Chapter 54: Vxed

Six figures slipped through the halls of Ferubi like the shadows of birds and stepped into the courtyard of Barindu. Ancient pyramids towered over the six adventurers; monuments to the lost race of Taelosia. The Taelosians spent thousands of years building these temples of worship. Intricate runes and glyphs covered every surface of the massive stone structures. Like the magical weapons and armor of Norrath, the temples pulsed and throbbed with power. They speared through the Astral and Ethereal planes, acting as wells and waterfalls through multiple worlds simultaneously. These nodes of power once fed the Taelosians with spiritual and magical energy. Now they fed the Muramites.

The armies of Mata Muram infested these temples like flies on a decaying corpse. Loral stared at the old temples and the misshapen beasts that walked or crawled on its once holy surface. Huge wolf-headed beasts wielding massive sythe-bladed axes swung their large heads and sniffed at the air. Spine-backed humanoids, blind and scarred, crawled over the rocks like spiders. Heavily muscled orange-skinned primitives scanned the gardens surrounding the temples with sharp pink eyes. Loral's breath caught in his chest when those pink eyes scanned across him.

Loral felt a hand grasp the front of his cloak and pull him against the rock walls of the valley of Barindu. Mici, the barbarian berserkser, snorted at Loral's pale face. The berserker pointed to a canyon that cut into the rock wall with his double-bladed axe. Loral ran.

Their cloaks of invisiblity broke apart seeming to spill the six adventurers into the dark sunlight burning through the red clouds. An unpleasant stench of spoiled meat filled Loral's nostrils but he couldn't place it until they turned a corner of the canyon and saw the piles of decaying corpses.

The bodies lay in pieces under the hot sun. Vultures and a world of insects feasted on the decaying meat of the dead. Not since the Ringwar of Thurgadin had Loral seen such violence. The bodies of these adventurers, two dozen at least, had not been cut down; they had been ripped apart. The cynical voice of the veteran dwarf at the Natimbi camp spoke in Loral's memory. This land devoured adventurers. Now Loral saw the resulting regurgitation.

"Only one way to go." Stonehewer tightened his breastplate agianst his barrel-shaped chest and tightened the leather collar around his throat. The dwarf had seen hundreds of battles and every preparation he made was the result of a lesson learned in battle. Stonehewer spat into his leather gauntleted hands and drew his heavily enchanted two handed sword. The blade shone white in the dark light of the sun.

Illudar dropped a gauntled hand onto Loral's shoulder. Loral and the two paladins had met Juror the shaman, Kaylessa the enchanter, and Mici the thick dwarven berserker in the ruined halls of Qinimi before deciding to travel through the canyons of Vxed. Only through these canyons would they reach the larger temples of Kodtaz and see first hand what menace Norrath faced. The six adventurers stepped over the bodies of the dead and continued their trek into the mountain pass.

It took little time before the party found out what caused such carnage to the fallen adventurers. Massive lizards, twisted from the tainted power of the Taelosian temples now under Muramite control, attacked with the fury beyond even the demons of the outer planes. Claws like steel and teeth as sharp as glass cut and slashed at the party. Kaylessa bent the mind of one weak-minded beast and turned its sharp claws in their favor. The party fought and continued its journey through the mountain pass.

The deafening roar of a thousand foot waterfall filled their heads as they continued until they stepped out onto a platform suspended over a thousand foot drop. A waterfall fell the thousand feet to the icy waters below. Two thousand-foot-tall statues stood on the left and right of the chasm, palms out and serenity on their smooth runed faces. A bridge spanned across the chasm to another platform across the way. Loral felt his legs grow weak when he looked over the bridge's edge. Age had torn pieces of the bridge away and very little kept it from falling completely into the chasm below.

Loral felt his hair stand on end but it wasn't until the party traveled halfway across the bridge that the trap sprung. Loral saw Stonehewer go rigid as though gripped by an invisible giant. Illudar's sword clattered from his hand to the stone bridge's surface. A figure slid out from the rocks on the other side of the bridge. Long black hair flowed over the woman's ivory skin. Her beautiful torso flowed into a hideously scaled serpent tail. Her long fingered hands twisted and pulled as though pulling marionette strings. Loral watched in horror as Stonehewer turned on legs not under his own control and began walking to the bridge's edge.

Illudar screamed. His eyes had rolled back to their whites and he stood arms out at his side and wailed at the violet sky above. Loral rushed out to tackle and pin Stonehewer before he would take himself over the edge but another sight stopped his movement. A gray-skinned horror crawled over the bridge's edge. It stared through eyes stitched closed and sniffed once before hissing at the cleric through razor sharp fangs.

Blackness overtook Illudar. It enveloped him and surrounded him. He suffocated under its thick pressure. Visions filled his mind. He was a child again. He saw his mother smiling at him. Sunlight from an unseen source shined in her golden hair. Then shadows closed in on her. They reached for her with sharp talons and long teeth. He saw her cry but heard the cries of his friends far away in another world instead. He sat helpless and small, crying out as the shadows ripped his mother apart.

Whatever horrid power trapped and twisted Stonehewer and Illudar had no effect on Mici and Juror. The berserker drew a heavy axe and hurled it end over end at the serpent enchantress at the same time that the shaman finished chanting the words of a dreadful curse. The axe caught the sorceress in the chest and clattered to the stone. Loral heard her collar bone crack and blood gushed from the gaping wound.

Stonehewer's eyes focused and he spun his arms for balance, his feet half over the edge of the bridge that crossed the thousand foot drop. Illudar cried out again, his mind snapping back to reality like a broken rope. Stonehewer, his balance recovered, rushed forward and swept off the enchantress's head and the hand she held against her chest with a single stroke of his blade.

Seven inch claws slashed past Loral's face. Only a clumsy tumble backward saved his eyes from being ripped out of their sockets. The horrible gray-skinned creature hissed and crawled towards the fallen cleric. It raised another jagged claw and swept down. A line of silver flashed in the moonlight and the ukun's fingers flew into the night on tracing lines of black blood.

The beast roared in pain and frustration before lunging at the blue armored paladin, Illudar. Its teeth tore into Illudar's chain coif. Bright red blood flowed from the seams of Illudar's armor. The high elf stabbed his blade into the creature's chest. Its tip burst out of the creature's back, adding a silver spine to the bone ones already there. The ukun's bite weakened. Illudar twisted the blade. The bite loosened more. Illudar kicked the beast away before another slash of Stonehewer's sword sent the ukun's head tumbling into the icy waters below.

Blue waves of energy flowed from Loral's hands and over the wound at Illudar's throat. The gaping would closed but the ragged scar would always remain. It served Illudar well for decades to come as a distinction of battle in the political city of Felwithe.

The party crossed the bridge and spent a restless night on the far side. Though they remained watchful, they never spotted the shadow that swept over the bridge behind them or the blind eyes of the Kyv that watched through sound and smell from above. In its hand, it held a barbed arrow filled with black fire, an arrow that would steal the life of one of their members less than a day later.