“Hurry up! The Master has forbidden us from slaying you until you enter the keep!”
Scratchy pulled his head back from the window and scuttled away. The message in Theodora’s spellbook had changed the plan for defeating the Dark Rider: instead of attacking his stronghold in several trips, it would be necessary for the party to charge in and fight all the way to his stronghold in a single battle. To this end, Scratchy had taken it upon himself to crawl over the walls and peek into the keep’s windows for a bit, just to see what they would encounter. Peeking into one window he spied the half-horse creature that had given them trouble the day before. Surprisingly, she had seen him as well, and given the just-mentioned injunction. Scratchy hurried back to the party.
“They’re waiting for us,” he told the others.
“Well then, let’s get ready,” said Theodora. She and Zelcor set about casting the preparatory spells they would need: Haste, Prayer, Bear’s Endurance, etc. When all was ready they took up their positions and Theodora gave the word: “Go!”
In unison Milacent and Helanda burst through the front door and into the Great Hall of the Black Keep. At first they saw nothing in the inky darkness, then Milacent noticed movement at her feet.
“Undead!” she shouted, “They’re coming out of the floor!”
Milacent turned back to look at her support, just in time to see the doors swing shut, plunging the room into darkness. Outside, Theodora banged on the doors, but it was sealed tight.
“Maybe we can break through the windows?” Zelcor wondered aloud, but he stopped when he heard a strange buzzing sound overhead. “That sounds like … stirges?” he said.
“No, it’s worse!” announced Theodora, “It’s ghoul stirges!”
Everyone looked up to see the giant mosquito-like form of stirges descending upon them, but as Theodora had said, these were not stirges of the living variety. Their flesh was gray and rotting, and they somehow managed to fly on broken wings.
“Gather around me!” Zelcor shouted, “I’ll Dimension Door us inside!”
Everyone gathered together and grabbed onto Zelcor. The spell would let him move himself and three other creatures. That meant Scratchy, Fleabait, Theodora, and …
… not the riding dog.
Zelcor looked down into the dog’s large, dark eyes. It was sad, but he made his decision. “Run boy, run!” he shouted, and gave it a push. Then he used the Dimension Door spell to teleport himself and the three others into the keep, reasoning that the dog would be able to run fast enough to escape from the stirges.
“It’ll totally be okay,” he told himself.
He didn’t have much time to think about it, however, for as soon as he had teleported into the keep Zelcor was caught up in the fighting inside.
“They’re wights!” Milacent was screaming, “Don’t them let hit you or they’ll drain your life force!”
I never ‘let’ things hit me, Zelcor was thinking, it just happens. Nevertheless he did what he could against the wights, and prepared for the next thing that he knew was coming.
He didn’t have to wait long. A door burst open, and the half-horse thing (a nuckelavee, as they later found out it was called) charged into the room. It breathed out its noxious gas weapon, but this time the party was ready, falling back far enough so as not to be affected. With the gas in place, they peppered it with spells and missile weapons. As soon as the gas had cleared, Milacent and Helanda charged in to finish it off. The creature let loose with its waves of magical fear, but Milacent grit her teeth and held on. She pushed through and stabbed it through the horse part of its chest, and Helanda came in and stabbed it through the side. It fell to the ground, thrashing wildly about while gushing torrents of dark black bile, and after a little more hacking it finally lay still.
“Quick, through the next door,” Theodora commanded, “before our spells run out.”
Helanda shoved the door open and was immediately met with a frightening chorus of howls. The room beyond was a lavish dining hall, but now it lay in disarray. The chairs were knocked over and the dishes strewn about, and everyone quickly saw the cause: great black hounds were arrayed across the room, their coats drinking up the light and wisps of shadow dripping from their writhing tongues. Helanda felt a twinge of magical fear growing inside her, then relief: Theodora was right behind her, uttering the incantation for a Magic Circle Against Evil. Helanda strode confidently forward as a hound charged at her, then stopped at the edge of the circle, unable to pass.
“Ha! We gotcha!” Scratchy exclaimed, then began firing arrows at the hounds from behind the magical barrier. Helanda took station in the doorway, blocking it with the Magic Circle that had been cast on her. She allowed herself to feel a very slight moment of happiness, then thought better of it as a shudder ran through the floor. She looked across the room to see another set of doors on the other side of the dining hall. There was another tremor in the floor and then the doors flew open to reveal what could only be the Dark Rider himself: a man in metal armor mounted upon a massive jet black horse. Where the man’s head should have been, there was only empty space, and at his side hung mummified heads of various species. He lifted above his head a flail that appeared to be made of spinal bones, and leapt into the room.
As soon as the rider charged the hounds bayed again. Helanda felt the fear wash over her, but she was protected by the circle. Scratchy, behind the circle and outside of it, instantly turned and fled. Now the real fight had begun.
Helanda turned back to the rider just in time to see him hurl one of the heads and the party members clustered in the circle. It immediately exploded into a sphere of darkness and cold, causing Helanda to buckle under the pain. The rider charged forward at her, then stopped: its horse was unable to penetrate the circle. The rider dismounted and stepped across the line himself. Meanwhile, the hounds continued to bay.
“We have to kill these hounds,” Milacent said, slicing the nearest one in half.
“No!” said Theodora, “If you attack with melee weapons you’ll lose the protection of the magic circle!”
“This is more important,” replied Milacent, and slew another hound.
Meanwhile, Scratchy had recovered from his fear and prepared to return to the fight. As he did, however, he saw the doors to the dining hall slam shut. He was now stuck outside it with only Fleabait … and Zelcor.
“Grab my hand,” said Zelcor, “We’ll dimension door in.”
Helanda, in the meantime, was getting savaged by the now dismounted rider. As she fell to the ground, through a haze of blood she saw Scratchy and Zelcor teleport in and thought “Ah, we’ll be okay,” just as she fell into unconsciousness.
The rider now turned and pointed at Milacent. “Milacent Mindurian!” it said, then advanced towards her.
“How does it know your name?” asked Theodora.
“Never mind,” replied Milacent, “Finish off the hounds and the horse, I’ve got this one!” And no one felt like arguing.
Milacent faced the rider as he strode towards her. His spine flail lashed out at her, but she easily knocked it aside. She struck back at the rider and hurt him, but didn’t quite achieve what she wanted. The flail lashed out again, and it bit into her side, stinging. In order to hit her, however, the rider had left himself exposed. However horrible a creature he may be, he still walked on two legs. Milacent swept with the ranseur and knocked one of them out from under him.
There was a tremendous crash of armor as the rider fell to the ground. Milacent moved forward and struck again; she had been practicing this very maneuver, knocking things down and keeping them there. The rider would not be getting up again. Twice he tried, and twice she knocked him right back down. She struck one more time, and the rider dissolved into a black, foul-smelling mist.
Milacent looked up. The rest of the party was finishing off the horse, and when they were done they noticed that the doors had opened up again. Theodora got to work reviving Helanda, and then stood up to survey the scene.
“Well,” she said to no one in particular, “I told them we would do it.”