The air was old. It tasted stale and dry. It made me gag, and gasp. It took a few moments before I was able to easily breathe. Quickly my mouth was dry and cottony. I took a drink from my water skin, but I did not swallow it, instead I kept the water in my mouth to slosh around so my mouth did not dry out again. It was completely dark inside, the only light was the soft and small glow from Tralins stick. I moved ahead of the others, outside of the circle of light. There were no sounds in the place. My sloshing of the water in my mouth sounded like the thunder of the tide on the shore to me. I could hear the others behind me, breathing. They stepped lightly, and though they tried their best to be silent, their footfalls thundered and I was sure anyone in this place could hear them all. Except maybe Rhia, but despite her stealth, Pecks wings shuffled and gave her away.
The door opened into a long hall. Pillars lined it on both sides and ran its entire length to a massive double door at the far end. The ceiling soared high above us, beyond my sight. I wished I could see that high, I worried some terrible thing lurked up there just beyond our sight waiting for its chance to swoop down and devour us. The floor was polished marble. I crouched down and ran my hands over it, it was smooth and cool. I lay my head on the floor and tilted it to the side so one eye was level with its surface and gazed out towards the far doors. I could see my reflection on the smooth floor, the road had added some time to my face. I looked older than I remembered. The floor seemed to be smooth all the way to the door, I did not see any raises or depressions that could be the sign of a trap. Content with my search I led the way across the hall to the doors, all the while keeping one eye on the floor watching for any break in the smoothness of it, and one eye up, waiting for whatever could be lurking up there to swoop down. Nothing did.
The doors would open from the inside, and swing out towards us. I could tell by the hinges. There was no handle, or latch, or anything to use to pull them open. And even if there were, the things were warded. Not with mundane traps either. Magic protected this place. I had dealt with magical wards before, but that made me no less nervous. I always was when dealing with magic. Mundane traps I could plainly see the mechanics of, or at least feel them out, but magic was different. I could tell it was there, a tingle in my fingertips like when one handles wool then touches metal. But I could not see it, or feel it out, I just knew it was there, and that always scared me. I told my companions the doors were warded and I told them what I was doing as I examined them deciding how best to bypass the ward, speaking it aloud helped me think.
Tralin said he could dispel it, he had come prepared for dispellings. I stepped back and let him cast his spell. I watched his gestures, so smooth and fluid. I could duplicate them easily enough I knew, but it would do no good, I had no magic in me. I never had. Besides, I trusted magic less than my own skills. I knew what I could do, and how well I could do it, and consistently so. The magical strength of mages I had seen or met varied a good deal.
When Tralins casting was done there was a brief flash from the door and he began casting again. The doors swung open. A gust of cool, fresh air blew into my face. I swallowed the water in my mouth. It was a very large square room.
All along its walls were torches, lit and glowing brightly, they illuminated the entire room. At the far end was a stand and sitting on it, or more accurately, floating just above it, was lump of black metal that looked very similar to the artifact piece we had lost so long ago. Where that one had been the upper portion of a nose and an eye of some creature, this one appeared to be the lower portion of the jaw and part of a mouth. In front of the stand was an iron chair and in it an ancient and regally dressed skeleton. This was all too easy, I knew there had to be something more to this. The artifact that this was a piece of was too powerful, too dangerous, for it to be so easily accessible. The expressions of reluctance on the faces of the others showed they shared my concern.
We all stood in silence for a moment then Nolan spoke, he said he would carry it, but that I should go to it with him, in case of traps. I nodded and we moved towards the stand. I could see no indication of any traps, but we moved slowly and carefully anyway. I had no illusions that there were no traps I could not detect. I may have had all faith in my abilities, but I knew I was not perfect. As we approached Nolan grasped his holy symbol and eyed the skeleton. I have to admit it frightened me. Just steps away from it a voice boomed out around us, and I started. To hear Eshrin tell it, I nearly bumped my head on the ceiling. I yelped when the skeleton rose to its feet and I realized the voice belonged to it.
"This item has been placed in my care, and in my care it will stay!"
Nolan raised his holy symbol and presented it to the skeleton and began to say something, but I never heard what it was. A burning pain stabbed through my side and I screamed and dropped to the ground writhing with the pain. I heard weapons being drawn and the clang of metal on metal, and the shouted voices of my friends all around me. Instinctually I grabbed one of my daggers and began scrambling on my hand and knees towards one of the walls, blindly slashing the blade behind me to keep any attacker that may be there at bay. When I got to the wall I rolled onto my rear, pressing my back up against the wall and drawing my other blade. Through tear blurred eyes I saw myself. Wispy and almost translucent the figure stood before me, brandishing two daggers, one dripping my blood. I could make out the features, and there was no doubt, it was me. Looking beyond it I could see my friends, each of them squared off with his or her own duplicate. Eshrin parried and danced in his graceful style of swordplay with a shade of himself that matched his every move. Bright magics flashed between Tralin and his double as they began an evenly matched and endless mage duel. Galen waded into combat, prayers to Lathander on his lips, his ghostly self traded heavy blows of his great sword right back at him, and its own lips moved in exact duplicate to his, a mockery of his prayer. Rhia fired arrow after arrow, only to see each of them smashed in mid flight by another arrow fired right back. Above her Peck screeched madly as he desperately fled from a shadow Peck. Maeves voice echoed around us, singing of courage and valor. The dark Maeves lips moved in song as well, but no sound escaped it. Nolan appeared to be locked in a struggle of wills with his counterpart. Both held holy symbols, raised and presented at each other, and each wore a look of pain and heavy concentration.
Evil Whren glared down at me and I could see myself in her eyes. This was Whren. This was me, she knew everything I did. How I fought is how she fought, I could not win a fight with this thing, none of us could. I tightened my grip on my blades, my side throbbed with pain and I could feel warm liquid bubbling out and trailing down my side and leg. I lunged at evil Whren, leading with both blades, she responded and moved to parry and reply. She committed to the combat, and as soon as she did I aborted my attack and dove into a roll past her. She followed my roll, swiveling, already moving into a parry, expecting me to come out of the roll behind her attacking. Instead I rolled to my feet and kept going, running away from her.
Eshrin was our most capable fight so it was his double I ran for. Eshrin saw me coming and danced to the side, forcing his opponents back to me. I hit the evil Eshrin at full tilt, and as I made impact I slammed my left dagger into his side, almost an exact wound to the one I had received from my own double.
As we tumbled to the ground I wrapped my right arm around, almost like an embrace, and buried that dagger in his chest. We hit the ground and my momentum carried me over and past him wrenching both my daggers from my hands.
I skidded to a stop and immediately rolled to my side. A dagger blade clanked into the floor right where I had been. I did not stop rolling. As quickly as I could I found my feet and began madly weaving and dashing about to avoid evil Whren. Eshrin had pressed his attack on his fallen duplicate, but the thing was still alive. It was on its feet, one of my blades buried to the hilt in its chest, the other dangling and about to fall from its side. but it was slower now, they hurt. Eshrin pressed it hard and it fought a losing fight. I just had to dodge long enough for Eshrin to finish it and come to my aid.
Tralin was no longer dueling his double, instead he was trying to cast one the doubles of others, but his every spell was countered and voided by the shade Tralin. I could see the frustration on his face. The same for Rhia, any arrow she fired at any foe was quickly shot down by her double. Nolan had his mace out now but could not safely disengage his opponent. Maeve avoided hers, all the while never losing her song. Galen bled from a dozen wounds but pressed his attack on his duplicate.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Eshrin finally dispatch his opponent and I veered towards him. Evil Whren giving close chase I charged straight for Eshrin and he raised his sword and swung it at me. The blade rushed towards me, closer, closer, and at the last possible breath I dropped suddenly. I heard the whistle of the blade, and felt the small breeze of its flight on my cheek as I dropped. I hit the ground and twisted to see what had happened.
Evil Whrens head rolled to a stop just before me. her momentum carried her body a bit further before it collapsed in a heap.
Eshrin rushed to help Nolan and I recovered my daggers. The two men made short work of Nolans double and immediately Nolan cast spells of healing on both Eshrin and I. Next we dispatched shadow Galen, then shadow Rhia. Her opposition gone Rhia immediately put an arrow into the evil Peck and her bird lovingly returned to her pack. Once the last of the shades were dispatched we all turned our attention to the skeleton. It had not done anything while we fought, just stood and watched. But now it started to cast a spell.
Immediately Nolan and Galen presented holy symbols, but the thing did not even flinch at their prayers. A small orange ball formed in its hand and then flew towards us. I recognized the spell. I dove to the side to avoid the fireball.
I managed to avoid the worst of it, my friends were not so lucky. Tralin and Maeve went down and I could not tell if either lived.
In seconds Eshrin and Galen were on the thing, but its magics protected it from the worst of their attacks. I circled around and lunged at it from its back. It was not like other opponents I had fought before though, it had no flesh, no organs, nothing, and my daggers just glanced off bone. Nolans voice rose out loud in prayer, he served the god of death and there was nothing more offensive to him than the living dead. This thing we fought was an abomination and he would see it destroyed. His prayer rose to its height and as it did his mace took on a bright glow. Enchanted by his god it wore a holy fire now. He rushed in and swung at the skeleton, who was busy pelting Galen with small red balls of magic, much like the ones Tralin was fond of. The weapon smashed into the creature and it screamed. Nolan swung again, and again, and the skeleton tried to escape his righteous wrath. But it could not, and soon it was dead, this time for good.
Tralin and Maeve lived, but their injuries were bad. Nolan and Galen gave what healing they could. I wrapped the artifact piece in a cloth and gave it to Nolan who stored it in his pack and we began to backtrack out of the building.
Outside and up the tunnel out into the failing sunlight. Nightfall was nearly upon us when we emerged onto the surface. It took some time to recover our supplies from their hiding place, Nolan had forgot where he hid them. He was getting on in years so it was not entirely his fault. It was nice to be back on Alys' back, I had been worried about her alone in the wood. We set off at an easy pace. It was dark but we wanted to put some distance between us and the place before we camped. As we cleared the wood we saw camp fires in the distance, maybe a few hours ride. A lot of fires. Rhia dismounted and went ahead to take a look at what it was, the rest of us stayed and nervously waited.
The news she brought was bad, Zhentarim. They did not have us yet though, and we meant to escape them, with the artifact piece this time.
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