With operatic timing, Naentoth strolls into the forge hall, trailed by a large number of duergar faithful, whom he turns to address. “You see? In the very heart of the Dark Smith’s workshop, his machinations come to fruition to depose the false leader. Our punishment for the sin of sloth – allowing ourselves to be dominated by a surface dwarf – is at an end.”
He glances at the corpse at Nasti’s feet, where the flesh of Wellfast’s ruined face still writhes. Naentoth raises his hands theatrically, and a rain of divine fire plummets down from the ceiling, consuming the body, worms and all. Nasti crosses her arms casually, barely managing to keep a cool façade despite the killing flames landing mere inches from herself.
“Now that blight is purged,” Naentoth continues as if he had merely paused for a breath. “Droskar’s plans continue. These sky-breathers, the unlikely instruments of our wily lord, will cross the Twisted Caverns and tend the source of these abominations that have plagued us for so long. Meanwhile, we will rebuild and improve ourselves so that we will be ready to deal with the next threat to our great city.”
“ENDLESS TOIL!” comes the refrain from the duergar filling both halls.
The priest nods with reverent approval. “Indeed. Now, children of the Furnace. To work.”
As the dark dwarves depart, Naentoth turns to the cousins. “I had my doubts, but you have held up your end. Come, we will make a search of his private chambers to see whether we can find this crystal you need for this Vast Gate of yours.”
The party heads to the upper level of the citadel, passing spider-mounted cavaliers who eye the surface dwellers with raised eyebrows. A word from Naentoth quells any questions and they part, allowing the group to traverse the balcony path that rings the bazaar. As they approach the nearer of the southern doors, duergar soldiers are escorting a bound and protesting dark dwarf, who decries his allegiance to Wellfast. His insistence that it was all a part of a plan to lull the mad surface dwarf into a false sense of security until the time was right to strike falls on deaf ears. He glares daggers at the cousins and Naentoth as he is dragged away.
“Anything you find within these chambers is yours,” Naentoth says. “A boon for your service.” He glances over his shoulder at some noise from across the way. A steeder guard is barring a duergar from moving any closer. It appears to be Barram, who ignores the mounted guard to wave at you.
“You know this man?” Naentoth asks, dubious.
“He’s a friend,” Nasti confirms.
The priest gestures to the soldier, and Barram is allowed to approach. “Thank you, your holiness,” the younger duergar says, genuflecting respectfully.
“I’m sure there’s a story here, but I’ve no time to hear it. I must ensure the people follow through on this fresh start. If you’ll excuse me.” Naentoth nods and departs.
“Well! Sometimes chaos is good, eh?” Barram says with a grin, switching to Common.
“It’s served us well now and again,” Nasti says.
“Do ya mind if I tag along here?”
“Not at all, but mind your hands, in case he left any traps or what-have-you for us.” She heads inside.
“Of course, of course.”
Draped on the southern wall of this room is a huge square section of black scale-hide. Whatever the nature of the beast of which the skin was once a part, it must have been huge. The room also contains a large desk carved of stone set next to the eastern wall. Upon the desk are various sheets of parchment and writing utensils arranged in a neat and orderly fashion.
Nasti glances at her cousins, noting that Nova is quieter than usual after the incident with Wellfast. With a frown, the tiefling idly looks over the stuff on the desk, the top of which holds various memos from Wellfast, penned by Gaskel, relating to mining, troop morale, and other mundane issues. Many of them seem to be mere exercises in authority, affecting hardly anything with their pronouncements. The drawer contains a plethora of older documents, in nature the same as those on the desktop.
Bored by the mundania, Nasti heads over to the curtain and pushes it aside. She finds a massive stone table inlaid with tiles of cloudy glass dominating the room beyond. The tiles have been individually painted so that together they form an extended map. Stone counters painted red have been placed in various places upon its surface. Along the edges of the tilemap, a border of swirling tentacles and eyes has been added to the stone by a proficient painter. Stone stools stand around the edges of the table, ready for use. There is a stone door, painted black, in the eastern wall.
Meanwhile, Amaya opens the door to the west and finds an elongated room that displays various hunting trophies. The skin on many of the preserved trophies seems to be strangely loose and twisted in places. Many Darklands beasts are represented in the room, along with a fair sampling of goblinoids and duergar, and even a preserved drow. The expressions on the humanoid trophies’ faces all bear the unrelieved rictus of utter horror. Two of the duergar are displayed prominently, and Barram comments on the fate of Grymange (the old high priest) and Selvandel (the former rightful chief of the duergar colony).
The half-elf continues through the door on the west wall of the trophy room. An assortment of paintings in marble frames adorn the walls of this room. The paintings seemingly depict upperworld landscapes and cities. In the southwestern corner of the room stands an easel with an unfinished work. The thick layer of dust on the stool and easel indicates that the painter has not taken up the brush for an extended period of time. A paint-spattered apron is draped over the stone stool which is pulled up to the easel. The finished and framed paintings all are signed “Wellfast Brightblade.”
Amaya finds a scrap of parchment thrust into the stone frame of the painting showing a serene lake. The Dwarvish writing on the parchment is brief:
Nigel betrayed me, betrayed Quaren, for knowledge. His Master is also mine. It cannot be otherwise, for I am now of two minds . . . Only while painting can I push the writhing nightmares and oozing daydreams away … although I find that I am beginning to like them.
Amaya takes the parchment back to the others and shows it to them. Nova seems to shrink a little but says nothing. Amaya pats her cousin on the shoulder, then proceeds to the black door on the east wall of the war room.
The floor, walls, and ceiling of this bedroom have all been painted utterly black. In the center of the floor is a large cave bearskin of purest white. A simple glass stool sits upon the rug. A glass bedframe of disquieting design crouches against the southern wall. At the foot of the bed stands a marble-topped bedstand holding a few small personal items, its glass legs shaped like rigid snakes. A small wooden rolltop desk stands closed against the western wall, while opposite against the eastern wall stands a closed stone wardrobe, also painted black. Another door provides an exit to the north.
The personal items on the bedstand include a brush and beard comb, a nephelium glass half-filled with drinking water, a nephelium nail clipper, and a small cylindrical lodestone embedded in a larger piece of floatable cork. Nasti examines the rolltop desk noting that its design hails from the upperworld. The desk contains hundreds of blank memo sheets as well as two quills and a mostly empty stoppered inkwell. Hidden amongst the sheets is an unrolled scroll labeled “Fyrd’M’s Demonic Defense.”
The tiefling sends Canter to look under the bed, and the familiar grouses. “So demeaning. Not a cat.”
“You’re the small one,” Nasti says.
“… For now.”
While they banter, Nova finds a secret door hidden at the back of the wardrobe. A small chamber hidden behind the wardrobe contains a red crystal rod atop a simple stand. “Here we go,” the oracle says.
“Let’s have a look at this thing, then,” Nasti says, picking up the red crystal rod. Nova lets her, pinching the bridge of her nose from the pain caused by looking at the alien rock with her magical sight. It looks like tendrils reach out from it and toward her eyes. Or her brain. Either way, she closed her Eyes to give herself a chance to recover from the crystal’s weird influence.
Tucked beneath the stand they find a handwritten note from Wellfast that reads:
“I know that this crystal rod is necessary to the working of the Gate and a real nasty from the Dark Tapestry guards one other component, but I have no notion where that alien bastard has hidden the last.”
“My guess is that this imposter nasty is somewhere in the Twisted Caverns,” Nasti says.
“Sounds like that’s what’s left to do. Coming with, Barram?” Nova says.
“To the Twisted Caverns?” The idea seems to horrify and intrigue the duergar in equal measure.
“Well, I get the feeling that your upcoming change of leadership is gonna be a lateral move at best,” Canter says. Nova nods.
“I hadn’t even considered it. In fairness, that’s probably because my skills lie more in the vein of recommending high-quality smut for a customer’s particular kink and less toward killing or being killed. And I think that makes me a decent candidate to run this place if I’m honest.”
“Now there’s a thought,” Nasti says.
“There you go being reasonable and thinking clearly,” Nova says.
“A quality in short supply, I think you’ll find.” Barram grins.
“Do you know where we can sell some used armor?” Amaya asks.
“I might know a bazaar or two, sure,” Barram deadpans.
* * *
Having found what there is to find in Wellfast’s former chambers, the cousins and their duergar pal depart, catching up with Naentoth. The priest informs them that the colony wishes to celebrate the coup that evening, and several hours later, they experience their first Darklands revel.
Duergar party hard, it turns out. Their gratitude extends to relaxing their usual prejudice against surface dwellers and letting their proverbial hair down. And their alcohol mostly consists of fermented mushrooms, which Barram casually describes as ‘mildly hallucinogenic.’
When someone mentions that Nova sings, an impromptu stage is set up at one end of the bazaar and she is enthusiastically encouraged to perform. Having never heard a voice or seen a stage presence anything like the waifish human, the crowd is mesmerized and applaud unabashedly, hooting their approval!
Eventually, the night winds down and the cousins retire to their (upgraded) suite at the inn.
“Your hair is so floaty when you’re drunk,” Amaya says to Nova, who pats the half-elf’s hand gently.
“I want to talk to you two about something, Nova says sounding reluctant. “Soooo… Things are a little different than we thought. I saw into Wellfast’s soul at the end there. And it hurt.”
Canter tilts his head to one side, concerned. “Yeah? That spell hasn’t hurt you before, right?”
“Not like that, no. It hurt physically … but also deeper than that. There’s something that took over his mind that is in the tunnels, as we suspected. But that may not be the only enemy we are going to have to deal with.”
“Oh, Nova, I’m so sorry…” Her eyes are crossing a bit as she tries to focus on Nova’s speaking.
“Nigel handed Wellfast to this thing. Intentionally. Willingly. As a sacrifice, or a bounty. Our grandfather cost that poor dwarf his soul, Amaya.”
“Whaaaat?” Nasti says.
“I don’t believe it,” Amaya says, the intoxicated whimsy drained from her tone in an instant.
“This magic doesn’t lie,” Nova says. “That’s kind of the point. We share each other’s deepest pain. It’s the most honest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
Amaya goes quiet and Canter hisses quietly. “They are both way too drunk for this conversation…” Nova sighs in agreement.
“Wait a minute. Did he, like, come down here with that in mind?!” Nasti asks.
“I didn’t see that much. Just that he did it. But the notes we found suggest he did it to the elf member of the group too, right?”
“Wellfast’s note said he didn’t know what happened to Quaren,” Canter says. “If he was missing for over twenty years before showing back up in Duergar-town … who knows?"
“But why would he do that?” Amaya demands to know.
“Maybe he was corrupted over time and … exposure.” Canter glances at the spooky crystal.
“Mebbe we need to put that thing in a bag.” Nasti plants her palms on the floor as if to get up to do it right now, but her head swims and she doesn’t go anywhere.
“Either way, if we run into him down there. He’s not an ally,” Nova says.
“So what? We kill our own grandfather?” Amaya says. “Maybe he’s being mind-controlled also or maybe we can convince him to stop.”
Canter opens his mouth to say something but thinks better of it. Then Nasti gives voice to the familiar’s withheld thoughts. “If that thing out there in the caverns tainted him even a fraction of what it did to Wellfast, then he isn’t your grandfather anymore.”
Nova sighs and addresses Amaya’s questions rather than Nasti’s comment. “Sure. I think we should definitely try to bring him back with us. Just don’t trust him. And depending on how it plays out we’ll be bringing him back either to heal or to be held accountable.”
" I… okay." Amaya hangs her head down.
Nasti realizes she’s put her foot in it. “But hey, maybe he can be saved. Sure. We should try.”
“Nice try, boss,” Canter says, sotto.
Nova decides to contact her mother with a question that’s bothering her. She casts a sending and sends her words across the miles on magic wings. “We’ve made progress. Sadly Wellfast and Warcaller are dead. Heading further in tomorrow. Umm… was my grandfather a good person?”
Selene’s response is immediate and startled. “What? Nova?? How… Yes! Of course, he was! Wellfast and Derek are dead? That’s terrible! Why would you ask that? Sure, he studied some weird-”
She shares the exchange with her cousins, but none of them feel any better.
So, Nasti changes the subject. “Hey. Hey! Hey. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything ‘bout Chen… but the truth is that there wasn’t anything to say, really. I haven’ asked ’er yet.”
“Sweet Yeenoghu, boss. You’re all over the place,” Canter says.
The tiefling ignores him. “Was gonna before we came down here but just didn’t get an oppintonn – an otterpoon – I didn’t get a chance.”
“But you’re going to,” Nova says, eager to talk about anything else. She brightens up a bit for the first time today.
“Damn yeah I am.”
“Show me the ring!”
“Oh, shit. I need one of those, don’t I? I just have the one I gave ’er before…”
“You HAVE to get one”
“Does this mean you’re finally going to stop writing ‘Chen + Nasti’ everywhere?” Amaya says, smiling a little.
“Nnnnope!” Nasti’s smile seems pointier than usual. “I like the ones I wrote that nobody else in town can read.”
“Well at least stop writing it on my armor, you know how hard that is to get off every morning?”
“I… you… damn it, I had something for this. Something, something, get off every morning. Damn it! Anyway, I think we’re BOTH gonna need maids of honor.”
“Hey, I am Made of Honor!” Canter quips.
“I think you mean you are made of ornery,” Nova says.
“Yeah, that sounds right.”
Nova smiles warmly. “That’s such good news, Nasti. I’m happy for you. Something to look forward to.”
She raises her fermented fungus glass in salute to drain it and manages to get SOME of it into her mouth; the rest dribbles down her chest. Amaya dogpiles on Nasti so she can hug her without having Nasti squirm out of it. “I – hey! I love you too, Yaya.”
Moments later, Amaya is snoring. One by one, the others drift off to sleep.
* * *
Nova slept dreamlessly – for a time. Then she heard/felt a faMiLiAr tRemOr that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand at attention. She opened her eyes and cast about for the source, but the expected glow remained distant, indistinct. She couldn’t tell whether the “eyes” numbered three or not.
You Have Broken My tOy came the thought voice, similar but more controlled than in the vision she’d had when she had nearly died in the Slaughtergarde Temple. I Was Made aWaRe Of You, But I Did Not eXPeCT That To Become ReLeVaNT
Nova tried to respond, to use her thought-voice like before, but nothing happened, and her fear increased. Fear. Good. And aPPRoPRiaTe. You Are In MY DoMaiN Now. And You aNNouNCeD Yourself To Me With The DeSTRuCTioN Of The RuNT. An Unwitting MiSTaKe. Fortuitous. Goodbye iNSeCT
The lights manifested right in front of Nova, numbering three like before – for a moment. And then several more “eyes” opened bringing the full intensity of their dread regard upon the helpless oracle, bound and powerless in this surreal dream space. With a final effort of will, Nova finally managed to project a single thought, weakly: Help…
* * *
Black Wings fluttered, interrupting the more pleasant dreams of beautiful boys performing beautiful acts with one another. Nova! Amaya thought, knowing only that her cousin needed her. Now. The half-elf gritted her teeth and glanced with certainty in Nova’s direction. Her bare sword was in her hand as she bound across the liminal space to see a series of fell orange lights bearing down upon the oracle’s supine form.
She brought her sword down in a vicious arc that bisected the several – or was it dozens of? – lights that she got the distinct impression were eyes. The eye-lights parted and coalesced once more into a kind of whole. Amaya blinked as a VisCeRaL tHRuMmiNg threatened to interrupt her thoughts. She opened her mouth/mind to scream defiance and found herself unable to do so.
SuRPRiSiNG came a thought from the glowing cluster, which seemed to have paused to consider this turn of events. How? Another pause. A Strong Bond. Family A longer pause. HiS FaMiLY. Understood. Logic Asserts Itself. Natural Consequence. Still. NoT iNSuRMouNTaBLe
Then the lights struck back, and it was all Amaya could do to keep her blade between beams and plasmid ropes of energy that would spell her destruction with a single touch. Her strength began flagging swiftly, then she felt the familiar warmth of Nova’s healing energy keeping her on her feet. Still, she knew her cousin’s power was limited, and if she gave even a moment’s thought to anything other than defense, she knew it would spell her end…
Need… Weapon… Amaya thought, jaw clenched with the strain.
p=. * * *
Nasti frowned. Canter, we have to go. Amaya’s in trouble. The familiar rolled his eyes like that was anything new or concerning, but he fluttered to the tiefling’s shoulder. Where? Nasti wondered, looking around for any sign. A ^ symbol appeared in her field of vision. Two sides of a triangle? An arrow? She didn’t know, but having no other guideposts, she went toward it.
When she crossed the threshold of … wherever she was, her teeth ached with a MurDeRoUs ViBraTiOn that rocked her back on her heels. Canter cowered, barely clinging to her shoulder, but the tiefling steeled herself against the chaotic pressure and opened her eyes. She saw a familiar sight: Amaya and Nova protecting one another with their respective strengths. She could see the stalemate between her cousins and the swarm of hellish orange lights – eyes? – that pressed them hard.
With a grin, Nasti reached for the lightning and it answered the call, striking one of the eyes and shattering it, sending arcs of electricity to rake the dozens – or were they countless? – burning orbs that had dared to attack her family. Amaya and Nova spared a glance for the tiefling as she approached, tail lashing. She thought to say something but only managed What- before the rest of the words died. Frowning, Nasti helped Nova to her feet during the respite her spell had bought for the cousins.
Orange-Eyes was already regrouping, burning brighter than before. THiS SHouLD NoT Be PoSSiBLe came the entity’s thoughts. They were angry, less controlled. aNoTHeR ReLaTioN? No. YeS? SHaReD BLooD WiTH oNe BuT NoT THe oTHeR. BuT SuCH a BoND. To CRoSS DReaMS aND CoMe To THe oTHeRS’ aiD? uNPReCeDeNTeD
I know you… came a new thought-voice that felt like silk through the cousins’ minds. They glanced back and saw Laura, the succubus from the Slaughtergarde Armory. She stood casually behind Nasti in her human guise and had eyes only for the lights. No. Not you, she continued. You are just a fragment, aren’t you? The eyes seemed to narrow but they did not respond.
Still, you’re enough, I think. Laura took Nasti by the shoulders, gently patting Canter, who still suffered under the intensity of Orange-Eyes’ presence. Granddaughter, I suggest you wake up and rouse your … family.
* * *
Nasti wakes up with the force of compulsion. “WAKE UP!” she yells before leaping up and shaking Amaya, who’s still draped over her. Nova wakes in a panic and Amaya sits up, partially drawing her sword.
Well, that was interesting, says Laura’s voice in Nasti’s head.
The tiefling briefly ignores the telepathic commentary. “What, and I cannot stress this enough, the FUCK? Were we… Were we in the same dream?”
“Had to be. And so was IT,” Nova says. “I’ve seen it before! Back when I almost died. It came to me then too. How did it know? We have to put an end to this.”
Canter is wide-eyed, claws extended, wings tucked back sharply. “What was that?” he says in the smallest voice they have ever heard him use.
Nasti says, “Was that the thing that corrupted Wellfast? And Nigel?” She sounds like she knows the answer.
Nova shrugs helplessly then nods. “Probably. It told me we were in its domain now and that killing Wellfast alerted it. It’s definitely the thing in the caverns. Thanks for saving me… Both of you.”
“I was having such a nice dream before that… thing showed up,” Amaya says.
“I don’t ever want to sleep AGAIN after that,” Nasti says.
Nova frowns at the mugs on the nearby table. “Duergar fucking ale… Never again.”