Ibn Solaar watched the back of the half-orc as the party stumbled through the wild undergrowth. They had been walking for half a day. Soon the guides, said, soon they would be at the entrance to the sunken fortress they sought. Ibn Solaar chafed behind the lumbering Dragon Shaman. He longed to range ahead of the party and leave behind the crumping feet of his clumsier colleagues.
"Aiya! These motherless dogs will bring every goblin within three leagues", he muttered to himself. None of the others understood his native speech.
The half-orc stopped abruptly, Ibn Solaar of course stopped immediately and silently, reflexes like a phase spider. Behind him however, Balthas, the warlock, was not so fast, stepping into the back of the sword sage. Ibn Solaar glared at the warlock. Oblivious, Balthas offered no apology but stepped back.
"Are we here?" Ashendarius enquired, his friendly grin seeming to split his face from ear to pointed ear, as he peered around the warlock.
"Wait here, Ibn Solaar shall determine whether it is safe" the sword sage answered, sidestepping Na-Dulak to join the guides. Balthas and the elf shared a glance, and a thought; if their arrogant new companion continues to speak of himself in the third person, they may have to kill him themselves.
The group had arrived at a precipitous ravine. The area where they had stopped showed sign of traffic – there were several old burned camp fires. A bridge had once crossed the ravine but it had long since fallen. Na-Dulak investigated the tracks and camp fires.
"Goblins" he concluded, "but not so recently".
"There is a rope tied off here" declared Balthas "The other party must have used it to descend the ravine"
Na Dulak concurred. "Indeed, goblins are good climbers, they would not need the rope, it must have been the humans".
"We should tie ourselves off as we go down", suggested Balthas, "perhaps our muscled friend here can lower us to save the risk of an untimely fall?" he indicated the Dragon Shaman.
Ibn Solaar nodded. "Ibn Solaar does not need to be lowered, however I agree your plan may be prudent for the unskilled. He shall descend first of course, for he is by far the most superior swordarm among us."
Again Balthas and Ashendius shared a look, this time Na Dulak joined them.
Rejecting the offer to be lowered completely the swordsage braced himself against the cliff wall and abseiled down. Fifty feet below the fallen bridge, the rope led to a narrow ledge of broken stone. Off to one side, Ibn Solaar noticed a path meandering further down the sheer cliff into the darkness. Without a torch however he could see no further. He untied himself and called up to the others to let the next down. Na-Dulak pulled the rope up quickly and Balthas prepared to descend. Just as he stepped off the ledge and began to be lowered by the brawny half-orc, Balthas heard a cry from below.
No sooner had Ibn Solaar stepped out to look over the ledge than a fat oversized dire rat left its hole where it was lurking and made straight for him, its razor teeth thick with diseased drool. Ibn Solaar summoned to his mind the scorching iron taste of the desert heat and began his maneuver. This was what he had trained for the years in the monastery, now at last he could unleash the full force of his blademagic, the advice of his tutor and caution thrown to the wind. Now he let his pride and skill flow into the blade.
Pride however turned to dismay as his foot twisted in a hidden crevice; the blow swang wide of his mark ; the desert sun channeled through his blade dissipating uselessly. The rat was unerring in its own attack however. As it bit into Ibn Solaar's leg, he felt the teeth sink to the bone. Worse, a second dire rat joined it. He adopted a stance to maximise the shadow around him but, undeterred, the rats flanked him, forcing him to divide his defense less effectively. Bite after bite sank home.
His second attack, summoning the power of the sun as it flashes across the desert horizon at dawn, was also foiled, this time his own fault as he mistimed his strike. "Aiya! Gods curse my luck!" He cried in frustration, overwhelmed with doubt as blow after blow that followed went wild or skittered off their thick coats ineffectually.
At the cliff top Na-Dulak had his hands full as he lowered the warlock down carefully. Resisting the urge to drop the tainted one and take out the enemy he grunted as the rope played out hand over hand.
Ashendarius moved quickly to the edge of the cliff but an overhang was throwing its shadow over the combat below. He couldn't pick out a target for his bow. He tied off a rope and prepared to descend.
Meanwhile dangling just underneath the overhang Balthas the dark mage bore down upon the foe foot by foot. Blast after eldritch blast shot from his fingers to find its screeching mark as he filled with the destructive joy inherent in his ability. Below him the swordsage seemed to be losing it as anger and crumbling pride crushed him. "It's down to me to save his arrogant foreign hide", thought Balthas with grim satisfaction. He touched down on the ledge and fought off yet another rat joining its brethren.
Na-Dulak and Ashendarius began descending on two ropes from above. As the fire aura of the shaman reached the fighting duo below, the combat finally turned. The rats were engulfed in small gouts of flame as each bite hit home. By the time the climbers reached the ledge the fight was all but over. Na- Dulak was bitten before the last rat fell, but otherwise the group survived intact.
Balthas was sheened in sweat and grinning. Covered in dozens of bites and scratches, Ibn Solaar was slick with blood and shaking with barely constrained fury.
"This is a Gods cursed place," he muttered, as Ashendarius saw to their wounds using a peculiarly gnarled wooden wand.
A brief search of the ledge revealed signs of passage, though it was unclear who had passed. They also discovered some notes apparently dropped by Sir Braford, the missing paladin. It contained the following covering letter.
I have secured a copy of the document that you requested. There are no accompanying research papers, I'm afraid to say, so the meaning remains unclear."
Although the signature at the bottom of the letter was illegible, the letter was clearly sent from someone at a church called St. Mara's, although there were no further details of the address. Accompanying the letter is another piece of paper on was the following text
"Behind an ancient and revered power whose undulating passage yet points heavenward will stand one who will have conflicting evil in his heart. For whilst that unique evil will protect the world from his intent it will also spread itself into the world and must therefore be defeated, but overcoming it will have great consequence, the begetting of a greater evil, his true evil, the defeat of which will require powerful heroes."
Puzzled but no less determined, the party passed into the gloom of the deeply shrouded ravine. The path finally led down to the top of crenellated battlement, sunken so far into the cliffside that its very top was now the base of the ravine. Although ruined, a considerable portion of the ancient citadel remained intact; its stone roofs, now covered in rubble, forming an uneven landscape of hillocks, boulders and plunging sinkholes.
Atop the battlement a door gave into one of two towers that still projected above the rubble field – like broken fangs. Ashendarius stepped up to check the door and only just managed to sidestep the trapdoor in front of it, as the ground beneath his feet gave way to a pit. Freed from apparent incarceration, another of the vicious rats emerged. This time Ibn Solaar moved quickly. Without hesitation he unleashed the full power of the desert sun through his blade, incinerating the creature with a single perfectly executed swing. It hadn't had time even to squeak.
"Behold the power of the Sublime Way" he cried.
"Behold the miracle of you at last hitting something", the warlock smirked. Na-Dulak and the elf chuckled.
Inside the tower lay the body of a goblin, pinned against the far wall by a single spear. The tip of the spear was buried into the ruined masonry – the strength of the warrior who had killed it was clearly prodigious. When they pulled out the spear to search the corpse it revealed a word written on the wall behind the body – a single word written in draconic script – "Ashardalon"!
"I guess the missing humans came this way", the half -orc remarked, surprising his companions with his perspicacity.
Moving to explore the room further, Ashendarius immediately noticed the outline of a hidden door. Alerted by the elf's superior eyesight, the party braced themselves for fresh fighting.