Countless times I have walked this path. I know its every twist and turn. There is nothing but the path and the path leads to nothing. Thorman is urging me on, as though brave words and blind hope are all that’s needed to escape. He knows nothing of where he is, and it is clear he has no plan. I was like him once—I assume—certain that perseverance and endurance could break even the greatest prison in existence. I suppose I shall have to show him the truth of his new world.
We walk for a time. He is still very much of the old world, lighting our way with his weapon, casting strange new shadows to play with. That will at least pass some time, until the magic runs out of course. At times he breaks the silence, attempting to encourage me. He doesn’t understand. It’s not that I lack courage—there simply is no use for it here. I offer token responses, more out of reflex than conscious effort—I’m not even certain what I say. This will all pass soon enough. In time he will learn the ways of this place.
As the path gets more difficult, his curiosity finally overcomes his determination. I slow my pace to allow him time to investigate the vines that line this place. To see their pulsing veins, full of blood that burns. To reach out to the plant-like flesh, to feel the sting of their hidden defenses, the long thin needles that pierce skin and soul alike. I need not watch his discoveries, I have lived them. I even know what he will do next—try to sting it back. I tried this as well. The vines can be cut, but they are thick, and their acidic juices will injure any attacker, and the tools he bears, far too quickly to do any lasting damage. As I wait, the part of me that still feels hope wonders if maybe when this fails, he will learn give up.
But this time I was wrong. It must be his weapon. His powerful, magical sword—it seems different from what I remember, perhaps it’s new—it cuts deep into the vines, severing their connection to whatever gives them life, and dousing me in their purple blood. The pain defies description, it is the pain of terrible death, of flesh stripped from bone, of waking from the deepest of nightmares. For the first time in an eternity, I feel.
We continue down the path and force myself to remember the gnomes, the monks of chaos. They taught me much about control and I need their skills now to manage the pain of the exposed tissue on my jaw and throat. The blow Thorman dealt was clearly a killing one, at least for that section of vine, as the light it cast went dark. This is something new, I no longer can assume I know this place. And sure enough, no sooner do I think that than we hear a loud noise in the distance. A pounding, or a banging of some sort. It continues, for some time. When it doesn’t seem to be moving appreciatively closer to us, we decide to press forward. The path is still familiar looking, but as we move closer to the source, I find myself anticipating our progress for once. Perhaps it’s finally time to meet my jailer.
But that sense of excitement is soon tempered as the path ends, the same way it always does, in front of a very familiar-looking door. The pounding is louder than ever now, but I know what faces us on the other side is disappointment and emptiness. And again, I am wrong.
The room is, in most ways, not unlike the rest of this place. It is made of stone, with walls covered in the same indigo-blooded vines. But is it not my room. And it is not empty. Three hulking figures, nearly three times the size of a man, are gathered around a section of the floor, seemingly digging a pit. Their backs are turned to us, but they appear to be large minotaur-like beasts. In one corner is a stone platform which leads to what can only be the source of the vines. An enormous flower-like creature with razor petals, pulsing with purple acid, and possessing a horrific beak in the center where the stem would connect. It lets out an ear-curdling screech, alerting its minions to our presence and, as they turn it is clear they are not minotaurs, at least not now, as their faces are miniatures of the plant beast’s. A familiar, if long-forgotten feeling comes over me as my pain and suffering are buried under a surge of adrenaline and my mind turns to tactics. The giant plant-beast is clearly the key to this place—it has grown around the entire facility and is likely in control of the monsters now facing us. Defeating it is likely our best chance for escape, so I make its death my primary objective. I drop my cloak at the door (the last thing I need is to get it caught on something) and quietly instruct shaed to cover Thorman as make my way to the platform, dodging vines as I go.
There are stairs leading up to the platform, which almost appears to be some sort of sacrificial stand, as it drops off straight into the “body” of the vile creature. But the path is criss-crossed by more vines and would take too much time to traverse, particularly with Thorman and shaed under threat. Fortunately there is a wooden pulley system mounted to the ceiling that will make a perfect shortcut. As soon as I am in range, I point my left arm to the rigging and launch my grapple, covering the distance almost instantaneously. I dismount quickly and turn to inspect my target.
Up close it’s every bit as hideous, and I can now see it is riddled with the same red needles its tendrils conceal. It seems quite resilient—the only possible point of vulnerability a quick survey reveals is the space around its beak. I quickly check in with shaed—Thorman is holding his own against the beasts, with the shadow attacking their mobility in support, but it worries how long my friend will be able to hold out, as the creatures hit very hard.
With time of the essence, I decide to test the creature’s surface resistance. It turns out the flesh in its “face” is much thinner than that of its vines, as I manage to land a couple of hits with throwing daggers, which remain firmly lodged within. Next I try a flask of alchemist’s fire, hoping its as vulnerable to the flame as a regular plant would be, but despite a direct hit, it does not seem to suffer greatly from the affects of the potion. Fortunately I have a couple vials of Liquid Ice as well, another common enemy of plants. This seems more effective, but I barely have time to consider how to use this information when a scream from shaed grabs my attention.
It would appear the beasts below can strike even the immaterial, and they do indeed hit hard. If my shadowy companion had physical form I would call him bloodied, and by only a single blow. I tell him to retreat to me, as it does neither of us good for him to fall to these things. Thorman still seems to be standing his ground, he may even have felled one of his foes, although now that he lacks backup, I decide to redouble my efforts. It comes to me in a moment—the only clear path. I am not a ranged combatant—I cannot deal with this creature from afar. If I fall here, today, at least I go free from the darkness of my memory. The least I can do is save my friend from the fate that befell me. With that thought in mind, I draw my trusty rapier and leap toward the creature with the blade outstretched.
Miraculously I hit my target perfectly, the point of weapon buried in the creature’s face. I find footholds with my previously thrown daggers, and attempt to grind the thin blade in as much as possible, until the monster lets out a gurgling scream and begins to sink, almost as though deflating. The acid blood begins filling its chamber as it dies and I steel myself against what is bound to be an excruciatingly painful demise. But then I hear a shout—my name—and I see Thorman atop the platform, stretching his hand to me. I dislodge my rapier from the now-corpse of the plant-creature and take one more leap of faith, finally accepting the reassuring grip of an old friend.
Once on solid ground, our position doesn’t look much better, as the purple liquid is filling the rest of the room as well. Our way back to the path is nearly closed already and we could never make it back in time. I survey the room one last time, only to discover behind us another door, certainly not present earlier. I walk to it and throw my companions a shrug—apparently we have won this trial. Perhaps now we must go deeper into hell.
What lies beyond is a new degree of nothing. Even with my newly developed night vision, I cannot see beyond our own light sources, and I light my bullseye latern for the first time in ages. Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any nearby walls—the entire thing must be a very large chamber. We continue forward, using the pattern of the stones in the floor as a makeshift path. Eventually, we see a glimmer of light in the distance. We head for it, again out of lack of other options. When we arrive, we are met with a voice. My warden, at last. The lord of hell itself. Nerull.
Thorman confronts him, as Thorman does. Decries him for imprisoning a friend and ally. The god claims his right to take mortal lives, both as the ruler of death, and as a means of punishment for our former ally, Balidor. It almost makes me laugh, the sheer ignorance he displays. As if my loss would be anything approaching a punishment for that arrogant bastard. Shows how out of touch these gods are with the world they wish to rule. Nerull continues to brag how we are only escaping now because it is what he wishes, part of his plan to return to the mortal world through a new vessel. Me. He believes he has sculpted me into the perfect conduit and is releasing me now, on the condition I work for him—eliminating his enemies, Erythunl and Pelor. Very well, let him think that. For the time, our desires are in sync. If this is the price of our freedom, so be it. At least he gave me enough warning to prepare.