Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Silent March

No one said a word. Not one word.

First in line was Corundar. Always at the head of any formation, he was usually quiet and dour. This time, things were much worse. His eyes were as hard as the stone of his homeland, his gaze as cold as any diamond's chill gleam. His jaw was set, immobile and unyielding. He had quarreled with his siblings before but this time was different. They blamed him for this new enemy, this old enemy renewed. Was he at fault? Hell no. This was NOT his fault.

Was it?

Behind him, agile and silent as ever, Azure kept pace with the much bigger man's ground-shaking strides. Almost unshakable in his resolve and unflappable in his calm, the sea elf could weather any storm and never lose his bearings. Until now. Now his nerves were on edge, his eyes casting about, darting from shadow to shadow. They had been through so much, his sisters, brothers and he, but this was new. This was something of their own doing, a sin they all had to share. Was this at last the mistake that would doom them all?

Was it?

Third in line was Akasha. They always tried to keep her within arm's reach so the Lady of Light could heal their every ailment in battle. They counted on her for comfort and life, but she was not unable to deny that her hands were also the cause of what could easily be their demise. She'd been Vertrius' companion. His lover. In her arms, he'd revealed so much, opened himself so completely. When she'd chosen another, that heart had shattered. He'd tried to be noble, tried to be understanding, but in the end, was his hatred of them her fault? Was her fickle heart the true betrayal and his only a pale shadow?

Was it?

Behind her Byrne walked with all the life of a crumbling statue. Inwardly, her life was fading fast. She'd failed her family on so many levels. She'd burned Faile, failed to defend the others, and when Vertrius needed her most all those months ago, she'd turned on him as well. If she'd just spoken out against Corundar, just refused to will the divinity to Vertrius when he was begging to be spared, perhaps none of this would have happened. She'd prided herself on being strong, but in truth, was it only weakness that burned so falsely in her veins?

Was it?

Nyx hovered over the ground, walking without actually touching the stone. To stride the earth itself would have grounded her too much, made her feel too strongly. Damn Vertrius, and damn them all for being part of his damnation. She'd been pushed, as had they all, into doing as Corundar commanded back then; there was no dodging the arrow on this one. They might have been coerced, even bullied, but the responsibility had to be shared. No one was innocent, especially not the Lady of the Dark. Was this then the end of them, an End even her powers could not control or forestall?

Was it?

Lastly, walking when she would have preferred to fly, Faile struggled to keep up. Her wounds were healed, but her heart was another matter. Still aching from the searing of her flesh, it was her soul that bore the deepest injuries. Nyx had told her of Akasha's words, that Vertrius had been the armored knight on dragon back. For years, she'd harbored a silent wish, that the elf would see her and not the Bright Lady, see that she too... loved him. Inside, she could only cling to one hope. Was it foolish to think that when she met him again, he would feel anything for her?

Was it?

And as six, the Elementals moved to the portal monolith. Its power was active. Another world awaited, another reality closer to the City of Secrets and its dread lord. Another gateway on the road to their victory. Or oblivion.

And none of them, at this moment, could be sure which fate they preferred...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

To Reap What You Sow

"No way. No damn way."

Azure sighed and shook his head, too tired from having dug the big man out to argue with him now. Fortunately, there was someone else at hand willing to do it for him.

"What part of 'Vertrius was the one that just attacked us' is unclear for you, Rockhead?" Nyx's tone was cutting and sarcastic, as dark as her ebon-flamed eyes. "Do you need me to use smaller words or did some of those stones knock loose what little sense you had?"

Corundar stood up from where he'd been sitting, squaring his shoulders and staring down the lithe shadow sorceress. "I'm not the enemy here, woman. He is. Or did I give you that little love tap up your side?"

He was referring to the sword slash left by the armored warrior as he flew past her back to his mount. If she'd not lurched to the side as he passed, his blade would have ended her. Growling, she broke eye contact and clenched her fists. "He's our enemy, but he's also our responsibility."

The half-giant spat into the ruins of the wall where he'd been buried by his own folly earlier. "I don't buy that! He's always played on the wrong damn team!"

Azure opened his mouth to speak but Byrne made his point for him. "Actually, he was with us for a long time, Cor." Her voice was uncharacteristically quiet. Hearing from Akasha that the knight they'd been fighting was their former friend Vertrius had really taken a toll on her.

"So what?! Am I the only person here to remember what happened when we first met him? He was on Father's side, trying to kill us. Has this escaped you all?!? He's rotten, through and through. I knew he'd turn on us again."

Nyx, who'd been trying to hold back her temper, finally snapped. She lashed out with one hand, manifesting her powers as a tendril of utter darkness. The whip of shadows sliced through the air between her and the Lord of Earth, veering aside only at the last moment to unleash her rage on the stones of the sundered wall.

"Hey! Watch it, you witch!" He clenched his fist, the ground beneath him shifting and shuddering as he prepared to defend himself. "Does the truth hurt?"

Nyx's armor appeared in a flare of onyx, obsidian plating covering her entire body save for her face. Her features, harsh and furious, made even Corundar take a step back as she screamed at him. "You hypocrite! Truth? You should have your tongue ripped out for daring to use the word! You want hurtful truths, trying looking at yourself in this mess!"

Byrne held her hands up, finding herself in the unlikely role of peacemaker. As Azure moved quietly behind Corundar, preparing to restrain him if he had to, she approached the Dark Lady slowly. "Come on, Nyx. let's all calm down, okay?"

"Not until Big Stupid pulls his head out of his ass or I shove it there permanently." her voice was taking on that ethereal quality, the ghost-like tone that meant the woman named Nyx was going away, soon to be replaced by the wrathful persona that lived inside of her - Sardon. If that happened...

In her mind's eye, Byrne saw the same thing she'd done to poor Faile occurring here. Only this time, it would be with all of her friends and the damage would be far worse. She couldn't bear to see that happen. Never again.

Her own armor manifesting in a pyre of raging heat and dancing flames, Byrne took to the air on the wings of a phoenix.


Her voice, amplified through the power of the goddess still within her, echoed for miles around the mountainside. Below her, her friends were all stunned and deafened by the sonic blast. They were still struggling to stand up by the time she landed.

"Please, all of you, we can't do this! This is what the Maimed One wants! We can't change the past. What's done is done."

Azure, Corundar, and Nyx turned to look at her, their expressions letting her know instantly that no matter how impassioned her speech might have been, waiting until their hearing returned first might have been a good idea. Still, the point had been made.

Nyx relaxed her powers, her armor fading away and the fury in her eyes subsiding. Corundar released his fist, sending the energies built up within it back to the earth from whence they came. Azure shot her a pained look, his skin tender and blushing from where her manifestation had given the poor water elf an instant sunburn.

Nearby, Akasha was still oblivious. Through all of this, since whispering her shocked revelation, she hadn't moved. The woman was still catatonic.

Corundar was the first to say something, as usual. "Look, I am not trying to dodge blame here, but I just don't see how him being a bastard is my damn fault."

Nyx growled again, but there was little hostility in it now. Rubbing her ears, she spoke quietly. "Vertrius lost his powers and left us because back on Athas, you were the one that tried to force divine energy into him."

"Hey now! I was trying to help him! Who wouldn't want to be a god? He was already basically invulnerable; nothing could affect him or hurt him. Godhood was the next step, right?"

Azure sighed again, finally getting what Nyx and Faile had been telling them all for weeks. "I think I see what the ladies have been saying."

Curundar turned on him even as Byrne figured it out as well. She dropped to her knees, shocked and disgusted at what they'd done. "Then for the love of Ao, tell me!" he said, his tone getting frustrated again.

Azure continued slowly, his calm demeanor the only thing keeping him from breaking down like the Lady of Fire. "Invulnerable, yes. Which meant he could not absorb the power you sent at him. Remember when we all had to work together to get the divine spark to merge with him?"

Corundar nodded. "Yeah, so?"

"We forced it to penetrate his defenses. He didn't want it but we made it happen anyway. It must have been... agony."

Corundar shrugged. "Again, so? I remember ascending. It hurt like a bi..."

The blue elf raised his hand, shutting Corundar up. "No, Cor. Think about this. We shattered his invulnerability. We drove the power of Athas' divine life force into a vampire. We didn't ascend him"

Byrne finished the thought, her voice dark with self-realized horror. "We murdered him."

The Lord of Stone was having none of this. "I don't think so. He was walking and talking just fine afterwards. Sure, he lost his vaunted immortality, but he was alive, damn it. A-LIVE."

"He was alive because of the contingent resurrection spell Akasha put on all of us. We'd long since used ours, but Vertrius never had. Byrne's right. We didn't make him a god. We killed him. Horribly."

"But..." Corundar scoffed, looking to anyone else in the hopes of having some support. "Come on." His tone turned a bit desperate. "You can't be serious." Seeing no one on his side, he tried to bluster again. "I was trying to help him, all right? I didn't want to hurt him."

Byrne nodded slowly. "I know, Cor. None of us did."

"But we are all to blame. It wasn't just you. It was your idea and you forced it to work, but we all had a hand in it." Nyx was speaking now, her eyes shut and glistening with bitter tears. "He's different this time. Before, he fought us because he was forced to. Now..."

For a long time, no one said anything. Finally, as the night glittered coldly above them, it was Akasha's voice that broke the uncomfortable silence.

"Now he wants us all dead."

Friday, January 12, 2007

Before the Battle

Twenty minutes before the attack at the fortress...

Leathern wings glided down out of the midnight sky. Though massive in size, the crimson dragon was grace incarnate as it touched the earth with little more than a whisper of shifting stones. Its rider was even quieter; a fleeting shadow of silence and stealth. Even in plate armor, he only echoed a single breath as he moved from the beast's back onto the ground at its feet.

There, ahead of him, a lone figure lay covered in a blanket of flickering light. The radiance made his eyes narrow through the narrow slits in his adamant mask. Slowly, he crossed the short distance between them and stopped beside the sleeping Lady of the Winds.

Before he could reach her, his mind thundered with his mount's powerful thoughts. *You should hurry. Slaying her will cripple the others.*

Annoyed, he turned to face the dragon and stared into its eager, amber gaze. *I am well aware of what her death means. Do not think to tell me my duty, wyrm.* One hand balled into a tight, metal-adorned fist, a sign of his irritation.

The dragon, Sangwynn, snarled softly but backed away a few feet. He knew well that his rider was capable of great and terrible things, including killing him if he desired. Sangwynn was not sure the Maimed Lord would intervene to save him either; as a traitor to Takhesis, he was fortunate enough just to be alive. No sense pushing his bonded "master" before he was strong enough to destroy him. No, that delightful day would come. All in good time...

*Now be silent and keep watch. I trust you can plot my doom and keep your eyes open for our quarry's return at the same time?*

Sangwynn startled. The human insect could read his mind even when he wasn't sending? But... but... The Eye and the Hand had told him his rider was stripped of his magical powers, that he had lost them at the hands of the very beings they were here to kill. So how...?

*Obviously, reptile, it isn't magic. Now do as you are told, please.*

The human made no sense! He was always like this. One moment cold as a white's breath, the next as cordial as a devil at the bargaining table. Never losing his temper, but always on the edge of it. Confused and more than a little intimidated, the dragon withdrew to seek a higher perch for lookout.

That done, the armored knight turned back to Faile. He paused, hand on the pommel of his runesword, and stared at her. She'd been burned, and not by his dragon. The Lady of Air hadn't suffered these wounds at his hands; he was sure of that.

No, this fire could only have come from one place. Byrne. Swift and lithe, Faile would never have let anything else come close enough to hurt her. Not the Faile he knew, anyway.

Without meaning to, his lips parted and he began to whisper his thoughts. "So we have something else in common now. We both know what it is like to be burned by so-called friends." The last word dripped more venom than a medusa's tresses. He knelt down beside her as he spoke, one metal hand opening to touch her slumbering face.

"I should kill you quickly, like this. It would be a cleaner death than the others will get, and better than what awaits you at his hand if you are captured. V won't be pleased if I spare you."

For some reason, that thought amused him. Beneath his helm's wickedly carved mask, Vertrius smiled softly. "Seems like we've been here before, haven't we, love? I let you all live when my father Urathyme ordered your deaths all those years ago. Odd how time seems to echo for us both, isn't it?"

He flinched, his smile faltered, as he recalled the lashing he'd received for disobeying the Liche Lord back then. His own father had given him to his maralith commander for punishment. He could still feel the whip across his back, still had the dozen scars it left...

His hand traveled to Faile's throat, fingers closing around its graceful length. It wouldn't be diffiuclt, not with her like this under one of Akasha's healing shrouds. The magic was a powerful tool of life, but it had the drawback of keeping its subject asleep through nearly anything.


He snarled, biting back a sudden wave of tangled emotions with hate at their crest. He'd loved her so much, given up everything he'd been for her, and allied with the Elementals all out of his feelings for the Lady of Light. He gave her his heart and she'd given it back in pieces. Fury flickered in his chest and in his hand.

Instantly, he pulled back, shaken by the intensity of his reaction. His fist had nearly closed around Faile's throat; a spreading bruise showed where she'd almost been throttled to death. That wasn't what he'd wanted to do. Not to her! Not to one of the few who'd always treated him kindly. He couldn't kill her. He just couldn't...

Getting a reign on his emotions again, he stood up quickly and turned around. Not like this at least. If she died at his hand, it would be fairly, in battle. He was many things, not all of which he was proud of, but he was not an assassin. Vecna had plenty of those. Straightening his cloak, Vertrius walked away from Faile quickly. Others would die this night, but not her. Not now.

*Let's go,* he sent to Sangwynn as he mounted again. The dragon glanced once at the woman on the ground, slitting his pupils at the fact that she still breathed, but said nothing as he took to the air.


On a throne of woven corpses, a gaunt, nearly-skeletal figure watched his cat's paw with one gleaming eye. A thin whisper of amusement passed his remaining teeth as his face twisted in a rictus grin.

"So, my conflicted friend, you are not as cold as you pretend. Ah well... We'll just keep that as our little secret, shall we?"

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hearts Asunder

Corundar barely had time to raise his sword before the knight was on him. Vaulting down from his armored saddle, the dark warrior was a streak of steel and shadows, ending in a tremendous impact that managed the impossible...

The Lord of Earth was disarmed and knocked off his feet, crashing to the ground as his balance failed under the power of the lightning-fast assault.

Even Azure was caught off-guard by this. The Elementals all paused, stunned for a second by the unthinkable occurring. Even during the battle with their "father" Urathyme, the big man has never been knocked down. He'd suffered enough damage during that final conflict to slaughter an army but he'd remained standing through it all.

Now he was down, the look of shock on his face quickly during into something else inconceivable.

Corundar was losing his temper. The strongest of them all, Corundar was also the most stoic. Azure was, as his monastic training would suggest, the calmest of the Elementals, but Corundar was truly a rock among them. He never grew angry. He never raised his voice. He never lost his focus during battle.

Until now, that is. Roaring in frustration, his right hand became a terrifying fist while his left pushed him to his feet. He came up swinging... nothing. The dark warrior was there over him as Corundar started his attack, but his blow never landed. The armored fell-knight seemed to vanish just as the strike would have connected, a blow that could shatter a castle wall achieved nothing but a minor clap of thunder as the air behind it rushed back in to fill the void.

Then he felt a sting of pain across his shoulders, a flare of heat that told him instantly his armor had been slashed open. Blood flowed from the shallow wound running all the way across his back as he turned in a rapid combat pivot to punch again.

And again, struck nothing. The knight simply wasn't there. Azure hurled an ice bolt as the enemy vanished, also to no avail. Then he and Byrne both had to deal with the knight's powerful mount; fire was his bane and if its breath were to catch him unawares, Azure could actually be slain by such an attack.

Fortunately, Byrne was there, shielding him from the flaming torrent with her impervious body. Fire meant nothing more than welcome warmth to her. Glaring up at the dragon through its fiery barrage, she lifted her axe and threw it with all her might. Its gleaming edge cut the spray of burning breath, arching end over end into the roof of its mouth. The dragon screamed in pain and lashed backwards, taking to the air as caustic blood geysered from its open mouth.

The blood was almost more dangerous than the dragon's blood. Byrne was immune to fire but not to acid, especially the intense ichor raining down over the battlefield. Only Corundar could ignore the deadly storm; the others were badly burned as they scrambled to find what shelter remained in the ruined keep.

Azure concentrated, using his inner power to shrug off the acid's damage. His body renewed itself, a painful but potent technique honed to perfection through years of mental training. He was nowhere hear as effective a healer as Akasha, but he could mend his own body very well when he needed to do so. Pressing his hands together as the agony of his seared flesh subsided, he formed a stack of wickedly sharp shuriken forged from pure ice. As soon as the knight reappeared, he would be ready.

The weapons were created not a moment too soon. As Corundar charged across the rent courtyard to retrieve his lost blade, a flicker in the air made him stop short. That combat reflex saved him from having his throat slashed open; the dark warrior's sword whistled through the air where his neck would have been.

The Lord of Earth open stopped for a moment. The instant the sword strike passed, he was charging again. This time his punch made contact and the armored knight launched into the air in a high, painful-sounding arch of bent metal and hammered flesh.

Akasha took the opportunity to dash across the battlefield to Byrne's side. Azure could heal himself, but the Lady of Fire could not. She was at the mercy of the acid, rolling on the ground in a vain attempt to rub off the vicious fluid before it ate through to her bones. Akasha caught her friend in her gentle but deceptively strong arms and whispered a calming word into her melting ear. "I'm here... I'll take care of you..."

A pulse of light surrounded them as Akasha called forth come of her most powerful healing magic. Byrne's wounds and the Lady of Radiance's own both vanished under its restorative powers. As the light passed through them, they were cleansed of the acid and their injuries became naught but a painful memory.

Then, as Azure was lining up for another ice assault on the still-hurtling figure, a strange thing occurred. An arc of power leaped out of Akasha's healing sphere and raced through the air. It slammed into the body of the dark warrior, healing him instantly. Staying as placid as possible despite this distressing turn of events, the sea elven monk continued his attack.

A swarm of icy stars darted between Azure and the knight as he landed gracefully on the distant stone. The enemy raised his sword in a mock salute, its hilt gem flashing a brilliant cerulean blue a split second before the shuriken hit.

Each one shattered harmlessly off an invisible barrier. So did the ice lance Azure fired next. And another. And another. Nothing the monk through was having any effect; the warrior seemed impervious to his powers. Grimly, Azure stopped using cold attacks and drew his katana. Steel might succeed where elemental magic was failing.

Corundar apparently had the same idea. He had his sword back now, gripped tightly in his massive hands. Howling now in a nearly incomprehensible voice of frenzy, the Lord of Earth raised his blade high overhead and charged again. Using his power to landrun, he was incredibly fast; the momentum of his next strike would surely be enough to cleave his target in half!

Assuming it ever connected, which it did not. Again, a second before the mighty blow could tear the knight in half, its intended victim disappeared. Another roar from Corundar echoed through the ramparts, making their crumbling stones tremble and shake.

"Damn it, Cor! Get ahold of yourself before you bury us all!" Ironically, it was Byrne who was trying to calm him down. Well acquainted with berserker rage, she knew that what it offered in power it also cost in precision. This knight was too nimble, too fast to get taken down by brute force. "Don't make me smack you again!"

Akasha was still on her knees, staring at her hands with a dumbfounded, almost pained expression. "He... he took my magic. I healed us, and he forced me to heal him too. How...?" She shuddered, a feeling of utter magical violation passing through her body.

In the air above all this, the dragon and Lady Nyx were shadow dancing. Her faint, eerie laughter rang out through the night sky. The dragon was being deadly serious, but it was obvious she was just enjoying the battle. She was enjoying the chance to stretch her wings of darkness once again.

Reeling from its latest wound, the scaled beast clutched its pierced chest with one taloned hand and breathed forth another cone of fire. The momentary blaze cast everything on the ground below in deepest shade, causing Corundar's shadow to loom like an continuous wave of black from one side of the courtyard to the other.

Azure blinked at what he saw in that instant. The wave was actually mostly continuous. There was a small gap in the shadow, a part of the ground that didn't darken with the rest. "So that's it," he murmured to himself. "Invisibility."

He moved so swiftly, the shadow hasn't completely disappeared yet. He threw Wavecrest in a powerful, two handed pitch at the gap, smiling softly as it struck something no one could see. Its enchanted edge bit deep, raking through adamantine and cutting the wearer within. A short, stifled cry of pain was the monk's quietly appreciated reward.

Blood fell from apparently empty air, leaking from an unseen wound. Now leaving a trail, the knight ran for the nearest wall. "Corundar!" Azure called out, pointing at the droplets.

"I see 'em!" The big man was getting himself back under control; Byrne's words had pierced his haze of wrath. Bearing aloft Terrasunder again, he ran as fast as his powers could take him. The crimson path led the Lord of Earth straight to a gap in the castle's bulwark. The knight had obviously slipped through it; Corundar just charged straight through.

An explosion of rock and metal marked his passage. Unfortunately, while he was completely unharmed by smashing through the wall, he was not immune to the effects of its immediate collapse. Tons of fortification came crashing down, burying the Lord of Earth and concealing that entire side of the cliff in a spread cloud of mortar and dust.

Byrne looked at the scene, smacking her face into her open hand. "Big... stupid..."

High overhead, Nyx suddenly veered to the side in pain. A slash appeared across her body, her onyx armor cleft by an invisible blade. As she plunged earthward, her ability to control her wings somehow broken, the knight appeared on the back of his mount. Wounded by not slain, the pair shimmering away just as they'd done before.

Azure sighed, walking from his safe perch under a tower overhang to where the Lord of Earth would be needing some help. He wasn't worried about Corundar's safety; the huge warlord had lived through much worse. Byrne joined him at the edge of the avalanche as Nyx floated safely to the ground. Her wings weren't working, but her magic was still effective. Once again, feather fall was a mage's best friend.

"He teleported." The Lady of Darkness said flatly, her boots touching down.

"We saw." Byrne started hefting stones out of the massive pile. "Cor's under here."

"I saw." Nyx cast a spell to start moving the earth in much larger volumes. It would be a slow process, but together they could get their friend out of his latest disaster. With Azure making ice slides to get the debris moved away from the site as it was dug up, Corundar would be all right. Embarrassed and frustrated to be sure, but all right.

Meanwhile, Akasha was oblivious to all of this. She hadn't seen a thing since the healing, hadn't known a single moment since her spell had been taken from her so viciously. It was an intimate, hostile sensation, the touch of someone powerful enough to simply force her will to do as it pleased.

But that wasn't why she was shaking. The violation was horrible, but it was not why she was staring into the sky blankly, her mind a dozen dimensions away. Guilt, betrayal, pain, and sorrow echoed through her whisper, a word none of the others heard as it fell from her lips...


Sunday, January 7, 2007

<--- Weapons of the Elementals --->

Each of the Elementals has a signature weapon, something either crafted by their own hands when they were still divine or made for them by a powerful ally. Each weapon will be detailed here with a description and picture as well as a list of powers in d20 format. These characters were originally from a long-running D&D campaign and it only seems right to complete their circle by providing gaming information as I tell their stories.

First up, Terrasunder - the Sword of the Earth Lord!


Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The Lone Tower

"So, what do you make of it?"

Corundar grinned at Azure's question. "Given enough time, just about anything. You have a particular shape in mind?"

The Lord of Earth might have been joking, but he was also perfectly serious. His power over earth and stone meant the basalt tower in the distance could, given time to shape it, be turned into almost anything by the massive warrior. That, however, was not the point of the sea elven monk's question.

"I meant..."

Corundar nodded. "I know what you meant. As far as I can tell, it's a sentinel post. See how it sits on the highest rise, with all its main windows and vantage points positioned to watch the valley. The lack of disturbed ground means it has probably never been sieged, at least not for long, and the only approach is probably heavily guarded by weapons ports on the upper floors."

Azure blinked at him and chuckled.

"What's so funny, blue?"

"Nothing. I was only asking if you thought the tower might have the next monolith in it. All the energies seem to point this way."

Corundar laughed and shrugged. "No clue. But I can tell you this. Whatever's in there is there to stay. They are serious about defense. That place is going to be nothing but pain. Mark my words, fishie. Nothing. But. Pain."

An hour later, they were all in the tower. The front gate had been unlocked.

Azure grinned at Corundar, who looked down at his feet with a low growl. "Okay. So I was wrong. You live a hundred years, it's bound to happen once."

"Actually," whispered Nyx. She was in full gemstone armor, so her voice sounded like the hollow hiss of an opening grave. "this place was easy to enter because everything here is dead." She gestured and the shadows nearest to her pulled back like a curtain, revealing more than a dozen humanoid skeletons, a pile of mostly disassembled bones.

Akasha recoiled. "They are stacked like firewood. What happened here?"

"I can watch the destruction that took place here, see what occurred to these doomed folk."

"Then do it, and be quick if you can. I can feel the powers of death in this place." Akasha looked almost ill, as if just touching the floor was nauseating. Given her power over Life, it likely was.

Nyx hovered over the bones, the shadows she'd just parted now forming a column of power to hold her aloft. Her black masked face tilted back, her long mane of night gray flowing across her back and mingling with the shades at her feet. The others stood still, knowing better than to disturb her when she was doing this. When she was literally communing with Death itself.

It took nearly an hour, with everyone but Faile utterly motionless. The Lady of the Winds was outside, still resting in their makeshift camp. She'd not regained consciousness since she spoke her few words to Byrne earlier, but she was recovering well. That thought alone kept Byrne, normally the worst of the group at keeping put, calm enough to stay where she was.

Eventually, Nyx landed and in her wake, the bones crumbled to gray powder, ashes ghosting across the desolate floor of their tower tomb.

"As I feared, the next gatestone is here. It appeared in the basement of this place, where the tower's node of power rested. When the Maimed Lord came for it, his forces sacked the fortress from the air and from below. The defenders never stood a chance."

Azure shivered despite his usual implacable calm. He'd seen firsthand what Vecna's minions could do, and the dark relish even his so-called "mindless" undead took in the tearing of the living limb from limb. "The gatestone." He took another breath, calming down. "Is it... is it still here?"

Nyx nodded. "I can feel it. It is still in the basement, surrounded by the dead. The people of this tower tried to make a stand down there to stop Vecna's forces. It did not succeed."

Byrne finally found her voice again. "But if the Lord of Secrets won, why is the gatestone still here?"

Before anyone else could answer, the tower above them exploded in an inferno of rock and magma. Rising over what remained of the building, a colossal beast of crimson hue and burning breath reared back, exposing the armored rider on its back.

"Why, Lady Pyre? Because traps need bait!"

As the knight spoke, he drawn his sword and made a gesture with his empty, gauntleted hand. Dozens of flagstones around the Elementals shattered upwards, turning to rubble as a swarm of the restless dead rose up to surround them. Their empty eyes glimmered with malice, an evil dread reflected a thousandfold in the gaze of the dragon high above.

Corundar drew his mammoth blade and pulled the others into a defensive ring with him as its breaking point.

"Damn... I hate it when I'm right."