Raddan hadn’t even made it halfway down the stairs by the time he heard footsteps behind him. The sorcerer slowed slightly, allowing Eran to catch up. He motioned with his head but spoke no words. He was well aware how sound carried in enclosed stairwells like this, and he had little desire to share any more than he had to with Vizeran. As the pair reached the landing below, Raddan led his companion to one side and turned to face him. Catching sight of the volume the half-elf carried, he bent his head slightly to read the words embossed upon the spine. “Wise.” he said without preamble. “We’ll need every edge we can get. I’d have done the same if there’d been time, but I was too caught up trying to find out what happened to our cleric.” Changing the subject, he opened his hand, revealing his own tiny visage. “I hope you kept yours. I have something specific in mind for them. Did the drow have anything to say about the pieces?”
Eran shook his head. “You can tell by the length of our conversation that he was not forthcoming." There was exasperation in his voice. “He wanted to study it, but I was not keen to have that drow meddle with any effigy of me." He looked back up the staircase as though his eyes might shoot daggers that would punch through the stone to the floors above. " What did you have in mind?"
“You mean aside from redecorating that library in drow blood?” Raddan asked with dark humour. When he continued, he was all seriousness. “If you’re the man I think you are, you’re also pissed off that Lolth managed to outplay us with these things.” At this point, the mask shifted into a confidential grin. “We’re thinking about it the wrong way. What she’s really done is hand us the initiative. Now, the simple answer to stopping her tracking us is to leave them here when we go, let her next batch of minions find them.” He held up a hand to pause any protest. “If you’re concerned about them harming you with it, I already tried it. On my own figure.” He clarified as an afterthought. “I’m willing to gamble she’s done all she could with them when she had them attack our lads outside Mantol-Derith.” Raddan spared a glance for the few survivors at that, all busy with their assigned tasks. Making eye contact with one of them, he nodded before turning his attention back to Eran.
“But I reckon we can do one better than just leaving them all here. First, we’re going to need to borrow a satchel from one of these Drow boys.” The sorcerer indicated the bodies of the fallen with a dip of his head. “And we’ll need one of the lizards. What few supplies we have left can be carried by the others easily enough. The difficult part,” he continued, fixing Eran with an intense stare, “is going to be the little surprise I want to leave for our ‘friends’. You made the rings for Gravenhollow, so the task falls to you. Do you have much experience crafting explosives and trap triggers?”
Eran chuckled halfheartedly at Raddan’s dry humour. Then listened to the masked one’s plan. He could see the scheme had merit, diverting the enemy forces away into a trap, but he’d not wish to sacrifice more of their resources for simple revenge. He did have a point, however. These could be used against Lolth, if they truly were the instruments she was using to track them.
“Aye, maybe… but I would need a proper forge and days to do such intricate work, which isn’t something we have right now," he said regrettably. “Problem is, we’re making a pretty big assumption these are what she is using. Not the largest leap, mind you, considering the source.” Eran still needed confirmation. “These could be another red herring? I don’t want to leave here without being sure that eight-legged bitch hasn’t still got a bead on us.” His frustration with the goddess’ manipulation was quite apparent. He did not care to hide it. Having a god on your back was stress he didn’t care for. “You said you’ve tested these yourself? What were your other findings?”
“It doesn’t have to happen now,” Raddan countered. “And it doesn’t need to be fancy. You could work as we travel. We’ll just rig the lizard when we’re ready and set one loose before we get anywhere important. I’d advise we use my token for the lure and leave the others here; on the off chance she knows something of our personalities, it’d seem the more believable response. If the lizards are smart enough to obey verbal commands, sending it ‘home’ ought to be enough. I think it’s worth the attempt. Ultimately, it costs us little that we can’t replace. At the very least, it’ll throw Lolth off the scent and buy us some time. If we’re lucky, they’ll investigate the satchel and we’ll deny her a few more men to use against us in the future. I’m not gonna tell you how to do your job, but I’d consider packing as much blasting powder as you can spare into the satchel, and supplement it with a few handfuls of ball bearings. It’s been a few years since I last encountered them, but you don’t soon forget the effectiveness of such devices. I’d give you the bearings myself if I had them; your rogue friend may be able to help us there.” Raddan spared a glance back down the staircase. “If you can convince him to part with anything, that is. As far as testing the pieces, I only experimented by attempting to destroy mine. The results were largely fruitless. I see no other way that she might be keeping eyes on us, though if you have thoughts on the matter, then speak.”
“Well, the shield guardian did also spring to mind.” It was his next thought after chess pieces, the construct having been acquired at the feast under a questionable game of chance. He looked at his chess piece again. “I have something I can try: a ritual spell to sense the existence of magic in things. I’ll need ten minutes to prepare it, though maybe I can gleam some insight on this thing.” Something he should have done days ago now that he thought about it. He cursed himself for not questioning this sooner.
His thoughts drifted back to the device. Blasting powder? Eran had seen these devices done with oils and pig fats, but he wasn’t aware of any powders that could do such things. Even so, he had none of the materials he needed to create this on the fly or in a forge, save the steel which he needed for other plans. He grimaced inside. Does everyone think I can conjure this stuff from thin air? He thought to himself. He shook his head. Ultimately, he already needed what little time he could spare to create the barbed kukri he’d designed. They only had a few days before they encountered the worms, or Karazikar, although which they would meet first had not yet been decided.
“As for your device, it’s a worthy idea, but I don’t have the materials or the time, Raddan. Our first objectives are as little as two days away,” he stated and tapped the book. “This is not the only piece of research I’ve been doing in the last few hours. I have plans and require time to construct a few items for them.”
Leading Lolth on a wild goose chase is a worthy enough cause to send the lizard out on its own, he thought. “We could just send the lizard…” he paused, an idea forming in his mind. “What about something bigger?!" He glanced at the sorcerer with a cunning smile.
“The guardian is also a possibility,” Raddan admitted, “though given the two options, my gut lies with the game tokens. The guardian is also a strong asset to throw away on a maybe, while a single lizard is not.” Listening to the hunter describe the ritual, Raddan recognized it as a simple ‘Detect Magic’ spell, something he had planned to have the wizard attempt. Finding out Eran could perform the same trick would save him a task. When the half-elf shot down his improvised bomb idea, Raddan grimaced unseen behind the mask. He’d expected to hear this, but it was more important than Eran knew that he make the attempt. He didn’t begrudge the hunter his plans, but Raddan maintained a private awareness that the group’s objective of choice had yet to be agreed upon. The worm egg was practical, given its proximity, but not the only option.
“I don’t expect miracles, but we’re in the tower of a drow archmage.” he reminded the other man patiently as he finished. “If there’s one thing mages like to do, it’s experiment. I’ll wager he has some alchemical supplies we could use. The powder may well be amongst them.” These were the words he spoke, but while Raddan gave no sign of having cast a spell, Eran would have once again heard a familiar whisper tickling his ear. I need you to agree to do this, even if you can’t. Say you will make the bomb. Do not let on you have received this message. He hoped the man could restrain his curiosity long enough for Raddan to accomplish what he was trying to do here. Unfolding his arms, he placed his own chess piece down on a nearby table and gestured for Eran to do the same. It would have been difficult to tell from the small slits of the mask’s eye holes, but there was an odd look in the sorcerer’s gaze. It was almost pleading. His voice, however, remained as steady as ever.
“We should gather the pieces here, so we know they’re all present when the time comes to move.” He stepped away from the table and began to head towards the downward spiral of the staircase, leaving Eran to make his decision. Raddan felt a familiar thrill at the gamble and spoke up as he moved away, hoping to entice the half-elf to follow. “Now, what’s this about bigger?”
Eran felt the words probe the back of his mind and as Raddan put his piece on table, he understood. She could be listening right now! Foolish boy! He could hear Duon’s voice in his head. He put his chess piece on the table and moved away, next to Raddan, continuing the charade that he now understood the sorcerer was trying to project. “You might be correct: wizards like to experiment. Loic’s a walking example!” he continued speaking, feigning the masked one’s casual tone. “If the materials are here, then it might not take that long. Sure, I think I can do it.” He raised his voice slightly as he moved away, so he could still be heard from across the way.
As they reached a suitably safe distance, Eran dropped his voice again, keeping his back to the objects. “Quite simple, we let a purple worm have them!" It was a grand idea, if he did say so himself. Let one of those monstrosities run around the Underdark with them in its belly. He’d pity any of Lolth’s followers who caught up with one of those. “If someone is watching us with these things then we put them in the bag of holding for now. Although I’m reluctant to put them in with the chalice, they’ll be in a pocket dimension removed from us!" It was the same reason they put the chalice in there in the first place. “We can then pop them out at an opportune moment, or better still, just dump them in the nest! Anyone that then comes looking will be in for a hell of a surprise!” He looked at the mask, almost trying to pierce through it, to see what was going on underneath. “Unless you have another idea?”
He looked back at the things then turned away. “We still need to be sure, though. I need to do the ritual; if our suspicions are right I should see some aura of divination magic from them."
It appeared the hunter had quickly understood the same threat Raddan had perceived and proved himself willing to assist in the sorcerer’s attempt at deception. He let Eran explain his idea and contemplated for a moment before replying. “It’s a possible option. My own scheme is to attempt to bluff Lolth in such a manner that she’ll see straight through it. She seems supremely confident in her own abilities of deception, so with luck, she won’t expect us feeble mortals to then attempt a double bluff.” He gestured with a hidden hand towards the game devices behind them. “She may be watching or even listening, which I why I took strains to discuss the plan for a distraction and the associated bomb in front of them; now that she expects the trap, she won’t pursue it. It may be possible to combine what else I had in mind with your schemes with the worms.”
The sorcerer became silent for a moment, tapping an index finger against the chin of the metal face. “So you shoot down the bomb idea, for good this time. Say the wizard doesn’t have what we’re looking for. Whatever works. I’ll reluctantly agree. You then ‘convince’ me that leaving the pieces behind is a bad idea, as we don’t know the full extent of what they can do. I forward the idea of placing them in a bag of holding to keep them safe as we move and hopefully avoid her gaze. Losing the pieces in the Wormwrithings is a fine notion, but we’ll need a way to remove them from the bag so she can track them, without giving away that we’re alive. If they remain in the nest, she might assume we’re dead. If a worm gets them, she’ll either believe the same or waste time tracking it.” He turned his gaze back upon Eran, a new fire in his eyes. “I like the way you think, mate. Get that ritual done, and let’s get some answers. And when you’re done with that, see if that book has any mention of acids the worms might have in their guts. If it’s enough to digest the bag of holding, it may solve our deployment problem. It goes without saying that we need to keep this between us, at least until we’re sure everyone is separated from their little ‘gifts’.”
He walked like a phantom through the room. While making a beeline towards the only fallen priestess he could see on the second floor, Cacynaidd slowly crawled out of the joint of the wizard’s wrist. He planted his feet and sank the fingers of his afflicted hand into her hair, then yanked her limp figure up until he could comfortably sink the blade into her throat. With some luck, a main artery would give him enough to collect in a new, clean vial.
With an unceremonious thud, the corpse was released and Loic continued past her, to what he could understand to be the remains of a Yochlol, the one he had been unaware of. He didn’t know where a main artery would be, so he poked several holes until he could find what he was looking for. Perhaps the blood of the demon lords held some interesting properties that could potentially affect other demons, but in most cases, blood was blood. He could make an exceedingly educated guess that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ingest it. He’d accept some heartburn if using a Yochlol proved to be entertaining to his new friend.
On the first floor, the body of the priestess that had stolen his life had been dragged back to the ruins of the front door. She’d already been looted, and now simply slumped like a doll against the crumbled bricks. After slitting her throat with a clinical indifference and allowing some glacially-moving stuff to slide into the vial, he held it up to see if a similar reaction occurred to the one he witnessed before. It seemed like a success.
Loic held on tightly to the vial and moved back up the tower. He would perform the ritual in the privacy of a room, with as much around him to muffle what might become screams of agony as possible. If this was going to hurt, then the sort of things he could attract had a chance of being worse than drow.
Entering a small, dark room, the wizard closed the door behind himself and moved to the center of the floor. He commanded his basilisk to take a post in the corner of the room and to be absolutely silent, then he uttered a phrase and made a quick gesture to open the dimensional portal that would summon Yvve. The Faerie Dragon came to his call, and heeded his telepathic order to fetch Valdasar if he lost his faculties or his consciousness. It was time to begin at last.
Loic removed his thumb from the top of the vial. He proceeded to lower himself onto both knees and imbued the concoction with just enough minor magic to not taste like cadaver blood. Then, he put it to his lips and tilted his head back with a quick jerk, swallowing the contents.
“Ghaunadaur,” he said, in a volume appropriate for if the god were already present in the room. “I have done what you’ve asked. Are you ready to begin?”
A moment of silence passed. The only evidence from the outside that he was performing his ritual came in the form of a guttural roar of pain that could be heard clearly by anyone sharing that floor. Those on the second and fourth levels would have heard it too, although it was considerably more distant.
Loic rested with his shoulder slumped against the side of a bed, breathing heavily, in a position as if he were recovering from a powerful blow. His eyes were wide with the fresh memory of agony. Though it had only lasted a second, he’d never felt anything like it before. The young half-elf had been able to feel every snapping nerve as the skin of his arm had split in several places, exploding like an over-stuffed scarecrow. What was left of the flesh had slid right off and dropped to the floor, leaving a brand new piece of body still slick with blood and plasma. A massive forked tentacle, almost exactly like what he recalled to be Demogorgon’s arms, moved in response to his brain’s command. It had something like an elbow, but where his forearm should be, instead the bone structure suggested that the limb now had prehensile capabilities.
“Wow!” he said excitedly and shuddered. Loic was proud of himself, that he hadn’t blacked out. On the contrary, after the pain of the transformation completely subsided, he felt better than he had a minute ago. Stronger, somehow.
Ritual finished, and not a moment to spare, he got to his feet and rushed out of the room, Yvve and Peet close behind. He leaned into the stairwell and called upwards, “She’s tracking us by using the statuettes!”
Eran felt rejuvenated by having a solid plan. He looked up at Raddan. “Wrong book, but I read the right one earlier,” he said with a cocky smile. “Told you, I’ve been doing my research. And yes, their guts are quite acidic.” He patted the sorcerer’s shoulders in a mark of fellowship and encouragement. “I’ll start off the ritual. See if you can gather up the rest of these trinkets.” He paused and then considered his friend. “Except Ilia. I’ll speak to him when I’m done," he said painfully. He wasn’t sure how the elf would react, considering Raddan’s words to him earlier. He reached out again. Ilia was still outside. Doing the ritual would lose his connection to the rogue, but it needed doing.
He sat next to the chess pieces and began to focus his mind. This had been a new skill he’d picked up during his training with Georrah, but he had not practiced it since dwelling in the depths of the earth. He began muttering the incantation and moved his hand smoothly, forming the somatic signs. Most spell casters could cast this in a single motion, but the ritual demanded it be done over and over again. He did so, falling into an almost meditative trance as he felt the magical power build in him, fill him up, and then it was done. As it happened he felt his connection to Ilia fade.
He opened his eyes upon the game tokens, expecting a blur of light, but there was nothing; no aura or sign of magic upon them. His first thoughts were that he had made a mistake in the spell, that it wasn’t working correctly. He quickly grabbed his Solarblade. The aura of Evocation magic was strong on the magical sword. Dammit, he thought. He was so sure these things were the source of their problems. He glanced around. Maybe it was something else. He got up and looked around Alvin and the men, through the caravan, for any signs of magic that could be used against them. He made out to be helping the men load the lizards and tried to hide that he was actually searching them. He came to the shield guardian last, but it was pointless. It was lit up like the midday sun, as he knew it would be.
After looking around for the better part of 10 minutes, the spell faded. In frustration, he sat back down beside the two tokens. He stared at them considering the alternatives. His gut was telling him these were the source of their problems. Do these effigies need to be magical, he thought to himself. Can she perhaps use them as some anchor for her magic? He continued to ponder in his mind. He didn’t know enough about Divination magic to come to any conclusions. Better to consult with Loic about such things. And, as if the wizard had been reading his mind at that moment, he heard a cry come bellowing down the stairs: “She’s tracking us by using the statuettes!” Subtle, he thought.