Bardass! Quest 14 – The Spectre Kingdom

I’m starting to think I need to improve in my arc writing skills.  The average comic book arc is 4 issues.  I can barely keep a three-chapter arc cohesive.

Quest 14 – The Spectre Kingdom

The Kingdom of Lorath.

Early in its history, it really was a kingdom.  Its people settled at the final site of the gods and lived in their honor.  In this early stage, the excess spiritual energies surrounding the land allowed it to flourish.  Not only the land, but the people and the animals raised there grew stronger than the others.  Lizards became dragons, chickens became cockatrices, steer became behemoths, and humans became Lorathians.  

What would have become the instinct to conquer quickly transformed into the need to survive.  The excess energy was depleted less than a year after the Lorathians began building their army.  Those who chose not to squander their own stores of energy in war with their king, scrambled to survive.  And survival of the kingdom of Lorath became its sole history for hundreds of years.

Coleen: We’ve looked at a lot of stalls.  What’s the best fruit they sell here, Avery?
Avery: For as long as I’ve lived in Lorath, there was never any need for fruit stands, or any market whatsoever.  For nutrition, we absorbed energy from the land.  And for clothes… everything was handed down.  The only thing we had to look forward to was education.
Coleen: Seems like a normal place to me.
Avery: I don’t like it.  That blacksmith?  One of my old teachers.  The woman selling tangerines looks like one of the Old Ones, Lorathians who have been alive since its founding, only much younger, of course.  I’ve never seen these people look so… human.
Coleen: Why isn’t this a good thing?
Avery: Because it’s unnatural.  They should be dead.  Why have they been brought back, and like this?  Or is it in fact illusion?  I… We’ll part ways here for now.  I must investigate.  Besides, if you plan on meeting with Duvall, it’s best he not know of my existence.

Avery left the party, and with it, the concealing shroud of Brier’s song.

Coleen: Well, there goes Avery.  Brier, how about you stop playing?  We won’t be needing it.
Brier: I’m not ready to take on Duvall.  Unless you plan on killing him, I have to stay out of his sight.
Coleen: What happened between you two anyway?
Brier: There’s no real story between me and Duvall.  We crossed paths, and the inevitable happened, I suppose.  Well, have fun.

Brier walked off, playing his lute, leaving Coleen to her task.

Coleen: So I’m off by myself for this one, am I?  How hard could it be to find evidence of a giant upside-down tree?

Coleen walked from site to site, cutting pieces from every tree she could find, but none of them seemed to hold any magical energy, and none of them led to the underground chasm she was expecting to find.

Coleen: Was it all stories after all?  If it were true, I was hoping there would be at least one main root… Unless… it were concealed?  Maybe there’s a bunker or a…

Her focus shifted now to the large, moss-covered tower in the center of Lorath.

Coleen: Anything that big has to be hiding something.  But I’m hungry.

Thus, her quest was made to wait.

Avery was found in the marketplace speaking with one of the grocers.

Grocer: You’re Avery, aren’t you?  I can’t believe a deserter like you was revived along with the rest of us.
Avery: These fruits look fresh.  But nothing has grown in the Scar’s Tear for ages.
Grocer: Everything is grown in the garden.  Just another one of the miracles by King Duvall.
Avery: King Duvall?  A King is something Lorath has been without even longer than fruit.
Grocer: The times have changed.  Maybe if you prostrate yourself before him, he’ll be gracious enough to clear you and your brother’s names.  That’s probably why Caden wasn’t brought back along with you.
Avery: I’ve made a mental note of it.  Now, this garden you speak of…
Grocer: Far north side at the top of the tower.
Avery: Tower?  Where the Old Ones reside?
Grocer: The Old Ones are just like the rest of us now.  Regular people.
Avery: And how is this newfound life?
Grocer: Everything we ever wanted.  Immortality and the opportunity to live like regular human beings again.
Avery: Those two are mutually exclusive.

Brier had already hid himself at the base of the tower, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to keep his stealth song active for too long without suffering dire consequences.

Brier: Any longer and I’ll start developing blisters on my fingers.  Owwww….  Okay Arco, climb to the top and let me know what you find.
Arco: Hss!

Arco rapidly walked up the tower wall while Brier lay in the shadows and observed.  He was worried about Duvall’s presence and wanted to avoid him throughout the entire stay, save, of course, for a potential opening to kill him with absolute certainty.

The dutiful familiar finished his rounds and glided gently to the base of the tower to report his findings.

Arco: Hss!
Brier: No sign of Duvall?  Okay, how about a layout of the city?
Arco: Hss!

The lizard carved out lines into the soil using its tail, producing a crude but accurate map of Lorath, its borders, and its major buildings.

Brier: Everything’s all symmetrical, Arco.  I hate perfectionists like… wait, doesn’t this look familiar?
Arco: Kao?
Brier: I think I saw something like this in Caden’s “journal.”  You know, the one Avery has with him?  If anyone can tell us about what this means, it’s Caden.
Arco: Kss!
Brier: Why not?  You don’t think… Caden’s after the same thing?
Arco: Kao!
Brier: But we don’t even know what it is yet.
Arco: Hss…
Brier: Yeah, no choice, right?  We can’t risk Avery shifting into Caden while asking him about it either.  Hmm…
Arco: Gao.
Brier: If Caden and Duvall know what it does, there’s a good chance it’s Lorathian magic.  If it’s Lorathian magic, I can’t use it.  And if I can’t use it… we should probably just destroy it!
Arco: Gao!
Brier: That’s the problem, isn’t it?  Something this big probably has a lot of energy involved.  We don’t want to be around if it goes off.
Arco: Hss…
Brier: We need to take a look at that journal.

Inside the tower was the tree Coleen came to find.  A massive root filled its center and rose up to the very top of the tower.  A stone spiral staircase bordered the root, leading to the roof.  An opposite spiral staircase was connected directly to the wall of the tower, leading not just to the roof but also below.

Coleen first walked to the center of the tower and tried to touch the root, but her hand was repelled by a magical barrier.

Coleen: Ow!
Girl: I wouldn’t try that again.  The barrier is designed to strike back with double the force used against it.
Coleen: What do you know about… Ahhh!

Coleen turned the voice and saw a familiar face.  She had only met her once, but she couldn’t forget her face.  A gentle, trusting face that turned cold, never knowing of the treachery that ended her life.  Coleen helped to purify her body and buried it herself.

Coleen: S… Solyn?
Solyn: Coleen?  You’re alive… Did you survive, or were you brought back too?
Coleen: I survived.  So did Brier.  He’s with me too.  Well, somewhere.  But what are you doing in Lorath?  I mean… I know the others here were resurrected, but you died near Astoria.
Solyn: I don’t know the answer… But I’m not the only one.  There are a lot of other adventurers here that have no connection to Lorath.  And you?  What business do you have in Lorath?
Coleen: I came here about the tree.
Solyn: According to King Duvall, the tree is what allows us to live here.  It’s why none of us can leave Lorath.  Not that we would want to.  We don’t have to worry about dangers or our next meal.  Everything is perfect here.  Besides, outside the walls are the Scar’s Tear.  Why would we ever want to leave?
Coleen: So… the tree is the source, is it?  Is it what makes the plants grow, too?
Solyn: It is.  Would you like to see the garden?
Coleen: Not yet.  I want to take a look downstairs.  I notice no one goes down there.
Solyn: Nothing’s down there except more of the tree.  Oh, and King Duvall’s lab.  He prefers not to be disturbed, so we don’t bother him.
Coleen: I won’t disturb him.  I’m just going to have a look around.
Solyn: Okay, but remember what I said.  Don’t mess with the barrier unless you want to get badly hurt.
Coleen: You won’t come with me?  I could use a Cleric.
Solyn: I’m not a Cleric anymore.  Ever since I was brought back, I wasn’t able to use my powers.  But like I said, things are perfect here.  No one needs a Cleric.  I just harvest fruit now.
Coleen: Well…. Good for you.  I’ll see you when I come back up.
Solyn: It was nice seeing you too, Coleen.  Maybe I’ll bump into Brier as well!  Oh, that reminds me… What about Ratchet?
Coleen: Oh, him…  We parted ways.
Solyn: Is that right?  Well… I suppose that’s life.
Coleen: Yeah… That’s life.

Coleen descended into the tower’s basement levels, relying only on her own magic flame to light the way.

At the top of the tower was the garden.  Plants of every type in Rym grew there in the same soil, and healthier than in their own native lands.  Avery gathered a sample of the soil there and placed it into a vial.  Comparing a vial of the Lorathian soil just outside the city gates, he found no discernible difference.

Avery: This makes no sense.  Could it be magical after all?  Or… is it like Brier said?  The power of Gods?  Even this giant tree root… Did the Old Ones know of its power?

Avery peered over the edge of the garden and at all of Lorath.

Avery: If it can sustain this kingdom… Its power may be limitless.  But how can anyone harness this much power?  The thought of it is… It’s…. What’s this?

Avery didn’t know what it was, but he thought he recognized something significant while looking down upon Lorath.  He fell off his feet, then picked himself up.  With a furious scowl, he clenched his fists and roared down on the kingdom.

Caden: He’s doing it!  Who does this Duvall think he is?!  Only the dead have the right to reign over the power of the dead!

Caden ran for the staircase, intending to confront Duvall.  Instead, an invisible force crashed into his face and knocked down to the floor.

Brier: It’s no fair keeping things to yourself.  Have you forgotten who your Lord is?  Now, let’s take a look at those drawings.

Luckily for Brier, Avery wrote liner notes all over Duvall’s pages, perhaps in an attempt to analyze his brother’s last works.  He came upon the sketch that matched the layout of Lorath.  Brier thought it may have been a seal.  He was wrong.  According to Avery’s analysis, it was a two-layer magic circuit, designed to extract both magical and life energy and focus it on a single point.  Brier was familiar with magic circuits, but they were usually carvings on staffs as an aid for beginning Mages and Clerics, or glyphs found in dungeons to power traps and trick walls.  They were never made in this scale.  And according to the design of the circuit, all the energy within the borders of Lorath was diverted to a single point: the tower of the Old Ones.

An outsider would believe that what appeared to be a giant tree in the center of the tower was giving life to the garden at the top.  In truth, the garden would have been the most desolate place in Lorath if not for the magic circuit.

But the circuit only diverts energy.

Brier: There has to be something else to this.  Gathering all this energy to a single point wouldn’t accomplish all of this…
Caden: No, it wouldn’t.  It just makes the second phase easier.
Brier: So what’s the second phase?
Caden: Ha ha ha!  As if I would know!  Duvall and I are nothing alike.  I would have simply absorbed the energy into myself and become its master.  What you see all around you?  This is just an experiment of his.  This kingdom is meaningless!

The tower of the Old Ones was six times taller than a one-floor building.  Below the surface, it was twice that size.  It was at the very bottom when Coleen’s fire went out.

Coleen: Hm?  That’s strange….  Spirits of Flame, I call upon you, dance before me!  Nymphet of Flame!  Nymphet of Flame!  Nymp… ah, it’s no use.  The spirits must not be able to hear me down here.  But… Why can I see so clearly, then?

Coleen knew.  There was a faint glow coming from the center of the tower.  It came from the tree.  But it was a strange, unnatural thing that couldn’t really be called “light.”  It cast no shadows, and nothing close to the tree was any brighter than the space at the tower walls.  Coleen reached to touch it, but was still repelled by the barrier.

Coleen: This… is definitely what I came here for.  But there’s nothing I can do here.

The mage looked around and saw a hallway entrance.  The path through it was perfectly visible though no torches lined its walls.  She chose to follow this path in hopes of encountering a passage leading further down.

What she found instead was Duvall’s laboratory, and Duvall himself.  The legendary hero used a dagger to cut into his arm and poured his blood into a chalice.  His face showed no reaction to the pain.  The wound he inflicted on himself closed up within seconds.

Before him was a rotten body.  Coleen knew it more familiarly as a Revenant.  But she never knew Revenants could speak.

Revenant: Uhhh….
Duvall: What is your name?
Revenant: I… I am… Danvers.  Captain Danvers, third battalion.
Duvall: Do you remember how you died?
Revenant: I died?  I… D…. Dead Ash…. rescue mission… He… He turned into…
Duvall: You will forget.  Now, have a drink.
Revenant: Yes… thirsty…

Duvall placed the chalice in the Revenant’s hands, and it drank the blood.  Slowly, the rotten flesh turned and changed color.  It spread and tightened around the bones.  The decayed mass started to resemble a man once more.  His face had a look of astonishment before the once-Revenant was compelled to sleep.  His savior rubbed his finger across the chalice and began drawing all over Danvers’ body.  Pattern after pattern was drawn over every inch of exposed flesh until it appeared his entire body was smeared in Duvall’s blood.

Caden: I may be able to see the truth in all things, but you are merely a mortal.  Perhaps if you saw what I saw you would realize just how out of our depth we are.
Solyn: Brier?  Brier, it is you!
Brier: Hm?  Wait, you can’t be…
Caden: What perfect timing.  In the name of Gulderrahan, I offer a tribute to forbidden knowledge!  Reveal the Blood!
Solyn: Wh… What’s happening?!  Aaah… KYAAAAAAAAH!!!!

Solyn’s skin began to glow a fiery red as patterns began to reveal themselves over her body.  Pattern after pattern…

Brier: I’ve seen hexes like these before…  It’s overkill… It’s…
Caden: Just like on your own body, right?
Brier: I’m not…
Caden: The same as these unfortunate souls?  Oh, no.  These are merely blood curses.  What I haven’t shown you yet is the soul binding.  These are reborn souls made to believe they aren’t puppets.  But they are completely at the mercy of Duvall.
Solyn: No!!  He… he saved us… K-King Duvall is… One of the… legendary heroes…
Brier: I was a hero once.  But of course, it all depends on what side you’re on, doesn’t it?  But you… You’re undoubtedly a puppet.
Solyn: I… Puppet?  What do you mean by that?
Caden: To be more accurate, you’re gears in a machine.  Let’s see… eternal youth hex, a hex that powers the other hexes using energy from… Ah!  The fruits of this garden… A convenient way to transfer energy from the tree.  And here’s a hex that helps power the barrier around the tree.  We don’t have time to go over the rest of the functions.  Balken, you aren’t part of this machine, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t being used.
Brier: Caden… Save her.
Caden: I’ll be happy to.

Caden’s sight revealed the location of an invisible sigil that marked the binding of Solyn’s soul to her body.  After uttering a chant, Caden grasped it and tore it away.  Solyn’s eyes went dark, and her body fell lifeless to the ground.

Caden: I’ll wager that body is a Revenant now.  If you don’t mind, I’m going to throw it over the edge of the tower before it attacks us.
Brier: Do it.

The Revenant awoke and addressed Duvall once more.

Duvall: What is your name?
Revenant: Captain Danvers.
Duvall: “Captain” is a meaningless title here in Lorath.  You have a new life now.  No need for soldiers in a land of peace, after all.
Revenant: Y… Yes… You are right, of course.  I shall….
Duvall: Perhaps a tailor will suit you.  For now.
Revenant: Then, I shall be a tailor.
Duvall: Good.  I’ll show you to the… Who are you?
Coleen: Ah…
Duvall: It has been a while since we had our last visitors.  Yes, what a fine body you have there… Not a single hex on you.
Coleen: What… What have you been doing here?  All the people in your kingdom… They…
Duvall: I do wish I had been at the service to greet you in person.  How inattentive of me.  Now you figured out so much…. But why?  I would think you would have had many other things to occupy you at the surface.  We have a wide variety of markets, fresh food at every corner… Why, we even just got a new tailor.  Ah… Perhaps that’s not what you were after.
Coleen: The…

Coleen was too frightened to come up with a convenient lie or put up any sort of facade.  Her entire body shook uncontrollably between every breath.

Coleen: The Dead Ash… You’re…. You’re using it to….
Duvall: So you know about the tree.  Sorry to disappoint you if you were after it, but it is in my land after all.
Coleen: It… It won’t stop at this, will it?
Duvall: No, of course it won’t.  You are welcome to be a part of it, of course.
Coleen: Sp…. Spirits of flame…
Duvall:  I’m sure you learned by now that the Spirits have no place here.  Now…

Duvall approached the mage, dagger in hand.  Unable to call upon magic, Coleen barely had the wherewithal to reach for her own dagger and repel Duvall’s attack.

Duvall: That’s good.  It has been too long.  Don’t make it too easy for me.  I haven’t had a good fight since Balken.
Coleen: Bal…

Coleen jumped away to avoid another dagger strike from Duvall.  Hearing the name “Balken” snapped her out of her paralysis and brought her back to life.

Coleen: That’s right… You spared Balken, didn’t you?
Duvall: Spared?  If you mean his life wasn’t ended… Then, yes.

The young mage’s face beamed with delight.  She was reminded once more that she had a reason to live.

Coleen: I knew it!  Even the legendary heroes couldn’t kill him!
Duvall: Oh, we certainly could have.  He was allowed to live so his power could serve a higher purpose.  Without it, I couldn’t have achieved all this!  Would you like to know what I did to him?  I could give you a… VERY personal demonstration.
Coleen: I’d rather you died.
Duvall: That shan’t be happening any time soon.  As the last remaining Lorathian, it would be a tragedy if I met my end at a powerless young girl.  I should remind you, of course, that swinging this dagger at you is the very least I’m capable of.  Captain?  I think there’s need for a soldier after all.
Revenant: As you command!
Coleen: Damn….
Duvall: Stab him all you like, he won’t feel any pain.

Coleen knew that stabbing her opponent would result in leaving her defenseless.  Her only option was to run.  But there wasn’t going to be any escape for her.  The hallway to the steps were long, and she couldn’t run up the steps for any reasonable amount of time.  A Revenant would catch up to her easily.

Duvall: You can still lay down your arms and become my doll.  Your life would be spared, if you care for that sort of thing.
Coleen: I’ll never….

A faint song echoed from behind Coleen.  She heard the melody before.

Coleen: That song… The Maiden of Echo?
Duvall: I don’t remember assigning any bards… especially one with so awful a voice.
Coleen: Ha ha ha!  Oh air, hear my call….
Duvall: You don’t learn, do you?
Coleen: Unleash thy power before all in thy presence!  Pocket Blast!
Duvall: What’s this?

Pocket Blast is a spell that summons a violent explosion of air at a single point in space, blowing away everything around it.  It is often used to disperse a large group of foes, and only from a distance.  Coleen summoned it between her and her enemies, knocking all three of them away in opposite directions.  Duvall and the Revenant were shoved into a wall while Coleen was tossed clear across the hallway.   Her landing wasn’t any more graceful to her than her enemies, but she had created enough distance for her to get away.  While running up the stairway, she began casting spells and storing them for quick use.  She couldn’t use Pocket Blast to make her ascent any easier, but she used destructive magic to break the stairway behind her to hinder her pursuers.

An exhausted Coleen met with her comrades at the ground floor level of the tower.

Brier: Coleen!  You made it!
Coleen: Brier, thanks for the assist!  How did you know I was down there?  Did you meet with Solyn?  Did she tell you?
Caden: You could say that.
Brier: Is Duvall down there?
Coleen: He should be down there a while.  Brier!  Everyone in Lorath… They’re…
Brier: We already figured that out.
Caden: I think you pissed Duvall off down there.  It looks like the whole city’s closing in.
Coleen: What do we do?
Brier: Damn it… To the garden!
Coleen: More climbing?!
Caden: We don’t have another choice.
Coleen: At least we have more space to work with here.  Hold on to me, guys.
Brier: Uh…
Caden: If you say so.
Colleen: Pocket Blast!

Three castings of Pocket Blast were enough to propel the three near the top of the tower.

Brier: That… that was…
Caden: Utterly insane.
Coleen: Yeah, that wasn’t as pleasant as I was hoping.  I’m glad you guys didn’t get blasted away from any of the blasts.  But what hope do we have at the top?  I can’t use that trick to get us all the way out of the Scar’s Tear, and I don’t think either of us would want to see me try.
Caden: As long as we have the high ground, we maintain the tactical advantage.  This is a siege, and we only have two choke points to worry about.
Brier: So the goal is to survive?  For how long?
Caden: Until all of Lorath falls.

Next time, on Bardass!  The three struggle to survive against an entire kingdom of Revenants, and are forced to once more encounter Duvall the Afflictor before they’re ready.  Who will be left standing in Quest 15 – The Last Survivor of Lorath?

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