This is part 2 of the Cursed Echoes campaign. Check out Part 1 here (link). A brief recap before we begin. The extremely gullible Pip gets embroiled in a rigged chicken throwing contest, failing time after time and losing more and more gold. Amusingly, he and his acquaintances hatch a plan to steal from the contest holder, but get caught in pathetic fashion. Now, they are given an ‘opportunity’ to free themselves.
Now, on to the story:
The group caught a few hours of sleep on stained cots and woke before the sun had risen over the Crystal Desert dunes. They retrieved their bags and weapons at the guard’s desk along with a map.
“Simple enough. Head west,” Pip said, examining the map.
“Nothing is that simple,” Tormat warned.
“It wouldn’t be much of an adventure if it was,” Pip said with a smile.
The streets of Farwynd were littered with trash, bottles, and a few people that had passed out in the gutter. Without the stifling mob of people, the winds swept through the streets unimpeded, picking up loose trash and whisking it away into the desert.
Vidae clicked her beak in disapproval. “No respect.”
They all covered their faces with scarves and walked beneath the arched gate and onto the western road. Without buildings or walls, the wind buffeted them relentlessly. It was hard to talk over the wind so they simply marched onward, heads down.
The sun crept over the dunes and began to chase away the morning chill. It also illuminated the sprawling wall of thick thorny brambles that stretched across the road. A small tunnel that was slowly being consumed by the bramble thicket was the only way forward.
For Pip or anyone under four feet tall it didn’t seem to be that much of an issue. But Tormat’s gift of height was now a curse.
“I don’t think I can fit through there,” Tormat said, skeptically eyeing the razor sharp thorns stabbing into the tunnel.
“It’ll be fine. Just think small thoughts,” Vidae said and stepped into the tunnel. She nimbly ducked beneath thorns and almost danced her way through the thicket.
Tormat grimaced and crouched as low as he could get and waddled forward into the tunnel. Pip simply walked into the tunnel after him and watched with great amusement as Tormat tried to navigate the thorns. To his credit he made it twenty feet before he tried to lean around a thorn, lost his balance, and impaled himself. Pip choked back laughter and pushed Tormat off of the thorn. Tormat saw the narrow opening of the tunnel and crept forward as fast and cautiously as he could. He managed to make it out the far side without cutting himself again.
On the other side of the bramble wall, a dense pine forest stretched as far west as they could see. With no other options, they walked between the sparse underground and the towering pines. Any warmth the rising sun had provided earlier didn’t penetrate the thick boughs of the pine trees. The wind still blew through the trees, carrying with it bits of sand, pine needles, and a chill that cut through their clothes.
Pip hadn’t thought to bring a jacket to the desert. Who would need a jacket in the desert? The only extra clothes he had with him in his bag were a few undershirts and clean underwear. A sharp gust of wind ripped through the trees and that cold breeze was enough to convince him to layer a few more shirts on.
He slipped his pack off and rummaged through for another shirt. Fireworks. Nice. Sandwich. Save that for later. Feathers.
A chicken shot out of his backpack, flapping wildly in his face. Pip managed to get a hold of the crazed chicken and it slowly calmed down.
“Hey! I guess we did manage to save a chicken,” Pip said, holding the bird proudly. “It must have snuck into my bag during the fight with those thugs.” Even though all of the chickens looked the same, Pip had a feeling that this particular bird was the first one he had thrown. He met the chicken’s small black beady eyes, and for a moment saw a flash of intelligence.
“Can we keep him?” Pip asked.
“She’s a girl,” Vidae corrected.
“How can you tell?” Pip asked, eyeing the bird with genuine curiosity.
Vidae shook her head. “It’s too dangerous to bring her along. She should be fine here. There’s enough for her to graze on.”
Pip’s shoulders slumped forward. He knew Vidae was right but he didn’t want to admit it.
“Well, little fella, I don’t think this is the best place for you to make a new home, but it’s better than where you were. Good luck.”
Pip gently set the bird onto the path and gave her a little pat before turning away. He quickly brushed away the tear that was working its way down his cheek. Just a dumb bird, after all.
The chicken, more or less confused as to what had just transpired, walked around aimlessly, pecking at the ground in search of food.
“You alright?” Tormat asked Pip.
“Oh yeah, I just got a little sand in my eye…”
Tormat put a hand on Pip’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, little buddy. She’ll be alright.”
Pip spared a quick glance over his shoulder before moving further down the winding narrow forest path. The gloom of the forest was oppressive. It felt like they had lost the entire day. Pip wasn’t afraid of many things, and he most definitely wasn’t afraid of the dark. But he was afraid of what could be lurking in the dark. He motioned for Tormat and Vidae to wait a moment while he picked up a fallen tree branch. Tormat saw what Pip had in mind and took an extra strip of cloth out of his bag and found a tree with thick black sap running down the bark. A few quick swipes and the cloth was covered in sap. He wrapped it around the end of the stick Pip held, and nodded in approval.
“I finally get to use it!” Pip exclaimed, rifling through his bag. “My father bought this from a rock gnome.” In Pip’s hand was a small metal cylinder; he pressed a small lever on the side and a small flame sprang to life. The flame licked at the sap, lighting it effortlessly.
“How did they trap the sorcery inside of that metal tube?” Vidae asked, eyeing the fire starter.
“Magic,” Pip said with a shrug, and tucked the fire starter into his pocket.
Tormat took the torch and led the way. The warm glow chased away a bit of the gloom and made the woods seem just a little less terrifying.
A quiet, scritch scritch scritch, sound raised the hair on the back of Pip’s neck. It was faint but getting closer. Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. Like nails on a chalkboard. Pip gripped his dagger and scanned the forest. Tormat drew his shortsword, “Back to back everyone.” Vidae and Pip fell in behind Tormat, forming a triangle.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
A small white shape shot out of the underbrush toward Pip. A quiet scream escaped Pip’s lips before he could get a hold of himself.
“Annabelle?” Pip asked, trying to mask the quivering in his voice.
The chicken clucked and walked around Pip’s legs.
“Annabelle? When did you name the chicken?” Vidae asked as she rolled the tension out of her shoulders.
Annabelle squawked and flapped her wings, making an incredible racket.
“Can you get Annabelle to be quiet?” Vidae asked.
Pip tried to calm the chicken down but she flapped and squawked noisily.
“Can’t you talk to her?” Pip asked Vidae.
“Why do you think I can talk to her?”
“If the next words out of your mouth are ‘because you’re both birds,’ you’re going to regret it.”
Before Pip could come up with something else to say, Annabelle abruptly stopped and looked upward.
Tormat stabbed his short sword and torch into the ground, and slowly took the bow off of his back. In a practiced fluid motion, he knocked an arrow, drew the bow back and fired. The arrow whistled through the air and vanished into the canopy above.
Pip was about to ask Tormat what he was shooting at, when his question was answered by the pained scream of a giant spider descending rapidly toward them. Pip saw his reflection in the multitude of black glassy orbs that were the spider's eyes. The spider’s fangs spread apart, revealing a wide mouth full of jagged, razor sharp teeth designed to liquify its prey.
Vidae whispered a druidic chant and her staff began to emit a subtle green glow. She gripped the staff with both hands and swung. She hit the spider like the pinata at Pip’s tenth birthday. Instead of candy and good times, vile white ichor poured out. The spider hissed and whipped a clawed leg out focing Vidae back. It severed the web stretching from its thorax to the tree branch above. The spider circled wide, small beads of venom dripping from the spider’s bared fangs.
The spider’s coarse hairy thorax bobbed as it scuttled in front of Pip. He adjusted his grip on the dagger in his hand and darted forward. The blade sank into the soft underside of the spider’s thorax, spilling warm, white fluid over Pip’s hand and arm. The spider trumpeted out an ear splitting shriek and swung around to bite at Pip.
Fangs pierced empty air as Pip threw himself forward in a roll, narrowly avoiding the eight legs stomping all around him. Vidae reeled back, bringing her staff down on the spider with a devastating overhand swing. Exoskeleton shattered under the impact of the blow. The spider collapsed to the ground, twitching and leaking thick milky white fluid.
Tormat fired off another arrow into the canopy, missing another descending spider. The spider severed the web, freefalling the remaining distance in an attempt to crush Tormat. The spider hit Tormat with bone crushing force. He hit the ground hard, visibly stunned.
Pip saw the torch sticking out of the ground in between himself, and the spider looming over Tormat, poised to strike. His feet were already moving, each small footfall putting him closer to the spider, but he feared he would be too late. He grasped the torch and pulled it free from the ground mid-stride. The spider reeled back, Tormat reflected in each of its beady black eyes. Then snapped its head forward, bringing its fangs down.
Pip thrust forward with the torch, driving the burning tip into the spider’s dripping mouth. It reeled back onto its back legs, shaking its head violently, trying to escape the torch lodged in its mouth. Vidae closed her eyes, whispering a brief incantation. Tormat took a deep steadying breath, color rushing to his cheeks. He rolled to the side and stood. His fingers wrapped around the hilt of his shortsword.
The torch flew free from the spider’s mouth, leaving the air thick with the smell of burnt hair. It charged Tormat.
He ripped the sword free from the ground and spun with the grace of a dancer between the spider’s legs. The blade became a silver blur as it effortlessly cut through the spider’s legs. It managed to keep its balance on six legs, but as Tormat severed another leg, the spider’s weight was too great for the remaining legs. They snapped like kindling.
Tormat calmly walked up to the immobilized spider, reversed the grip on his blade, and drove it down into the spider’s skull. The legs twitched violently and curled in on themselves.
“Let’s go before more of them show up,” Vidae said, checking Tormat’s wounds.
“What about Annabelle?” Pip asked.
“We can’t bring a chicken with us. She’ll slow us down.”
The chicken clucked around the clearing without a care in the world, seemingly oblivious to the two massive spider carcasses only feet away.
“She saved us! We can’t just abandon her now knowing those things live in this forest.” Pip pointed to the leaking corpses of the giant spiders.
Vidae looked to Tormat for help. “He’s right. If it wasn’t for her those spiders would have gotten the drop on us.” He paused. “And if we ever run out of rations…”
Vidae punched Tormat in the shoulder.
“I’m joking! Calm down. Let’s just get out of the cursed forest and find Gorbi.”
“Fine!” Vidae threw her arms up in defeat. “The chicken comes with us. But she’s your responsibility.”
Annabelle happily walked behind Pip, clucking contentedly.
The trees began to thin. Beams of sunlight broke through the branches, lighting their path and warming their backs.
They traversed the rolling hills toward the Farwynd Ruins. The ruined buildings of Old Farwynd jut from the sand like skeletal fingers. A wave of unease washed over them as they walked down the main road. It was as if the memory of a great tragedy clung to these ruins, refusing to let go. And then they saw them.
Hundreds of them.
They lay against buildings, in the street, everywhere.
“What happened here?” Pip asked, his mind reeling from the sheer number of skeletons.
“The Dragon Deathflu,” Tormat answered somberly.
“All that life. . . gone,” Vidae said a quiet prayer to Chauntea the Goddess of Life.
They explored the ruins with quiet respect. Most of the structures were on the verge of collapse. Wooden supports were split, threatening to snap at any moment; stone walls were pitted and worn away. To describe the town as desolate would be generous. Curiously, they found a fountain that was still drawing water from deep underground. The water was clear and clean.
One building in particular caught Pip’s eye. In the northwest corner of the town was the largest building that had managed to remain relatively undamaged in comparison to the surrounding structures.
“Do you think that Gorbi is waiting for us in there?” Tormat asked.
“It’s the only building I would wait in. It actually has walls,” Vidae replied.
The wooden stairs creaked underneath their weight as they ascended. Two large stone doors that had once been decorated with a carved mural stood closed at the top of the stairs. Pip tugged on the handle, but the door stubbornly refused to open.
“Looks like it needs a key,” Tormat suggested, pointing to the small keyhole.
A low rumbling shook the ground.
“What was that?” Pip asked.
The ground quaked violently, throwing Pip against the stone doors. Annebelle squawked and ran in a small tight circle a few feet from the base of the stairs. Her feathers were puffed out, making her look nearly twice her original size.
“C’mere, Annabelle,” Pip tried to soothe the terrified bird.
She paused her frantic running and looked at Pip. In that brief glance, Pip tried to convey that everything would be alright and there was nothing to worry about. But they both knew that was a lie.
The ground beneath Annabelle erupted in a geyser of sand. A massive worm with its jaws spread wide swallowed Annabelle. Pip heard a muffled squawk as Annabelle vanished inside the swyrm. It turned its attention to Pip and the others. It opened its massive mouth wide enough to easily swallow a large person. More than enough room to swallow a halfling.
“Annabelle!” Pip screamed.
Sand shifted beneath Pip’s boots as he dashed forward. He could hear Vidae and Tormat call out to him in shock.
“Wait!” Tormat shouted.
“You idiot!” Vidae screeched.
As surprised as Vidae and Tormat were, the swyrm was even more surprised. Never before had a meal run into its mouth before. Meal is maybe too generous, snack perhaps.
Jagged teeth slammed shut behind Pip as he dove inside the swyrm’s mouth, shuttering the world in darkness and stink. Pip fished the firestarter out of his pocket and pressed the button. The small flame pushed back the darkness enough for him to see the soft fleshy walls of the swyrm’s throat. Stomach? The smell of rot and death was almost overwhelming. Pip swallowed down the bile that rose in his throat and trudged forward deeper inside the swyrm. Thick viscous liquid clung to Pip’s boots and pants. It began to sting and burn. He couldn’t see what was happening to his legs but he knew he couldn’t stay here for long.
“Ba-bacawk!” A shrill call echoed off the soft fleshy walls of the swyrm’s digestive tract. Annabelle clung to the head of a mostly digested corpse that was slowly being consumed by the thick river of stomach acid.
Pip edged forward, the firestarter’s faint light illuminating Annabelle’s perch.
Their contact and way forward slipped another inch into the acid.
Annabelle flapped her wings and squawked as she regained her balance on her sinking refuge.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure Tormat and Vidae will get us out of here,” Pip said, trying to comfort Annabelle… and himself.
“I can’t cut through the damn thing,” Tormat growled as his blade bounced off the swyrm’s thick rubbery skin.
“Pip, if you can hear me you need to do something from inside!” Tormat shouted.
Pip’s heart sank. He could hear the concern that was edging toward defeat in Tormat’s voice.
“I guess this is how it ends. Sorry I got you into this,” Pip said sadly, patting the chicken on the head. “Worst part is, I never got the chance to set off those fireworks,” he said with a heavy sigh.
Annabelle tilted her head; the low flame of the firestarter’s reflection danced in her small beady eyes. She stared at Pip for a long quiet moment.
“What?” The scrutinizing gaze of the chicken was becoming uncomfortable. “Well, if you have any ideas, don’t keep them to yourself.”
Annabelle jumped off of Gorbi’s head and landed on Pip’s with a quick flutter, and began pecking at Pip’s backpack.
“What are you doing?”
And just like the elaborate blacksmith puzzles Pip’s father used to bring home, the pieces in Pip’s mind slid together with a click.
“You’re a genius!”
Pip ripped his backpack off and pulled out the four fireworks he had stolen earlier. He twisted the four fuses together and jammed the rockets snugly between Gorbi’s back and the fleshy wall.
“Let’s hope this works,” Pip said pressing the firestarter’s flame against the fuse. Sparks shot off the fuse as it hissed its way toward the base of the fireworks, much faster than Pip had anticipated.
Annabelle shrieked. Pip scooped her up and ran as quickly as he could. The concussive force of the explosion threw him from his feet. The swyrm screamed and writhed in pain as a river of acid and gore poured out of the gaping hole in its side.
Tormat stared in horror and wonderment as Pip climbed out of the dripping, gaping wound in the swyrm’s side covered in green slime, with Annabelle tucked under one arm.
“Worth it,” Pip grinned and squeezed Annabelle gently.
Gorbi’s remains slid out of the swyrm in a gush of liquid with a wet splat. The explosion had made the merdwarf practically unrecognizable. But miraculously clutched in an acid eaten hand was a small leather satchel. Pip picked it up and ambled over to Tormat and Vidae.
“You’re crazy,” Vidae said, spreading her arms wide, going in for a hug but stopped short when the smell hit her. “And you smell just… awful.”
“I need to throw up and take a bath.”
“There is the fountain in the square,” Tormat reminded them.
“Perfect!” Pip bounded toward the crystal clear waters of the fountain.
He splashed the cold refreshing water over his face. Annabelle clucked happily on the edge of the fountain, preening her feathers.
“Mind if I look in the bag?” Vidae asked.
“Be my guest,” Pip said, handing over Gorbi’s satchel.
Vidae threw back the top and pulled out a bundle of rags swaddling a golden chalice. A low gasp escaped her beak.
“That’s perfect!” Pip said. “May I?”
Vidae eyed the red gemstones embedded on the goblet, “There’s something magical about this chalice. We should probably be careful before--” she said as she handed the goblet to Pip.
He dipped the chalice into the fountain, filling it to the brim, and promptly dumped the water over his head. Something hard and metallic bounced off of his skull and fell to the ground with a loud clang. Everyone looked down at the small golden key laying in the sand at Pip’s feet.
“You think that’s the key?” Tormat asked.
“Only one way to find out,” Vidae said.
They returned to the stone doors and slid the key into the keyhole. With a sharp click, the twin doors swung open into a sprawling library atrium. The walls are lined with old books, broken shelves, and ancient fading pieces of art.
Vidae’s feathers stood on end. “There is foul magic here.”
The stone doors swung shut with a thunderous boom.
Cautiously, Tormat, Vidae, and Pip crept forward into the atrium. Their footsteps kicked up the thick layer of dust that covered everything in the atrium. Old books filled the bookshelves lining the walls. The vaulted ceiling caught Pip’s eye. Painted on the stone ceiling was a magnificent mural of armored men and women. Time and wear did nothing to take away from the breathtaking painting.
“Heroes of old Farwynd,” Tormat said in hushed reverence. “Caleb Swyrm Slayer, Maleus Dune Walker. And there, is King Marephus. He carved Farwynd out of the inhospitable desert through sheer will.” Tormat looked around at the ruined library and thought of the ravaged city just outside the library walls. “It’s a shame this is what his legacy has been reduced to.”
Tormat wandered off, lost in his thoughts.
“His grandparents fled the city when the dragon death flu outbreak happened. They lost everything but the clothes on their backs. They were lucky. The city may have died but the history lives on in the hearts and minds of their descendents.” Vidae watched Tormat pick up a book and carefully flip through the brittle pages. “Maybe one day someone will restore this place to its former glory.”
Pip’s heart hurt for Tormat. It must have been difficult for him to walk through the graveyard that should have been his home. He tried to distract himself from worrying about Tormat and explored the atrium. There was a large wooden desk which he assumed was for the librarian to sit behind and direct people where they would locate the book they were searching for. Like the rest of the room, the desk was covered in a thick layer of dust.
A large stone wall with towering bookshelves nearly separated the room in two. Pip guessed on the other side was a comfortable alcove with plush sofas and maybe a fireplace to read by. He thought about home and reading by his fireplace, and for the first time since he set out felt a pang of homesickness. He walked around the wall, his toe catching a book that had fallen to the floor. It slid across the dust covered floor with a loud hiss before smacking into a wooden desk.
Seven pairs of electric blue eyes shot open. The bats let out a series of shrieks and flew down from the beam that they were clinging to.
“Help!” Pip hollered as he drew his dagger.
Tormat rounded the corner sword held at the ready. “Wait, let me talk to them. This is their home and we are trespassing. We don’t need to harm them for no reason.”
The swarm of bats swooped down. Tormat focused on the lead bat and spoke in a gentle soothing tone, “We’re sorry for disturbing you but we don’t want to fight.”
A haunting feminine voice hit his mind like a sledgehammer, “New play things? Wonderful.”
The bats attacked, biting and clawing at Pip and Tormat. Jagged teeth bit into Pip’s arm that he raised to defend his face from the onslaught. Tormat grabbed a bat from mid-air and threw it to the floor. Another bat latched onto Pip’s hair, trying to sink its claws into his scalp.
Vidae roared, “Enough!” A wave of thunderous force swept forward from her, slamming into the swarm of bats and throwing them against the far wall.
“I couldn’t get through to them. . .” Tormat said sadly.
“What do you mean?” Vidae asked.
“Something. . . someone was already there.”
The hairs on the back of Pip’s neck rose. “Who?”
“It’s an old story,” Tormat began. “Lorwynd’s King Arynlor proposed an alliance between the newly founded Farywnd Proper by joining the two kingdoms through marriage. He offered his only daughter’s hand, Princess Norava to Prince Echo Caves, King Marephus’ eldest son. This alliance would be beneficial to both kingdoms and most importantly to King Marephus’ legacy. The wedding was hastily assembled within the month. Princess Norava and Prince Echo were forbidden from meeting or interacting until their wedding day, and it is said that King Arynlor falsely claimed that this was a Lorwyndian wedding tradition. Even when Princess Norava and her entourage arrived in Farwynd Proper days before the wedding, the betrothed were still instructed to refrain from contact. Echo did not, however, refrain from enjoying the company of Norava’s knight, Sundra—the tiefling slave purchased from Ezelsi traders. Sundra was highly valued for her obedient barbarism whether she was fighting for Norava’s honor or cleaning up her messes. The scribes claim that on the day of the wedding, the princess woke to find the royal families of Arynlor and Caves, frantically searching for the groom. Norava is said to have sought out her knight for comfort, growing livid when Sundra was nowhere to be found. Garbed in her wedding dress and leaving behind hundreds of guests in Farwynd Proper awaiting a wedding, Norava set out on horseback to search for Sundra and her groom. Supposedly the bride, snarling into the wind, tears streaming down her face, raced after the tracks of Sundra’s horse to The Ruins of Old Farwynd. It was reported that Norava found Sundra and Echo sharing a romantic embrace in the Old Library, attempting their elopement. What happened immediately after this confrontation is heavily disputed among citizens of Lorwynd and Farwynd Proper. Lorwyndian knights claimed that the murder of Sundra and Prince Echo Caves was a crime of passion - a bride on her wedding day driven to violence by jealousy. Prince Echo is often cited as causing the poor Princess’s anguish and bringing his end upon himself. King Marephus Caves, devastated by the loss of his son, demanded that Norava be hung for the crime regardless of her status or motives. The love in King Arynlor’s heart for his daughter had been corrupted by fear and embarrassment, and so with great sadness but great relief, he handed her over to the courts of Farwynd. Princess Norava faced her execution at dawn the following day. Many Farwynd Proper witnesses say that right before her hanging, she wore a knowing expression and seemed completely at peace. King Arynlor’s immense grief for his daughter consumed him. He only lived through the year following Norava’s death.” Tormat finished solemnly.
“That’s… awful,” Pip said. “But you just said she was dead.”
A hair raising wail echoed off the old library’s stone walls.
“Some things don’t always stay dead,” Tormat said grimly.
Pip looked to his companions who were intently focused on the dark passageway where the wail had come from. Their faces were masks of concentration and grim determination. Pip swallowed the lump of fear in his throat, “So what now?”
“Let’s go,” Vidae said.
They stalked forward cautiously. Pip’s eyes darted from shadow to shadow, and the dagger’s hilt felt slick in his sweaty palm. With Tormat leading the way, they enter a narrow dark hallway lined with unlit sconces shaped to look like the mounted heads of mountain lions. Pip couldn’t help but stare at the exquisitely carved heads. Each one was unique in the way it was snarling. But all of them had a small wick in the back of their throat. A stack of books of various sizes leaned against the wall underneath one of the heads. Pip bet he could balance on the books and light the wick; a little bit of light would make the hallway a little less claustrophobic. He planted a foot on the top book and stepped up. The books shifted dangerously beneath him, but with a little arm flailing and holding his breath he kept his balance. He fished into his pocket for his trusty fire starter. Blindly, he reached up into the sconce’s mouth and pressed the button. The fire starter sparked to life but the small flame was a few inches too far away from the wick to light it. Gingerly, Pip stood on his toes and stretched his arm as far as he could into the sconce’s mouth. Now the fire starter was touching the wick. Pip’s leg was aching and his arm was burning from stretching, but he was determined to light the sconce. He pressed the button, sparks spat out, but the flame didn’t light.
“C’mon. Stupid thing--”
Pip shook the firestarter, forgetting where he was for a split second. The books underneath his foot shifted. His stomach dropped as his precarious perch collapsed beneath him.
The sound of books hitting the stone floor echoed loudly in the narrow hallway but not nearly as loud as the sound of Pip slamming into the stone floor flat on his back. Air rushed out of his lungs with a mighty “oof”.
“What the hell are you doing?” Vidae whispered shrilly.
“Can’t---breath,” Pip groaned out as he writhed in pain on the floor.
“Come on. There’s a doorway up ahead,” Tormat said, offering Pip his hand and helping him to his feet.
Still winded, Pip nodded his thanks and massaged his lower back. He could already feel the giant bruise spreading.
Tormat led the way into a spacious room. Ornate curtains hung from the ceiling to the floor, concealing the cold stone walls. The effect made the room feel more inviting and warm than the rest of the library. This must have been a private reading room for the privileged. A skeleton in a moth-torn dress caught Pip’s eye. It was lying across a fainting couch with one hand held above its head, a finger stretched out as if the skeleton were miming scratching its head. Pip crept to the edge of the fainting couch. The cushion which used to be a brilliant deep red has now faded to pink, the intricate gold embroidery now a ruddy brown.
Small splotches of glowing goo cover the bones of the skeleton and parts of the fainting couch. It pulses faintly, casting a sickening light.
“The dragon death flu,” Tormat whispered. “Best to not touch anything.”
A faint scream echoed through the open door on the far side of the room. The piercing wail drew them forward. Tormat pulled his sword free of its scabbard, and stalked forward. The constant harrowing, anguished wails sent chills down Pip’s spine. With every step the group took the wailing grew louder, and Pip knew they would soon discover whatever was making those horrible sounds.
Tormat followed the screams to the western wall of the room. The stone wall was lined with bookshelves of solid wood. Some of the shelves had collapsed, spilling the books onto the stone floor.
“What now?” Vidae asked, inspecting the bookshelves.
“Does the stone behind the bookshelves look different than that wall?” Pip asked, pointing to the far wall.
Tormat squinted his eyes, “You’re right. This wall doesn’t look as old, or as sturdy as the rest of the library.” He struck the wall with the pommel of his sword. Large chunks of stone crumbled to the floor. The wall came apart easily, whoever had built the wall had done so in a hurry. A scream ripped through the hole in the wall, amplified by the confines of the room. Pip jammed his fingers into his ears to quieten the terrible scream.
Annoyance had replaced Pip’s fear. Now all he wanted to do was shut the damn thing up. Tormat gave Pip a boost and he jumped through the hole landing with barely a whisper on the other side. Not like it would have mattered - the damn screaming was constant and almost deafening. Tormat and Vidae landed behind Pip. A wooden door, pulsed with an electric blue light stood against the far wall. Elvish words were carved into the wooden door.
Tormat reads them aloud,
“Here shall they rest, the slaughtered two;
The Princess of Evil no longer has you.
The Wicked Princess, CURSE HER NAME;
Our cursed echoes carry her blame.”
“The Wicked Princess? The one from your story?” Pip asked Tormat.
“Norava,” Tormat said solemnly.
The door pulsed brightly with blue light, forcing them to cover their eyes. The words “The Wicked Princess” shone so brightly that it left an after image when Pip blinked. As quickly as the light surged, it faded as the door swung open.
A massive armillary sundial spins wildly on its axis, sparking and flashing until it slowed to a stop. The floor is littered with the carcasses; loose papers are caught in a magic wind and swirl around the room. The ceiling is a giant ornate stained glass window that is broken in the center, revealing a bright glowing red star that shines down directly onto the sundial.
Hovering a few feet off the ground aimlessly is the shadowy silhouette of a human. He sees Tormat, Pip, and Vidae standing in the doorway, and turns his horrifying visage toward them and screams.
Tormat shot forward, his sword held low. Sparks from the sundial washed over him as he sprinted past and swung his blade through the ghastly apparition. He felt resistance as the sword passed through the wraith, like cutting through water.
The wraith shrieked in response and raked a hand across Tormat’s face. Long jagged fingernails tore through Tormat’s cheek, sending waves of pain through his body.
Vidae placed a hand on Pip’s shoulder and chanted quickly. Pip can feel his skin harden and change, and now the exposed skin on his hand resembles tree bark.
“Save him!” Vidae urged Pip as she prepared another spell.
The wraith’s back was turned toward Pip; its attention was solely on Tormat who was back pedaling away from the wraith clutching his cheek.
Dagger drawn, Pip snuck forward and plunged his blade into the wraith’s back. The wraith spun around and fixed its eyeless gaze on Pip. Tormat’s back hit the wall as he watched the apparition tower over little Pip. The skin on his cheek had begun turning black and smelling: the necrosis was spreading. He whispered a spell, and warmth spread from his hand into his ruined cheek.
The wraith’s face twisted into a sneer and it stared into Pip’s soul. Waves of dread poured out of the wraith, spreading throughout the room. Fear gripped Pip’s mind. He tried to move away from the wraith but his feet felt cemented to the floor. His heart thundered in his chest, sweat pouring down his face. Darkness closed in around him.
But from the darkness came a soft feminine voice. “Be brave, young Pip. You’ve come this far. Don’t give up now. They need you.”
Pip’s eyes shot open, the razor sharp fingernails of the wraith cut through the air, aiming for his exposed neck. He threw up an arm, the fingernails raking across his thick bark like skin. The wraith howled in frustration.
Vidae slammed the butt of her staff down on the floor as she uttered the last syllable of her spell. A beam of brilliant silver light enveloped the room, the wraith directly in the center of the moonbeam. Pale silvery flames engulf the wraith. It throws its head back screaming in guttural pain and fury. A gout of silver fire shot out of the wraith’s mouth before it collapsed to the floor, unmoving.
The shadowy aura drifted away like fog beneath a rising sun, revealing an ethereal young man in fine royal clothing, laying on the floor. His eyes fluttered open, his senses slowly returning to him, the memories of the man he once was came flooding back.
“Thank you for releasing me… I am truly indebted to you. I want to rest in peace after all that time as a horrendous ghoul, but I do not foresee that happening so long as Norava is wreaking havoc. Please, you must allow me to assist you in eliminating her evil from this world once and for all! Quickly, now! Grab those two glaives by the wall and the flesh of a bat and we shall enter the portal before Jiuko fades!” He gestured to the blood red star shining overhead, but its light had begun to wane, transitioning from blood red to pink.
“Once we defeat Norava you will finally be at rest with your true love,” Pip tried to comfort the spirit of Prince Echo Caves.
“True love? Are you talking about Sundra? Norava’s aid?” He barked out a harsh laugh. “Is that the story they tell? Two lovers caught by a scorned bride-to-be?” He spat the words. “They were in on it together from the start. Both of them be damned!”
Tormat grabbed the glaives from a barrel in the corner of the room. Prince Echo nodded approvingly to Tormat and transformed into a ribbon of light. He circled Tormat, then split into two ribbons of light, and fused himself into the glaives. Tormat could feel the righteous hatred flowing from the glaives into his hands.
A content cluck, cluck, caught Pip’s attention. Annabelle strolled into the room with a leathery bat wing hanging out of her beak. She dropped the wing at Pip’s feet and gently pecked at it.
A familiar soft feminine voice filled Pip’s mind, “Take the wing and enter the portal, young Pip. This is where our stories diverge. I have guided you as much as I can, but from here you must embrace your destiny.”
The chicken tilted her head in what appeared to be confusion, “Bacawk?”
Pip picked up the bat wing and placed it on the now motionless sundial. Energy surged from the sun dial and it began to spin, faster and faster. Blinding blue light filled the room. When it faded, Annabelle stared at the now empty room where the party had just been standing.
“Good luck,” she whispered.