Story:Holy Opposites Chapter 25
Chapter Twenty Five:
Axio had his eyes closed. He clutched his badge of office so tightly it was leaving marks on his skin. ‘Beloved Ryaire, you who tend to the lost innocent, I beg you now, on bended knee and with a heart of fear, aid us,’ he said in his mind. ‘Never have you been needed more. There is a room full of child sacrifices literally feet from us, and we cannot reach an entrance. Please, for their sakes, I ask that you show me the way. I know not how many souls will be lost if I fail, but it will be many. I plead with you, grant me your wisdom.’
He opened his eyes and looked around hopefully. Nothing was changing. He lowered his badge to its usual position as he stood, still looking around. It slipped from his fingers and clattered on the floor. He stooped to retrieve it, and when he went to pin it to his armor, it slipped away again. He muttered a curse and bent over, and it slid away from his fingers once more.
Axio froze. Ryaire was showing him something. He slowly withdrew his hand and thought furiously. The badge was falling down, onto the ground. Out of his hands. He lifted it and tried to pin it to his chest again, and once again it fell away…
Landing on the same tile every time, face-down.
Axio clenched a fist. “Yes, great-grandmother, I see,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
He charged back into the dining room. “I have it!” he announced. The others looked up. “We go down one more level and go up! Through the floor!”
“We saw another stair a few rooms back, but it was blocked,” Cavria recalled doubtfully.
“By simple stones! We can solve that, I assure you,” Axio said urgently. “Quickly!”
The four of them assembled in the stairway and looked over the rubble pile that blocked access to the lower sublevel. “I don’t know, Axio,” Luanea said carefully. “Can we-”
Axio wasn’t listening. He dug his armored fingers into the nearest block and lifted, and the stone rose from the pile. He moved it aside and set it down, clearing a few steps. “I’m not giving up. We’re pressing on,” he said flatly. “Lift together if you can’t lift alone.”
The quartet worked away at the stone, until with a rumble, the last few hundred pounds of stone crumbled away and rolled away as one. Axio sprang back, feeling fatigue slow him, and lost his footing on the stone as it shifted. He clattered to the steps behind him, grabbing a railing for support. Cavria helped him up, and they looked down into the dusty stairwell together. There was a way out onto the next level, and it looked clear.
The cultists in the lair paused as they heard the rumble from below them. “The hell was that?” one of them asked, fingering his blade’s sheath.
The Wire Golem unspooled and began feeding its tendrils through the tiny ports in the floor. “Prepare to leave,” it gurgled.
Axio stood under the place where his compass was going haywire. “Damn it,” he muttered. The ceiling was twelve feet up.
Doshellas looked around uneasily. The room in which they were gathering looked more than a little ominous. He had disabled two tripwires just on the way in. “Watch the walls, too,” he murmured. “This place is evil.”
Cavria turned to survey their options. The room was largely empty. There wasn’t really much in the way of furniture, just some broken tables in the corner. They hadn’t searched the adjacent rooms. “Axio, what about the ceiling here is different? It’s just more stone.”
Axio pointed at one spot. Cavria squinted and saw a splotch of light. “The mortaring is rotting there,” he said. “Maybe water damage, I don’t know. If I can get up there, I can get through.”
Luanea looked carefully in the next room. “There’s something in here,” she said. “A bench, I think.” Axio walked over.
Sure enough, there was a long table, covered in complex-looking piles of random paper. Axio tsked at not being able to salvage the papers, but time was running out. “Good enough,” he said. “Help me with this.”
Above, the portal hummed to life. How it worked, none present knew, but work it did, and with the pouring of a cup, it attuned itself to the distant Temple of Hate. “All right, get the bags through, we can send the Grist through individually,” the first cultist said. He tossed a bag through, and the surface of the portal rippled for a moment. Another started pushing the heavy burlap bags through, one at a time.
“Fucking Grist,” he grunted. A loud thud below him made him pause. He and every other cultist there drew their weapons. The Wire Golem pulsed and sent its tendrils out into the stone again.
“Hurry,” it growled. “The enemy is here.”
Axio aligned the bench carefully, stacking it lengthwise on the top of the table. “All right, I think we’re as set as we’re going to be,” he said. “When I break the stone, the ceiling may come down, so be ready.”
“Axio, I don’t think that’s water damage,” Cavria said carefully. He looked down to where she was pointing, at the spot below where the light was streaming through. He squinted.
“Is that blood?” he asked. It was hard to tell with his black-and-white darkvision.
“Lots of it,” Cavria said. Her voice was grim. “Hurry.”
Axio climbed up on top of the bench atop the table. “All right. Be careful. I may break the bench,” he said. “If you three could brace the wood slats of the benches, then that would be helpful.”
The other three adventurers moved to grip the wood and metal benches to steady them. Axio hunched over below the ceiling. He pressed his back against the rotted stone and tested. It didn’t shift. “All right, this is sturdy,” he said. “I’m going to have to try to use divine might to get through this.”
“Be careful,” Luanea said. She shivered in tension. They were so close…
Axio set his teeth and closed his eyes. He probed deep into his mind and soul, seeking the primordial bond he held with Ryaire. He found the glow of her light within himself and immersed in it, just as he had in the store. He bunched his shoulders and lifted.
The chair in the ritual room shifted. The Wire Golem’s tendrils pulsed and spun, coiling up into a bundle. “Found you!” it roared, and it brought the floor down.
Axio yelled in pain as the ceiling above him suddenly gave way. Doshellas grabbed his legs and pulled him clear as hundreds of pounds of stone collapsed all around them.
Cavria grabbed her glaive and swung as a monster appeared in the cloud of rock dust. “Wire Golem!” she shouted. She struck low with her glaive, trying to rip its tendrils away.
The creature they had fought before had been much smaller. This thing was an abomination. It lashed out with its tendrils, catching Cavria across the face and knocking her back. She stumbled, bleeding profusely, and Luanea lunged at the creature from behind, driving her bastard sword deep.
“Die!” the monster roared, slapping at Luanea. She caught the strike on her blade and deflected it. “DIE! I shall FEED today!” it rumbled.
Axio staggered to his feet. He grabbed blearily for his sword when an arrow zipped out of the dust and scattered off his armor. He gasped and raised his shield. “Archers here!”
Doshellas rolled away and came up with his bow. He loosed a shot and heard somebody above yelp. Axio charged into the dust and stabbed deep with his blade into the Golem. Something caught him about the face and threw him back against the table.
Cavria forced herself to focus. There were cultists coming down out of the hole now, hacking with knives and clubs. She was suddenly aware of how she was unprotected from the waist up, but shook off her nerves. It was time to fight.
A cultist charged out of the dust and lunged at her. She parried his blade with a spin of the haft and brought the pommel up under his jaw. He staggered, clearly stunned, and she finished him with a sweep of her weapon at neck height. Another cultist crumpled as Doshellas shot him clean through the nose.
Luanea and Axio were a shimmering whirl of light. One or both would duck in and cut, then leap back out of range and cast enchantment spells on themselves. The Wire Golem struck out at them, sometimes landing hits, but neither looked to be stopping. The two unarmored warriors were fading back from the others, drawing the cultists away from the Golem. It was a risk, no question, since they would be farther from help if they took a bad hit, but they were out of options. They hadn’t been prepared to fight that quickly.
Doshellas leaped backward and kicked a cultist in the crotch, then ducked another one’s retaliatory swing. He slashed a metal arrowhead across one fighter’s eyes and rolled away, then doubled over when the blinded fighter struck him at random. He lurched away from a clumsy swing and brought his bow up, driving his attacker back a pace. He fired his bow at zero range, piercing clean through his target. He kicked away from his stumbling foe and rolled towards an empty hallway. If this one was the same as the last…
His remaining enemy sprang forward, stabbing with a dagger. Doshellas dropped his bow and grabbed the cultist’s flailing arm, then used his momentum to toss him down the hall. The cultist stumbled onto a pressure plate and exploded as burning darts swished out of hidden murderholes.
The drow hunter didn’t spare him a look. Doshellas sprinted past the blind man and came to a halt in the middle of the room. He sighted the two men battling Cavria and fired. His first shot took the nearest cultist square in the back, and he dropped like a stone. The other twisted out of the path of the arrow, straight onto Cavria’s stab.
Axio and Luanea were struggling. The Golem was whipping its tendrils around so quickly, they could barely get a stab in under its movement. Axio reeled from a blow to the knees and stumbled. The Golem saw its chance and wrapped a tendril around his neck, then lifted and slammed him down.
The Aasimar had already tired himself with his efforts to clear the stairs, to fight the semi-phantasmal Balor, and lift a stone ceiling. He cried out in helpless pain as the Golem pulverized a bone in his leg with the force of the blow.
“For Eilistraee!” Luanea cried, and swept her blade under the Golem’s fibrous legs. It squealed, caught off-guard. It turned murderous eyes on her, and flung Axio’s body.
Luanea barely managed to get her blade clear of her friend’s body before he slammed into her. Her jaw snapped shut, and she groaned in pain as she bit her tongue. They both went down, stunned.
The Golem moved to stamp down on them when a glowing arrow tore through it. Doshellas fired again, entangling the Golem’s leg with the rubble in a blast of magic.
It roared and detached the hobbled leg, then spun around and flung a loose tile at the archer. Doshellas shot it with an arrow that promptly exploded, sending stone chunks everywhere.
That was the distraction Cavria had needed. She propelled herself forward with a flap of her new wings, driving the glaive up to the spur in the monster’s torso. It screeched and died. Cavria felt the daemon gathering its strength to escape and cast her last spell.
“Protection from Evil!” she cried, and a wave of Ryaire’s energy surged out of her tattoo, just as the blast of power from the Blood Rift washed over her.
She slammed back into the ground, dazed. Luanea scrambled up and started healing Axio while Doshellas dropped to one knee, firing at random up into the clearing dust of the hole in the ceiling.
Somebody inside shouted a curse and ran. Doshellas strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear more than one set of footsteps in their immediate area, though he was sure that hadn’t been the last of their attackers.
The daemon exploded out of the Golem’s corpse, leaking blood and ichor. It howled its rage and lunged at the priestess of Eilistraee. Doshellas pivoted at the waist and fired, taking the creature in the ear, and it collapsed with a sick gurgle as the arrow lodged itself in the monster’s skull.
Silence fell. All four adventurers struggled to rise. Axio groaned in agony as his fractured bone ground against the tear in his skin. He suspected his greaves and shin-guards were all that was holding his leg together. “Up the hole,” he managed. He laid his hand on his leg and poured healing magic into it, but though it slowed the swelling and numbed the pain, he couldn’t knit the bone back together or remove the shards from the skin. “Go! They could be closing the portal right now!”
Luanea sprang up the pile of rocks and the collapsed table and charged into the room above. Doshellas was next, vaulting up into the light. Cavria gave Axio a quick look – nothing Solen couldn’t fix – and followed.
It wasn’t so different from Nessus. A blood-soaked room with a single torch greeted her. There was a chair in the corner, upended and rotting from all the blood it had absorbed. She charged through the door and gasped aloud in horror.
There were cells on the walls. Hundreds of cells, with doors no more than five feet tall, each with a tiny window for air. Fully half of them had pairs of eyes behind them, children’s’ eyes.
She swooned. This wasn’t a laboratory, this was a prison. Or, maybe it was a laboratory, which was worse.
“DIE!” a voice above roared. She heard the clash of steel as Luanea and somebody else started fighting.
“We’ll be back,” Cavria whispered to the hopeless faces. She ran up the stairs.
The altar room was a bloodbath. There was a cultist pitched back over the patchwork table, bleeding to death, while another was sprinting across the room, trying to escape. Doshellas was firing arrows into the last one, who was deflecting them with his shield. Cavria took off at a dead sprint for the door on the far wall.
The cultist slammed it behind him and she heard a latch clank. She cannoned into the door, and the latch audibly creaked. She reeled back and slammed into it again, and the old wood shattered.
“STOP!” she screamed. The cultist was leaping from one tile in the floor to another in a random pattern. He stumbled when he heard her shout, but kept on going. Cavria snatched her javelin from its clip and hurled it with all her strength.
It caught the cultist square in the shoulder, and he yelped in pain as it shattered his shoulder blade. He stumbled to his knees and grabbed at the edge of the next doorway for support. “Go sod yourself,” he snarled at her.
Cavria snarled back and raced forward, but her foot landed on a pressure plate. A hatch to her left, which she had mistaken for another child cell, sprang open, whipping her legs with chains. She collapsed, and the cultist took the opportunity to flip her off and slam the door.
The High Succubus spat out blood and rose to her feet. Of course he was jumping from tile to tile, she thought. He knew where the trigger tiles were. She started jumping through the pattern until she had reached the far side.
She took a moment to run her hand over the seam of the door. She didn’t feel any magic, and her divine senses weren’t returning a thing from the far side. She opened the door cautiously.
Nothing. It was a small, empty privy, with no other exit. She cursed and closed the door. This was the portal, she was sure of it. There had to be some password or something that redirected it from the privy to another location outside Undermountain.
Axio was up in the hallway full of children now. Tears of bitter loss streamed down his face. He stumbled on one leg, using his sheathed sword as a crutch, from door to door, opening each and letting the children out, one at a time. Some cried, most didn’t. Most simply stood there, lost and traumatized.
The young Aasimar had never felt such existential despair. He acknowledged the few pitiful thanks he received with mechanical nods as he hobbled around the room, opening the little doors and letting the lost souls through.
Doshellas slowly walked down the stairs to the dungeon chamber and joined him in releasing the children. A few shied from his drow features, but most just stared ahead.
The women upstairs worked to open the wriggling bags they had found. Luanea had a look of haunted bitterness on her face as she freed the children and asked them to sit in the corners until she could be sure how many of them there were.
Cavria just stewed in her hate. She was a product of the Hells, and even she had never seen such unambiguous evil. She felt her hands shaking as she untied one savagely beaten little girl, who barely mustered the strength to roll over and avert her eyes.
“Who?” she hissed. The Paladin rubbed her eyes as hot tears spilled down her face. “Who would do this?” She gripped her holy symbol under her finger bones creaked. “Who?”
“Toller,” a voice said. Both women looked over. A half-orc boy, slightly older than the others, was sitting cross-legged against the wall, staring at them. “His name was Toller. A cleric, I think.”
“Was he a mortal?” Cavria asked urgently.
The half-orc nodded. “Human, man. Old. Bald. Fat. Black robes. Don’t remember anything else.” The boy buried his face in his arms. “He just locked us away and hit us when we cried.”
Luanea was at his side in an instant. She rested the boy’s head on her shoulder and kissed his shorn head. “Hush, son, I have you,” she whispered. “We’ll get you all out of here as soon as we can.”
Below, Axio finished releasing the children. He slowly rose to his full height in the dark hallway. “Little ones, please look away. I don’t want to hurt your eyes,” he said as gently as he could while his heart was shattering into a thousand pieces. He covered his left hand with his right and cast the light cantrip onto the fingertips of his glove. The children shied away from the glare, and he toned the emanation down. “All right, we’re going to get you all home, now,” he said. Keeping his voice under control was a colossal effort. He heard footsteps in the stairs, and turned to see Cavria emerge.
Cavria looked at the scene before her, feeling her heart swell. It couldn’t have been more poignant. Hundreds of tiny, filthy, barely-clothed waifs, all half-starved, clustered around a huge, bloodied angel, covered in dust and wounds, but still glowing with light. His sapphire eyes were running with tears that shone in the light from his hand. Several children were clinging to the hanging cloth of his tabard and pack, looking all around with dead eyes.
If Cavria had had the means to capture a single image in the hearts and memories of every man and woman who would ever have children that would have been it. A single divine guardian, safeguarding the lost children of Toril, guiding them with his light and shielding them with his wounded body.
Her heart ached. She felt like her tongue was covered in cotton. “There’s a portal, sir,” she said. Her voice was trembling. “There’s a portal. The privy door. It’s conditional. You can go through if you trigger it to activate.”
Axio nodded slowly. Some of the children whimpered and shied away from Cavria, and she felt a surge of self-loathing as she realized they were afraid of her bat-like wings. “Uh…”
Axio slowly walked forward, leaving the children in his wake. He kissed her cheek. “Thank you,” he said. His voice was trembling too. He turned to the children and knelt, holding his illuminated hand over their heads. “All right, my friends. Can any of you tell me what word the evil men spoke when they wanted to leave?”
Silence filled the room. Then, a little hand stuck over the crowd. “Vor… Vortese,” a girl said uncertainly. “When they were leaving.”
Axio met her eyes. “Vortese? They said that before they disappeared?”
The little girl nodded, and a few others did too.
Axio leaned forward and gave her a gentle hug. “Then off we go,” he whispered. “Thank you.”
What a sight it must have been, to those who were watching. Axio led the group at a limp through the bookstore’s back stairs, appearing in the middle of the markets of Waterdeep. Hundreds of matted, starving children followed, clinging to each other in a long line, with three wounded adventurers in the tail. Axio emerged into the street and extinguished his light. He breathed the fragrant air of the sea. This part of the story, at least, was over.
|The tale of the Holy Opposites ||
|Arc 1: | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 |
Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10
|Arc 2: | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 |
Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20
Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25
|Arc 3: | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30|
|Arc 4: | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 |
Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Glossary