Ash & War: The Last Days of Vrakis

Episode 3

What Lies Beneath

The scent of ash and embers lingers on the air as the companions crest a hill and the farming village of Stonebridge lies before them, a smoldering ruin. The ranger pauses, then casts off his eagle with an upthrust arm. The raptor glides over the town, and the eyes of the elf prince go white for a moment before he murmurs, "Danger – to the south – tall pile of stones – scaly dogs sleeping in front."

His eyes resolve themselves into cold beads of excitement, and he points to Rolen and Nicodemus Narrows. "Splug, you stay here and keep the baggage safe," the tiefling instructs as the companions shed their traveling gear and ready weapons. The three immediately hustle down the hill towards the eastern side of the burnt-out village. The elves nock arrows to their bows and, almost as mirror images of one another, release them to bury themselves into the flank of one of the resting beasts. With a bellow of pain, it wakes and struggles to its feet. Its partner, uncivilly rousted from a perfectly good nap, lurches up and looks for something to kill.

Temeraire and Izkierka help Nimozoran down the hill and into the wreckage of the west side of town, while Eloquin the Magnificent strolls directly towards the large stone edifice at the south end of town. More swamp hounds spring out from the smoldering buildings. Purple blasts of arcane power explode forth from one of the temple windows, arcing past the bold wizard and making his hair stand on end! Nimozoran pops out of existence, so far as anyone on this side of the Bleak can tell. Spells and blades and bows do their nasty work, and the hounds are slaughtered. But the danger is hardly over… Nimozoran finds himself in a shadowy, ashen reflection of our world drained of color and joy, dripping with ichor and slime. Tentacles squelch towards him out of the black depths of emptiness.

Back in the visible world, the adventurers draw close to the building. Narrows and Rolen approach a pair of windows on the northeast corner. The elf peers through first and sees several large shapes moving through the shadows. From his vantage point, the tiefling sees bedrolls lying around a makeshift campfire in the center of the wreckage of the shrine to Vymera. Rolen pulls himself through his window and comes face to face with savages from the Stag Fens! They are tall, brutal men and women with the blood of giants coursing through their veins. Two immediately close on the elf warrior, with two more clambering over scattered benches, until Nicodemus Narrows (in a moment of wild abandon!) throws himself through his window and into the fray! His blade finds purchase in the armpit of one of the marauders! Bright arterial spray bursts forth, drenching them both. After a second, though, only Narrows is aware of it. Rolen dodges into the space left when the first savage collapses, leaps off the wall and drives his sword deep into the neck and chest of his foe.

The spellcaster fires several more eldritch blasts out the window before turning to face the foes that have entered the shrine. A lance of silvery energy from Temeraire's hand crossbow comes in through the window and envelops the warlock, making her shimmer with radiance. Bursts of purple energy from her staff sizzle towards the tiefling rogue that laid low her warrior — but two arrows from the window behind Nicodemus part his hair on their way to their target! Arrows and magic pass in the air, but only the arrows find their mark, thunking home in the warlock's chest and throat with a puff of glitter.

By then, the other pair have closed the distance on Rolen and Nicodemus! A maul crunches into Rolen's back and ribcage before its owner is swarmed by a screeching mass of wings and feathers! El'lirian di Leoni draws forth his black dragonbone shortswords and enters the fray. He parries one attack, then another, and uses their momentum to push himself into a pirouette behind the bear-like man. Temeraire clambers over the windowsill just as the ranger buries one sword in the savage's kidney and slashes his throat with the other. A cascade of blood washes over the bard's face, and he freezes, staring as the warrior collapses to the ground…

Temeraire was 8 when he saw his first dead body – well, the first one he knew. Bodies in alleys were not out of the ordinary in Corthos. But when his mother's scream woke him up, he saw a burly thug reaching for her throat! He screamed, "YOU LEAVE MY MOTHER ALONE!" before her hand darted forward and sliced his throat so deeply with a razor, she nearly severed his spinal cord. That was different. Blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling, blood soaking his young tiefling face. It wouldn't be the last time he saw blood everywhere….

Temeraire snaps back to reality as everyone gives him odd looks. He must have screamed out loud. And what was he doing on the ground, anyway? Izkierka lifts him back to his feet and wipes his face with a handkerchief, murmuring softly to him. "Shh… easy, love. I'm here. You're fine. I'm here." The bronze dragonborn explains what happened to the rest of the group, while Nicodemus examines a statue to Vymera at one end of the sanctuary. After they solve its riddle, a secret passage creaks open beneath the statue, leading down into the depths of the temple.

Heading down our party encounters the Hall of Seasons. The first room is full of snow and freezing wind, with depictions of snowy forests and icy tundra on the walls. The door at the far end of the room depicts Vymera holding a cornucopia of harvest fruits and vegetables, her hair adorned with fallen leaves. One wall, though, also has this carving: "Thrice again larger than all you can see… but lighter by far than my weighty ancestry…" The companions huddle together for warmth and mutter to one another possible answers to the riddle. The room gets colder and colder every time they err. Then Temeraire smacks himself in the forehead with the heel of his palm, and calls out, "I-I-I-Iceberg, right ahead!" The wind dies down immediately and the temperature rises, and the image of Vymera on the door nods before that door creaks open.

The next room depicts autumn in all her glory – a riot of forest color and rain, sweet gentle autumn rain, sprinkles down from the roof. On this door, Vymera stands tall and lovely, with a sunburst around her head giving her a radiant halo. The bard and quester after knowledge finds the inscription for this room: "Tall when I'm young, short when I'm old… My temper is hot, but when I sleep I'm cold." He scratches one of his horns and mutters, "Temper… temper… it's a word play, I'm sure of it." But Nimozoran cackles and wheezes and says, "Oh boy – that riddle was old when I was toddling along chasing pretty halfling girls… it's a candle!" Vymera nods again, and the door rustles leaves on the ground as it opens. El'lirian and Eloquin remain behind, entranced by the beauty of Vymera's magic, while the pass through the door…

…into the most glorious summer day imaginable. Blue sky dotted with fat cottony clouds… brilliant sunshine… warm caressing breezes… Vymera on this door holds seedlings in her hands as she reaches out to the adventurers, beckoning them into her embrace. The inscription here, Temeraire reads: "Inside a great castle lives a shy young maid… she blushes in the morning and hides at night." He stares at the words, lost.

"Is it true love?" a voice asks from behind him. From above, the sun flashes with blinding brightness and the summery heat becomes oppressive… drainingly hot… 

"Is she Aethelred the Buxom?" Nicodemus Narrows asks. "She was a shy lass… leastways she was when I met her." The sun flashes again, and the draining heat becomes scorching… the companions can barely open their eyes and they can feel their skin searing…

Will anyone come up with the right answer, before they are all basted in a hot oast?

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