We were halfway to the building when the island's guardian stooped silently on us from above, misjudged its attack angle, and plowed into some bushes nearby. Recovering from our surprise as the creature gained its feet with a roar, we saw something that we would have named a griffon, except for the two tentacles sprouting from its shoulders.
"I'm thinking this is unnatural. What do you think, Llweder?" Meara asked during the collective drawing of weapons, but the druid was momentarily stunned by the aura of fear radiating off the creature in almost visible waves.
Meara Fire Darted the thing, which didn't seem to have much effect. Conner's arrow struck it solidly before he cast Blurred Image on himself. Gannon moved forward to meet the thing, gladius ready, and dealt it a quick, slashing wound. Meara, more cautious this time around, cast an armoring spell on herself. One tentacle lashed out at Gannon and missed. The bush it touched withered instantly.
"Don't touch the tentacles," he suggested to the rest of us.
"Llweder, do something! At least back up!" Conner yelled at him.
Gannon and I hacked at it almost simultaneously. We were hurting it, that much was clear, and keeping it busy defending itself, but it was tough and quick and magical, which meant we weren't doing it as much harm as we would have liked. Conner nocked another arrow and moved in closer as Meara jumped in to slash at it and miss. Gannon skipped adroitly backwards, out of the way of that vicious beak. I dealt it another minor wound. Meara's dagger opened a rip along its side, and it sprouted another arrow from its flank.
Gannon cut it again. The creature focused its burning gaze on him as the author of most of its pain and leaped, claws outstretched; his duck was only partially successful, but it was distracted as Meara moved in again with that deadly blade. Blood gouted as the thing leaped into the air, abandoning the ground battle. It circled, glaring down at us for a moment. Meara sheathed her knife and readied her spear, while Llweder finally shook himself free of the creature's dreadful aura.
Conner's arrow vanished harmlessly into the darkness, as did Gannon's attempt at a Mana Dart spellwhich startled the rest of us more than it did the creature, I think.
"We have to talk," Meara told him sharply.
"No, we don't."
She set herself and threw the spear; the griffon-thing twisted out of the way with a shriek. Conner readied himself for a wall of smoke spell, preparing to cast it as soon as the creature began its dive, in hopes of confusing it into crashing again. I watched it circle, tense; the only weapon I had was my sword.
We didn't have long to wait. It stooped on Gannon again. A vast wave of smoke erupted between it and us. I moved into position without thinking and swept my blade in a high arc just as it emerged from the cloud, opening its belly.
A mess of blood and viscera hit Gannon an instant before the rest of the thing crashed into him in its death throes. We pried it off of him and tried to figure out how much of the blood was his, which turned out to be quite a bit. We were all glad Llweder had spent those days making more salve. Gannon wasn't happy to be conscious again, and he smelled awful, but it was clear he was going to live.
Meanwhile, the mages went into a grotesque orgy of part-collecting. Killing it was one thing; watching them saw off talons and the tail, pluck fur and feathers and eyes, collect vials of blood and shreds of heart muscle, was more than a little sickening. Conner found that the beast had been wearing a copper collar and posthumously christened it Snuffles.
"Gannon, you going to make it?" I asked him, trying not to watch the others.
"Ow," he groaned.
"The shirt held up really well," Conner noted with an approving glance. "I mean look at that stitching."
"It's going to need a hell of a wash," I noted, wrinkling my nose a bit at the smell.
"Oh, it'll all come out."
We once more faced the door into the building where the pillar of darkness had its source or its end. Nothing happened when we knocked. There was a keyhole. The door itself was rather impressive, covered with iron spikes.
"Hey, don't they teach you something at accountants' school about keyholes?" Meara asked Gannon.
"No. Why do you ask?"
"If we think that some sort of faerie put this here, why would they put Cold Iron on it?" Conner wondered.
"Keep others out," I shrugged. "Keep Snuffles out?"
"You do realize that there is the remotest chance that we're going to open the door and make the whole situation much worse," Meara observed.
"I don't think it's particularly remote," Llweder replied.
The top of the building was open; Conner readied another arrow and levitated up. He couldn't see anything. "There's no way down here without entering the pillar of darkness, which I am understandably reluctant to do."
Meara looked around for a key. The collar looked as if it might fit; it took a while and some fiddling around with it, but eventually there came a series of clicks and the door swung open a bit. It was a very heavy door, with a lot of iron in it. Light came from within the building, startling us who had grown used to its absence. We wedged the door open and went in.
"I wonder if the sun's in there," Conner said, looking down at the rest of us.
The pool had possibly been designed for scrying, a wide, shallow impression in a white marble floor surrounded by white marble walls and a ring of decorative pillars. There were alcoves and marble benches here and there, all in plain sight and empty. At the bottom of the pool was the sun, trapped in place with a horseshoe nail.
"What's in there, guys?" Conner called.
"I'm not sure," I replied in bemusement.
"Is it safe in there?"
"Nothing's jumped out to kill you yet?"
"Not that I've noticed."
"Okay, then it's probably safer in there than out here by myself.... Hey, that's the sun!"
Aside from the pool, there were two old, desiccated corpses in the room, one human and one a dwarf. They were near the pool, facing it. As far as I could tell had both been killed by a nicely controlled sword stroke, since it had severed their spines without removing the heads. Helpers who had received their reward? Intruders who had found the place occupied?
Gannon sensed magical forces; not much surprising there. Llweder looked for oghams and found what amounted to a treatise on Fae ritual magic, if he had any interest in learning such a thing, and evidence that a druidor someone with druidic traininghad been involved in the construction of the building. Gudrun had said there were a couple of druids in the valley; we had found one body....
Meara headed for the pool with obvious purpose; Conner grabbed her arm. "Whoa, whoa. It's been here fifty years. Five minutes."
I kept an eye on the door in case Snuffles had a friend, while the magical experts held a brief colloquy on the best means to use. Wading out there and grabbing the nail, while Meara's initial preference, was eventually put aside in favor of Conner using magic to remove the nail from a distance. His first try, while the spell worked correctly, did not budge the nail. Muttering to himself, he dug through his pack for ingredients, including a dram of brandy, mugwort, and some rowan Meara handed him from her own supplies, and tried it again.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al