Race for the skystone
The skystone. It’s so close, buried at the heart of this crater where it fell. We’ve travelled far to reach this place, crossed the treacherous dust plains with its unnatural creatures, entered the mountains, driven by our need to retrieve the skystone to fulfill our quest. When we came across the first felled trees marking the impact zone, my blood sang, the memory of the prophecy sharp in my ears.
The skystone is here. Right before us. But we’re in a race with a horde of dwarfish folk to unearth it.
Beneath our feet lie the caverns and tunnels of dwarven mines. Every so often, the ground shudders and a muffled boom rocks the air. The little folk endeavour to dig out the skystone from below, while we dig desperately from above.
Our worst fears are realised when another explosion racks the earth and a hole appears. Sunlight shines down onto a cart and dark shapes moving about it. They have taken the skystone. We cannot let them have it.
I leap into the hole with Blizzard. In the dark we’re at a disadvantage, but Squirrel’s light spell ensures we can at least see. The strange little men are gone, so we follow them through the tunnels until the poison arrows start flying and we are outnumbered.
We retreat, but they do not pursue, and after a time we creep back down the tunnel to find the cavern empty. We continue through the tunnel and emerge into daylight in time to see a familiar-looking fireball tear a great hole in the rising sphere of an airship. It crashes to the earth in flames.
So there’s this prophecy about how five must act in one accord to save the world, and I’m not sure it’s actually referring to us. The two god-touched northerners have their heads in the clouds, Blizzard is rather belligerent in his pragmatism, and Nightshade appears at best nonplussed, to say the least. Which leaves me trying to do what has to be done without fracturing the whole party. Unlike Blizzard, I know there’s a time to keep one’s hands in one’s pockets, and another to take them out … and cast that fireball. Sure, sometimes I get it wrong. No one said saving the world was easy.
Case in point. We stumble across these dwarves — what we think are dwarves. I’ve certainly never seen one before, but they match the general description (short, hairy, unhelpful). If they’d been orcs or goblins, no problems: Blizzard’s call to take out their scouts and send the rest of them packing would’ve been unanimously supported, I’m sure. But no. We try to negotiate. We need what you’ve got, we say. We’re trying to save the world, we say. But these little tunnel diggers, too caught up in their own greed to even bury their dead, aren’t having any of it. There we are, the ball of star metal within our each, and we’re still talking about the rights and wrongs of taking it. So: fireball time. Didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, but hey, no one died. No one important, anyway.
Which leaves us here, cooking up a plan to get into the dwarven tunnel and retrieve the rock we need to save the world. We’ve shed their blood, blown up their weird airborne contraption, caused them grief. There’s no time now for hands in pockets. Let’s hope we are at least in accord about that.
Cavern of doom
Having escaped with the precious skystone into another tunnel, the horde of enemies now awaits us in a vast, dark cavern, on the far side of a chasm spanned by a narrow bridge.
Or so we believe. Our sight cannot penetrate the darkness. Nor can the sight of our new companion, Fortenbrand, a pale dwarf who the dark ones imprisoned. After we liberated him, he agreed to help us retrieve the skystone from the ‘half-breed black fuckers’ he names ‘derros’. Since Fortenbrand’s priests have also foreseen the skystone is needed to forge the flail, he is now our ally.
We attempt to cross the bridge. The derros are great in number and their poisoned quarrels continue to fly. We reach a fortification in the centre of the bridge, dodging the strange arrows as best we can.
A terrible screech rips through the air and my heart almost stops.
I spin to see my beloved Fleet plummeting downwards into the depth of the chasm. Her body twists and writhes for purchase that isn’t there. Her howl freezes my blood.
Oh no no no. Fuck fuck fuck.
I drop my weapons, heave my pack onto the stone at my feet. Pitch myself over the edge into nothing but endless air.
The drop is about fifty feet into cold, dark water. Gasping, I reach the surface and swim towards the motionless form of my beautiful cat. She’s a dead weight in my arms, fur sodden, green eyes closed. Sobbing now, I haul her out of the water, check her vital signs, refuse to believe what I already know. Desperately I paw at her, my hands shaking and useless.
Another splash in the water behind me, and I sense someone else has fallen. And then another. I don’t care. Nothing matters anymore, but Fleet who is unresponsive and immune to all my entreaties. My mind spins with chaotic nothing.
Then I hear Alix’s faint cry. Alix. I need Alix!
Alix is in the water and I plunge in after her, grab hold of her arm and drag her to Fleet. Help her. Please help Fleet.
The action has cleared my mind. It is Squirrel flailing in the water, weighed down by his pack, his struggles growing weaker. Nightshade is descending on a rope to help him and, although my chest feels as though it must split in two, I go to her aid. But my limbs feel like lead and I can barely breathe. By the time we retrieve Squirrel, he has been underwater too long.
As I hunch over Fleet, whose body is already losing warmth in my clutching arms, I’m barely aware of Alix using her airwalking boots to transport all of us and our gear upwards and away to safety. Somehow I put one foot before the other, stumbling back the way we came until we reach a safe chamber.
I lay my cat down gently, stroke her fur, gaze pleadingly at Alix.
She comes over. Says Blizzard has cast a spell over Squirrel to preserve him until the next day. This means she is able to bring Fleet back right now, and Squirrel tomorrow. I throw my arms around her until she fends me off and settles at Fleet’s side to work her magic. I stroke my cat’s fur, lay my hand over her heart. Life returns — a flicker of pulse, a faint inhale of breath. I gather Fleet to me and bury my face in her neck.
Back on Mycross, running with Ribald’s crew, we had a saying: it’s not the fall that kills you, but the landing.
How true it is. There was the plummet from the bridge into the chasm, then the save of the feather fall spell that lowered me ever so gently … into the river. Where the burden of pack and clothes bore me down. For someone raised on an island, I’m a useless swimmer — the ocean was a widowmaker where I lived. Besides, I couldn’t slip the pack, not when it had my spell books in it. I had to hope I could somehow make it.
You’d think I’d learnt better than to hope by now.
I remember drowning. The panic of it, the water and the darkness. Then waking, choking on that memory. I reached for my pack, as weak as I was, newly brought back from the great nothingness. (I know it too well.) My books and scrolls were thankfully secure inside their watertight bindings, the best gold I’ve ever spent — what is a magic user without this magic?
And my companions, abashed from the disaster of our defeat by the derro at the bridge, urged me to take up arms despite my power being spent, as though to die was no big thing, as though Alix had done no more than heal me of a scratch and set me back on my feet again.
I DIED, and only Blizzard seemed to care. Though his delight in telling me that they’d resurrected the damned cat before me was perhaps out of order. He needs an ally, that one, and it seems, as the only other pragmatist in the party, I may be it. Certainly not Nightshade, who seems to care not one whit for man nor mission.
There is a lesson here, one I should have learnt long ago on the island. Yeah, it’s not the fall, but the landing that counts.
Well, that was eventful. Actually it was farcical. We (the players) were mostly in hysterics as our characters floundered about in the water at the bottom of the chasm, while the DM shook his head in bemused disbelief.
Retrieving the skystone was not supposed to be this hard. We were not supposed to destroy the hot air balloon (that was our ticket home, says the DM). We were supposed to make quick work of the derro and return with the skystone in time for tea. Hmm.
More Operation Skystone soon!
Thanks to Jason Nahrung for Squirrel contributions.