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Chronicles of the Company of the Egg - The Crypts of Empyrea (Part One)

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Many stories could be told about them.

From their days of glory, when they were a holy place in which rested the remains of the most respected people in the country, nothing is remembered. Or so little...

In the memory of the short-lived humans, they are just the source of bone-chilling tales to be told around a fire to frighten the little ones. Now that they are under the diseased influence of the Tangg Lord, they have become the accursed breeding ground for the foulest beings.

The Company of the Egg, as these people were soon to be known, had come there nonetheless. Do not listen to those who will tell you they were heroes come to purge the evil out of the crypts. They were mercenaries with a job to do. I think myself that their main virtue as a group is their tenacity and their will to achieve what they have begun. Certainly not any intrinsic will to "Right the Wrongs" Hrmff�

Anyway, the evil infesting the Crypts is so deeply rooted in, now, that no mortal creature will ever be able to return them to their pristine state.

Many things happened to the Company after they had entered the lost Crypts of Empyrea. They had had to face the minions of the Tangg Lord, thieves who were raising twisted creatures like Trolls and Ratmen. These they could cope with, although I know Yourik will never be the same again. But the story of the lycanthropy she caught then, and how Aldorus quested to find a cure, is a telling for another time. What follows is the story of their demise. Or what should have been their demise... "]

" See ? That room down there� it must be just next to the one in which we saw the Trolls... "

Aldorus, priest of Pholtus, was standing next to the edge. One foot more, and he would make a 20-feet fall down into the lower room.

" Yeah, talk about some serious action ! ", Elderan said.

The beard of Kelek, heavily built even for a Dwarf, split into a smile in spite of himself.

" You barely made it down there, you two... " Yourik remarked distractedly. To no avail : the warriors seemed to have a compulsory need to throw themselves into the melee whenever they were outmatched. Well, Elderan did, mostly. But this time the Dwarf had willingly joined the human braggart. His painful encounter with the Wight at the beginning of their exploration seemed to have drained away his wits along with some of his life force. The wizard thought about it for a while. " Maybe his desire to live has weakened too...Mmmh... Now, that would be something worth studying more closely: in how many ways does the life-draining touch of a Wight bring the victim closer to death ? "

[" Oh, I forgot to tell you : the Yourik you know is different from the one in my story. Mine is younger, more innocent. She still had her two arms made of human flesh at that time. Without being beautiful, her face was not marked with the deep scars it now bears. She would still laugh now and then... "]

" Ha ! I was juss givin' em a last chance before I crush the lif...

- Shut up ! Don�t you hear something ? " Vilmo interrupted.

The illusionist was officially the leader of the group, but he had never managed to impose his will on the others. This time, however, everybody quieted and strained to hear, all hands ready to move in an instant. There was clearly a sound other than the irregular crackling of Hircalen�s torch.

[" Mmmh ? What ? Oh no, Aldorus had not yet discovered the fabled Mace of Light for which he has become famous since... They still relied on good old-fashion fire for light�"]

" ï¿½comes from there, �bout 20 yards " said Kelek, nodding toward the darkness in front of them. The tricky echoes of sounds didn�t affect his hearing : stone kept no secrets from the Dwarves.

" Sounds like something ... flapping ? ", said Vilmo.

Blades were instantly drawn in a chorus of rasping noises that smothered the faint sound. Their imagination could summon too many dangerous �flapping� things in a place like this. Not to mention their memories. Elderan�s huge two-handed sword made him appear even shorter than he really was.

[" What ? No, no, it was not Megilbeleg. He was to receive her from the Silver Dragon Falx Templamut AFTER these events. And even if it had been the famous sword, he only began to understand her powers a long, long time after she was broken and born again. But this is a story for another time... Now will you stop interrupting me ? "]

Vilmo and Yourik put their hands to their pockets, as if looking for a spare coin. Their hands found the familiar shapes of the reagents needed to cast their most useful spells.

When the bat entered the flickering circle of light created by the torch, they released the breath they didn�t know they had been holding. The tension left them, as if contained in the very air they had just expelled. Swearwords were exchanged that cannot be properly described here. Although Elderan did mention some uncanny activity related to the bat�s natural orifices ...

Aldorus put his mace back to his belt, and smiled in spite of himself. He was thinking about that time, so long ago now, when they had used all their firepower, spells and weaponry both, to annihilate a wooden figure, an elaborate jack-in-the-box ... They were inexperienced then�he sighed.

That was when Vilmo's gasp caught them off-guard. All the heads flashed back to look at him. He was staring ahead. Following his gaze, they found the bat, or what should have been the bat. The creature had pursued its hesitant flight and had stopped in mid-air, a few yards away from the group. They watched in fascination as the creature's shape quickly changed into that of a thin, very pale-skinned woman. She was lightly dressed, and the great metallic gauntlets she wore appeared all the more incongruous : an image of masculine brutality on a delicate woman. She might have appeared beautiful to a careless examiner, but for the bottomless and inhuman eyes.

" Another shapechanger ? Elderan asked incredulously to the air in front of him.

- Fat chance !  " Hircalen answered, raising the torch in a futile attempt to see better, while readying his sword with his other hand.

Kelek uttered a word of power, and the flames engraved on the blade of his sword burst into living, red, hot and burning brightly. He sighed, relieved that the magic of the sword was once again his to command. He could not explain the trouble he had had with the sword's power since they had entered the crypts. The circle of light extended, and the figure became more visible.

"  Vampire !  " Aldorus hissed between clenched teeth. The word echoed in the heavy silence of the room.

The creature smiled as recognition dawned on the faces of the adventurers. It was but a gruesome parody on the mask of hate lying underneath. The two over-grown fangs became more apparent, ivory gleaming against the softer white of her skin.

Then the precious lull ended, and weapons were raised once again.

Aldorus' hand left his mace to his hip and grabbed the solar disk amulet hanging around his neck. Now was the time to pit the power of his faith against the darkness of the undead�s empty soul. The holy symbol of Pholtus began to glow as if heated, and the priest stepped toward the creature. It hissed and recoiled in front of the symbol of the god of Light. The hands of the priest then went through the complex motions that would compel the accursed undead to flee the holy wrath.

Meanwhile, the fighters had backed away, leaving the priest alone in the front. For once, even Elderan followed the move. Aldorus had proved many times the power he could summon from his faith. Yourik, who had dropped her backpack, was shuffling through several scrolls. Vilmo was mumbling to himself : " s'pose illusions can't affect undeads, but trial and error is no way to find out now. "

No words had been exchanged between the adventurers : they all knew that should the priest fail, there would be heavy casualties among them - if they survived at all. Watching Aldorus calling upon the power of his god, they all felt closer to Pholtus, their respective race or faith forgotten.

Kelek's mind was racing : "  If half of what I heard about Vampires is true, I don't want to fight her in close quarter, flaming blade or no ! Perhaps we could surround her; three decided fighters might be enough to overwhelm her..."

The glow surrounding the holy symbol of Pholtus in Aldorus� hand faded suddenly, as if cut from its source of power. The Vampire regained her composure and laughed scornfully : " Well, well� it looks like your god cannot help you anymore, priestling ! ".

Then their gaze met, like archenemies glaring at each other. Priest and Vampire locked in a silent fight. The adventurer was instantly held as firmly as by a steel giant�s grip. And as coldly. The two burning eyes became absurdly big in the priest�s mind. They seemed to draw his whole being into them. While the creature never uttered a word, he could nearly hear her seductive voice: " You don�t stand a chance. Your god has left you. Your friends have left you. You can only give up. There is no other choice now. Join me. Join me and I will show you things you never imagined. Give up. Hope belongs to the past. Join me. You are alone now. Forsaken. Join me. Give up. There is not point in resistance. Join me. Give up. Join m...

- NO ! "

Aldorus screamed out, relief in his voice. Their gazes had met for less than a second, but it had seemed hours for the panting priest. He raised the golden solar disk symbol once more, and the creature recoiled again. Even when no divine power was specifically called upon, the creature still shunned the amulet.

" Don�t look at her eyes ! " the priest shouted as he resumed his advance carefully, the symbol in front of him, his head lowered in order to follow his own advice.

Yourik�s head popped out of her belongings triumphantly, a ragged scroll in her hands.

" I found it ! " she said, speaking as if everybody knew what she was talking about.

" What the hell do you... " Elderan began. But his voice was drowned in the flow of strange words flowing from Yourik�s mouth. She was reading the scroll aloud. The words, meaningless to everybody, filled the room with their alien quality. Even the reader understood only a part of the ancient powers she was summoning.

The scene was peculiar to say the least : the priest was trying to corner the Vampire while hiding behind his amulet, his head bent in order not to look at the creature. The latter tried to reach the priest with her gauntlets while avoiding the holy symbol as the same time. She also glared in the direction of the other adventurers from time to time, but they were quick to avert their eyes. The fighters were shifting on their feet and looking at each other uneasily. Yourik�s incantation seemed endless, the longest any of them had ever witnessed from the wizard.

Suddenly, the body of the Vampire lost its definition and turned into a cloud of mist. It still bore the misshapen features of a woman. The cloud was moving slowly in the air, going above the surprised priest toward the others. Seeing this, Elderan ran to it, and with a powerful slash of his two-handed sword, split the mist in two.

[" Nothing happened of course. At least, nothing different from what one could expect of a sword slashing through the mist. You see, when a Vampire assumes this form, it really becomes mist. Thus, to do it harm, you need very strong magic, or a weapon attacking the evil within instead of the material body. Even in this case, the weapon must be very special indeed to have any significant effect. "]

Furious at his failure, Elderan insisted on slashing futilely at the diaphanous face that kept mocking him with its smile. Aldorus was coming to his help, hoping that somehow he could achieve better results. He dared not try one of his holy spells, for they took time to call upon, and he feared what the creature might do if he stopped harassing it for more than a moment.

A circle of bluish white light about 10 feet wide appeared around Yourik, flashed once very brightly, and disappeared. The brilliant after-image of the circle persisted across their vision for some time. A few seconds later, the scroll Yourik was holding turned to dust, its magic spent, and she shouted :

" Everybody around me ! quick !

Indeed they were quick to obey her. All but Aldorus gathered around her, within what they remembered of the boundaries of the circle. Its burning had seemed intense, but had left no trace whatsoever on the stone ground.

" We safe here ? can�t see th'dam circle anymore... it still here ? " In periods of extreme tension, the ranger sometimes reverted to a more primitive way of talking.

" Of course it is ! " Yourik sounded more confident than she really was. This magic was not hers, and she had no idea how the spell worked.

" What is it, by the way ? " asked Kelek suspiciously.

" It�s supposed to protect against all kinds of undead. "

The Dwarf looked up at her and grumbled through his beard " 'Supposed to', huh ? "

Meanwhile, Aldorus and the Vampire had resumed their deadly �tag� game in which each was simultaneously the chaser and the chased. Although the priest seemed to have the upper hand, being able to press the monster backward, her shapeshifting ability allowed her to elude him. Once, she managed to get past him and his symbol to reach his friends. Seeing this, Yourik shouted " Don�t move ! " because she knew the warriors would have to leave the protected space if they wanted to have enough room to fight. Heads looking down, they all obeyed, even Elderan. More because he wasn�t directly threatened by the Vampire than out of any sense of discipline. As the creature tried to tear at Vilmo, the white circle flashed into sight again, and she was thrown back as if she had met a solid wall. Yourik sighed in relief. She had not known what form the protection would take. It could have been far less powerful.

After that, Aldorus decided to join the others behind their magical barrier. He had no trouble crossing the unseen boundary. They felt crowded, but none wanted to leave a hair outside the invisible protection.

" Okay, now that we�re all safe, blast her to hell with your spells, will ya ? " Elderan said.

There was an uneasy silence among the spellcasters as they looked at each other.

" I have already failed the only thing I know that could have helped us ", Aldorus finally let out.

" You think we�d have used that scroll if we had anything else ?", scolded Vilmo. " Wouldn�t have the room to cast it if I had, anyway... "

Yourik shrugged ." Same for me. I've already used my Fireball to dispatch the Trolls, and a Force Wall here wouldn�t do any good. Too wide. Don�t want to risk a Lightning Bolt either, with all that stone around us " She shivered. The last time she had cast this spell, she had nearly died from the backlash. She should have, in fact. But Aldorus�timely intervention had brought her back from death�s door.

" You mean we�re stuck in here, with her outside who could take any of us for breakfast ? Great ! "

The Vampire, who had been seething with rage and insulting them for some time, now stood quietly away, waiting.

Yourik whispered into Vilmo�s ear " Now for the bad news : I have absolutely no idea how long the spell will work. The only thing I�m sure of� is that it WILL end... "

All the adventurers had heard, of course. Aldorus inhaled deeply. " Then I guess we�ll just have to... "

He couldn�t finish because of a sudden laugh. It was the Vampire. " I think you are going to serve us... forever... "

" Us ? " repeated Vilmo.

" uh-oh... " that was Hircalen. " Vilmo, you�re the expert on illusions here� tell me this is one... please ? "

Another bat had arrived and was already changing into a human shape.

The newcomer was male, his skin deathly pale, his clothes rich, but strict. The shadow of a smile on his face had nothing humorous. He stood on the opposite side from her companion. He looked at her questioningly.

" Darling, let me introduce you to the intruders� They are sent by the council of Northending to bring the potions we stole back to the dragon. They are protected...for the moment. "

Yourik�s eyebrow rose at that. She thought " They have first hand intelligence... how ? magic� or bribery ? If they have infiltrated the council�No. It cannot be. "

Then the male Vampire talked : " I have no time to waste ". His voice was surprisingly warm and soft. They all heard it perfectly even though he stood 20 feet from them. He began gesturing and uttering words of power.

Yourik and Vilmo blanched. Elderan and Hircalen began to look up but averted their eyes at the last moment. Aldorus� face was transfixed. His knuckles were white from clutching the amulet of his god. Kelek was the only one to voice their fear : " If he can cast spells... "

The rest of his words was drowned in the sizzling noise that followed. Three white bolts spurted from the Vampire�s hands and exploded against the group of adventurers. Elderan was grazed, but Kelek was more seriously hurt. He had taken two of the projectiles fully in the chest. The others stood untouched for the moment.

" I won�t stay here to be fried ! " Elderan burst. " It may be true we don�t stand a chance, but I�ll give him hell before I die ! For the honour ! "

Shouting battle cries, he stepped out of the invisible circle, straight toward the Vampire spellcaster, who was now smiling coldly.

A nimbus of white light exploded from the ceiling. Impossible as it was, the sun itself had entered the room. Even though they knew they were underground, it was as if they were outside at noon during a bright summer day. But the light wasn�t blinding to the adventurers : they felt warmed by it, and they basked incredulously in its radiance. The Vampires, on the other hand, were shrieking in pain and covering their eyes with their hands.

From the midst of the sun came a figure. It was a man, perfectly shaped, with great white feathered wings in his back. His body was pleasantly luminous, his face incredibly beautiful, worthy of adoration for men and women alike. He was wielding a strange rod of metal in his right hand. He flew directly toward the male Vampire.

What followed was not much of a fight : after two quick blows from the rod, the creature changed into a bat to try to escape. It managed only a few yards before a third blow crushed it. The bat exploded into a cloud of mist. This cloud was shapeless, and began drifting away slowly.

Then the luminous apparition turned to them, floating in the air. His voice was rich and musical :

Aldorus. You have been heard. You were granted this lifetime favour because your fight is of the utmost importance. Much more important than you think. Keep faith. "

He flew upwards, became one with the light, and disappeared. The world returned to its cold darkness.

[" The real meaning of the Deva�s words came to them later, much later; after the quest to retrieve the Egg of the Phoenix was finished. Heh... They would have taken to their heels had they known the Powers involved ! "]

It took a long time for the company to get their bearings back. None spoke ; they were still spellbound by what they had witnessed. They all missed the reassuring presence they had been shown for a few cherished minutes.

Vilmo was the first to break the silence : " He was Pholtus, wasn�t He ? ".

The priest was jerked back from his reverie. " No. " He blinked. " No, the one you saw was only a messenger. Sent by Him to answer my desperate prayer. "

Yourik was stunned. She was accustomed to her own magic, which could be very impressive. But this...this had been completely different. Even the fragments of divine power that Aldorus usually channelled had little in common with�this. She felt a pang of jealousy, knowing she could never approach such glory through her arts alone.

" Wow !� Hey ! No problem now that Aldo can call Angie to help us ! Why didn�t you do it earlier, old boy ? " Elderan said, slapping the priest in the back.

Aldorus shook his head slowly, still thinking. " You don�t understand. This wasn�t a spell one can cast. We have witnessed something that probably none of us will ever see again before our death. This was� a divine intervention, my friends. " He drew himself up and his voice took a firmer tone. " We should all thank Pholtus in our prayers from now on. In fact, I propose we � "

Kelek cut him short. He spoke with his back turned to them, facing the darkness from which the bats had come : " Sorry to interrupt your sermon, but I think someone is missing in your audience� " He turned to face them, the flaming blade casting a giant�s shadow behind the Dwarf. " Where's �Steel Hands� ?  "

Chronicles of the Company of the Egg Part One: The Crypts of Empyrea © Aliabastre

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