Alas, the Derros still have the skystone. The lump of star metal needed to forge the flail.
Our party is forlorn but, thanks to Alix, intact. Fleet’s purr rumbles with life against my chest, Squirrel’s mutterings echo against the rocky ceiling. I wish he would be quiet. Alix resurrected both him and my cat. It matters not in what order.
Once we are all at full strength we head after the Derros, determined to gain our skystone, deeper into the tunnels under the mountains.
We defeat a small party of the creatures awaiting us at the chasm, but not before they blow up the bridge. The rest of their party is easy enough to track, even in the darkness, and we eventually arrive in a chamber of light, filled with green.
Fortenbrand gasps and declares this place the legendary Hanging Gardens of Athengar. His tone suggests it’s a place to be revered, and I can see why. From the entrance we can see huge raised tiers of abundant foliage — many different varieties, all bearing fruit. The music of running water fills the chamber, which is naturally lit by some amazing feat of dwarven engineering.
It’s beautiful. Bountiful. A place of calm and spiritual peace.
It is probably the place where the Derros have set up an ambush. I enter the chamber, head to its centre. Within seconds, a barrage of quarrels fly out of the foliage. Ouch. I’m glad we all loaded up with poison protection spells.
The Derros have arranged themselves up on the tiers, so after Squirrel clambers up on one side, I head up the other. The foliage is so thick I can’t see much of anything else, but I progress along the tiers in search of the enemy, all the while praying Squirrel will not use a fireball in this sacred place.
The skystone is ours
It was a shambles, but the Derros are all dead. And we have the skystone.
Squirrel managed to forebear using his beloved fireball, but he did use the wand of cold to kill a bunch of Derros — as well as a bunch of plants. Nightshade, Blizzard and Alix ended up doing battle with a bunch of Derros in the centre of the chamber, Blizzard’s greatsword swinging mightily. After battling mostly foliage to get to the enemy, I managed to not fall on my face for long enough to kill a few near the end. Then Alix was almost killed by a massive lightning bolt the Derro mages let off… and it was all over.
Fortunately Blizzard was able to heal Alix somewhat, then she set to in her usual unflappable manner and doled out healing spells to everyone else.
Now we are taking stock of the weapons and armour the Derros have left behind, and gathering food from the gardens. We’re going to recuperate here for the rest of the day, and begin the long trek back to Kham Jhara with the skystone tomorrow.
In truth I am more than happy to sleep here tonight. There’s a statue of Ashengar here in the gardens and, although dwarfish, she bears a strong likeness to my god of the forests, Emrys. If these gardens are a shrine to Emrys, then there’s no place I’d rather be.
I’ve always believed that the measure of a man is his loyalty, and I have been brought humiliatingly low. This story starts many moons ago when the Elders of my church laid their geas on me: for the glory of Kaltan and your eternal position at his side, bring us back the Eye of Varrien. Even then, the weight of prophecy lay heavy on my shoulders, some mantle of doom that I must draw close, but a man does not argue with his god, not even with the sycophant leaders of his church, who seem to serve themselves more often than their god.
Even then, even as the words fell from their mouths, I knew I wasn’t the man for this job. They made it sound easy. Infiltrate some party. Pretend you’re there for treasure. Or glory. When they succeed, steal the Eye –- no matter how. Bribe them. Bewitch them. Assault them. Murder them in the night if you have to.
And while murder at three am isn’t exactly my style, it’s not something I’d baulk at either. But murder a friend? Now, that’s an altogether different thing.
So, with misgivings, I joined the group. Me and Abra both. We kept to ourselves, me at my abrasive best. After all, Kaltan does love his chaos –- more glory to him –- and I didn’t want friends.
But then Abra deserted me for his studies, and gradually… Well, Squirrel is more akin to me, more brother to me than Abra ever was, and Nightshade and I, we have a blood bond and are forever linked. And despite my dislike of Shadrath, Alix has won my respect with her quiet courage and dignity. And Zillah, she is some mean fighter –- I too well know the strength of her hands as she’s choking the life from me. A man has to respect that.
Over time, they’ve become more family to me than any I’ve ever known. I let down my guard and found my loyalties –- church or friends? –- pitted against one another.
Then the prophecy. All must be of one accord… But we weren’t, and no-one else knew it. So when we kept failing failing failing, I knew why. It was me. All me.
Troubled, I sought Alix’s advice. What is more important: faith or our mission? And though she offered hope that I could, indeed, have both, she reminded me of what our failure would cost.
In truth, I am not the clear-sighted cleric who set out on this mission. I am conflicted. Changed. Torn. Church or friends? And, strangely, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the forest, the splendour of trees, the freedom of climbing, swinging on a vine.
So when Emrys came to me in a dream and offered me the wonders of the natural world -– and then Kaltan’s hand closed on my shoulder, leaden with the weight of chaos, trying to rein me back, I wanted to pull free. But a man is only as good as his pledge. Still, Emrys beckoned.
My friends’ lives.
The most bitter of truths: the widening chasm between Kaltan and me.
And an answer. Only one more betrayal, the biggest betrayal.
Prising those fingers from my shoulder was the hardest thing I have ever done. And I have paid. My armour gone. My greatsword gone. My god-given powers gone. I have been brought low, and I deserve it. Welcome the pain and humiliation to scour away the guilt. Now, a humble warrior, I must square my shoulders and take what the coming months bring. Kaltan has exacted vengeance, and if I know anything about Kaltan, he has only just begun.
Return to Kham Jhara
After many weeks, we have finally returned to Kham Jhara. Astra Khara, the master smith, is delirious with excitement, and he has whisked the skystone away, after paying us in impressive amounts of gold and weapons for our efforts. Tonight there will be feasting and celebrations, but all I really want is a bath and some sleep.
The journey back with the skystone was not without incident.
First, Blizzard has changed. And I mean changed.
Emrys visited each of us in our dreams that night in the hanging gardens. He was glorious. He blessed me and confirmed I am on the right path in this quest to stop the rise of Varrien. The relief I feel after receiving his benediction cannot be described. I know little of the others’ experiences — save that of Blizzard, who awoke transformed.
He has abandoned Kaltan, the god he has vociferously served for as long as I have known him, and pledged his loyalty to Emrys. None of us saw this coming — how could we? But he says he’s been troubled for some time. Confession upon confession poured out of him, and I think we never saw the true Blizzard until that day. His admission that he always intended to steal the Eye for Kaltan was not entirely unexpected. I have always known he had secrets and could not be trusted. But now? Time will tell, but I suspect he may now be a true ally. After all, we now share a god.
Fortenbrand the dwarf guided us back through the mountain tunnels towards Jeverd Dhar. Even so, it was a difficult journey, with many battles against metal-hungry xorns, which devoured Blizzard’s weapons and most of his armour. We might have thought it Kaltan’s retribution, had not Nightshade’s weapons not also been devoured.
But we’ve made it this far, and that chapter of this quest is over. Next we will head out again to find the pieces of the Flail of Wind and Rain, created by the goddess Gallea, said to be the only weapon that can stop Varrien, the goddess of destruction.
I pray to Emrys we succeed.
Thanks to Tracey Rolfe for Blizzard’s contribution.