We needed a time of respite. Nolofinwe, Varen, and especially Arien, were in no condition physically, emotionally, or spiritually to travel back to their village. They had been though a lot and it was time for them to rest and reflect.
After scouting the area and using my limited arcane gifts to clean the area, we decided to use the beast’s cave as a secure place and took the opportunity to give Roman a proper burial. In preparing Roman’s body, Arien found an odd stone inserted in his eye socket. She asked me to help her pull it out and told me that Muerath gifted Roman the stone. I was more than overjoyed knowing that Muerath had somehow, at some point, been able to reach beyond the barrier that prevented the gods from communing with us. There was hope….There is always hope as long as there is life.
I kept my elation of the revelation to myself for the time being, and gave the stone to Arien. She wanted me to have it, but I refused. It belonged to Roman, gifted to him from my mother. It was a holy relic; touched by the goddess of life and death and bestowed to a holy warrior. I had no right to such a thing. It belonged to Roman’s next of kin, and if not that, then to the one he trusted and loved the most, which was Arien. I told her as much. She was uncertain at first, either because she didn’t believe in my faith or was confused by my denial of a means to power, but she relented and appreciated my candor. That stone had the mark of her lover and holding it close to her was a reminder that his spirit would always be with her.
At some point, Varen and Arien went off to explore a little more of the caverns around us. This gave me the opportunity to commune with Nolo. Of the three, Nolo was the most akin to me – him being a quasi-holy man, albeit a disciple of nature and things of the wild. Even in the realm of stone and darkness, he kept his faith and love of all things natural, and such a thing kept him jolly. He showed me his tricks to find food even in such a gloomy world of doom and despair as Xymor. But behind those eyes of joy and reverence to the natural order, I saw a great pain and sorrow. He would not open up, which was natural of him since I was untrustworthy still, but I realized it was that pain in him that truly drove him forward on his journey, wherever that led. I liked him and hoped we would travel together more. He and I had a lot in common, even if we perceived reality in different hues. I hoped he would help me fulfill my calling to protect and bring Arien out of Xymor.
When Varen and Arien returned, Varen summoned his giant hut of magic and we rested. Arien and Varen refused to partake in the food Nolo scavenged – I suppose rat and fungus stew wasn’t gourmet enough for them.
The next morning, while Nolo, Varen, and I were refreshed and ready to continue onwards, Arien found she was still weak and tired. It was as if she hadn’t slept. She confessed to having horrific nightmares and deathly visions. This was the work of the witch hag, Vermelda – the witch had cursed Arien. Had I been privy of such knowledge about this hag’s capabilities, I may have been able to help protect Arien and the others. But they never told me.
Nolo took out a small stone statue of a bear that glowed red. He murmured a few words and touched Arien with the statue. The statue’s red glow erupted in a flash of blinding light that filled the cavern and I sensed immense power. When the glow faded, the statue did not glow anymore, but Arien was healed and she felt refreshed. I was taken aback. I asked them where they got the statue and they told me a rambling story about giant, intelligent, gophers that guarded a red rock with the power to bring back the dead. They explained that the gophers were the deadliest things they had ever encountered and never wanted to see them again. Were the giant gophers malicious? Territorial? Religious? The three of them didn’t seem to know or care. They just seemed frightened by the mere mention of the hairy rodents. Perhaps it was something I could only understand by being there. In any case, I was utterly confused, but curious.
We gathered our belongings and went back the way we came, climbing up the rope along the cliff wall. As we climbed, we heard a thunderous roaring sound of wind and felt a rush of hot air coming from below. We didn’t know if it was the approach of an oncoming beast or a natural occurrence. Truth was, we didn’t care, so we hurried our pace. Nolo used a magical ability to scale the walls and scout ahead of us.
For a moment, the rush of air stopped and we thought that whatever it was had passed. It was an instant relief. Perhaps we were in the clear and the air was nothing to worry about? We were wrong. As we continued climbing, the rushing air surprised us and returned. Something was coming and we didn’t want to be there to see whatever it was. Fear of the unknown has a tendency to do that to mortals. There was a moment where I stopped climbing and let the others go ahead. Unlike them, I was not afraid of death, for death is of my domain and holds no fear over me. I wanted to know the origin of the rushing air. I peered over the cliff’s edge and waited. Could it have been an ancient dragon of lore? Or was it a demonic balrog released from its hellish chains? Or perhaps it was a gigantic purple worm burrowing through the world of Xymor? Or signs of an oncoming volcanic eruption? I wasn’t able to discover the truth at that point as the others yelled down to tell me to hurry up.
Once we climbed and passed through the Ant Hive and found ourselves back in the tunnels of Xymor proper, Varen began to summon magical fey steeds to help us travel back to his home of Hactuan. That’s when Vermelda made her appearance.
I quickly unhooked my flail and shield.
“No, wait,” Varen said. “This is what we wanted.”
I was, once more, confused.
“You desired to parley,” the hag rasped, “and so let us parley.”
I was even more confused then. When did we decide to parley with the very evil that sought the destruction of the one thing I was sent by Muerath to protect? I’m not the most intelligent man, but I am no fool and I realized that Varen had somehow convinced Arien, and perhaps Nolo, that it was in their best interest to meet with the hag. I looked at Varen, Nolo, and Arien in puzzlement and disgust.
“Vermelda, I wanted to speak with you,” Varen said. “We want the same thing. We want out of Xymor. You want out of Xymor. Perhaps we can work something out.”
I could see the uneasiness of Nolo and Arien. Varen’s demeanor was different – he reminded me of the image of the tarot card of the Fool stepping dangerously close to the edge of a cliff, completely unaware or uncaring of the true dangers ahead of him.
“Why do you want to parley now after attacking Arien?” Nolo interjected.
“There was no bargain then, but now there should be,” she cackled.
“And what bargain do you offer?” Varen asked.
‘It’s a trap!’ my spirit shouted at me over and over again. I tightened my grip on my flail. We shouldn’t be doing this. Never deal with the devil because the devil never changes.
“Here is my bargain…”