My son, you have done well and are blessed. Speak truth and tell of your accounting.
Blessed Mother, you honor me and I humble myself to your glory. I shall tell the truth that I know and subject myself to your mercy for any error I speak.
It was the morning after and we had had made our decision to infiltrate Shukalgau; or so I thought. There were still some who had doubts.
I had prayed and the blessed mother gifted us with her bounty of food and drink. I had hoped that breakfast would bind us together to foster a sense of camaraderie and trust that we would need to succeed in our current endeavor. But my heart sank when Arien whispered into my ear: “I need to speak with you in private. I don’t trust Samir.” I knew then was not the time to cultivate discontent or harbor distrust among ourselves. I believed any such misgivings should be aired out publicly and be open for discussion. I expressed that thought in not so many words. But Arien ignored my rebuff and, instead, spoke with Nolofinwe in private.
What words they spoke, I do not know, but it appeared Nolo convinced Arien to speak freely and honestly about her concerns with the rest of us. Nolo is a good elf and perhaps, of softer tongue than me.
Arien confessed that she had been visited by the vampire, Morgath, not in physical form, but through the channels of mind and spirit. She received this ‘waking dream,’ as she described it, as she awoke that morning. The vampire Morgath asked about her and her lover, Roman Khan, and when he should expect them to arrive in Massar. The vampire said he had a way to rid her of Vermelda once and for all.
This waking dream disturbed me on many accounts. It confused Arien’s convictions and brought doubt to our current objective. She began to wonder whether we should listen to the message and instead turn around and go to Massar. Flint, of course, rejected the idea. ‘Massar is a hell of a place. I ain’t going there,’ he huffed.
The message itself was not what disturbed me. What made me pause in concern were three points: how did the message come; from whom did it come; and why did it come now?
A vampire? It was then Arien and Nolo relayed their relations with the vampire Morgath; and in their telling I began to wonder if this vampire had bitten Arien or placed a spell on her. If it had been a spell, I believed Flint or Nolo would have noticed that already. So my suspicion fell on the darker notion – she had been bitten and was slowly turning into a vampire’s thrall. The idea truly distressed my heart. Not only had I been sent on a holy quest to rescue Arien out of the maleficent darkness of Xymor and contend with the continual pursuit of a half-crazed, but deadly witch, who I had learned how to keep at bay for the time being, but now I had to be concerned about a vampire that may have enraptured my sanctified ward. It always feels the darkest before the dawn.
I expressed my thoughts, but Arien was adamant that the vampire Morgath had not touched her. I noticed Flint eyeing Arien’s neck. I was about to inform the dwarf that vampires rarely practiced contrived behaviors of biting necks as they typically bite their thralls in places the public cannot usually see. But I thought better of it. Knowing Flint, he may have wanted to strip Arien and inspect her whole body.
Arien refused to believe she was influenced by the vampire Morgath. I let it go, for the time being, and brought up the last point: why now? Why did Arien receive the message right before we were about to enter Shukalgau? It was too coincidental. Of course there was no immediate answer. We discussed and explored the issue more and finally, Arien was convinced to ignore the message and continue our quest to sneak into Shukalgau and find the portal out of Xymor.
During our conversation, Flint had wandered off to scout our path without telling any of us. When I had noticed his absence, it was then we heard the booming voice: “Samir! Give yourself up and your companions will be allowed to leave unharmed.”
While Samir, Arien, and Nolo rushed out of our safe quarters through the east passage, Artemis and I hurried out the north. I heard Flint roar in the distance: “And you call yourself a dwarf!”
I turned a corner and saw a tall, menacing-looking tiefling in arms against a duergar. Across the way, I saw Flint and Samir fighting a couple more duergar. I couldn’t see Arien or Nolo.
I ran to fight alongside the stranger and before I knew it, the fight was over. The tiefling and I stood in silence, measuring each other and wondering who would make the first move, be it words or blades. Samir, Arien, and Nolo had quickly arrived and Samir introduced us to his tiefling friend, Truneseeg.
The tiefling told us his story of how Vermelda had come to Shukalgau; of how she informed the duergar of our location; and of how Truenseeg was assigned to investigate the passage and bring Samir back. Truenseeg did not say it at the time, but I wondered if Vermelda had told them of our intentions. The tiefling said he knew nothing about the secret passage. The hunting party was surprised of its discovery.
Samir vouched for Truneseeg. It was apparent to the rest of us that the two of them were allies, if not friends. Samir explained our situation and Truneseeg offered to help, if it offered a way out of Xymor.
I then noticed Flint was gone again. And again, we heard a booming cry, but this one was Flint. We hurried through the caverns toward his voice and found him standing in a narrow passageway, battle ready.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
‘Giant flaming lizards,’ Flint responded. Several large snake-like beasts with scales the color of fire came at the dwarf. Arien rushed to his back and touched him, bestowing a spell of speed upon the sorcerer-warrior. He released a spell on himself and shape-shifted into a large bear, but it was like no bear I had ever seen before. It had quills on its back like a porcupine. The beast roared and savaged the lizard creatures. It seemed we were in for yet more obstacles along our path to Shukalgau.