“There's a tunnel? Where?” Mineasia asked. “Your head is much worse than before. It's much faster. You should see Uyithlyaw soon.”
Mindolpha groaned beside him. “Is there any way you can stop doing that?” she asked Johannes, while struggling to her feet. “Yes, I know, I know. Let's keep moving then.”
“The tunnel… it leads under Dunweig, and goes very near the ruins of the temple. And there are rooms off of it…” He shivered and shook his head, pulling himself up. “I'm sorry, Mindolpha. Yes, we should go. We won't be safe until I see Uyithlyaw, will we?”
The next hour was uneventful, but soon thereafter, Johannes' feet became very hot. He looked down, and the ground was shifting and brightening.
Johannes hissed in his breath, half-shivering. What now? He urged Mist forward, hoping to cover as much distance as he could before he once again was caught in the grip of a vision.
Soon the ground burst, and his horse was stepping casually through molten rock. The heat was almost unbearable. Mindolpha and Mineasia looked unconcerned.
Johannes gritted his teeth, forcing himself to endure the pain. It's all in my mind, he thought. I can persist. I must get to Uyithlyaw. His fingernails dug into his palm around the reins and he continued to guide Mist onward, hoping that his ordeal of visions would soon end.
The dark-red lava became deeper and deeper, until Mist was nearly submerged, and Johannes' legs were boiling up to the knees. Mineasia, beside him, was submerged up to her neck. Strangely, while Johannes' legs were only uncomfortably hot, he felt his skull would soon burst and his brain boil out. Within a few minutes, the molten rock became shallower, and soon they were out. He looked back, and saw that the vision didn't fade. A region of the forest floor continued to roil and bubble until it was hidden from view by the trees.
Again, Johannes had peace for a time, though a dull ache reminded him continuously that he was far from well. In the early afternoon, he noticed that they suddenly changed direction, and soon came upon a focused bright haze which filled the area between two trees.
Johannes half-turned, speaking to Mindolpha. “Are we almost there, then? We changed direction… and there's a light here.”
“You told us there would be a light,” the old man said. “Please, lead the way.”
He turned back, continuing to guide his horse onward towards the light, frowning a bit. He had said there would be a light? Somehow, the memory skittered elusively away from him, leaving him unable to think of why he would have said that, or where he was going. He shook his head, struggling to clear it of the fog that left him awash in a lone moment of the present.
His horse reared up as he approached the portal. “Are you sure this is safe?” the old man asked.
“It shall be.” Johannes nodded gravely. “I do not leave these matters to chance.”
The middle-aged man behind him rode into view. “We trust you, Albederan,” he said. “Lead the way.”
Albederan steadied his horse and rode through the haze, followed by seven others. Although it could not have been more than a few yards thick, it took many minutes to traverse the length of the portal, during which Albederan's vision was totally obscured, and a tingling sensation rode up and down his spine, and a throbbing pain reverberated in his skull. Finally, he emerged on the other side, into a vast, cold desert. The sun had set, but in the moonlight, he could easily see the ice-capped mountains ahead.
“Just forty miles to Brundash,” the old man said. “We'll soon be safe. Where's Helbedar?”
“He always was the timid one,” said a woman with knee-length blond and white hair, and eyes that didn't quite look at the old man. “Probably turned back when he saw us disappear.”
Albederan knew otherwise. Helbedar had gone to some other place, perhaps thousands of miles from here. More likely than not, he was dead, but this was not the time to discuss such matters. Instead he nodded, speaking in a tone that brooked no argument. “We should not concern ourselves with Helbedar at the moment. His failure to follow does not change that we must still press to Brundash. Let us continue.”
There was no argument. The party pressed on, though the horses found it difficult to get their footing in the coarse gravel.
“Viilio, can you do anything about this?” the long-haired woman asked.
“Yes, but it will only last a few hours.”
“Better than nothing.”
Viilio dismounted, and stroked the back of his hand along each of the horses' hooves. When they continued, the pace was much faster. For the next few hours, the horses walked as if on hard-packed dirt, and by the time the magic wore off, it was too cold to continue anyway, so the party made camp.
“Mother, I think he's awake.”
Johannes was strapped to his mule, and Mindolpha led on Mist, with Mineasia clinging to her back.
“It's about time. We're going back to the village, Johannes. Someone else can take you to Uyithlyaw.”
“I'm sorry… I didn't mean to…” He shook his head. “You can keep the money, though. You tried to guide me there….”
“Maybe you shouldn't go at all,” she said as they passed back through the molten, bubbling region of the forest. “You and your visions. You can just…”
Johannes couldn't comprehend the rest of what Mindolpha said, through the pounding in his skull. When his mind cleared, he was navigating the foothills of the mountains. The sun shined brightly, and the air was dry and hot.
The next few hours were quiet, as the party devoted most of their concentration on staying upright. When they reached the next level region and stopped for a short rest, Viillio rode up to Albederan and pointed to the sky. “I don't think they've noticed us yet,” he whispered. Albederan looked up and saw a trio of winged creatures circling far above. At first he was unconcerned, until he realized exactly how far up they were, and how large they still seemed, and until he saw that each flew with three wings, arranged around their bodies in a circle, and recognized them. The third wing made them clumsy for long-distance flight, but all the more deadly in battle. Unlike other flying creatures, these could almost hover in the air, and remain in the same place almost indefinitely.
“So we've been hunted even here. We must proceed carefully. Use the ridges to cover ourselves from sight, as best as possible. We must avoid battle if at all possible, but if we must fight, we fight to destroy them.” Albederan frowned. “We cannot let them bring more hunters upon us.”
“Do we continue upward, or hide and wait?”
“We wait until we have a better window of opportunity to move. I will not have us take unnecessary risks, and we have yet to be detected.”
Viillio signaled to the others, most of whom had already noticed the creatures, and everyone crowded close to the mountain. They were far from invisible, however, and more than one member of the party, realizing this, looked expectantly at the old man. He was already mumbling strange words to himself, but before he finished, one of the creatures began a slow, sinking dive (the only kind it was capable of), and the other two followed thereafter.
When the creatures were twenty yards up, their enormous shadows covering the entire party, the old man's spell took effect. Suddenly, the entire group was invisible. The creatures stopped, trying to point their long-necked heads in every direction at once.
Albederan held himself very still, trying to make no noise at all, while bringing to his mind the best spells to defend himself when the attack came. He would not give away his position by making noise before he was ready to act.
The three monsters were close now, and even larger than they'd seemed from a distance. Each one was ten feet wide, with wings adding another ten on any side. Their bodies were rounded and flexible, with necks capable of rising above or dropping below with ease. The necks ended in long-beaked heads, which Albederan knew could crack bone, and could gouge out a man's eyes or heart in seconds.
The creatures hovered above in confusion for a while. Then one of the horses scuffed its shoe against the rock, and all three looked down at it, extending their necks to their full length. The party scattered when the monsters dove at the invisible horse, tearing it apart so quickly and furiously that one could blink and find the scene entirely changed when he opened his eyes. When the creatures had devoured the horse, pack, bones, shoes and all, they listened for more.
Albederan finally spoke the words, bringing forth the power that roiled at his heart. The time had come. The words spilled out, coming by instinct, as always never the same as the last time, for, as the currents of his own soul shifted within him and the fires of his heart churned, they changed the power itself.
The moment he began speaking, three heads turned, and six eyes squinted, trying to pinpoint his exact location. Then they dove at him as one, and the power spilled from him, crashing forth to burst amidst the beasts, where it hungrily turned in to corrode the connection between mind and reality, hammering senses and thoughts with senseless, primal chaos.
Two of the creatures slowed in confusion, unsure as to what they had been planning to do next. Even the third, the one unaffected by the spell, was a bit confused, as the entire party of seven, plus six horses and the minimal remains of a seventh, suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The third creature dropped straight down, knocking two of Albederan's companions to the ground with its wings, and stabbing its beak at a third.
Albederan could not see what happened next, as his vision was blocked by one of the creatures affected by his spell, who finally made up its mind to continue its attack despite its disorientation. The beak shot through Albederan's arm like an iron arrow, tearing through skin, muscle and bone. He could hardly bear the pain, though strangely, it was far stronger in his head than in his disabled arm.
The creature tore its beak out and extended its neck in the opposite direction when a spell from one of the others seared its feathers.
Albederan screamed in pain, staggering back, already calling forth the power within himself again, channeling his suffering and hearing his blood on the words as they came. The beast which had attacked him was already in the grip of his power, he knew, and the searing pain in its wing would fix its attention more immediately than Albederan's presence in front of it – so Albederan ignored it and focused instead on the one beast still unaffected, crushing its mind within stony chains of immobility, beating its will into an unnatural stillness. His breath burst out raggedly as he finished, his chest heaving with the pain and the passion and the immediacy of the moment. He was alive. Fear and pain and anger joined together in him, and, in so doing, became a kind of elation. It was this that was his power.
When he heard the great thud, which muffled the screams of his injured companions, he knew the spell had worked. The battle was far from won, however. The monster which had attacked Albederan bolted at its attacker, the youngest and least experienced member of the party, and quickly tore him to shreds. The other confused monster seemed to shake off the spell for a moment, and dove at the long-haired woman. It was distracted, however, when a great eagle, summoned by magic, appeared above it and dug its talons into the creature's flesh.
The rocky ledge would have been a grand display of lights and colors to anyone watching from a distance. Fire, ice and raw energy flew from the fingers of the party, burning off feathers and melting flesh just in time to freeze it in place. After a particularly powerful burst of energy from the woman, one of the injured creatures vanished.
Once again, Albederan gathered his power. It was time to end this, and only one beast could yet threaten them. He reached forward with his power to bind its mind with the same chains that bound its companion, so that the beasts would be helpless before his anger and that of his companions. He licked his lips unconsciously as he released his power, savoring the anger that pulsed in his heart like a drumbeat.
Even while he cast his spell, lights continued to flash around him. When he finished, another monster thudded to the ground, and everyone set to work dismembering the two paralyzed creatures. It did not take long – a couple more spells caused those two to vanish as had the first.
Then the old man was suddenly thrown from his feet, and blood welled up from his side, staining his shirt red. A deep, smooth, angular hole had been gouged out.
“I should have known,” said the woman. “This close to Brundash, everything has some magic”
Albederan cursed. The words came easily now, the anger and fear and passion roiling at a fever pitch inside of him. This time, he sent the power out, to probe through deception and misdirection and return, showing him things as they truly were. He would not die here. He would not allow it!
Outlines of the creatures shimmered in the air. Two were still lying on the ground, paralyzed, and the third was vigorously attacking the old man. Then more outlines appeared – a seventh horse, and an eighth, or was it a mule? And two more people, and hundreds and hundreds of trees.
Johannes lifted his head only slightly. It was difficult to lift it any higher, strapped as he was to his ill-tempered mule. The pain was almost unbearable, so he lowered his head and rested.
He was only allowed to rest for a short time, however. Hardly ten minutes passed before the mule seemed to harden until it was almost like rock, and the trees became mere outlines and then vanished.
“Oh, thank goodness,” the middle-aged man said, bent over his prone form. “I thought for sure you were gone. We'd never make it to Brundash without you.”
“We'd better get moving,” the old man said. “Can you still walk?”
Albederan looked down at his legs, which were bloody and mangled, but they felt fine. It was his head that really hurt, like a dozen of those vile creatures were jabbing their beaks through his skull all at once.
He snorted. “Either I can, and we continue to Brundash, or I can't, and we'll get all of ourselves killed instead of just me if you stay here to try and protect me. So we'll just have to see, won't we?” Albederan attempted to pull himself to his feet, bracing himself for the pain he was certain he'd feel once he placed his weight on his legs.
Standing up doubled the pain in his head, and it took all his will to concentrate on his surroundings, on the mountains up ahead, and on the three creatures lying on the ground next to two of his companions, and the trees and the little girl, and the burning cat, and the bed and the wooden door. He took one step forward, then another, and then the pain brought him to his knees.
He blacked out, and next he knew, he was on a soft mattress, with something over his eyes, and someone was patting his forehead with a damp cloth.
“I believe he will recover,” a somewhat familiar voice said. “Just keep his forehead moist, and every two hours, insert a clean reed into his nostrils and ears to relieve the pressure. Leave them in for ten seconds, no longer, and then remove them. The steam from the spiced seawater will accelerate the healing, and don't hesitate to send for me if there are any problems.
Johannes winced, unable to even take the effort to speak. The visions were more than he could handle, and, with what concentration he was able to muster, he forced himself to focus on the real world and anchor himself there.
“I think he moved,” a feminine voice said. The wizard with the knee- length hair? It was difficult to tell.
“Excellent. He will be awake soon, no doubt, though you should be careful not to let him exert himself. Unnecessary strain could cause the pressure to increase, which might set him back quite a bit. Well, good day to you, madam.”
Johannes heard a door close.
“Oh, please get better soon,” the feminine voice said. “It's been days.”
The moist cloth did seem to be helping a bit. In fact, the pain soon subsided into a dull ache. Johannes pulled in his breath, slowly seeing if he could sit up and look at his surroundings.
“Oh, Hannes! You're awake! Don't move too quickly. Doctor Kleizman doesn't want you to exert yourself.” Kleizman? Professor of Anatomy at the College of Medicine? “Let me get that for you.” Rebekah removed the black strip from Johannes' eyes. He was in his own bedroom in his father's house, in Duerstadt.
One of the great joys of being a DM is when a character expresses his utter flabbergastedment at least four times over the course of a day. Ah… I will take a moment to revel in my incomprehensibility…
This turn was mostly written in a day, and, for the record, Albederan was a full PC played by Nathan, unlike some of the DM-shared characters that Johannes has been turned into these past few turns. Nathan never knew more about his character or his mission than class and level, a partial spell list and whatever clues I dropped in- character, and I think he handled it rather well. Don't you? :)
Your Bill, Sir: Nothing. Severe headaches and incapacitating visions are free this week with any order of four dollars or more.