Smoke huddled in the shadows, hidden on the edge of the woods near the Keep on the Shadowfell. Somewhere deep in his soul, he could feel the cold pulse of the Shadowfell portal beating deep beneath the earth where he stood. As he waited, his hood perched awkwardly on his backward sweeping horns, he softly stroked the inside of his cloak, emblazoned as it was with the sigil of his chosen goddess, the Raven Queen.
He silently whispered the words to a short prayer, and he felt the dark powers pervading the area responding to his will. He continued meditating, and as he waited, he reached into the shadow of his soul and stirred the energy around him. He could feel a slight warmth suffusing the edge of the invisible network of necrotic wisps. The group he had been waiting for was coming into view, tramping off the traveled dirt road and standing before the great double doors leading into the keep. Their cloaks hung heavy on their shoulders, and Smoke was more than ready to begin their hunt. With a smile, he pulled the summoned energies around him, disappearing in a small puff of darkness.
Hadrian Markhelay stabbed his greatsword into the thick, loamy mud surrounding the Keep on the Shadowfell. He looked up at it’s leaning, creaking mass, like a miserable old creature that had far outlived it’s lifespan and simply refused to die.
Hadrian turned to see his current acquaintances. The old dwarf, Rignar, was busy kicking the thick mud off his fine metal-shod boots, while the human artificer was stepping lightly, almost hopping, to solid ground, carefully keeping his mechanical, bronzed leg held above the mud. Behind them, the two mages stepped up next to Hadrian just as he was turning around. The human, a harmless looking old man clad in simple farmer’s clothes and carrying a crooked cane, maneuvered meanderingly, his eyes darting about in an almost paranoid fashion. The golden haired eladrin, Erveliss, glided swiftly and silently across the muck, his fine robes safely above the soggy ground.
Suddenly, darkness seemed to fall around him, and in that moment a tiefling clad in dark, studded leathers and a heavy cloak stepped from the shadows. Just as quickly, the darkness disappeared, but the tiefling remained.
With a grunt, Hadrian peeled his greataxe off his back, leaving his sword stabbed into the ground. In one swift motion he was crashing it down on top of the tiefling. The mages stepped away from Hadrian and this possible threat, preparing spells. The tiefling dodged back, then suddenly seemed to flicker behind a sudden veil. Like a shadow, it slinked back, closer to the door, before reverting back to his own form, hands held in front of him.
“I was sent by his eminence, Lord of the Vale, King Kelvin, to aid you in your journey into the Keep. I am a friend of Raiza’s.”
Hadrian looked at him suspiciously. Behind him, the three arcanists waited quietly. Hadrian knew they were already examining the Tiefling through all manner of arcane ways. With a small nod, the eladrin gestured to Rignar and Hadrian, bidding them to go on.
Rignar called out, “Who are you?”
Smoke threw back his hood. “They call me Smoke. I‘m an agent of the King.”
Rignar exchanged a glance with Hadrian before continuing, “An’ you work for the King?”
Smoke shrugged. “In a manner, I suppose.”
Rignar laughed. “Gonna need t’be a bit more specific than that, devil-kin.”
Smoke glared at the dwarf for only a second, before continuing, “We can talk about this later, but we really should get inside before your artificer friend here breaks something. This weather is terrible on metals of all kinds.”
Hadrian heartily agreed to that, and moved towards the door, the rest of the group in tow. Smoke followed them in, and the door closed behind them…
The group of strangers and acquaintances stepped into the dim Keep, it’s entry hall leaning slightly to one side, throwing the entire room into a macabre array of strangely angled lines. Somewhere within they could hear the faint drip of the encroaching rain outside. Smoke stepped forward, his smoldering eyes sweeping the room, while Hadrian and the others fanned out in a different direction. As Smoke moved further into the darkness, his eyes caught a trace of movement, nothing more than a slight flicker in the shadows, but Smoke reached for his sword regardless.
Dalor’s voice whispered softly in his mind. Do you see anything, Lvarr?
Smoke’s face twitched involuntarily. That’s not my name. And I think so. Hold on. He continued watching the darkness, eyes trained to any sign of movement.
Then, suddenly, he threw his arm out to his left, as if casting a net. A shadowy cord materialized into the air, trailing off into the shadows. It went taut, and Smoke pulled sharply. He heard a sharp crack, then the lifeless body of a large rat came flying out of the darkness, landing at his feet. It’s fur was matted with blood and grime, it’s over large teeth bared in a silent snarl.
Rats! He called through the mind link.
What is it? Came Dalor’s reply.
Dalor. THERE ARE RATS
. IN THE ROOM
As if in reply, Smoke heard the strangled cry of a rat from the other side of the room.
Oh. Rats, you say?
Smoke appeared next to Dalor in a puff of chilly darkness. “What’s going on?”
Dalor motioned for Smoke to be silent, as the Eladrin and the Artificer spread out behind them. The dwarf was moving forward, Hadrian at his side, his massive sword held high and ready. Dead rats lay slumped against the walls, or bleeding and broken on the ground behind them.
Smoke sank into a crouch and moved through the shadows around them. Then, a few strides ahead of Hadrian and Rignar, he saw an amber pool of liquid sloshing in the darkness. He moved forward to see what was thrashing around in it, when suddenly it erupted from the floor, throwing desiccated rat bones across the room with a chorus of dry rattles. It swelled and rose higher, till it’s gelatinous mass almost scraped the ceiling. It waved to and fro before surging in Smoke’s direction.
A tendril grew from it’s side, gaining momentum as it slapped at Smoke. He raised his sword to block the attack, and the arm simply splashed around it, spattering Smoke’s face and body with a shower of acidic droplets. He recoiled with a hiss of pain, disappearing into shadows as Hadrian and Rignar charged forwards.
He collapsed to the ground next to Talos as Dalor and Erveliss leaped forward and began unleashing a flurry of magical attacks on the acidic jelly. Meanwhile, Hadrian raised his sword with a roar, driving it into the creature again and again. Rignar smashed it with his hammer, but the creature’s body simply absorbed the blows, bending and flexing and flowing as the combat intensified.
Slapping at the acid frantically, Smoke started thrashing on the ground. Talos leaned down and shouted urgently. “What’s that over there!?”
As Smoke turned to look, he felt a sharp prick in his neck, followed by a soothing wave of warmth that flowed through his body. The acid dispersed, and he could feel his charred skin re-knitting over the fresh wounds. Smoke looked up to see Talos grinning.
“You’re welcome. Now start fighting like everybody else.” With that, he stood and unleashed a burst of electricity from a small box, decorated with arcane glyphs and crackling with barely contained power. Smoke thought he heard a faint growl from it, punctuated with hisses and meows.
Dalor reached Rignar, dropping a hand on his shoulder. “Come with me.”
And before the old Dwarf could protest, they were flying through the air, circling the massive jelly and landing quickly on the other side. Rignar landed in an unceremonious heap, while Dalor landed lightly, as if none of what had happened so far shocked or surprised him in the least. With a silent word, he sent a bolt of energy knifing into the jelly. It sank deep into the creature’s soft center, before suddenly bisecting the creature completely.
Hadrian took a step back in surprise, and the rest of the group froze uncertainly. Then, the two halves surged forward as one, and the fight was on again. Hadrian and Rignar rained blows on the acidic pests, while Smoke danced around the two creatures, hitting them where they were most exposed. Within moments they had collapsed to the ground, and the Eladrin carefully inspected the smoldering remains. He nodded to the group, and everyone breathed a nervous sigh of relief. Hadrian clapped Smoke on the shoulder. “Good job, new guy.”
Talos walked past in a hurry, a roughly sketched map in his hands. “Yeah. Not to bad, Smiles.”
Smoke swept his sword to the ground, flinging the last remaining drops of jelly to the ground before sheathing it. With a sly grin and an accepting nod, he went off to search the room.
Hadrian followed Talos, keeping an eye on the slighter man as he mapped the halls and rooms of the Keep for the local wizard Nimizorran the Green. Smoke went down the passage he had seen earlier, where he had fought the rats. He found a large, heavy door covered with strange blue fungus, words of warning smeared into its surface. He returned to the party, and they carefully scouted out the area, choosing a rotting set of double doors that led deeper into the Keep. Smoke followed up the rear as they descended the slick stone staircase.
“Get back here!” Smoke yelled, yanking his shadow noose tight around the throat of a retreating Kruthik. It’s strangled yelp was cut short as the shadowy weapon completely decapitated the creature. The head skidded across the dusty flagstones to rest at his feet, the body still twitching.
Further down the hall, Hadrian drove his boot heel into the skull of another Kruthik, crushing it flat. Bloodied but undeterred, Hadrian grunted at the dead creature and spat on the ground. “Better luck next time, monster.”
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, the group had encountered a small nest of Kruthik, and after a brief scuffle, sent them running from their nest. Finding nothing of any particular interest, they moved back to the door Smoke had discovered earlier, it’s mildewed surface bearing the words STAY OUT
. After carefully inspecting the door, they pushed it open and quietly slipped inside.
The room on the other side was mostly flooded, except for a small island of raised earth near the center of the room, a goblinoid form lying facedown next to a small chest. The group paused to consider the room, the air heavy with a sharp, ammonia-like scent.
Talos pushed past his comrades, his sketched map in hand. Distracted as he was, he didn’t seem to notice the water swelling as he neared it.
Hadrian did, however. He stepped forward to grab at Talos. “Wait!” He cried.
It was to late. Talos’ foot slipped into the edge of the water, and reflexively, a pseudopod rose from its brackish surface to swat Talos aside. He hit the ground hard, and Hadrian and Rignar charged in immediately, weapons ready. A word of power flew from Rignar’s cracked lips, and the air shimmered as a shield of iridescent protection materialized around the party. Erveliss and Dalor grabbed Talos and dragged him away from the monster.
Hadrian raised his weapon, smashing the pseudopod back into the water. For a moment there was silence. Then suddenly, the entire pool of water rose into the air, groaning and moaning with a voice like a rushing river. The elemental creature swatted at the adventurers with stinging, acidic fists.
Smoke took a deep breath, feeling power raging inside him, swelling with the heat of a furnace. Embers flew from his flesh, swirling with the eddies of shadow that constantly swarmed his body. His muscles bulged and his horns grew larger, his body growing as fire burned from his eyes and mouth. With a roar, he called shadows down onto the raging elemental before leaping forward to strike it, his shadow charged sword slicing deep into its gelid form. Hadrian and Rignar shrank from the proximity of the blow, shocked by the sudden outburst of hellish power Smoke was now unleashing. Regardless, they returned to their work.
Hadrian dropped his sword to the ground, drawing forth his great axe and landing a barrage of powerful blows against the creature. Rignar continued muttering prayers to Moradin and shouting words of power over the tumult of the battle. Meanwhile, Erveliss and Dalor rained sorcery and arcane power onto it, Talos urgently hobbling back and forth, trying to avoid the elemental’s attacks while administering his strange curative transfusions. They began pushing forward, confident in their victory.
Then the elemental exploded, filling the room with a stinging acidic spray that through everyone to the ground. Smoke growled, slipping into his shadow form while his fiendish flesh regenerated. Hadrian grunted and rolled around, Rignar rubbing at his eyes as the stinging water sputtered and sizzled in their flesh and armor. Talos had miraculously escaped most of the attack, and he quickly ran to Hadrian, jabbing him with a glowing vial. Dalor and Erveliss climbed to their feet wearily. Meanwhile, the elemental coalesced once again in the middle of the room, frothing and seething with rage.
With a sound like a crashing waterfall, it surged forward, the cacophony of its attack answered by the defiant cries of Hadrian and Rignar. They met with an audible crash, the others’ support practically holding them rooted to the ground. Meanwhile, Smoke stepped through the Shadow Fringe, reappearing behind the elemental as the last of his shadows fell upon it. With a bloodthirsty grin, he stabbed his sword deep into the monster, his shadows sinking through its translucent flesh to wreathe his blade in a nimbus of obsidian energy. Groaning, the elemental listed to the side.
With a flourish, Smoke withdrew his blade, leaping into the air with a burst of dark flames and shadows, his sword now a massive cleaver of shadows raised above his head. With a roar he drove it deep into the monster’s back, the blade freezing its liquid form from within. As its dying cries rang throughout the keep, the shadows on his blade exploded outwards, sending chunks of ice flying about the room. As the shadows cleared, Smoke could be seen, his tired form slowly shrinking to normal. Looking up, his eyes met Hadrian’s and Rignar’s, and he quickly looked away. “We should be moving on.” He said before slipping out the door.
Looking to Rignar, who merely shrugged, Hadrian watched their new friend leave before considering just what his appearance represented.