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A Tale of Nightmares Part 11 - The Mindshard

Dirty Secrets and Nightmares is a Dungeons and Dragons (DnD 5e) game set in a Ravenloft Domain of Dread, New Solamnia. Play takes place every Friday night at Dragons Keep Roleplay Club in Chislehurst, South East London. The Dungeon Master is Sam.

Five people previously unknown to each other have found themselves strangely transported to a land none of them are familiar with, and banded together to investigate what has brought them here - and survive. According to the locals, it is usually a peaceful place. This is not the party's experience, as strange happenings surround them and monsters stir.

The party consists of:

  • Sir Gerigold - A Male Half-Elven Oath of Redemption Paladin of the Morninglord (played by Paul)

  • Hazard Darkstar - A Male Human Rune Knight Fighter (played by Alexander)

  • Greynen Falstaer - A Male Half-Elven Warlock of the Archfey, Pact of the Tome (played by Mark)

  • Morgaen Nightbreeze - A Female Half-Elven Bard of the College of Spirits (played by Imogen)

  • Ragnar son of Bjorn - A Male Human Tempest Cleric of Odinson (played by Alex)

The party are searching a strange network of tunnels beneath the impact site of a great meteorite that fell from the sky a few days ago. Animals in the area have started behaving strangely, with shards of a substance that appears to be amber sticking out of them – and the amber shards appear to be being produced by the meteorite. Someone has also gone missing, a blue tiefling mage called Iskoval, whom the party have been searching for, although so far they have found and rescued another prisoner- Rosalina – instead. During her imprisonment, she had been hearing voices telling her to surrender to something called the Mindshard…

Morgaen spent an hour or so as they rested playing her guitar, weaving a magic that helped the others to recover more completely. Once she had completed the enchantment, she felt rejuvenated herself, and a little restless. She got up to stretch her legs and went back to the ankheg cave to examine the eggs – she had been going to have a look at them when the clutch of young ankhegs attacked and remembered that she had not done so yet.

There were two clutches of eggs, both nestling in depressions in the ground with the large white eggs surrounded by a kind of gel. Morgaen stuck her hands in to examine them – unlike all the hatched ankhegs they had seen so far, there were no amber shards in the eggs. They did not appear quite hardened yet – Morgaen calculated that even the slightly older clutch was some time from hatching.

Getting up and wiping her hands, she turned round and froze.

A large adult ankheg was standing at the entrance to the cavern, watching her.

Morgaen grabbed her guitar – but as she hefted it, the ankheg turned around, and rather than attacking her walked into the meteorite. As it made contact with the surface, the meteorite seemed to ripple and change density for a moment, appearing liquid as the creature walked in – then it hardened again.

Morgaen walked back to the cave where the others were, and told them – incredulity in her own voice – what she had seen. Rested and ready to continue their investigations, the party came out into the main meteorite cavern. Sir Gerigold touched the meteorite again – again, it was solid. He picked up a piece of amber and this time did not attempt to push it into the meteorite, as he had before – he attempted to walk into the meteorite instead. This, and his subsequent efforts to press the shards into the meteorite at different angles, all failed. To all appearances, the meteorite still appeared solid. But at intervals, it continued dropping out more amber shards, which again flowed out as if the meteorite were liquid.

Rosalina, backing off from this strangeness, spotted another tunnel. She pointed it out, and said she was sure that she had come down that way – she seemed strongly inclined again to leave the caverns at once. Sir Gerigold stopped investigating the meteorite to again persuade her to stay with them.

Ragnar had drifted back to the small cave with a pool of green acid that he had originally spotted when they first entered the cavern.

“Hey,” his voice drifted back, “there are things at the bottom of this pool of acid! A glass bottle and a glass box!”

The others followed him into the side cavern, and peered down. It was difficult to see through the green liquid – especially since getting close was difficult with the fumes – but there certainly seemed to be something down there.

“It looks,” Ragnar said, squinting, “as if the box has another of those brass disks…”

At this, all thoughts of going to look at once for Iskoval vanished from the party’s minds. The strange brass disks which seemed to appear everywhere they went were giving them visions of the story of a knight, who might be the Dark Lord they had been warned to stop when they received the strange curse-tattoos on their wrists.

Greynen attempted to fish the glass box out at once with his mage hand cantrip – but after a few attempts, he reported that the weight of the acid on top of the box was making it too much for his mage hand to move. Morgaen attempted to plait some kind of rope out of the webbing on the walls, to be able to fish the things out, and even contacted spirits for guidance, but gave up muttering about bakers with no idea how to plait anything but bread.

Sir Gerigold, who had examined the slope in the floor of the caverns, got very excited about the idea of digging a channel to drain off the acid and use it to melt the meteorite – but had to admit, when this was pointed out to him, that this would be very much harder when nobody had a shovel. He asked, a little hopelessly, about the possibility of glass bottles. Ragnar delightedly produced a bottle of the fine wine he had 'salvaged' from Moldavia Manor, and chugged it, before filling it with acid and pouring the acid over the meteorite. They watched expectantly, but the acid seemed to have no effect. And if that was the case, spending all that time emptying the pool bottle by bottle would just be opening them to being attacked by something under the strange meteorite's control.

It looked increasingly as if someone might have to dive down into the pool to recover the box and vial. Greynen was up for having a go at this and had in fact already stripped off. Morgaen suggested that he at least cover himself in the webbing, which being made out of acid might give him some resistance, but then Hazard – who had been looking bored of the discussion – pointed out that he could just use his catapult spell to get at least one of the things out of the acid.

There was a slightly embarrassed silence, and then a few of the party spread out along one side of the pool of acid. After a quick discussion, they decided to at least get the brass disk out, since the glass vial looked as if it might break if Hazard catapulted it. When Hazard invoked the spell, the glass box flew out and smashed on the cavern’s wall, the brass disk falling to the floor. Sir Gerigold kicked poured water over it to neutralise the acid.

Greynen was just saying he’d better go and get dressed again, when Ragnar impatiently grabbed the disk from the floor.

Again, the vision unfolded before all of their eyes.

After the appropriate six-month mourning period following his wife’s death, the knight was married to the elf maiden Isolde – who appeared visibly pregnant to the few guests who attended the ceremony.

One month later, he was summoned to the city of Palanthas by the High Justice, where a panel of knights of his order charged and found him guilty of the murder of his first wife, thanks to the testimony of his healer, Istvan. Sentenced to death, he was rescued from public beheading by a group of his knights and fled to his great stronghold Dargaard Keep. Not wanting to attack the fortress, his order banished the knight to Knighthund.

Confined to his realm, sentenced to death at the hands of the Knights if captured outside of his lands, the knight fell into a deep depression. Concerned about her husband's welfare, Isolde prayed to Mishakal (goddess of healing) to save her husband. The goddess charged her to tell her husband that there was a chance for his redemption, for the gods had need of his service. He should travel to Istar, to prevent the Kingpriest there from calling down the gods' wrath in the form of the fiery mountain that would bring about the Cataclysm and destroy their world. Furthermore, if he was killed in the attempt to stop the Kingpriest, Mishakal and Paladine (god of the divine power of majesty and of leadership, and patron of souls striving for both greatness and for redemption) would raise him from the dead to allow him to succeed in his quest, and although he would be killed in the attempt, he could die peacefully, with full honour.

The party blinked or shook their heads as the vision cleared. Several of them looked over with interest at Rosalina – but she had not shared the vision with them, and was only confused and a little scared at how they had all seemed to look into the distance at something else for a moment. Ragnar asked her if she had heard of Paladine or Mishakal, but she was as baffled as they were.

“I believe I have an idea of which of our deities Paladine might be a name for,” Sir Gerigold said, slowly. “Torvain told us of a deity called Takisis, and I thought that name was connected to Tiamat… the name Paladine makes me think of Bahamut, the good dragon god. He has the same domains as this Paladine.”

“I think so, also,” Morgaen said. “One of my tutors at college was a dragonborn who followed Bahamut, and I think she may have mentioned that name at some point… I can’t be sure, but I think so.”

They walked back out into the main meteorite cavern, Ragnar pocketing that disk along with the others.

Morgaen pointed to the narrow crack they had come in by.

“I found tracks heading down that way – and it’s the last place we haven’t looked, now,” she said. “Iskoval has certainly been down here, so this way next?”

“There’s one more thing I want to try with this meteorite before we move on,” Greynen said. He walked over, picked up one of the shards of amber – and stuck it into a thick part of his leg. He winced and grit his teeth, but it was sharp enough to go in without great force, so didn’t do too much damage.

“Are you entirely sure that’s a good idea?” Sir Gerigold asked dubiously.

“Not hearing any voices so far,” the warlock reported. Walking up to the meteorite, he stuck his hand out.

His hand stuck into the meteorite as if he was sinking it into thick liquid. Eyes bright with discovery, the warlock looked round and grinned at the others – then stuck his head into the meteorite.

He backed out again a moment later. His head and hand were wet.

“It’s a bit murky in there,” he reported, “but there’s this sort of dirt path inside – going up and going down.”

After a moment’s discussion, the party decided that searching for Iskoval where Morgaen had found the tracks was more immediately important, and they would leave investigating the strange meteorite until they had checked everywhere else. Ragnar carefully removed the amber shard from Greynen’s leg, the warlock finally put his clothes back on, and then they headed off down the tunnel they had come in by.

Morgaen took the lead down the narrow tunnel, checking for any more sign of the booted footprints she had seen – but not everywhere had the kind of ground to show footprints. The tunnel became rockier again, leading up to a narrow crossroad at a blank stone wall. To one side, the tunnel wound around a corner and then dwindled into a mere fissure in the rock.

To the other, it opened up into a winding cavern, roughly divided by a tall angular stone down the middle. The party split into two groups, and headed cautiously down towards the end of the cavern. The light from Ragnar’s shield showed that the two halves of the cavern came together again – in a wider space which should have been open, but which was filled with a pile of rough, scaly skin.

Ragnar knelt to investigate them, as a few of the others held back.

“Ankheg husks, I think – I guess they cast their skins like snakes,” he said, sticking his hand into the pile and shifting a few around.

As the skins rustled, they seemed to do so further back, as well. Ragnar and the others tensed, pausing for a moment. So they all heard it – a disembodied, soft voice, frantically urging “Get out of my head, get out!”

“I hear someone skulking!” Ragnar exclaimed, and waded into the ankheg skins, shoving them aside. “Where are you?”

The skins rustled again – then over to the left, several jumped aside at once as something they couldn’t see started moving, fast. Something cold brushed past Hazard and Morgaen – Hazard swung his greatsword at the possible attacker, but missed. Morgaen grabbed instinctively at the invisible figure as it brushed past her, but it wrenched itself free. However, the delay for just a moment had allowed Sir Gerigold, on the other side of the cavern, to put on a burst of speed and get back to the tunnel. He was standing in the entrance to the cave now, arms wide and braced against the sides. Nothing was getting past him.

“Whoever you are, we’re here to help!” he called out.

Hazard was swearing in Infernal again, standing ready with his greatsword and not looking particularly helpful, with Ragnar and Greynen also braced for another fight behind him.

“Iskoval, we’ve found your ring!” Morgaen called out – taking a guess on who they had encountered. “Torvain sent us!”

There was a pause.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” the disembodied voice asked, sounding hesitant and confused. Everyone relaxed a little. But not much – this was a mage potentially possessed by the amber shards in the same way as the boars, wolves and ankhegs.

“We know Torvain’s name, don’t we? And we know it’s your ring because it’s just like the one he had with your name on,” Morgaen said, turning on all her persuasive talents. “He’s worried you haven’t come back, and we had just come from Tenbrim and hadn’t met you – we all thought you might be down here. We came to find you.”

There was a ripple in the air, and a blue tiefling appeared. It was Iskoval --- he had bright blue skin and, as Torvain had mentioned, very white teeth. Torvain had not mentioned that they were sharp white teeth – Iskoval would have looked far more intimidating than he had been described, if he had not also had an amber shard driven deeply into his neck. His eyes were wide and he looked more than a little disoriented.

Hazard pulled out the ring he and Ragnar had found, and flipped it to Iskoval. The tiefling checked it, and put it on again, with a sigh of relief. Then he looked at them warily again.

“There’s something down here – something to do with that meteorite,” he said, anxiously. “I keep hearing this voice – in my head –”

“Yes, it’s something to do with the amber shards,” Morgaen said, as soothingly as she could. “Probably a good idea not to just yank that one out, though” – she added, quickly “—not where it’s gone in… Let me have a look? Right… Ragnar, I’m going to need help. Even better, you take the lead and I’ll help…”

The shard was very deep, and dangerously close to the tiefling’s jugular vein, but Ragnar and Morgaen had enough experience removing the shards by now to somehow manage it without causing further damage to the injured mage.

Iskoval held very, very still as the shard finally slid out – then let out a sigh of relief.

“The voice is gone,” he said, leaning back against the wall of the cavern. “The Mindshard – whatever it is.”

Sir Gerigold introduced Rosalina, and explained her experience.

“It was a bit different, for me,” Iskoval said. “I was outside when the meteorite came down – the shards, they flew everywhere in the cloud from the impact. I blocked a few of them, but that one got through. Then I couldn’t keep away from here – the voice made me come down into the caves. It – it seemed to want me to go into the meteorite – but I managed to hold off from that. This was the furthest away from it I could get down here – but I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t make myself go back to the surface – it was wearing me down, I could feel it.”

“What does it want?” Greynen asked.

Iskoval shook his head – confused.

“It wants to bring everything together – it wants to dominate everything. I could feel it waiting, it didn’t mind waiting for me to give in – it thinks it can somehow bring everything here and dominate this entire world, given time.” He looked around, nervously. “I… think it might be a good idea for us to leave now… in case whatever it is knows that the shard is out…”

They set out – going through the meteorite cavern again, very carefully, in order to leave by the northern tunnel. This tunnel turned out not to have exploding acid sacs. Sir Gerigold glared at Greynen and Morgaen, who had argued for entering through the southern passage to be further away from where they had seen ankhegs, but the warlock ignored this and the bard argued that logically, based on the available information, it had still been the best decision at the time.

They were unhindered leaving the tunnels, and did not see the wolf pack on their way through the woods towards Torvain and Iskoval’s cabin. But once they were out of the haze again, they all felt better, and not only because of the relief from the persistent slight acrid taste of the haze.

Torvain, taking a break from whatever he was doing, saw them coming and rushed over to welcome his partner. He thanked the party for finding Iskoval, Sir Gerigold telling him that there was some great evil in that place – something from another realm. The mages invited all of them to stay the night again, although Torvain apologised that the experimental item he had promised them was not yet finished.

Ragnar tried to be a good guest by giving the mages the meat he had taken from the deer, and they all ate venison stew that night – although he did also get chased out of the workshop by Torvain when he blundered in offering to ‘help’ so the item would be finished faster.

The party had to decide what to do next – and they slept on it, but the next day Sir Gerigold was still firmly in favour of confronting whatever evil the Mindshard in the tunnels was. The others felt that since one of the disks had been there, the Mindshard might be somehow significant to their being in New Solamnia. Morgaen had now cast a divination on them and identified them as ‘Discs of Fate’, telling the story of a certain individual they had been aligned to, but was unable to tell how many more there might be telling the story of the knight. The Black Book she had found in Tenbrim – the Chronicles of Raistlin Majere – was now also showing the vision of the knight’s second marriage, trial, escape, banishment and divine mission. This latest vision, suggesting a cataclysm of fire from the sky needed to be averted, certainly seemed to be linked to the story they had heard in Tenbrim of how New Solamnia arose after Old Solamnia was destroyed by fire from the heavens; and the meteorite might be some harbinger of a similar cataclysm, somehow tied to the Dark Lord – probably the knight, who was apparently called Raistlin Majere – which the party might perhaps have been brought here to prevent.

The decision was to go back, despite the danger, and investigate the meteorite itself and the strange way in which the shards of amber allowed creatures to enter it.

Rosalina and Iskoval joined them. Rosalina told them that she would be going back to Tenbrim to continue training in the safer woods around her home before setting out further again. Sir Gerigold asked if she was sure that she would be safe on the road – thinking of the great bat-like creature they had killed by the cornfield – but Iskoval said that since he still had to make his supply run to Tenbrim, and Torvain didn’t intend letting him out of his sight again for a while, they would all three travel together, when they left in a few days.

He hesitated.

“I’ll tell you right now – I will not be coming back down those tunnels with you,” he said, to the party’s disappointment. “Maybe when I was younger, but there are things which are more important than curiosity to me now. However – I have this for you.” He offered them a small, ornate box. “It is a Bell of Summoning – once only, if you ring it when you are in desperate need and speak the name ‘Velanka’, my mother will appear. She is less of a mage than my partner and I, but more of a warrior – she is a powerful ally, and if you summon her while you are on this plane of existence, she will appear and aid you for ten minutes.” He hesitated. “My mother… lives a very ordinary life, but she disguises herself to do so. You would see her in her true form – you just need to be prepared for that.”

“I’m confused,” Ragnar said.

“She’s my mother,” the tiefling pointed out, “but she is… less able even than I am to live among normal people… so she disguises herself. I… will not describe her true form. But as I said – the Bell is for use in desperate need only. She gave it to me for that – and for your aid, I am giving it to you.”

They thanked him. Greynen carefully took charge of the Bell of Summoning.

“I don’t have anything like that,” Rosalina said, “but I would like to ive you this.” She took off her necklace – made of the teeth of different animals, bound onto braided leather – and gave it to Sir Gerigold. “I was never entirely sure, but there is some magical virtue to it – it has always made me feel more confident in dealing with people, when I have had to.”

Sir Gerigold thanked her. He passed the necklace to Morgaen, who was reaching for her guitar and spent ten minutes doing the complex tuning exercises which she used for divination spells. Afterwards, she told them that the necklace would give the wearer the advantage of animal instincts in dealing with people, to persuade, deceive or intimidate them. Sir Gerigold carefully took custody of it again.

Back at the meteorite crash site, Morgaen checked the tracks in the crater – and found that disturbingly, there seemed to be even more wolf tracks than there had been before. The party went carefully down the northern tunnel, but the wolves did not seem to be in the caves.

Before they set out for the meteorite site, Morgaen had had an idea, and had asked the mages if they had any metal poles and buckets around. They did, so she had brought a long ten-foot pole with a hook at the end to hold the bucket, explaining to the others that since they were going back there anyway, they might as well fish out the glass vial at the bottom of the pool of acid. Now she passed the heavy metal pole to Sir Gerigold, who managed to use the pole and bucket to scoop the vial up and out of the pool of acid, before the metal disintegrated, leaving him holding only the stumpy end of the pole that had not been in the acid. They poured water and kicked sand over the vial, then Morgaen sat down to identify the potion.

In the ten minutes or so this took, Sir Gerigold and Greynen investigated several of the amber shards, Sir Gerigold even going as far as to taste one of them – saying it tasted metallic, blood-like, the same as the taste of the haze. Hazard and Greynen went ahead and each jabbed a shard into their arms, and Hazard then put his hand through the meteorite, saying that it felt like the bottom of deep water to him. Sir Gerigold was more averse to simply sticking the amber into himself and tried to see if he could get the same effect by having the amber against his skin or in his mouth, but the meteorite still felt solid to him. Eventually, he also jabbed a piece of the amber into his arm. Ragnar, meanwhile, was trying to break one of the shards, and with a great effort managed to chip one into tiny bits.

Morgaen came back from her spell and told them that the potion was a Potion of Hill Giant Strength. Since Hazard could already go to giant size and strength, Sir Gerigold took custody of this potion. Morgaen and Ragnar then helped each other to very carefully stick one of the shards into their skin, with as little damage as possible – now they could all feel through the meteorite into what felt like deep water.

Looking at each other, they each in turn took a deep breath and then stepped into the meteorite.

Inside, there was no trace of the paths Greynen had seen the day before. Instead, the meteorite seemed to be filled with water – dark, murky, impossible to see through water. None of the party could see their comrades – each of them reacted to the loss of contact in their own way.

Sir Gerigold struck out strongly, advancing straight ahead.

Hazard and Ragnar instinctively swam upwards, towards what they presumed was the surface of the ‘water.’

Morgaen, with her past issues surrounding dark water, backed out at once, reappearing out of the meteorite where she had entered it in a state of near panic.

Greynen, remembering the path he had seen leading downwards the day before, dived and swam strongly in the spiral he remembered, ten then twenty then thirty feet down, trying to aim for where he thought it had circled round to leave the meteorite again. His hands found rock beneath him – he felt for the side of the meteorite, and a hand emerged into air. Lungs now bursting, he followed it.

He emerged into another cavern, pushing his silver hair out of his eyes and taking a deep breath. There was no yellow haze, but the air tasted metallic – like blood. There seemed to be an odd light emanting from somewhere -- he looked for the source.

Around the cave were a number of ankhegs – both the younger ones, and adults. They all had amber shards stuck in them, and they appeared to be watching Greynen with interest – so far as their alien, insectoid faces could show emotion. Behind them, and also in front of Greynen and to his right, were several large pools of acid.

Just to Greynen’s left was a large, jagged amber crystal, nearly as high as Greynen’s shoulders. It was glowing gently, but strange lights were also pulsing within it.

“Oh, shit,” the warlock breathed.

The crystal started to hum.

-Hello, Grey,- a voice said in his head. -Thank you for finally joining me.-

In the cavern above, Sir Gerigold had emerged and realised that he had gone right through the meteorite, coming out on exactly the other side. He head the sound of someone hyperventilating, and remembered Morgaen’s distinct aversion to the dark well in the crypts beneath the church of Saint Terragnis.

“Is that you, Morgaen?” he called.

“It’s me,” the bard said, coming round the meteorite and trying to master herself. “Have you seen the others?”

“No, it’s just us – but that place in there, it seems to be just the size of the actual meteorite. They may have gone elsewhere.” He thought for a moment. “If they went up, that would take them to the crater – and there was nothing up there a moment ago, so that should be safe. If anyone went down, however…”

Morgaen was pale. Sir Gerigold suggested that she could go up to the crater through a tunnel – but the bard angrily rejected this. If anyone had gone down, they might have found the heart of this strangeness. She was not leaving with a friend perhaps in danger.

With Morgaen holding onto the paladin’s belt so that they did not get separated this time, the two stepped back into the meteorite and swam downwards.

Up in the deserted crater, Ragnar and Hazard had emerged from the meteorite – Hazard smoothly, and the cleric rolling out sputtering.

“Ah,” he said, picking himself up. “We’re here! That’s odd!”

Hazard rolled his eyes.

“Any idea what’s happened to the others?” he asked.

“Well, Morgaen was right behind me when we stepped in, but I think I felt her go back – she was really weird about that well in Tenbrim, remember? She’s probably still down in the meteorite cavern.”

“Well, this was a waste of time,” Hazard commented.

“Maybe one of the others found something more interesting,” Ragnar said. “We could go back to the start and see if we can find them. And begin again if we can’t.”

“That’s actually not the worst plan, under the circumstances,” the fighter acknowledged grudgingly.

“Great! Let’s do it!” Ragnar said enthusiastically. He held his nose this time, and jumped rather than walked into the meteorite, vanishing from sight.

“I was thinking we’d go back round through the tunnels, to be less likely to get lost or separated…” Hazard said, sighing, then followed him.

Sir Gerigold and Morgaen emerged from the meteorite, hearing a loud humming noise – but they could not see the source, only a rough stone cavern with pools of acid here and there. To one side, they could see a couple of large ankhegs – to the other, as they looked around, they could just catch a glimpse of Greynen’s arm and the side of his head. But that hair was unmistakeable.

Sir Gerigold invoked a protective spell, hoping it might be possible to negotiate with or pacify the creatures if they did not attack first. He called this out to the others – but as he did so, two of the young ankhegs moved in, sending jets of acid towards them. This glanced off Sir Gerigold’s shield, but put paid to the realistic chance of solving this without aggression – and on closer inspection, they all had amber shards in them again.

Morgaen circled the meteorite, calling out a warning to Greynen as she readied a spell. Dashing up next to the warlock, she struck a chord – the sound was strange, given the guitar’s recent soaking, but the magic flowed anyway. A powerful wave of force ripped into three of the young ankhegs which were up close to Greynen, sending one rolling backwards into a pool of acid, and also hit the large amber crystal she could now see. A small crack opened up, a tiny piece of crystal chipping off.

The humming intensified, becoming a violent, intrusive noise, and the crystal lit up. As the lights rippled, Morgaen felt a spell push itself into her mind, trying to take control of her. She felt an overwhelming urge to laugh – and laugh – and laugh. Grabbing onto her amulet of Saint Terragnis, she exerted a great strength of will, and pushed the feeling away.

Greynen ran to the side – getting clear past the nearest ankhegs, which made no move to attack him.

-The ankhegs are your friends, as I am,- the voice was saying in his head. -Morgaen and Sir Gerigold are your enemies. Subdue your enemies – knock them out, so that I can deal with them and we can all be friends.-

Now a safe distance from his ‘enemy’ Morgaen, Greynen set his hex on her, and lined up an eldritch blast.

Up in the cavern they had been in when they first entered the meteorite, Ragnar was calling for Morgaen – but then found the wet footprints she had left, going round the meteorite. He followed, and found a second, larger set of footprints.

“I think Sir Gerigold was here, too,” he told Hazard, “but they both seem to have gone into the meteorite again.”

Hazard gave an expressive eye-roll again.

“We’re just all over the place, now… any sign of Greynen?”

“No, only two sets of prints. If he wasn’t with us, and he wasn’t with them, where do you think he’s got to?”

“No idea, but unless we missed Gerigold and Morgaen on the way down – and I don’t think we did – there’s only one place to look, now, isn’t there?”

“Down it is,” Ragnar said, and pitched himself sideways into the meteorite.

Morgaen felt the curse settle, and whipped round to look at Greynen just in time to dodge the incoming blast.

“Why the fuck are you blasting at me, Grey?” she yelled at the top of her voice, alerting Sir Gerigold. But the paladin could do nothing at the moment --- one of the larger ankhegs had come at him round the other side of the meteorite, and he was fending off a spirited attempt to grapple him. The crystal’s humming rose to a crescendo again, and a gust of wind blasted out from it, sending Morgaen flying backwards into one of the pools of acid. She screamed as it ate through her boots.

At that point, Ragnar and Hazard emerged from the meteorite. Ragnar pushed his sopping hair out of his face, hefted his warhammer – and looked puzzled for a moment. Then his features cleared.

“As you say, Lord! I shall knock out the intruders!” he exclaimed, rushing past the ankheg, and swinging his warhammer at Sir Gerigold.

Sir Gerigold yelled a warning to the others that Ragnar as well as Greynen was under some kind of mind control, swinging his maul desperately at the ankheg which was still trying to grab him. But Hazard’s face had also hardened – he flanked Sir Gerigold and tried to bring his greatsword down on him.

Morgaen managed to clamber out of the pool of acid, dodging another eldritch blast from Greynen as she did so, and called out a spell to heal herself. She weighed up the forces against her and Sir Gerigold – none of the ankhegs had fallen, all three of their friends had somehow been turned against them, and the crystal’s humming was building to a crescendo again. She considered running at Greynen and trying to tackle him, to get the Bell of Summoning off him – but one of the larger ankhegs was between them.

“We need to get out of here and come back with a plan!” she yelled to Sir Gerigold.

“Agreed!” the paladin yelled back. “I’ll cover you!”

Morgaen bolted for the meteorite, ducking behind Sir Gerigold and steeling herself to leap into the dark water again – much more willingly than last time. She swam upwards, making for the upper cavern.

Sir Gerigold made one last attempt to save at least one of their friends before leaving – he grabbed at Ragnar, reaching for the man’s arm to try to pull the amber shard out of it. But the cleric pulled himself free, so Sir Gerigold cried “We shall return for you!” and leapt for the meteorite.

But as he did so, the large ankheg attacking him made a lunging bite – and grabbed one of his legs, biting down hard and dragging him back out of the meteorite. Sir Gerigold managed to grab its carapace and pull himself up, but it was clinging to him, hard, and he could not get loose. He steeled himself as Ragnar and Hazard flanked him. Their strikes seemed to have less verve than usual, and his armour turned most of the blows – but not all of them.

Emerging in the upper cavern, Morgaen turned, readying herself to persuade Sir Gerigold to get out of the tunnels entirely and come back with her to the cabin – the two of them together ought to be able to persuade the mages to come back with them and help save their friends, and that, she thought, would be much more effective – and safer – than charging back down just the two of them.

But the paladin did not appear.

She waited only a moment – this thing was confirming everything she had ever felt about dark water, you don’t know what’s down there and it’s probably something that can kill you. But she had also sworn, years ago, never to have to feel she had abandoned someone again.

She leapt into the dark water, and swam down again. Cautiously sticking only her head out, she saw Sir Gerigold’s predicament, pinned by the ankheg’s jaws right next to the meteorite – so near and yet so far from safety, and taking repeated injuries. She shouted the words of restoration again, sending healing magic out to him – then turned to Ragnar, about to swing his warhammer down on Sir Gerigold again as the ankheg dragged the paladin further from the meteorite.

“Ragnar! You are disrespecting your god!” she exclaimed, thinking of trying to reach him through his deepest bond. “You should only rely on his holy symbol, not these amber shards! Take out the amber and trust in your hammer amulet again!”

Ragnar paused for a moment, and his brow furrowed. Conflict was clear in his face for a moment – then he brought the warhammer down on Sir Gerigold. But – again – with slightly less than his usual certainty, and conflicted thoughts were clear in his face.

Sir Gerigold saw this. He raised his holy symbol of the Morninglord, invoked a desperate prayer to his god to let him reach his friends’ true hearts and minds, and touched the necklace of animal teeth Rosalina had just given him for good measure.

Friends!” he cried aloud, the power of his god in his voice. “Why have you turned on us? Cast off this evil influence and return to our comradeship!”

Another ankheg lunged at him, sensing some kind of danger – but it was too late. Ragnar, Greynen and Hazard were all looking conflicted, now. Ragnar was looking confused – Greynen, on the other side of the cavern, seemed to be grabbing at his head. Hazard had raised his greatsword, but now lowered it slightly – and the amber shard popped out of his arm.

“Sodding crystal!” he yelled, and turned to run round the other side of the meteorite – there was no space to get through the ankhegs here – but one of them, sensing the change in him, launched itself towards him and grappled him. Hazard’s curses in Infernal proved that he was back to his usual self – and also his feelings about being pinned in place by an ankheg for the second time in two days. He brought his greatsword down once, then again, on the creature grappling him – it chittered in pain but held on.

Morgaen, seeing things looking better on that side of the meteorite, took a breath and swam through the meteorite again. She remembered where the amber crystal was, and came out of the meteorite right next to it – unleashing another thunderwave on the crystal and the young ankhegs around it, again blowing one of them back. The crystal’s humming started building to a crescendo again, a dangerous whine entering it.

Greynen shook his head and tried to line up an eldritch blast on Sir Gerigold – but grabbed his head again at a critical moment, sending the power wide. The ankheg grappling Sir Gerigold, however, managed to drag the paladin round and shove him into an acid pool. He let out a small moan, then his head fell back – for a moment. A brief shimmer of silver ran through his body, and the Blessing of Health which Saint Terragnis had given to them all took effect. With a shuddering gasp, Sir Gerigold regained consciousness.

The ankheg, realising this, bit down on him again. Hard.

The crystal’s whine built to a pitch – and as Morgaen attempted to dodge away from the young ankhegs surrounding her and ready another spell, she felt herself lift off the ground to hang suspended, twenty feet in the air.

Ragnar turned towards the pinned Sir Gerigold, raising his warhammer – a little hesitantly, as if he was unsure of something. But then his eyes widened, as the voice in his head was drowned out by another, more powerful voice and the amber shard fell from his arm to the floor.

My friend, I can reach you once again! Smite this evil that tried to take you from me and your comrades, show them all my true power!

“Yes, Thor! In your name!” Ragnar exulted and spun towards the crystal. Raising his hammer amulet high, he cried out an invocation of divine power, and then the words of a spell, before striking the ground with his fist. An explosive booming noise rang out – and the three young ankhegs surrounding the crystal exploded into shreds. A ringing crack ran out, as the shard’s dangerous whining hum turned to more of a shriek.

But Sir Gerigold and Hazard were still struggling in the clutches of the ankhegs that had grabbed them, and Sir Gerigold was still in the pool of acid, taking further damage. He shouted out to Greynen, trying to encourage the warlock – the only one still under the crystal’s influence – to shake it off. Morgaen, hanging mid-air, twisted to avoid the worst of a stream of acid that one of the large ankhegs spat at her, but could not avoid all of it. She directed another healing spell at the seriously injured paladin, added further encouragement to Greynen to get free of it, and directed scathing bardic satire at the shard, insulting the loss of its symmetry from all the cracks. The humming intensified again – and as it did so, Greynen turned, power gathering again around his hands. Morgaen tensed – she couldn’t easily dodge when she was hanging midair with nothing to push off from.

Greynen unleashed his strongest blast of energy yet – straight at the crystal. A ringing sound echoed out, and a second huge crack appeared in the crystal’s surface. Ragnar and Morgaen cheered – but only for a moment.

Sir Gerigold had collapsed unconscious again, from the repeated damage, and the ankheg that had been attacking him turned on Hazard – who still had not managed to get loose from the first one. Coming at him from both sides, both ankhegs bit down hard, and behind the meteorite Hazard yelled his name aloud as a battlecry in an increasingly desperate voice. As the others heard this, the spell keeping Morgaen aloft suddenly vanished – she plummeted to the floor, curving round to try to save her guitar and taking the full impact herself, instead. She lay limp, either dead or unconscious.

The others had only a brief moment to notice this – suddenly, Ragnar and Greynen felt themselves falling, towards the ceiling, as something shifted and gravity changed around them. Greynen, standing against the side of the cavern, managed to cling on to a rocky outcrop – but Ragnar fell towards the ceiling, with Sir Gerigold’s unconscious body and the two pools of acid that were in the same area of the cave as them.

Ragnar, crawling disorientedly on the ceiling, dragged Sir Gerigold’s body out of the acid and used a healing spell to wake him up. He then tried to throw the grievously wounded paladin into the meteorite, but failed – dragging him over instead, and pushing him in, exhorting the groggy knight to swim down and help the others, he’d be right behind him!

Hazard was still fighting two large ankhegs at once, one of them clamped tight to him, preventing him from moving. But he was starting to adjust to the situation and landed a hugely damaging blow on the creature grappling him. It reeled back for a moment – and Hazard invoked his fire-rune, summoning fiery shackles to bind the creature. It shrieked as the shackles bit into it – then collapsed, dead. The fighter whirled, now free, to face the second creature.

Divine magic rippled out from Morgaen’s amulet across her body, and she raised her head, trying to take in the situation. The final large ankheg came at her, trying to bite and grapple her, but the bard managed to roll to one side just in time, coming to her feet with her guitar in one hand and drawing her rapier with the other. She struck out at the ankheg, hitting it, as she demanded of the amber crystal next to her, “What are you? What do you even want?

-I am one,- a voice said in her head, -I am everything!- and she got a sense of some kind of hive mind, a truly collective consciousness that saw its purpose as extending that collective as far as it could go.

At that moment, Greynen – still clinging desperately to a rocky outcrop – set his jaw and let go of his anchor with one hand. The fingers of his other hand started to slip and give way under his weight, and he could feel himself about to fall towards the ceiling and the pools of acid waiting there – but he managed to twist his head and free arm round. Calling out the incantation, he gathered up his power for one more blast, and unleashed it straight at the crystal.

As the bolt of power hit, the crystal exploded into smithereens.

Ragnar – and the pools of acid – fell back from the ceiling.

The pieces of amber still in Morgaen and Sir Gerigold’s arms slid out, as they had from the others, and the pieces of amber lying around started to disintegrate into tiny amber shreds. Amber shards popped out of the surviving ankhegs facing Hazard and Morgaen, who started shaking their heads, confused. The two adventurers held back for a moment – and the creatures started to back away.

The meteorite itself was turning into a thick, dark liquid, which rippled towards the floor – Sir Gerigold, still inside the meteorite at the time, felt the change and kicked out strongly, sliding smoothly out and coming to his feet before he could fall.

The ankhegs turned, and burrowed into the walls.

The party stood and looked at each other for a moment.

“I cannot begin to say how close that was,” Sir Gerigold said, with a sigh of relief.

Morgaen and Ragnar both realised at the same moment that there was something left where the crystal had been – a strangely-crafted shortsword, with a blade seemingly made from amber. Ragnar gave a cry of glee and set off across the room towards it, but Morgaen – closer – picked it up and explained to the cleric that she really had better identify it, first. Ragnar seemed inclined to argue this point, so Morgaen suggested that the blade might perhaps be cursed. Grumbling, he left the sword to her.

Sir Gerigold and Hazard were both inclined to rest, to get their strength back, but after a few minutes Morgaen and Ragnar agreed that the cave seemed to have been created by some kind of animal rather than by the meteorite impact. Their best guess was that all of the caves and tunnels were originally an ankheg warren, which the meteorite – the Mindshard – had happened to crash into rather than creating for itself. The ankhegs had seemed to prefer to retreat rather than fight for their territory when emerging from the influence of the Mindshard – but that might not last. With only a few groans, the fighter and the paladin pulled themselves to their feet and agreed to set out back to the cabin. The only way out was through the hole in the ceiling where the meteorite had been, thirty feet up – but Greynen could reach that far with his mage hand, and Morgaen’s silk rope was light enough for his mage hand to carry even with a grappling hook attached. Hazard climbed the rope, and then helped to pull the others up.

Walking out of the caverns, they checked for a moment – a pack of six wolves was lined up along the edge of the meteorite crater. Their hands moved to their weapons or spellcasting focuses.

One of the wolves threw its head back and howled.

Then the pack turned and loped away, into the forest.

This was Part 11 of 'Dirty Secrets & Nightmares', featuring Sam as Dungeon Master with a cast of Mark, Alex, Paul, Alexander and Imogen. Written by Imogen Solly.

Photographs sourced from Pexels unless otherwise stated. Many thanks to the artists for making these available. From the top, by: Eva Elijas, Francesco Ungaro, Ricardo Esquivel, Frans Van Hearden, Elizabeth Fossum, Mike, Jacob KelvinJ, Adrién Olichon, Francesco Ungaro, Ignacio Palés, Eva Elijas, Daisa TJ, Shivam Patel, Pixabay, Allan Mas, Tommy Milanese, Steve.

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