Reins of Darkness

Ulfen: An Oral History - Chapter 9

After what I reckoned to yet another thousand-or-so foot descent, we finally touched down in a large cavern. The light of the sunrod I had dropped combined with the soft, silvery glow emanating from a large well in the centre of the cavern floor provided just enough light to make out our surroundings.

A series of alcoves were cut into the circular chamber, some of which housed monstrous statues. It occurred to us that several of these statues were rather familiar – namely Shax, Haegente, and Ureneme in their cursed forms. Other alcoves contained only rubble. If I had to guess, the empty spaces once housed statues of Amin, Pymon, and the other vestages we had encountered up to this point. There were two notable absences among the gallery: Malphus and Nebarius.

Dominating the gallery was the featureless form of a giant, bound in chains and covered with the symbol of Nebarius. I guess he was making up for the fact that his sigil was nowhere to found in the sprawling, intersecting script etched into the stone floor about the well. After a bit of investigation and hypothesizing (possibly aided by the vestages bound to us), we determined that we were looking at The Pact itself – that dark and mysterious contract which gave rise to the Dark Lord.

The silvery liquid – heavier than water, in that it did not flow up and out of the well – grew agitated. We noticed pairs of glowing green eyes winking into existence. Further investigation revealed that astoraxes were /manifesting/ in the liquid. Despite the dark depths in which we stood, mere feet from the cold, crushing pressure of the water surrounding us, only then did shiver when we realized that we were looking at the birthplace of these foul creatures.

Fearing a sudden swarm of astorax, like the one we encountered above, I loosed a bolt of lightning from my wand into the well. Some combination of the lightning, salt water, and silvery liquid put an end to the creatures swimming there and lowered the level of the well. Unfortunately, as we watched, we realized that the process was starting all over again. Eventually, the well would once again be full of astorax.

Casting about for a means of cutting power to the well, Ruel used his armor to locate any source of magic that might be feeding it. A cry of pain was his reward as (I would later discover) the entire cavern lit up like the sun to his enchanted vision. Apparently, we were standing inside a single gigantic nexus, far larger than any we had encountered to this point.

Smash attempted to shatter one of the statues with his mighty, shapeshifting sword. I’ll admit, a small part of me found the look on his furry snout rather amusing as it shattered to pieces. But, to be fair, the rest of me did feel bad for him. I have few possessions I’d consider precious, but there are one or two items I’d be sorely put out to lose. Especially by my own hand.

As we stood there dumbfounded, we discovered that we were not alone. The water pushed itself out of the cavern and a huge many-headed dog-beast – some kind of wolf/jackal/hyena, as I remember – came padding out from behind the statue of the giant. Nebarius himself, come to greet us in his temple.

I don’t really think he had any interest or intention of fighting – not that he was afraid, because he was not in the slightest. So we talked. Now, I don’t rightly know if there was some magic in his words that makes it hard to remember all that he said, or if it’s just my old age, but I can only remember bits and peices of the conversation: Something about the giants being his servants and it was them that eclipsed the sun. And something about overseeing the pact, while not being a part of it. Maybe a few other details.

No, what I really remember is how he made me feel as he spoke: His words were oily, frustratingly vague, and very self-assured. He was arrogant and pleased in no small way with what he had accomplished, how he had outwitted all the others – though he tried to avoid actually speaking about things in a direct manner. Very un-dwarflike. Un-orclike, too, for that matter. Maybe elves talk that way; at any rate, I found myself getting more and more upset.

During this exchange, Nebarious took on an upright, bi-pedal form (though still sporting the many dog-heads) – standing one hundred feet tall. Smash, having positioned himself behind Nebarious, decided at some point to charge into one of the enormous legs. I can only assume it was some sort of insane, suicidal grief at the lost of his sword that motivated him, because the rest of us had been trying to avoid picking a fight, if we could help it.

The attack barely registered. Like being bowled into by a tiny puppy, Nebarious looked down at our shaggy comerade with a looked of annoyed amusement on his many faces. Feeling that the situation had suddenly spiraled out of control, I decided to do something drastic.

Ever since our adventure in the enchanted forest below the dwarven cairn (you know, I don’t think I’ve ever really appreciated how ridiculous my life has been I sat down with you starting talking about it) I had been carrying around something special: a single dose of a posion commonly known as ‘the kiss of the grave’ – the bane of immortals everywhere. Mixed with the enhancing mushrooms that Fa Kseen was so fond of, and a bit of Dwarven Bark for taste, I produced an arrow that would make the unkillable killable. Using my enchanted bow to guarantee a hit, I gifted Nebarious with mortality.

You’ve heard of ‘white noise?’ It’s like a total lack of sound, but you can hear it … Anyway, it was like an explosion of heavy white noise, a silent scream. For the briefest of moments, we stood in uncertain quiet despite the sensation that something truly chaotic was happening just outside our ability to perceive it. After that intolerable moment passed, Nebarious looked down at us and it was clear that any amusement he’d felt before was gone; one hundred eyes, hot with rage, bored into us.

Ruel and Smash lept into action, raining mightly blows upon this giant of giants. I drew another arrow, this time treated with a mushroom-enhanced potion of controlling and let fly. I had hoped that I could convince Nebarious to dispell the bubble of air that filled the cavern and either drown him, or crush him to death with an unfathomable (heh) amount of pressure. Unfortunately, being mortal made him no more willing to bow to our will than before.

Nebarious responded with a mighty howl that froze our blood and very nearly threatened to freeze the rest of us into stone. In fact, Shard was petrified (you should ask him about it sometime). I don’t know how Smash and Ruel avoided a similar fate; for myself, I could feel Hagente protecting me from joining the collection of statues in the cavern for eternity.

Smash continued his assault, looking for a weak point. I threw one of my wands to Ruel, who was astride the massive shoulders, hacking away at his neck and caught a number of Nebarious’ many heads in an arc of lightning. Unfortunately, this only seemed to compound his current attitude towards us.

We managed to kill one or two heads, but any progress we were making was not going to fell Nebarious before a lucky strike on his part would end this confrontation. Using the the speed of my armor, I rushed up and grabbed a pinky toe easily the size of my arm. For the second time that day, I got to see a look of confusion replaced with fury pass over fifty canine faces as I slid a pair of cursed bracers on like a oversized toering. Barring a momentary lapse on our part, our attacks would now be landing much more easily.

Once he realized what had happened, Nebarious’ response was as swift was it was vicious. Each head shot forth on the end of a long, serpentine neck – a third of which arced down at me, another third towards Smash, and the final third twisting back on Ruel, still on his shoulders.

I really don’t know if I have the words with which to articulate what it’s like being ripped to shreds. And, believe me, I understand how strange that sounds, since I’m sitting here talking to you at this very moment. I felt each and every tooth stab through my armor into my flesh, felt the pressure as fifteen pairs of jaws clamped down and began to pull. What they pulled apart, however, was not my body, but – somehow (don’t ask me to explain it) – Hagente who was bound within me. The same thing happened to Smash with Ureneme. I’m not really sure how Ruel survived – likely there’s more to him than he was letting on.

At any rate, there we stood, somehow alive albeit stripped of our mighty helpers. It was then that the statues of both Hagente and Ureneme shattered in their alcoves. Smash performed a mighty leap to clear the heads attacking him, while I darted for cover behind the statue of Shax. I didn’t have any plan at that point; merely hoping that if Nebarious attacked the statue to get to me, it might somehow bring the Conqueror herself down to help us.

What eventually happened was far stranger (to my mind). Ruel, still holding the second wand, cast arc lighting once more. When the lighting passed through the statue of the Conqueror, it shattered and I suddenly found myself bound to Shax – apparently she had some sort of affinity with lightning … Thus bolstered, I rushed forward, activating the ring given to me by Ureneme and transforming into a water elemental. I landed two mighty – if I do say so myself – blows against Nebarious’ foot and, fearing reprisal, unstoppered the Miraculous Mistmaker I carried in the hopes of surviving at least a little longer.

As it turns out, Nebarious did NOT like water, in any form. Where the mist touched him, his flesh reacted as if I had poured acid on it. In fact, his aversion to water was such that moments later, we had Nebarious trapped. How? Well, that’s where Shard comes in. You see, despite the fact that his physical form had been turned to stone, he could still act as a shadow-spirit.

As Ruel, Smash and I fought Nebarious, Shard was using his arcane abilities to try and break the statue of [name?], the vestage he served. After building up a magical resonance within the statue, it shattered and he found himself a vessel for most – if not all – of [name?].

At that moment, we destabilized Nebarious’ physical form and Shard, now unoccupied elsewhere, trapped a small portion of his essence within himself along with [name?] who, it should be noted, actively hates. Thus, it turned out to be a good thing – for us, I’m not so sure about Shard – that he was trapped as a statue, lest he loose his already-tenuous grip on reality.

Now we found ourselves with a bit of a connundrum: What do we do about Nebarious, part of whom is trapped in our ally (the rest of whom we had no idea where it went). After some deliberation, and a bit of urging from Shax within me, I decided to try an alter the pact. I began to use the acid I had accumulated on our journey north to wipe out certain elements of the script. At first, I followed the impulse Shax provided concerning her inclusion in the pact then, to be fair, I tried to use the remaining acid to affect the other included parties in a similar manner.

Unfortunately, I did not have nearly enough acid to free everyone, so I settled on wiping out those places where the lines of the pact criss-crossed with one another. I can’t say that Shard was happy with my decision, but then, when is Shard ever happy? To my mind, the world was already such a terrible place, I doubted loosing the vestages to wage war on one another could make it that much worse. Let them focus on enslaving one another and leave us mortals alone.

We also wanted to free the giants – after all, their enslavement to the Chi Julud was the whole purpose to our adventuring and our journey north – also, it would not do to give any one vestage sole control of such powerful servants. Shard, using the same technique as before, shattered the statue, revealing a large mirror within, which Smash immediately destroyed as he is so fond of doing.

There, standing behind the mirror, was Fa Kseen looking in control of himself and content in a way I’d never seen him. Honestly, seeing him like that chilled me to the bone. Guess where the rest of Nebarious had gone? Fortunately, he was not acting on whatever impulses Nebarious was no doubt feeding him regarding Ruel, Shard and (in particular) myself.

Turning our attention to the astorax well, we realized that it was still functioning as it had before. Our only recourse to ending its ability to spawn the horrid things was to drain it. Shard began by fusing his two powerful swords into one ridiculously powerful sword. Smash eagerly restored his magic blade, then Ruel and I each took turns, eventually draining the nexus of all its power.

Finally, we all returned to the surface and made our way back through the Conqueror’s ship to find her and all her giant kin looking refreshed and free of the Chi Julud. Ureneme and Hagente were there, too, finally free of their monstrous forms.

There was some debate among the party as to what we should do or where we could go. But, upon hearing Shax declare that they were going to “Turn the lights back on,” I decided that, at least for a little while, our goals were in parallel.

I don’t know for how long the Conqueror will want us around or in what capacity, but as the giant’s ship started to rise into the sky, all I could do was excuse myself to go find a quiet corner of the ship and get some much-needed rest.

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