Ruins, Cormyr (27th of Eleint, 1366 Dalereckoning)
All around him, there was nothingness. The path led him through utter desolation, emptiness, a barren waste without end. The wind blew in torrents, blasting him with loose grey sands, and Ryuu whimpered, tried in vain to shield his eyes. The wind was an organic force, however; it pushed around his defenses, seeped through his hands to irritate his eyes and wounds.
It was cold…so cold…and he had nothing for warmth but the loincloth that had been given to him by his elven masters. Ryuu's hand awkwardly brushed his back, at the red-black gashes all across the dull silvery coat of his scales, before, his strength depleted, he collapsed onto the sands. He writhed from wound shock, curling into a ball, opening the wounds further, and loose rivulets of his blood congealed in the grounds under him in an expanding pool. It was over; he would die here, on this day, alone and so very far from home.
The Lizardman did not see his life flashing before him, as they often claimed would be the pre-mortem transition. Instead, he only had one thought flashing through his mind; that of Oki, his mate. The others had often wondered why she had chosen him as her mate, but he had not needed to understand. He still did not…
Ryuu coughed up bloody phlegm, and after the fit, he saw something that stopped his heart. Within the pool of sickness, black streaks intertwined with the red and clear saliva…a very clear hint of what awaited him when he lost consciousness. Ryuu tore himself from what was to be his grave, managing a few more paces crawling along the expanse, gritting his teeth through the pain as his breath started to fail him. NO! He would escape, find someone…cure it before…
Ryuu collapsed a second time, and his vision grew hazy, with black spots swimming in the blurry, unreal sight of the wastes. He thought of Oki, of the child he would never see, and finally, mercifully, he knew no more.
Haidée held her tears at bay, and made sure not to look at her master, who sensed her distress and promptly ignored it.
What Alexander said...he had been a monster, a butcher.
But she know what he had been even before that. She knew she had to defend him if Alexander spoke out again. Even if Ryuu would resent her for it!
Esmer kept pace with her, walking side-by-side.
How the sight of him still imbalanced her! Just a few weeks ago, she had been engaged to him...in a way, she still feasibly was. So much had changed, Haidée had coasted through her journey with Ryuu as if in a dream.
But his arrival had grounded her. Even within the limits of proximity the holy symbol allowed them, for even being within ten paces of either it or Alexander at all caused her discomfort, she had learned so much about him. He was more to her now than some stranger to which she was destined to be wed.
He had sought her out, once to pay his respects after her "death", and again after realizing she still lived. He hadn't questioned her being a Vampire, if anything, it had only increased his desire to be with her. Whether it was mere guilt or something else, he was not the cold, distant suitor she had feared.
He noticed her looking at him, and he moved his hand to hers. This time, despite the wracking pain that struck her from even indirect contact with the holy symbol, she didn't pull away.
He didn't speak; she realized that he preferred actions to words, like her. The gesture and the genuine, selfless concern in his eyes said volumes; he would fight with and for her, and that they would manage this...condition. That he still pined for her even after all that had happened.
The thirst boiled under her skin, but the anchor of his warm, Human hand against hers steadied her against it.
At ease in the middle of a haunted dwarven ruin as she had not been in her own family home, Haidée returned her attention to their task.
They passed from the laboratory, her master having picked the other two artifacts from the inner vault and destroyed the rest. The Elf did not reappear, did not trouble them any further. Along to the end of the hall of mirrors, through a new labyrinth of tunnels, and down yet another stairwell, they descended. They encountered sparse resistance, all undead in nature.
As the ruins gave way to more natural formations far older, they entered a massive cavern. From Ryuu's more recent memories, Haidée knew this place to be a closed portion of the underdark. Above and below them, the distance was so great that not even with her darkness-attuned vision could she see the bottom. Battlements from the ceiling above hung banners of Null; a great blackness in the rough outline of a dragon.
Stalactites and stalagmites jutted from the floors, the latter interconnected by bridges leading to a nearly city-sized structure of two diverging levels. The lower level, little more than a support, reached into the darkness below, and was lined with battlements. The upper section formed a sort of pyramid, around which hung even more banners. It was circular in shape, as if a multitude of massive stone rings of graduating sizes had been constructed on site and stacked atop each other. Arcane crystals, which glowed an eerie violet, lit the structure and revealed the intricate engravings all along its surfaces.
Atop this temple, a great form rose, a mountain atop a mountain. Alexander and Esmer tensed, looked about, but didn't seem to notice it. Like the banners, Haidée intuited the rough outline of the dragon, but saw only darkness. Eyes, a cold blue, pierced the darkness. Its membranous wings spread, and a deafening roar echoed through the great cavern.
Though he didn't actually speak, Haidée read his lips and the expression of complete and utter smugness etched on his reptilian face.
"See? A dragon. Didn't I say so?"
"I know not what foolishness has drawn you here, intruders..." Aurgloroasa hissed from atop the temple, her voice sibilant but painfully loud, "But you plummet headlong into oblivion. Turn back".
"Turn back, fair dragon?" Ryuu asked, hurt, a hand on his chest, "But we have only just arrived. And we haven't been introduced."
The cavern swelled with viridian light. Wraiths filled the air; thousands of dwarven dead. Hundreds of fleshy forms, preserved Zombies, shuffled into view, and ambled along the bridge leading to them. Hundreds more ambled into view from behind.
"Speak, then, that I may know those who will serve me in death."
"I am Ryuu." he said, "Also, I am Drakul and I am Bhūta, the Torch of the Reach, the Wandering Blight, and the Elusive One. I have served Gods, Archfiends, Archmages, Vampire Lords, Dukes and Pashas and everything in between. Slain threefold by the Order of the Risen Scepter, befriended two-fold by the same, and captured twenty-fivefold by King Vikrama. I am the Eternal. I am the Forsaken. I have risen and toppled nations, witnessed the birth and extinction of civilizations."
"...and I am here..." Ryuu concluded, grinning, "To arbitrate the passage of the dead of Thunderholme to their proper afterlife; pleasant, no doubt, for those slain. But for you, milady...not so much."
The Dracolich snarled, reared up. The Wraiths hissed in agitation.
"Too many, Ryuu..." Alexander said nervously, brandishing his Morningstar as a silvery corona surrounded his head, "Too many."
"Not for long." Ryuu noted, palming items from his belt; a small lump of bone which was part of a Ghoul femur, and a vial containing a chuck of rat flesh, still raw and fresh thanks to his preservation techniques.
In his other hand, he held a black onyx gem and a dwarf molar plucked from a skeleton from the foundry. By arranging his reagents thus, he melded two spells that he began to cast simultaneously.
The Dracolich roared, and the undead descended upon them.
Timing each phrase so that it was followed by the opposing spell without breaking the flow long enough for its accumulating energies to dissipate, Ryuu thrust out with two dominating spells just as Aurgloroasa's horde closed in. Over three score of the Wraiths, and two dozen of the Zombies, all positioned in front of their respective lines, shrieked, glowed crimson, and turned on their fellows, dominated by his ineffable will.
With a much smaller horde under his command, Ryuu was easily able to loosely direct the Wraiths to orbit about his tribe, protecting them from the draining touch of the other Wraiths, while directing the Zombies to likewise form a line and push out towards the temple, knocking their enemies over the bridges to tumble uselessly into the darkness below.
A few lumbered through the lines, and the others managed as best they could.
"Jrgrlg..." Ryuu hissed, as his turned cluster of undead battled with those under the Dracolich's sway, "I summon you forth in my time of need!"
Still not fully departed to its tortured realm, his corrupted earth elemental manifested instantly, surging out of the walls of the cavern behind them.
"Collapse all tunnels and supporting bridges!" Ryuu commanded, "Leave us only the path to the temple!"
Without reply, Jrgrlg sunk back into the wall.
Within the first moments of the battle, the inner level of Thunderholme began to rumble ominously.
Alexander and Haidée fired bolts of holy fire and shadowflame at the airborne Wraiths. Esmer, with only his blade, waited expectantly.
"Onward and upward!" he giggled, "Right through death's door and all the way to the top!"
Ryuu drew steel, and charged into the melee, leaping over the back of a dominated Zombie, and landing on the chest of another, planting a blade in each eye socket.
Azaer's fire boiling from his body, Ryuu kicked out, pulling Hyosho and Kaminari free, and where they had cut, the wounds glowed blue, incinerating it from within.
With a burst of vampiric agility, Ryuu anticipated several attacks at once, interposed his body just so, and sliced through undead flesh with a blinding display of acrobatics, balancing solely on one foot, sliding forward, and spinning his blades as he rapidly shifted weight from his foot to his left hand, palm down on the stone floor, than the other, before kicking out with both feet and knocking a dwarven Zombie off the bridge.
Somersaulting back into a standing posture, Ryuu sidestepped another Zombie, elbowing its opposing arm out of the way and swiping his right blade across in a reverse-grip, and thanks to its enchantments, the thinblade sliced through its neck with little resistance, beheading it. Then using its body as a shield for the few moments before it toppled, he tangled two Zombies up and struck them with a necromantic dispel, which ripped the negative energy out of their bodies and rendered them inert. Deprived of their sustaining energies, they crumbled to dust.
Jrgrlg did his work. Massive stone stalactites fell from above, plowing through adjacent bridges and support structures. Walls tumbled inward, burying the tunnel they had come through, and several others throughout the cavern. The horde approaching from the rear was thus buried, the air filling with displaced sediment.
Hearing his allies advance behind him, Ryuu thus let his Zombies advance beyond him, and looked up to the Dracolich, who had by then completed her own spell, in the form of raining shadowflame.
Commanding the Wraiths to interpose and turn solid, their numbers dwindled quickly as they absorbed the brunt of the attack.
"Haidée!" he snapped, "Fog, now!"
He saw his apprentice nod, and as she broke apart, a thick cloud of fog covered their portion of the bridge, obscuring it from view. It terminated right at his back, for he was several paces ahead of the others. The sounds of battle echoed from within as the opposing Wraiths struggled for dominance.
"Space yourself, that you not blind the others!" he advised, then planned his next moves.
The path led to the base of the temple, which spiraled upward to the peak. The overhang would protect them, but they needed to reach it safely.
The Dracolich cast again, and a penetrating cloud of negative energy tumbled down from the temple, and towards his tribe.
Ryuu gaped, and rattled out a hasty counterspell. The cloud shrank, but didn't dissipate. Not even he was strong enough to contend with the will of Aurgloroasa.
He heard his apprentice scream behind him, and the fog dissipated, a stray fume retreating inside of a shimmering field of silvery light that emanated from Alexander's Morningstar. His clerical barrier quivered and broke apart as the cloud fell upon it, but it too dissipated into nothingness.
Haidée incorporated, feeble and shaking, holding her left hand close to her body.
Both Alexander and Esmer bled from several wounds sustained by battling the odd Zombie or two that snuck through the lines of enthralled undead.
This wasn't going well.
"Dwarven Kings of Old!" Ryuu bellowed, calling not upon necromancy but a wish spell that restored itself to him only once a century, the very last of his greater spellcraft, "Rise from your slumber and aid those who would liberate your people!".
A piercing light suffused him, as his body was used as a conduit to ferry souls from their afterlife. A half-dozen armored dwarves, translucent and cloudy, appraised him with eyes that burned gold. One, whose face was nearly identical to the statue in center of the tomb, scowled.
"Ye fiend! What justice could such a creature bring upon the head o' our betrayers?" King Emerlin III rasped dryly, a dull echo rebounding through the cavern.
"Judge me not by my dead flesh!" Ryuu protested, "For I wish ill of those who chose undeath for selfish ends. Aid me, that these halls may at last know silence, and even, in the millennia to come, new life!"
Nodding, the specter lifted his pike, and the Wraiths retreated by the droves. Those Ryuu himself had dominated likewise fled.
"Flee, ye souless things!" Emerlin snapped, and the Zombies, too, fled, right off of the bridge.
He heard the Dracolich casting from above, and the dwarven spirits recoiled in fear.
As one, shimmering chains of black iron manifested, and bound them.
"You are mine, Emerlin!" Aurgloroasa gloated triumphantly, "As it should have been in ages passed. Come to me..."
"Free us, ye stinking lizard." the Dwarf King moaned, as he and his fellows were pulled up toward the Dracolich.
After her master dispersed the undead, they dashed for the temple.
The Dracolich, for that was what the shriveled, shadow-wrapped creature above must have been, had rained more of the putrefying clouds. Between Ryuu and Alexander, none reached them again, and she was able to build up her strength. The aching feeling coursing through her body began to diminish, if not by much.
As they reached the lower structures surrounding and beneath the temple, the Dracolich roared. She did not, however, take wing.
"Are you alright?" Esmer asked, breathless, as she leaned on the wall for support.
"I think so." Haidée gasped, though the intake of air did not steady her, "I didn't think it would hurt me as fog...but I felt it."
"Your eyes are red."
"They always are." Haidée protested.
"More red..." Esmer replied uneasily, "Even the whites."
"Yup." Ryuu said, nonplussed, "Negative energy will do that to you, alive or undead. But we are tough nuts to crack, we Vampires. It will heal soon enough."
He turned, towards the stairs, "We don't have long before Ol'Aurgloroasa conjures up more undead. And now there's the spirits I foolishly summoned. I'll have to directly pit my will against hers to free them. Or hopefully I can think of a way to kill her quickly and avoid the issue altogether."
"What makes you think you can do that?" Alexander asked.
"Well, she didn't take to the wing the moment we arrived." Ryuu said, pondering, "That's odd. Even the most prideful dragons wouldn't balk at some sport. I think she's rooted to that spot. Maybe some foolhardy adventurers managed to damage her phylactery, weakening the hold on her body."
"That's a bit of a stretch."
"All we got, my friends. I kept anything solid from getting into this cavern, but likewise out. And we, I'm afraid, are quite solid."
"One thing at a time." He concluded, "Up to the top we go."
Wind, and sand.
Pain, terror, then oblivion.
Time voided. Eternity.
Then, something more.
A puff of smoke, in a sea of darkness.
What was it?
Yes. Hunger. A gnawing hunger.
In his stomach. In his heart. In his soul...
He had to sate it.
Then, more; memories, distant and scattered. Oddly contrasting. Memories of a life in a desert, a small house atop a hill. Sisters. Rivals.
Memories before a black altar, a maiden with black wings and a proud face and emerald eyes that burned with their intensity.
More memories, of a life in a simple village, a stringed instrument playing before a bonfire. The golden eyes of his mate.
Who was he?
The Lizardman, or the Vampire?
He did not know. What should he do? Yes. He had to wake up. Wake up.
He gasped, sand coating his tongue, his fingers digging into the stuff as he lifted his body, if not his legs. So strange. Where was he? He did not know, but...
He remembered his name. Ryuu...yes, Ryuu... The life in the village. That was the correct answer.
He sat up, tried to stand. Oki? Where was Oki? Where was his home?
His nausea, his lethargy, was gone. Why? What could have happened since he fell asleep?
He opened his eyes fully, to find a windswept desert, no civilization, no life, to speak of. And he was...
"Alive?" Ryuu asked, confused, until he coughed up the sand and blood in his mouth.
Until he looked down at his hands.
Gone was his silver-grey skin; now, the two hands before him, their nails lengthened into blackened claws, were a pale, pale grey, almost sickly. The blood coating them was a deep, tar black, with streaks of dark red throughout.
"I..." he groaned, "Am..."
He was... He was...
Ryuu wailed, coiling into a ball, shutting his eyes tightly. No, NO! He was wrong! He was wrong! He was dead! Gods, why could he not be dead?!
He groaned as his back reopened, the deep cuts splitting and sending waves of burning pain throughout his body.
And the egg... THE EGG!
"I have been undone!" he screamed, shrieking in hysterics as he gouged at his own face, "The one act that could have redeemed me of this horrid existence, undone. Oki, our child! Our child will hatch in their world! It will suffer as I have! Why, World Serpent, why?! Why did I not dash it upon a rock when I had the chance?!"
Black blood seeped from the wounds on his back and chest, dripping up his neck as he knelt, prostrate, burning his eyes, but he did not care.
He deserved it.
He deserved all of this!
ALL OF IT!
Ryuu screamed again, but it cut off, ending in sobs, as he crumpled.
In time, he stilled.
His hatred was not restricted to himself... Clarity left him with another target to vent his despair and eminent frustration.
"They are to blame, as much as I am..." he hissed, his hands shaking with the strength of his rage. He drifted in and out of coherence, between oblivion and fury, wavering as he tried to stand again, and succeeded.
"I will...kill them..." he snarled, hissing as he felt the wounds on his face close, tonguing his fangs as they extended far beyond their natural limit. As he felt a ravenous hunger bubbling up within him, "I will kill them all; bathe in their blood, drape their organs upon me, hang their offspring from the highest towers as they burn and feast upon what remains! They will know of me. Oh yes, they will know of me..."
He stanched the pain in his heart, the hollowness. He drowned his sorrow, murdered his doubt and fear.
New elation swept through him, and he embraced it, giggling wildly, wobbling as he took his first new steps, scooping up a dash of sand as he did. His instinct told him why he did this; grave dust, taken from the spot of his death, would sustain him as a Vampire. He would need it to move from that spot. He knew that he needed to find shade, or darkness, to hide from the sun ere it pierced the clouds.
He knew it was mad, that he was mad. He simply did not care.
He laughed, and he heard madness in it. "I will give them fear. I will give them pain. If I cannot know eternity with you, my love, Sun on my Scales, then I will send all the world to join you and our child in the void."
Haunted by the visions of her master's rebirth, Haidée followed him as they ascended the temple.
There, at the peak, was a great platform, composed of interlocking rings emblazoned with runic symbols. She noted among them the sigil of Dumathoin; that of a gem inside of a mountain, as well as the fiery anvil of Moradin. These symbols glowed red, though the spaces they occupied had been gouged out by claws.
The dwarven gods had not yet fully abandoned this place, despite its master.
The Dracolich sat curled atop a central platform, almost feline as her neck arched to appraise them. It was as large around as her father's house twice over and twice again, its limbs, even skeletal, like thick tree trunks. Its head alone was the size of a wagon, determinable from its body only by the broad, curling horns crowning it, and the cold blue eyes that burned beneath them.
Even standing so close to the foul thing made her want to flee. Her feet felt heavy, and her head lighter than air. She knew from her master's memories that liches of all sorts bled a magical fear. It seemed potent enough even to affect her. Or maybe that was just the sight itself.
Sirahani appeared as well, surrounded by clinging shadow. An apparition, linked to its caster.
And around them, arranged in a wedge formation, were the half-dozen dwarven kings.
The Dracolich's eyes, cold burning embers, narrowed dangerously.
"You have done me a great service in breaking the seals about the tomb and bringing this lot into my midst." Aurgloroasa mused, her voice a sibilant whisper, "All the souls of Thunderholme I would have gladly traded for these six, and you have only cost me a portion. A pittance. For this, I will allow you one more chance to flee."
"I make no such promises." Sirahani noted dryly, "Even the minor inconveniences you have posed to me warrant death."
"Why did you seek these souls?" Alexander asked, and it was Ryuu who answered, "Her hold on Thunderholme has obviously been weakened by something. I know a Dragon readying for battle, and perched on a dais isn't it. You can't move, can you?"
Despite his casual words with the monster, Haidée clearly saw the strain in his posture; the tenseness of his back.
Aurgloroasa blinked; the cruel blue motes of light merely faded, and reappeared, "Not easily. And you think that will prevent me from slaughtering you? With the kings of Thunderholme in my possession, I will be able to more actively command the dead here. I can finally move to strike the surface kingdoms, as well as those below. Once I repair the platform you upended, that is."
"An empire of undead." Ryuu noted, "I've certainly considered such things myself. Why?"
"Why? What a foolish question. I desire power, little Vampire. I need nothing else but dominion and conquest. My time here, a prisoner in all but name, has made me restless."
"I guess that puts us at an impasse." Alexander noted, and Ryuu groaned, holding his head.
"Way to break etiquette, Sunathaer. I was going to challenge her to single combat, but I don't think she's in a sporting mood now."
He sighed, "Will you allow us the benefit of single combat. You're out of their league."
"But not yours?"
"I was hoping to find out the straightforward way."
"I don't think so." Aurgloroasa replied, "I know this name, however. Drakul."
She laughed, "What an amusing accolade. But you are no Dragon, little Vampire. You are not my equal. You could, however, be a choice servant. You owe nothing to the living. Why not join me against them?"
"Countless souls and more blood that I could drink? I'll pass. I like the world alive, even if I have no place in it."
"Very well then. Kill them."
That last remark was no doubt directed at her retinue. Sirahani began to cast, and the dwarven kings advanced with weapons bared. The mountain of gold pulled itself into a wand that the Dracolich held, a Greatstaff in the hands of a Humanoid, vanishing.
Sirahani completed her spell, and a half dozen Wraiths manifested in the air above them, and circled round.
Aurgloroasa reared up, but slowly, with deliberate, stiff, lumbering motions.
Ryuu cast a spell that she didn't understand, and two of the dwarven kings vanished. Alexander likewise banished another with an invocation of his god. And then Haidée and Esmer met the charge of the remaining three, parrying and blocking their glimmering pikes, respectively.
Gods, they were strong!
Esmer buckled, but she, with a burst of vampiric speed, swatted her attacker's pike aside, and struck with a bolt of shadowflame, which smote the other point blank. The dwarven spirit recoiled, burning.
Sirahani completed her next spell, and from her fingertip discharged a bolt of lightning, which hit her, and arced to Esmer, hurling him backwards, smoking from his abdomen.
"Damn you!" Haidée snarled, calling another bolt which passed through her smug expression without pause. The dwarven kings, with technique far beyond her own, pressed her back, and only her unnatural agility and strength saved her from being overwhelmed. She attacked simply, but nonetheless kept pace, leaving them little room to maneuver.
Ryuu, she saw, dueled with Aurgloroasa, occupying her so that she couldn't use her breath attack to kill them all in one simple motion.
Alexander, already bleeding from a wound to his arm, for these Wraiths were possessed of bladed claws that manifested in the physical realm, called upon a corona of silvery flame that surrounded his head. His eyes, pupil-less orbs of silver, were painful to look into directly.
Turning back to her foes, she tried and failed to further parry their attacks and resorted to merely displacing their momentum. While she didn't tire, she felt herself waning as the thirst grew worse. It had been days since she'd first fed on that dragon cultist.
Sirahani projected forward, a curious sound like ringing bells issuing with increasing volume.
Something popped in her head just as her foes aligned on her, and her guard dropped.
Esmer, his battle cry fearsome, brought his shield to bear, down onto one pike and out against the other. What would have gored her through the chest took her through the left shoulder. The other pike lodged in Esmer's thigh, and he grunted.
Blooded, Haidée held the pike in her shoulder, dropping her sword, and blasted the spirit again with shadowflame, and he broke apart into dark streamers. Horrified, even while enthralled, the other spirit, this the one Ryuu had spoken to before, twisted away, leaving his pike, which pulled Esmer to the ground, screaming, for it was still lodged in his leg.
"Hold still!" Ryuu snapped, and a second pair of shadowy chains encompassed the spirit, binding it.
Looking down at Esmer, Haidée tried to gauge the severity of his wounds.
"'Alexander!" She called out, "Help him.", as she snapped the shaft of the pike from its blade, so he wouldn't bleed out, and pulled him backward, out of the fray. The motion was so quick and precise, he barely noticed, and stared blankly back at her.
As his eyes widened, she turned to see the deathly visage of the Dracolich as she swiped Ryuu to the side and discharged her breath attack, directly into her.
Time distorted. Her body felt cold, and a fragment of herself leeched away. She collapsed, her shoulder seeping dark, tarry blood, laced with hoarfrost.
"Die." Aurgloroasa hissed, and a bolt of shadowflame raced towards her prone body.
Haidée succumbed to her wounds, and waited as the shadowflame hurled forward to meet her.
But then Ryuu appeared in front of her, and the Dracolich's spell struck him instead, burning a hole in his chest, immolating his heart and lungs. Shadowflame reached through, and smote her on the face, blinding her. She heard him scream, as she heard herself scream.
She went deaf, her ears ringing.
Her flesh healed quickly. She came back to herself to see him, still standing over her, facing the Dracolich.
"That all you got?" Ryuu gargled, leaning forward, blades bared.
He turned, facing her, and for a moment, it seemed he would stay on his feet.
But then the steel fell from his hands, to clatter on the ground. How loud, that sound!
Her master crumpled, smoking, his expression vacant. She saw the awareness leave his eyes, and then the rest.