With the wyverns defeated, the party decided that the tower the beasts had nested in was the best way to enter the keep. A few fly spells later, they were descending through its hollowed-out interior onto a paved stone floor covered in stinking muck.
“That isn’t wyvern dung, is it?” asked Milacent. The fact that no one answered did not make her feel better.
There were two doors at the bottom of the tower, one to the north and one to the east. Scratchy went and listened at both of them, and motioned to the others when he heard muttering behind the one to the north.
Helanda set herself up in formation with the others, then took a deep breath. This whole place smelled of evil magic – not just the keep but the entire strange demiplane that contained it. Whatever was behind that door, she hoped it was vulnerable to stabbing.
Zelcor cast his open/close spell and the door flung open, quickly followed by several shouts.
“The porcupine man’s controlling them! Get him!”
“Is that the lower half of a body?”
“Look out! The wraiths are coming through the walls!”
Twenty minutes later it was all over. Helanda leaned against a wall, still shivering from the wraiths’ chilling touch. Seeing them up close, it was clear they had once been Khaei; their odd twisting limbs were still visible in their new form, but their fear and docility had been replaced with hunger and rage. The “porcupine man” had indeed been controlling them, but he had abandoned them in battle to fetch reinforcements. Those had come in the form of the upper half of the body they had first seen. It was a manananggal, an undead monstrosity that took the form of a human woman during the day, but at sunset the upper half grew bat wings and ripped itself away to go flying through the night. Of course, in this place it was always night. The manananggal had burst in through the other door, bringing with it a swirling green mist that seemed to pulse with malevolence. Helanda had seen shapes in the swirling mist, various humanoid forms contorted into poses of agony and fear. That had been the worst thing, the hungry fog. It had swept into the room with the manananggal and drained life from whatever it touched, but it was vulnerable to magic weapons, and ultimately it had been defeated as well.
Theodora finished up healing everyone and the group discussion moved to the next room they should enter. There was another door leading out of the one the wraiths had been in, and the general consensus was that they should try that next. Helanda would have liked a rest, a little time to get the supernatural chill out of her bones, but even though she was no longer a Gray Maiden, she was still a warrior. She set herself up in position to go through the door.
The door swung open, and everyone tensed for combat. Instead of a fight, however, they were greeted by the sight of a strange little workshop. A workbench containing various assorted vessels filled with unknown substances sat against one wall, while another wall held a triptych depicting a ship covered in flames and dark spines floating before the night sky.
“Why is there no water for that ship to float in?” asked Milacent.
“First things first,” replied Theodora, “who is this guy?”
Theodora was referring to a withered, skeletal corpse sitting in an armchair near the workbench. It had an oversized, bulging forehead, a long blue cape, finely tailored black clothes, and a three-eyed bird skull hanging from a chain around its neck. A book was in its lap, and it looked very much like whoever he was had died while reading. This party, however, had seen enough strangeness to know not to trust appearances.
“One skeleton …,” Zelcor whispered fearfully as Helanda and Milacent advanced cautiously toward the chair. Sure enough, as they grew closer the corpse began to move.
“Ah, welcome,” it said in Thassilonian.
“Um, hello?” Theodora answered.
“I am Malagast of Eox, or at least a simulacrum of him” it said, “and whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
“I am Theodora … of Absalom. And how long have you been here, Malagast of Eox?”
It turned out Eox had been there since before the fall of Thassilon, and was quite surprised to hear about the empire’s demise. He had many questions about the fate of the Runelords, the current inhabitants of what once was Thassilon, and the state of the world in general, but Theodora and company had some questions of their own.
“Are you the master of this place then?”
“Oh no. I was brought here to serve the master.”
“The Dark Rider.” That name again.
“What is the Dark Rider?”
“Exactly what he sounds like, a headless horseman on a dark steed. This is his domain. The Runelord Karzoug struck a bargain with him: he guards the runelord’s shard, and its energy sustains and protects this demiplane.”
Theodora suddenly grew very very interested. “And where is this shard?” she asked, “Does he keep it on his person?”
“I doubt he keeps it on his person, but probably nearby,” A note of sadness crept into his voice, “Do you know that I’ve never been to his inner sanctum? Over ten thousand years and I’ve hardly been out of this room.”
“Well, maybe when we kill him you’ll be free.”
“Oh no, he’s already instructed me to kill you when you try to leave this workshop.”
“Oh yes. He knows you are here and he knows why you’ve come. When we fight you will probably destroy me,” and here his voice lost it sadness, “but when you meet him he will kill you all.”
“But how does he know? Is he communicating telepathically?”
“I suppose you could call it that. This is his domain, after all. And … Oh, it appears he has grown impatient with our little conversation. Now we must fight to the death.”
The room transformed into a blur of motion. Malagast acted first, sweeping his hand before him as Milacent and Helanda charged toward him. They struck hard, but a field of energy deflected their blows. At the same moment they felt the strength leave their arms, victim to whatever spell Malagast had used. Scratchy began firing his arrows, but the strange wizard gestured towards him and suddenly he was gone. Theodora recognized the telltale signs of a Dismissal spell and realized that on this plane, they were the outsiders. Scratchy had been forced back to his home plane, the Prime Material, and was not going to be coming back anytime soon.
“Zelcor! Dispel his shield!” Theodora shouted, because Malagast clearly had magical protections in place, and would be nearly impossible to beat as long as they were up.
“Ah, an excellent strategy!” Malagast responded as Zelcor began peeling away his spells, “I see you are capable opponents indeed!”
“Shut up!” Helanda commanded, and plunged her blade into him. Protection or not, she and Milacent were beginning to hurt him.
“Ah, you are so much better to talk to than the undead the keep generates,” and with that he cast another spell and Helanda collapsed to the ground.
“Helanda!” Milacent shouted, and jabbed at Maligast again, and again, and again. Flakes of bone flew off his body, and his fine clothes were quickly being reduced to tatters. Still he did not die.
“A capital strike!” Maligast answered.
Theodora looked over at Helanda and saw her chest rising and falling: paralyzed, not dead. Zelcor announced that he had stripped away most of the undead wizard’s magical shield, and Theodora replied by interrupting Maligast’s next spell casting with a volley of magic missiles.
“Oh it seems I’m in trouble now!” Maligast continued.
“Stop being so jovial!” Theodora demanded.
“No, just die,” Milacent said, and with a final blow cracked his skull apart.
Maligast’s broken body fell noisily to the floor, then dissolved into a pile of ice and snow.
“He was just a simulacrum after all,” Theodora said, “The real Maligast of Eox probably died thousands of years ago.”
Helanda, for her part, didn’t care if the creature they’d just fought was the real Maligast or not, or what happened to the original. All she cared about was the fact that she was lying on the floor, completely unable to move. It was a terrifying sensation, being fully awake but with no control over your body. She heard the others ransacking the room and their worried discussion about what to do next. She bore unfortunate witness to Theodora’s failed attempts to remove her paralysis, and ultimately she felt Milacent pick her up and carry her as the party retreated back to the glowing stone that had transported them here. When they reached it there was a flash of magical blue light, but this time the journey was accompanied by mind-shattering pain. Helanda convulsed heavily and then passed out.
When she awoke, Helanda was in the library. She sat up, thankful that she could move again, and saw Theodora sitting next to her with a worried expression on her face.
“What’s wrong?” Helanda asked, “Is Scratchy still missing?”
“No,” Theodora answered, “he was transported back into Kaer Maga. He made his way back to the library and now we’re ready to go again. It’s just that, I was wondering, do you want to leave?”
Helanda opened her mouth to say “No”, but then felt the ache still in her bones from the wraiths’ touch, remembered the sickly feeling of having her life force sucked away by the hungry fog, and the utter helplessness of lying paralyzed on the ground. She realized that there would only be more evil magic in her future, and that she hated dark magic more and more every time she encountered it. If she wanted to leave, now was the perfect opportunity.
But before she said “Yes,” she had more thinking to do. To her knowledge, no one else had ever left the Gray Maidens and lived. She would most certainly be killed if she returned to Korvosa, but she wasn’t suited to do anything else but fight. She would have to join a mercenary outfit, or become a bandit somewhere. Would she be able to trust them? Her sisters in the Gray Maidens had betrayed her; how could she find a group of mercenaries she could trust?
And finally, she thought of Milacent, picking her up and carrying her out of the Dark Forest. She looked Theodora in the eye and said, “No, I’ll stay.”