Ever since I arrived in these forsaken northlands, I have felt that Pelor was… testing me? training me? Placing in my path, no matter where we journeyed, stronger and stronger foes. Rewarding me as we bested them one by one with greater and greater power. Leading me ever forward to some unknown destiny, probably in the depths of his great temple.
But for the first time, about a week ago, our band came across a foe we had no chance yet of besting.
After our encounter with the vampire spawn in the ruins of the keep, and Jory's bizarre and troubling flight into the blackness we had left unexplored, I spent much time researching. Where there are lesser spawn, there must assuredly have been a more powerful vampiric force, and I sought all the information I could find, from the library of a half-orc priest in town named Malthu, and in letters I sent south to the order's fortress, on means of combating vampires.
But even all this foreknowledge was not enough. We returned to the keep, the sun shining with the brightness of midday (our group was Oz, Aldo, Ducky, and I, and Snorri came along as well, eager to add a vampire to his list of kills), and saw that, true to the goblin message that had been left for us at the town gates, the keep bailey was abandoned. It appeared Grok and his crew had fled in haste, leaving behind their stores and equipment, much of it now streaked with blood. An ominous silence hung like fog from the walls.
Planning to travel down the main hallway to the room we had first encountered the spawn, we came down the same stairway we had descended last time, but heard as we did the sound of feet scurrying away into the darkness.
As soon as we came around the bend into the larger underground passage, we could see the misshapen goblinoid forms of the two vampire spawn waiting for us ahead, clearly reformed after the last fight. But now a third shadow appeared in the darkness at the edge of the firelight. It stood with a calmer and more assured posture than he used to have, and though the light was faint, the way it reflected off his sallow skin was… wrong, but… there could be no doubt. It was Jory.
And yet not. Though he may yet stand and walk and talk (and fight) and believe himself to be the same man, whatever power he found in the depths of the keep has killed him as surely as any blade through the heart. That it reanimated his body and corrupted his soul is only further desecration done to our departed companion.
The creature greeted us as friends in Jory's voice, and delivered some detestable speech about the new "power" he had gained, about how we should "join" him and bring "order" to a disordered world. It was the same drivel that the tyrants and villains of stories ages old tell themselves to ease their sinner's mind about the deal they have made with the literal forces of darkness. It was nonsense. My friends, without a god's light to see as clearly as I could the shadow that had replaced Jory's soul, gave his words more attention than they were worth, but being ultimately good-hearted (or at least fiercely independent) fellows, they joined me in resistance when I drew my hammer and declared an end to the pointless palaver.
The spawn rushed at us down the hallway, and after they had exchanged a few ineffectual blows with Snorri, I channeled Pelor's light through my amulet, and again drove the unhallowed creatures away back into the depths. We had a more important foe to fight.
But this new Jory was beyond our power to combat. He moved with blinding speed past us and into a smaller room in the corner between the two main passageways, and though it allowed us to surround him from both sides, such advantage was wasted.
Oz, Aldo, and Ducky shot at him many times but in a blur he sidestepped the arrows and bolts as easily as if they had been casually tossed stones, and even silvered and magically charged Snorri's and my weapons could find no purchase as he dodged and deflected with his bracers.
When he struck back against Snorri and connected a stunning blow, I watched in horror as the dwarf seemed to wither and grow sallow in an instant, and the few scratches we had made on Jory's skin closed over. When he lashed out at me, I could feel the energy being drained out of me, like a rope being pulled straight through my heart, my vision growing darker and my knees nearly buckling.
This was not a fight we could win.
We began our retreat, and trying to keep his attention, I unleashed all the divine energy I could muster into a few attacks that actually seemed to impact solidly, with bright flashes, on the creature's chest. Then, relying on the one bit of new knowledge that proved of good use, I drew out again the holy amulet, and though its light seemed dimmer in those shadows, it was enough to stop Jory in his tracks. He glared in calm fury at me, but would come no closer. After a pause he rushed off to try and catch my friends as they went up the stairs, but I had bought them enough time, and as I slowly ascended step by step, keeping the amulet focused on Jory the whole time, he laid not another hand on us that day.
As we fled back into the sunlight, Jory taunted us repeatedly with his offer to join him in his infernal pact, and before I stepped away and let the amulet drop, I urged him, if there was any of our past companion still within that blackened heart, to follow me outside and put himself to rest permanently, in the sun's divine light. But he simply returned to the darkness.
As we caught our breath in the empty courtyard, recovering from the first fight we had truly lost since we began adventuring together, we heard the howl of wolves. Maybe smelling blood in the air, a large pack, ten or so, had come a'hunting.
Quickly springing back into battle order, Oz deployed one of the arcane blasting disks we had found in that very keep in the gateway, and the resulting explosion when the first few of the wolves ran over it was an effective way to kick off what became a chaotic battle. Weakened as we were, I was first dragged from my mount, and then Snorri and I both tripped to the ground while trying to fight off the swarm of fur and teeth, but Oz pulled us back within the safety of the keep gatehouse before we could be overwhelmed, and the wolves were forced into the narrow passageway and quickly cut down. Aethon himself felled a few of the beasts that foolish enough to stray too close to his flaming hooves.
We returned to down, heads hanging low, and tried to recover, each in our own ways. I'm sure all in the tavern gave Oz a wide berth as he sulked over his ale. As I knelt in prayer for the coming of the dawn, I could feel the dark energy Jory had inflicted upon me worming it's way around my body, trying to find permanent purchase, but I focused hard, and as the first light of the sun peeked above the horizon, I could feel it surrender and disperse like the steam off of morning dew. Snorri too was able to fight off its dark claws, whether from his natural hardiness or sheer force of will.
Disheartened and thoroughly cowed by the ease with which the thing-that-had-been-Jory had driven us off, and eager to exact some petty revenge on the forces of darkness, we set off a few days later for a quick trip to map out more of the dungeons beneath the temple of light.
Making our way quickly over familiar ground and through the already cleared floors of the dungeons, we came to the cave branch that led further into the ground. As we followed it down, we came to another tunnel off the main path (which continued to spiral down into the darkness) and followed this split to see what lay on this level. It was more stonework rooms and passageways, in similar style to the architecture above, but the darkness seemed even more oppressive on this level, and foul runes and stains of evil smelling filth littered the walls and floors.
Behind one door, we came upon a demon with black skin and a single large horn. It seemed uneager to engage in direct combat with us, though magically powerful, and though Snorri and I landed blows that seemed to wound it just fine, there was some sort of acid on his skin that tried to eat away at our blades after wounding it. Before long, the creature was looking weak, but before we could cut it down entirely, it chanted some foul spell and disappeared in a small puff of dark energy. It seems even in the choking fires of hell, there are cowards to be found. Heh.
We remained on edge after that, watching all directions as we moved deeper in for the demon to reappear and attack again, like the thing that hunted Aldo on the Wizard's isle, but we did not see it again.
As we reached another room, we heard the clanking of a great many chains, and as we carefully moved around the next corner, we could see the room ahead was filled with those chains, hanging from the ceiling, and dancing sporadically around, though there was no wind or movement at all in the air.
From within that metal forest, a woman-devil charged at us, wrapped up herself in similar chains, and wielding them like barbed whips at us. Oz took a few blows from these weapons as our group fought our way forward and close enough to strike back, but after a short fight we cut her down, giving her no opportunity to flee like the demon before.
After this fight, the floor itself nearly gave us more trouble than the demons that trod it. Having detected some sort of trigger on a door in our way, Aldo urged as all to stand back as he fiddled with the mechanism. He uttered a surprised curse and jumped back lightning quick as a pit opened up on either side of the door, leading to a nasty spiked pit below. A close call to be sure for the little halfling.
We backtracked and found our way to the other side of the pit from a different direction. In the next room down the hall, a striking sight greeted us. A great door set into the wall, carved into the shape of a horde of skeletal limbs, interlocked across the door's surface and impossible to count. In the center was a panel, and lo and behold there was an indentation that matched exactly the relief on my holy amulet! There was a great deal of good natured ribbing of Oz then, who had been so eager to sell off the raw platinum of the original before I could make a casting. Luckily better sense had prevailed then, and though the imperfections of the replication meant it took some forcing and wiggling, I was able to slot the amulet with a satisfying click into the door. When I turned it and then removed it from the panel, the door began to sink into the ground with a rumble.
The room beyond was coated, floors and walls and ceiling, with innumerable skeletons, as if they had been plastered or carved from the stone, but these were clearly true bone, and the creation of that room remains a mystery.
Within stood a fearsome sight. A skeletal creature, but not truly a skeleton of any living being, stood cloaked in the shadows, a grinning mouth filled with far too many teeth, and each of its long arms ending in many sharp claws of bones, which before our very eyes seemed to shiver and blink, at one moment being like normal fingers, at another stretching out to a great length.
Being old hands now at fighting skeletons, we pulled out what bludgeoning weapons we had, Snorri and I our warhammers, Aldo his club, and Oz turned his axes around to improvise hammers out of the flat edges behind the blades.
The creature lashed out at us from 20 feet away as we approached, but it had trouble cutting through mine and the dwarves' armor. Whenever we would charge up and land a blow, it would quickly retreat, forcing us to advance slowly through the storm of claws it created or risk taking hits to close the distance quickly.
But soon enough it had run out of room to retreat as we forced it into the room's corner, and without space to take advantage of its reach, we smashed it down in short order.
Though there was more of that floor to explore, and indeed Talys' research leads me to believe the next fiend, the fiend of beasts, lies further on "beyond the chamber of bone down in the caves", we decided to return then to town, cautious of overextending ourselves after the fight with the vampires.
Among some of the treasures we found in the bone-clawed creatures lair was a small brass urn, stoppered with lead and decorated with scrolls and runes. From the mouth of the urn, even through the stopper, issued a thin stream of smoke. We thought it nothing extraordinary at first, though when Oz and Aldo each handled the urn they reported feeling a great discomfort, and were unwilling to hold onto the metal for very long at all. My mind being distracted by thoughts of the vampires, I didn't pay much attention to what they had mentioned, though thinking back when I placed the urn in the pack I felt as if a great weight had been removed from my shoulders.
However, when I took the urn to Aeven to be identified, along with the rest of that batch of treasures, she nearly fell backwards out of her chair in shock, explaining that there was a miniscule chance every time a magical item was created that a form of sentience would spring into being within the item. So had apparently happened with this "Eversmoking Bottle" as she described it.
She warned that these intelligences always had motivations of their own, and that there was risk sometimes of the items dominating their users in service of those motivations if the users were unwilling to comply. But the force of will of the spirit was proportional to the strength of the magic in the item, and this one was weak enough that she believed there was little chance of it being able to overpower one of us. It was not even strong enough to use true language, as some could, communicating purely through flashes of emotion.
With this new knowledge revealed, I took a detour on the way back to my room to test out this new trinket. Walking out beyond the walls into the empty fields between the town and the edge of the forest, I unstopped the bottle, and was instantly surrounded by a thick bank of black smoke, blocking all sight and vision. As I stood in the cloud, I could feel a tug from afar, as if a thin string was pulling the bottle in my hand from afar, and I became sure that the spirit within wished to return to the temple and fight the darkness within. That the spirit's goals align with my own was an immediate comfort, and makes me curious if it was created long ago by the original defenders of the temple. I uttered the command to reseal the bottle, and fought my way out of the cloud towards town. I'm not sure how much use the bottle itself will be, since it blinds me as instantly as it does my enemy. If our group is forced again to retreat perhaps it will prove useful then. But perhaps there is more to its power that I shall discover when we return inevitably to the depths of the temple.
As my sight began to return at the edge of the smoke, I turned back and stopped suddenly, seeing within the faintest hint of two figures battling within. I tried to focus my eyes on them, but the breeze picked up, and whipped away the last remnants of the smoke as I strained.
I returned then to town, and I have not told any of my compatriots of the true nature of the bottle, beyond its original magical effects. It is clear the intelligence within would be unwilling to be carried by my more… free-spirited friends anyway, and since its desires and what I feel to be my ultimate quest in this land align so well… it feels… right, that the bottle should remain with me for now.
Though I am not sure yet what that vision in the smoke portends, I feel confident, even after our first real setback, that I am in the right place, doing the right things. Though the shortcut to power that the fallen Jory took puts him currently out of reach of my cleansing vengeance, I am sure that in time, even he will pale and cower before the heights of might and glory I shall reach if I only keep following the sun's light.