar, one of the ancient inventions of the Netherese, which powered their floating pyramid cities. His notes made it clear that Aurus was trying to re-invent their ancient devices, all of which derived from an active Mythallar.
But the third vial, immaculately cut into the shape of a star, filled with red fluid, held her attention.
That was her goal.
She took hold of the vial just as she sensed the living behind her.
She turned, to appraise the Lizardman and the priest from the halls, and a Human and fledgling Vampire she didn't recognize.
"Drakul..." the She-Elf noted slyly, pocketing the vial she held, "I've done my research since last we met. Impressive...your acts of violence on this world make even mine pale in comparison. How many thousands of elves had you killed during the later Crown Wars?"
"What is she talking about?" Haidée asked, and Ryuu waved a hand dismissively, "Nothing you need to hear, child. So, smart Elf, you name me, but fail to introduce yourself? What happened to the legendary Tel'Quessir pomp and ceremony?"
"I am Lady Sirahani Irithyl." woman replied, "The first of my name and rightful ruler of Cormanthyr. But alas, I have not the time to waste on idle chatter. With the blood of Orcus, I have everything I need to pave the way for my lord's ascension, and my own. Vlad Tolenkov will reign over this world as he will Kanchelsis' realm in the abyss, and the children of the night will rejoice at their new god."
More white onyx flashed in her hands.
"Loreat!" Ryuu snarled, rattling off a death spell. The last digit of his finger turned bone white, and discharged a small orb of black energy.
As before, her body became intangible, unaffected by his spell, and the white onyx summoned Wraiths, a score of them. Pale, opaque bodies floated roughly two paces from the floor. Burial shrouds hung over their desiccated flesh. Eyeless faces shrieked, and their unearthly keen brought pained grimaces from his tribe.
His body suffused with Azaer's fire, a candle and a pinch of sulfur melting to nothing in his belt pouches, and Ryuu could not hide his grin.
"Do your thing, Sunathaer. Haidée, counter-spell. Esmer...try not to die!"
With that Ryuu hurled himself at the Wraiths, determined to hold their attention. Alexander incanted the holy words of his faith, and as one, their weapons glowed a pure, silvery light.
He heard Haidée shriek, and the sound of her sword clattering to the ground.
"She's undead, you idiot!" Ryuu cursed, thrusting his blades into incorporeal flesh, ignoring the blisters forming on his hands.
A bolt of shadowflame streaked past his head, hit a Wraith, and it cried anew, a dark red aura suffusing it. It turned on its fellows, but Sirahani dismissed it with a deft pass. She began to cast another spell.
Cursing anew, Ryuu flung his left blade end over end, passing through her and imbedding it into the wall behind her.
She didn't even flinch.
Taking his other thinblade in a two-handed grip, Ryuu backpedalled a Wraith while parrying the clawed hands of another. It withered at the contact, but its touch stole some of his negative energy, slowing him. Had he been alive, it would have extinguished his life spark and killed him.
Powerful undead, indeed.
Ducking, getting his blade in line, Ryuu thrust home with his right, and the other Wraith moaned, a hole of silvery light burning around the wound. It retreated, seemed to shrink into itself, but it didn't disperse.
Haidée completed a spell, and Sirahani laughed, ignoring the disjunctive magic, and the darkness in the room deepened.
He felt, but did not see, the touch to pure evil. He recoiled, in horror.
"He who Endures, preserve us!" Alexander cried, And a powerful burst of light joined it, and was swallowed by the presence. Nonetheless, the darkness waned, long enough for Ryuu to manage his own counterspell, and directly pit his will against that of the caster. Intangible or not, Sirahani could not deflect this manner of attack indirectly.
They locked eyes, struggling for dominance, as that foul presence again filled the chamber. He heard curdling, bubbly sounds that wracked his mind, partially perceived horrifying, unfathomable truths that could shatter him, if he but looked a little closer. He heard the others screaming.
"Not on my watch!" He snapped, and using his lost Oki as his focal point, his rage, undiminished over tens of thousands of years, boiled into sheer, undeniable will. Sirahani's spell crumbled apart, and with a soft pop, the presence was gone completely.
Just as the Wraiths closed in.
The Vampire gasped as they leaped into his chest, and passed through him, siphoning more of his negative energy.
Alexander again invoked the name of his god for aid, and light bloomed behind him.
"Haidée, cover!" they both bellowed in unison, and Ryuu embraced the agonizing pain as his body was wracked with divine power. He felt holes being bored into his skin, concentrated rather than wide-reaching, and sighed as the Wraiths were boiled out of his body.
He was good, that one. Focused. His faith, unquestionable.
Alexander might be good enough to take him on, if he decided he wanted his long-awaited end. Only a hero could vanquish a monster, they said...
Using the pain as focus as he had his rage, Ryuu barked a powerful disjunction that obliterated latent magic, even that outside of a wizardly nature. Alexander's enchantment on their weapons blinked out, as did Azaer's blue fire.
The Elf-Vampire snarled as her levitation dispelled and a shimmering field engulfed her body.
"I tire of this. Bother me no more, lesser creatures!"
With a final flourish, the Elf-Vampire vanished. A damned contingency spell, but not one based from Mystra's weave.
He cast several divinations to locate her, all in vain.
Damned mind mages...tricky ones, those.
For a few moments, there was silence.
Then his apprentice cried out, and Ryuu turned to see Alexander advancing with his Morningstar bared. About his head was surrounded by a corona of silver light that stung his exposed skin, but didn't burn it, as it would weaker undead.
Haidée, not so fortunate, recoiled, covering her blistered face, and Esmer shielded her with his body, cursing.
"Priest! What are you doing?!"
"She called you Drakul." Alexander said coolly, ignoring him, "Are you truly he?"
Ryuu scowled, nodded.
"I have read of this one." he continued, "The stories are old, very old, but they still circulate the libraries of Faerûn. A dark clad figure atop a dark steed, a Dragon banner in one hand and a sword in the other. An army of undead at his command."
"Not quite accurate." Ryuu noted, "I didn't favor a mount. My actions were committed in the shadows. The undead part wasn't far off."
"You sacked cities all across the elven nation. You murdered thousands. At one point, you nearly exterminated the green elves."
"One era of a long, long life. I was younger, then. More reckless. More angry. Itching to prove myself. Itching for revenge."
"All of this...is it just a game to you?"
"Absolutely." Ryuu parried, "I haven't fought for a cause in millennia."
"You were a butcher."
"I was a slave!" Ryuu snapped, "Who watched helplessly as his mate perished in his arms. Who failed to prevent his child from living as a slave! Who never even saw it hatch!"
He sighed, seeing the horrified expressions of his followers, his new tribe, "We are only as good as the world allows us to be. That was a different time. A different place. I wanted revenge for the destruction of my tribe. And to do that, I needed to deal with those responsible; the Tel'Quessir."
"The rest...is history. Much of it lost to history. The parts that weren't...well, I won't say they aren't accurate, but they don't tell the whole truth. The Elves recorded it, after all. They left out their crimes and touted our own. Believe me, I wasn't the only one to use necromancy. I wasn't the only tyrant."
He didn't look away. He eyed the priest straight on, "I don't give a damn if you condone it or not. I was what I was, and I am what I am. There's a reason I don't use that name."
That was it, then.
"What was she talking about? Who is this Vlad Tolenkov?" Haidée asked, hoping to break the tension.
"Vlad Tolenkov? Vlad...yeah, that fellow from the Union of Eclipses?"
"A worlds-spanning cabal of powerful Vampires and undead." Ryuu explained, curious himself, "They tried to enlist me after Karsus' folly, but I mostly turned it down. Don't want to cross those sorts, so I accepted an honorary position, which is, to say, I gave them the rights to declare an affiliation without actually including me."
"Karsus' folly?" Alexander gaped, "That was over a thousand years ago. And the Crown Wars...that almost pre-dates Netheril!"
"Your point?" Ryuu asked, and that was that.
Sirahani materialized in one of her own personal research sites, free of the bunglers and in the possession of an item she had searched for decades to obtain; the blood of a divine being. A divine, undead being.
Despite this, she hissed.
The flush of battle had loosened her tongue. She had been very careless in revealing even so little of her intentions. Even in a haunted ruin lorded by a Dracolich, the possibility of their escape worried her.
There was nothing to it; she would see how far they delved, and ensure their destruction personally if need be. There was still much to do, and no room for further error. Her success would bring about her revenge, and her rule. Failure would lead to a fate far, far worse than death.
Ryuu led his tribe further into Thunderholme. Though he often appeared at ease, inside, he was thinking all the time, and this was no exception.
The blood of Orcus.
Like any undead, Ryuu knew well the name of that being, that god. He had been personally championed by one of the most powerful necromancers of this age, Zhengyi the Witch-King, but had been weakened when the now King Gareth Dragonsbane and his company banished his power from the realm by stealing his wand.
Simultaneously, Orcus had been slain by the Drow demi-goddess Kiaransalee. But his relics endured, it seemed, and that bottle hadn't held some curious metaphor...it had been Orcus' actual blood.
There were a great many things a Vampire could do with such a thing. And none of them were good.
The other name, too, had been a cause for concern.
Vlad Tolenkov was old, hells, maybe older than Ryuu himself, a sometimes consort and advisor to Lloth, who, like Kanchelsis, was one of the Demon Lords ruling over a whole domain of the Abyss. If he was acting outside of the Union of Eclipses...well, it was bad news. For Lloth. For Kanchelsis. For everybody.
He had much to consider, when things were said and done here. Much to consider.