From the door we entered there was a very short hallway that led to a huge sitting room. Heavy, beautiful tapestries hung from dark blue walls of ice. In the center of the large round room were couches forming a circle open on the end opposite us, with a beautiful darkend wood table inbetween them. On the far wall a warm fire crackled in a large fireplace. Two staircases against the walls wound thier way from near the center point of the room around each wall to come to a landing just above the fire. In the center of the landing an open, doorless entryway led deeper into the manor. A closed doorway flanked either side of the fireplace and on the right, just before the staircase began was another door, slightly ajar. From the ceiling hung a beautiful chandelier. It was ringed with several small candles gently flickering, they produced only a small light but it reflected off the ice walls and provided a very beautiful orange glow that gently lit the room. It was warm inside, not hot or muggy, but cozy and comfortable.
Tralin called out, "Hello!" But no answer came. So he called again, and a third time, but still no one answered. Eshrin looked quite nervous when he asked, "Maybe we should look around?" Tralin nodded. We went to the door that was slightly creaked open first. At the door Eshrin looked pointedly at me, it seemed the opening of doors, some locked, and potentially trapped and dangerous would fall to me. I nodded and approached the door, all the while wondering who would trap doors in thier own home, if the front door was not trapped why would doors in the sitting room be? I checked anyway. The others all gathered behind me but a few feet back, most had drawn thier weapons. Confident the door was safe I pushed it open, dropping down and to the side as I did. The door swung open to reveal a long rectangular room with a long wooden table, chairs littering its length, in the center. It seemed we brave and intrepid adventurers had found the manors dining room! Nolan burst out with a deep and pleasant laugh. Grinning I stood from my crouch, letting my hands come off my weapons. The others all chuckled lightly too, but still the air of uncertainty was thick and the place did lend itself a degree of eerieness. On the far end of the room another door was tucked into the corner on the left wall. The others again stood back leaving me to the door. It was a dining room door for gods sake, why would it be trapped or even locked!? I didnt bother to check, just reached out and turned the latch. It swung open quietly...
And we found the kitchen.
The exploring of the lower floor proceeded in that fashion. We located a dining room, a kitchen, a pantry, and a chamber pot. Back in the siting room the doors open to a bedroom and the other to a rather large study. the study had numerous shelves of books, none in a language any of us could read. I recognized some words that resembled words in both Elvish and Drow, but still the language was to dissimilar from either for me to read. Maeve said she believed it to be some ancient form of Elven, perhaps the first dialect of the elven tongue. But we found no evidence of residency at all save one book sitting on a desk in the study, open as if it was being read, a small pair of reading glasses sat on the page and a thin red silk bookmark rested just off to the side of the book.
Our exploration of the bottom floor completed we climbed the stairs to the upper floor. As I passed under the entryway I felt an icy cold chill over my entire body and I shivered. I looked back and saw that my companions shared a similar experience. Just past the entryway was a hallway extending in both directions and curving around out of sight. This part of the building was circular in shape. The top floor was far more eerie, I thought I could hear faint whispers all around me but I could see nothing, nor could I make out what was being said. Nolan had his holy symbol out so I thought he heard them too. Icy cold breezes ocassionally blew past me and I shivered each time, but they didnt seem to disturb anything in the hallway, not even my clothing. Rhias bird, named Peck for the way he ate, had retreated into a small pocket of her pack with only his head poking out, and was glancing nervously all about. Galen had his sword brandished and also had produced his holy symbol. Maeve was slinking behind Galen, one hand on his back, the other on her weapon. Eshrin and Tralin seemed largely unconcerned. I led the way, now careful for traps, this area seemed too malevolent to not be laden with traps and other horrors. There was no chandelier dangling in this hallway to provide light, instead at intervals small, square lanterns dangled just below the ceiling, each with a single weak flame dancing in it, providing a soft orange glow off the walls to just barely provide enough illination to see.
It seemed all the doors were on the outside of the ring that was the hallway and each we checked was a bedroom with a bed, a dresser, completely empty, a footlocker, also always empty, a mirror, and a chamberpot. They were all laid out in the exact same manner, all the objects in the same places, and all were perfectly clean, no dust, the beds tightly tucked up, but otherwise showed no signs of habitation. When we had completed a full circuit of the hallway and found ourselves back at the entryway we found a new door, that had not been there before, on the inner ring directly across from the entryway. Cautiously I approached, the others all stood far back, I made note of thier lack of trust in my abilities. I found no traps on the door but it was locked. Once the lock was defeated I opened the latch and the door swung open with a painfully loud creak. There was an audible gasp from the others behind me. The door opened to a large half circular room, with the flat, straight wall directly across from the door. There was a platform in the far left corner that looked like the platforms in various inns for bards and musical groups to perform on. There was tables and chairs along the walls excepting the far one, and the center of the room was open for dancing, it was a ballroom. Once we had all entered the ballroom the was a sudden and very strong breeze that nearly threw me off my feet, accompanying it was a very loud and deep groaning noise. Galen shouted, "The door!" I swiveled to face it and saw it was gone, only the smooth dark blue ice that was the wall in its place. Then all the flickering candles died, and we were in pure darkness.
I could see in the dark, and so could Maeve, but my companions could not. I gasped audibly as all around me I saw figures, they were all humanoid and I would guess evlen, some must have been drow because they were dark black, instead of the lighter shades of grey of all the other figures. Maeve screamed so I knew she could see them too, and when she did they all turned to face us. I felt chilled to the bone and I was only partially aware of Tralin chanting. The figures moved towards us and I started to back away until my back was against the wall and I had no where left to go. As they came closer I slashed out with one of my daggers but it just passed through the creature. I slashed again and again but always to the same result. I closed my eyes and screamed with Maeve as thier pawing hands reached me. I felt nothing, and when I opened my eyes I saw they were all over all seven of us but their limbs past right through us like my dagger had them. Then Tralins chanting was done and a bright light on the top of a stick he had produced lit the whole room, and the people were gone.
"What is it!?" I was pressed hard up on the wall, my eyes squeezed shut and my breath coming in deep gasps. I tried to catch me breath, Galen and Nolan had thier holy symbols out and were glancing all around the room. Eshrins blade was out and looking for an enemy. "What is it!?" Tralin repeated. Maeve caught her breath first, "Ghosts! I think it was ghosts." Tralin glanced at the others, Nolan and Galen just shrugged. My own breath caught I added, "They could see us but when they tried to touch us thier hands only passed through our bodies." I shivered a bit as I said it. Tralin paused in thought for a moment, but we had no means for any of the others to be able to see the creatures. We decided he would douse his light and Maeve and I would try to communicate with them, we didnt think they could harm us or they would have before.
The light went out and all around me I could see the things again, they were milling around all over the room, but none seemed to take an interest in us at all. I took a moment to calm myself before I spoke, "Hello?" Every one of the creatures turned to face us as soon as the word left my mouth, like they only then, at the sound of my voice, even realized we were there. They began moving towards us groping like before. I sharnk back a bit, and I saw Maeve do the same, but I kept my composure, and so did she. I took a deep breath, put on my best smile, and tried again, "Hello. I am Whren." They didnt reply, just kept pawing at us all, so I tried in every of the numerous languages I spoke, but there was no reply to anything I said. Maeve tried as well, but she met the same results. Even Galen and Nolan, blind in the dark tried but were met with only silence. Tralin relit his stick and the things were gone. We wouldnt be able to communicate with these.
There was one door besides the one we had entered the room from, so we went there since the door we entered was gone now. It was directly across from where we entered. The room it opened into formed a half circle, completing a full circle with the ballroom. It was empty except for a pedestal in the center. Just inches from the top of the pedestal floated what looked like a ruined lump of blackened metal. It was shaped like an animals head only most of it was missing. I could only make out what looked like an eye and part of a nose. The edges were smoothed and polished, but on one side, where it had been rent which was jagged and torn. This must have been a piece of the artifact. We all moved closer to it and Eshrin reached out to grab it, but before he could touch it Tralin barked, "Wait!" We all managed to tear our eyes from the item, I wonder if any of us realized how transfixed it had us, I know I didnt, and glanced up to see a figure before us. He was drow, and in an instant every member of our party but me had weapons drawn.
Nolan, Maeve, and Tralin were already chanting and Rhia had an arrow nocked and ready when he spoke. "Who are you?" but he said it in a language no one but I could understand, it resembled both drow and elven though was neither, I only understood him because I knew all three tongues. Eshrin and Galen were both moving to flank him on opposite sides. They would attack in moments I knew, I scrambled for words, "Hes no enemy!" I could see Tralins casting was near complete and I lunged at him grabbing his hands and ruining his spell. Nolan swiveled to face me, mace in hand, as Tralin and I rolled on the ground. "Hes no enemy!" I shouted again. Eshrin and Galen kept thier weapons bared on the drow, Tralin glared daggers at me.
The drow glanced around in confusion, "Who are you?"
Nolan ignored him, "Who is he then?"
I didnt know what to say, "I dont know, but I know hes no enemy."
The drows voice rose, "Who are you!?"
Galen focused on him for a second then said, "She is right. I see no evil on him."
Eshrin scowled, "You always look?"
"I didnt have a chance, besides hes drow."
The drows voice rose to an angry shout, "Who are you and why have you invaded my home!? Answer me!"
No one understood him but me, that much was obvious, "We are not enemies. Please, my friends cannot understand you, and I can but just barely."
He looked us all over, weapons were still drawn but were no longer menacing him. He nodded, "I am going to cast a spell that will allow us all to speak. Tell your companions if they attack me I will defend myself, and not one of you will live out the day."
I nodded and translated and the drow began his casting. Tralin and Nolan both watched the gestures he made very closely and I wondered if they could tell the spell from watching. I didnt feel any different or see any effect of the magic when he was done. He stood a moment then said, "Can you understand me?" Everyone nodded.
He was Ilmaaryn, the drow who had helped destroy the artifact so long ago, and he was guardian of this piece, and had been for millenia past. We asked him about the ghosts and he told us they were the spirits of his fellows, Ilythiiri and Drow who had been alive when the cursed was placed and were caught in it, but had not participated in the horrors of thier brethren, unlucky souls punished for crimes thier kin commited, and none of them could find rest until they were pardoned, and so they lived here, in his manor, in a tormented state of half being.
Before we could speak with him for very long the deep sound of heavy bells sounded through the room. I recognized it, it was the same bells as when we had pulled the cord at the door to enter. Ilmaaryn paused a moment as if concentrating. "Evil has come for the... thing." He spat the last word and glanced at the item as he did. "You will have to take it from this place. I am powerful but they will come and come now that they know it is here, and eventually I will fall. I can defeat these while you escape. Take it to safetly, defend it with your lives."
The others nodded but I thought something was wrong, this place was so distant and obscure, how would anyone know to come here, up on the High Ice to look for it. In Shadowdale we had been told its existance was known only to a very select few, and they had no reason to believe some evil power was looking for it. Something was out of place. Before I could say anything, though, Ilmaaryn disappeared and we were alone in the room. Galen went forward then stopped, "That is an item of evil. I will not carry it." He stuck out his arm to block Eshrin, "And neither will you." Eshrin scowled at him. Nolan stepped forward and cringed slightly as he wrapped a cloth around the item and tucked it into his pack.
Backing out of the room we found the door at the other side of the ballroom had reappeared and we rushed through it, and across the hallway to the main room. There were bodies scattered all over the place, and all of them the insignia of Zhentil Keep. Eshrin growled and drew his sword. He rushed down the stairs and out the door. Outside we found Ilmaaryn confronting a legion of Zhentish troops. As we burst out the door he turned and grinned at us and began waving his hands. I thought he meant to destory the Zhentarim so we could escape, but instead he disappeared and a legions worth of crossbows turned on us. Only Eshrin had his weapon drawn and he moved forward toward the enemy. Galen was staring at Eshrin and I knew something was wrong. Eshrin sheathed his sword, "I kept my end. Give me my sister."
The lead man, a greasy but powerfully built man chuckled, "So you have. You will see her when we return home. Which has the item?" Eshrin nodded at Nolan and disappeared into the ranks of the Zhentarim as soldiers took our weapons, bound our hands, and pulled the cloth wrapped object out of Nolans pack. Galens eyes never left Eshrin, who never looked back, and in Tralins I saw a hurt more profound thatn I could ever feel.
We began the treck to Zhentil Keep where we would be 'questioned' about what we knew of the other pieces, then likely killed and all the way, even with torture and death awaiting me, all I could think of was the betrayals of Ilmaaryn and Eshrin. That was a thing I would never understand.
It was pain like I could never have imagined. Pain that I dont have words to describe. Pain that made colors swirl in my vision. All I could hear was screams, terrible, agony filled shrieks. And when I realized those very same screams were coming from my own throat I screamed all the louder.
We had traveled to some Zhent controled town, I could only assume Zhentil Keep, but I didnt know for sure. The trip had been far from pleasant, they had driven us as hard as we could stand and worse. By the time we arrived I could hardly stand and I was dizzy with hunger and only partially aware at all. I had been thrown into a cell, by myself. There was no window in this one. I dont know how long I was in it, there was no light and no way for me to measure the passage of time, save for the occassional, and seemingly sporaticly timed, food pushed into my cell. Sometimes men would come and take me to some other room filled with the devices of torture, and it was there that I felt that terrible eternity of pain. I told them a thousand times all I knew about the artifact, which was near nothing to be honest. But that wasnt enough. I told them a thousand times that I didnt know anything more. But they didnt believe me. A thousand times I created stories simply to placate them. Some they believed, some they didnt. Maybe I was there for days, maybe years, maybe forever.
More than once I woke bloodied and battered on the floor, near the wall. The scratch and gouge marks on the wall and my own bloody and torn fingers told me the monster had taken me, and for all its infernal strength it could not escape this cell. I spent much of my waking time tracing the walls and floors looking for any way out. But I was too weak to do much and often simply lost consciousness while I looked, only to reawaken to the feel of cold water and to be dragged off to another session of pain and desperation. Very often I would hear the screams of the others, Rhia, Maeve, Tralin, Galen, and poor Nolan. And how could I do anything but cry while I listened?
Often I wondered about Eshrin. Ilmaaryn had been no friend, we had known him only for a few moments and even though he seemed a good person at first he owed us no loyalty, so I wondered whether betrayal was the proper word for what he did. Yet I couldnt help but wonder why he did it, why give the item to the Zhentarim and why turn us over to them? But Eshrin. We had traveled very far with Eshrin. We had had good times with him, had risked death by his side. He had even risked his own life to save ours, why stand alone before a dragon to save the lives of people you only planned to betray to thier deaths anyway? They had mentioned his sister, whom he had told us was missing, maybe they had caught her and used her to control him. But why not turn us over earlier, and when would he have discovered they had her? It made no sense to me. I wondered what I would do in his place. I had no real family, but the drow who raised me were as much family to me as the flesh and blood parents of anyone else were to them. If Jesimae were to be captured by some enemy and I would have to betray others I cared about to save her, would I? No. I would not. Jesimae, though I loved her dearly, was one person. I could not sacrifice others even for her, and I knew that she would not be able to live with herself knowing others had lost thier lives for her. There was a saying she had often quoted, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." I didnt know who had first said that, but they were right. Every person is as important, and valuable, as any other person. The sacrafice another is the choice of that person and that person alone. That is what seperated them from other drow, that they not only respected, but also loved life, in all its forms.
The final time the men came to take me from my cell I could hear some racket, some arguing, from out side the dungeon that was now my home. I thought I recognized one of the voices, but I couldnt be sure anymore. They lifted me by the arms and began dragging me out of the dungeon, I tried to keep my feet under me and walk with them, but I felt so weak and I could barely place one foot in front of the other, much less keep up. As we got closer to the room at the end of the dungeon hallway I became more sure of the mans voice, it was Eshrin, and he was mad.
We entered the room, it was little more than a guard station for the dungeon. A small square, wooden room with a square table in the center. A handful of chairs were placed around the table and I could see the remains of some game the guards had been playing on the table, and a very large metal chest sat in the corner. Eshrin stood in the middle of the room and was arguing with the same greasy man who had led the men who captured us. The man stood in front of the door across from the dungeon entrance and next to him stood a very strange creature. Its lanky form was a pale grey and its overly large head was decorated with only two, also overly large, yellow eyes. I didnt know what was going on, I had been able to hear but I had been concentrating on trying to walk so I hadnt paid much attention to the arguement. The greasy man looked scared. The two guards carrying me dropped me to the ground and reached for thier swords. There was a long pause and everything was quiet, then the room exploded. Eshrin drew his sword with lightning speed and rush at the greasy man. The grey thing lunged to intercept and tackled Eshrin to the ground. The greasy man turned and bolted out the door. The two guards drew thier weapons and moved to advance on Eshrin. I knew this was my only chance to escape. I desperatelly called for the monster, but it just would not take me. I had no weapons and even if I did I was too weak to fight.
I took a hard look at the room, commiting its entire layout to memory. Then I reached out towards the foot of one of the men, cautiously moving to the wrestling match between Eshrin and the thing. Fortunately the men had forgotten about me and right as my hands were close enough to close on the mans ankle I called forth a cloud of darkness. It filled the whole room and just as it did I grabbed the mans ankle and tugged for all I was worth. I was rewarded with a heavy thrud and a groan as he hit the ground. I heard his sword clang to the ground out of his grip. The image of the room in my mind I scrambled, on hands and knees, forward and over the recovering man. Sweeping the ground with my hands I located the weapon, picked it up and turned myself towards the men swinging the blade madly in thier direction as I scrambled back towards the door the greasy man had left. I could see in the dark, but not in magical darkness so I was as helpless as the men. I rose to my feet, still waving the sword in front of myself, and once standing dismissed the darkness.
Eshrin had broken the creatures grapple and had it pinned to the same wall I was against. It was sitting, with his sword blade at its throat. One of the soldiers rushed at Eshrin who twirled to meet the attack and pivoted to the side so the creature couldnt get up and attck him. The other soldier was on his feet again. he drew a dagger from his belt an came at me. I was weak, and even at my peak I was clumsy with a long blade. He slowly moved in. When I thought he was in reach I slashed at him, he easily ducked under the reckless attack and came at me low, opening a deep wound on my side. I swung madly as I moved to get out of his reach. I could not win a fight with this man, not like this. I had to hope Eshrin would dispatch his man quickly and come to my aid. Paniced, I began to weave the sword in the defensive manouvers Jesimae had taught me. This sword was hardly a weapon I could wield effectively but when only set to defend and not to fight back I could last some time.
I was exhausted and my arms felt like the heaviest lead, I wouldnt last much longer when Eshrin finally came up behind the man. He was aware of Eshrins approach and he looked like he was going to disengage with me to meet the greater threat, so with all I had left in me I launched as aggressive an attack as I could. He could not defend against me and Eshrin at once and Eshrin ran him through. The creature got to its feet and started to come towards us, Eshrin turned and raised his bloody sword. I stood, awestruck, as I saw the creatures features blurr and change. Now the thing was gone, and in its place was a young human woman. She was beautiful, lightly tanned skin, flowing brown hair and big blue eyes. Eshrin dropped his sword and his eyes filled with tears. A smooth, soft voice came from the girls perfect lips, "Brother." Eshrin had to know this was not his sister, he had seen it change just as I had. But he moved forward, towards the girl, and she embraced him. He sobbed as she held him and I could see her lift a dagger, ready to plunge it into his back. I jumped forward and slammed the sword I was carrying into her side. She let go of Eshrin and stumbled back screaming, the blade still buried deep in her. Eshrin turned to face me, murder in his eyes. I began to back away and he turned to pull the blade from the monsters side. It had fallen to the floor and as Eshrin moved towards it its shape blurred and changed back into the lanky, grey form it had held before.
He stood staring at it for a moment and I moved up to him and wrapped my arms around him in as comforting an embrace as I could. He sobbed into my shoulder. Maybe I couldnt understand what he had done, but I could forgive. After just a moment he stopped, wiped his eyes and said, "More will come for us. All your things are in that chest. We must release the others quickly." I nodded. Looking around I saw a keychain pinned to the wall next to the dungeon door. I grabbed the keys and hurried into the hallway. When all of our companions were freed I explained what happened as we hurried back to the guard room. We entered to find Eshrin sitting at the table, his face buried in his hands. The others all stared at him for a moment, then Galen walked over to him and grasped his shoulder, "I am sorry." Eshrin looked up at him, "If you looked and saw evil why didnt you stop me?" Galen smiled a sad smile, "I saw no evil. I saw misguided love." Then he walked away and opened the chest. We all collected our belongings and Tralin said some of the items on the dead soldier were magical, including the dagger, so we collected those as well. Peck was missing, Rhia said she had sent him flying when we were captured and he had followed us and would return to her when she was safely out of the city.
Eshrin knew his way around, he had been here before, and his face was one the people around recognized and didnt question. So he led us. We wound our way through what seemed to be a large keep, keeping to the shadows and less traveled hallways. Soon enough an alarm was raised, but Eshrin had guided us to a secret exit few knew of and before long we were out into the city proper. But word reached the city gates before we did and we would have to find a new way out.
Rhia led us to an inn whose owner she said was a Harper agent serving as a set of eyes for the organization in this place. We got rooms, free of charge, one for the women and one for the men. We were told we would be safe there until we had a plan to escape. That night Eshrin told us his story, this time the real one. His family had been all but wiped out as he had said, only he and his sister survived. He didnt know where his sister was or if she was even alive, but the Zhentarim had sent word to wherever he was hiding that they had her captive. He didnt believe them until he had seen it with his own eyes. And he did see it. They used him as an agent to infiltrate the Harpers and when they heard about this artifact through him sent him to recover as much information about it as possible. That was how he had become involved in this group. he didnt know Ilmaaryn or his connection to the Zhentarim nor why the Zhents had played thier hand before he could recover more than one piece. But he had been promised that when he delivered his sister would be released to him and they would be allowed to go free. Now he knew they never had her, only a doppleganger made to look like her for him. Everyone seemed to believe him, I know I did. He apologized so much I couldnt help but feel sorry for him.
The arifact piece was lost to us. Eshrin didnt know where it was or even if it was still in this place or not. We had no way of finding out and attacking or inflitrating the keep was out of the question. No, we would have to discover a way to escape the city and reach another piece and assure its safety before anyone else could. But with the city guard and all those press gangs looking for us that would be no easy task.
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