:: Dungeons & Dragons - The Threshold Party - The Blackhill Saga, Part Five ::

Part Five - Invasion

Karnus and Ryndathilar trudged through the darkness towards the distant flickering lights. The dirty snow crunched underfoot as they picked their way over the shattered landscape, the magical light provided by Karnus picking out the various hazards underfoot and leading them past abandoned farms.

The wind picked up, and swept the snow and dust into the air, reducing visibility still further. The wizard and the warrior fought through the increasingly fierce conditions, then suddenly stepped into a zone of calm. The visibility was excellent here, and Karnus could see that they stood at the foot of a hill crowned by the remains of a round tower. All around the hill the storm swirled and howled, but here the air was calm and clear, even fresh.

Karnus looked up at the building atop the hill. The quakes had not totally spared the tower; its top floors had sheared off at an angle, shattering as they rolled down the hill to leave a wall of rubble near where the two stood. As the wizard looked on, strange auroras appeared around the tower for an instant, flickering into visibility before disappearing as suddenly. Karnus was impressed by the display of power; such coruscating magical energy indicated a potent enchantment at work nearby.

Ryndathilar and Karnus exchanged a cautious glance and moved to climb the broad path that led up the slope. They passed the remains of a high wall and found themselves standing in a broad, circular courtyard. The tower stood at the far end, offset from the centre of the space so that it merged into the curtain wall of the complex. The only light came from Karnus and the occasional flashes of magic accumulating around the structure.

No sign of life greeted the pair as they made their way toward the tower. Karnus suddenly stopped, overcome by dizziness, and dropped to one knee clutching his head. Ryndathilar moved to his side as he stood up and asked what was wrong.

”I saw… swirling wind, and a cloud of darkness… a column of dust swirling…” he shook his head, “it’s not clear what it means…” He looked at the guard. “A vision. Of things to come…”

“You could be right…” replied the guard, looking over Karnus shoulder towards the tower entrance. The wizard turned and saw that, just before the door, a small cyclone was forming, visible from the dust it stirred up. The cyclone grew in power before it towered 16 feet in the air.

”Air elemental…” mumbled Ryndathilar resignedly, earning him a respectful glance from Karnus.

“Yes,” replied the wizard, “but that’s not what I saw…”

Suddenly Karnus noted a whisp of smoke leave one of the tower’s ground floor windows. It swirled through the air towards the stationary elemental, then dived into the centre of it’s swirling ethereal body. The smoke dissipated itself throughout the elemental form, adding definition to it’s outline, until the entirety of the summoned being looked like a humanoid figure of black smoke, outlined with the swirling wind of the elemental.

Ryndathilar drew his sword and glanced at the wizard quizzically. “Anything you can do?”

“Lots,” replied Karnus, but it hasn’t attacked us yet.”

The elemental surged towards the pair, throwing up great plumes of dust as it ate up the distance between them

“I stand corrected.” Karnus waved his hand in the direction of the onrushing elemental and spoke a few soft words. Instantly the wind that drove the creature died, the swirling air dropping to a dead calm, leaving only the black smoke element writhing as it gathered itself together having been robbed of its host. The smoke swirled in a serpentine manner, bending over itself and retreating back towards the tower.

“Interesting…” Karnus stroked his chin as he watched the retreating phenomenon. “I’ve never seen that before… you?”

Ryndathilar shook his head. “Never.”

The pair cautiously made their way toward the tower door. Karnus tried the handle but found the door sealed. He made a few quick passes with his hand and the door swung open. “After you,” he said to the guard.

Ryndathilar moved cautiously into the building. A large entrance hall greeted the pair, adorned by tapestries and strewn with elegant furniture. Here and there, lit globes hung upon the wall, some flickering in an annoying manner, illuminating the room enough for Karnus to see a number of doors leading off.

Seated on the floor were a group of people. They were dressed in the manner of Glantrian villagers, and stood up as the pair entered. One of them, a man, stepped forward.

”Have you come to help us?” he asked.

Karnus nodded to the man. “What’s going on?” he said.

“It’s Almetherys. She’s holding us prisoner here while she does strange experiments in the basement. You have to help us, please!”

“Calm down,” said Ryndathilar, “where is Almetherys?”

“Downstairs. Through that door.” The man indicated a heavy oak door in the western wall.

“Do you know what she’s doing?” asked Karnus.

“No, but sometimes she comes and takes one of us away, and we never see them again.”

“Stay here,” ordered Karnus. The man nodded in reply.

Karnus and Ryndathilar moved towards the door. Karnus turned the handle and opened it, showing a flight of steps leading down. Cautiously he moved down the steps, followed by the guard captain, and eventually they came to a second door. Karnus listened at it, but could hear nothing. He turned the handle, but suddenly heard a short clicking noise and recoiled in anticipation of a trap. A strange hissing sound filled the air, and Karnus yelled at Ryndathilar to retreat.

As the rushed back up the stairs coughing the man they had spoken to appeared in the open doorway at the top, smiled at them with a leering grin, then slammed the door shut. Ryndathilar crashed into it, but the man had evidently locked it, and he began shouting at the locked portal in desperation. The captain looked round for Karnus, but saw him collapsed on the stairs some distance behind him. Dizziness overcame the man, and he slumped to one knee, banging weakly against the door one last time.

Karnus’ head swam as he opened his eyes. He was lying on his back upon a plinth of some form, his arms and legs held spread out by tight leather bands. Ryndathilar was coming to beside the wizard. Karnus turned to face him and said “well, that was amateurish.”

“I tend to agree,” came a voice. The people who had professed to be Almetherys’ prisoners were walking around the plinth, stopping occasionally to check the pair’s bonds.

Thanks.” Karnus lifted his head and looked around. They were in a windowless room, decked out in all the accoutrements he expected of a wizard’s laboratory. Alchemical apparatus was lying here and there, and a library occupied a large section of wall, some of the books having been strewn around, as if lazily read then cast aside. In the centre of the space, enclosed in a magic circle, kneeled a woman with her back to the prisoners, her blonde hair falling over her shoulders as she softly chanted. In front of her there swirled a dark column of black smoke, standing two feet across and stretching to the ceiling, a perfect cylinder. Occasionally, flickering motes of light emerged from the cloud, making it look like a miniature thunderhead.

The people milling around the plinth stood back from their captors, moved to the edges of the circular room and bowed their heads. “Look,” began Karnus, “I’ve got nothing against the occult, but your sense of timing is way off.”

A gentle whispering voice shushed the wizard, and he turned to see that the figure before the thunderhead now stood facing him, a beautiful young woman who would have reminded him intensely of Lana but for her eyes, which were completely black, and her cruel smile, which pulled her lips into a lecherous pout.

“Welcome to my tower, gentlemen,” she said as she skipped towards the bound men. “I’m glad you’re awake – it’s so much more fun when they scream.”

Karnus pulled at his bonds, assessing their strength. “What are you talking about,” he began, but Almetherys turned away and stretched out a hand towards the swirling column of cloud. A mote of cloud detached itself and twisted through the air to her outstretched hand, twining around her limb. “Yes… you destroyed his last body, so it’s only right he take yours.” She flung the serpentine wisp of smoke towards the pair, and it lashed out through the air to swirl above the prone companions.

After a few seconds hovering over the pair, the smoke suddenly darted towards Ryndathilar’s face, plunging into his nostrils and mouth as he tried to scream. The cloud of darkness billowed into his features, and as the last of it entered him he went limp for a second, then spasmed, straining against his bonds. He lay, still for a second, head tilted towards Karnus, before his eyes shot open, revealing pools of darkness identical to Almetherys’. Ryndathilar’s face grew into a broad grin, and he looked around. “Release me,” he barked, and the other people in the room moved to comply, undoing his bonds.

As Ryndathilar stood and moved away from the plinth he nodded to Almetherys, who by now stood with yet another miniature cloud of smoke twirling around her body. She leaned her head to it and said “my sister… this one is for you.” She suddenly shot her hand out and the smoke arced towards the prone Karnus, who clamped his jaw shut and squirmed as the smoke hit his face.

The darkness forced itself into his nostrils, and Karnus gasped at the lack of air. Suddenly the rest of the cloud shot down his throat, and he could feel… something… spreading out within him. His sound and vision dimmed to almost nothing, his senses no longer his, and he slipped into oblivion.

Karnus’ eyes shot open as his body heaved and contorted. From his mouth the long dark wisp of smoke re-emerged, arcing weakly through the air and falling to the ground. He was still held fast in the bonds, though the others had begun to undo the straps that held them. They stepped back in surprise when they saw the smoke-creature leave Karnus’ body. Momentarily exhausted, the wizard followed the smoke with his eyes, watching as it trailed across the floor, seemingly struggling to return to the central column of smoke. As it went bits of its body dissipated, before, just as it reached the glaring Almetherys’, the creature vanished into nothingness. As it went, Karnus could feel his own strength returning, and he glared defiantly at the wizardess.

“How? How did he do it?” cried Ryndathilar.

“I don’t know… “ Almetherys strode across the room to stand by the prone Karnus. “Unless… She held a hand over Karnus’ chest and closed her eyes. “His magic. How interesting.” The woman stepped around to stand by Karnus’ head.

“It appears that the spark of magic inside you has spared you from our control,” she said to the wizard, “this is unexpected.”

“But how,” asked Ryndathilar, “you were able to possess Almetherys.”

“We had a direct channel into her mind. She was unable to resist. This one’s mind is closed to us. Perhaps if he wished us to enter it…?”

“Ahem,” said Karnus, “that’s not likely.”

Ametherys leaned over the wizard and stared into his eyes. “We’ll see…”

“Let’s just kill him,” began Ryndathilar, before being silenced with a look from Almetherys.

“No,” she said, “we need to learn how these humans work. This resistance is new. It would be foolish to throw away the only example of it we have…”

The wizardess stepped back from the plinth and favoured Karnus with a long, slow gaze. “She’s still in here, you know.” She tapped the side of her head.

“What are you?” asked Karnus, “what do you want?”

“What we want is self evident, I think. What we are… well, that’s the question.”

“Fiends? Interplanar demons?”

“That’ll do.”

The fiend possessed woman leant close to Karnus “Even now, she screams at me. Would you like to know what she’s saying?”

“Not really, replied the wizard.

“She’s begging you to help her. To stop her before…” the possessed woman smiled, “well, before things get really interesting…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Almetherys gave Karnus an appraising look. “Given that you’ll be unable to stop me, I suppose there’s no harm in telling you. This disaster presents all sorts of wondrous opportunities to my kind. So much life wiped out at once, so much blood spilt, so many souls recently divorced from their beloved flesh.”

The young woman’s face contorted in a look of… well, grumpiness. “Of course, anywhere else, that would be the end of it. We’d get to pick the scraps from the table as usual. You know, the sinners, the damned, etcetera, etcetera.” A bright smile suddenly broke out,” but here… here the barriers between our world and yours were already weak – so much magic around… it erodes these things…”

“So we broke through. We seized the opportunity and now, we will bathe in the blood of your kind.” She smiled sweetly. “Free to bring pleasure and pain beyond your wildest imaginings. It will be… glorious…”

Karnus snorted. “And Almetherys planned all of this? What did you offer her?”

The fiend looked surprised, then pouted in a girly fashion “Almetherys? Little Almy? She would never have anything to do with our kind. She’s far too busy saving fluffy bunnies and gallivanting around Glantri like a spoilt little princess to play with us.“

“No, poor Almetherys was having a little chat with the oh-so boring denizens of the Plane of Air when the meteor struck. Of course, the magical chaos unleashed in that instant allowed us to…redirect her mental communication to our own little corner of the multiverse... she’s really quite lucky in a way – had she gotten one of my cousins she’d have had her little brain fucked out of her head by now…”

As Karnus recoiled from this mental image the fiend smiled seductively. “You can be a part of it, if you wish. Open your mind and let one of my brothers in and we can oversee the conquest together!” Almetherys leant in and kissed the resisting wizard. “Wouldn’t you like to rule with me forever?”

“I’ll pass on that one, thanks.”

The possessed Almetherys snarled at the wizard, then turned, gesturing for Ryndathilar to join her. As the two conducted a low conversation, Karnus sensed his moment had arrived, and twisted his bonds round, allowing his wrists to slip out and freeing his arms.

The wizard sat up and gestured at the group of people standing next to the wall. Suddenly a second wall of smooth, grey-blue stone sprung into being across a large portion of the room, imprisoning the possessed humans beyond.

Almetherys and Ryndathilar turned in surprise, suddenly finding themselves alone with the wizard. The possessed wizardess snarled and pointed at Karnus, beginning the words to a spell. Before she could complete it, however, Karnus snapped out the words to an enchantment of his own, and twin bolts of sapphire energy shot across the room, slamming into each of his opponents.

To Karnus relief, both his opponents staggered back, reeling in the wake of the stunbolt. This gave the wizard a few precious seconds to pull his legs out of their straps and swing round. He dashed to a nearby table, recovering his belongings, followed by Ryndathilar, who was attempting to swing his sword at the wizard in a clumsy manner.

Easily dodging the blows of the stunned fighter, Karnus quickly cast a couple of defensive spells, summoning 2 replicas of himself and shielding himself from harm. Both the warrior and wizardess were coming round from the effect of the stunbolts, and Karnus saw that Almetherys was readying another spell of her own.

Once again, before she could complete the enchantment, Karnus lashed out with his own power, sending three bolts of energy streaming across the room to strike the wizardess. She howled in pain, staggering backwards, but remained on her feet. Ryndathilar’s sword swept through one of Karnus’ defensive images, however, and the mage turned to face the warrior.

“What’s the matter?” called Karnus to Ametherys as he blocked the guard captain’s blows and manoeuvred himself, “not enough practice? You may have Almetherys’ power, but you don’t have her experience, do you?”

The woman snarled and unleashed five magic missiles of her own, blasting away Karnus’ remaining image and striking his shield. Two of the arrows breached his defences, and he gritted his teeth as pain surged through his body, resolving not to allow the wizardess to get another spell off.

Ryndathilar raised his sword over Karnus to strike him down as Almetherys levelled a finger at the wizard. Karnus stood, perfectly still as the sword arced down, waiting for the wizardess to complete her spell. A rolling boom of thunder split the air as lightning began to arc towards Karnus, who lifted a hand and completed his own spell.

The lightning bolt slammed into an invisible wall, arced back along it’s own length, then slammed into the shocked wizardess, passing through her and striking the column of smoke beyond. The lightning penetrated the cloud but didn’t’ dissipate, the energy instead arcing back between the column and Almetherys, who stood, transfixed by the coruscating energy.

Beside Karnus, Ryndathilar dropped his sword and collapsed, screaming and clutching as his head. Moans and shrieks penetrated Karnus’ summoned wall of stone as the summoned humans writhed in empathy with their leader.

The feedback between Almetherys and the column of smoke intensified, dark tendrils of cloud twisting round the electrical prominences. The wild magical force lashed out around it, arcing into walls and starting fires around Almetherys’ lab. At Karnus’ side, Ryndathilar regurgitated the black smoke within him, and lay panting in the air with bright clear eyes as the cloud was drawn back towards the still living, still screaming Almetherys. Wisps of smoke emerged from the gaps between Karnus’ wall and the ceiling, joining the twisting, writhing column.

Karnus helped Ryndathilar to his feet, then quickly threw another Dispel at his summoned wall. It vanished, revealing the stunned and confused farmers and villagers. “Get them out of here,” Karnus shouted to Ryndathilar over the growing shrieks from the column of darkness.

As the guard captain went about the evacuation, Karnus stole around the seething magical storm at the centre of the room towards the library wall. Almetherys’ body was blackened and charred from the sustained magical force, but she still writhed and screamed. Finally, the black smoke was expelled from her body, drawn back into the cloud and leaving, to Karnus’ horror, the unpossessed Almetherys to die a hideous death.

Turning his back to this horror, Karnus quickly bundled as many books as he dares into his backpack, and, turning to go, saw a rack of wands on the far side of the room hit by another magical discharge. One wand arced through the air and landed, mostly intact, at his feet. Karnus shrugged, picked it up, then ran for the door.

He fled up the steps, through the entry hall then out the door, hearing behind him ominous howling sounds. He ran across the courtyard, dashed through the main gates, then stumbled and rolled down to the bottom of the hill, where Ryndathilar helped him to his feet.

At that moment the tower detonated spectacularly, sending masonry flying in all directions. The people threw themselves to the ground as an arc of electrical energy shot into the air, then all was silent. The upstreaming energy momentarily dissipated the thick cloud of dust over the land, allowing a bright patch of sunlight to stream through. The wizard, the guard and the various villagers stood basking in the unfamiliar warmth for the long seconds that the shaft of light lasted, before the dust closed once more over their heads.

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