The Lake of Steam was surrounded by the wood we had emerged from. The Zhent fires ringed the entire oasis, like a snake swallowing its own tail. We were surrounded. When the sun rose the ring would constrict on us. Closing from all sides with no where for us to go to escape and we would be caught. We had to make our escape then and there, in the dark of the night. We were exhausted from the fighting in the underground manse and only Maeve and I could see beyond just a few feet in the dark. For the others the light of the fires served only to make the areas with no such light seem all the darker. Our horses and gear all remained where we had left them, still disguised. That meant they had not come into the wood yet. Likely they did not know when we had arrived or even if we even had at all. They must not know we had emerged from the underground either. Eshrin pointed out that they likely had set sentries in the wood to watch for us and likely had seen us emerge. But since the camps did not appear to be alerted to possible danger we did not think they had spotted us yet. There was little choice, we would have to break through the ring.
Nolan carried the artifact piece, just as he had carried the other. He cast a spell on himself, one of the very few he had left until he prayed again, saying it would keep all but the most strong willed from attacking him. That gave him the best chance of all of us at escaping. When his prayer was done it seemed as though a pale mist rose from the ground and swirled up around his body, then once it surrounded him solidified into a translucent, man sized temple. Then it faded from view. That was all that was left of the defensive spells any of the casters had left to them. We mounted up and headed to the edge of the wood slowly and as quietly as we could. We formed a wedge, with Eshrin and his large mount next to Galen in the front, Nolan behind them with Maeve and I flanking them. Rhia and Tralin brought up the rear. We waited a moment then charged.
The camp came alive as we pounded towards it and men and monsters scrambled to brandish weapons and set themselves to meet the charge. In the time it took us to close the gap a wall of spears grew in our path. I knew we would not clear them. Then I heard Tralin. He was speaking quietly, it was a chant. Then he stopped and a bright orange ball no larger than my finger streaked by Nolans head, only just missing him. It passed between Galen and Eshrin and flew into the spear men. The moment it struck a ring of flame exploded and expanded devouring everything it encountered. Men screamed and I shivered from the sound and smell of it. The flames grew and right as we arrived they flickered out. Tralins timing had been perfect. Having been expecting the spear men to halt the charge, the men left behind were wholly unprepared for us. Eshrin and Galens horses slammed into them, scattering many and trampling the rest. Eshrins sword flashed as he tore through the men. Galen had his heavy blade out as well, but the long two handed weapon was too unwieldy to slash with one handed so he brandished it like a spear. All around me was the sound of shouting and screaming, then above it all rose Maeves voice in a beautiful melody encouraging us to valor and greatness. A man hurled himself at Alys, his blade aimed at my side. I could not maneuver away because of Nolans mount, but before his blade struck an arrow blossomed from his neck and his sword dropped. His bodies momentum carried him under Alys where he was trampled. I looked back and saw Rhia standing in her stirrups, guiding her horse with her knees. Her bow was out and she was firing liking living lightning. It seemed as though by the time her arrow had cleared the front of her bow she had already produced and begun knocking another.
Eshrin and Galen cleared the camp just as hails of arrows began to fall all around us. They flared out to the sides and slowed up to allow the rest of use to pass, they would close back up behind Tralin and Rhia when they were clear. Nolan sped up and pulled ahead of Maeve and I while we closed up with one another. I felt something strike me hard in the back and the impact almost threw me from Alys. A burning pain raced all over my back and stomach then quickly went numb. I became dizzy and a ring of black began eating my vision. I felt light, and all the noise faded so all I heard was the beating of my heart. As I tottered I glanced down and the black completely consumed my vision just a second after I saw the bloody arrowhead and length of shaft sticking out of my body, just above my stomach.
My vision returned to me, but all I could see was mist. It danced around me, above me, below me, everywhere. Then it began to fade and I could see I stood on a vast plain. It was barren, nothing but gray everywhere I looked. Glancing down I saw there was no sign of my wound. I knew then where I was. The Fugue Plain. Where the dead go to await their gods. Then I heard, very distantly, like a whisper I had to strain to hear, the same feminine voice from my dream so long ago.
The mist, still not completely gone grew thicker and pain erupted all over my body. The arrow appeared in me. The roar of the ocean filled my ears as the once again impenetrable mist was abruptly replaced with the plain of the Endless Waste. The shouts of combat, thunder of hoof beats, and thrumming of bows exploded in my ears as I suddenly gasped my first breath since I had lost consciousness. Rhia was on one side of me reaching over holding the reins on Alys as well as her own mount. On the other side was Maeve, one bloody hand over my wound, which was spurting blood, the other guiding her own mount. She was singing frantically and the song made her hand glow. The pain lessened and the bleeding slowed. I was weak and dizzy, I did not know what was happening.
"Nolan! Its too much! I’ve done all I can! We need you!"
I began to sway in my saddle. I knew I could not keep awake longer. I was alive thanks to the small healing Maeve could perform, but it was not enough to fix me, nor even keep me conscious. Someone was shouting, several someone’s, but I could not tell what they were saying anymore. It was all just a mesh of noise. Maeve veered away from me. I wanted her to come back. I did not want to be alone. I was going to die here but I wanted them, my friends with me. I tried to call for her to come back, and I reached out for her weakly. It threw me from my saddle. A hand caught me and hauled me over onto their horse. Good, I was not alone after all. I closed my eyes and once again let the darkness take me.
I did not die.
Instead I dreamt.
I stood on the vast plain of the Endless Waste. In front of me stood the Dark Man. He glared contempt at me. "So weak." His voice was like silk. I began to back away from him, but he just smiled his malicious smile. It infuriated me, like it always did. I could feel the monster growing inside me. "It can save you, you know. Accept it."
I fought it down as I continued to back away, "No."
"It will make you strong."
"No. My friends make me strong. My faith makes me strong. Not this."
He laughed. "Your friends and your faith make you dependent, soft. They make you weak."
I choked out the word, "No."
He smiled that infuriating grin and gestured. All my friends appeared next to him. My traveling companions and my friends from back home. Next to them a beautiful drow woman, the same as in my other dreams. "She loves only drow, and you are not drow. She abandoned you without ever accepting you. You were never a consideration."
I screamed, "That’s not true!"
"All that time in her church and still you don’t know her. Tel me, where in all the dogmas and lore’s you read did she lay claim to abominations? When did she say she cared for fiend bloods? And even if she did claim you, in the end she’s a drow, and like all drow she will betray." The image begun fading until I could only just see it if I strained.
"You’re friends now? These have forgotten you. Its been so long how could you expect them to remember?" He gestured at Jesimae and the others from the temple, and they faded completely. "This one has already betrayed you, and he will do so again." He gestured at Eshrin who also faded. "These abhor what you are. Your mere presence makes them sick." He gestured to Galen, Nolan, and Maeve. They all faded away too. "And these..." He gestured at Tralin and Rhia, "these are indifferent at best, but their priorities lie elsewhere. They will abandon you for those things when this is over." They faded. "That leaves you, my little demon, with only me. I wont abandon you, nor turn on you. All I ask from you is that you embrace what you are and pledge yourself to your sire."
I could find no words. I did not for one second believe a word he said, but at the same time it all sounded so true. All I could manage was another, "No." But even to my own ears it sounded hollow and defeated.
"You have nothing. You are weak. Accept this."
I felt tears stream down my face and the monster rose up, I knew I could not suppress it anymore. He was coaxing it out somehow and he was too strong for me to fight. I dropped to my knees sobbing. Then I felt a tingle, a warmth at my throat. My amulet. I grasped it and whispered, "They are my friends and my god. They will not abandon me. They are my strength." The monster faded back to the dark corner I kept it in and the man snarled.
"My patience is finite, the offer remains only for so long. When I tire of this you will accept me or I will kill you and everyone you care for. I will make you watch me devour their flesh while they squirm in agony. I will feed you their still beating hearts. This I promise you girl, anger me and I will make you beg for your death, but even that will not end your suffering. Where ever your soul goes to hide I will find it." Then he was gone.
The image of the drow woman was still there, more substantial now. It simply nodded and I awoke with the word it always spoke ringing in my ears.
We were galloping and I could see the mountains growing ahead of us. The sun was high in the sky. I was on Galens horse. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Rhia leading Alys. I squirmed a bit and heard Galens voice, "Good, you’re awake. Feeling better?"
All I could manage was a choked, "No."
He chuckled a bit at that. "We’ve put some distance between us and the Zhents but we cant stop until we reach the mountains. Well lose them there. For now just enjoy the ride." I nodded and stayed slumped over his horse.
I was worried the horses were being run to ground but we slowed a bit to let them rest now and then. At one such point I was able to remount Alys. We entered the mountains from a different point from where we had left them on our trip to the Lake of Steam. This point was much closer, and while the route we had taken to get there was easier we needed to enter the mountains as quickly as we could to lose the army behind us. They moved a bit slower on the field, but they would move much slower in the mountains and it was there that we would lose them. Once in the mountains we had to travel north to avoid exiting in Thay.. I was the most difficult traveling I had experienced in our expedition as there was very few paths to take and getting the horses over the mountains was very difficult. After we emerged from the mountains we crossed a rather large body of water on a small ferry, and soon after were back on the Golden Way where we joined a caravan traveling to Telflamm. I had loved the city on our first visit, but I was exhausted and broken. I did not know I could enjoy it again. But as it came into view I found myself smiling. Not just because of the city, but because tonight I would get a bath, and a comfortable sleep. Even if the Zhentarim knew where we were now, they would not dare attack the city. We were safe.
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