Marwyn finds the cousins as they emerge from the hunting lodge an hour after having entered and ushers them to her partially setup hidden camp. Amaya sulks quietly in her bandages, and Nasti can be heard in the nearby words swearing in various languages. Nova tells Marywn that they fought a dragon, which makes her cousins’ eyes widen considerably.
When Marwyn goes to wrangle Nasti – to prevent her from giving their position away – Canter comments to Nova, “We didn’t fight the drow right away because some people don’t care what color hot elves are.”
“I’m not saying we should have just walked in and started killing,” Nova replies. “I just don’t know why we said ‘How high?’ when that drow said ‘Jump.’ One day Nasti’s going to be smiling at some hot something or other as the blade runs across her throat. Please try to not let that happen, Canter. I know you are much more capable than you pretend to be.”
“Is that what you know. I don’t even have thumbs!”
“I knew I could count on you. Thanks, Canter.” She scratches the familiar behind the ears.
“Oh, yeah. That’s the stuff.” Little puffs of euphoria gas escape his nostrils as he purrs.
After dinner, Nasti finally manages to uncoil and make an effort at actually resting. “Stupid wererats,” Amaya mumbles for the dozenth time.
“We’ll get ‘em. We’ll get ’em,” Nasti assures her.
Marwyn notes her sister’s missing sword but says nothing about it. She tells the others that she is going to sit watch nearby. A surprisingly few minutes later, Marwyn returns to camp with an old man held by the scruff. “He says he knows you.”
“Never seen him before,” says Amaya.
Nasti peers at him. “I don’t know him.”
“Ummmm…. what she said,” agrees Nova.
“Who are you? Explain yourself,” says the tiefling.
“I had to flee from the drow after what you did,” says the old man.
“Other drow?” says Nasti, tilting her head as she searches her memory for anything at all.
“That accursed woman and her hobgoblin lackeys. And the filthy rats.”
“When exactly did we meet?” says Nova.
“Were you glamored at the time?”
“I … didn’t look like this then, no,” he says. “But I didn’t want to be attacked on sight. I didn’t know whether you were in league with the dark elves until I overheard you talking. Shenn is my name.”
He nods glumly at Nova. “Yeah. ‘Snake guy.’”
“Oh! You were with the dragon. I think you might need to explain why you’re here.”
“Yeah, now that we’re past the ‘Kill him!’ or ‘Hear him out’ crisis point, we can do that.”
Nova suddenly realizes her manners were lacking. “You have a point. Hi, Shenn. I’m Nova. This is Nasti, Amaya, Marwyn. Have a seat and join us.”
He does so and takes a deep breath. I don’t know or care what the drow – or you – want with the ruins. What I do care about are dragons. Garanaach is… well, I raised her from a hatchling. We were together for a very long time."
Nova’s jaw drops a bit. “I had no idea you could tame dragons?”
“Heh. You cannot.”
“Where is … Garanaach now?” Nova looks around nervously.
“YEAH, Nova,” says Canter. “Reptiles have the floor.”
Shenn’s gaze settles somewhat covetously upon Canter. “Tell me, my young friend,” he addresses the familiar. “Are you satisfied with your arrangement, here?”
“Oh, sure. Fate wills what it will,” he says.
“I see. Well, anyway. We found this place a couple of months before the damned drow showed up. Spent time contemplating the wonders below at the serpent shrine, hoping to find some guidance to another orphan dragon egg.
“When the drow did come, we had to retreat. There were too many. But we were able to hold the chapel. They seemed content to keep us contained. Until today.”
“Yeah, nice going, Nasti,” says Canter. “I know you thought that dragonslayer would look good on your CV, and look where it’s got us.”
“Don’t interrupt,” says Nova. She sticks her tongue out at Canter, grinning. He does the same, glad to finally be having a little fun.
“No, Canter’s right. Slaying a dragon sounded like a win I couldn’t refuse, so much so that I didn’t even stop to prepare for it.”
Shenn continues as though they had not spoken. “And then you three came along. How is it that you came to strike at us but not them if you are not allies?”
“To be fair, your dragon struck first,” says Amaya.
“When you invaded our space, yes.”
“Fair enough,” the half-elf says grudgingly.
“You’d think getting almost killed would dissuade you. I really thought the fight was over when my magic finally overcame your bravery and sent you running. Would that it had been enough.”
“Well… We needed to be the first to get to the gate,” says Nova. " We recently learned of it. It connects to the Abyss, and demons could be coming out of it at any time. The drow want that. We want to destroy it. This was a terrible place for you to hole up, I’m afraid. Like a fly hiding out in a spider’s web."
Shenn chuckles. “So excitable, the younger races. Well, if you were trying to be first, then you’re too late. The drow have almost certainly reached the gate. The complex is not very large.”
“Of course, if we remove this threat, perhaps you and your friend can keep future troubles from threatening it?” says Nasti.
“My … friend, yes,” says Shenn, his false face adopting a sad expression. “As I said, I was forced to flee. A hobgoblin quarrel took down Garanaach. She was too weakened after her encounter with you. She fell.”
“Oh… oh, no…”
“Yes. I could not rouse her. It is not within my skills nor my magic.”
“What a terrible misunderstanding,” says Nova.
“I’m sorry,” says Amaya. “What can we do to make this right?”
“Nothing, likely,” says Shenn.
“We have to help Shenn find another egg,” says Nasti.
“Well, now. That would be a feat of kindness,” Shenn allows. “But in the meantime, vengeance on the drow would not hurt my feelings.”
“Praise Calistria, yes!” says Nasti.
“That was already on the agenda,” says Nova. “We expected to have to deal with them at some point.”
“I’m confused. If your plan is to deal with them, my earlier question stands unanswered: If you are not allies of the drow, how did you get past them to attack us?”
“One of them offered to let us go ahead if we could deal with the dragon. It was a risky move, but it gave us a chance to reach the gate first. It was only a momentarily alliance.”
Nasti preemptively shushes Canter: “Also, I seem to have trouble convincing myself that I don’t have be a demon.”
“I see,” said Shenn. “You were misled. We did not stand between you and the gate.”
Canter whistles. “See? Lust, trickery, AND vengeance. It must be a Calistrian holiday.”
“I knew it,” says Nova.
“To facilitate our shared vengeance, allow me to share what I have learned about the drow,” says Shenn.
“Yes, please,” says Nasti.
“Roughly twenty drow now occupy this ruin. There used to be more, but Garanaach and I dispatched a few early on. The dark elves are led by a high priestess named Lanthurrae. She has recently used her dark power to create undead guardians. She also travels with a fiery-eyed undead creature. She is … not a drow. Not anymore.”
“So they CAN be more frightening.”
“Yes. Most of the drow are warriors, but a few clerics and wizards are among them. A couple of hobgoblins recently arrived, and you’ve seen that the drow have other allies. Further, giant spiders, accursed pets of the accursed drow, occupy chambers to the west. Finally, at least three shrines remain in the Temple below, and they all retain a measure of their power from a bygone age.”
“Abyssal power,” says Nasti.
“If you say so. Demonic portals are not doors with loose hinges to be pushed open by a stray breeze. It takes intent. The dark elves may have that, but not the means. Yet. If they had, I think Garanaach and I would have been dispatched sooner.”
“That’s all we have going for us right now,” says Canter.
Nova looks thoughtful for a moment before speaking again. “You know, at any other time, I’d not feel this way. But you are a stranger that we met inside that place just like the drow. You seem to definitely feel sorrow for the dragon, but how can we believe you aren’t using us too? For all we know, you came out of the gate yourself.”
“Not using you? Preposterous! Of course, I am! You are the tool of my vengeance. But by your own admission, our goals are currently in sync. And my people do not come from the Abyss.” Amaya confirms this, summarizing what she knows about serpentfolk to her family.
“Okay,” says Nova. “But why do believe he’s serpentfolk any more than we believe he’s human as he appears now?”
“You saw him,” says Amaya as though that settles it.
“Heh. Can’t argue with that logic.”
Shenn shrugs. "Do as you will. I have parting gifts that may aid you regardless. He produces a potion and a scroll, handing them to Nasti, identifying them as a potion of quicknessand a scroll of circle of protection.
“I’m sorry, Shenn. I almost watched my cousins get eaten today with me to follow. And we just got used by a drow, who I really have come to despise. It hasn’t been a great day. I’m over everything for now.”
“It is forgotten.”
“I will not forget, and I promise they will pay,” says Amaya.
Shenn nods. “Our business concluded, I will now leave you to yours.” He stands. “They want access to the Abyss? Give ’em Hell instead.” He looks up, thoughtful. Then he holds his hand out parallel to the ground and waggles it back and forth a bit.
“Will do,” says Amaya. Nasti’s smile broadens until you see sharp teeth you don’t see every day.
Shenn heads out, and Marwyn looks between the “snake-man” and you three and just shakes her head.
“So, you chatted with drow down there? And then did some of their dirty work for them. Is that about the size of it?”
“Yes.” Just when Nasti thinks that she has the shame under control, it kicks up again.
“We killed a handful too before they stopped attacking us on sight,” says Nova.
“Guards and foot soldiers don’t usually cause the biggest problems, cousin,” says Marwyn.
“Lesson learned. Drow are the second ever on my ‘kill on sight’ list. After roaches. Cause those are gross.”
“I mean. Not to say you couldn’t learn something from speaking to one. But to do their bidding?
Plus, ‘kill on sight’ is some Absolutism that is not a good look on you, Jen.”
“As I told Shenn, I thought it would give us a jump to the gate. And as for ‘kill on sight’, as I also said… I’m over it tonight.”
“Keep rubbing my nose in it, Marmar, it’s REALLY helping me move past it,” says Nasti, looking miserable.
Marwyn blinks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even notice.”
“Then why don’t you just pound – oh. Thank you. I’m sorry, too.”
“I’ll keep watch for a few hours and try not to find anyone else.”
* * *
13 Gozran, 4720 AR
“Re-trace our steps from yesterday or try the door to the south?” Amaya says as the cousins descend the stairs. Their planning is interrupted by the sight of Garanaach’s severed head lying on the floor of the entry room near the miasmic demon arch. The southern doors lie open.
“Oh, gods,” says Nasti.
Amaya glances south, noting flickering light at the end of a hall and three small humanoid figures lurking in an intersection. She draws her short sword as Nova says, “Looks like south. Before they close the door.”
In the center of the wide intersection to the south stand three gray-skinned humanoids dressed in hides. They have bald heads and expressive eyes and appear to carry mining picks. A mosaic of clawed footprints runs through the hallway from east to west. The floor in the middle of the intersection slopes gently down to a pool of water that bubbles softly.
“Are you with the drow?” Amaya calls out. They say something in a language you don’t understand and shake their picks at the trio in warning. Amaya repeats the question in Dwarven and Elven but gets no intelligible response.
“They’re deep gnomes – svirfneblin,” says Nasti. She tries a greeting in Aklo, but the gnomes do not seem to understand her any better than Amaya. “They may not be evil, but they’re going to be hostile, I’m sure.”
“We are in a hurry,” says Nova. “Let’s move on unless we are going to fight them.”
Amaya turns toward the doors to the north but pulls up short at a voice from the east. “Where are you going?” She turns to see a pair of wererats just stepping through the illusory murk beneath the demon arch. He grips the half-elf’s sword in his skinny hands and leers.
“Up your ass, rat-man,” says Nasti.
“Give me my sword back,” says Amaya.
“Come take it,” he taunts.
Surprisingly, the first to move is one of the deep gnomes, rushing up the hallway to swing his pick at Nova. Her otherworldly power slows the incoming point so that it doesn’t actually injure her. The little creature glances back at his fellow meaningfully, and they nod.
A third wererat pushes between the first two and seeks the flank on Nova with the svirfneblin. Trusting in her blessings to protect her from the deep gnome, Nova easily avoids the lycanthrope’s thrusting blade. The fourth enters and engages with Nasti, striking her with a follow-up jab.
One of the svirfneblin in the hall produces flame in his hands and flings it at Nova, who handily avoids it. Then Amaya engages with the wererat threatening Nova, bringing her silver short sword to bear in a pair of devastating stabs. The lycanthrope squeals in pain as the silver burns. The third deep gnome casts a spell and Nova finds herself blinded.
Nasti shifts into position to engulf three of the wererats in the flames of her staff-fueled burning hands. They are satisfactorily singed, but her spell draws their pointy attention. The last two wererats flank the tiefling and she finds herself on the business end of Amaya’s stolen sword.
A pitched battle ensues, with the wererats scrapping with the party while the svirfneblin pepper them with spells. The cousins manage to finish off one of the wererats and regroup along the north wall, where Amaya is then pinned against the doors. Nasti tries to get a spell in edgewise while Nova blindly struggles merely to outpace the injuries she continues to take with her healing magic. It is a downhill battle, and before long she collapses with a wererat short sword stuck in her kidney.
Nasti falls shortly after and Amaya finds herself dodging deep gnome spells while surrounded by the remaining wererats, one of which is killing her with her own sword. She manages to drop two more of the lycanthropes with desperate sword work and then something changes. The deep gnomes stop casting spells, merely watching the melee. The remaining wererat swears at the svirfneblin incredulously, but his words do not move them.
Amaya is bleeding pretty badly by the time she finally manages to slay the last of the wererats and watches as the deep gnomes slowly retreat to their hallway. The half-elf wastes no time retrieving the party’s last healing potion, and torn between her fallen cousins, she opts to feed the potion to the tiefling.
Nasti sputters back to consciousness and follows Amaya’s worried gaze to where Nova lies unmoving.
They are unsure if she is alive or dead…