–Lullaby, ch. 7–
In which our heroes enter the underground tunnel on Lullaby, have an unexpected conversation, and fail to avoid a battle.
The next day dawned hot and sunny, and the four companions woke to a bugle blast on the parade grounds. They donned their gear and stumbled wearily from the barracks. Around the skyship Moonrise were gathered pockets of people, all wearing drab earthtones and carrying unstrung longbows. At the base of the gangplank stood Lady Samara, General Axehaft, and an Elven figure in long robes, who was idly making sparks appear as he touched his fingers together.
“That must be the Archmage from Cold Harbor University,” said Elendithas. “Looks like he could put a dent in the zombie horde all by himself.”
“What I wouldn’t give to learn how to cast a fireball right about now,” said Norros.
“Remember, our goal isn’t to engage. It’s to draw the foul beast out of its hole,” said Danath.
“Easier said than done. Look, our ride’s here.”
Four griffins soared past the garrison’s walls, wheeled in formation, and came in for a landing near Major Gabirel, who was flagging them down. The Major did not budge as the first griffin touched down within a foot of her. “Captain,” she said to the rider. “Take our ‘friends’ here to their destination, then get out of there. We have no idea what’s coming.”
Just then, the voice of General Axehaft rose over the crowd. “All aboard the skyship. Let’s go exterminate some zombies.”
A cheer rose up from the assembly.
“I heard them talking,” said Norros. “They get a gold for every zombie they kill. I bet some of them have never even seen a gold piece before. Wish I could go with them.”
“But we need you with us,” said Elendithas. “Besides, don’t you want to put an end to the thing that was invading your mind.”
“I’d be just fine if you all put an end to it for me.”
“Enough,” said Nadarr. “You’re coming with us. And you will prove yourself this day, I can feel it.”
They watched Moonrise float into the air on its arcane propulsion and take off silently in the direction of Lullaby. The captain of the griffin riders coughed and said, “We’d best be off. Even at our top speed, the skyship will beat us to the island by well over an hour.”
Their second griffin ride was just as exhilarating as the first. They sped out over the open sea, the wind whipping their hair and clothes. Lullaby loomed larger and larger. They wheeled around the southern tip of Hourglass and approached the island from the north. But the moment the riders directed the griffins toward Lullaby, a wave of insidious psychic energy washed over all of them.
“I can’t. I can’t go,” said Norros’s griffin rider. “I must turn back. I must. Eye must have me.” Then he slumped over, unconscious. For once, Norros was able to shake off the mental invasion. He dove forward and grabbed the griffin’s reins.
“We’ve got to set down now,” he shouted into the wind. “I don’t know how to steer this beast!”
The other griffin riders closed their formation and directed Norros’s griffin down with them. The rogue held the reins with one hand and the belt of the unconscious rider with the other. The griffins skimmed the tree line until they reached the clearing, where they landed on a patch of recently trodden earth.
“This fellow must have gotten the full brunt of the psychic wave,” said Norros, as he dragged the rider to the ground. “Glad I finally resisted it or neither of us would be here.”
“We’ll strap him to my griffin and send his home riderless,” said the captain. He pointed to the mouth of a cave to the south. “Looks like that’s your road. Happy hunting.”
The griffins took off again, circled once, and the captain returned, hovering over the four companions. “Huge line of zombies marching west. Looks like we got here just in time not to engage them. Good luck.” He wheeled again and was gone.
Danath strung his longbow. “Okay, let’s do this.”
They entered the cave and walked with their fingers against one wall. The wall was unnaturally smooth: no rocks or roots protruded from it. It was as if the earth that had been there had simply vanished to make the tunnel. The further they moved from the entrance, the more the darkness swallowed them. Elendithas sent her dancing lights ahead to light the way. About fifteen minutes later, the tunnel turned abruptly to the right, and they could no longer make out the far wall.
“I think we’ve reached the cavern,” whispered Nadarr.
“Hey, what’s that up ahead,” hissed Danath. “There.” The lights danced over a body lying in a heap at the far end of the cavern. “Is that…?”
“Falor!” Elendithas hurried forward and put her hand on the elf’s brow. “He’s still warm. He’s not dead. Falor, Falor Gabirel, can you hear me.”
Falor twitched and stirred. His eyes opened, but they neither focused on Elend nor undilated in the light.
“I don’t like this,” said Norros and he vanished into the shadows.
“Falor!” called Elendithas again, and her dancing lights spell coalesced into one large ball of warm, buttery light around the elf.
Falor sucked in a short, rattling breath. “Why have you come here?” It came out in a hollow, grating whisper.
“To find you, to save you.”
“That is untrue.” Falor’s vocal cords and mouth moved, but the rest of his face was blank, emotionless, and his eyes still found no focus.
Nadarr stepped forward: “We came to drive the Rexavydar from its lair. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes.” The word trailed off into a hiss, which turned into a hoarse, rattling laugh that echoed through the cavern.
“Quiet!” whispered Danath. “We don’t want to alert it to our presence!”
The laugh ended abruptly. “Too late.”
Elendithas turned Falor’s head so he faced her. “What do you mean? Where is it?”
Falor’s voice deepened and became more harsh and hollow. “I’m here. My puppet makes a good voice box, do you not agree?”
Elendithas let go of Falor instinctively and backed away.
Falor spoke again. “Watch what else I can do to him!” His body began writhing, contorting, and white froth bubbled to his lips.
“Stop!” cried Elendithas. “You’ll kill him!”
Falor’s body went limp once again. “That is a skill in which I excel.”
Nadarr silently unsheathed his longsword, and Danath slipped an arrow from his quiver. Norros was nowhere to be seen. Elendithas kept the creature controlling Falor talking. “What is your name?”
“I have had many names, many titles. You may address me as ‘master’ or you may call me ‘Skotiax.’”
“Why are you here in this cavern instead of out on the surface, oh great Skotiax?”
“You mock me, human. I can see your mind. You seek to drive me from my tomb in order to destroy me.”
Genuine curiosity slipped into Elendithas’s voice. “Your tomb?”
“I carved it for myself after my failure. This is my grave and the island my headstone.”
“If you’re dead, then how are you talking to me now?”
“If they’re dead, then how are my zombies even now walking to destroy that pathetic band come to call?” Each time he spoke, Falor’s body sucked in enough air to allow the words voice, but when he wasn’t speaking, breath fled and he began suffocating.
Hold on a tick,” said Danath. “You mentioned your ‘failure’?”
“I came to this island long years ago to live in peace, which necessitated the extermination of the vermin tilling the land and gathering in the forest. I created a curse to shift all animal life on this island to another plane of existence. I cared not where, as long as I could have my solitude. But my power was too great, and I caught myself in the curse, as well. Another incantation brought me and those wretched people back to this world, but all our lives were left in that other plane. They were undead. I was undead. And so I carved this tomb for us, and for long years we have slept the unquiet sleep of the dead. That is my failure.”
Elendithas began moving her light further into the recesses of the cavern. “Oh great Skotiax, we are sorry to have stumbled into your tomb. But I think we were not the ones to wake you from your slumber. Was there another?”
“Yes.” Falor’s voice rose to a shriek. “The wolf came. The wolf stabbed. The wolf left. My zombies drove him away, but the deed was done. My horde was stirring. And my vengeance was stoked.”
Nadarr put his hand on Elend’s shoulder. “We completed your vengeance. We killed the wolf.”
“No. Vengeance once kindled is never snuffed out. If he is dead, then I shall kill you in his stead. That is, unless you worship me. Bring the light closer and gaze on my ignominious glory.”
Elendithas launched her ball of light at the far corner of the room. There, hovering above the ground, floated an enormous fleshy gray sphere. Tentacles sprouting from its body bent and flexed in jerky motion. Each had an unblinking eye affixed to its end. The Rexavydar spun slowly to reveal a single large eye, covered in milky film, in the middle of its form. Below the eye a toothless mouth hung slack.
“I, Skotiax, am master of this island. I, Skotiax, will defend my grave.” The words continued to come from Falor’s mouth, but now they saw the Rexavydar forming the words silently. “What say you? You can worship…or die like all those pathetic lives on the ship out there.”
“The skyship? What happened?”
“Oh yes, I have driven them all mad since they arrived. It’s delicious. So many weapons available to stop all those beating hearts.”
“No!” cried Elendithas. The word began as speech and ended as song. As she sang the pitch rose higher until she reached the top of her register. She pointed at Skotiax, and a deafening wave of thunderous energy rippled from the center of the Rexavydar.
“We’re in it now,” said Norros to himself from the shadows. An arrow shot from his hiding place and lodged in the flesh of the floating orb. At the same time, Nadarr launched a javelin, which struck the Rexavydar in the mouth.
Skotiax flew forward, its eyestalks flexing this way and that. One of the eyes settled on Elendithas. She closed her eyes and braced for pain, but nothing happened. Opening her eyes again, she noticed a trickle of viscous black sludge oozing from the eyestalk. “Thank you, Calder,” she said under her breath.
An arrow from Danath hit home, and another piercing note from Elend echoed throughout the cavern. An eyestalk found Danath, and a streak of shadow emanated from it, engulfing the ranger. He fell to one knee, coughing and choking, and the skin of his face turned ashy and pockmarked.
Nadarr charged the Rexavydar and swung his longsword, channeling his divine light into the blade. The paladin caught the right corner of the beast’s lips and opened its mouth wider, spilling black ichor in a great gout onto the cavern floor.
Elend sent a healing melody toward Danath and then bent down over the prone form of Falor. Without Skotiax talking through him, the elf was suffocating. Elend pushed her palms into his chest, trying to pump his lungs. She bent down and breathed into his mouth. “Come on Falor, you can live if you try!”
The Rexavydar rounded on Elendithas. “Leave my puppet alone!” Falor breathed in and out as the words came. An eyestalk found Elend, and she could feel the icy fingers of fear reach out to grip her mind. But she counteracted it by starting to sing. Her voice rose again and for the third time she shattered the Rexavydar with her high note. Skotiax reacted by sending the same noxious shadow at Elend that had engulfed Danath. She dropped to the ground, clutching her face and hacking.
Nadarr was beneath the Rexavydar by this time, and the beast bit down at the Dragonborn. The paladin’s body vanished into its maw, which gave him just the opportunity to stab up with his sword. Skotiax recoiled, and arrows from both Half-Elves pinned the Rexavydar’s central eye. Skotiax dropped a foot and its eyestalks drooped. For a moment, Danath thought he had struck the killing blow, but then Falor screamed, and Skotiax flexed its eyestalks looking for more targets.
Elendithas drew her rapier, dashed forward, and, using Nadarr for leverage, jumped at the Rexavydar. It rose just out of reach of her blade, but as it spun away, it rotated directly into the path of Norros’s arrow.
“Stay out of my mind!” shouted the rogue as he let fly. The arrow struck the very center of the Rexavydar’s large eye, which exploded in a cascade of ichor and aqueous humor. The undead creature swayed in midair and dropped like a stone.
Nadarr and Elendithas dove out of the way as Skotiax crashed to the cavern floor. Scrambling over to Falor, Elend found him rasping for breath, but alive. Danath staggered to his feet. “I imagine I look about as bad as I feel,” he said.
Norros emerged from the shadows. “I thought we were just supposed to lure it from the cave.”
“Well,” said Nadarr. “Either way, it is finished.”
“But what about the skyship?” asked Elend. “Skotiax said they were killing each other. We may have the whole zombie horde to contend with.”
“Then let us depart with all speed. I’ll support the elf.”
The four companions and Falor retraced their steps out of the tunnel. When they emerged into the warm light of day, they were relieved to find Moonrise just coming in for a landing. Hunters waved and cheered from the deck, and General Axehaft gave them a salute.
“It lied to us,” whispered Elendithas. “Thank goodness.”
“With Skotiax destroyed, people can return to Lullaby again,” said Danath. “The farmland here is quite extraordinary.”
“If they do, they’re going to need a sherriff.” Norros pinned the badge to his chest with pride.
Nadarr cuffed him on the shoulder. “You, a lawman? I don’t think so, Steven.”
They mounted the ramp up to the skyship. Once on board, Norros spun a slow circle, taking in the peaceful scenery of the island. “Perhaps in my retirement.”
“Would that we will live so long.”
“Speak for yourself, Nadarr. I plan to live to a ripe old age.”
“So that’s why you only fight from the shadows.”
“It works, doesn’t it. My last arrow took down Skotiax.”
The general sidled over. “Skotiax? Is that what the Rexavydar called itself?”
“Yes, sir,” said Norros. “But it wasn’t a true Rexavydar. It was undead like the zombies, a product of its own magic gone awry.”
“A zombie Rexavydar, you don’t day.” General Axehaft chuckled and fished in his pocket. “And you got the killing blow?”
Norros nodded, and the general flicked him a single gold coin.
The Equestrian, Ch. 1 “A Shimmer of Pegasi” Coming Soon!
Written by Adam Thomas, Dungeonmaster
Jarrod Antkowiak as Norros Arborshade
Allissa Leonard as Nadarr Kasdann
Jack Leonard as Danath Errandir
Leah Thomas as Elendithas Day