Istaria: Dralnok's Doom
Valtorance stood before the newly constructed portal with vastly mixed feelings. The churning of his stomach was due to both excited anticipation and dread. As each moment passed, his body again reminded him that neither feeling was winning the internal war. He wasn't afraid, or so he told himself as he stood before the portal.
At least, not afraid for himself. It was his friend Alazza that he was afraid for. As rumors had grown of what may be found once the passageways leading to the old Delgarath tunnels were complete, he made Alazza promise she would not go in alone. Looking at the Archaeamphora Istaria growing behind him, a sure sign of the dangers of this place, he cursed himself again for his own stupidity.
"And you believed her," he chastised himself aloud. His own voice echoed off the damp cavern walls, returning to his ears like a father scolding a young child.
"Yes, I believed her," he defended himself to the echoed voice. "She'd heard the stories, epic and terrorizing stories. Or so you thought fool. We all heard the stories. No one knows exactly what happened to King Dralnok and his men, but everyone suspects. Not like the place gained the name "Dralnok's Doom" for no reason. We made a pact that none of us would venture alone down there once the portal was complete."
And yet, when Valtorance awoke this morning in a bed cold on one side, he knew that's exactly what his companion had done. The rest of the camp was still silent but for snoring coming from some of the tents. The campfire they gathered around for meals had been unlit when he looked. The whole community had been working for weeks to build the passage way leading down into the base of the tunnel where the portal had been rumored to once exist. And each evening after they'd done as much hauling of wood, stone, essence, and even gems as the companions could haul for the day, when the most skilled of craftsman had completed the careful placement of resources to ensure that the tunnel wouldn't collapse, they would gather in the newly constructed tavern in Delgarath and listen to stories of what may lay beneath.
And some of the stories were truly horrific. The dwarves all agreed that Dralnok and the members of the Iron Guard who ventured into the tunnels more than twenty years ago could not possibly be alive. What no one knew for certain, though, was what had killed them. And if they were truly dead, or had become changed into the living-dead of the evil Aegis. No one really spoke out loud the thought that the former King of Dwarves could have been turned by the Aegis into one of their own, but the unspoken words made it clear that many feared that was Dralnok's fate. And that fear wasn't just for Dralnok and his companions. Everyone knew that whatever was found beneath Delgarath when the mining and rebuilding of the tunnels was complete would have to be cleaned out before Delgarath itself would ever be safe. They were equally certain, though, that what lay beneath Delgarath was worth it. Not just for the artifacts and wealth that potentially lay beneath, but because the Gifted had to be in control of those tunnels. If the Aegis had somehow regained control of the tunnels and could build on them, they would be able to move completely undetected beneath the very surfact of Istaria, coming up to attack whenever and where ever they chose.
The stories didn't end there, though. There were dwarves old enough to remember stories about some of the creatures of the labyrinth of tunnels. Many of the dwarves grew up hearing about what life in Delgarath was like before the ancient mines were collapsed to prevent the Aegis from gaining access to them. Tales of gigantic beetles the likes of which had never been seen on the surface of Istaria, and poisonous scorpions that could paralyze even the largest of ancient dragons while they devoured flesh, caused more than one spine to tingle with fear. But the stories were quite probably true. The small scorpions that in times past would feast on fallen warriors on battlefields had recently reappeared where the great battles of Aughundell occurred years ago. The area around Delgarath itself was now plagued by attacks from the Aegis, attacks that were seemingly relentless at times. Abominations previously unseen now attacked unsuspecting travelers as they made their way from Aughundell to Delgarath. They fought with an intelligence and fervor that had was unmatched by any enemy of Istara, and seem to take on the abilities of those creatures which they fought. Bioscholars, the locals had begun to call them, for they were clearly biological constructs made up of parts of the Living Races.
"And Alazza KNEW all this," Valtorance cursed the portal before him, trying to place blame on any one or any thing but the woman he loved. "And yet, she went in there anyway. Alone and unprotected."
In his heart Valtorance blamed himself, but as he stood before the portal willing himself to take that next step, the one that would pass him in to the labyrinth of unknown below, he couldn't quite take that burden fully upon himself. Not if he was going to remain focused on the need to get in there and bring his beloved out alive. Valtorance knew that it was possible that even one of the Gifted could be taken prisoner by the Aegis, and worse yet possibly even turned. He'd seen one too many friend enter into blighted lands never to return to fully trust The Gift to bring his beloved back. He'd only hoped that was not what had happened to Alazza and why she'd gone in alone. In his head the only reasonable explaination for her being gone from the camp at such an early hour, for her footprints in the sand around the stone passageway, was that she'd been taken by the Aegis. But in his heart he wasn't ready or willing to accept that explaination.
And so it was that he cast one final protective spell around himself, raised his sword in defiance against whatever foe may stand to meet him on the portal's other side, and stepped through the portal.
As fate and irony would have it, it was at that very moment that Alazza stepped back into the tent, breakfast in hand. She had made a quick run to the Blackstead Farm for provisions, but knew that if she didn't get Valtorance up soon, the rest of the party would be ready to enter "Dralnok's Doom" without them. She didn't want to keep anyone waiting. As the primary healer for the group, Alazza knew her skill would be required that day no matter what the ancient tunnels held.
"Wake up, sleepy head. Our party is starting to wake up and won't wait forever to begin exploring the labyrinth." Alazza kicked the pile of blankets where Valtorance should have been as she spoke. The tray of food clattered to the floor instantly forgotten. A single glance around their tent told Alazza all she needed to know. Valtorance's armor and gear were gone. Curiousity had gotten the better of her and she'd wandered to the tunnel leading down to labyrinth, but knew better than to go in by herself. With undeniable purpose, she grabbed her own backpack and pouches of potions. She sprinted out of the tent, calling for the very friends that were waiting for Valtorance to awaken.
"Kithrea... Duran... We've got to find the others. Valtorance awoke while I was making breakfast and has gone into Dralnok's Doom alone!"