The pain in Garrick‘s head was the proof he needed that he was, in fact, alive.
He tried to reach up to check the gash on his forehead… but couldn’t. He still couldn’t open his eyes yet, but he could feel his hands manacled behind him, heard the rattling of the chains…
Demonic sacrifice, he thought. That’s how it ends for us? Sacrificed to a demon?
No. I’ll kill us all myself before I let that happen.
He listened intently. He could hear similar sounds of movement from people nearby. The rest of the Guard, he thought. Hopefully.
Gradually, the pain subsided and Garrick permitted himself a quick glance around. There were his friends, in similar predicaments has himself: beaten and hands securely manacled behind them. But there was a fifth person here… his heart leapt at the thought of Eilian or Delphina surviving and he almost called out to the figure. He stopped when he recognized the trademark pink hair.
Like the members of the Winter Guard, Amelia was beaten and manacled, but her hands were chained in front of her, not behind the back as it was with the rest of them. She had her face buried in her hands, and was bent over in fetal position. Garrick could hear the whimperings coming from the clearly broken rogue, but could not muster much sympathy.
Not when there was no sign of the Winterhaven citizens they had come here to rescue.
Dead. Because we failed. Sacrificed to Bahamut knows what. It was too much to bear.
Slowly, the other party members regained consciousness. Isak was the first to speak. “Where… where are we?”
“It’s the same chamber we fell in,” responded Garrick, though that wasn’t quite true. For one thing, there was no one besides themselves in the room. For another, the runes that Delphina and Eilian were trapped in were no longer glowing. It seemed like the chamber was completely abandoned.
“Is that…?” queried Odus.
“It is. Amelia.”
The bard snorted. It was clear he held a grudge from their last encounter.
“How did we come to be this way?” whispered Kane, wakening to join the others. He glared at Amelia and his fangs lengthened. While weak, he looked to be in the best shape of the group, his supernatural regeneration having restored more of his vitality than the others.
Someone walked out of the darkness. “That would be me.”
“SSSSolomon!!” hissed the vampire, struggling against his bonds.
The merchant smiled. “You know, changeling, I should hire you to announce me whenever I enter a room. No one screeches my name quite like you.”
“I will be sure to work it into your eulogy as much as possible, then!” sneered Kane.
Solomon shot him a condescending look. “Unlikely.”
“Isn’t it obvious? We saved your lives and drove off the warlock.”
“… why?” asked Garrick.
Solomon leaned against the elevated platform. “Well, Garrick, as always, it’s just good business: It’s one thing to sponsor The Blackfangs while they are causing chaos in the Labyrinth, taking attention away from our own plans with the threat of their demon-summoning ritual. It’s another thing entirely for said ritual to actually happen. That would be inconvenient to our plans, to say the least.”
“What plans are those?”
Solomon smiled. “Nice try, Odus.”
“Where is Maldrick now?” demanded Garrick.
“Obviously, I can’t know for certain, but there is supposed to be another pack of Blackfang Gnolls to the south of here, in some underground temple in northern Nyrond. Most likely, he has gone there to assume leadership.”
Good, thought Garrick. It means I have another shot at him.
“So… you’ve been following us?” asked Isak.
The condescending look returned to Solomon’s face.
“Not exactly. You see, it seems your friend Bennick…”
The halfling bard from the Halfmoon inn strode in from out of the darkness and stood comfortably next to Solomon.
“…is actually my friend Bennick.”
Odus‘ eyes were as big as saucers.
“As well as Dresken…”
Bennick then morphed into a perfect likeness of the merchant Dresken.
“..and, occasionally, Rendil.”
Dresken then shifted again to appear as Rendil Halfmoon.
“What…?” gasped Garrick.
Rendil then shimmered again, and now standing next to Solomon was an ogre-looking like creature with mottled white hair and a leering grin filled with yellow teeth.
“Oni…” whispered Odus.
“Yes! Well done. I met him on my travels and secured him as my agent. He has been most useful, especially keeping tabs on the lot of you…”
He strode over to Amelia and kicked her in the ribs.
“…and YOU! We fooled you, didn’t we?! Oh, it took us a while to figure out how to do it, but that’s the difference between you and me, Amelia: research. You believed you couldn’t be fooled by illusions anymore, and perhaps that might have been true if I didn’t possess the one thing that might know your weakness!”
“What are you yabbering about?!” demanded Kane.
“Did you want to tell them, my dear?”
Amelia only let out a painful moan.
“Oh, my. She seems quite incapacitated. Perhaps she has had a change of perspective…” sneered Solomon. The Oni next to him laughed cruelly.
“What have you done to her?” demanded Garrick. He was starting to feel sorry for her now, but still wasn’t sure where she stood with Solomon. After all, he figured she was the most likely candidate to have burned down his home with his wife and children inside.
“Merely retrieved what was mine… my destiny.”
“What rubbish,” muttered Kane under his breath.
“Oh, really, ‘little me?'” asked Solomon. “Have you not wondered how she knew what you were right away, as soon as she saw you? Could track the lot of you through the Labyrinth? Knew how to avoid the arcane sight of the Ordinator Arcanis?”
The Winter Guard were silent… the same thought occurring to each of them at the same time.
It’s true… we don’t.
“Still silent, my dear?”
An anguished sob escaped Amelia, nothing more.
Solomon grabbed her roughly by the hair and pulled her head back while he pinned her manacled hands with his foot. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it?! It’s been taken from you, and you’ll never get it back!”
The Winter Guard were shocked at what they saw. The comely, ever-smiling face they had known to be Amelia‘s was now gone. She had several teeth knocked loose, and her face was badly bruised. But while these injuries seemed fierce, nothing was as gruesome as the gaping hole, blood pouring anew from it, where her eyepatch normally was. She screamed in pain as Solomon kept jabbing his finger in the open wound, “GONE! It’s GONE, bitch!”
Odus began having a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Solomon wiped her blood off his finger on her blouse and composed himself. “Oh, settle down, Garrick. After all, she did it to herself.”
Odus began to sweat more.
“From where I sit, you’re the one doing the torturing,” challenged Isak, who tried to straighten himself up but was slammed back down by the heavy hand of the Oni.
Solomon grinned. “Oh, no, friend Isak, that’s not quite true. This,” he grabbed her head and forced it to face Izak, with his finger indicated the gaping eye socket “she did to herself.”
Kane sneered. “And why would she do that?”
“FOR THIS!” exclaimed Solomon, pulling what looked like a small mummified marble out of his pouch, holding it in his left hand.
The rest of the Guard looked at each other, quizzically.
Solomon saw their confusion, but then his eyes locked with those of Odus.
Garrick saw this, and looked to his friend.
I… I’ve never seen Odus look so… scared before.
“Solomon,” began Odus. “You are meddling in things you have no idea about. For your own sake, put it down and walk away.” The bard’s voice was quivering, shaking almost. Odus knew he had to try to get Solomon to see things his way, but too many pieces were falling into place and he suspected the merchant was well beyond even his words.
Still, for the sake of everything, he had to try.
Solomon sneered at the bard. “I suppose you think I’m unworthy, is that it?!” he challenged.
“No, it’s simply that…”
“Well, I am. The proof is right here: I have done what many for centuries have tried to do… and failed.”
Odus had to concede the point.
“Worthy? Worthy of what?!” demanded Kane.
Solomon thrust the tiny sphere into Kane‘s face. “Of this! And…” he paused.
Kane‘s preternatural gaze settled on the tiny ball in front of him. As he quickly studied it, he saw it looked less like a marble and more like…
Solomon strode back over to Amelia. “And this!” He whipped off his elegant black glove adorning his left hand and grabbed her by the throat. She visibly weakened in his grip while he grew stronger.
But that wasn’t what caught their attention. The hand that had Amelia by the throat, that was sucking the life from her, was blackened and talon like, mummified like what the group now realized was an eye being held in Solomon’s right hand. It was old, magical and supremely powerful.
And not the hand Solomon was born with.
Odus knew the time for subtlety was over. “Solomon! Stop it! For your own sake, man, stop meddling with…”
“NYYAAARRGH!” interrupted Solomon, tossing Amelia to the ground. “You arcanists are all the same. You think you’re the only ones who can handle these gifts from the Maimed Lord! What you forget, what everyone who has ever studied these artifacts forgets is that Our Lord Vecna is not only the God of undeath and necromancy, but is also the god of secrets! And who is has accumulated more secrets than the most successful surface world-Underdark merchant to ever walk the Flanaess?”
He stood in front of the Winter Guard, with the Hand Of Vecna where his left hand should be and the Eye of Vecna in his gloved right hand.
“NO ONE IS MORE WORTHY TO BE THE EXARCH OF LORD VECNA THAN ME. NO ONE.”
The members of the Winter Guard furiously exchanged panicked looks with each other, again all sharing the same thought.
What do we do now?!
Thinking fast, Odus tried to distract him. “So wait… we know why you drove off Maldrick; why are we alive?”
Solomon seemed to return to himself. “Ah, yes. Well… after surprisingly making it through the Testing Grounds, we couldn’t know how much you had learned about our plans. Killing you would deny us that information, so instead, while you were unconscious, I was able to root around amongst the secrets in your head. It seems we were being overly cautious; you know nothing of our plans, except the name of my ally, Paldemar.”
“But, I didn’t become the most successful merchant by throwing away opportunities, especially not when they are gift-wrapped for me as you are,” continued Solomon. “You will serve me one more time and then you will die.”
“I am not being killed by you, no matter how you have butchered yourself!” yelled Kane in a rage.
Solomon leaned close and whispered “Oh, but it won’t be me who kills you, ‘little me.’ Oh, no. You remember Fatale, yes?” He stood and smiled. “Word has already reached her and she is almost certainly on her way here now. When she arrives, she will see you lot and, more importantly, Amelia‘s disfigured face. She will know exactlywhat Amelia‘s empty eye socket will mean; how she cannot hope to challenge me now. She will know I left you here as a warning that coming after me will mean her death. She will then vent her frustration on the lot of you, most likely and wonder what might have been if only the thief she contracted had followed instructions and not opened the box she was hired to steal.”
Amelia looked up a this point, glaring at Solomon with her one good eye. “We were supposed to be in this together,” she said through gritted teeth. “I opened the box because YOU told me too. I trusted you! I LOVED YOU!! HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?!!”
Solomon looked at her with something resembling pity… then leaned down close to her and whispered “Amelia… darling… you’re talking to a man who burned his family alive in their home to cover his tracks; any expectations you had are your own fault.”
Garrick exploded. “YOU did that?! How could you?!”
Solomon looked at him. “Once I heard the wisdom of the Maimed Lord…” He shrugged. “It is of no consequence now.” He pulled himself up, straightened his clothes and put his leather glove back on over the Hand of Vecna. He placed the Eye in a small ivory box and stashed it away in his pack. He turned to the Winter Guard for the last time. “I now bid you farewell. My thanks for what you are about to do for me.”
“Wait!” yelled Garrick. “What about the two that were going to be sacrificed?”
Solomon shot another of his condescending looks. “The elf maid and the old man? Paldemar rather took a liking to the elf maiden, but since he has no… appropriate… servants to care for her while he carries on with our plans, he took the old man to be her manservant. I cannot imagine they’ll last long, though; Paldemar is somewhat flighty in his tastes.”
Solomon turned to go when all of a sudden Amelia leaped at him, grabbing him around the waist from her knees, trying to drag him down. The Oni swiftly backhanded her off his master, whose face was one of rage.
“Damn it! That’s illithidweave, Amelia! My favourite shirt! It’s all bloody now!”
Odus had noticed the shirt.
Amelia‘s head fell backwards and she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Solomon regained his composure. He looked at the Winter Guard. “Don’t attempt anything heroic. I’ve left a guard outside the room, one of which you know quite well in fact; I want you alive for Fatale but I don’t care what condition you are in. Remember that.” With the threat left hanging, the merchant and Oni left the room, but not before the Oni looked at Isak mockingly, and assumed his form before leaving.
Moments after, Amelia spoke “Is he gone?”
“Yes,” answered Kane, who had suspected her ruse.
“Assuming we escape, how could we even find him?” asked Garrick, frustrated.
A thin smile came over Amelia‘s bloodied face. “With this,” she said as she held out her hands. In them was a silver key, glowing with a faint magical light.
Kane‘s eyebrow shot up in respect. “Clever move.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “I think I’m going to pass out now, though…” With that, she was as good as her word.
“There’s got to be some way out of this,” began Isak, already planning his encounter with the Oni.
“Of course,” hissed Kane. “Given enough time, I should be able to…”
He was interrupted by a loud commotion outside the in the hall. The sounds of screaming and spells being cast were clear, as well as a familiar beastial roar. All of the Winter Guard knew what was happening, and so none were surprised when Terrlen, in his savage beast form burst into the room, with his snout and claws coated in blood.
What was most striking about his appearance was the silver collar he was given to wear by Orontor.
It was missing…
With blood-red eyes, the werewolf turned towards the manacled heroes, somehow sensing helpless prey. It let loose a great howl, the kind of howl of wolves moving in for the kill…