The Ritual of the Clan-Brothers
Until now, returning to the Seven-Pillared Hall had always included much-needed hot meals, ale and sleep, but now time was of the essence! No one felt they could risk the time to regain their strength or build arcane power to a peak, which might simply come too late. Though Cram and Varris had spent the better part of their strength, both had the will to go on.
“If only I were with Uncle Bodhran and the tribe in Winterbole…” mused Cram.
“But my vision-quest is complete, cousin,” came the unexpected voice of Bodhran Lightfoot from somewhere behind him. “I have a new drum and the Great Rabbit sent one of his children to serve me.” He brandished a small baton that was wound about with grey-brown rabbit fur, setting its sinew-tied little bones a-clatter.
Elana and Wjizzo recoiled at the shaman’s barbarity, but Cram reassured them that whilst many spirit-tales involve the deaths of rabbits, the greatest of them feature their rebirth as many more.
“We can try the ritual of the Clan-brothers,” Bodhran explained, “and if the bonds amongst you are as strong as those amongst the men of our Thumper clan, those of you who are hale may share your strength and the favour in which the spirits hold you with those who need them most.”
With more than an inkling of what might result, Elana, Wjizzo and Surina sat down in a circle with Bodhran, Cram and Varris, the shaman’s drumming assigning a different flourish to each of them as the circle was formed. Only their new acquaintance, Denoa the shadar-kai witch, had declined to join with them. Bodhran then passed his drum to Cram to maintain a beat whilst he commended the circle to the spirits, then used a pestle to grind some herbs into a paste of his own spittle. He produced a knife and made a cut in the palm of his left hand, dripping blood from it into the bowl. He took back his drum from Cram in exchange for the bowl and the knife, and Cram similarly gave of his blood for the favour of the spirits. All present, with more or less enthusiasm, solemnly followed suit.1 The volume of the drumming rose for Elana and especially for Wjizzo and then Surina, and each felt the very real power of the ritual as something went out of them with the spilling of their blood.
Finally, after another interlude of drumming and chanting, Bodhran laid drum and beater aside and silently held the bowl aloft for long moments, before using his rabbitskin totem to shake droplets of blood in all directions, including on each of the participants, and then to especially concentrate on alternately spattering Cram and Varris until all the blood was gone.
When the ritual ended, Elana sensitively allowed the atmosphere to dissipate before striking up an invigorating elven tune that would aid Cram’s and Varris’ recovery of their faculties.
Bodhran spoke privately with Cram before departing to visit the other Thumpers in the care of Erathis’ priestess, Phaledra, in the Temple of Hidden Light. Cram then announced to the others that the success of the ritual proved Surina to be a true sister in spirit to the rest of them, even if they’d never called her a member of ‘The Fairy Ring’ till now.
As Surina suppressed a smirk he also said to Elana that Bodhran recognized her to have the talent of putting power into her singing and playing, which might mean that if the spirits were willing, she herself might be taught that same ritual.
Varris, much improved, held up the Orb of Light, glowing faintly for all to see.
“Now let’s hunt some cult!” he cried
Into the Palace of Zaamdul
Concentrating on the silver key to the chapel of the Palace of Zaamdul, Wjizzo reported it still quiescent in the hand, tugging faintly upwards and northwest towards the Road of Lanterns that led out of the mountain.
They hastened up the Road, the minotaurs’ magic lights enabling Varris to range freely ahead and listen for oncoming enemies. But no other force had yet been set upon this Road and they made their way upwards until Wjizzo felt the key kicking in his belt pouch. Wary of traps or defenders of the chamber itself, he handed this over. Varris proceeded and the key began to glow bluely, and waxed brighter as he continued and then, when he was holding the key back only by main strength, a keyhole shape upon the wall suddenly shone out in light of the same hue.
Though due precautions were taken, the circular chamber proved undefended, and to contain only a similarly-glowing rune-scribed circle on the floor. Wjizzo pronounced these the runes of old minotaur magic, and said that they invoked a power of ‘spatial transcendence’ that required no arcane skill to operate but was open to all.
Wary of clustering too tightly if they might be met by defenders at their destination, they agreed a first group to lead the way. Cram, Varris, Surina and Elana spaced themselves around the circle, faced outwards and at a signal all took a big step back.
Each found themselves alone, their own senses utterly alien to them as without moving they felt themselves rushing forwards, stopping abruptly to be rushed off at right-angles, round sweeping curves, up and down. Had the magic failed? Were their silver cords being tied in knots? Could only a minotaur or only a key-holder negotiate this maze outside of time and space, whilst interlopers were delivered to some prison of Baphomet’s deep in the Abyss?
They were delivered, disoriented but whole, to a chamber remarkably like the first, save that it had a great wooden door to one side, and a stairway leading upwards to the other. A few moments later they were joined by Wjizzo, Denoa and Bodhran (who was promptly sick on the floor).
Listening with his ear pressed to the door, Varris gave a frown and silently mimed a slow, stilted march. He had heard the footsteps of several guards patrolling a large, echoing corridor, and no one felt curious to find out what they were.
A dim reddish glow lit the chamber at the top of the stairway. They all fell in and made their way upwards as softly as possible, Varris again taking point. At the top was yet another round room, a tall entrance hall with four pillars soaring up into utter darkness of whatever height, walls formed by vast plates of dark metal polished to a mirror-sheen, and across from him: huge black double doors inscribed with Orcus’ device of a skeletal ram’s head.
Varris’ lip curled in a snarl and he stepped forward.
The Gatekeeper: Kalarel returned
Immediately Varris stepped into the entrance hall, the twin rams’ skull designs oozed with black blood which boiled off into vaporous darkness filling the room, causing Varris to freeze in his tracks and everyone else to stop where they were on the stairway. The blackness lifted again almost as soon as it had formed, and standing before the doors was the black outline of a robed man.
“So you come to challenge my Master’s schemes once again, mortal fools.” His voice was sibilant as he stepped forth, eyes black as coal glaring at them with utter hatred. He seemed unsettlingly familiar, undead, with the wounds of a violent death oozing blackness, and then they recognized him: Kalarel, the high priest of Orcus who had sought to open the Rift in the halls beneath the Keep on the Shadowfell. The slashes in his dark robes and the death-wounds on his body were the cuts of their own weapons!
“My Master has graced me with a second chance to put an end to your meddling, and I will not fail him twice. You have something that belongs to me. Hand over the Rod of Ruin and maybe my Master will be gentle with your souls…”
Elana answered by shooting an arrow that passed straight through him, though it caused Kalarel to clutch in pain at the point where he was struck.
Varris sprang forth in a whirl of blades and invoked the Orb of Light, its holy glow running shimmering down his sword arm and along his blade. The longsword struck with a solid noise and the wispy form of the shadow lich consolidated and became merely physical.
Kalarel roared in pain, and snarled, “Your brothers and sisters will make sure you die this time! Kill them!”
And at that, the shape of Varris’ reflection stepped out of the nearest mirrored wall: a shadowy, ill-favoured duplicate in a dark steel death’s head mask. With an eye-defying distortion like the tilting of a picture it elongated where it stood and grasped Varris in a chill embrace that sucked the life from his bones.
“Nobody go in there!” ordered Elana, thrusting an arm out across Cram’s chest. “He’ll set our reflections against us as well!”
Wjizzo threw a magic missile at Kalarel and Surina uttered her curse upon him and commanded a fist of iron force from the nether hells to hold him on the spot. Cram reluctantly sheathed his fullblade and threw a spear. Kalarel rocked back from its force and, unable to move towards Varris, shot a decaying black ray at him instead which robbed him of strength and staggered him to one knee.
“The best way we can help him is to kill the lich from here,” Elana cried.
Denoa, meanwhile, set her sights on the shadow-Varris, ripped out with a black ray of her own shadow-power, and the reflection was suddenly no more.
Kalarel faded slightly, and Elana’s next arrow passed through him again.
Varris held forth the Orb of Light. “Begone, foul thing,” he shrieked, “you have no place in this world!” And the white light shone forth… only to be swallowed by the darkness of the shadow lich, who responded with a scathing chuckle. Varris lurched back, and Kalarel followed, seizing him with a grasp of icy chill before he thrust him away and dived behind a pillar.
Surina launched a bolt of fire, and Wjizzo an eruption of crackling lightnings, but they took only partial toll on the insubstantial lich. Cram’s second spear missed altogether.
“We should just pile in there!” urged the barbarian, but he relented before the chorus of No’s from his comrades.
Kalarel’s eye fell on the Bag of Holding at Varris’ belt and he strode forward, passing through the pillar as the enfeebled Varris backed up.
“The Rod! Give it to me!” demanded Kalarel, stretching out a hand that oozed shadow-blood from several cuts delivered to him a month ago.
Varris threw up a defiant counter-attack, and as Kalarel leapt back before it, turned on his heels with a ranger’s speed and bolted away between Elana and Cram.
Kalarel moved to the side of the chamber, suffering the lashing of the arcane forces that Surina, Wjizzo and Denoa ripped into him and through him, as he headed out of line of sight. Cram’s last spear struck him and slowed down as it passed through, and then as Kalarel attempted to walk directly into the wall he slammed into it with a metallic boom.
“Nooooooo!” he screamed. “It must be mine!” Arms outstretched he threw himself at Elana.
The bard threw up her shield and used her sword to ward away the grasping hands, whilst she flattened herself against the wall to give the others a clear shot. The very nearness of the lich was a chill pain in the marrow to those at the front, but with those behind throwing everything they had at him, Elana stood firm and Cram lost no time in slashing out with his fullblade.
Their attacks ripped into the body of the lich in a withering hail, as with the tenacity of grim death and a high-pitched drawn-out keening he grasped at the two in front of him. Cram was briefly stricken by the hideous touch, but an eldritch blast from Surina knocked it back. Now he had all the space he needed, and a mighty overhand cut sheared through undead flesh and bone until it reverted to shadow. A shapeless black form rose up into the air, the keening cry fading as an echo and the blackness boiling away into nothing and it was gone.
1 Wjizzo in particular had misgivings, and difficulty maintaining a solemn decorum, having seen something similar amongst drunk students at his wizards’ university…