We’re not in good shape as we continue along this ancient road into the heart of the swamp. This morning’s battle took its toll — I don’t think Squirrel can have much magic left after throwing a couple of fireballs and Alix has expended a lot of healing energy.
But we cannot linger here. Those lizard creatures seem intent on evicting us from their lands, and after killing so many (25 and one wyvern, we counted), I fear they may attack us again. And soon.
Somewhere in this swamp is a magical artifact we need to aid our quest, not to mention a gang of brigands we’ve been hired to remove. We must succeed in both these missions, if we’re to succeed in our larger goal.
Grimly, we tread the overgrown road, keeping an eye out for attack. Sooner than we expect, we reach a huge grass-covered mound soaring out of the mangroves. Alix thinks it is an overgrown ziggurat complex. It is surrounded by murky water (in which floats a strangulated corpse), but the road leads over a causeway, which in turn provides access to a straight staircase carved into the side of the mound.
I can tell the steps have seen recent use by a great number of booted feet. We investigate.
A few hours later…
The fiends swarm at us again like bees from a disturbed hive. I’m on my own, half-shielded by the humpy on top of the ziggurat, facing two of the brigands. I can’t really see what else is going on, but they erupted out of the trapdoor in the top of the mound, despite our earlier attempts to block the door lower down. At least our alarm gave us a few seconds warning.
I defeat the brigands coming at me and get clear enough to check on the others. Somehow Blizzard, Alix and Nightshade are cut-off by a web, which holds them a short way down the steps. I can’t see Squirrel — I suspect he’s on the other side of the humpy, behind the cluster of sword-wielding attackers. Hell. How did we get so split up?
I’m still fighting them off — how many of the fiends are there? We already killed more than a dozen of them a couple of hours ago when they first attacked us. And surely their mage is almost out of magic after sending two fireballs earlier and now a web? We’re sore and sorry and exhausted. I’m not sure how much more of this we can take.
As the others try to get around or through the web, someone commands our attackers to fall back. I’m still slashing at them, but suddenly they’re carrying off Squirrel. I’m too far away to stop them. I pursue, but there’s a web in the humpy and by the time I hack through it, they’re all away down the trapdoor and into the depths of the ziggurat, the door once more barred behind them.
I wonder if, having met death once and having found it to be nothing more than mere nothingness, I am inured to it. Or at least the fear of it.
Because, lying here in the dark, with only the thrust of a brigand’s blade between me and the abyss, I am entirely calm.
Why are you here, he asks, and I wonder: does my life hang on the truth or the lie?
Of course, I go with the lie, or at least, the lesser of the truths. Chasing bounties, I tell him. On you. Nothing personal.
With a brace of his fallen fellows’ ears hanging from my belt, the truth is self-evident.
Nothing personal, he replies, and sends me into the dark with a stunning blow to the forehead.
Alix’s treasured crowbar gets the door open. Why didn’t we do this in the first place? It’s amazing how desperation makes you brave. Or is this recklessness?
I don’t care. We cannot abandon our companion. He may yet be alive — why else would they take him? In any case, he is carrying all our maps to these strange southern lands as well as all the documents Calwyn collected, which Alix needs (for I cannot read them). These brigands have riled me far beyond caution.
We arrive in a chamber with four pools and another door. Two fearsome creatures rise, one out of each of the two pools closest to the opposite door. While I battle one, the other grapples with Nightshade, and she cannot get free. Blizzard turns to aid her, while I finish off the other.
But by the time I defeat my opponent, Nightshade has vanished, dragged beneath the water. Alix dives after them, but the water is murky. It churns with signs of an underwater struggle, but Alix cannot reach our companion.
Nightshade is lost to us.
If I was riled before, now I am wild with rage.
No hesitation. The three of us left hurtle through this second door. At the bottom of a long staircase, spiralling down, we find a set of wide stone doors. They open to a large chamber, mostly gloomy and dark, although we can make out columns in our dim torchlight. There are more foes here. My swords quiver in my hands.
A voice out of the darkness: Your friend is alive. We want a blood price for our dead.
I move forward, steel glinting.
A new bright light reveals Squirrel lying unconscious and almost naked on the hard stone floor of this massive hall. Between him and us, almost a score of brigands.
I am filled with righteous rage. These men are obstructing my quest. They have taken one companion and caused another to be slain.
I want to fight. I want to kill them all. I do not want to pay their asking price of 2 gold pieces for every brigand dead. I want Squirrel back. I want vengeance for Nightshade.
I will not be contained.
And then the rage slides away. I don’t want to fight anymore. My opponents are lowering their weapons too. We’re negotiating. Alix is handing over gold. No. Stop. We need that coin for our quest! Before I know it we’ve pledged to a truce. Squirrel is released to us with none of his gear — not the stuff that matters anyway.
My apathy dissipates and I’m furious again. This time with Blizzard. It was his calming spell that caught me. I would have fought and annihilated all these cursed brigands and now I have sworn an oath not to touch them.
We didn’t even negotiate well. The gear they took from Squirrel was worth ten times the blood price. We can ill afford the loss of any of it.
This swamp expedition has been nothing but one huge disaster. The cost has been far far too high. I feel ill at the thought of Nightshade, that wily and valiant ranger, lost to us for good. My tread is heavy as we prepare to leave the ziggurat, diminished and despairing.
Wait! A woman’s voice rings in the chamber. We stop, turn, confused. The woman comes forward, brigands parting to let her through. She asks if one of us is a northern woman with a bear claw mark. I take a deep breath and step forward.
Her name is Vamis. She’s a cleric of Elloran and she knows I was one of the party that found the Left Eye of Varrien. We left it with the Church of Elloran in Port Rabat for safekeeping, but she says it’s been stolen and she wants to hire us to retrieve it.
This is most unexpected.
She’s here in the swamp to consult with the great lizard mage and farseeker Sarkathon, who lives on the lower levels of the ziggurat and is custodian of the Crystal of Seeking. She explains the Crystal of Seeking, which is undoubtedly the artifact we came here in search of, can be used to find things that don’t want to be found. Together, she and Sarkathon have been trying to locate the Left Eye.
We come to an agreement. We will stay here another day while Vamis and the mage use the Crystal to search for a possible location for the Eye. Then we will try to find it for promise of a hefty sum in recompense.
As down-payment, Vamis resurrects Nightshade. Not so long ago, our situation seemed dire indeed. It is still fairly grim, and we’re down a vast amount of gold and gear, but at least both Squirrel and Nightshade are with us again.
I’m still a little bemused at my comrades’ action, following my captors into the ziggurat, doing battle against steep odds. A more cynical person, such as my parents, might suggest my comrades were merely following the mission to retrieve the crystal ball, but I believe their purpose was indeed to rescue me, or at least confirm that I was dead.
After being captured and ransomed back to my fellows, I am now penniless, devoid of all but the most meagre of my equipment. Much of it bolstered my abilities, and its absence has left me diminished.
Thanks be to – well, we should pick our gods with care, shouldn’t we? – that the thuggish deserters didn’t care for the written word and I still have my parchments. Oh but for the ink to transcribe these most tempting of spells! Alas, not even that do I own.
I might be lessened, but I am still a mage. I proved that when I joined my power to that of the lizard men’s wizards to use the crystal ball to scry for the stolen Left Eye of Varrien.
That was an anxious moment, feeling my weakened will tested by the power of the ball, twining my will to that of the others, feeling my power drain as we scanned across the continent for this most precious of hidden objects. How tantalising, to brush against another master of the art. I can but aspire!
We arrived at three objects to choose from: three objects on the move, their nature hidden but their location revealed by their very masking.
We must not let this defeat weary us, however penniless and bruised and diminished we might be. Objects can be regained or replaced, magic replenished. I might once again know full dexterity of mind and body. Or I might die. Again. Rise or fall, the key is to strive. To do otherwise is to be as good as dead, and where’s the fun in that?
After 10 days journeying with Vamis and her companion at arms, we’ve arrived in the city of Toressen. We’re staying in the Temple of Elloran while we regroup, obtain supplies and devise a plan for our new quest.
The Left of Eye of Varrien. Who would have thought we’d be seeking that again? How could the Church of Elloran have been so careless to let someone steal it?